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The Great Gatsby has one of the most iconic covers ever printed. How do you redesign it?
A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, featuring Francis Cugat’s original cover design, at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair on June 13, 2013, in London, England. | Oli Scarff/Getty Images As Fitzgerald’s classic enters the public domain, 3 cover designers face the “nerve-wracking” struggle of redesigning its jacket. As 2021 kicks off, publishers with an eye for the high school English syllabus market are celebrating: The Great Gatsby is now in the public domain. Suddenly detached from pesky copyright concerns, new editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel are going to print at multiple publishers. But the opportunity to re-release Gatsby brings with it a new challenge: figuring out how to package a book whose original cover has become iconic. “Everybody knows the original with the spooky eyes,” says Greil Marcus, the author of Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby. Francis Cugat’s guache 1925 cover, with its enormous eyes peering out of a deep blue sky, weeping a line of green down over a red mouth and a glittering fairground, is one of the most instantaneously recognizable book covers ever created. In part, that’s because it so precisely evokes the same sense of Jazz Age decadence that Fitzgerald’s novel conjures. “There’s a suggestion of money and luxury,” says Marcus. “There’s a sense of opulence, not really so much freedom as indulgence.” The Cugat painting is not the only cover The Great Gatsby has ever had. It’s gone through other iterations — many of them, Marcus notes, involving cocktail glasses, perhaps in an attempt to get at the sense of opulence the original cover creates. But since Cugat’s cover was revived for the 1979 paperback reissue, it’s become the image that first comes to mind when most people think of Gatsby. And none of the publishers of the new Gatsby editions can use it. So instead, they’ve gone dark and minimalist. Left, center: Penguin Classics. Right: Modern Library. From left: the Penguin Classics mass-market cover, the Penguin Classics trade paper cover, and the Modern Library cover for The Great Gatsby. The new Modern Library edition of The Great Gatsby features a ’20s car emerging from the darkness, its headlights peering out of the cover like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. On Penguin Classics’ mass-market cover, a stylized illustration of Gatsby turns his head away from us so that we can’t see his face, only the brim of his hat. And on Penguin Classics’ trade paper edition, there are no figures at all: just the title, with the fully rendered letters stretching and toppling between Art Deco frames. Coming up with a new approach was a “nerve-wracking” experience, says Nathan Burton, who designed the Penguin Classics mass-market cover. “The original design is one of the most iconic and recognizable book covers of all time,” says Chris Brand, the VP and creative director at Random House who oversaw the new Modern Library cover. “It almost felt like a shame to change it at first.” Brand says he briefly considered trying to recreate the original Cugat painting for Modern Library, perhaps by hiring a contemporary artist to reinterpret it for the 21st century. But the publisher, he says, wanted something a bit darker. “He liked the idea of depicting the run-down Valley of Ashes instead of the glitz and glam that you’d normally associate with Gatsby,” Brand says, referring to the impoverished slum Fitzgerald describes about halfway between glitzy Manhattan and wealthy West Egg. “We ended up with a cover that does a little of both, where the car signals the period and a visual that’s widely associated with Gatsby, but with typography that feels contemporary and a little gritty.” In contrast, Burton says he hit on the concept for his cover, with Gatsby turning his face away from the viewer, almost immediately. He made a series of thumbnail sketches of Gatsby as he read, trying to settle on the right placement. “I just wanted to have him on the cover somewhere, but have him not front-on,” Burton says. “I wanted to play with the angles and shadows.” His guidelines from the publisher, he says, were minimal. “The brief I got was that they wanted it to have mass appeal to high school students and adults,” he says. “And also they wanted to sell it at a low price point, so there were things I couldn’t do [that would increase printing costs], like use [metallic] foils. It was nice that the cover had to stand on its own.” Burton was designing a mass-market cover, which is traditionally the cheapest edition of a book and often intended for classroom use. But the other Penguin Classics edition is a trade paperback, which supports a higher price point — and in this case, fancy French flaps. (French flaps are an extension of the cover of a paperback that folds over into the interior of the book, like the jacket flaps on a hardcover. They’re expensive!) So for this edition, cover designer Mario De Meyer wanted to create a concept that would work not just for the front cover space, but across the spine, rear cover, and onto the flaps as well. That’s why he turned to typography. “I treated it as one big design where the cover is only a small part of the total design,” De Meyer says. “This gave me room to do some illustrations, tell a bit about the story, and give it some mystery and exuberance.” Cover: Mario De Meyer. Creative director: Paul Buckley The full spread of the Penguin Classics trade paperback edition of The Great Gatsby, including front and back covers and French flaps. Are any of these new covers likely to become as iconic as the Cugat original? That remains to be seen. But the way each one tries to play with different elements of the book speaks, says Marcus, to part of what has given Gatsby such staying power. “None of the characters are so completely filled in that there isn’t room for the reader to imagine what they look like, how they act,” Marcus says. “We put ourselves into this book. And artist after artist has said, ‘Well, I think this is what it looks like.’”
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Hypnotism evolved from a phony health craze
In the 1780s, a charismatic healer caused a stir in Paris. In the 18th century in Europe, a period known as the “Age of Enlightenment,” scientific progress was demystifying the universe with breakthroughs in chemistry, physics, and philosophy. But medical practices were still relying on centuries-old treatments, including leeching and bloodletting, which were painful and often ineffective. So when Franz Anton Mesmer, a charismatic physician from Vienna, Austria, began “healing” people in Paris using an alternative therapeutic practice he called “animal magnetism,” it got a lot of attention. Mesmer claimed an invisible magnetic fluid was the life force that connected all things, and that he had the power to regulate it to restore health in his patients. He was a celebrity figure until Louis XVI, the last king of France, commissioned a group of leading scientists to investigate Mesmer’s methods in 1784. Benjamin Franklin headed the commission, which debunked the existence of the magnetic fluid in the first-known blind experiment. Mesmer was ruined, but “mesmerism” didn’t end there. The report also acknowledged that Mesmer’s methods were making his patients feel better, which the commission attributed to the power of the human imagination. This experiment ultimately laid the groundwork for our understanding of the placebo effect and inspired an evolution of Mesmer’s practice into something more recognizable today: hypnotism. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.
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A year into the pandemic, shame still doesn’t work
Maskless beachgoers at Ipanema Beach, earlier this month. | Fernando Souza/picture alliance via Getty Images GaysOverCovid is a case study in why public shaming and scolding does more harm than good. On December 31, a group of gay men intended to celebrate the passing of another year with a cruise in the open ocean, just off the coast of Puerto Vallarta. That day, the ocean had other plans. From dry land, I saw the videos first on Twitter — men in life jackets and speedos pulling other men in life jackets and speedos onto rescue boats. Local news site Out and About PV confirmed that a boat had sunk, reporting that all partiers were rescued without harm. And then the now-infamous Instagram account “GaysOverCovid” made it go viral. Over the last few months and peaking in the days surrounding New Year’s Eve, @GaysOverCovid has exponentially multiplied its follower count on Instagram to more than 133,000 since being created in July. The secret to the growing follower count — perhaps not the name, which doesn’t really roll off the tongue — is shame. GaysOverCovid (GOC) and the many copycat accounts like it repost social media content from people violating coronavirus guidelines by throwing parties, traveling, and attending huge gatherings. In GOC’s case, the violators happen to be predominantly white gay men, including influencers with thousands of their own followers, who are going to massive, maskless parties. (These events, known generally and even pre-Covid as circuit parties, are worth their own separate article.) Don’t be like the “gays over covid,” the account warns, or you might end up being made an example of. View this post on Instagram A post shared by GaysOverCovid (@gaysovercovid) The outing of those who blatantly flout health guidelines and put others in danger can feel satisfying. When massive parties are shut down — or when, by a twist of fate, the ocean decides to swallow a boatful of unmasked partiers — it may look a lot like justice. (Fortunately, in Puerto Vallarta, no one on the capsized boat was reported injured.) But the rise of GOC’s popularity has driven another conversation about whether schadenfreude does any good at all. Big public health initiatives to curb drunk driving and secondhand smoke rely on shame, but those concerns aren’t quite the same as the coronavirus pandemic. And if you ask public health experts, as satisfying as chastening others can feel, they’ve learned it can actually do harm when it comes to an urgent public health crisis. Why shaming someone feels like the right thing to do The primary appeal of GOC’s account, to me, was the lack of self-awareness of some of its subjects. Wanting to go to a party after spending the last 10 months inside is normal. Wanting to hang out with strangers is normal. Wanting to travel to a different country again is normal. What’s baffling isn’t even that people would break all these rules (please don’t), but rather that they would post about it on social media. All the more confusing if they were, as some of the GOC subjects are, health professionals or had major social media followings and paid sponsorships. The desire to post your foolishness on social media is sadly common. But in talking to public health experts and public health behavioral specialists, the desire to shame people is pretty common too. Shame is one of the tools we use to establish boundaries, and those boundaries establish the structure and behavior that we, as a civil society, approve of and disapprove of. “Punishment and shaming are some of the strongest and most powerful ways to try to get people back in line” David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at NYU who studies addiction, said that we first see boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior in childhood. As kids, we learned things like washing our hands, or sharing toys, or doing our homework before we watch television. When we broke rules, we were shamed. “Punishment and shaming, I think, [are some of] the strongest and most powerful ways to try to get people back in line when they deviate,” Abrams told me. Shaming and embarrassing people on social media is essentially replicating what we’ve been taught to do when we see bad behavior; it’s an attempt to get said behavior back in line. Ridicule is, in its way, setting a boundary; in this case the boundary it’s attempting to impart is “you shouldn’t travel internationally to party and frolic with a bunch of people in a place where hospitals are at their capacity and then return home and potentially put anyone you come into contact with at risk.” But it’s the same motivation and message as shaming people going to concerts or shaming people who are holding weddings or shaming people who aren’t wearing masks. Abrams pointed out that sometimes this shaming works. In April of last year, Vice President Mike Pence paid a visit to the Mayo Clinic without a mask. That visit was photographed and picked up by news outlets which pointed out that he wasn’t just putting himself at risk but was also putting at-risk people at risk. After that instance, Abrams said that Pence began adhering to masks more often, especially in public. After GOC called out various partiers, some apologized publicly. Barry’s Bootcamp, where at least one partier worked, sent a company memo about quarantining and social distancing. Not unlike Abrams’s Pence example, some people who were shamed showed remorse and promised better behavior in the future. But the problem is that while shame can be effective for some people, it has its drawbacks. And in a public health sphere, experts say that the downsides have a history of outweighing benefits. “Shame does have some negative consequences, not the least of which is it makes you feel embarrassed and guilty,” Abrams said. “And in effect, it makes you want to run away and feel terrible about yourself.” Feeling terrible about yourself doesn’t always result in good behavior. Shame doesn’t work The drawback with shaming individuals is that it can cause negative reactions and more negative behavior. It happened with the HIV/AIDS epidemic that still afflicts the US today. It happens with addiction and mental illness. An adverse, very serious reaction to shame is that it doesn’t encourage people to get the help they need. “Shaming people in any situation really creates a barrier for individuals,” said Jen Balkus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Washington. Balkus says that this barrier can make it harder to “acknowledge situations where they may have encountered risk.” In assessing how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was handled, public health officials learned that shame didn’t eliminate risky behavior. Instead, shame drove people to hide or not disclose that behavior. Those reactions are what Balkus and public health officials fear, and what they say is happening in the current pandemic. “Individuals who might be shamed by their peers or others might not disclose that they were around people where there could be the opportunity for exposure,” Balkus said of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, they may not feel comfortable getting tested, and they may not quarantine or consider other precautions. HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 are two very different diseases, and the comparison between the two isn’t linear. But Balkus said that the lessons that epidemiologists learned from addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic could inform the conversations we have about the coronavirus. That means eliminating stigma, encouraging people to get tested, promoting better behavior and risk reduction, and teaching people what to do if exposed. “We learned from the HIV epidemic how to talk with people and to work with them” “We learned from the HIV epidemic how to talk with people and to work with them,” Balkus said, adding that it’s important to have “an open dialogue to understand what behaviors folks are engaging in and what choices they could make to reduce risk.” Good communication doesn’t mitigate risk entirely, but “it’s about helping empower people to make the best decisions in the moment,” she told me. The goal is to shift from shaming people into better behavior to modeling and encouraging better behavior — the other, more powerful, side of the boundary. Balkus and Abrams both said that consistent positive encouragement is a much more effective tool in public health. The absence of it can also help explain why people are, say, going to giant parties despite the amount of risk involved. Because of the variation in rules — like how indoor dining restrictions and capacity limits vary from state to state — and inconsistent behavior from public leaders, there’s confusion, doubt, and even defiance against the guidelines among the general population. That there are so many people going to these parties or not wearing masks or not paying attention to social distancing measures seems to indicate a failure of getting a message across rather than just a staggering number of individual failures. That’s a failure on the structural and policy level, Balkus said. “From the very beginning of the pandemic, we have had a fragmented and state-by-state response. It’s really made it incredibly difficult to both try to get a handle on transmission and keep it as low as possible, and keep our communities as safe as we can in this moment,” she said. What makes this all frustrating is that the shaming seems to be coming from a place of concern and safety. It’s not bad to worry about the danger these parties present. Just because public health officials acknowledge that shame is bad doesn’t mean they think that these parties don’t present a danger. There are times shame has worked: In the US, we’ve effectively shamed drunk driving and secondhand smoke, achieving a consensus. Giant gatherings during the pandemic — circuit parties, weddings, underground celebrations, etc. — have a lot in common with these public safety concerns. The attendees of these events could potentially infect people who might not even have attended, much the way a drunk driver could cause a fatal accident with another driver or a smoker could affect nonsmokers around them. Balkus and Abrams said that there are similarities, but the main difference is that the US had years and years to curb drunk driving and smoking. We don’t have that kind of time with the pandemic. We’ve all been asked to change our behavior in such a short amount of time, and the way out isn’t to shun each other. Rather, it’s to care for one another and really focus on amplifying and pushing public health policy and guidelines in clear and helpful ways. And experts understand that figuring out that balance between shame, concern, stigma, empathy, and policy isn’t easy. “We are all facing this pandemic together. Nobody is excluded from the hardships. And so I think for all of us, it’s just, it’s really just challenging both to find that empathy for others, and also take care of ourselves. But I think that’s super important to do,” she said.
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Welcome to the “New” Issue of The Highlight
Shreya Gupta for Vox As a new year and a new administration begin, we explore life in transition, from the new utopias to parents bucking the “baby bust” to Congress’s newcomers. If one can summon any optimism nearly a year into a grim and persistent pandemic, this is the moment to do it. It is a new year, after all (good riddance, 2020!). Nearly 20 million Americans have rolled up their sleeves and received a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. And no matter your political affiliation, a new administration and transformed Congress and Cabinet perennially serve as a kind of reset button for America, each unfamiliar face a reminder of how wide open the possibilities are. So we cross our fingers in unison and hope for the best. It only made sense that the latest issue of The Highlight look at life in this tenuous transition. From the beautiful and remote communities — the new utopias — where corona-cationers flock to avoid restrictions (and high numbers of Covid-19 cases), to the would-be parents bucking the pandemic “baby bust” trend and getting pregnant anyway, to first-term lawmakers’ inauspicious introduction to Capitol Hill, we confront a world in flux. With so much change afoot, we turned to poets, too, for words of inspiration and provocation at a time when people need a little bit of both. And if that doesn’t move you, perhaps a crystal to bring on positive thinking will. Sarah Gonzales for Vox Poems for a new year 7 poets — including Saeed Jones, Alex Dimitrov, and Patty Crane — meditate on the year we’ve had, the one ahead, and our dark, persistent past. By Vox Staff Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images Rep. Mondaire Jones. Class of 2021: Mondaire Jones on his “jarring” start as a first-term lawmaker The New York Democrat discusses the growing progressive movement in his party, and how the US Capitol riot is shaping his priorities. By Li Zhou Getty Images/iStockphoto The new utopia Coming Thursday For a certain jet-setting sect, wide-open spaces with views, few Covid-19 cases, and the freedom to go maskless are all the rage. But who pays the price? By Sarah Khan Getty Images New crystal, new you? Coming Friday As crystals’ soothing popularity continues, one — carnelian — attracts those in search of self-improvement and positivity. Is it too good to be true? By Jaya Saxena Getty Images What “baby bust”? New and soon-to-be parents on choosing to have kids in dark times. Coming Monday “Maybe it’s like a psychological trick to make yourself feel better, but I don’t regret it.” By Chris Chafin
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A stunt from Rand Paul highlights limited Republican support for impeachment
Sen. Rand Paul attempted to force a vote on the constitutionality of the impeachment trial. | Getty Images The vote signaled GOP reservations about Trump’s conviction. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) used a vote on Tuesday to highlight Republican dissent on impeachment, and to argue that there isn’t sufficient GOP support to convict former President Trump in his upcoming Senate trial. Shortly after senators were sworn in for that trial, Paul requested a vote on the constitutionality of impeaching a former president — something multiple GOP lawmakers have questioned. His motion was quickly tabled, but the vote to dismiss it was still revealing. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has explained, a majority of legal scholars have concluded that holding an impeachment trial for a former president would be constitutional. However, the precedent for how to handle the impeachment of a former government official is less clear: In 1876, Secretary of War William Belknap faced a Senate trial after he had already resigned, and though a majority voted to proceed with the trial, two-thirds did not vote to convict, with multiple lawmakers citing concerns about the proceedings’ constitutionality. Republicans have used this same question of constitutionality — and the lack of direct precedent for a former president facing an impeachment trial — to cast doubt on the need to hold a trial for Trump, who is charged with inciting the insurrection that took place at the Capitol on January 6. Some Republicans may be doing so because they believe Trump did nothing wrong — but there are also other reasons GOP senators may prefer avoiding a trial. For many lawmakers, there’s an ongoing concern that upsetting the president’s loyal followers by supporting conviction could erode their base, hurting their electoral chances. Conversely, by backing acquittal, they’d be taking a step that arguably minimizes the severity of the attack on the Capitol as well as the president’s culpability. While the Senate wound up voting to table — or kill — Paul’s motion rather than vote directly on it, the breakdown of this vote was telling in itself. Ultimately, just five Republicans supported tabling the motion, a sign that the majority of the conference would have been open to considering it. The five Republicans who backed tabling the motion have all been critical of Trump following the insurrection: Sens. Mitt Romney (UT), Susan Collins (ME), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Ben Sasse (NE), and Pat Toomey (PA). Paul wanted to hold this vote to demonstrate how many Republicans opposed the trial, and to make a point about how Trump’s conviction would be unlikely without their support. The implication is that if 45 Republicans were open to voting on the constitutionality of the trial, they probably wouldn’t be voting to convict Trump on the article of impeachment, making the trial unnecessary. “I think there will be enough support on it to show there’s no chance they can impeach the president,” Paul has previously said. A conviction requires two-thirds of the Senate. Without the support of at least 17 Republicans, the 50-person Democratic caucus will not have the numbers to convict Trump — and hold a subsequent vote barring him from future federal office. If more Republicans don’t join the five who voted to table the motion, the Senate won’t reach the necessary vote threshold in Trump’s trial. (It’s worth noting that some senators could vote differently on conviction than they did this week.) In responding to Paul’s effort, Democrats on Tuesday emphasized that legal scholarship supports the constitutionality of the trial, and noted that views may change once arguments and evidence are presented. Democrats have argued that they want to pursue the trial in order to hold Trump accountable for his efforts to overturn the election, as well as to give all senators the opportunity to vote on his conviction. If the previous impeachment trial — when Romney was the only Republican to vote in favor of conviction — is any indication, however, it’s looking less and less likely that Democrats will be able to rally the GOP support they need to convict Trump. “I think it’s pretty obvious from the vote today that it is extraordinarily unlikely that the president will be convicted. Just do the math,” Collins told reporters after the vote.
India’s farmers are still protesting — and things are turning violent
A farmers tractor rally being tear gassed by New Delhi police on India’s Republic Day, January 26. | Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images The farmers rode tractors into New Delhi, demanding the repeal of new farm laws. Violence erupted across India’s capital city New Delhi on Tuesday when thousands of farmers protesting the government’s agricultural reform bills rode tractors past police barriers and clashed with officers. Farmer’s unions had devised a plan for a peaceful march into the capital on Republic Day, which commemorates the signing of India’s constitution. The Indian government had approved a plan for the farmers — who have been protesting for months — to enter the city at noon. But the farmers’ plans went awry when some protesters began marching toward the capital a few hours ahead of schedule, resulting in a face-off with police, who used tear gas and batons to try to turn them back. Manish Swarup/AP A military band parade during India’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26. As the farmers abandoned approved routes, fierce battles broke out across the city. One farmer was crushed when his tractor was among the many vehicles overturned in the melee. Reports indicate that at least 19 people involved in the clashes were sent to two New Delhi hospitals. According to police, at least 86 officers were also injured. In a statement, Eish Singal of the New Delhi police said the protesters broke the agreements made before the rally. “The farmers began tractor rally before the scheduled time, they also resorted to violence and vandalism.” The farmers, many of whom are Sikhs from India’s Punjab and Haryana states, also entered New Delhi’s historic Red Fort and raised the Nishan Sahib, a flag of importance to India’s Sikh communities. Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images The farmers’ tractor rally, which began ahead of schedule, was met tear gas and police hitting protesters with batons. Sajjad Hussian/AFP via Getty Images Farmers broke through police barricades and stormed New Delhi’s historic Red Fort. Sanjeev Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images Farmers break through the police barricade in a bid to disrupt a political event on January 23. The Joint Farmers’ Front, which represents a number of Indian farmers unions, issued a statement Tuesday condemning the clashes and separating themselves from protesters who engaged in violence. “We condemn and regret the undesirable and unacceptable events that have taken place today and dissociate ourselves from those indulging in such acts,” the statement read. The statement also said that the unions had made efforts to keep the events peaceful but “some organizations and individuals have violated the route and indulged in condemnable acts.” Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who represents Punjab, where many of the farmers are from, wrote on Twitter that the violence was “unacceptable” and urged “all genuine farmers to vacate Delhi and return to the borders,” referring to the areas on the outskirts of Delhi where the farmers have been camped for weeks in protest. Why the farmers are still protesting Thousands of farmers have been blocking several roads into new Delhi for more than two months demanding the repeal of three laws Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party passed in Septemberas a part of a plan to make India a $5 trillion economy by 2024. The laws, which some experts say are necessary to modernize India’s economy, remove long-standing restrictions on how and where produce is sold. Farmers who used to sell their produce at government-sanctioned markets called mandis are now able to sell wherever they please. But the farmers are worried that the reforms will leave them at the mercy of large corporations who will buy their crops for low prices, leading to their financial ruin. John Minchillo/AP A convoy of protesters supporting the farmers in India drive down Fifth Avenue past the Consulate General of India in New York City. on January 26. In response to the months of protests that have left dozens of farmers dead, the Indian government has offered to suspend the laws for 18 months. However, the farmers unions have refused to end their protest until there is a full retraction of the laws. After an 11th round of talks ended without a resolution on January 22, the farmers decided to increase agitation of Modi’s government by riding tractors into the capital city during the Republic Day celebrations. The farmers have planned a march on foot to the parliament building on February 1 as the government determines its budget.
