Change country:
Vox - All
Vox - All
How angry Apple employees’ petition led to a controversial new hire’s departure
One of Apple’s many corporate office buildings in Cupertino, California. Even Apple can’t avoid employee conflict over issues like sexism. It’s not every day that a new hire at a major tech company unleashes employee outrage, a public departure, and debates around sexism in the workplace. That’s particularly true at Apple — a secretive company that stands apart from its largest tech rival Google, which has a history of workplace activism and a culture of employee dissent. But that’s what happened on Wednesday, when Apple abruptly parted ways with a new advertising product technology employee, Antonio García Martínez, after thousands of employees questioned his hiring. The situation shows how tensions over gender parity in tech have persisted since exploding in November 2018 during the Google Walkout and the Me Too movement. Even a company like Apple can’t entirely avoid being swept up in internal conflicts over fraught issues like sexism and political views that have caused rifts and PR crises across the tech industry. Nearly 2,000 Apple employees signed an internal petition by Wednesday evening that criticized Apple’s decision to hire García Martínez, citing passages from his 2016 memoir, including one in which he described “most women” in the San Francisco Bay Area as “soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit.” Silicon Valley has long been plagued by gender bias issues and inequality, and Apple employees opposed to his hiring said it was unfair to expect women at the company to work with someone who’d expressed and never apologized for misogynistic views. García Martínez, a former Facebook product manager and writer, has previously said that passage has been quoted out of context, because he was making a positive comparison to his former romantic partner, not making a statement about women in isolation. Some people in the tech industry supporting García Martínez argued that he’s being unfairly punished for his personal writing, which they say is tongue-in-cheek and not a serious reflection of his professional treatment of women. Ultimately, Apple sided with the protesting employees when it announced that García Martínez was no longer working at the company, just hours after the employee petition was sent to Apple executive Eddy Cue, and soon after the petition — which one organizer told Recode was not intended to become public — was reported on by The Verge. “At Apple, we have always strived to create an inclusive, welcoming workplace where everyone is respected and accepted,” an Apple spokesman sent in a statement. “Behavior that demeans or discriminates against people for who they are has no place here.” The García Martínez petition marks one of the first known times that a sizable group of rank-and-file employees at Apple — a corporation known for a heads-down work culture — pushed back on a management decision with a petition, and actually succeeded in getting that decision reversed. The whole thing also unfolded rapidly. The controversy began earlier this week when it became public that Apple had hired García Martínez to help build out Apple’s competing ads department. When old passages from García Martínez’s book started going viral on Twitter, some Apple employees noticed and began organizing a petition internally at the company. “We are profoundly distraught by what this hire means for Apple’s commitment to its inclusion goals, as well as its real and immediate impact on those working near Mr. García Martínez,” stated the letter, which goes on to demand an investigation into how García Martínez “published views on women and people of color were missed or ignored” in Apple’s hiring process. The letter called for Apple to take steps to prevent a similar situation from happening again. The petition pointed to other passages in García Martínez’s memoir, including one in which he describes the physique of a former female colleague at Facebook (“composed of alternating Bézier curves from top to bottom: convex, then concave, and then convex again, in a vertical undulation you couldn’t take your eyes off of”), refers to an economically disadvantaged city in Silicon Valley as a “slum,” and compares a former Indian colleague to “bored auto-rickshaw drivers” in New Delhi who would “overcharge you” for a ride. The petition didn’t specifically call for García Martínez to be fired, but it quickly gained traction and created pressure on the company to take action. Even though many may find these passages from García Martínez’s book to be controversial, it should be noted that Chaos Monkeys was generally well-received by the tech press after it debuted in 2016 (including Recode, which interviewed him in an onstage panel at its 2019 Code Conference) — some criticism of sexism withstanding. Until recently, García Martínez was a regular freelance contributor to Wired. He has worked at at least one other tech company since publishing his memoir, other than Apple, according to his LinkedIn profile. Which is all to say that, García Martínez’s writing, even if distasteful to some, has not obviously impacted his career until now. And some argue that in an earlier era at Apple — especially given the so-called “brilliant jerk” leadership style of former CEO and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs — that García Martínez’s writing might not have been such a major issue. But in a post Me Too world, gender and racial equality is no longer seen as an afterthought in corporate life, especially not for rank-and-file employees. And women at the company raise an important question: Should they work with someone who has said he views most women in Silicon Valley as “weak”? And if those comments were truly made in jest, should Apple and/or García Martínez have publicly clarified that more explicitly? An Apple employee involved in writing the petition, who spoke to Recode on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, described their reaction to the news of Apple parting ways with García Martínez as “very celebratory but firm that this is only the first step,” and that organizers intend to continue pressing the company to investigate the circumstances around García Martínez’s hiring. There are still many open questions around the situation — like if Apple was aware of García Martínez’s writing, if he was terminated or willingly resigned, and if he was given a chance to recant his earlier stated views before leaving. Apple did not respond to Recode’s follow-up questions, and García Martínez declined to respond to a request for comment. What we do know is Apple is just one example of how major companies across corporate America are having to grapple with the consequences of employing people who espouse views that seem to be at odds with their own stated goals on inclusivity in the workplace. On Wednesday, Apple found itself in the position of being publicly pressured by its own usually quiet workforce to stay accountable to that promise.