Joe Biden is already facing an ally problem
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Vice President Joe Biden attend the Munich Security Conference in Germany on February 7, 2015. | Andreas Gebert/picture alliance via Getty Images Biden’s biggest foreign policy challenge? Getting Europe on board. Alliances are the keystone of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Whether confronting China, curbing the coronavirus pandemic, or addressing climate change, Biden has repeatedly emphasized the critical importance of working with allies to tackle major global challenges. But the problem with keystones is that if they crumble, the rest of the structure falls with them. And less than a week into Biden’s presidency, the edifice is starting to shake. That’s because, on a number of prominent issues from China to Venezuela to trade, the United States and its closest European allies are out of sync. Last December, the European Union signed a long-promised investment deal with China despite the public concerns of Biden’s then-incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The worry now is China will not only tighten economic relationships with America’s transatlantic allies but also use that newfound access to steal intellectual property from European industries. This week, the EU as a bloc downgraded its support for Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader European nations and the US have considered the country’s interim president since 2019. Now the EU says Guaidó is a “privileged interlocutor,” potentially exposing a gap in the transatlantic strategy to depose the nation’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro. Biden also on Monday signed his “Buy American” executive order to ensure the US government “whenever possible” purchases items “that will help American businesses compete in strategic industries and help America’s workers thrive.” Experts fear European governments will view that move as a continuation of former President Trump’s protectionist economic policies. No two governments are ever in perfect alignment, and rifts between the US and European nations have existed for decades. But early signs indicate Biden can’t just reflexively count on European support, which makes getting longtime allies on his side a much higher priority. “The Europeans are not keen on following the US” in whatever it wants to do, said Erik Brattberg, the Europe program director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. “Just because Biden is being nice and he’s not Trump doesn’t change that calculus.” The US-China investment deal poses headaches for Biden At the very end of 2020, the EU and China struck a long-promised investment deal. While details remain thin, the main thrust of the agreement is that European countries in the bloc will have greater access to the Chinese market and have their companies treated more fairly in China, while Beijing will make commitments on issues ranging from the use of forced labor to the practice of forcing tech companies to hand over valuable trade secrets in order to gain access to the Chinese market. Experts say the deal made sense for the EU. After all, its companies would now have greater access to the world’s biggest market, potentially boosting the continent’s economy for decades to come. But analysts also note that the cons might outweigh the pros. Beijing, they suspect, likely agreed to the deal in order to preempt a Biden-led transatlantic effort to pressure China over its economic and trade practices. Xinhua/Ding Lin via Getty Images Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, President of the European Council Charles Michel, and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen via video link in Beijing on December 30, 2020. The new administration seems to agree. Sullivan, Biden’s top national security aide, expressed his concern about the deal just days before it was finalized. “The Biden-Harris administration would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices,” he tweeted on December 21. That statement wasn’t an outright “don’t do this,” but it wasn’t a clear “we welcome this agreement,” either. Getting the EU to shift course will be difficult. It just made the agreement, and the bloc lacks a singular agency with which the US can share intelligence about China’s aims. That means Biden’s staff must go country by country to explain what they know about Beijing’s true economic goals and the alleged security threats Chinese technology companies pose. “In a lot of ways the Tump policies were right, but the European didn’t like the rhetoric,” said Ryan Tully, who served as the senior director for Europe on Trump’s National Security Council. “Now you’re seeing the right rhetoric, but I’m concerned there is a backsliding of the right policies.” If Biden hoped his presence — or Trump’s absence — would automatically mean closer US-EU ties on China policy, he should think again. “Biden’s team needs to recognize that it has to engage Europe on creating a joint strategy against China,” Brattberg told me, not just impose its own strategy on Europe. The US and EU see their Venezuela problem differently In early 2019, the US marshaled a global coalition of over 50 countries to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. They argued that the May 2018 presidential election was rigged to give Maduro a second six-year term and that under Venezuela’s constitution, Guaidó, as the head of the National Assembly (the country’s legislative body), was the rightful — albeit temporary — leader of the country. The EU was a major member of that global coalition, but on Monday it downgraded its view of Guaidó’s leadership. The bloc considers him a “privileged interlocutor” now — meaning a key leader the EU will still engage with — just not the interim president of the country. The reason for the change may be straightforward: Venezuela just held National Assembly elections last year that Guaidó and his cohort refused to participate in, alleging the vote was rigged against them. As a result, Guaidó is no longer the head of the legislature and therefore can’t constitutionally be considered the nation’s interim president. However, the bloc did reiterate “its support to all those working towards a democratic future for Venezuela” in its Tuesday statement. Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images Juan Guaidó, the US-recognized interim president of Venezuela, greets supporters as he arrives at the Plaza Bolívar in Caracas on December 12, 2020. Even so, that stance means the US and EU currently see Guaidó differently. During his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state last week, Antony Blinken said the Biden administration would still consider Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. (Blinken was confirmed on Tuesday for the job.) What that means for the future of US and EU policy toward Venezuela is unclear. Laura Gamboa, an assistant professor at the University of Utah, said the differing view of Guaidó’s status clearly “weakens America’s ability to make the effort seem more multilateral,” even if Washington and Brussels share the same goal of kicking Maduro out of power. But the University of Pennsylvania’s Dorothy Kronick told me the EU may have just done Biden a favor. By minimizing Guaidó’s importance, the Europeans gave the Americans more space to support other democratic groups in Venezuela and not rely solely on Guaidó to depose the dictator. “This statement from the EU is in no way backtracking from the commitment to restore democracy to Venezuela,” she said. “This is about looking for the most successful and effective strategy.” Still, that it’s easy to question whether the US and EU are on the same page regarding Venezuela is a problem the Biden administration needs to fix. Biden’s “Buy American” pledge will anger Europe The Obama administration sought to sign a trade deal with Europe known as s the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would make it easier for American products to be sold in Europe and vice versa. Both sides failed to strike an agreement, though, and further talks died after Trump became president. Some in Europe may have hoped Biden, who was Obama’s No. 2 during the TTIP negotiations, would rekindle the push for free trade across the Atlantic. Instead, they’ve been left to smolder as Biden on Monday signed a “Buy American” executive order to prioritize US federal government purchases of US-made items over foreign-made ones. Immediately, the UK-headquartered Financial Times reported that “America’s top trading partners and strategic allies, including Canada and a number of European countries, have long complained that buy American measures are a protectionist attempt to shut out their multinationals from the US economy.” Brattberg, the Europe program chief at the Carnegie Endowment, noted the same thing in our conversation. “Europeans are a bit concerned that protectionist policies may continue under Biden,” he told me. Drew Angerer/Getty Images President Joe Biden signs an executive order related to American manufacturing at the White House on January 25, 2021, in Washington, DC. That could present a growing problem. Biden’s team promised to pursue a foreign policy that would bolster America’s working class, and ensuring the government helps US companies thrive is one way to do that. But leaning too much into “Buy American” will only anger European allies who have long waited to compete fairly in the US market against local firms. Economic tensions between the US and Europe are already quite high. The Trump administration placed billions in tariffs on European goods, and both the US and EU recently concluded a rancorous trade dispute over subsidies to their major aviation companies. If there was ever a time to calm nerves about the state of transatlantic trade relations, it’d be now — and “Buy American” seems likely to do the opposite. None of this is to say Biden is grossly imperiling US-EU relations. It already looks like the continent’s leaders are happier to see him in the Oval Office than Trump. But it’s just not clear that Biden has the tight-knit bond he hoped to form — proving a big foreign policy problem for his early presidency.
A pro-democracy activist on Hong Kong’s year of turmoil: “The city itself is dying”
Courtesy of Do Not Split/Field of Vision Joey Siu, an activist featured in a new documentary, talks about the protests and China’s national security crackdown. Hong Kong transformed in a year. Starting in June 2019, the city convulsed with protests over a controversial extradition bill. That expanded into a pro-democracy movement that sought to push back against China’s efforts to further erode the city-state’s already tenuous autonomy, and the freedoms that went with it. By June 2020, the power of those uprisings brought China’s full might down on Hong Kong, as Beijing implemented a draconian national security law that stifled dissent — or anything that looked even remotely like it in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party. A new documentary, Do Not Split, charts some of Hong Kong’s most tumultuous months of the pro-democracy uprising and its troubling, unclear end in the face of China’s crackdown. The story is told by the protesters and activists on the front lines, the young people who are trying to protect the freedoms of Hong Kong — freedoms that were supposed to be guaranteed until 2024 under the “one country, two systems” arrangement China agreed to when it took back control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 — for as long as they can. Even it’s a battle they know they are losing. “It was very difficult to understand how this would work. How could this small group of young people fight China?” journalist and filmmaker Anders Hammer, the director of Do Not Split, told me. “At the same time, it was really something unique to watch how they work together. You could really sense that solidarity among the protesters, and a great deal of sacrifice and this communion feeling in the street.” Do Not Split follows demonstrators to the edges of the protests: where they regrouped to recover from tear gas, where they camped out in a field after a clash with police at the City University of Hong Kong in November 2019. The film also reveals just how explosive these protests became; frame after frame shows the escalation, from protesters shielding themselves with umbrellas from assaults of tear gas to protesters flinging firebombs at lines of police. The Hong Kong protests were largely leaderless and anonymous, but the documentary follows a few characters closely, including Joey Siu, a student activist who, in the film, always seems to be hovering around the latest protest, observing and explaining what she’s witnessing, reckoning with what’s happening in Hong Kong in real time. Siu, who is also a US citizen, decided to use her position as a student activist to try to lobby lawmakers abroad and bring attention to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy struggle, actions that became even riskier under the national security law. This fall, she made the decision to come to the United States and continue fighting for Hong Kong from Washington, DC. “It is always a struggle between staying and suffering with the others, or to leave and suffer on your own but to be able to do something. I made the choice,” Siu told me. I called Siu to talk more about her experiences during the Hong Kong protests; how they have left her generation traumatized; and how the national security law has stifled the city she loves but is not giving up on yet. Our conversation, edited and condensed, follows. Jen Kirby How did you first get involved in the extradition bill protests? Joey Siu It was, I would say, an accident. Every university in Hong Kong, we’ve got a student union, which represents the students and participates in all kinds of negotiations with the school and fights for the welfare of the students. Right before the extradition bill movement broke out in Hong Kong, there was no one standing for the student union executive committee elections at my school. Then one of my friends said he was willing to be nominated as the acting president, and he asked, “Hey, Joey, are you willing to be the vice president?” I was pretty surprised when he approached me, because I never expected myself to be taking up the role. I actually rejected him several times. I said, “No, I don’t feel like I can be good at this. I don’t feel like I’m a good choice for you.” But he insisted. So he convinced me, and I agreed to that. I was nominated by the Student Union Council right before the first protests on the 9th of June 2019, when the whole extradition bill movement broke out. Then, when the movement broke out in Hong Kong, we realized that, as student leaders, we had the responsibility and the capacity to stand out and to do something. Alongside other university student unions, we had been organizing and encouraging people to participate in protests. We had been helping to allocate resources like safety goggles, gloves, and other protective gear. That was how I started my activism. And then very soon, in July 2019, we realized that it is actually a leaderless movement, where we no longer need student leaders, we no longer need politicians, to guide us. We felt like, “Well, what can we do if we are no longer needed to organize protests and assemblies?” And at that time, we found that the United States Congress was about to discuss the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. We felt like, as student leaders or as ordinary Hong Kong students, we might be able to provide a unique perspective on what was going on in Hong Kong and why it was so important for the international community to do something to help. Since then, I have been more active in terms of international advocacy for Hong Kong. I had been flying around to different countries during 2019 — US to Canada, Germany, Brussels, the UK — to advocate for international solidarity with Hong Kong. Jen Kirby You said you got into it sort of by accident, but obviously you ended up being fully committed. What motivated you to do that? Joey Siu Personally, I have always been very candid on social issues, especially Hong Kong politics. I have always paid very close attention to what is going on in Hong Kong, locally and also internationally. That is the fundamental reason why I felt like I should be doing something for the people I care about and for the place I love. So getting involved in international advocacy for Hong Kong, I felt like that might be the thing that I could do the best for Hong Kong. We all have different roles. Some of us are front-line protesters. Some of us are voluntary first-aid providers. Some of us are citizen journalists. Every Hongkonger who loves the city, who believes in those values, is trying to find a way to devote ourselves. So I would say this is how I contribute. This is how I devote myself to defend the values that I care for. Jen Kirby Did you continue participating in the protests on the front lines? Joey Siu I had been starting to go on international advocacy visits ever since September 2019. However, during the time when I was still in Hong Kong, or where I came back to Hong Kong, there were still protests and assemblies, and I would still go to them because I felt like, as I have said, everyone is trying to do our best to devote to the city. Jen Kirby You mentioned that you took your first international trip in September 2019. That feels like a really pivotal time for the movement. In early September, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam rescinded the extradition bill, but the protests continued, and the world was really paying attention by that point. How did that affect your activism abroad? Joey Siu Well, at the very beginning, of course, we were protesting to take the extradition bill amendment down and to stop the Hong Kong government from again violating the will of the people. However, I think it was in late July 2019 — especially after the Yuen Long attack [Ed. note: A mob, believed to have ties to organized crime, violently attacked protesters] — when I think a lot of Hong Kong people realized and awakened to the unlimited power of the Hong Kong government and also the Chinese government. From my personal experience, at the very beginning, we had been putting a lot of focus on telling people what the extradition bill amendment was about and why it was so important for us to take it down. However, as we have realized that we are actually protesting against the Chinese communist regime, we have been shifting our focus in terms of telling people why we are doing that. Why it is so important for all of us to stand in solidarity in terms of containing the rise of the regime in Beijing. Why we have to pay attention to Hong Kong. Jen Kirby In the film Do Not Split, you say you had hoped to be a teacher, but you don’t believe it can be a path for you anymore because of your outspokenness. When did you realize that your activism in Hong Kong also meant a change in your future, and your identity? Joey Siu Well, I mean, I have always known that I want to be a person who could bring change to society. And that is one of the reasons why I would like to be a teacher, because I felt like by being a teacher, I could actually bring change to society by advocating and teaching my students the correct values, or the values that I believe in. So I felt like I have always been able to understand myself; it’s just that I did not expect myself to be going out to the public or to be changing society or bringing change to other people by becoming an activist. Actually, the moment when I realized that I can no longer be a teacher is when I first found that my personal information was being posted online, on Facebook and on other social media websites, by the pro-Beijing camps. When I first saw myself being criticized by a lot of mouthpieces in the media who support the Beijing regime, that is when I realized, “Wow, this is going to bring a very big change to my life.” And that what I’d expected to do in the future might not be happening. Jen Kirby In the documentary, you also describe yourself as traumatized, and you say it’s a feeling you share with other protesters. Can you talk a little about that? Joey Siu I think it’s not only me, but most of those Hong Kong protesters who actually participated in protests, or have been following what is going on in Hong Kong, might have a sense of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] after going through all these experiences. Especially because when we participate in protests, we very frequently witness police brutality going on and you can often see your fellow protesters, or people you know, getting beaten up by the police force with the batons, with tear gas, with pepper spray — all these kinds of weapons that they use to suppress us. Participating in the protests is also very traumatizing because of the feeling that you are being chased by a whole bunch of police armed with so many kinds of lethal weapons that they might use and point at you. It’s really, really frightening. The kind of feeling where you have to escape. The thing that I really couldn’t forget about was the death of the first protester in Hong Kong, which happened in June 2019. His surname was Leung. Mr. Leung jumped, or fell, from a building in [the] Admiralty [district], to protest against the government and to use his death as an awakening to call upon Hongkongers not to give up protesting against the evil regime. That night, I was in a meeting with other student leaders. During meetings, we put our phones outside of the room so as to avoid any kind of information leakage. Before we put away our phones, we knew that Mr. Leung was on the building in Admiralty. He was standing there, protesting, holding a board. I mean, nobody would expect him to fall. Nobody expected that to happen. After our meeting, we had a break, and I took my phone and I turned it on. I saw all this news, I saw the live broadcast, and I saw all these videos of him in a yellow raincoat, falling down from the building. I just couldn’t forget about it. Jen Kirby That seems really tough, and because this movement was so organic, I get the sense that there was a real sense of connection among all the protesters — it felt as if you all knew each other. I understand how that can weigh on you. Joey Siu In Hong Kong, we describe our fellow protesters, or people who have the same kind of beliefs as we do, as 手足 (sau zuk,) which in English means your arms and your legs. In other words, it means you are brothers and sisters. A lot of protesters really [feel] that way. Even though I might not know the one who was standing beside me during a protest, I do believe he is actually my family member. I do believe that we have that connection. I think that is the reason why I also feel very traumatized or have the sense of PTSD, after going through all this. Because when I was witnessing police brutality or arrests, I felt like that is my brother or my sister or a family member of mine. It is not just a random Hongkonger. I actually see the connection with the victim. Jen Kirby Given that deep sense of connection, and how powerful the movement was, it’s hard to believe how much has changed now, after China passed the national security law. What is your sense of how the law has changed the pro-democracy movement? Joey Siu The situation was deteriorating in a very rapid way, because after the imposition of the national security law, you see a lot of arrests made by not only the Hong Kong Police Force but also by [their] national security agents. From those arrests, you can actually see how restricted the level of freedom of expression and freedom of speech and freedom of press is in Hong Kong — I mean, not to mention organizing or participating in a face-to-face protest or assembly — that it is not possible under the national security law. Even when you’re expressing your own political beliefs online, or organizing very, very, absolutely peaceful democratic primaries in Hong Kong, or even when you’re trying to participate in institutionalized elections, they can still find a way to prosecute you under very serious criminal offenses, which could not only lead to 10 years to life in prison but could also allow the Hong Kong government to extradite you to mainland China[for prosecution]. So, yes, after the imposition of the national security law, Hong Kong’s situation just worsened so rapidly, in such a vigorous way, to where you can feel a sense of fear in the city. You can feel how frightened or concerned or worried people are, because we do not know what is going to happen. We don’t know who is going to be arrested. We don’t know what kind of things that we say could lead us to being arrested. We don’t know, if we’re arrested, how many years are we going to spend in jail? And we don’t even know whether we are going to spend our time in Hong Kong or in mainland China. Before the national security law, the Hong Kong government was trying to rule by fear through the police force. After the national security law, they have been ruling by fear by arresting everyday protesters in Hong Kong. Jen Kirby Were you ever targeted specifically, or arrested at any point? Joey Siu I was not arrested; however, I was pretty frequently being followed by — I don’t know if they were national security agents or the Hong Kong Police Force, I simply knew that somebody was following me, but I couldn’t verify their identity. That was pretty terrifying, because at that time, I was working alongside several friends to help another friend of ours with his democratic primary election campaign. We often worked until pretty late at night, and sometimes I found that I was being followed from the underground station to my home. Usually there would be minibuses; however, when it’s too late, there are no minibuses and the only way for me to get back home would be to walk. It is pretty terrifying, because you don’t know who they are. You don’t know if they’re Hong Kong police or the national security agents. You don’t know if they’re really coming to get you; you don’t know whether you will be sent to a police station. I mean, it would be the best scenario to be sent to a police station in Hong Kong instead of being sent directly to mainland China. But you just do not know. Jen Kirby When did you start to notice someone was tailing you? Joey Siu I started being followed ever since June 2019, when I first came out as a student leader, but that was not so frequent, and that was not so frightening because you still felt like, “Oh, they are the Hong Kong police,” and if you’re arrested by them, you would be sent to a police station. You were still certain about the kinds of procedures that would happen if you were really being arrested. However, after the national security law in July 2020, you don’t even know what’s going to happen after an arrest. Jen Kirby That’s terrifying. Do you know people who were arrested under the national security law? Joey Siu A very close friend of mine, she had been involved pretty actively with a student group that advocated for Hong Kong independence that was suspended after the imposition of the national security law. However, still, she was arrested by national security agents in the Hong Kong Police Forcefor inciting secession of state. That was a pretty early arrest under the national security law, and that was pretty terrifying. Because at that point, nobody knew what was going to happen. We didn’t know whether the court or the police force was going to allow them to get bail and then to come back home after being investigated for 48 hours. At that point, everything was so uncertain. But after I left Hong Kong, things just kept getting worse. Like, every candidate that I met during the democratic primaries was arrested. Jen Kirby I can remember when the law was first passed, there was so much confusion about how it would be implemented, and I’m sure that uncertainty was terrifying. Can you give an example now of what happens when someone is arrested — for example, what did happen to your friend who was arrested for secession of state? Joey Siu She was arrested before I left Hong Kong. When she was arrested, she was investigated by the National Security Department [the Chinese government’s security agency in Hong Kong, established after the passage of the national security law] and also by the Hong Kong Police Force, for more than 30 hours, if I remember. Then her traveling documents were confiscated; she could not leave Hong Kong, and she has to report to the police station every month. Very recently, the police force returned to her traveling documents, telling her that you no longer have to come and report to us. For the people that I know who were arrested a few weeks ago, during the massive arrests there, they were being investigated, their traveling documents were being confiscated, they had to report to the police station, they cannot leave Hong Kong. That is pretty much the procedure. However, there are, of course, other more serious cases in Hong Kong; for example, Jimmy Lai, who was arrested under the national security law, and his bail was revoked. My sense is the Hong Kong government and Chinese government have been trying to manipulate the law as a way to silence the dissidents in Hong Kong, because after being arrested, people cannot leave Hong Kong. So their only choice would be to stay in Hong Kong. And to stay in Hong Kong and not to be arrested again, you cannot be so vocal as you used to be. You have to be more careful with things you say, the things you do, and everything. Jen Kirby So it sounds like, if I’m understanding you correctly, that many people are being arrested, but they’re in a holding pattern — they have to report to the police, but they can’t leave. Rather than handing down punishment, it sounds as if authorities are trying to just exert control. Joey Siu It’s kind of like silencing them. I also feel that it’s kind of a warning from the Chinese communist regime to not only the arrestees themselves, but also to the other voices in the society. They’re trying to use arrests to warn those vocal voices in Hong Kong not to say anything anymore, and also to warn the other ordinary, everyday Hong Kong citizens that, “Hey, we’re now arresting everyone from all of the political spectrum, for anything you say. So you people better mind your words.” Jen Kirby When did you decide that you needed to leave? What made you finally say, “I can’t stay in Hong Kong anymore”? Joey Siu Well, it’s pretty complicated. I was actually born in the States, and I moved to Hong Kong when I was very young because my parents wanted me to learn Chinese and also the Chinese culture. Ever since my family found out that I was becoming a student activist, they’d been trying to get me to leave Hong Kong because they felt like I might be arrested and that it wasn’t safe for me to stay in Hong Kong. And that if I have the choice of going back to the States, why don’t I? They’d always planned to move back to the States when I completed my undergraduate degree. We had that plan in the future. But then they felt like there might be a need for me to return to the States earlier. But I never thought about leaving Hong Kong because I felt that is the place where I grew up, where my friends are, where I really had the connection. However, in June 2020, when they were talking about imposing the national security law, I began receiving a lot of warnings and advice from people I know, and all the advice I got was like, “It’s better for you to leave Hong Kong because not only are you a student activist, you’re also an American citizen.” At that time, it was catching everybody’s attention that the Chinese communist regime was making use of “hostage diplomacy” [threatening to detain foreign citizens unless their governments accede to China’s demands] to make the other governments bow down to them. So they felt like, well, it makes it more dangerous, being an American citizen, so you should leave Hong Kong. Perhaps not permanently — but just to leave and see how things are going. If it is safe, you could still come back. At first I felt like, “Well, nothing has been going on yet.” The national security law had not been imposed yet, and even if it is imposed, we don’t know what is going on; maybe they would not be making active use of it. So I still decided to stay until September 2020. Because of the position I was in, the national security law stopped or paused my ability to make connections with people from other countries, because I didn’t want to get myself into big trouble for colluding with foreign forces. But then there was the case of the 12 Hongkongers who tried to flee the city, but were captured by the Chinese authorities and then detained. After that, I started to reconnect with human rights organizations and foreign politicians that I’ve met in the US, Germany, the UK, and Canada, to ask them to speak out on behalf of the 12 Hongkongers, and to encourage them to implement a “lifeboat scheme”to help Hong Kong protesters to relocate to other countries. I had been secretly attending virtual meetings, and they’d been trying to persuade me not to. But then I asked them, “If I’m not going to talk to you, who in Hong Kong will?” And then after that, I felt like, “Well, perhaps by leaving Hong Kong, I could be making the best use of my abilities and the connections that I built over 2019.” So I decided to leave. It is always a struggle between staying in a city and then somehow dying or suffering with the city, or to choose to leave the city and to suffer on your own but to be able to do something. I made the choice. Jen Kirby Do you see Hong Kong as dying right now? Joey Siu I would say the city itself is dying. You can actually see that Hong Kong is gradually becoming another mainland city of China. However, I would say that I’m pretty optimistic when it comes to the Hong Kong people, because Hong Kong people are trying to sustain the movement in so many creative ways. The city itself might be dying. However, I would say the spirit of the Hong Kong people will be long-lasting. Jen Kirby This is a very tough question, but in talking to protesters, I always got the sense that they understood they might lose to China eventually — in 2047, for example, when the “one country, two systems” agreement was set to end. But the goal was to try to protect Hong Kong’s democratic values until that point, as much as possible. Do you think the success of that movement, in some ways, backfired? That it hastened China’s decision to clamp down on Hong Kong? Joey Siu Before the whole pro-democracy struggle started, a lot of Hong Kong people still felt like we might be able to maintain and to live well under the “one country, two systems” structure at least until 2047. The pro-democracy struggle is an awakening call for a lot of Hong Kong people. I feel like the majority of Hong Kong people, no matter whether you are on the pro-democracy side or pro-Beijing side, we have all realized the fact that Hong Kong is not going to maintain a high degree of autonomy, or the same lifestyle, until 2047. I think this is a thing that all of us can agree on. Everybody can witness the encroachment and change in Hong Kong. Most of the people in Hong Kong right now do not believe anything the Chinese Communist Party government says anymore. They’re not going to respect any kind of promises. Even if the “one country, two systems” agreement is part of an international treaty, they are not going to respect it. Jen Kirby I’ve been thinking a lot about the Capitol attack in January in the US, and how it contrasts with Hong Kong’s fight for democracy. How do you see the erosion of democracy in the US as affecting the struggle in Hong Kong? Joey Siu A lot of Hong Kong people have been relying or giving very high hopes on the United States to take action to defend Hong Kong or to stand up to China. However, with all the things going on, politicians in the US will, of course, prioritize those domestic issues. With our plates being so full with different domestic issues of the transition, with all these kinds of issues in regards to racial justice, to gender equality, to climate change, to the bipartisanship around two parties, it would be understandable that people here in the US might not be paying so much attention to Hong Kong and China issues as they used to do in 2019 or 2020. However, I always believe that the urgency of tackling the China challenge or the China threat will always be one of the most important issues of American politicians. I also felt like it is definitely another lesson for Hongkongers to learn, because we have always admired the US for being the world’s greatest and most respected democracy. However, witnessing all the kinds of things to happen in the US in the past month, we have realized that no democracy in the world is a perfect one.