9 h
The CDC embraces the power of the vaccines
Rochelle Walensky in December, after Joe Biden picked her as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Why the agency now says vaccinated people can mostly shed their masks. Over the past few months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was criticized for playing it too cautiously with its Covid-19 guidance. The agency had recommended people wear masks outdoors, even kids in the outdoor heat of summer camp. It has overestimated the risk of outdoor spread and surface transmission. It was too slow to tell the fully vaccinated that they can go about their lives, living closer to normal. So experts argued that the CDC was failing to seize on a moment of victory: Vaccines are triumphing over the virus. We need more people to get the shots — and encourage them to do so with the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel. But on Thursday, the CDC leaped ahead of the criticisms — announcing that it no longer recommends the vaccinated mask up, even in most indoor settings. The agency named a few specific exceptions for health care settings, public transportation, prisons, jails, and homeless shelters. And people should continue to follow local and state laws. But the overall message was unambiguous: Vaccinated Americans can start getting back to normal. “The science is clear: If you are fully vaccinated, you are protected, and you can start doing the things that you stopped doing because of the pandemic,” the CDC said in a statement. With the news, the CDC snapped out of its cautious ways, moving faster than widely expected, given that the majority of Americans still aren’t fully vaccinated. And it finally embraced the power of the Covid-19 vaccines. For months, some experts have lamented that the vaccines were being undersold. Clinical trials and real-world evidence have found the shots are very effective, nearly eliminating the risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Recent research, including from the CDC, also found that the shots seem to stop the vaccinated from transmitting the virus to others. And data from Israel, as well as early signs in the US, suggests that mass vaccination truly causes Covid-19 cases and deaths to plummet. As vaccination rates in America began to plateau then fall, it seemed more urgent for the agency to signal that vaccines will let people return to normal by dangling a huge incentive — a normal post-pandemic life — in front of unvaccinated people. It’s that pressure, along with the mounting evidence of vaccines’ effectiveness, that seems to have led the CDC to change course. A big question with the CDC’s new guidance is how it will be carried out in the real world. In public settings, are people simply supposed to trust that the maskless are vaccinated? Will businesses start asking for proof of vaccination before someone can shed the mask? Will there be any enforcement at all, or will the assumption be that the unvaccinated are left to fend for themselves? All of that remains to be seen. Still, this is a big step for America toward a post-pandemic normal. As CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Thursday, “We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy. Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.” Yes, the Covid-19 vaccines are that amazing The CDC is acting on mounting evidence that the vaccines are truly effective, including against variants. The initial clinical trials put the efficacy of the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines at 95-plus percent and the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine at more than 70 percent. All three vaccines also drove the risk of hospitalization and death to nearly zero. The real-world evidence backed this up, too. Data from Israel, which has the most advanced vaccination campaign in the world, found that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was 90 percent effective at preventing Covid-19, with better rates for symptomatic disease, hospitalization, and death. Israel has seen this effectiveness firsthand: Since reopening in March, after most people in the country got at least one dose, daily new Covid-19 cases have fallen by more than 95 percent and daily deaths now number in the single digits or zero. A hint of these results is visible in the US figures, too. As the country has vaccinated more people, daily new Covid-19 cases in America have dropped by nearly 50 percent since mid-April, with hospitalizations and deaths trending down as well. The remaining serious cases are also all among the unvaccinated, with the Cleveland Clinic estimating 99.75 percent of its Covid-19 patients between January and mid-April weren’t vaccinated. One lingering concern is that the vaccines might be less effective against the coronavirus variants that have popped up across the world, some of which seem to be better at evading existing immunity. But the research has shown that the vaccines are really effective against the variants, too, preventing the risk of serious illness and death. There have been some breakthrough cases of Covid-19 among the vaccinated. But these tend to be milder infections, less likely to transmit, and far from common. “This is less than 0.01 percent of the vaccinated,” Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale, previously told me, citing CDC data. “So extremely rare!” There were also some concerns that a vaccinated person could spread the virus. But over the past few weeks, some studies have indicated that the vaccines also stop vaccinated people from spreading the virus. The CDC summarized one such real-world study for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, showing the vaccines stop not just symptoms but overall infections and, therefore, transmission: Results showed that following the second dose of vaccine (the recommended number of doses), risk of infection was reduced by 90 percent two or more weeks after vaccination. Following