Biden is ordering 200 million more Covid-19 vaccine doses
President Joe Biden signs an executive order while wearing a mask in the Oval Office on January 25, 2021. | Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images The president announced the move along with other actions to boost vaccines. President Joe Biden on Tuesday will announce new efforts to boost Covid-19 vaccine supply and distribution — addressing what’s likely the biggest challenge his administration faces in its first few weeks. According to senior administration officials, Biden will announce three major actions. First, the administration will increase vaccine supply to states to at least 10 million a week, up from 8.6 million, starting next week. The Department of Health and Human Services will also start providing estimates to states of how many vaccines they’re going to receive at least three weeks in advance, up from one week. And the feds will purchase 100 million doses of each of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, boosting the federal government’s total order from 400 million to 600 million — enough for 300 million Americans. Officials also referred to other actions the administration is taking, such as using the Defense Production Act to get more syringes that can squeeze one more dose out of vaccines. The moves build on the executive actions Biden took last week on Covid-19 and vaccines. As part of his Covid-19 and vaccine plans, Biden has promised to do everything within the federal government’s power to boost vaccine supply and distribution. Currently, the US is lagging. Former President Donald Trump’s administration promised 20 million vaccinations by the end of 2020, but the US still hasn’t hit that mark more than three weeks into 2021, based on federal data. Problems have cropped up across the US, from supply shortages to wasted doses to long lines. Other countries, including Israel and the UK, have pulled ahead of the US on vaccination rates. It’s a genuinely life-or-death situation. With the US now averaging more than 3,100 Covid-19 deaths a day, every day or week or month of problems means potentially thousands, if not tens of thousands, more preventable deaths due to the coronavirus. Boosting vaccine efforts by just days, then, can literally save thousands of lives — getting the US closer to a herd immunity threshold that experts say is needed to truly stop outbreaks. And it would get the nation back to a social and economic normal faster, too. For Biden, it’s also a massive political challenge. His handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the economic recovery, is likely how his presidency will be judged. If he fails, Americans will suffer, and they may not think fondly of the administration that let them down. Biden is trying to confront that reality, and his latest actions chip away at the problem. But, as his administration has acknowledged, more action will be needed in the coming weeks to fully address what’s going wrong. More federal support is key to smoothing out problems Biden’s answer to Covid-19 and vaccination efforts is, in some ways, simple: more federal support. If you look at what’s going wrong with vaccines in the US, it can seem like a bunch of different issues from place to place. But many of these issues are rooted in a lack of federal support for notoriously underresourced public health agencies. To put it another way: If you asked a bunch of underfunded public health agencies to do a big task in a large, diverse country, then refused more support to help them carry out this task, you would actually expect a lot of different problems to arise by virtue of the country being a big, diverse place. The root problem is a lack of federal support, but how that problem looks in different places will vary widely based on geography, demographics, local and state political environments, and more. “States aren’t totally off the hook, but what we are seeing is the result of lack of resources and strong guidance (and the historical way in which public health is organized and delivered in the US),” Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me. That helps explain why such a variety of problems have appeared throughout the vaccine effort, from vaccine doses going unused to some equipment breaking down to long lines to insufficient staffing at vaccination sites. These problems are rooted in insufficient resources or guidance; whether one state experiences them while another doesn’t can come down to even hyperlocal variables. Biden’s announcements on Tuesday chip away at some of these problems. For one, they make it clear that the federal government will supply more vaccine doses — promising to alleviate some of the supply constraints. But they also help states coordinate their efforts: By providing more guidance on how many vaccine doses states can expect to get weeks earlier, state officials can actually plan with those numbers of doses in mind. But administration officials acknowledged these actions are only a start. They called on Congress to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic relief package, which includes a $400 billion Covid-19 plan and $20 billion for vaccine efforts in particular. That kind of funding, along with the $8 billion Congress approved in December, could go a long way to giving states the resources they need to roll out vaccines. None of this is particularly groundbreaking. But it’s the kind of thing that the Trump administration resisted doing, as it took a leave-it-to-the-states approach to vaccine distribution and even characterized more support to the states as a federal “invasion.” Biden has promised a much more involved federal approach. Tuesday’s actions are a small part of how that might work in practice. Sign up for the Weeds newsletter. Every Friday, you’ll get an explainer of a big policy story from the week, a look at important research that recently came out, and answers to reader questions — to guide you through the first 100 days of President Joe Biden’s administration.
The national GOP is broken. State GOPs might be even worse. 
Arizona GOP leader Kelli Ward with former President Trump in August. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images In the past week, extreme moves by Republicans in Oregon, Arizona, and Hawaii all point to a discouraging conclusion: The post-Trump GOP shows no signs of reforming. Donald Trump’s departure from the White House left a giant question mark hanging over American democracy: Would the GOP reckon with its embrace of Trumpism or would it continue down the extremist path it has been traveling for years? The evidence from the past few weeks has not been promising. But one of the most disturbing signs — and one of the most underappreciated — has been the wild behavior of certain state-level Republican parties in recent days. Three examples — in Oregon, Hawaii, and Arizona — really stick out On January 19, the Oregon Republican Party passed a resolution condemning the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. In that resolution, the state party ludicrously claimed that “there is growing evidence that the violence at the Capitol was a ‘false flag’ operation designed to discredit President Trump,” warning of “a frightening parallel to the February 1933 burning of the German Reichstag” and “Leftist forces seeking to establish a dictatorship void of all cherished freedom and liberties.” This Saturday, the official account of the Hawaii Republican Party sent tweets defending Qanon believers and praising the “generally high quality” work of a YouTuber named Tarl Warwick, who has denied the Holocaust. The party deleted and condemned the tweets; the communications official who sent them resigned. But this is not the first dance with extremism from the Hawaii state party: In 2020, the founder of the Proud Boys Hawaii, Nick Ochs, ran for a statehouse seat under the party’s banner. Ochs later participated in the storming of the Capitol and was arrested at Honolulu’s airport on January 9. Also on Saturday, the Arizona Republican Party passed official resolutions censuring three prominent party members — Gov. Doug Ducey, former Senator Jeff Flake, and Sen. John McCain’s widow Cindy McCain — for alleged deviation from GOP ideology. The state GOP accuses Ducey — who is, again, the sitting Republicangovernor — of seizing “dictatorial powers” by imposing coronavirus lockdowns. They claim Flake, who endorsed Biden over Trump, has “condemned the Republican Party, rejected populism, and rejected the interests of the American people over globalist interests” — and encouraged him to switch parties.They charge McCain, who also endorsed Biden, with having “condemned President Trump for his criticism of her husband.” Oregon and Hawaii are blue states; Arizona is a longtime Republican stronghold that has recently turned purple, voting for Biden in 2020 and sending two moderate Democrats to the current Senate. These state GOP parties should want to move to the center to win over the median local voters, people who are turned off by the hardcore Trumpism and extremism on offer from the national party. But that is not what we are seeing. And these recent examples illustrate something important about the Republican Party’s years-long turn toward right-wing extremism: It runs deep, its reach goes well beyond Washington, and it’s going to take a lot more than Trump’s exit to quash it. The state parties show how our national politics is broken In the past, some observers have dismissed extreme statements from a few state-level GOP officials as irrelevant to the bigger picture of American politics. But these recent incidents aren’t isolated; in Oregon and Arizona, it was the official Republican Party that issued the strikingly extreme statements. Moreover, new political science research suggests that what’s happening to these state parties is very much representative of broader national trends. In a paper released on Monday, three scholars — Daniel J. Hopkins, Eric Schickler, and David Azizi — examined 1,783 Republican and Democratic state party platforms issued between 1918 and 2017. The goal is to identify the relationship between national and state-level polarization: to figure out whether state parties are getting more extreme and why. What they found was fascinating. Starting around the 1990s, state-level parties rapidly nationalized: platforms started to deemphasize regional and local issues, like agriculture, and play up national ones like abortion. In each state, both Republican and Democratic Party platforms became less distinctive and more like each other. “Parties that were once collections of local retailers are now clearly national brands, more McDonalds than mom and pop,” they write. Now, you might expect that this is just a reflection of national parties, that the RNC and DNC began to polarize and the state parties just followed their lead. But that’s not what Hopkins and his co-authors found. They found that the state-level changes in polarization happened at the exact same time as measures of national polarization increased. “If the state parties were simply taking their cues from national-level elites, one might expect a lag between the change in Congress and shifts in state-level platforms,” they explain. “The evidence instead suggests that both state parties and national-level officials were responding simultaneously to the same changes in the broader political environment.” One of the major changes to the “broader political environment” on the Republican side has been the rise of a polluted national media ecosystem: Fox News, national radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, far-right websites like Breitbart, and conspiracy-minded networks on social media platforms like Facebook. These institutions have worked to convince the party faithful and activists of untruths like “Trump actually won the 2020 election” and “Joe Biden is the pawn of radical socialists,” giving rise to a party that is mainlining extreme thinking at every level. John Moore/Getty Images Trump supporters watch a video featuring Fox host Sean Hannity at an October 30 rally in Michigan. These are the epistemic conditions under which the Oregon state party could claim that the storming of the Capitol was a “false flag.” It’s how a Hawaii Republican Party official got attracted to the work of a Holocaust denier. It’s how the Arizona GOP could come to denounce its own sitting governor for trying to fight a deadly pandemic. It’s obvious that some of the party’s national leaders, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY), don’t actually believe in these conspiracy theories. But for too long, the party has been comfortable letting their rank-and-file supporters believe them because it’s politically advantageous. Now, true believers are rising up and capturing the leadership of state parties and local activist groups — putting pressure on national politicians to conform to extreme ideas or risk a serious primary threat. This makes the GOP’s post-Trump trajectory look even scarier. No one person or organization is in charge of the party, in a position to fix the root causes of its continuing turn toward extremism. Reforming the party requires a fight on multiple levels and in multiple arenas: reforms to the local and national party, transformations of both the party and adjacent institutions like Fox News. During the recent Arizona Republican Party meeting, CNN spoke with two local GOP activists named Barbara Wyllie and Corky Haynes. These women, lifelong Republicans who call themselves “the Grassroots Grandmas,” seemed delighted with the censure moves. “However Trump rolls is how the Republican Party’s gonna roll. This is the Trump Republican Party,” said Wyllie. “And the RINOs [Republican In Name Only] will fall off.” The fight over the GOP’s future isn’t over. There are leading figures in state-level Republican Parties, like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who are actively working to de-Trumpify their party. But the early days of the post-Trump era suggest that the smart money isn’t with Hogan, but the Grassroots Grandmas.
Poll: Most Americans want to break up Big Tech
In a rare show of unity, a new poll found that Democrats and Republicans both want to rein in Big Tech. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images Breaking up companies like Amazon and Facebook has rare bipartisan support but different rationale. The Biden administration is inheriting a number of lawsuits aimed at breaking up Big Tech monopolies in the United States. It’s a cause most Americans support, according to a new poll by Vox and Data for Progress. Some 59 percent of people surveyed in the online poll said they supported breaking up Big Tech monopolies, including 24 percent who said they strongly support it. Efforts to rein in tech monopolies could include undoing Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram or barring Amazon from being both an online marketplace and a seller in that marketplace. An even higher percentage — nearly two-thirds — of Americans say the economic power of these tech companies is a problem facing the US economy. The Vox and Data for Progress poll was conducted in January among 1,164 likely US voters. Strikingly, feelings about Big Tech antitrust are generally consistent among Democrats and Republicans, though Republicans were more likely to say it was a problem and that it should be broken up. This mirrors the rare bipartisan support the antitrust cases have seen from lawmakers. (The new data was consistent with a similar poll Vox and Data for Progress conducted in 2019.) The reasons Democrats and Republicans have for believing tech companies hold too much power, however, vary. To wit: Another poll question found that while 87 percent of Democrats approved Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend then-President Donald Trump in the wake of the Capitol riot, only 28 percent of Republicans approved; 67 percent of Republicans didn’t approve of the decision. The vast difference in responses points to divergent criticism of tech companies among the two parties. Those on the right have lambasted Big Tech for perceived censorship, while those on the left have accused companies like Facebook and Google of stoking online extremism. Regardless, support for antitrust action is one of the reasons the government, after two decades of leniency, filed a total of five antitrust cases against Big Tech late last year. In December, both the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general from 48 states and territories filed twin lawsuits against Facebook alleging it illegally maintained its social media monopoly through acquisitions of rival companies, including Instagram and WhatsApp. Google is facing three antitrust lawsuits on behalf of nearly all the states and the Justice Department: two involving its search engine and search ad business and another regarding its ad tech business. All three cases accuse the search engine behemoth of illegally maintaining its monopolies. Back in October, Congress issued a 400-page report that said Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon all engaged in anti-competitive behavior. So it’s possible Apple and Amazon will face antitrust lawsuits in the future as well. The existing cases will likely be combined into fewer lawsuits, whose outcomes could take years. They will also be dependent, in part, on the appointments President Biden makes to the government agencies that oversee antitrust cases: the FTC and the Justice Department. Recode’s Jason Del Rey reported last week that Lina Khan, who served as legal counsel in the House antitrust investigation and is considered an enemy of Big Tech, is a top candidate for a commissioner role at the FTC. The leadership at the Justice Department might be more favorable to Big Tech. The American Prospect and the Intercept reported that the top two candidates to lead its antitrust division, Renata Hesse and Juan Arteaga, have both previously advised big tech companies. Whoever ends up leading these agencies will have to consider how the American people are united — for once — in their scrutiny of Big Tech.
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell is banned from Twitter
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell waits outside the West Wing of the White House before entering on January 15, 2021. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Mike Lindell’s continued false claims of election fraud lost him his account. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell has remained loyal to former President Donald Trump even as other corporate allies have jumped ship. He followed him in promoting false election conspiracies. He insisted Trump was not to blame for the Capitol riot. And now, the MyPillow guy has followed him into another ignominy — getting himself, like Trump, permanently banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation. In a statement to the Associated Press, a spokesperson for Twitter said Lindell was banned for “repeated violations” of the company’s civic integrity policy, though they did not point to a specific tweet that triggered the action. Lindell has used his account to promote false claims of election fraud since November. His tweets have asked the president to “impose martial law,” called Biden’s victory the “biggest election fraud in history,” and used the days after the insurrection to continue to promote conspiracy theories. MyPillow guy Mike Lindell has been banished to Twitter hell with Trump— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 26, 2021 Trump’s and Lindell’s claims of voter fraud have been thoroughly — and repeatedly — debunked. More than 90 judges ruled against Trump and his allies in their court filings over the election, and, after a thorough review, the US Justice Department found no evidence of widespread voter fraud. For Lindell, a pillow manufacturing executive, self-professed crack addict-to-Christian success story, and devoted Trump acolyte, the Twitter ban is the latest blow in a series of consequences over his election denial. As Vox’s Emily Stewart explained, the businessman, whose commercials you’ve probably seen, has become “a fixture in Trumpland”: Lindell is the founder and CEO of MyPillow, a company that, as the name suggests, makes and sells pillows. His shtick is that he guarantees it will be “The Most Comfortable Pillow You’ll Ever Own.” The company also makes other products — sheets, blankets, towels, dog beds, etc. But Lindell is into more than pillows. He is also very into Donald Trump. In getting banned, Lindell joins other Trump allies, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and campaign consultant Roger Stone. Twitter has suspended more than 70,000 accounts, mostly associated with the QAnon conspiracy, in accordance with its new civic integrity policy, which states users may not use their accounts for the purpose of “manipulating or interfering in elections.” The MyPillow guy will not abandon the sinking ship Lindell has a long history of supporting the president, and since November, he has funded Trump’s election challenges in court, appeared at Trump rallies insisting Georgia voters would go to prison, and maintained the incorrect claim that the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol were actually affiliated with antifa. When Trump was losing allies after the insurrection, Lindell showed up at the White House on January 15 with six pages of notes on election conspiracies ranging from Chinese interference to Russian cybersecurity figures changing the result. An image from Washington Post photographer Jabin Botsford showed Lindell’s notes calling for the then-president to invoke the Insurrection Act and impose martial law “if necessary.” Apparently, this may have even been too far for Trump. He met with Lindell for a few minutes and then gave him the cold shoulder by having him wait to speak to advisers that Lindell had suggested Trump fire, according to the New York Times. Lindell’s affiliation with Trump is unsurprising given his penchant for self-aggrandizement. As The Goods’ Meredith Hagerty lays out in an explainer, Lindell considers his relationship with Trump to have been a “divine appointment,” which may explain his unflinching commitment to supporting the president up to the point of his own deplatforming: The actual political conversion he describes took place shortly after Lindell had — yup — a dream where he met Donald Trump and the two posed for a picture together. At this point in 2015, Trump was weeks away from announcing his candidacy for president, and the men had never met, but by August of 2016, they were coming together in Trump Tower, in fulfillment of Lindell’s “premonition.” Lindell had become active in Republican circles, honored with the Federal Enforcement Homeland Security Foundation’s 2015 Patriot Award (nominated by buddy Stephen Baldwin), popping up at the National Prayer Breakfast to feel disappointed in President Obama, attending the RNC and becoming friendly with the Trump kids. His relationship with Trump makes sense for Lindell — if ever a man was going to increase his platform it would be by aligning himself with a kindred spirit pitchman, a man with whom he shares a checkered past and evangelical overtures. In this way, it makes sense for Trump as well; Lindell has the religious bona fides. Losing his account for this loyaltymay not be Lindell’s only consequence. Dominion Voting Systems threatened to sue Lindell for defamation, after he has promoted misinformation regarding the security of the company’s machines, saying they were rigged by foreign countries. No evidence of changed vote tallies was found in any state, and Dominion has already launched a lawsuit against Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Additionally, retailers including Bed, Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s have dropped MyPillow products from their stores. Still, Lindell has remained committed to going down with the election fraud ship — even without the use of his Twitter account, which he previously told Trump was where he was finding supposed evidence of voter fraud that the former president was missing because he had been banned from the site. In an interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Tuesday (the MyPillow company is headquartered in Minnesota), Lindell said he would not be silenced by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, by lawsuits, or by retailers. “I want to get sued by Dominion because then both sides have to show in court ... Dominion’s lawyers are not going to bother me because they know I have all this [evidence],” Lindell said. “My support of Donald Trump has never wavered since the time I met him and it never will. Never ever, ever.”
What Joan Didion means to us
Joan Didion in Vogue in 1972. | Henry Clarke/Conde Nast via Getty Images Her new book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, taps into what makes Didion an icon. In the spring of 1975, 41-year-old Joan Didion was both the “Regents’ Lecturer” at Berkeley, her alma mater, and kind of a nervous wreck. By then, she was successful, having published two novels (Run River and Play It As It Lays) and a very highly regarded book of essays (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), along with scores of articles, reviews, and columns. In 1973, Tom Wolfe included Didion in his anthology The New Journalism, which solidified her place alongside Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, George Plimpton, and other practitioners of an experience-driven, subjective brand of reporting (even if she always insisted the best journalists knew to stand outside the story). She had also been a guest lecturer before, most notably at Yale a year prior. She was not yet recognizable as Joan Didion, icon. But everything was about to change. At Berkeley, she was set to spend a month on campus as a visiting teacher, then conclude her stint with a public lecture. The classroom reviews were not stellar. Didion’s biographer Tracy Daugherty writes that “one student said the class was terribly awkward and tense. Didion would read to them in a barely audible voice or stare at them in silence, drumming her fingers on the desk.” That version of Didion — quiet, ill at ease, seemingly wanting to be anywhere but where she was — is not a wholly unfamiliar figure to today’s reader. In interviews — especially very recent ones — she often comes across terse and evasive, like she’d rather be doing literally anything else. But if you’ve read her essays from that era, it’s still a little startling. How could this timid, perplexing lecturer be the source of the wry, detailed, sometimes even chatty voice that pops up in much of her writing? John Bryson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images Joan Didion at home in Malibu with her husband John Gregory Dunne and her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in 1976. During her time at Berkeley, Didion was simply buried in writing a new book, and her natural shyness, coupled with a kind of anxiety, likely contributed to her in-class manner. In an autobiographical passage in her 1984 novel Democracy, Didion writes of that period, “In 1975 time was no longer just quickening but collapsing, falling in on itself, the way a disintegrating star contracts into a black hole,” noting that “I seemed able to concentrate only on reading newspapers.” Whatever the reason, the English faculty at Berkeley had more or less stopped taking her seriously by the time her brief tenure was over, and booked only a small room for her culminating public lecture. Didion, apprehensive and on edge, later told a friend that she had to work up the nerve to ask for a larger room, and so the departmental secretary switched the event to a lecture hall. She was terrified. What if it didn’t fill? What if it did? Before the lecture, Didion hid in the ladies’ room, certain she was about to throw up. She shouldn’t have been worried. Caitlin Flanagan, then a teenager and the daughter of a Berkeley professor, recounted years later the “Didion-mania” that broke out, startling the university’s faculty. The youthful Flanagan wasn’t at the lecture, but she heard about it. “It was a madhouse,” Flanagan wrote. Whatever resistance Didion experienced at Berkeley stood in marked contrast to the passionate horde of fans who appeared to hear her speak. “There were tearful women who were turned away at the door, others grateful to stand in the back or to sit on the floor, a huge, rapt crowd of the type that doesn’t feature in even the wildest dreams of most writers.” For women who had read her essays and novels, Didion’s Everywoman persona — a measured voice that processed a world as it fell to pieces — was a conduit for their own emotions. She was their Superwoman. Joan Didion, the writer, already had her fans, but Daugherty points to the Berkeley lecture as the moment that Joan Didion, the icon, was born. For the next several decades, Didion would be viewed through not just a literary lens but an aesthetic one. She would come to symbolize cool. In 2015, at 80 years old, she would model for the French luxury brand Celine. A famous photograph with a cigarette and a Corvette Stingray would be taped up above the desks of aspiring young women writers for decades to come. Her 1968 essay “Goodbye to All That,” in which she recounts going to pieces and moving away from New York City, would practically generate its own subgenre of imitation. She meant something to people. She means something to people. Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Didion at New York’s Booth Theater in 2007, during the Broadway production of her play “The Year of Magical Thinking,” adapted from her memoir of the same name. That night at Berkeley in 1975, Didion gave a lecture titled “Why I Write.” It became one of her most well-known works. “Why I Write” was published in the New York Times in 1976 and makes frequent use of one of Didion’s signature rhetorical devices: She makes a statement, then tells the audience what she means by what she just said. “It took me some years to discover what I was. Which was a writer,” she explains. Then she quickly clarifies: “By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.” “Why I Write” is really an explanation for how Didion views meaning as inextricable from syntax itself: “To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed,” she writes. To her, a writer is not primarily a prophet or a polemicist; a writer is someone who uses hammers and saws to shape the raw building blocks of words. Writers coax meaning from the words themselves, from turns of phrase, from the construction of sentences. A writer knows how to conceal and reveal significance by placing the building blocks well. And, most importantly, a writer looks past the obvious, past surface-level appearances, past the fictions people construct to turn the disorder of the world into order,starting with their own inner life. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” reads one of the most famous lines in “Why I Write.” Writing brings order from chaotic thought, even if the world itself is chaos. Until now, despite its vaunted status, “Why I Write” has never appeared in one of Didion’s essay collections. But it’s in her newest book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. For an author as obsessed with meaning as Didion, that title is a revealing double entendre, and one that seems to hang on that moment at Berkeley in 1975. She is telling us what she means, as she told that standing-room-only audience. And she is also telling us what she means, here in 2021, after decades of being one of America’s most admired, most argued-over writers. Twelve previously uncollected essays, spanning 1968 to 2000, cover all kinds of different subjects: alt-weeklies, failing to get into Stanford, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic subjects, the pitch-perfect personal branding of Martha Stewart. She writes on Ernest Hemingway and on William Randolph Hearst’s palatial Xanadu estate. Her infamously surgical evisceration of Nancy Reagan is also included here, in the form of a 1968magazine profile entitled “Pretty Nancy,” which was found so objectionable by its subject that she wrote of Didion in her memoirs, “She had obviously written the story in her mind before she ever met me.” Some essays in the collection feel very personal, like Didion’s remembrance of friend, director, and producer Tony Richardson. (Richardson’s daughter, with Vanessa Redgrave, was the late actress Natasha Richardson, who died in a skiing accident in 2009; Redgrave in turn played Didion in the Broadway production of Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, about grief.) Pete Marovich/Getty Images Didion receives the National Humanities Medal from president Barack Obama in 2013. Let Me Tell You What I Mean is a small book — literally, you can practically slip it into your back pocket — and it feels more like an appendix or an album of B-sides to Didion’s oeuvre than a fully fleshed-out new entry. Scholars and avid readers of Didion will not find new information here. But it’s a worthy collection nonetheless, because it works like a skeleton key to unlock Didion’s continued significance in American culture. What has made her so lasting and important to so many? Why are we still talking about her and reading her and teaching her writing in classrooms? The book unpacks this legacy subtly, in a way as twofold as its title: Because she means things, and because she means something. In each essay, Didion is explaining what she means when she says things, often things that shock or intrigue. “The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue, very probably by an Associated Press wire, are The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Open City, and the East Village Other,” begins her 1968 essay “Alicia and the Underground Press.” Didion rushes to assure us that she’s not trying to “make myself out an amusing eccentric, perverse and eclectic and, well, groovy in all her tastes”; instead, she is lamenting the “inability of all of us to speak to one another in any direct way, the failure of American newspapers to ‘get through,’” and the way the fiction of objectivity strangles journalism. And then she goes on to tell us what she means by that. Saying things, then clarifying them, is evidence of Didion’s precision, her need to make sure she reveals only what she wants to and not a bit more, that the words she chooses do exactly what she means for them to do. For Didion, sloppy writing is sloppy thinking, on the border of being immoral. When she made the pivot to writing about politics in the 1980s, she frequently focused not only on what people, especially politicians and pundits, were saying to the public, but on the way they said it, and the meaning they tried to repress in their rhetoric. And she holds herself to the same standard. “The whole meaning of anything for me is in the grammar,” she told an interviewer in 2002. “It doesn’t mean anything until I’ve written it. I don’t have a lot of thoughts. They don’t form until I’ve written it down. So the process of writing is the process of thinking.” The effort Didion devotes to making herself clear is somewhat ironic, since her most-quoted line ever — the first sentence in her 1979 essay “The White Album,” which is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — is also her most misquoted. Often it’s brought up as an inspirational bon mot for aspiring writers, an exhortation to keep telling stories so that we can keep living. In fact, it’s the opening salvo in a devastating passage arguing that this storytelling impulse fools us into believing that life makes sense, when, if we looked at it with scrutiny, we’d know the appropriate response to life is “an attack of vertigo and nausea.” By the end of the essay, Didion has told many stories, but she says that “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” But the essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean aren’t just about Didion clarifying her thoughts while look on. Taken together, they reveal how she is trying to interpret — by writing about others, mostly — what she herself actually means to us. In “,” a 2000 essay about Martha Stewart’s personal brand and the fandom it spawned, she writes a telling passage: The “cultural meaning” of Martha Stewart’s success, in other words, lies deep in the success itself, which is why even her troubles are strivings are part of the message, not detrimental but integral to the brand. She has branded herself not as Superwoman but as Everywoman, a distinction that seems to remain unclear to her critics. The tell is in the essay’s last paragraph, where she observes that Stewart’s story is a “‘woman’s pluck story, the dust-bowl story, the burying-your-child-on-the-trail story.” For nearly her whole career, Didion has drawn on those same pioneer narratives to explain her entire self-conception, as a descendant of pioneer women who came to California. She is writing, at least a little, about herself. And that makes the kicker even more significant: “The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of ‘feminine’ domesticity but of female power, of the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips,” she writes. Henry Clarke/Condé Nast via Getty Images Didion at home in her Malibu kitchen in 1972. That seems faintly self-aware.Famously reticent to describe herself as “a feminist,” Didion seems to have tapped into this same version of female power that she ascribes to Stewart. She is, on the one hand, the writer who seems fragile and reserved, even the woman trembling in the Berkeley bathroom — the Everywoman. In her later years, she is the woman left alone by the untimely deaths of her husband and daughter, losses she tries to process in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights with extraordinary vulnerability. She wants to make sure we know she doesn’t think she is special. On the other hand, she is the writer who can practically disembowel a politician or pundit’s bad reasoning, take apart a brainless movie or book, or reduce a pompous public figure to a hollow shell, and that’s why writers love her or fear her. Words are her scalpels. In an essay in Let Me Tell You What I mean titled “On Stories,” she writes that at her first job at Vogue writing merchandising and promotion copy, “I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.” Not everyone learns to write like that. It’s a sort of Superwoman ability. Couple it with the surprisingly controlled iconography she’s let out into the world — the photo of herself with a cigarette, one arm crossed over her waistline; the photo of herself with a cigarette and her Corvette; the modeling work for Celine — and it’s no wonder that some of her fans worship her for what they think she means, even if they don’t always cop to what she means. Why does Joan Didion matter? Because she has chronicled, for well over half a century, how the powerful use words to obscure meaning. How lies get dressed up as truth. How we all submit to magical thinking when confronted with the inexplicable or the frightening. How we make up stories to convince ourselves that we have everything under control, how we spin webs of meaning from words and sentences and turns of phrase. How we write to find out what we mean. How we need, wisely or not, figures who can make meaning for us out of chaos.