a single dose of either vaccine, the participants’ risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 was reduced by 80 percent two or more weeks after vaccination. Some experts have recently cited this growing evidence to embrace old freedoms after getting vaccinated. “I am fully vaccinated and have resumed normal activities,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California San Francisco, previously told me. “I have gone indoor dining, went to my first movie theater, and would go to a bar if there was an opportunity!” The CDC is now adopting this attitude. On top of its change to its mask guidance, the agency said it will review its other recommendations to make sure they line up with the current understanding of the evidence. Overall, it’s signaling the vaccinated should be confident they are safe. “The science demonstrates that if you are fully vaccinated, you are protected,” Walensky said. “It is the people who are not fully vaccinated in those settings who are not protected.” US policy now focuses on getting more people vaccinated With the news, America has entered a new phase in its Covid-19 response, in which it’s all-in on the vaccines. It’s a reflection of the current reality: Now that the vaccines are widely available and more than half of US adults have gotten at least one dose, it’s less tenable to continue asking the vaccinated to make huge sacrifices. At the same time, the unvaccinated remain at risk of a deadly virus, and policymakers should do everything they can to make sure as many people as possible get the shot. Much of the country had already moved to reopen, with 14 states already doing away with mask mandates entirely. The CDC’s guidance will likely nudge states further, perhaps causing them to, at the very least, find ways to let the vaccinated evade mask mandates. Meanwhile, President Biden’s administration has emphasized that it’s now focused on vaccinating as many people as possible, adopting strategies to boost access, encourage the skeptical to get the shot, and reward those who do get inoculated. The administration has set a goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adults by July 4 — with the promise that at that point, much of the country can truly return to normal. Ohio is a recent example of this kind of shift. This week, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced the state will rescind Covid-related health orders, including its mask mandate, in June. At the same time, he unveiled a lottery in which five vaccinated people will have a chance to win $1 million each. The CDC’s announcement offers yet another incentive, with the promise that if you are vaccinated, you no longer have to worry about the risk to your health and can shed the mask. This is what a return to normal looks like. By embracing the vaccines, America is now able to slowly but surely put Covid-19 — and all the changes it forced on our lives — behind us.
ExxonMobil wants you to feel responsible for climate change so it doesn’t have to shoulder the blame
Andrii Zorii A new study reveals how the oil company used “cutting-edge propaganda” to focus on fossil fuel consumption. To understand why ExxonMobil has been so effective at shaping the US narrative about climate change in the US for some 40 years, look no further than the words of one of the company’s communications strategists, Mobil Vice President of Public Affairs Herbert Schmertz: ”Your objective is to wrap yourself in the good phrases while sticking your opponents with the bad ones,” he wrote in 1986. From the 1970s through the 1990s, most of the company’s PR efforts focused on casting doubt on the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet. But by the mid-2000s, it was taking a more sophisticated, nuanced approach. “Energy-saving consumers can make a real difference,” it said in 2007, listing ways consumers can “Be smart about electricity use,” “Heat and cool your home efficiently,” and “Improve your gas mileage” to address climate change. Another ad in 2008 looks to the auto industry: “It is important we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, too. Improving the efficiency of the vehicles people drive is one way to do so.” There are many examples in ExxonMobil’s advertising materials and other documents right up to 2019, all doing the same thing: Deflecting attention away from the oil company’s role in fueling climate change by supplying fossil fuels and turning attention toward consumer demand for, and dependency on, its products. We now have a comprehensive view of this strategy, thanks to a new peer-reviewed study by Harvard research associate Geoffrey Supran and Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes in the journal One Earth. In a painstaking analysis, they show how hard the oil giant has worked to keep the conversation about climate solutions focused on the consumer, effectively individualizing responsibility for the problem. “Never before has it been proven that fossil fuel propaganda is demonstrably one source of where this [consumer- and demand-focused] mindset has originated from,” Supran told Vox. Blaming the individual user, rather than the producers, is a well-worn tactic of other industries with dangerous products, including tobacco and firearms. In the case of fossil fuel products, individualizing the responsibility for climate change obfuscates the responsibility of companies like Exxon — one of 20 companies responsible for one-third of energy-related global carbon emissions since 1965 — to extract fewer fossil fuels and shift to cleaner technologies. And according to Oreskes and Supran, not only has this messaging strategy allowed Exxon to “downplay its role in the climate crisis,” it also continues to be used “to undermine climate litigation, regulation, and activism.” A first-of-its-kind analysis of Exxon’s public messaging Supran and Oreskes use a trove of documents that they have combed through in past research, namely a 2017 paper that found ExxonMobil internally acknowledging its products’ role in climate change, while publicly casting doubt on the science. Starting in the late 1970s, the company ran regular advertisements in the New York Times. The researchers looked at those ads as well as more recent reports aimed at investors through 2019 for a total of 212 documents that provide a solid chronology of how the oil company has communicated with the public on climate science. The early ads took a skeptical stance on climate science, but in the 2000s they started to emphasize the uncertainty of risks, rather than the consensus of manmade warming. When ExxonMobile did acknowledge the need to reduce pollution, it disproportionately talked about how much it was doing to address the demand-side of the equation, rather than addressing the obvious other half: the increasing supply. When Supran ran his algorithm to pick up the most frequently used terms and topics in the papers, he was surprised at what they found: The company’s messaging was largely consistent in the advertisements up to 2009 and in reports up to 2019, statistically overusing certain language, like “risk” and “demand,” to hammer home these themes. In 1997, the company touted helping “customers scale back their emissions of carbon dioxide,” while the next year it encouraged the public to “show a little voluntary ‘can do.’” A decade later, in 2008, an ad suggested the ‘‘cars and trucks we drive aren’t just vehicles, they’re opportunities to solve the world’s energy and environmental challenges.’’ Throughout this time, ExxonMobil discussed growing fossil fuel demand as an inevitability, saying things like, “Oil and gas will be essential to meeting demand through 2030” and “fossil fuels must be relied upon to meet society’s immediate and near-term needs.” The company only acknowledges its own culpability in obscure academic journals and internal memos. One 1982 internal memo writes what the company never admits publicly, that “the connection between Exxon’s major businesses and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2.” The other trend the Harvard researchers note is how the company shifted to a “Fossil Fuel Savior” frame in the mid-2000s. A 2007 company ad notes the “increasing prosperity in the developing world [will be] the main driver of greater energy demand (and consequently rising CO2 emissions),” which positions the company as another passive bystander in global warming. ExxonMobil did not respond to a request for comment on the Harvard study’s findings. The problem with climate shame Shaming individuals has pretty much always been a part of the climate discourse. Political leaders focus on recycling and consumption of plastics, rather than banning production, and now “flight shame” has taken off as a way to discourage plane travel to tackle the rising footprint of transportation emissions. But shame has a dark side: It can be a distraction that lets key perpetrators of climate change off the hook. Supran and Oreskes don’t have a precise measure of the impact ExxonMobil’s marketing has had on the public discourse — their methodology doesn’t go that far — but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that policymakers and the media overemphasize personal responsibility instead of systemic political and economic change. “At the grassroots level, people get accused of being hypocrites all the time,” for flying, driving, or using plastics, also derived from fossil fuels, Supran said. And research from Georgia State University shows how shame messaging can backfire: In a 2020 paper, they showed that in some cases, being told to drive less or change your diet can make people less willing to want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. ExxonMobil wasn’t the first oil company to push these narratives. “The very notion of a personal ‘carbon footprint,’ for example, was first popularized in 2004-2006 by oil firm BP as part of its $100+ million per year ‘beyond petroleum’ US media campaign,” Supran and Oreskes write. But ultimately these narratives “hamstring us, and they put blinders on us, to the systemic nature of the climate crisis and the importance of taking collective action to address the problem,” Supran said. The real-world implications of the Exxon docs It’s useful to have some statistical rigor backing up the observations of many academics, activists, and journalists, that by emphasizing demand, oil companies can play the part of innocent bystanders feeding a global hunger for their products. But the more consequential implications for this research may be in the courts. Major oil companies like ExxonMobil are currently facing an onslaught of lawsuits around the world charging that they have broken the law by pushing misinformation and thwarting climate action. The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School counted 884 climate cases in 2017 had doubled to 1,550 cases by 2020 in 38 countries (Exxon is not the only subject of all these lawsuits). Just recently, New York City filed a new lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute for violating the city’s consumer protection laws, another sign the wave of litigation is not slowing down. Supran and Oreskes’s study may be relevant to these lawsuits for a couple of reasons. First, the researchers note that ExxonMobil may be mounting a clever defense against these lawsuits with its greenwashing. One of its defenses actually cited the same logic that appears again and again in its advertising, that climate risks are common knowledge and the company bears no control over how people choose to live. Supran and Oreskes note the example: In 2018, arguing in defense of five oil companies (including ExxonMobil Corp) against a lawsuit brought by California cities seeking climate damages, Chevron lawyer Theodore Boutrous Jr. offered his interpretation of the IPCC’s latest report: ‘‘I think the IPCC does not say it’s the production and extraction of oil that is driving these emissions. It’s the energy use. It’s economic activity that creates demand for energy.’’ ‘‘It’s the way people are living their lives.’’ The judge’s dismissal of the case accepted this framing: ‘‘[W]ould it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?’’ Even if plaintiffs prove their case, fossil fuel companies can invoke ‘‘affirmative defenses’’—as tobacco companies often have—such as ‘‘common knowledge’’ and ‘‘assumption of the risk.’’ These respectively argue (1) ‘‘that the plaintiff had engaged in an activity [such as smoking] that involved obvious or widely known risks,’’ and (2) ‘‘that the plaintiff knew about and voluntarily undertook the risk.’’ As Brandt explains it, ‘‘If there was a risk, even though ‘unproven,’ it nonetheless must be the smoker’s risk, since the smoker had been fully informed of the ‘controversy.’ The industry had secured the best of both worlds.’’ The second implication is how their research can become a useful tool for climate activists and policymakers looking to hold ExxonMobil responsible. What Supran and Oreskes do in their paper, according to Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, is “prove quantitatively what has been qualitatively evident for years. ... Oil and gas companies insulated themselves from public scrutiny and regulatory action even as the climate crisis accelerated.” And any proof that oil companies were insulating themselves from climate policies while misleading the public is likely to become useful fodder in the courtroom. “This evidence will matter not only in the court of public opinion, but in courts of justice around the world faced with questions of industry accountability, culpability, and potential liability for mounting climate impacts,” Muffett said. The message Supran hopes people take from his work isn’t that your actions don’t matter. But governments need to take responsibility and hold the major polluters accountable — and those policies include a broader mix of solutions that limit the fuels Exxon can extract, axing pipeline projects for transportation, limiting its opportunity to export around the world, and even make companies pay for the damages caused to vulnerable communities. “This is cutting-edge propaganda coming from an industry with 100 years of experience in pioneering the art of public relations,” he said. “And people should be aware of what they’re subject to, because otherwise it gets into our bones without us even knowing where it came from.”
The Underground Railroad is a towering series about the ways slavery still infects America
South African actor Thuso Mbedu plays Cora in Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad. | Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios Amazon’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel turns a masterpiece into amazing television. It is inevitably fraught for a white critic like me to discuss a work of art specifically about the Black American experience. There’s a risk of coming off as patronizing at best and appropriative at worst, of seemingly trying to relate the pain, trauma, and horror that often rests on Black Americans to the personal pains white viewers may face in day-to-day life. Great art tells universal stories out of specific experiences, and it is possible and even desirable for white viewers to find personal resonance in the experiences of protagonists in movies like Do the Right Thing or 12 Years a Slave. But many such projects also ask these viewers to examine their own complicity in discrimination against Black people in America. I may have dark stuff in my past, but I am not living beneath the same crushing weight of centuries of slavery and systemic racism. A further complication: The art by Black artists most roundly celebrated is often about Black trauma. I love both Do the Right Thing and 12 Years a Slave, but both films ask us to look unflinchingly at the horrible ways America treats Black citizens. Rom-coms, family dramas, and superhero stories that center on Black characters and are less focused on Black trauma certainly exist, but the easiest way for a Black-centric project to win acclaim from the mainstream white critics who dominate our cultural landscape (including, again, myself) is to offer up some sort of trenchant social commentary, to focus on the horrific. So I want to tread carefully in discussing The Underground Railroad, a 10-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel. In its portrayal of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave running less toward freedom than she is running awayfrom slavery, the series tells a story about systemic racism and the perniciousness of white supremacy, offering an uncompromising look at the lasting and ongoing burdens of white America’s inhumane treatment of Black Americans. In no way should it be hailed as a story anyone can see themselves in. But director Barry Jenkins (who won an Oscar in 2017 for his screenplay for Moonlight) finds a way to encompass all of humanity in his work without so much as hinting at easy forgiveness for those who either do great evil or are complicit in great evil. The Underground Railroad made me feel things about my own life and personal pain very deeply, while never letting me forget that while I could relate to aspects of this story, it is notmy own. This series is a specific story about the treatment of one specific group of humans in one specific country. But it’s also a story about humans, and Jenkins gives you space to find yourself in it without sacrificing the focus of this story — even if you might not like what you see. For an adaptation of a great novel by an acclaimed filmmaker, The Underground Railroad sure acts like a TV show. Good. Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios Joel Edgerton plays the slave catcher Ridgeway, who is constantly on Cora’s trail. Too often, when a great filmmaker makes a TV show, they simply stretch out their normal storytelling style to span more hours than they typically would. There’s a reason that Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 10-episode Amazon series Too Old to Die Young barely made a ripple when it released in the summer of 2019, even though it hailed from a hip young director: The thing was slow as molasses. The cool, hypnotic rhythms of Refn’s work became glacial when expanded to fill so many episodes, most of which were over an hour long. The Underground Railroad avoids this problem almost entirely. A couple of episodes sag, but for the most part, the series crafts a propulsive, episodic narrative whose storytelling draws from TV classics like The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive as Cora travels from place to place along a literal underground railroad — with a train and everything — trying to figure out precisely what’s wrong about every new location she finds herself in. A lot of this structure comes directly from Whitehead’s novel, whose central conceit took Cora from the realities of plantation slavery in the early 1800s through several locations that became metaphorical looks at the Black American experience after the Civil War. Whitehead never sits you down and says, “The South Carolina section is all about the promise and ultimate withering away of Reconstruction” — and the South Carolina chapter (the second episode of the series) is about more than just that. But in its depiction of a world where Black freedom comes with heavy boundaries placed upon it by white people, it reflects America’s failure to properly restructure itself after the war all the same. Here’s what ties together Whitehead’s conceit: Even as Cora is sort of traveling forward through time, she’s endlessly pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway (played by Joel Edgerton in the series) who longs to drag her back into slavery. The closer Cora gets to something like a world where Black Americans can live with freedom and dignity, the more doggedly Ridgeway pursues her. The country’s racist past always has a hand joined to its racist present, and Whitehead’s use of Ridgeway is a far more compelling exploration of this idea than any big, heartrending speech Cora could give on the matter (although several of the series’ characters deliver some amazing speeches). Jenkins and his team have not only kept the episodic structure of Whitehead’s novel but made it more pronounced in subtle ways. Each episode of the series could fairly easily stand alone as its own tale, with casual viewers having only the most cursory understanding of the main characters and their situation. Indeed, the series occasionally steps outside of Cora’s point of view entirely to fill in the histories of other characters around the story’s edges. These non-Cora vignettes were also present in the novel, but Jenkins and his team have made them important palate cleansers. Jenkins even changes aspect ratios and uses different filmmaking techniques to offer a kind of dreamy immediacy. The camera might pull up into a God’s-eye view of a village aflame, or an episode might unfold largely without dialogue until one long, blissfully talky scene near its end. This heightening of the story’s already episodic nature allows Jenkins’s direction to judiciously select the moments in which it will highlight the utter inhumanity of white America’s treatment of Black America. The Underground Railroad is constructed like a series designed to be binge-watched — typically, the best shows to watch in a marathon have strongly delineated episodic stories that hook up into longer, serialized stories — but binge-watching this series would also risk reducing it to a pulp thriller. To my mind, the show’s achievement is making every episode feel so full as to allow you to watch an individual installment, walk away for a while feeling like you’ve got a complete story, then return when you’re ready for another story featuring some of the same characters. (In that sense, it is somewhat similar to Steve McQueen’s 2020 anthology series Small Axe, though that series featured new characters in every episode, which The Underground Railroad does not.) This structure allows the series to be brutal without ever feeling like it’s being brutal for brutality’s sake. The first episode features some horrific images of slavery, but it picks and chooses its moments. In one sequence, Jenkins cuts between white party guests barely paying attention to a slave being whipped in front of them, to the other slaves watching the whipping, to the face of the man being whipped with the man whipping him out of focus in the background. The build of the sequence allows the viewer to prepare themselves for what they’re about to see, while also making it clear that no one should want to see it. A scene in which a slave master whips a slave has become almost a requisite of stories set in the pre-Civil War South, which perhaps speaks to how deeply the 1970s miniseries Roots (which The Underground Railroad consciously nods to at times) has codified how we tell stories about slavery in America. These tropes can feel ossified, in others’ hands. But Jenkins makes this scene feel less like a trope or empty spectacle. He simultaneously ensures that the slave — a man we’ve barely known before this point — retains his humanity while those who don’t seem particularly bothered by what’s happening retain theirhumanity, in a different way. Jenkins doesn’t make the partygoers unfeeling monsters; he makes them desensitized, disaffected products of a society that actively encourages ignoring the pain and suffering in front of them, which consequently makes them key contributors to that pain and suffering. The Underground Railroad’s sound design also deserves special notice. In particular, the sounds of metal clanking are often boosted subtly in the soundtrack, so that whenever a door is swinging on its rusty hinges or a blacksmith is pounding away in his shop, we hear that sound a little