Biden’s new Covid-19 vaccination goal won’t get the US to herd immunity before the fall
President Joe Biden speaks after signing an executive order related to US manufacturing on January 25, 2021, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Some experts want Biden to go bolder. President Joe Biden on Monday raised his Covid-19 vaccination goal to 1.5 million shots a day, up from 100 million in his first 100 days (or 1 million a day), following criticism that the previous goal wasn’t ambitious enough. Even before Biden took office last Wednesday, his previous goal looked like a done deal — with the country averaging around 900,000 shots a day. Then, over the weekend, the US surpassed 1 million shots a day, before Biden’s policies and executive actions had any time to really sink in. Even 1.5 million a day, which is enough to fully vaccinate 750,000 Americans with the two-shot vaccines, might not be fast enough for many experts’ goal to complete the bulk of the vaccine campaign by or in the summer. According to experts, about 70 to 80 percent of the country, and possibly more, must be vaccinated to reach herd immunity and sufficient population protection. That means 245 million Americans likely have to be vaccinated, with 19 million already getting at least their first doses. At a rate of 1 million shots a day, the US may not hit herd immunity until as late as next year. At 1.5 million, the campaign could drag into the fall and possibly winter. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease and vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, previously told me that America should aim for at least 2 million shots a day — and preferably 3 million. That’s what would get some of the most important parts of vaccination efforts done this summer or earlier. There are genuine questions about whether the higher goal is feasible, since vaccinators may face more vaccine hesitancy, as well as logistical difficulties, as they expand to more and more of the country. The Biden administration has likely wanted to avoid overpromising and underdelivering, Former President Donald Trump’s administration did both: His team said they would deliver 40 million doses and 20 million vaccinations by the end of 2020; the US only surpassed 40 million doses delivered three weeks into 2021, and still hasn’t hit 20 million vaccinations. But the extra months of a slow rollout really matter. In the US, more than 3,000 people are dying of Covid-19 in the US each day, adding up to tens of thousands a deaths each month the pandemic continues unabated. A mass vaccination campaign will likely bring that death toll down, but even a rate of hundreds of deaths a day will result in tens of thousands more deaths over months. A slower rollout also means more time before life and the economy go back to normal. And it increases the risk that a potentially more contagious or deadlier variant of the coronavirus rises, as the virus continues to replicate and mutate, with some seemingly more dangerous variants already coming out of the UK, South Africa, and Brazil. On Monday, Biden cautioned the US could reach a death toll of 600,000 to 660,000 from Covid-19, up from the current death toll of 421,000, before the pandemic is over. Biden’s efforts to stop Covid-19 — and fast — are likely how his presidency will be judged, following a campaign in which he repeatedly promised to take the coronavirus much more seriously than Trump did. Knowing this, Biden’s team is working to balance expectation-setting with finding an ambitious goal for the vaccine campaign. With this week’s change, Biden’s team leaned a bit more on ambition than on setting lower expectations. But it’s a goal for his first 100 days, and it could increase in the future. Still, his updated goal would still likely leave the country vying for herd immunity until late into 2021 — posing, at worst, a warning for how long the Covid-19 crisis may ultimately last.
Texas worked in secret with Trump officials to obstruct Biden’s immigration policy
President Joe Biden signs an executive order related to American manufacturing in the South Court Auditorium of the White House complex on January 25 in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Texas says Biden’s 100-day pause on deportations violates an immigration enforcement agreement brokered in the Trump administration’s waning days. Texas has challenged President Joe Biden’s decision to pause deportations for 100 days in federal court, saying the pause violates an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security that the state signed shortly before former President Donald Trump left office. The agreement demands that DHS provide 180 days' notice and consult with Texas before implementing certain changes to immigration policy. Legal experts say it is likely unenforceable. But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who is currently under investigation for bribery and abuse of office — has asked a federal judge to block the deportation policy immediately because the Biden administration did not provide notice or consult with the state. The moratorium on deportations, one of Biden’s key campaign promises on immigration, went into effect on January 22. DHS has said the policy will allow it to “review and reset enforcement priorities” after the Trump administration sought to ensure that no undocumented immigrants — including families and longtime US residents — were safe from deportation. According to a memo from Acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske, the moratorium applies to any noncitizen in the US who has been ordered deported by an immigration judge, unless they arrived after November 1, or if they voluntarily gave up their right to stay in the US with full knowledge of the consequences and the opportunity to obtain legal representation. Noncitizens can still be deported if they have engaged in terrorism or espionage or are suspected of doing so, or if they otherwise pose a threat to national security. The head of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement can also intervene in an individual case to order their deportation. It does not apply, however, to immigrants currently en route to the US. US District Judge Drew Tipton refused to issue a ruling on Texas’s bid to block the policy during a hearing on Monday morning, deferring until after the government submits additional evidence concerning any people who were ordered deported, but have been released from detention since the moratorium went into effect. He said he wanted to ensure that the government isn’t rushing to release immigrants as a result of the policy before he issues a ruling. Texas has argued that the moratorium will result in mass releases and that the state will consequently have to provide educational, social, welfare, health care, and other services to undocumented immigrants at great cost. The state has cited an internal email allegedly sent to ICE officers in Texas on January 21 and obtained by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson ordering the officers to “Release them all, immediately.” However, Adam Kirschner, an attorney for the Biden administration, said during Monday’s hearing that ICE has so far deliberately refrained from releasing anyone subject to the moratorium until the judge rules in the case. The government has released people on separate grounds, he said. It’s not the first time that Texas has been at the forefront of legal opposition to Democratic immigration policies. The state is also leading an ongoing lawsuit challenging the legality of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, threatening the legal status of more than 700,000 young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children. The Trump administration signed agreements designed to cripple Biden’s DHS Ken Cuccinelli, formerly the second-highest-ranking official at DHS, secretly signed a memorandum of understanding with Texas during his final days at the agency, in an apparent attempt to impede the Biden administration from dismantling Trump’s immigration legacy. BuzzFeed News reported that he also penned similar agreements, known as Sanctuary for Americans First Enactment (SAFE) agreements, with state and local authorities in Indiana, Louisiana, Arizona, and Rockingham County in North Carolina. The agreements are designed to delay the Biden administration from “taking any action or making any decision that could reduce immigration enforcement” or that could increase the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the US, according to court filings. They require that DHS not only provide advance notice of such changes, but that it also consider state and local authorities’ input and “provide a detailed written explanation” if it decides to reject that input. Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the agreements represent “a transparent attempt by Trump officials to tie the Biden-Harris administration’s hands and preserve Trump’s grotesque immigration enforcement policy.” “The Biden administration has the authority, mandate, and responsibility to break from the Trump administration’s legacy, and nothing about these reported agreements changes that reality,” she said. The agreements are indeed on shaky legal footing. Cuccinelli may not have had the authority to sign the agreements in the first place: The US Government Accountability Office found that he, along with former acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, were unlawfully appointed to their positions. Courts have already invalidated Trump-era policies on that basis, including a memo issued by Wolf that blocked new applications to DACA while the agency was trying to end the program. Wolf later resigned over concerns about ongoing legal challenges to his appointment. The Biden administration has also argued that it has vast discretion over immigration enforcement, and that the agreements aren’t binding. There is no federal law that gives DHS the ability to “contract away” its powers over immigration enforcement to state and local authorities, it said. “The Department of Homeland Security lacked authority to cede control over federal immigration policy to Texas, and Texas has no power to demand specific performance of that contract in the form of a nationwide temporary restraining order,” DHS argued in a court filing. “Texas’s eleventh-hour effort to control and impede the new Administration’s immigration policies should be rejected.”
What Kamala Harris means to women who are childfree by choice
Vice President Kamala Harris and family members walk after the swearing-in of President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images “Momala,” and what Kamala Harris’s blended family means to people like me who have chosen not to have biological kids. A week ago, when Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first woman vice president of the United States, she did so surrounded by young family members. There were her stepchildren, Cole, 26 years old, and Ella, 21; her niece, Meena; and her young grandnieces, Amara and Leila, adorably attired in fur coats as a tribute to a famous picture of Harris as a young girl in the ’70s. The whole thing had me sobbing. I had not expected to be so deeply and bodily moved. But then, until very recently, never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that someone who looks like me, with whom I share so many traits and life experiences, could hold the second-highest office in the land. Like Harris’s parents, I am an immigrant. Harris was born in Oakland, where I live. She grew up visiting South Asia; she wears saris and speaks a little of a South Asian language, just like I do. She was 50 when she married her husband, while I was 42, ages considered well past their due date. All of these facts make me feel profoundly represented by her. Yet there is another extraordinary way in which her choices mirror mine. Like Harris, I’ve chosen not to have biological children. I’m 47 years old now and have known since the question arose in my teens that I did not want to have kids. Mark Makela/Getty Images Vice President Kamala Harris at the inauguration with her grandniece Amara, who is wearing a fur coat as a tribute to a photo of Harris wearing a similar coat as a young girl in the ’70s. I’m part of a group of women that’s growing — American women are having fewer children, later in life — yet still faces stigma for being outliers in this regard. But it’s particularly unusual to see a woman in politics who doesn’t have biological children. In general, in America, unlike in many other parts of the world, we are still not used to seeing women reach high levels of political office. The few who do succeed in this arena have typically followed a hallowed script in their personal lives: husband, two kids, and a golden retriever. Often their careers have taken off after their husbands’ had reached their pinnacles. Harris’s personal choices have been very different from this traditional and idealized script. On top of all that, I know intimately the pressure to have children within a South Asian context. Being South Asian American myself, choosing to be childfree was a huge point of departure from my community, which assumed that all women desired marriage and children — and, indeed, that a woman who did not give birth to children would have an unfulfilled life. Recently while going through a Marie Kondo, I found a letter written to me by an older female relative. It extolled me to start thinking about marriage and, more specifically, having children. “Don’t wait until you are older,” she cautioned. “Then you will be too dried up to get pregnant.” I was 25 years old when I got that letter. I find it a convenient stand-in for the long procession of aunties and uncles who told me that my life would be a failure if I did not give birth to children. Despite all this noise, I never wavered in my conviction. In 2008, I met the man who would become my husband. We were roommates in a tall Victorian in San Francisco. I was recovering from a messy divorce. At first, we were friends, and then we were more. Early on, I was very clear. If we did develop into something significant, I was not interested in being a mother. If he wanted children in the future, I should not be his choice. He considered deeply, and he stuck around. We got married in 2015, and six months later he got a vasectomy. At the time, he posted on social media wishing that our choice to not be parents was as celebrated as other people’s pregnancy announcements were. After all, our choice was made after as much soul-searching as was theirs. Our reasons for not wanting to be biological parents are many. We are simply not the kind of people who can give the selfless dedication that parenthood demands. We love having the freedom to travel, to be quiet when we wish, the financial freedom, and the time to devote to our life’s callings. Perhaps it’s most truthful to say that we simply do not have the energy that folks who want to be parents have. But there are bigger-picture reasons, too. There is the environmental cost: As a friend pointed out, bringing another American into the world is hugely different from bringing in a human in other places. The devastating environmental footprint of another American is simply is not one we are willing to add to the mix. For all these reasons, we have been clear that we did not want children. I don’t know the specific reasons Harris didn’t have biological kids. But for me, seeing the vice president’s choices embraced feels liberating. What is also very clear is that not being a biological mother has not diminished Harris’s life in any way. She has spoken and written warmly about her choices and the importance of her role as a stepmom or — as her stepkids call her — Momala, calling it the title that will “always be the one that means the most to me.” In an essay for Elle, she wrote of her close friendship with Cole and Ella’s mother, Kerstin, writing that “We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional.” We were all witness to the beautiful family she has created in her own specific way on Inauguration Day. We don’t each need to make her choices, but her life illustrates the fact that women can and should live unconventional lives that do not follow traditional scripts. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images Harris hugs her stepchildren, Ella and Cole Emhoff, at her inauguration. In the same vein, the older relatives and acquaintances who felt the need to tell me I would regret not being a biological mother were completely wrong. In not having children, I have had the time, the finances, and the energy to be present as an aunty to so many young ones, including my sister’s two daughters, the children of friends, and many generations of students. This is a state I saw reflected in Harris’s crew at the inauguration. My decision not to be a mother has actually created so much more family in my life, much as the vice president’s choices had. My tears at seeing Kamala Harris inaugurated are a response to finally feeling validated in my own choices. It is the celebration I did not know I had been waiting for. A celebration of the fact that family can also be chosen; family can also be created in ways that profoundly and joyously exceed the biological. Nayomi Munaweera is the award-winning author of the novels Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us.
Biden’s planned actions on racial equity, explained
Protesters in Brooklyn, New York, on September 5, 2020. | Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images The president intends to overturn Trump’s 1776 Commission and study how federal agencies contribute to inequality. Before taking office, President Joe Biden promised that racial justice would be one of the four “compounding crises” he’d tackle in his first days on the job. And on January 26, Biden will take action on a number of measures designed to bolster fairness and justice, including repealing the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, which sought to downplay the role of slavery in American history, among other revisionist efforts, and examining how federal agencies promote and foster inequality along racial lines. Biden’s equity platform states that while equal opportunity is America’s foundation, systemic racism — laws, policies, and institutions — prevents many Americans from reaching this ideal. This very fact is illustrated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has decimated Black and Indigenous communities by taking their lives at a disproportionate rate and leaving many in those communities unemployed or at greater risk of infection due to their positions as essential workers. According to the order for advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities, Biden wants to pursue a “comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” Biden’s early attention to equity comes at a time when social justice advocates are calling on elected officials to directly address systemic racism as it manifests in policing, education, health, housing, the environment, and the economy through policy — not simply conduct reviews and offer thoughts on the need for unity. In 2020, millions of Americans protested the police killings of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. While Biden’s executive order suggests that equity is top of mind, activists say they’re aware that they’ll need to put pressure on the administration to set the agenda and bring continued urgency. “No set of executive orders is going to revoke structural oppression,” Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party and an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives and the Frontline, told Vox. “Historically, whenever this country made major gains around racial justice and equity, it was because social movements led the government. Significant movement around racial justice and equity has never come from the White House. As we don’t anticipate that to happen this time, our social movement has a critical role to play in all of this.” Biden will revoke Trump’s ban on anti-bias training and reject Trump’s mission to downplay the roles of slavery and race in American history Biden will emphasize his commitment to equity by rolling back two signature orders that the Trump administration implemented last fall that rejected the role of systemic racism in America. The first of those orders, “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” barred federal agencies from conducting workplace training that “inculcates in its employees any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.” The order boiled down to a ban on any diversity training that informed employees about racism or helped them become aware of their implicit biases.Trump’s order also rejected critical race theory, the foundation of these trainings that moved scholars and activists to recognize how racism is endemic to American life. Anti-bias training for federal employees has traditionally helped reduce the negative impact of implicit and explicit bias and ultimately improves the efficiency of various agencies, one report from the Obama White House noted. During Obama’sadministration, the Office of Personnel Management developed a course called “Micro-Behaviors: Understanding the Power of the Unconscious Mind” and trained more than 10,000 federal employees on the impacts of implicit bias. Biden will also rescind the order that established the 1776 Commission, a panel of historians organized by Trump to counter what students were being taught in school about slavery and America’s founding. The commission, named after the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, was a response to the New York Times’s 1619 Project — harking to the year enslaved people from West Africa were first brought to America — which centers slavery as the American story that defines social inequality and explains the country’s economic origins. Since the 1619 Project’s release in 2019, educators have used the project as an instructional tool that stands up against the whitewashed American history contained in textbooks. The 1776 Commission wanted to keep school curricula free of information that regarded the founders as people who were interested in maintaining the institution of slavery, for example.The 1776 Commission released a 45-page report on Martin Luther King Jr. Day outlining its version of American history, but it vanished from the White House website two days later, on Biden’s Inauguration Day. In his executive order, Biden gives federal agencies 60 days to terminate any actions related to Trump’s orders, including reversing any steps they took to end anti-bias training. The administration plans to study and assess inequity and allocate federal resources to invest in underserved communities Biden’s order instructs every federal agency — there are more than 400 of them — to take no more than 200 days (mid-August) to complete an equity assessment to determine how that particular agency has potentially blocked underserved communities from receiving benefits and opportunities. The study will also examine the resources available to offices responsible for advancing civil rights. Based on the results of these assessments, the administration, particularly the Office of Management and Budget, will allocate funding to increase investment in underserved communities. Biden has put the Domestic Policy Council, headed by Susan E. Rice, in charge of the effort to study systemic inequality and determine the communities that the federal government has historically underserved. This same body will also develop the policies that will advance equity in the next four years. The administration cited a few examples of challenges it could address, like “closing gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities and access to higher education,” but did not specify what areas it plans to address first. Biden’s equity order also emphasizes that the administration is looking for ways to expand its communication with community-based organizations and civil rights organizations. Following the presidential election, civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation sat down with the Biden administration to outline priorities. The Biden administration wants this communication to continue. Biden also plans to establish a working group on data to disaggregate information according to categories like race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, and veteran status. For economists, scholars, and activists, this categorial breakdown allows them to better understand how policies impact particular groups of people. It’s impossible to advocate for change if there isn’t enough information on the problem. “This lack of data has cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity,” the order states. Other orders expected to come on Tuesday: Creation of a policing commission, disavowing discrimination against Asian Americans The Biden administration also plans to roll out other executive actions on racial equity, according to the Hill, but no further information has been released by the administration at this time. These include: Establishing a commission on policing. On the campaign trail, Biden resisted calls to defund the police and instead called for a $300 million investment in a community policing program. Actions that would improve the conditions in prisons and close private prisons, in line with what Biden proposed during his campaign for president. An executive action to repudiate racism and xenophobia toward Asian Americans, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, Asian Americans have been the victims of racist attacks and have been scapegoated and stereotyped as the people who created and spread the coronavirus. Trump helped spur these reactions by using racist language to describe the virus. A memo directing agencies to strengthen their communication with Native American tribes. The United States has a history of not honoring its agreements with Indigenous peoples. The memo could be a start to the federal government fulfilling its duties and helping reverse poverty and poor health conditions in Indian Country. Biden’s order is a start. Activists want more. Biden made his interest in challenging racism clear during his first address to the nation on Inauguration Day, when he named white supremacy, domestic terrorism, and political extremism as threats. “He’s shining a spotlight on equity and racial justice early on, and that’s a good thing,” Mitchell told Vox. “Presidents have the most political capital early in their career, and the things they do early send a signal about what they’ll do for the rest of their term.” In his inaugural address, Biden also noted that it will take more than words to fix the country — it will take unity, a concept he has invoked often in the past year, including when unrest broke out in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake and when a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol on January 6. But “unity is a loaded word,” Mitchell told Vox. “There are a lot of things we should unify around, but the destination should never be unity. The destination should be justice.” According to Mitchell, justice is Covid-19 relief in the form of $2,000 cash payments, or dismantling white supremacy, for example, not unifying with those who aided and abetted an insurrection at the Capitol. “I am cautious when I hear ‘unity’ and ‘bipartisanship’ without clarity on the destination,” Mitchell said. Moreover, Mitchell is waiting to see how federal agencies, regulatory authorities, and Congress operationalize the administration’s racial justice agenda, ensuring that social justice for Black communities doesn’t get narrowly compartmentalized in the criminal justice realm but also extends to jobs, housing, health, and more. “We anticipate that our movement will have to fill in the blanks and create a political urgency so that the political class can do what’s necessary.” Mitchell backs the policy positions enumerated in the BREATHE Act, which was created by the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and the Movement for Black Lives and introduced in Congress last fall. The act advocates for specific measures like divesting federal resources from policing and the prison system and investing those funds in community safety and the self-determination of Black communities. Mitchell understands the work will take time but the urgency doesn’t end. “Black folks have been waiting since we came to this continent, so a minute more is too much for us.” Biden’s executive action states that more communication is necessary to achieve racial justice — and his team will have to actually listento the voters of color across the country who helped elevate him to the country’s highest office.