louder within the soundtrack than we would if we occupied the same setting in reality. It took me much of the series to pick up on how the prominence of the sound mimics the book’s use of Ridgeway, who constantly reminds Cora of how the institution of slavery threatens to recapture her. The clanking of metal recalls the shackles placed on slaves in the first episode; even when Cora is standing in a seemingly empty building, the sound of a chain jangling somewhere subtly haunts her. The Underground Railroad tells a universal story about moving through PTSD — but it is still a very specific version of PTSD Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios Cora travels into some very dark places, both literally and figuratively. In thinking about the series’ use of metallic noises, I started to understand why I found The Underground Railroad particularly moving, for reasons beyond its story and storytelling. In Cora’s journey, I found a resonance with my own recent experiences of trying to claw my identity away from a past that would swallow it whole. The entirety of my adult life has felt like peeling back layers of rotten, nasty junk, some of which were bestowed upon me at my birth. The work of trying to escape the past and live in a better, freer present is the work of many in marginalized communities and of everyone who is fighting PTSD or other psychological issues stemming from trauma. But here is where the double-bind I mentioned at the start of this review comes into play. It is dispiritingly common for a story about specifically Black pain to be universalized into a narrative about either overcoming or succumbing to that pain, which inures white audience members from examining their own complicity in Black pain. After all, we’ve all felt pain at some point, right? And sometimes we overcome it or succumb to it? Wow! What a story about the human spirit! (So goes this kind of critical argument, at least.) The flip side is possible, too. When a story is so specifically about Black pain that universalizing it is difficult for white audience members, the temptation on the part of white viewers is to turn that story into an accurate telling of “just the way things are.” John Singleton’s 1991 classic Boyz n the Hood, for instance, is an astonishingly well-made coming of age story set in South Central Los Angeles. But for too many white studio executives who tried to replicate the film’s success, its approach boiled down to “That’s just how things are in South Central, so that’s how you tell stories set there.” The problem rarely has much to do with the Black artists telling these stories. Singleton had absolutely no control over how Boyz n the Hood would filter out into the mainstream culture. The fault is usually with white executives, critics, awards voters, and viewers, who are consistently eager to flatten complicated stories about Black America into a series of tropes designed to distance ourselves from our own complicity in a deeply racist society. Watching the right movies, then, becomes a kind of progressive self-vindication: I am vicariously experiencing this pain, and that makes me a good person. I have no idea what white Americans who aren’t me will make of The Underground Railroad, but I do think Jenkins has found some ways around this dilemma. Notice how often he centers the act of viewing brutalities both grand and mundane: The early scene with the whipping, for instance, lingers on both the white audience and the Black audience for said whipping, observing the callousness with which the white viewers regard the spectacle, just so much window dressing for an afternoon picnic. The strange time dilation of Whitehead’s novel also helps the series avoid a certain distancing effect. With other stories about slavery, white viewers sometimes come away with the incorrect notion that the inhumanity of racism is confined to a handful of specific periods in history: Even if we’ve still got problems today, at least it’s not like that anymore. Once Cora leaves the plantation, the new worlds she moves through often have eerie resonances with the present, in ways that discombobulate viewers who might be tempted to resign these stories to the distant past. But perhaps Jenkins’s boldest gambit is one whose impact I’m only just now understanding as I write these words. I saw myself in Cora, despite our many obvious differences. She is in some ways an archetypal character, one who attempts to shed her past as efficiently as possible, only to realize getting rid of the past is never that easy. I want to shed my past, too, and have found it stickier than I hoped it would be. Healing wounds is sometimes a lifelong process, and Cora is a character onto whom anyone in the audience could project their own journeys through their own pain. That projection is good. It’s what art is for, on some level. But just when you might be getting comfortable with your read of The Underground Railroad — any read whatsoever — Jenkins will cut in images of the many Black characters from throughout the series, each one staring solemnly at the camera. I found this idea a little over-earnest, like a constant acknowledgment of the ghosts that haunt Cora, until it clicked in my head that by asking us to identify so strongly with Cora, Jenkins is inviting these ghosts to haunt us. We place ourselves within the stories we consume. It’s a human impulse; to see yourself in Cora or any other character on The Underground Railroad is natural, and through the identification and empathy you build with her, you might better empathize with people in your own time and place. But as you are witnessing what happens to these characters, they are looking right back out at you, through the camera, across the gulfs of time. And what do they see when they look back? The Underground Railroad debuts Friday, May 14, on Amazon Prime Video. It runs for 10 episodes that range in length from 20 minutes to 77 minutes. Yes, really. Trust me — it works.