Twilight of the American antihero
Amanda Northrop/Vox Donald Trump trails a long line of antiheroes, in fiction. In the spring of 2017, I reviewed the fifth season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the last to feature Kevin Spacey (who was removed from the show after many accusations of sexual assault were brought against him) and the first to air in the Trump presidency. The show would end with its sixth season in 2018, without Spacey and without a clear sense of how to tell stories amid the chaos of the Trump era. But House of Cards season five remains a useful artifact thanks to a rare Venn diagram intersection: The Trump presidency coinciding with a TV show that almost seemed to foreshadow his rise to power. In that 2017 review, I wrote: What I want, more than anything, is some acknowledgment from House of Cards that the shit Claire and Frank are doing matters, that people out there are living and dying lives that are going to be affected by their dumb power grabs. Pretending that none of this has any import, that fighting about this stuff is stupid, is a mug’s game. The idea that it’s cool not to care is precisely the sort of idea put into place by those who benefit from the status quo, who really do care about keeping that status quo in place. The biggest difference between Frank Underwood and Donald Trump isn’t that Frank is more competent — it’s that on some level, Trump seems to want to use the presidency to do stuff and help people, even if those people all have the last name “Trump.” Frank just wants to be president to be president. ... In season five, the showcan’t seem to imagine a politics driven by anything other than crude hero worship and awed reverence for those who would callously shed blood and call it beautiful. I have spent the last four years wrestling with these ideas. I do not believe that art creates reality, but rather that it offers us a window into our collective subconscious, giving us a view of our preoccupations, anxieties, and desires. Yet at the same time, it has been difficult to escape just how thoroughly Trump and the racist, white nationalist movements he inspired feel like the natural culmination of two distinct but dovetailing pop culture trends: “politically incorrect” humor and the proliferation of antihero protagonists. Even after four years, I’m still not sure how to think about the divide between art and reality. A world where stories exclusively depicted people doing the right thing would be dreadfully boring. Such a world would reduce the movies and TV to infantilizing media that treated adult viewers like children in need of Sunday school lessons. But it’s simultaneously hard to see Trump as anything other than the ultimate antihero — the guy who says and does whatever he wants and inspires slavering devotion from his fans. Donald Trump was a unique figure in 21st-century American politics, but hardly a unique one in American pop culture. The stories that presaged Trump’s rise were too often boiled down to their most base-level appeal NBC Donald Trump hosted The Celebrity Apprentice. The fandom that Donald Trump has inspired seems built atop a paradox. On the one hand, his fans insist, you can’t trust anything you see in the mainstream media — broadly defined as everything to the left of Fox News — because it’s been constructed to fool you and prop up elites. Everybody else is fake news. On the other hand, they know Donald Trump is incredibly smart because until very recently they regularly saw him on TV, in that same mainstream media, showing how smart he was. A little skepticism of official media narratives is healthy, and we should all practice it. But what starts out as healthy skepticism frequently expands into a knee-jerk suspicion of all narratives not presented by a handful of loud, contrarian voices. Trump, the loudest and most contrarian voice of all, couldn’t help but garner a reputation as a bold truth-teller, particularly after the 2004 debut of The Apprentice, a show that was carefully crafted to make him seem like the smartest guy in the room, the only one who knew what was really going on. Yet I think characterizing Trump as a creation of right-wing media and reality TV, which I’ve done plenty of times, is too limiting — it casts him as a specific kind of monster who can now be banished back from whence he came. But The Apprentice didn’t come out of nowhere. It stands on the shoulders of Survivor, and the first season of Survivor was won by Richard Hatch, one of the great TV antiheroes of the early 2000s. It arrived at a time when the antihero drama was highly in demand and when shows like The Sopranos and The Shield became massive hits. It also arrived in the midst of a turn toward comedy that purportedly said what we were all thinking. Casting Trump as the ruthless, candid leader of The Apprentice who made wild proclamations for amusement’s sake was in line with shows like South Park and Family Guy, which thrived on a devil-may-care attitude toward hurting people’s feelings. As long as a joke was funny, what did it matter if some people found it offensive? Anything entertaining was fair game. To be clear: None of the shows I’ve just mentioned were actually “about” their most immediately marketable qualities. South Park, for example,was at least nominally interested in the contradiction between not caring about anything but also caring deeply about oneself (best exemplified in the character of Eric Cartman). But there was often a divide between a series’ quality and the way it was consistently discussed in terms of its most obvious, base-level appeal. This divide was even more pronounced when it came to prestige dramas. A substantial portion of The Sopranos’ audience watched just to see who “got whacked” and groused when the show was more meditative. But the show was meditative, and deeply thoughtful in the way it tackled big questions about life, death, and morality. There’s a reason the show has become a hit with kids who weren’t alive when it premiered. It’s great art, and it’s great art that seemingly foresaw an era of American decline, even though it debuted in 1999, at the height of America’s unquestioned power. Still, it bears repeating: There was a substantial portion of The Sopranos’ audience who watched just to see who “got whacked” and groused when the show was more meditative. “I met many different flavors of Sopranos fans in my travels, from people who loved the family drama to ones who were into the abstract dream imagery,” says TV critic Alan Sepinwall, who covered the show for the New Jersey-based Star-Ledger newspaper during its run and later wrote the book The Sopranos Sessions. “But by far the most vocal portion of the fanbase — or, at least, the most annoyingly vocal — were the ones who were just tuning in to see who got whacked, and who would get annoyed if an episode, or especially if a finale, didn’t feature a high body count or a significant death.” That portion of The Sopranos’ viewership didn’t care to think about the ways in which Tony’s actions were slowly eroding every piece of him that could be called human, or how his childhood in an abusive, toxic home followed him into adulthood. Instead, those viewers often saw Tony as an avatar of grievance, a guy who would punish anybody who stood in his way and triumph at the end of the day. Does that sound like anyone you know? On the moral qualities of the antihero drama Netflix House of Cards offered a glimpse inside the White House that suggested something more entertaining than reality. Later in 2017, a few months after reviewing House of Cards season five, I wrote that the best antihero dramas aren’t just thrill rides but also function as morality plays in reverse: Just about every network has, at one time or another since The Sopranos launched in 1999, come up with a bad antihero drama of its own. But why is it so difficult to make a great antihero drama? ... The simple answer is that great antihero dramas aren’t just about the bad choices their characters make — they’re about the good choices the characters don’t make, too. We want to see Tony Soprano kill his enemies and do whatever he wants, because we want to live vicariously through him. But on some level, we also don’t want him to do the bad thing, because we know it will only damn him further. I’m no longer convinced my point is 100 percent accurate, at least when it comes to what audiences want. Plenty of empty antihero shows (including House of Cards) have become popular and even lauded in the streaming era because they offer an endless assault of empty calories that feel meaningful. Generations of critically acclaimed movies, novels, and TV shows about bad men who do worse things have conditioned us to believe that “bad men who do worse things” is the foundation of good storytelling. If “bad men who do worse things” is the goal, it becomes easy to create a character like Frank Underwood — a shallow figure defined only by his lust for power — and then insist that his shallowness somehow says something new and interesting about Washington. If you’re going to be a cutthroat politician — or a mob boss or a crudely animated foul-mouthed child — you might as well entertain while you’re at it. And when Donald Trump launched his campaign in 2015, he knew how to draw from that playbook to create entertaining TV. That was a bigger advantage than a lot of people gave him credit for at the time. Both the antihero drama and politically incorrect comedy are rooted in similar ideas: There are people who think about what’s right and carefully consider a course of action, and there are people who just do the thing that needs doing (or say the thing that needs saying), consequences be damned. They are outgrowths of an attitude that has always been present in the American imagination but has overtaken it in the last half-century: What matters is not actually what would benefit your community, but what would benefit you. American antihero stories and politically incorrect comedies are also inextricably linked to our nation’s structural racism, sexism, and other prejudices. The characters who front both types of stories have typically been men, havealmost always beenwhite, and have definitely always been cisgender and heterosexual, which subtly creates an idea of who is allowed to behave badly and who gets to be a protagonist, whether on TV or in politics. The best antihero stories obliquely comment on this aspect of American society — Breaking Bad, for instance, frequently nodded to how much more easily Walter White could get away with literal murder than, say, the several Latino characters he met. But many more mediocre stories don’t seem to have thought about this question at all, to say nothing of, say, cop dramas that treat bad behavior as straightforwardly heroic. Merely pointing that out will create the expectation that what I want is a more diverse slate of antiheroes, because we too often think of diversity and representation in popular entertainment as an Instagram filter — add BIPOC or queer people to your story and go. (It’s also worth noting that when Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were making some of the films that would prove seminal within the antihero canon, they were chronicling a time when Italians were an oppressed ethnic minority within the US.) It’s not as simple as saying, “More diverse antiheroes!” What I am saying is that we need to broaden the types of stories we tell and the types of complicated characters who are at the center of them. Many of the best stories of recent years have been about communities facing crisis together. Yet we are not entirely free of the antihero’s influence, as can easily be seen by the man who for four years occupied a White House that moved with the horrifying logic of a bad prestige drama desperate to keep the audience tuning in. I don’t want to live in a world without The Sopranos or Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre or Blazing Saddles or any number of novels about middle-aged men who sink their ennui into blowing up their lives. But I’m also not sure I need any more of these stories, at least not right now. The outer trappings of stories about people whose lack of care for their fellow humans becomes an asset have been hollowed out into a costume that too many other stories wear as a cheap nod toward meaning. The best antihero dramas (and the small handful of genuinely great politically incorrect comedies) understand the tension between “what I personally want” and “what the world would benefit from.” They understand that we all have selfish impulses, and they understand that those selfish impulses can make for terrific and even meaningful storytelling when the storyteller is keenly aware of their argument’s moral dimensions. A world of morally simplistic art that always lets you know the lesson you’re meant to be learning would be a poorer world indeed. But it is easy to look at American pop culture from the last 50 years and see within it an increasing desire for a bold, brash hero who tells it like it is and acts before he considers the consequences. Even our less ambiguously heroic figures — think of nearly every superhero imaginable — increasingly fit that description. Much was made in the 1980s of the way that Ronald Reagan styled himself as a cowboy or a war hero, borrowing the tropes of American movies. So when Donald Trump, a man who seems to intuitively understand television and the way it latches onto certain stories, set out to style himself as a modern American hero, where do you think he was going to turn? American pop culture didn’t create Trump, but he certainly caught a very particular wave and rode it right into the White House. Where the story goes next is up to us.
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60 percent of likely voters say they’re in favor of public housing. So why isn’t there more of it?
Theresa, who has been homeless for much of her life, pauses for photos in the lobby area of an affordable housing complex in Los Angeles. “I understand that recovery centers and halfway housing costs money, but graveyards and hospital beds cost money too, which the taxpayers end up paying anyway,” she said. | Jae C. Hong/AP Americans say they want the government to build affordable housing — but not in their backyards. As Covid-19 has thrust tens of millions of Americans into housing insecurity and revealed longstanding issues with the nation’s stock of affordable housing, 60 percent of likely voters say they want a public option for housing, according toData for Progress (DFP). The progressive polling firm surveyed 1,116 likely voters nationwide on their attitudes around housing, broadband, child care, and infrastructure and provided the results first to Vox.Those results were striking: DFP found majorities in favor of public options for each of those areas. Regarding creating a public option for housing, DFP asked respondents if they would be in favor of a “proposal where cities or counties build new, affordable housing that people can then rent from and which would compete with private housing options.” Unsurprisingly, Democrats were most likely to support the policy — and they did so with overwhelming majorities. Just over three-quarters of Democratic voters said they favored a public option for housing, while 64 percent of independent/third-party voters did, and 37 percent of Republican voters did. There’s strong debate over whether public housing is the solution to America’s housing problems. It has been successful in targeted uses, for example in reducing the homeless veteran population. But as Curbed’s Jeff Andrews reported, America’s public housing stock has declined over the past few decades, and public officials have favored other ways of addressing housing insecurity that were intended to better integrate communities and create mixed-income neighborhoods. This debate is becoming more heated as America’s homelessness and rental affordability crisis reaches a fever pitch. There were an estimated 500,000 Americans homeless in 2019, before Covid-19 hit; there isn’t good data for what’s happened to the population in 2020, but it’s likely that number has increased since millions of renters struggled to make payments over the past year. There is a simple truth public housing advocates are pointing out: There is simply not enough affordable housing available to service our current population. We have to figure out a way to build more. But the reality on the ground is hard to square with DFP’s finding that large majorities are in favor of public housing. In practice, Americans typically reject new development precisely in the places where affordable housing is most needed. Building more housing may be popular in theory, but rarely in practice While DFP’s poll shows that people may be generally in favor of a public option for housing, when people are confronted with the reality of putting new development in their neighborhood (public or not), they are frequently opposed. A June 2019 survey by the real estate brokerage firm Redfin of 3,000 US residents who bought or sold a primary residence in the past 12 months or plan to in the following 12 months found that 53 percent of them “support zoning policies that limit housing density near where they live,” while only 27 percent of them “support policies that enable it.” Redfin Chart from Redfin showing racial breakdown in opposition to increased housing density. Looking beyond polls, we can turn to how homeowners actually respond when affordable housing (or any development, really) is proposed in their neighborhood or near their homes: They reject it. As Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who has made solving his city’s affordable housing issues a central component of his time in office, told Vox: “There isn’t some magical place where there’s lots of undeveloped land that is low cost and near major employers. That doesn’t exist in Chattanooga or anywhere else. And yet, if you go to a community meeting, you may think we are purposefully ignoring such an Eden.” In Neighborhood Defenders, Boston University researchers Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick, and Maxwell Palmer analyze public comments in neighborhood forums in Massachusetts and find only 15 percent of comments were supportive of new housing. In a blog post, the authors write (emphasis added): These patterns hold across every city and town we study; in liberal Cambridge, MA, a mere 40 percent of meeting participants show up in support of new housing. These figures stand in stark contrast to high levels of support in Massachusetts for new housing and affordable housing, at least in the abstract. Liberal intuitions would indicate that left-leaning folks would at least be in favor of affordable housing projects that have a demonstrated benefit for vulnerable populations. But in San Francisco (where more than 85 percent of voters chose Joe Biden as their next president), neighbors even opposed a 100 percent affordable housing proposal for at-risk seniors run by two nonprofit developers. Something DFP’s poll may be picking up is that the people who show up to neighborhood meetings (where much of the opposition to new development is voiced) are frequently unrepresentative of the rest of the population. A paper by the same Boston University researchers looked at meetings in 100 Boston-area communities and found that 95 percent of attendees were white despite being only 80 percent of the studied area’s population. As Curbed’s Patrick Sisson reported, because public meetings are “held at times of day that can make it hard for many people to attend without missing work, usually without day care options, and sometimes in locations not favorable to those with disabilities or who rely on transit, these meetings already exclude many groups before they even start.” But it’s worth pointing out that this phenomenon, usually referred to as Nimby (“not in my backyard”), is not particular to public housing. Opposition to affordable housing development and even market rate development, particularly in opportunity-rich areas, can be indiscriminate. So it’s an issue regardless of whether your solution is a massive investment in public housing, extra funding for housing vouchers, reducing regulations for residential development, subsidies for affordable housing — anything that seeks to ameliorate the housing supply problem in places where local homeowners have veto power over development. Neighbors for More Neighbors — a framework for change In some ways, this problem is just human nature: People are fiercely protective of their homes and are threatened by change that could destabilize their financial well-being or their way of life. But there’s hope. On January 19, Sacramento took a major step toward eliminating single-family-only zoning. The Sacramento Bee reported that the council unanimously supported a change to “allow houses across the city to contain up to four dwelling units.” They followed the lead of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which became the first major American city to end the ban on multi-unit homes within its borders in 2019. For the Atlantic, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote that in Minneapolis, “housing advocates have succeeded by shifting the focus of public discussion toward the victims of exclusionary zoning. More important, advocates also showed public officials and their own fellow citizens just how numerous those victims are.” In response to the Boston University researchers’ findings around who shows up to zoning reform meetings, organizers also went to “street fairs, festivals, and churches to gather input on zoning reform from people in low-income and minority communities” under the banner of “Neighbors for More Neighbors.” Making clear the sheer size of the population harmed by current American policy is the first step. The coalition includes young people moving to cities, would-be parents who have to delay starting a family because their home can’t accommodate another person, seniors who are retiring on a fixed income, and low-income and minority families who have been unable to find housing options near jobs and transit. The people hurt by America’s current housing policy regime far outnumber those who are experiencing some benefits now. It’s a story that has won out in Oregon, Minneapolis, and Sacramento and is building in cities and suburbs nationwide. The federal government isn’t powerless here. As Matt Yglesias wrote for Vox last July, President Joe Biden has “pick[ed] up a proposal from Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. James Clyburn to require localities that benefit from Community Development Block Grants or Surface Transportation Block Grants to develop plans to change zoning rules that block development of more housing types.” Essentially it would be a “stick” to withhold funding from jurisdictions that are engaged in exclusionary zoning. Depending on how serious the Biden team is about this, it could generate significant pressure for jurisdictions dependent on these pots of money to create change. One problem is that many of the worst offenders are suburbs of major cities that are not very reliant on federal funding, but this would still be a good start. The debate over whether public or private units would best solve America’s housing crisis is an important one, but housing advocates will have to unite around zoning reform before anything can get built at all.
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Biden’s “all of government” plan for climate, explained
US President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event to introduce key Cabinet nominees and members of his climate team on December 19. Biden is shown speaking to his domestic climate czar Gina McCarthy. | Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images Rejoining the Paris agreement is just the start of Biden’s climate and clean energy policy. President Joe Biden is sending early signals that action on climate change will be front and center to his administration’s agenda, and that his climate policy will be intertwined with his economic plan. “Biden’s economic agenda is his climate agenda; his climate agenda is his economic agenda,” Sam Ricketts, co-founder of climate policy group Evergreen and a senior fellow at progressive think tank Center for American Progress, told Vox. Though many of Biden’s early actions are centered on speeding up Covid-19 vaccinations and more immediate economic relief for Americans, the White House is positioning its next big policy push on creating jobs through infrastructure. And Biden’s goal is to make his economic recovery green, based on conversations with those familiar with the president’s thinking. “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs,’” Biden said in a July campaign speech announcing his $2 trillion climate plan. Biden’s day one executive actions included rejoining the Paris climate agreement and directing his agencies to reverse a number of Trump’s actions slashing environmental regulations and emissions standards. But his real stamp on climate will come from intertwining ambitious climate goals like getting to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 with a bold economic recovery plan — set to be released next month. The president’s climate team is overseen by two climate czars: White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, who will oversee the nation’s domestic climate policy, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, who will represent the US on the world stage when it comes to climate. Former President Barack Obama’s administration had one climate czar, and experts told Vox that Biden doubling that number and placing several other climate experts in key cabinet posts signals it’s a pressing priority for the president. “The era of us having to do climate as this niche set of actions is over,” Josh Freed, the founder of the Climate and Energy Program at the center-left think tank Third Way, told Vox. “I think the thing that is really transformative potentially about this administration is it’s much bigger than a climate bill or a handful of bills.” Of course, Biden’s aggressive goals to get the US to completely clean electricity by 2035 and to net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050 is easier said than done. Not only will Biden have to contend with congressional Republicans; he’ll also have to balance the wants of environmental groups that want him to go big on renewable energy with unions, some of whom are more wary of what it could mean for organized labor — in part because there are fewer union jobs in the renewable energy sector. Biden has a long way to go, but multiple experts say his ambitious plans coupled with his initial personnel picks are an encouraging start. “I’ve done this work for a really long time and it was awesome to be a part of the Obama administration, but they’ve put this on steroids,” Carol Browner, who served as Obama’s climate czar and EPA administrator throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency, told Vox. “It’s ambitious, it’s proactive, it’s durable action on climate change.” Biden is hiring a lot of people with a background in climate change McCarthy and Kerry will work in tandem from the White House. After four years of a Trump administration that treated Obama’s environmental and emissions regulations with a slash and burn mentality, they will have to start by undoing a lot of Trump’s actions. McCarthy, who served as Obama’s EPA administrator from 2013 and 2017, is well-regarded by many environmental groups. “We know rejoining [Paris] won’t be enough,” McCarthy told reporters recently, outlining executive actions by Biden for his agencies to review and renege Trump’s actions on lowering emissions standards, including revoking Trump’s presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. “There is enormous opportunity with a whole-of-government approach that this administration is going to take to make meaningful progress,” she added. Kerry, formerly Obama’s secretary of state and a close Biden adviser on climate, is a natural fit to represent the US in international climate talks. Climate change is a global issue, and under Trump, the United States took itself out of the international effort to reduce emissions under the Paris agreement. A big part of Kerry’s job will be working to rebuild goodwill with countries wary that the US pulled out of the agreement to begin with. To do that job effectively, he’ll need regular updates from McCarthy on what the federal government is doing at home to drastically lower US emissions. “The two pieces have to coexist, both the domestic and international,” said Heather Zichal, a former Obama White House staffer who was integral in creating Obama’s Clean Power Plan. “We need to be prepared to say what we’re prepared to do as a country. The international work is once we know what we’re capable of, we’re better able to work with the international community.” There’s also the potential that two climate czars who both report to the president could butt heads over the direction of US climate policy. Kerry’s ability to do his job well will be entirely dependent on McCarthy and other domestic officials’ ability to make progress on climate at home. In addition to McCarthy and Kerry, Biden selected former Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico as a historic pick to lead the US Department of the Interior (Haaland is the first Native American to do so). His pick for the Environmental Protection Agency is Michael Regan, the secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Biden selected former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as US Secretary of Energy. To round out the list, McCarthy’s deputy in the White House is Ali Zaidi, the former New York chair of climate policy and finance. Ricketts, the co-founder of Evergreen Action, told Vox that this team is “also one that’s demonstrated experience at the state level, and comes from places that are actually making progress. There’s a lot the federal government needs to learn from states.” The president’s climate-focused picks also go beyond environmental agencies. Brian Deese is Biden’s top economic adviser and director of the National Economic Council, and was a key person who helped negotiate the Paris agreement in Obama’s administration. Some progressive climate groups including the Sunrise Movement were wary about Deese because of his time as the global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager. But Sunrise political director Evan Weber also told Vox that the fact Deese’s appointment to the National Economic Council was being framed around climate, as well as economic growth, was encouraging. “We do hope there’s central coordination and direction. We see Gina and Ali hopefully as the conductors of the federal government climate symphony,” Weber told Vox recently. “I think that these are very encouraging signs, but personnel is the first step of the puzzle and the proof is going to be in the pudding. How urgent are they going to be in their action, how much more ambitious than Obama?” Biden could put the full force of the federal government toward fighting climate change Multiple former Obama administration staffers told Vox that even with all of these appointments, the person who really matters in all of this is Biden himself. Presidents have to be invested in an issue for them to throw the full weight of their administration behind it. Biden becoming a potential agent of change on climate may be surprising for some; it wasn’t a top issue for the president throughout his decades in the Senate. But climate groups also saw some opportunity: Biden did plenty of work around renewable energy as vice president, especially during his tenure overseeing Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan. And like Kerry and McCarthy, Biden is a grandparent who is concerned about what a warming planet will mean for his grandchildren’s future. Biden’s bullishness on climate also comes in large part from the fact that he sees renewable energy options like wind and solar as having the potential to drive the green economy through power generation. Still, Biden could have his work cut out for him to convince some major unions that endorsed him that an economy completely powered by renewable energy is the way of the future. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently told Vox his union has told Biden’s team “what we think strikes the right balance between doing what we need to do to go green and at the same time not upending or putting a lot of people out of work in the process.” It also comes from seeing the dire impacts of climate change in historic wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts. Science has never been more clear on our short 10-year window to bring down the earth’s warming or face catastrophic consequences — and many of those impacts can be seen each year. “Leadership starts from the top,” Zichal told Vox. “The fact Biden has made it clear this is a top priority, we need to leave no stone unturned and move aggressively — that really, really matters.” Past administrations have typically relegated climate change and environmental issues to a handful of agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Interior. Using all of the federal government to combat climate change also empowers agencies like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement new sustainability standards for newly constructed or upgraded affordable housing. It means that the Department of Transportation could be charged with setting up more charging stations for electric vehicles, or spend more money on public transportation. And it could mean that the US Department of Agriculture tries to work with the nation’s farmers to reduce the amount of emissions coming from livestock and soils — about 10 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. The White House and the federal government have a lot of tools they can use to combat climate change, even beyond pushing a green infrastructure package through Congress. In addition to using government regulations to change emissions standards for vehicles and appliances, Biden’s administration can also leverage its own buying power through federal procurement. “The government has many different tools, the good news about Biden is he’s looking to use all of them,” Browner said. The US government is one of the world’s largest consumers, and Biden’s administration is already urging its agencies to buy American. They could also incentivize them to buy sustainably by being an outsized competitor in the free market. “It’s a market signal of where large purchasers are headed, and it gives companies an early opportunity to move,” Freed, who works at Third Way, said. The US economy is already trending toward renewable energy; renewables power about 11 percent of US energy consumption (the same amount as coal), but still pale in comparison to oil and natural gas. Biden’s administration could rapidly accelerate that trend. Biden has already staked out aggressive decarbonization targets, but his administration needs to move quickly to achieve them. “The private sector and the economy shifted far more dramatically towards clean energy; it’s just happening,” Freed said. “The politics have changed, and the urgency has changed, and it makes the landscape look a lot different than it did in 2017 or even 2013.”
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This week in TikTok: How are you supposed to be a girl online?
“Try and name one thing that girls can like and won’t get made fun of.” Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here. Quick: Think of an interest or hobby a young woman can have that she couldn’t possibly be made fun of for. You might sensibly say something like “biking” or “pottery” or “baking,” but the caveat here is that in order for this thought experiment to work, you also have to have the mind of a teenager on TikTok, where people are constantly teasing each other in the most brutal ways. This is the latest TikTok trend, and by “trend” I mean I’ve seen two videos about it but they both went extremely viral. “I keep seeing videos that are like, ‘Try and think of one interest that a woman can have that she won’t get made fun of for,’ and I really try and think about it,” begins a video from a 19-year-old TikToker named Sasha. “There is fucking nothing. Nothing.” Some examples Sasha gives: If a girl says she likes Netflix, then people will accuse her of being stuck in the era of 2014 Tumblr. If she’s into makeup, she’s too into herself and her gender. If she likes video games, she’s a “bruh” girl. If she’s into fashion, she’s probably just one of those girls who wears big pants and a tiny top and turns up the saturation on her photos in an ironic way. If she likes reading, she “thinks she’s the main fucking character.” The video has almost 3 million views. @sash1e #fyp #foryou #trans #lgbt ♬ original sound - sasha Most of these insults will probably make zero sense unless you spend a lot of time on TikTok. Because the way the app has established hyperspecific identity markers is … concerning. Teen girls and their interests have always served as punchlines, but on TikTok, once enough teen girls publicly enjoy something, the backlash can grow even bigger. Take the concept of the VSCO girl, which in the summer of 2019 went from a niche self-deprecating joke to an embarrassing catchall term, all because some high school girls liked to wear big T-shirts and scrunchies. Because of how far the joke was able to spread on TikTok and how the style became a sort of costume, nobody really dresses like that anymore. The “VSCO girl” phenomenon is basically happening all the time now. As I wrote about last week, TikTok accelerates meaningless cultural cycles faster than any machine or platform ever has, which means that as soon as something gets popular enough, it’ll trigger a near-immediate backlash. If a few girls on TikTok edit their pictures or dye their hair or do their eyeliner a certain way and go viral, within weeks that thing will probably be deemed cringe, outdated, or outright problematic. Some of this has to do with the TikTok interface. The ability to duet or riff on other people’s videos often make the reactions even more entertaining than the video itself, and because TikTok automatically shows you the most highly rated comment first, reading the comment section is half the fun of watching in the first place. One somewhat troubling thing I’ve noticed myself doing is imagining what the comments are saying about a video before I even read them. Like, if I see a video of a girl with a slightly larger forehead, I already know that someone will have commented “looks like she’s got a lot on her mind” or something. Which does not feel great! This is all connected to the ways in which it’s so easy to tease girls for the things they like. Another guy made a similar video to Sasha’s on TikTok, captioned with “try and name one thing that girls can like and won’t get made fun of,” and all the comments are some variation of “jokes on you its” and “c’mon y’all we obviously have” (the joke being that there are none). “Girls can’t even like hydro flasks without being made fun of … literal water bottles,” someone wrote. “I once got made fun of for not littering,” said another. It’s not TikTok’s fault that our culture simultaneously devalues and sexualizes teenage girls, but I do think it gives us many, many more ways to reinforce that devaluation and sexualization. When something like “VSCO girl” or “bruh girl” gets a lot of attention on TikTok, it’s another addition to the backpack full of potential put-downs all of us carry around in our brains. It’s now nearly impossible to be a teenager and not fall into some kind of niche identity bracket that can be used against you. Avoiding judgment is no longer an option, if it ever really was before. The story doesn’t have an answer, because of course there isn’t one beyond all the ways that misogyny is socially acceptable. Just like there’s no answer to the question of what interests a girl can have without being made fun of, because there isn’t one. The first step to change is, I guess, acknowledging the problem. TikTok in the news The future of TikTok is now in President Biden’s hands — but nothing significant will likely happen for months (or possibly ever?). A group of 3D printmakers has worked together to create a pill bottle that makes it easier for people with Parkinson’s disease to take their medicine, and they’re documenting the process on TikTok. TikTokers are buying the cheapest items from designer brands just for the box. Clapper, the app that’s basically Parler but for TikTok, looks extremely bleak. “You said forever now I … have the number one song on the Billboard charts thanks to a TikTok meme.” Dance Moms star and children’s entertainer Jojo Siwa came out after making a TikTok set to “Born This Way.” It’s very sweet! One Last Thing November and Thursdays are the same thing. They just are! @elleroot13 dolphins and horses = november and thursdays ♬ original sound - elleroot
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For Black Americans, the middle class has always been a mirage
Black Americans have been shut out of stability at every turn. Among Dee’s friends, talking about money is considered impolite. But that’s not really what stops her. “Most of my peers are white,” she says, “and I get very angry about the systemic inequality evident in our situations, and their seeming obliviousness to it.” Dee’s family has been middle-class and college-educated going back three generations, “since Black people reasonably could be,” she says. Her maternal grandparents were the children of sharecroppers in the South, migrated north as adults, got graduate degrees, and, unlike millions of Black Americans who were unable to secure mortgages at the time due to racist housing covenants and lending practices, bought a home. Homeownership was, and remains, the beating heart of wealth accumulation for the American middle class. Our society privileges homeowners in everything from the tax code to the availability of home equity lines to membership requirements for neighborhood associations. You buy a place, that place grows in value, and either you trade up to a bigger place or you keep it until you can pass it down to your kids or your kids get the money from its sale. Stability gives birth to even more stability. That’s not what happened with Dee’s family. “My grandparents were bludgeoned every time the economy took a downturn,” Dee recalls, in part because of the legacy of redlining and the devaluation of property in Black neighborhoods. “They ended up losing their house. They had enough to live on, but no wealth.” The same happened to her parents. She says they were “destroyed” by the 2008 housing crisis, which disproportionately affected Black homeowners, many of whom, because of longstanding discriminatory lending practices, believed subprime mortgages were the best financing option available to them. Dee’s grandparents managed to make ends meet, but their retirement savings were drastically diminished, and they’ll eventually require some subsidization from Dee. “Having everything ‘right’ and still living with precarity, literally living paycheck to paycheck, is deeply upsetting” But Dee, 41, has been struggling for years to find something approximating financial security in her own life. She lives in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City, with her partner and two kids. She and her partner make around $200,000 a year. At more than three times the national median household income, this sounds like a big number, but every month, they found their resources depleted. Before the pandemic, they were allocating most of their money toward their mortgage, child care, and student loans. They’d been putting money into their kids’ 529 college savings accounts, but otherwise the focus has been on credit card and student loan debt, which they’ve just started to be able to actually pay off. These days, they’re no longer paying expensive child care bills, but there’s a real threat that Dee’s partner’s job could disappear at any moment, at which point they would immediately start drowning in debt. Dee describes herself as frustrated and so very, very angry. “Having everything ‘right’ and still living with precarity, literally living paycheck to paycheck, is deeply upsetting,” she says. Which is why her extra income is going toward her kids’ college savings: to prevent them starting their lives already behind, the way she feels she did. The hole Dee dug in search of middle-class stability for her family is so deep that she’d realistically need to double, even triple her income to pull herself out and have enough to stabilize her parents as well. She doesn’t have a ton of hope that will happen. “I live in America,” she says. “There is no support for middle-class families, and there is no targeted support for those who have suffered from systemic racism. It’s getting harder and harder to maintain a middle-class life.” Dee’s story is illustrative of just how different the hollowing of the middle class can feel, depending on your race and family history. Unlike many white middle-class Americans who find themselves bewildered by the prospect of going financially backward from their parents, Dee watched as her family’s best-laid plans for a steady, middle-class future were foiled, again and again, by economic catastrophes in which losses were disproportionately absorbed by Black Americans. As economists William Darity Jr., Fenable Addo, and Imari Smith recently explained, “for Black Americans, the issue may not be restoring its middle class, but constructing a robust middle class in the first place.” For families like Dee’s, the stability of the middle class has always been a mirage. And you can’t hollow out what’s never actually existed. A foundational myth of the American dream is the potential of the individual, wholly unbound by context. Parental income level, race, education, access to resources as a child, health, location — positive or negative — all become incidental. The idea is that in America, land of opportunity, you excel on your own merits. This is a lie, of course. When we talk about class status in America, we still largely focus on current status instead of intergenerational familial legacy; on income, rather than our access to wealth, which “serves as a reservoir that a family can tap into when its income flow is disrupted,” according to economist Ngina Chiteji. Wealth can absorb the blow of a recession, a lost job, or a medical catastrophe. Family wealth makes it easier for future generations to buy homes, and makes it less likely that they’ll accumulate debt. If Dee’s grandparents and parents hadn’t been so thoroughly destabilized by various recessions, her student debt load might be significantly lower or nonexistent today. Wealth begets wealth. It makes it easier to launch a business or take a career risk. It’s correlated with better health outcomes, lower child mortality, longer life expectancy: everything you’d expect from a solid home life and access to health care. Because of intersecting racist policies and practices — redlining, continued segregation in schools, hyper-surveillance and brutality by law enforcement, and the policing of Black bodies, just to start — wealth has been far more difficult for Black Americans to accumulate. In 2016, the median net wealth for white families was $171,000. For Black families, it was $17,000. Black people currently hold less than 3 percent of the nation’s total wealth, even though they make up 14 percent of the population. In 2002, the typical white child’s grandparents’ net worth was eight times bigger than the average Black child’s. Take away home equity, and 93 percent of white children’s grandparents have positive wealth. That’s only true for 73 percent of Black children’s grandparents. Even when Black Americans reach an income level that situates them in the middle class, there’s still a matrix of discriminatory systems that make it difficult for them to gain the stability — the wealth — that theoretically accompanies middle-class existence. Jasmyne, 29, works for a nonprofit in Los Angeles. She grew up in the South and attended the same HBCU as her husband, a first-generation college student who now works in STEM. Together, they pull in $192,000 a year, which, according to the Pew middle-class calculator, places them in the upper echelon of incomes in the area. But Jasmyne believes placing her, or anyone else, within a particular class is tricky. “I consider anything above the average US salary to be middle class, but with a whole slew of caveats,” she says. “For example, my husband and I earn middle-class salaries, but we also have significant student debt and often have to support family. We live in an expensive city, so what seems high [for housing costs] in our hometowns is pretty average here. He is saving for retirement, but I haven’t even begun.” Until very recently, Jasmyne’s mother lived with them; she’d tapped out her retirement savings, so Jasmyne and her husband helped cover her bills while she got financially secure. “I only know of one other couple that has had to navigate that under the age of 30,” Jasmyne says, “and we will likely have to revisit that living arrangement as she ages.” Part of Jasmyne and her husband’s burden is shared by hundreds of thousands of other millennials and Gen X-ers, regardless of race, who have found themselves providing a safety net for their parents. But that need is not evenly distributed across the middle class. In the mid-2000s, 36 percent of middle-class Black people had a parent living below the poverty line, as opposed to only 8 percent of the white middle class; according to one 2006 study, Black middle-class Americans are 2.6 times more likely to have a low-income sibling than those in the white middle class. People in situations like Jasmyne’s have a higher probability of becoming the primary source for the “reservoir” of stability for their extended family — which in turn makes it more difficult to save, or invest, or set up the financial infrastructure that will ensure that you won’t need help from your children later in life. There’s no room to mess up, no room for catastrophe Keisha, who’s 33 and lives in Atlanta with her husband, expressed something similar. As an IT specialist in the transportation field, she makes around $95,000, and her husband brings in $50,000. She was the first person in her family to go to college, and currently pays $450 a month in student loan debt. The other big monthly payments in their lives are $2,000 on their mortgage and $1,500 toward paying down their credit card debt. They’re saving very little every month, usually somewhere between $50 and $100. In many ways, Keisha thinks her situation is similar to her parents’: Growing up, her family was always “comfortable,” but with “the feeling that if income stops, then that would change very quickly.” The difference, Keisha says, is that her parents had a much larger support network — and they were making less money. “It was understandable for them to need help occasionally, as opposed to myself and my spouse, who don’t have children and make higher salaries. I feel like people in my situation are held to a different standard.” There’s no room to mess up, no room for catastrophe. It’s hard to knit your own social safety net when you’re the safety net for so many other people as well. (This is also true of many immigrant families — something this series will address in the months to come.) If you focus on an individual’s finances, it’s easy to isolate and judge bad decisions: They shouldn’t have taken out that loan or relied on that credit card or filed for bankruptcy. In my first article on the hollow middle class, I opened with the story of Delia — a middle-class teacher in New Jersey, covering her parents’ bills and struggling to put money aside in part because she was still paying for both of her daughters to attend private school. Delia explained why private school felt so important to her: She saw it as her girls’ ticket out of their small hometown, a place where she felt trapped by the financial ramifications of her parents’ bad decisions. Readers were incredibly antagonistic toward that choice. One man went so far as to send me a 2,000-word breakdown of all that was wrong with how Delia was spending her money. “There was no comments section on the piece,” he wrote, “but she needs to know.” Keisha feels anxious and stressed about money, particularly about her debt, every day. She doesn’t feel comfortable talking to her peers about it, so she turns to online forums for support and commiseration. “It’s embarrassing to be in a bad financial situation,” she says. “Even if you can explain away why or how you got into the situation, talking about it still invites extra judgment that you’re somehow irresponsible or that you’ve mismanaged your money, instead of talking about the things that are outside of your control.” A middle-class salary does not exclude Black Americans from higher stress levels than white Americans in their same income bracket, or a higher likelihood of incarceration This attitude is wrong when it comes to any person’s financial situation, but it’s particularly wrong when it comes to a person who’s part of a group that’s been historically and systematically marginalized. As sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro contend in their groundbreaking examination of Black and white wealth disparities in America, the legacy of chattel slavery — low wages, segregation, poor schooling — has “sedimentized” racial inequality. Within that hierarchy, Black wealth falls to the bottom, while explicit and implicit modes of white privilege keep white wealth buoyed to the top. Darity, Addo, and Smith argue that the Black middle class is best understood as “a subaltern middle class.” Its members may be economically privileged among Black communities, but no amount of money can insulate them from marginalization or the everyday exhaustion of navigating America as a Black person. The authors point to wide-ranging data that underlines as much: A middle-class salary does not exclude Black Americans from higher stress levels than white Americans in their same income bracket, or a higher likelihood of incarceration. If you’re a Black woman with a graduate degree, the chances that your baby will die as an infant are higher than for a white woman without a high school degree. And the more educated you are, the more racism you’re likely to encounter in the workplace. Dealing with that racism? Combating it, confronting it, attempting to hedge against it? It can cost a lot of money. In Black Privilege: Modern Middle-Class Blacks With Credentials and Cash to Spend, sociologist Cassi Pittman Claytor interviewed dozens of members of what she calls the “modern Black middle class.” One of these interviewees, Sharon, grew up in a tony suburb, attended an elite college, and works as an advertising account manager pulling in somewhere between $75,000 and $99,000 a year. But whenever she tries to consume in accordance with her income level, she’s surveilled. As she tells Claytor, “Because I’m black, they think I’m going to steal something.” For some, countering stores’ racist surveillance means, well, buying things. Cultivating relationships with salespeople, becoming valuable customers. Proving, again and again, that they are middle-class — an assumption that is granted without a second thought to most white customers. Tasha, who works as an attorney, tells Claytor that she tries to subvert the problem by opening store credit cards. “I can be like, ‘I’m a cardholder, I’ve been a loyal customer since whatever year. ... Like I’ve always shopped here.’ You can pull up my card savings. You see the amount of money I spend.” That’s a ton of purchases just to be taken seriously as a Black consumer, and even then, people might think you’re buying what you can’t afford or that you’re careless with money. Keisha, the IT specialist, tells me that an appliance in her home recently broke down, so she called a company for repairs. Instead of telling her the price, they quoted her the monthly payment for financing. “I’m not sure if that assumption was based on our race or the poor state of the appliance, which hadn’t been serviced in several years, but I’m always wondering in the back of my mind: Is it because I’m Black that you’re making this assumption?” As a result, Keisha often finds herself overcompensating. “Instead of saying to the repairman, ‘You’re right, I cannot afford this $3,000 repair, I’d like to hear about your financing,’ I end up posturing as if I can absolutely afford it and asking for the total price.” She hates it, but she also wants to disabuse people of whatever negative image they might have of Black people. “It’s like the stereotype that Black people don’t tip. Even if the service was terrible, I never tip below 25 percent,” Keisha says. Many of Claytor’s interviewees — who work in fields ranging from the arts to finance — are the only Black employee, or one of a handful of Black employees, in their workplaces. The burden of representation falls on them, and they police their own appearances accordingly, often at significant cost. “Jackie Robinson syndrome,” in which Black employees feel they must groom and conduct themselves as exemplars, runs rampant: “For the sake of their careers, they try to be more ‘put together’ than their white counterparts and take far more care of their appearance,” Claytor writes. “They describe wearing dress pants when their white colleagues are wearing khakis. While they are sure to wear clothing that is always clean and pressed, they describe white colleagues as wearing clothes that are wrinkled and have holes.” It takes a lot of racial privilege to wear whatever you want in the workplace. It also costs a significant amount of money — and time and concern and stress — to counteract others’ preconceptions. Darryl, a bank associate, tells Claytor that he developed a secondary, unspoken dress code for himself. He shaved off his goatee, and because he’d chosen to keep his hair in cornrows, he felt the need to dress in a way that offset it: always “neat” and “nice.” His white coworkers might come in with “some dingy-ass, dirty-ass t-shirt, or a sweater with a hole in it” — an unthinkable option for a Black man in so many workplaces. Several women in Black Privilege describe straightening their hair instead of wearing braids, to decrease the likelihood, in one woman’s words, of looking “too quote-unquote ethnic and angry black woman, Black Power-esque.” Tasha, the woman who developed the strategy of shopping places where she’d opened up a line of credit, worked in a firm where the majority of employees were white women. She was always vigilant — in attitude and appearance — to never give her employers a reason to avoid hiring Black women in the future. Vigilance is exhausting. It breaks the body down. And it’s yet another invisible cost for members of the Black middle class to bear. “What is often not acknowledged is that the same social system that fosters the accumulation of private wealth for many whites denies it to blacks,” Oliver and Shapiro wrote back in 1995, “thus forgiving an intimate connection between white wealth accumulation and black poverty.” Recall Dee’s frustration and disinclination to talk about her own money problems with her white peers: It’s hard to have a conversation about wealth when the mechanisms, policies, and societal practices that may have helped one family maintain stability were used to prevent another family from ever achieving it. Not because they weren’t as hardworking, not because they were “worse with money,” but simply because they were Black. When we talk about the middle class, we have to be precise about which part of the middle class we’re talking about. I didn’t do that as well as I should have in the first piece in this series; I wanted to use subsequent pieces to dive deeper, but that was a poor excuse. In introductions, in headlines, in tweets, and in conversations with friends, we should be specific. Over the past 40 years, the middle class has hollowed out for white Americans, undercutting the foundation of the belief system so many expected to inherit as their own. That is a categorically different experience from reaching the middle class and realizing just how much work and time and diligence and luck it will take for others like you, even your someday children, to reach that same point. It’s hard to have a conversation about wealth when the mechanisms, policies, and societal practices that may have helped one family maintain stability were used to prevent another family from ever achieving it It’s not just that so many white Americans were born on third base, as the old saying goes, and think they hit a triple. It’s that they don’t understand that for centuries, Black Americans were not even allowed in the ballpark. Worse than that, they were treated as tools of the game that is American capitalism, never the beneficiaries. When they were begrudgingly allowed on the playing field, they were hobbled, again and again. Called cheaters, given bad calls, left with the worst equipment, all but a small section of the stands rooting against them. If, as a Black American, you somehow managed to distinguish yourself, the understanding was that it only happened because someone let you on the field when another player was actually better. Other players were powerful enough that they could help their kids get on the team, even if they’re not that talented. Your kid could be a superstar, and still, she has to go through everything you went through, deal with all the same bullshit, beat all the same opponents, just because she’s a Black kid. The game is rigged against you: actively invested in keeping those in power still in power. It’s a bad baseball analogy, but baseball is as American as you can get. So how do you actually fix that game? You can acknowledge that reparations, whether in the form of lump payments, preferential lending terms, universal free college, or any other number of potential iterations, are not radical. They are a recognition of historical, enduring inequality, economic and otherwise, and an attempt to restore a modicum of the stability systematically denied to Black families. For the middle class as a whole to solidify, Congress and the Biden administration will have to dramatically rethink the costs, from child care to higher education, that are pulling families out of the middle class and into debt, and preventing millions of others from reaching the middle class in the first place. But unless they want that solidified middle class to be a white echo of what it was before, reparations must be a part of that solution. This is more true than ever amid the Covid-19 pandemic: Black people are more likely to work in “essential” jobs, but also more likely to work in industries that cut or laid off workers during the pandemic. Last month alone, 154,000 Black women dropped out of the job force while white women actually gained jobs. More than one out of every 750 Black Americans has died of Covid-19, and Black people have died from the disease at 1.5 times the rate of white people. A Johns Hopkins study from August showed that Black people have nearly double the infection rate of white people, a statistic for which the full implications are still coming into focus as we learn more about the long-term effects of the disease. As Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote for New York Times Magazine last summer following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, “race-neutral policies simply will not address the depth of disadvantages faced by people this country once believed were chattel. Financial restitution cannot end racism, of course, but it can certainly mitigate racism’s most devastating effects. If we do nothing, black Americans may never recover from this pandemic, and they will certainly never know the equality the nation has promised.” One of the simplest arguments for reparations, I found on Reddit. “Reparations isn’t free money to blacks,” one user wrote. “It’s a bill owed to blacks.” For slavery, and the economy that was built upon it. For World War II, and the benefits the vast majority of Black GIs did not receive for it. For redlining, and all the home equity lost because of it. For police brutality and mass incarceration and Covid-19, and all the time and life and promise they have stolen. The tab goes on for so long that it’s impossible to imagine its end. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be paid. Quite the opposite: It means it must be. If you’d like to share your experience as part of the hollow middle class with The Goods, email or fill out this form.
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Why Mitch McConnell relented on his demands about preserving the filibuster
Sen. Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate chamber on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images McConnell didn’t get all he’d hoped, but got some Democrats to reaffirm their commitment to the filibuster. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is no longer holding up the Senate organizing resolution — after two Democrats confirmed that they won’t be blowing up the legislative filibuster any time soon. In the past few weeks, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell have been working to negotiate the organizing resolution — which governs committee membership and funding allocation — in the 50-50 Senate. The leaders had previously been at an impasse because McConnell was demanding that Democrats commit to keeping the legislative filibuster intact as part of the resolution, something Schumer was unwilling to do, since it would reduce the party’s leverage in negotiations over future legislation. Since the organizing resolution could be filibustered — and would need 60 votes to pass — McConnell’s opposition effectively allowed him to block the measure from advancing. And while he didn’t get the changes to the organizing resolution he wanted, McConnell’s approach still worked in a way: Amid the impasse over the agreement, two Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) — publicly stated that they would not vote to eliminate the filibuster. Without their backing, Democrats simply won’t have the numbers to do a rules change: All 50 members of the caucus would need to get behind a change to the filibuster for it to happen. It’s because of Sinema and Manchin’s statements that McConnell now says he’s satisfied and willing to move forward with the organizing measure, after causing some annoying delays. Without this resolution, Democrats have been unable to formally take over committee chair positions, and new members have yet to be seated in committees. Republicans also retained the ability to oversee consideration of nominees and other policy priorities. “Today two Democratic Senators publicly confirmed they will not vote to end the legislative filibuster,” McConnell said in a statement Monday night. “With these assurances, I look forward to moving ahead with a power-sharing agreement modeled on that precedent.” McConnell’s statement came as pressure from Democrats was growing for him to relent — and as his refusal to compromise was beginning to threaten Senate business. “We’re glad Senator McConnell threw in the towel and gave up on his ridiculous demand. We look forward to organizing the Senate under Democratic control and start getting big, bold things done for the American people,” said Justin Goodman, a Schumer spokesperson. McConnell secured a commitment from some Democrats, though that could still change While McConnell is not getting the pledge he wanted from Schumer about preserving the legislative filibuster, he effectively got one from Manchin and Sinema — whose votes would be vital to approve a rules change. Both lawmakers have issued strong statements expressing their opposition to blowing up the legislative filibuster, which requires most bills meet a 60-vote threshold in order to pass. “She is not open to changing her mind about eliminating the filibuster,” a Sinema spokesperson told the Washington Post on Monday. Manchin echoed this stance in an interview with Politico: “If I haven’t said it very plain, maybe Sen. McConnell hasn’t understood, I want to basically say it for you. That I will not vote in this Congress, that’s two years, right?” Armed with these assurances, McConnell signaled that he’d be comfortable advancing the organizing resolution, since his focus had been keeping the filibuster around to preserve the minority’s ability to block legislation that it disagrees with. Ultimately, keeping the filibuster is likely to make passing any sweeping legislation difficult, as Democrats would need every member of their caucus plus 10 Republicans to do so. It’s because of this that many of the more progressive members of the caucus, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), have called for the filibuster to be abolished. And some other Democrats, including some of those who have been hesitant to change the rules, have acknowledged this difficulty as well. A statement that Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) gave to the New York Times sums up how some Democrats currently unwilling to end the filibuster are thinking about the issue. They may be in favor of keeping it now, but are open to considering more drastic action if McConnell maintains obstruction to Biden’s agenda. “If all that happens is filibuster after filibuster, roadblock after roadblock, then my opinion may change,” said Tester, who is currently in favor of keeping the filibuster. Manchin and Sinema have said they don’t expect their positions to shift. Whether they maintain this stance in the face of ongoing Republican opposition, however, remains to be seen.
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Mitch McConnell’s filibustering could prompt Democrats to weigh chipping away at the filibuster
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stand back to back in the House Chamber during a joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images A fight over the Senate’s organizing resolution could push Democrats to consider passing it unilaterally. A fight over the Senate organizing resolution has put questions about the legislative filibuster front and center. At the moment, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are still negotiating what this organizing resolution — which establishes committee memberships and funding allocations for both parties — will include. An ongoing disagreement between the two lawmakers has centered on the legislative filibuster, which effectively requires most bills to hit a 60-vote threshold in order to pass. McConnell has demanded that Democrats commit to keeping the filibuster around as part of this resolution. But Schumer has refused to acquiesce to this request because doing so would unnecessarily limit the procedural options that Democrats, who only have a slight majority with Vice President Kamala Harris’s vote, have moving forward. Refusing to commit now will also allow Democrats to use threats of ending the filibuster as leverage in future negotiations. (A promise to protect the filibuster in the resolution would not necessarily prevent Democrats from eliminating it, but it’s a way to have them on the record on the subject if they decide to change the rules in the future.) “All I can tell you is we are not letting McConnell dictate how the Senate operates. He is minority leader,” Schumer recently told reporters. By withholding backing for the measure unless his demands are met, McConnell is preventing the Senate from setting up the infrastructure it needs to function, since the resolution requires Republican support to pass. Schumer, meanwhile, has pushed for a resolution similar to the one approved by Sens. Tom Daschle and Trent Lott in 2001, the last time the Senate had a 50-50 breakdown. That measure did not address the issue of the filibuster, which McConnell argues needs to be included this time around to preserve the rights of the minority party in the Senate. In holding up the organizing resolution, McConnell is causing some annoying delays. Without the passage of this measure, Democrats are unable to formally take over committee chair positions, and new members have yet to be seated in committees. Republicans also retain the ability to oversee consideration of nominees and other policy priorities, a dynamic that could slow the progress of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. In many ways — at least for the time being — McConnell’s refusal to budge gives the minority party some residual control of the Senate. McConnell’s request has also compelled some Democratic lawmakers including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to reaffirm their commitment to the filibuster — underscoring ongoing Democratic divides on the issue. “She is not open to changing her mind about eliminating the filibuster,” a Sinema spokesperson told the Washington Post on Monday. Manchin echoed this stance in an interview with Politico: “If I haven’t said it very plain, maybe Sen. McConnell hasn’t understood, I want to basically say it for you. That I will not vote in this Congress, that’s two years, right?” Because a change to the filibuster would require all 50 members of the Democratic caucus to be on board, Sinema and Manchin’s statements provide McConnell with a guarantee if they maintain these positions. Democrats’ next steps will depend heavily on whether McConnell keeps up his push amid these recent statements and the growing pressure from lawmakers who are frustrated by their inability to fully govern. McConnell on Monday told Punchbowl News that the two leaders were “getting close.” Depending on how long this impasse continues, and how incensed lawmakers are by McConnell’s obstruction, Democrats could opt to eliminate the filibuster specifically for the organizing resolution. Such a move would open the door for potential rule changes down the line, including more sweeping ones. Senate Democrats could blow up the filibuster — in a narrow way There are a couple different ways this stalemate could end: McConnell could concede and drop his request, Schumer could cave and offer a statement signaling Democrats’ commitment to maintaining the filibuster, or Democrats could try to pass the organizing resolution with a simple majority vote. Neither McConnell nor Schumer has signaled that they intend to give in yet. That last scenario is the one that could require Democrats to consider eliminating the filibuster specifically for the organizing resolution, and such a move would likely indicate a strong possibility of other procedural tweaks to come. Under current rules, the organizing resolution is subject to the filibuster, and Democrats require 60 votes to advance it. To pass it with a simple majority, or 51 votes — including Vice President Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker — Democrats would need to alter the rules and eliminate the filibuster, a change they could apply solely to the resolution. By ending the filibuster just for organizing resolutions, they’d be able to advance this measure with the support of only the Democratic caucus, but they wouldn’t be getting rid of the legislative filibuster completely. “There could be a narrow nuking of the filibuster,” says Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute. And there is some precedent for a tailored alteration of the filibuster rules: In another instance in 2013, Democrats eliminated the filibuster for the majority of presidential nominees, but did not do so for Supreme Court nominees. Part of the motivation for taking this step could be growing frustration over how the organizing resolution is holding up progress in the Senate. Since the heads of committees haven’t been able to formally claim their chair roles, they haven’t been able to move forward with the types of hearings and policy markups they’d like to pursue. Manchin, for instance, is in line to become chair of the energy and natural resources committee, but hasn’t yet been able to fully take up that mantle. Before any of the Democrats’ agenda items can come to the Senate floor, they have to go through these committees — and Republican heads have shown little interest in expediting Democratic priorities. Those against such changes warn that Democrats may not always be in the majority, and a future Republican majority could then organize in some way they find objectionable. This move could also set up a slippery slope toward eliminating the legislative filibuster entirely in the future, since it requires all members of the 50-person caucus to be on board. Once moderate Democrats publicly opposed to filibuster changes were to vote for this alteration, they would face pressure to do so again. “That would be a very large crack in an already broke dam,” says Huder. It’s worth noting, though, that this scenario would mark a significant step for Democrats, several of whom have otherwise been firm in their opposition to changes to the legislative filibuster. As such, there’s a strong possibility lawmakers stop short of going this far. In the previous 50-50 Congress, Daschle told Vox that he and Lott were ultimately able to come to an agreement, despite pushback from Republicans who claimed it gave Democrats too much power. He notes that passage could be more challenging now given the present environment of increased partisanship. “We didn’t have the social media, we didn’t have the hyperbolic cable news opinion makers. We certainly didn’t have impeachment,” he told Vox. This debate has reaffirmed Democratic divides over the filibuster At the moment, there’s not only a chasm between Republicans and Democrats on the filibuster, but a divide among the Democratic caucus as well. The Democratic caucus, which includes 48 Democrats and two independents, is not currently united on plans to eliminate the legislative filibuster — and the ongoing spotlight on the issue has underscored this split. While Manchin and Sinema have directly rejected changes to the filibuster, other lawmakers including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have stated their wariness in the past as well. On the other hand, more progressive senators, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), have argued for abolishing the rule. Ultimately, keeping it is likely to make passing any sweeping legislation difficult, as Democrats would need every member of the caucus plus 10 Republicans to do so. And some lawmakers, including those who have been hesitant to change the rules, have acknowledged this. A statement that Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) gave to the New York Times sums up how Democrats may be considering more drastic action if McConnell maintains ongoing obstruction to Biden’s agenda. “If all that happens is filibuster after filibuster, roadblock after roadblock, then my opinion may change,” said Tester, who is currently in favor of keeping the filibuster. In the long term, abolishing the filibuster would radically alter how the Senate does business and make it far easier for the majority to advance its agenda. In the short term, too, it would significantly change the chamber’s dynamic: If the legislative filibuster were broadly eliminated, moderate senators like Manchin and Sinema would become the key votes on any bills that were contentious, giving them significant influence within the caucus, while also ramping up the pressure they face for each of these votes. The organizing resolution could well be the first test of how willing Democrats are to change Senate rules for their immediate gain — and a preview of how the caucus will respond to McConnell’s procedural obstruction.
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What’s next for Trump’s Senate impeachment trial
Senate president pro tem Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will preside over Trump’s trial. | Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images The House transmitted its article of impeachment to the Senate. Here’s what we know about the trial. The House of Representatives officially presented their article of impeachment of Donald Trump to the Senate Monday evening, setting up his second impeachment trial and the first ever of a former US president. The main action in that trial is still about two weeks away, set to start around February 9 (though we’ll be seeing documents — including Trump’s response to the charges — sooner). Many details about how the trial will be structured and proceed remain unsettled, though it will likely be short. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday it will “move relatively quickly” because the Senate has “so much else to do” — for instance, confirming President Joe Biden’s nominees and trying to pass a coronavirus relief bill. Trump became the first-ever president impeached twice days before he left office, with the charge being “incitement of insurrection,” related to his attempting to overturn his presidential election defeat and egging his supporters on to interfere with Congress’s count of the electoral votes on January 6. The lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), read the charge on the Senate floor Monday. “President Trump gravely endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of Government,” Raskin said. “He threatened the integrity of the democratic system, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled a coequal branch of Government. He thereby betrayed his trust as President, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.” WATCH: Lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin reads article of impeachment charging former Pres. Trump with inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) January 26, 2021 Because Trump is now out of power, the main issue at stake will be whether he should be banned from holding federal office in the future. But despite the violence and five deaths that took place when his supporters stormed the Capitol, Trump’s conviction still seems a tall order — because it would require a two-thirds majority of the Senate, which means at least 17 Republican senators. And there have been few signs of late that such Republican support will materialize. How a Senate impeachment trial works Though senators will be sworn as jurors this Tuesday, Trump’s trial isn’t really getting started yet. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have agreed that both the prosecution (the impeachment managers designated by the House of Representatives) and the defense (Trump’s team) will have at least two weeks to prepare, to submit required pretrial briefs, and to respond to each others’ briefs. During this time, the Senate will vote on more of Biden’s nominees. The action of the trial itself will kick off in two weeks — the week of February 8. And since there’s no set-in-stone guideline for how an impeachment trial is structured, the first step will be for the Senate to try and pass a resolution laying out how things will go. For Trump’s previous impeachment trial under a GOP-controlled Senate, presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts, there were essentially three main phases of action. First, the prosecution had several days to present its case in opening arguments. Second, the defense presented opening arguments, also over several days. And third, senators got to submit questions for each side’s legal team to answer. The Senate could have opted to continue the trial after that but it did not. Republicans then voted against calling any witnesses and decided to proceed to a verdict. And on February 5, 2020, they made that verdict official — acquitting Trump on both articles of impeachment, 52-48 and 53-47. (Remember, it takes a two-thirds majority — 67 votes — for conviction, so they weren’t particularly close. Mitt Romney of Utah was the sole Senate Republican who voted to convict Trump, on one of the articles.) Trump’s second impeachment trial will likely be structured similarly to the first, but with some differences. For one, because Trump is no longer the sitting president, Chief Justice Roberts won’t preside — Senate president pro tem Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will instead. Additionally, relevant documents from federal agencies (which could shed light on, say, why the National Guard wasn’t mobilized sooner as protesters stormed the US Capitol) may be more available, if the Biden administration chooses to hand them over. (The Trump administration famously withheld cooperation from the impeachment inquiry in 2019, spurring the House to make that the basis for the second of his two articles of impeachment then: obstruction of Congress.) Democrats face a quandary A major problem for Senate Democrats making decisions about the trial is that the question of whether Trump will be convicted is not up to them. If all 50 Democrats vote to convict Trump, 17 Republicans would have to join them, or else Trump would just be acquitted again. So in deciding how to structure this trial — particularly how much time to allot to it compared to Biden’s other priorities, whether to call witnesses for testimony, and how much they should work with McConnell on shaping it — Democrats also have to make up their minds on what they are really trying to achieve here. That is: Is convicting Trump a real possibility, or is it a pipe dream? Because if conviction actually is on the table, it would be enormously consequential for American democracy, due to the prospect of disqualifying Trump from running for president again in 2024. Trump’s actions since November (and, of course, many of his actions before) show that he personally is a major threat to the functioning of our electoral system. And while he may seem beaten and discredited now, he remains quite popular among Republican voters. A political comeback for him is a real possibility. In the days after the storming of the Capitol, various anonymously sourced stories appeared suggesting that McConnell and other Senate Republicans really were open to convicting Trump. But of course, anyone familiar with Senate Republicans’ conduct in recent years is aware that they tend to find their way toward sticking with President Trump eventually. Few were willing to speak so boldly in public, and in the House, just 10 of the 207 Republicans present voted to impeach Trump Predictably, on Friday, CNN’s Manu Raju, Ted Barrett, and Jeremy Bird reported that, per their interviews with more than a dozen Senate Republicans, “only a handful” in the GOP conference “are truly at risk of flipping to convict the former President.” Several who are hesitant to outright defend Trump’s post-election conduct have latched on to the argument that it’s unconstitutional to hold an impeachment trial for a former president. (As Ian Millhiser writes, there’s not really a clear answer to this question, but it’s a convenient dodge for Republicans seeking to cloak their defense of Trump in a newly discovered supposed constitutional principle.) In any case, for conviction to succeed, Democrats would need a lot more than a handful. If the impeachment trial is already headed toward certain acquittal, it may not change some things about how Democrats hope to structure the trial — they’ll surely want to try and make a strong case regardless. But it would certainly affect their decisions about how much time they want to spend on it. The recent tradition has been that while the Senate holds a presidential impeachment trial, it puts all other business aside — meaning all confirmations and legislation would grind to a halt. Democrats have floated the idea of a half-day impeachment, half-day ordinary business, but it’s unclear if that would pass muster from the Senate parliamentarian’s office, and even that would curtail their ability to pursue Biden’s legislative agenda. This may be why Schumer has already suggested he doesn’t want to spend too much time on the trial. Because if it’s anything like Trump’s last impeachment trial, little that happens there will change any senator’s mind.
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How a bunch of Redditors made GameStop’s stock soar
A pedestrian wearing a protective mask walks past a GameStop store in the Herald Square area of New York City on Friday, November 27, 2020. | Gabriela Bhaskar/Bloomberg via Getty Images How a bunch of Redditors made GameStop’s stock soar, much to the chagrin of the hedge funds attempting to short it. Who knew the first big 2021 stock market story would be … GameStop? But here we are. There’s been a boom in day trading and individual investing over the past several months — activity that’s often taking place or being discussed on platforms such as Reddit and Robinhood instead of in more traditional arenas. And one big question amid the frenzy has been how much the little guys really matter. Sure, small-time investors trade a lot, sometimes to the annoyance of more traditional institutions, but are they really consequential? When it comes to the GameStop saga, at least, the answer is yes. An army of traders on the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets helped drive a meteoric rise in GameStop’s stock price in recent days, forcing it to halt trading multiple times and causing a major headache for the short sellers betting against it and banking on the stock falling. Famed investor and CNBC personality Jim Cramer called the GameStop drama the “squeeze of a lifetime.” Bloomberg opinion columnist Matt Levine posited that one possible explanation for what happened could be “utter nihilism” on the part of the Reddit crowd, a story “perhaps best told with a series of rocket emojis.” Or maybe one of the WallStreetBets moderators put it best to Wired: “It was a meme stock that really blew up.” There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the day-trading trend and this new crop of investors playing the markets, many of whom are treating stocks more like a spin at the roulette wheel than a long-term strategy to build wealth. It’s not clear how many of them are looking at the underlying fundamentals of companies, or whether they’re just “YOLO-ing” themselves across the market. On GameStop, the answer is probably a mix. There’s a reasonable business case to make for the game retailer’s valuation; there’s also a case that this whole thing has just been quite fun for everyone — the possible-trolls of Reddit, market watchers, commentators, and certainly GameStop — except for the short sellers, who have been in for a pretty miserable ride. “It’s dramatic, and you don’t see this magnitude very often,” said Nick Colas, the co-founder of DataTrek Research. “But when it happens, it’s spectacular.” This doesn’t mean GameStop’s stock price will stay up forever, or that the company is suddenly in a perfect spot. But if it were to, say, offer more stock, it would probably have some buyers. An attempt at an explanation of what is going on here, for people who don’t follow markets at all So let’s back up a bit to go over some of the very basics of what is even going on here, because it’s kind of a lot. GameStop is a video game retailer headquartered in Grapevine, Texas, that operates more than 5,000 stores. Between malls dying out and the pandemic, if you forgot the company existed, that would be fair. But it’s still out there, trucking along. GameStop has become a popular play among short sellers, who are basically investors who think a stock will go down. In Wall Street terminology, these investors are bearish on a stock’s prospects. Again, dying malls plus pandemic. You get the reasoning. Though the buying frenzy around GameStop hit this month, this one has been in the making for a while. Brandon Kochkodin at Bloomberg recently laid out how GameStop, which isn’t expected to even turn a profit until 2023, has seen its market skyrocket, and what Reddit has to do with it. By Kochkodin’s recounting, a bull case for GameStop (basically, an argument that it’s stock is good) started showing up on WallStreetBets about two years ago and has, off and on, been bubbling up. Scion Asset Management, the hedge fund run by Michael Burry, who you might know from The Big Short, revealed he had a position in the company, which inspired some confidence, and then Ryan Cohen, the co-founder of the pet e-commerce company Chewy, disclosed last August that he had a big stake in GameStop. Earlier this month, he was added to its board. That’s been interpreted as positive for GameStop. As Reddit and retail traders started to take notice of GameStop, they also took notice of how heavily shorted the stock was — information that’s generally pretty easy to get. And they figured out a way that, if they acted all together, they could sort of screw the shorts over and make a profit doing it. Kochkodin points to a post from four months ago starting to plot. Its subject: “Bankrupting Institutional Investors for Dummies, ft Gamestop.” How a short squeeze is making Reddit happy and short sellers sad GameStop’s stock price has skyrocketed by 400 percent from where it was at the start of the year at under $20 to more than $76 at market close on Monday. It’s been super volatile, even spiking above $150, thanks in no small part to Reddit and the short sellers its after. WallStreetBets has an antagonistic relationship with shorts — many retail traders are betting stocks will go up, not down. Lots of hedge funds and investors are shorting GameStop, but at the center of the current saga is Citron Research, which is run by famed short seller Andrew Left. Last week, Citron announced on Twitter that it would be hosting a livestream event laying out the short case against GameStop and arguing people buying the stock were “suckers at this poker game.” They predicted shares would go back to $20. The event was put off, first because of the presidential inauguration, then because of attempts to hack Citron’s Twitter. Eventually, they got the video out, and the battle has continued. Left has said he’ll no longer comment on GameStop because of the “angry mob” that’s formed against him and complained he’d “never seen such an exchange of ideas of people so angry about someone joining the other side of the trade.” Retail traders have been able to orchestrate what’s known as a short squeeze against Citron and the others betting against GameStop, which screws up the short trade and drives the stock price up. (Don’t worry, we’ll explain what that is.) When a hedge fund or investor shorts a stock, they basically speculate that its price will go down. They do that by borrowing, usually from a broker-dealer, shares of a stock that they think will lose value by a set date and then selling them at the market price. “It’s a much more sophisticated investor kind of play,” Colas said. “[The bet] has to work pretty quickly, because what you don’t want is your short stock at $10 and it goes up to $100, because you can lose more than 100 percent of the capital that you put down.” When you short a stock, you have to at some point buy back the shares you borrowed and return them. If the trade works, you buy them at a lower price and get to keep the difference. But if the price of the stock goes up, it doesn’t work. At some point, you’ve got to buy the stock back and return it, even when the price is higher and you’re going to lose money. What happens with a short squeeze is that when the price of the stock being shorted starts to climb, it forces traders who are betting it will fall to buy it to try to stem losses. That winds up driving up the price of the stock even higher, so it’s a bit of a double whammy for shorts. The worst-case scenario is, theoretically, unlimited. “The short squeeze is when somebody says, ‘Oh, I know a lot of guys are short. I’m going to go long and make them buy the stock back even higher,’” Colas said. To add on another layer to this, a lot of the activity around GameStop hasn’t been people directly buying the stock but also buying call options, where they basically gamble that it will go up. It’s complicated, but the takeaway is that call option buys may have also driven up the stock because the market maker selling those options hedges by buying more stock. And there was a lot of options buying, namely among day traders — volumes have skyrocketed, and one WallStreetBets trader claimed to have turned $50,000 into $11 million playing options. Levine summed up what amounts to a snowball effect here: Something started the ball rolling—the stock went up for some fundamental or emotional or whatever reason—and then the stock going up forced short sellers and options market makers to buy stock, which caused it to go up more, which caused them to buy more, etc. The shorts are definitely hurting: Melvin Capital Management, a hedge fund betting against GameStop, is down 15 percent in just the first three weeks of 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal. It’s had to call in some help. “They’re smarter than we think” The GameStop episode is a mix of serious and silly — part retail traders demonstrating some actual power in the market, part accepting that some of this just makes no sense. Whether GameStop took off because it’s a meme stock — a stock about which interest is as much cultural or social as it is financial — or because there is something to the business case is unclear. There is a business case, there is a cultural interest; the balance between the two in driving the price is indeterminate. Part of it might basically be a joke. What is clear is that a lot of what’s happening with the stock now isn’t because of a potential turnaround; it’s because the trade went viral. “It doesn’t make business sense,” Doug Clinton, co-founder of Loup Ventures, told Bloomberg. “It makes sense from an investor psychology standpoint. I think there’s a tendency where there is heavy retail interest for those types of traders to think about stocks differently than institutional investors in terms of what they’re willing to pay.” Day traders are hardly a monolith, including the ones at WallStreetBets, which boasts 2.2 million members, or as they refer to themselves, “degenerates.” But just because this is a bit of an odd (and somewhat unexplainable) episode doesn’t mean it doesn’t signal some bigger things that are important. For one thing, it seems like the WallStreetBets crowd has learned a tactic that it can replicate in orchestrating short squeezes. “What they’ve done is target large short positions,” Cramer said on CNBC on Monday. “They’re smarter than we think. They’re after the ones that are too shorted.” Some observers have raised questions about whether what’s happened with WallStreetBets and GameStop might draw regulatory scrutiny and whether this might count as market manipulation. Colas said he’s doubtful there’s much of a case for that here. “Everything is known. There’s no insider information here,” he said. If a hedge fund shorting a stock can put out a presentation and video about why a company is bad, why can’t random people talking to each other on the internet talk about why a company is good? To be sure, on the legal front, reasonable minds might disagree. One of WallStreetBets’s moderators addressed the impression that the community is “disorderly and reckless” in a post on Sunday while at the same time pushing back against any suggestions there’s an organized effort among moderators to promote or recommend any stock. “What I think is happening is that you guys are making such an impact that these fat cats are worried that they have to get up and put in work to earn a living,” the moderator wrote. “Some of these guys [who] traditionally used the media as a tool for them to manipulate the market have failed to further line their pockets and now want to accuse you guys as being manipulators.” GameStop has been the perfect storm for the current retail trend. It’s a recognizable name, there’s some business case for it, and it’s turned into a meme. And it’s heavily shorted, which is bound to irk the recent crop of retail traders who subscribe to the mantra that “stocks only go up.” This isn’t the first time day trading has become trendy, nor is it the first time day traders have been accused — often rightly — of being a little bit reckless. Last summer, a bunch of them piled into bankrupt Hertz, for which there was really no good case. Many of them treat trading like a game, which can obviously be dangerous. But it’s hard to root against them. Plenty of hedge funds, short sellers, billionaires, and institutional investors treat investing like a game, too. And every once in a while, they’re bound to lose, too, even to the little guys.
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Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx detail how Trump’s coronavirus response was even worse than we thought
Drs. Fauci and Birx at a White House coronavirus task force briefing in November. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images The scientific faces of Trump’s failed coronavirus response wasted no time speaking out. It didn’t take long for the two scientific faces of former President Donald Trump’s failed coronavirus response to speak out about how dysfunctional efforts to curb the pandemic really were under the 45th president. On the first weekend following Trump’s departure from the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx — both members of the Trump White House coronavirus task force coordinated by Birx — did interviews with national media outlets in which they described a culture in the Trump White House that discounted scientific expertise and put a premium on the type of denialism that resulted in Trump continuing to hold packed political rallies even as coronavirus deaths and cases soared in the fall. “We would say things like: ‘This is an outbreak. Infectious diseases run their own course unless one does something to intervene.’ And then he would get up and start talking about, ‘It’s going to go away, it’s magical, it’s going to disappear,’” Fauci told the New York Times. Birx made similar comments to CBS during an interview with Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan, saying “there were people [in the White House] who definitely believed that this was a hoax,” and adding that Trump had a penchant for listening to people who told him what he wanted to hear, even if that information had no scientific basis. “I saw the president presenting graphs that I never made,” she said. “So I know that someone — someone out there, or someone inside — was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president. I don’t know to this day who, but I know what I sent up, and I know what was in his hands was different than that.” "I saw the president presenting graphs that I never made. So I know that someone ... was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president. I don't know to this day who." -- Dr. Birx— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 24, 2021 Fauci corroborated that point, telling the Times that in the early days of the pandemic, he was “really concerned” to observe that Trump “was getting input from people who were calling him up, I don’t know who, people he knew from business, saying, ‘Hey, I heard about this drug, isn’t it great?’ or, ‘Boy, this convalescent plasma is really phenomenal.’” “He would take just as seriously their opinion — based on no data, just anecdote — that something might really be important,” added Fauci. “It wasn’t just hydroxychloroquine, it was a variety of alternative-medicine-type approaches. It was always, ‘A guy called me up, a friend of mine from blah, blah, blah.’ That’s when my anxiety started to escalate.” Birx’s tell-all represented an effort to rehabilitate her damaged reputation Birx emerged from the Trump era with her reputation more in tatters than Fauci. While both of them went to pains to avoid contradicting the president in public, Birx’s tendency to effusively praise Trump, even as he touted unproven miracle cures and downplayed the severity of a pandemic that killed 400,000 Americans before he left office, made it seem that she was putting politics first. "[Trump is] so attentive to the scientific literature & the details & the data. I think his ability to analyze & integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit” -- this is shocking, hackish stuff from Dr. Birx.— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 27, 2020 Fauci did not share this tendency. He refused to disparage Trump, even given the chance, but did often contradict the former president publicly. Unlike Fauci — who now serves as a medical adviser to President Joe Biden in addition to his role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — Birx was not asked to join the Biden administration. This made her interview with CBS seem, in part, an effort to rehabilitate her image ahead of her forthcoming retirement from the federal government. Birx became emotional when talking about her legacy and how it may end up being tarnished by her time coordinating the Trump White House’s coronavirus task force. She tried to push back on the perception that she at times was more concerned about staying in Trump’s good graces — something Fauci didn’t seem to care about — than she was about leveling with the American people. Asked about an infamous incident during a press conference in which Trump suggested to her that disinfectant injections or sunlight treatments could be miracle cures for the coronavirus, Birx tried to minimize her role. “I didn’t even know what to do in that moment,” she said, adding later: “People then want to define you by the moment.” WATCH: Birx reacts to claims that she became an "apologist" for Trump and *that* moment where the former president suggested using disinfectant as a potential treatment for #COVID19 "I wasn't prepared for that. I didn't even know what to do in that moment."— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) January 24, 2021 However, that was far from the only time Birx failed to correct bad information Trump was giving the public. There were numerous occasions in which she appeared to go out of her way to run interference for poor decisions Trump made, ranging from defending his refusal to wear a mask to cajoling the CDC to exclude presumed positive cases from the coronavirus death count. She told CBS she constantly considered resigning, but said she did not because she thought she could do more good from inside the government. Finally, she came to the conclusion “right before the election” that “I wasn’t getting anywhere.” Birx claimed during the interview that Trump “appreciated the gravity” of the pandemic in March and April, only to lose focus as “the country began to open” and Election Day neared. While reporting from journalist Bob Woodward did reveal in September that Trump quickly came to the realization that the coronavirus posed a serious threat, what Birx’s claim overlooks, however, is that Trump did not share these private beliefs with the American people. Instead, he spent the earliest months of the pandemic saying the coronavirus would go away on its own “like a miracle” and dismissing efforts by Democrats to take it more seriously as “a hoax.” Fauci’s interview with the New York Times shed light on how Birx’s account revises history. Fauci’s interview highlights Trump’s fundamental unfitness While Birx made it seem as though Trump’s coronavirus response started strong, Fauci’s interview with the Times paints a picture of a president who was incapable of competently responding to a pandemic — and who engaged in magical thinking from the start. “I would try to express the gravity of the situation, and the response of the president was always leaning toward, ‘Well, it’s not that bad, right?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, it is that bad,’” Fauci said. “It was almost a reflex response, trying to coax you to minimize it. Not saying, ‘I want you to minimize it,’ but, ‘Oh, really, was it that bad?’” Those comments echo statements Fauci made last Thursday during his first public comments as a Biden adviser, when he characterized Trump’s departure from office as a breath of fresh air. “One of the new things in this administration is if you don’t know the answer, don’t guess. Just say you don’t know the answer,” Fauci said during last Thursday’s press briefing, adding at another point that Trump’s touting of unproven and potentially dangerous “miracle cures” for the coronavirus was particularly “uncomfortable” for him, “Because they were not based in scientific fact.” REPORTER: You've joked a couple times about the difference between the Trump and Biden administrations. Do you feel less constrained?FAUCI: You said I was joking about it. I was very serious. I wasn't joking.— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 21, 2021 While Fauci tried to avoid directly rebuking Trump publicly, he did contradict his false claims about Covid-19 being as deadly as the flu and tried to correct the record when Trump would promote unproven treatments as possible cures for the coronavirus. He told the New York Times that even before Trump mused about firing him at one of his campaign rallies, he received death threats — and in one case, a letter containing powder. “One day I got a letter in the mail, I opened it up and a puff of powder came all over my face and my chest,” he said. “That was very, very disturbing to me and my wife because it was in my office,” he continued, adding that, thankfully, the substance turned out to be “a benign nothing.” Fauci at one point expressed empathy for Birx because she had to deal on a daily basis with Scott Atlas — a neuroradiologist with no prior infectious disease expertise Trump brought into the White House as a coronavirus adviser. Atlas was a proponent of the discredited idea that the federal government should let the coronavirus infect as many people as possible. “I tried to approach [Atlas] and say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk because we obviously have some differences,’” Fauci told the Times. “His attitude was that he intensively reviews the literature, we may have differences, but he thinks he’s correct. I thought, ‘OK, fine, I’m not going to invest a lot of time trying to convert this person,’ and I just went my own way. But Debbie Birx had to live with this person in the White House every day, so it was much more of a painful situation for her.” Atlas’s unwillingness to hear anything he didn’t want to hear was a characteristic he shared with Trump, who did his best to ignore his own CDC’s advice about gatherings, holding superspreader rallies during his failed reelection campaign, even as scientific experts warned that the US was heading into a winter in which cases and deaths would spike. Trump ended up in the hospital in early October after he contracted the virus, but even that experience didn’t chasten him. As Fauci told the Times: When [Trump] was in Walter Reed [hospital] and he was getting monoclonal antibodies, he said, “Tony, this really just made a big difference. I feel much, much better. This is really good stuff.” I didn’t want to burst his bubble, but I said, “Well, no, this is an N equals 1. You may have been starting to feel better anyway.” [In scientific literature, an experiment with just one subject is described as “n = 1.”] And he said, “Oh, no, no no, absolutely not. This stuff is really good. It just completely turned me around.” So I figured the better part of valor would be not to argue with him. None of this is surprising — but it’s still notable What Birx and Fauci said during their interviews isn’t necessarily surprising. We’ve long understood that the Trump White House’s coronavirus response was a disaster, especially when compared with countries like Australia and Japan that have done a much better job limiting infections and deaths. We’ve known that Trump has a tendency to engage in wishful thinking and has an aversion to scientific reasoning. But what Birx and Fauci’s willingness to speak out in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s departure from office does illustrate is just how bad things were under the previous administration. It now falls upon the Biden administration to try to clean up the mess left behind after a year of politically motivated, short-term thinking, in which public health experts like Fauci and Birx had to struggle on a daily basis with questions about whether it was worth it for them to keep showing up at work.
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Got a weird text about a package delivery? It could be a scam.
Getty Images/Westend61 Text message scams are getting more creative, mimicking alerts from the USPS, Amazon, and even Covid-19 testing providers. The coronavirus pandemic has produced a ripe environment for text message phishing attacks. Such scams are socially engineered to exploit people’s vulnerable impulses, experts say, and sharply rose in 2020. Many Americans sign up for text message notifications and reminders, from health care providers to shipping services, but as SMS phishing becomes more widespread, consumers will have to exercise more vigilance with texts of unknown origins. According to the security firm Proofpoint, mobile phishing attempts increased by more than 300 percent in the third quarter of 2020, compared to the second. These scammers are primarily impersonating financial institutions and major technology companies, although the Proofpoint report noted that they’ve also zeroed in on “brands that consumers are frequently turning to during the pandemic.” The US Department of Health and Human Services warned the public in late December of potential fraud schemes related to Covid-19 tests, contact tracing, vaccine eligibility, and Medicare prescription cards. An unsuspecting recipient might be prompted to click on a hyperlink sent via text to confirm the delivery of a delayed package or to check the status of a Covid-19 test. The wording of these attacks might vary; people have received malicious texts about Netflix or Amazon accounts being locked due to a declined payment, for example. Regardless of the method, the scammer’s goal is to get away with a person’s financial details and personal data, which could be used for identity theft. Joke’s on you scammers! I use my Mom’s account. I don’t have a payment or credit card in their system! #mommasboy— DaJuan Johnson (@dajuanjohnson) January 22, 2021 An analysis of 80,000 self-reported scams from the background check company BeenVerified discovered that nearly one in 10 fraud attempts in 2020 was related to package deliveries. “It definitely has overtaken 2019’s top scam, which were texts and calls targeting people’s Social Security information,” said Richard Gargan, a spokesperson for the company. “What scammers do is they quickly pivot their tactics depending on what is happening in the nation, what they think will work. As soon as stay-at-home orders were being given, and people started to order online more, these delivery texts began to shoot up.” Last March, Recode’s Sara Morrison reported that scammers were exploiting fear of the new outbreak to steal private information or to lure people into downloading malware through phishing emails. “National emergencies or disasters add a fear factor that acts as one more hook for hackers to get what they need,” Ron Culler, senior director of technology and solutions at ADT Cybersecurity, told Morrison. “When fear is added to any targeted campaign — be it a legitimate or scam campaign — the effectiveness of that campaign is increased.” Quincy, a Texas resident who asked to withhold his last name for privacy reasons, told Vox that he has been the recipient of various text message scams since 2018. The schemes change to address current events, and although he has been persistent in blocking and reporting the senders, the scams have grown more sophisticated in the past year. “I never respond or click on the link so I have no idea where it leads,” said Quincy, although he was “almost convinced” by a recent delivery text. Lately, he has been bombarded with offers to receive $6,000 from senders with various area codes. “None specifically mentioned Covid, though the sender knows that people are experiencing financial hardships so the text messages use financial assistance as the hook,” Quincy concluded. “It’s easy to get scammed out here.” Older adults are more vulnerable to financial cybercrimes than other age groups; a 2019 report by the Aspen Tech Policy Hub found that scammers have disproportionately targeted the demographic. However, the sheer number of daily SMS phishing messages being sent — and the variety of approaches — suggests that these schemes are broadly targeting regular smartphone users. Scammers are constantly testing tactics and variations of their messages to determine which are the most effective. “The messages are always changing, and we’re worried they might pivot to Covid testing scams,” said Gargan of BeenVerified. More people have become attuned to computer malware schemes, which are usually sent via email, or robocalls. The format of an SMS scam, however, often mirrors a text a person could receive from a legitimate service provider; the distinguishing factor usually lies in the hyperlink. If anyone is ever doubtful of a message they’ve received, say, for a package delivery, Gargan suggests using a second source to double-check the text. “We know scammers are targeting people with a lack of time,” he said. “Check the URL. Go on your computer and check from the actual website. That might save you more time in the long run.”
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Trans people can serve openly in the US military once again
Activists participate in a rally at the Reflecting Pool of the US Capitol on April 10, 2019, in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images President Joe Biden just fulfilled one of his key campaign promises to trans people. Three years after then-President Donald Trump tweeted that he would order a ban on transgender service members, current President Joe Biden has ordered the Pentagon to rescind the policy during a meeting with his new secretary of defense and the joint chiefs. On Monday, Biden signed an executive order to return to a policy of trans inclusion in the armed forces — it’s similar, with some noted exceptions, to one first put in place by the Obama administration in 2016. “President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” reads a White House statement sent to reporters Monday, according to a HuffPost report. “This question of how to enable all qualified Americans to serve in the military is easily answered by recognizing our core values. America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive. The military is no exception.” LGBTQ advocates were encouraged by the news of Biden’s swift action. “This reversal demonstrates that for the world’s largest employer, the US Defense Department, qualifications for a job should always supersede prejudice,” said Erin Uritus, CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, an LGBTQ employment advocacy group, in a statement. “This move will no doubt have reverberations across employers, many of which have invested in programs to support transgender and broader LGBTQ inclusion.” It’s difficult to count how many transgender troops are currently serving, but a 2014 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that there were about 15,500 trans individuals serving in the US military. It’s generally accepted that the US military is the largest US employer of trans people. Revoking the ban has been a core Democratic tenet since Trump first instituted the ban in 2017, and Biden had promised to do so on his first day in office. Though Biden didn’t reverse the policy on day one, instead choosing to wait until Lloyd Austin was confirmed to his new position as secretary of defense by the Senate (which happened Friday), his administration has already shown its commitment to reversing Trump’s anti-LGBTQ policies. Among the 14 executive actions he signed on Inauguration Day was an order to apply and expand LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections throughout the federal government, which drew a small but loud rebuke from conservatives and anti-trans activists. The military ban reversal was the logical next step in rolling back Trump’s anti-trans policies. Trump’s military ban was the most public display of his administration’s anti-trans agenda In June 2016, President Barack Obama’sDefense Secretary Ash Carter announced the DOD would lift its long-running ban on transgender service members, a remnant of the days before even the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era of queer enlistment. The policy allowed for trans people to both enlist and serve just as cisgender people do, removing decades of prejudicial barriers to service. That policy was reversed fairly quickly under Trump, whose evangelical advisers sought a broad range of government restrictions on the lives of trans people, including those in the military. Despite his administration’s record on the issue, Trump rarely mentioned trans people himself. His tweets on July 26, 2017, banning trans people from the military were an exception. “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow ... Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” he said in a series of tweets, citing that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” Though Trump noted the alleged cost of transition-related medical care in justifying his ban on trans troops, according to a 2016 RAND Corporation report, the military would need just $2.4 million to $8.4 million per year to pay for transition-related care, an increase of 0.4 to 0.13 percent in health care spending. The military spends five times that amount on Viagra alone. Ultimately, Trump’s policy of exclusion took time to develop and be implemented, in part due to several federal lawsuits against the ban— not seeing completion until January 2019. The policy Trump’s military brass came up with forced all troops to serve and present themselves according to the sex stereotypes and gender roles of their assigned sex at birth. In other words, trans women with gender dysphoria would still be allowed to serve as long as they forwent hormone replacement therapy, continued to be referred to by a male name and male pronouns, and met the applicable male grooming and physical standards. Trans advocates compared it to forcible conversion therapy. Though the policy grandfathered in troops who had already begun transitioning when the policy went into place, critics of the ban pointed out how blatantly transphobic such a policy was. The administration, in turn, tried to argue in court that the policy was not a “ban,” per se, since it allowed trans troops to serve — but only if they publicly committed to not transitioning. But a ban on transitioning is effectively a ban on trans people themselves. What Biden’s order actually says and does According to theexecutive order’s text, “involuntary separations, discharges, and denials of reenlistment or continuation of service on the basis of gender identity or under circumstances relating to gender identity” are now prohibited. Notably absent from that list of prohibited practices is the bar on new enlistments by trans people, making it unclear if new enlistees can be subject to discrimination. The White House did not respond to a request for clarification from Vox. As I previously reported, the EO doesn't at once undo all restrictions on trans service.For now, gender dysphoria aren't cause for discharge, but trans enlistments are still on hold.DOD and DHS, after consultation with Joint Chiefs, must produce a report within 60 days.— Chris Johnson (@chrisjohnson82) January 25, 2021 But LGBTQ legal experts cautioned against rushing to judgment about whether new enlistments remain banned. “I understand people are anxious to see the full order and to confirm its scope, but I’m confident that the intent is to encompass both enlistments and continued service,” Shannon Minter, legal director at the National Center of Lesbian Rights, told Vox before the text of the executive order was released. NCLR had previously sued the Trump administration over the ban. The executive order also orders the Pentagon to review the records of those discharged under the Trump policy and to develop clear guidelines for adjusting the records of those punished under the old policy. According to the Washington Blade’s Chris Johnson, Biden’s order gives the departments of Defense and Homeland Security 60 days to make progress on lifting the ban. The 60-day window is notably longer than the 30 days that the Palm Center, an independent, nonpartisan think tank for public policy, estimated it would take to fully reverse the ban.
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Netflix’s misguided Night Stalker series treats its cops like gods
Gil Carrillo in Night Stalker. | Netflix To be a true crime fan is to have a troubled dependence on the police. The climactic moment of Netflix’s true crime docuseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, is probably supposed to feel cathartic. In the final minutes of the four-part series’ third installment, San Francisco detective Frank Falzon recalls how he tracked down a friend of the California serial killer whose string of attacks throughout 1984 and 1985 made him a household name among true crime followers. Falzon describes this moment with relish almost four decades later. In his recounting, the friend — who’d originally contacted police himself with a tip about the Night Stalker’s identity — balked when Falzon asked him to reveal the Night Stalker’s full name. So Falzon forcibly dragged the friend-turned-informant into his police car, threatened him, and punched him in the face. “It wasn’t my best punch, but it definitely wasn’t my worst,” Falzon says. After further threats, Falzon says, he lunged toward the informant, who cringed away from him, “threw his hands up in a cross,” and stammered out: “Richard Ramirez. Richard Ramirez. Richard Ramirez.” As Falzon repeated the name, the music swelled and grew more ominous. The episode cut to the docuseries’ cliffhanger end credits. And all I could think was how terrified this person must have been of the police. To their credit, Night Stalker producers Tiller Russell and James Carroll have created a series that attempts to do exactly what true crime media should do: de-mystify the perpetrator and elevate the people impacted by their crimes. Although Ramirez’s lurid nickname gets the title credit, there’s very little of him in Night Stalker’s narrative, which is almost entirely focused on the Los Angeles and San Francisco communities Ramirez prowled during his intense 16-month period of home invasion, robbery, sexual assault, violence, and murder. But the strident erasure of Ramirez from this story of his crimes has also made Night Stalker a deeply confusing entry point for anyone who is unfamiliar with the case. And it’s opened up the series to other criticism: In its determination to avoid glorifying Ramirez, it instead glorifies the police who caught him. I’m not sure that version of the story is any less troubling. Night Stalker goes out of its way to avoid including Ramirez in its narrative Night Stalker is emphatically not about Richard Ramirez. In fact, the series has done a stellar job of assembling dozens of people who encountered Ramirez over the course of the investigation into his crimes, from random witnesses to people who survived of his attacks. Especially prominent are the police who hunted him, in particular LAPD homicide detectives Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno. Carrillo and Salerno are essentially the stars of Night Stalker; as the younger, junior cop, Carrillo’s perspective takes center stage, while Salerno, who already a minor celebrity when Ramirez became active because of his prior work on the Hillside Strangler murders, is introduced as a veritable demigod. Salerno is framed as larger than life, with stirring musical cues. And even decades later, Carrillo’s voice retains a tinge of awe in recalling Salerno. These two are unquestionably our heroes. But there’s a huge hole at the center of this story in the shape of the lanky, hollow-eyed Ramirez. As a true crime fan, I’ve complained in the past about media that goes too far in the direction of glorifying the killer and allowing them to control the narrative surrounding their crimes — Ted Bundy being the glaring, trope-setting standard. It’s easy to see why Night Stalker’s producers would want to avoid this with Ramirez; he’s one of the “big” names in true crime, a serial killer whose name (or at least nickname) you’re likely to recognize, in the same category as Bundy, BTK, or the Zodiac. So it’s plausible that the intended audience for the documentary is assumed to be familiar with Ramirez’s case, and that they didn’t feel it necessary to rehash too many details. But while Ramirez was headline news for much of the ’80s (his attacks took place in 1984 and 1985, his trial began in 1988, and he was convicted in 1989), by the time of his death from cancer in 2013 while on California’s Death Row, he had largely faded from the public awareness. So the brief glimpses of him that Night Stalker offers are actually more confusing than enlightening — they feel like odd interruptions, cameos from a strange minor character who inexplicably pops up occasionally, waving pentagrams on his palms. Why pentagrams? Why is Ramirez embarking on his crime spree? What makes his crimes in particular so memorable in the annals of serial killing? Night Stalker never makes any of this clear, nor does the series attempt to provide any context for either Ramirez’s motives or the impact of his crimes on the communities he terrorized. Growing up in Texas, Ramirez experienced severe abuse from multiple family members, including one who groomed him to be a sexual predator and another who filled Ramirez’s head with lingering horrific memories and images from the Vietnam war at an impressionable early age. Ramirez began to claim he worshiped Satan while still a teenager, and was committing sexual assault by his 20s. The element of Satanism is the lurid, headline-grabbing aspect of the Night Stalker case, but that had much more to do with the way Ramirez’s claims fed the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s than any real Satanic influence evident in his crimes. His attacks were mostly about sexual gratification and power, as well as notoriety; Ramirez clearly craved fame and relished being in the spotlight after his arrest. On the one hand, the production must have felt it would be satisfying to deprive Ramirez of some of that notoriety. To some extent, it is satisfying. In particular, it’s inspiring to hear from Ramirez’s survivors, including one couple who narrowly escaped their brush with Ramirez, and one victim who was assaulted by Ramirez when she was a child. Seeing her declare with certainty that she’s fine feels like the ultimate victory over Ramirez. But Ramirez’s life arguably fits into a conversation about the cyclical nature of abuse and the cyclical horror of war — each a form of trauma. Likewise, a more thorough examination of Ramirez’s actions in the context of Satanic Panic could have made for a fascinating discussion within the series, had it been well-handled. To what extent was Ramirez responding to the Satanic Panic of the era, and to what extent was he acting independent of it, but still becoming a part of the larger societal hysteria? These are all themes I’d have loved to see explored. The absence of Ramirez from his own story wasn’t that confusing to me, because I could see what Night Stalker was trying to do. But it was confusing to other viewers I’ve spoken with, many of whom were totally unfamiliar with Ramirez’s story, and naturally expected to learn about the titular serial killer. There’s an obvious argument to be made that “understanding the mind of a serial killer” is too often used to justify overblown, glorified serial killer narratives. Sure. But we also need to understand the minds of serial killers, as well as the societal and personal circumstances that can lead to criminal behavior, if we’re ever going to fully understand criminality and attempt to rehabilitate potential offenders before it’s too late. Even the life of a serial killer contains mitigating factors, and it’s too easy to write off the worst criminals as “monsters” instead of exploring and addressing the many sociological, cultural, and socioeconomic circumstances that often exacerbate these types of crimes. If we don’t know the criminal — if we erase their story altogether — then we also lose the opportunity to discover hints of possible interventions. And that’s an especially disturbing prospect if the alternative is to glorify the cops instead. Because Night Stalker is all about glorifying the cops. The cops in Night Stalker are presented as the good guys. But are they? Night Stalker’s focus on the hunt for Ramirez keeps the series at a steady pace, but it’s also pretty dry storytelling, a mostly straightforward, uneventful recounting of events, attacks, eyewitness sightings, and police chasing down leads. Outside of survivors discussing the crimes, the narrative is primarily focused on recounting clues and leads, besides a few detours like a witness eagerly recalling how Ramirez smelled like a goat and a local reporter exasperatedly recalling how she missed the scoop of Ramirez’s arrest because she was getting her hair done. The main thread tying the narrative together is detective Carrillo. Night Stalker vaguely interjects a number of cop tropes into his story, like Carrillo’s brief references to wanting his father’s approval, his status as the junior cop who has to earn the respect of his superiors, and his dedication to the case nearly jeopardizing his marriage. It’s still dry, but it’s an obvious attempt to make Carrillo the human face of the series — the everyman who serves as our window to understanding the Ramirez murders. But Carrillo and Salerno, for all their earnestness and passion as they recount their roles in the narrative, are still cops. LAPD homicide squads in the ’80s weren’t exactly human rights groups. The summer of 1984, when Ramirez began his attacks, was also the summer in which then-police Chief Daryl Gates used the Olympics as an excuse to occupy parts of inner-city Los Angeles. This was among many actions that resulted in increased tension and clashes between police and locals, particularly in communities of color. But Night Stalker never confronts this dynamic; instead, it suggests that the people of Los Angeles are unequivocally grateful for the police, and happy to work with the cops to catch the killer. In fact, when Ramirez is ultimately corralled by East L.A. residents, the series treats the capture as a harmonious moment between the police and the people. Perhaps it was. Carrillo and Salerno seemed to do good police work, even if the clue that led to the killer came from a citizen who apparently got punched in the face for his good deed. We need dedicated police officers who have positive relationships with their communities. Whenever cops do good work — work that truly serves the public — that moment feels like a victory. It comes with deep relief and pride in the justice system for functioning as it should. But herein lies the difficulty of being a true crime fan: We have to recognize that police officers as a group perpetuate an inherently flawed and racist system of justice that fails people of color and marginalized communities far more often than it serves them. We can never lose sight of the reality that for every moment when the cops and the community are in harmony, there are countless others when the police force is the oppressor. And cases like Ramirez’s are often used as excuses for police to crack down and enact violence on people who aren’t serial killers. Night Stalker doesn’t acknowledge this paradox at all. Instead, it treats Carrillo and Salerno like demigods. It approvingly lets a cop talk about punching an informant in the face and edits it like a pivotal, satisfying moment of triumph rather than a horrifying example of police brutality. And that strange omission — I mean, this is the LAPD in the ’80s, perhaps the most notoriously racist police force to exist outside of the LAPD in the ’90s! — undermines Night Stalker’s effort to excise the bad seed at the heart of its story. Especially given the racial tensions between the police and their communities that erupted across the nation in 2020, I’m wondering if the production team ever stopped to think about how their approach to the police might be perceived. It all starts to feel like the series’ producers knew what they were supposed to aspire to — centering the victims, downplaying Ramirez — but didn’t reflect fully on the logic behind why, or on how a thorough effort to consider the sociocultural context of the Ramirez story could change the way they structured Night Stalker. The final episode, which offers a strangely eroticized framing of Ramirez after all his absence — with long, slow pans up a photo of his body while the detectives recall how he had women throwing themselves at him — makes everything that came before it feel even more muddled. What’s the point of serving up five minutes of Richard Ramirez, sex idol, after being so careful not to tell us anything about him? Night Stalker is a reminder that building a true crime story around the non-criminals isn’t enough. You need balance — and more crucially, context — for every narrative beat, especially because these are real crimes, still sending ramifications and echoes throughout society decades later. Those echoes are clear, just from the fact that so many people who witnessed and lived through the Ramirez story are still around to talk about it nearly four decades later. History is living and walking — and very occasionally still stalking — among us. In the case of Night Stalker, that history deserved more careful attention.
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