Here are the most effective ways to donate to help India
Workers unload empty oxygen cylinders at a hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. India’s coronavirus surge is taking thousands of lives each days, and oxygen supplies can help. | Sumit Sanyal/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images If you want to know where your money will go the furthest, check out these four charities. The Covid-19 crisis in India is almost incomprehensible in scale. According to official records, about 4,000 people are dying every day. That underestimates the real crisis, and some estimates suggest that it’s truly tens of thousands. Hospitals are overwhelmed, meaning that many people are dying who could have been saved. That raises the perennial question of disaster relief: What can the rest of the world do to help? On social media, people in India have shared live their desperate struggles to find hospital beds and oxygen. Many of them have asked for help — and many people have been looking for ways to help. The challenge, as always in these situations, is making sure that your donation actually does have an impact. And donating to India effectively — that is, ensuring that money buys real improvements in access to care during the surge in cases — is complicated. New rules that Prime Minister Narendra Modi put in place in the middle of the pandemic added hurdles to collaborations between international and Indian nonprofits, and while most of the online fundraisers to aid people in India are legitimate, it’s hard for donors to verify them or determine whether they still need additional funding. That said, there are real, cost-effective ways to help. The organizations below have been reported to be doing important work during the pandemic, and are decent bets to target with donations if you’re looking for ways for your dollar to make the biggest impact. How you can send money to India — and what it can buy A promising area to point your donations toward is the provision of medical supplies. Medical supplies can save lives in the middle of a Covid-19 outbreak. Access to masks and personal protective equipment, especially for doctors and nurses, can ensure people don’t get sick in the first place. Meanwhile, access to oxygen concentrators — which take in air from the surrounding environment and offer a person concentrated oxygen to breathe — can ensure that people who are suffering from moderate to severe Covid-19 can recover at home and don’t need intensive care. Masks are fairly widely available in India, so there’s not as much need there. That said, campaigns to convince people to wear them — mask uptake can still get better — might still be highly cost-effective to donate to. Researchers at Yale have partnered with researchers in South Asia to develop such campaigns, which have been found to be highly effective at persuading people to wear masks more often, especially in the situations (indoors and in poorly ventilated areas) where it’s most important. Innovations for Poverty Action, a nonprofit that scales up effective global poverty work, is now trying to encourage mask-wearing in at-risk areas, and accepts donations. A more straightforward need is for oxygen concentrators, which are in desperately short supply. Student researchers Tejas Subramaniam at Stanford and Manya Gupta at the University of Pennsylvania compiled a list of the most promising fundraisers for oxygen concentrators, ranking them by ease of accepting money from international donors, cost-effectiveness, trust and transparency, and room for more funding. They recommend the GiveIndia Oxygen fundraiser; the Oxygen for All concentrator fundraiser on Milaap, run by the public health accelerator Swasti; and the Swasth’s Oxygen for India concentrator fundraiser on Milaap. Gupta and Subramaniam estimate that sending oxygen concentrators is the most cost-effective way to save lives in India right now. (Other types of equipment, like oxygen cylinders, are also needed for those who have severe Covid-19 and require intensive care. But there’s a problem there — they are harder to import internationally; only empty cylinders can be sent on planes, and India doesn’t currently have the spare oxygen to refill them.) Beyond donating money to help with the supply problems,another good option is directly sending money to low-income families affected by Covid. In general, sending people cash is slightly less effective than the best public health interventions in confronting pandemics. That’s because public health interventions can be incredibly targeted: Oxygen therapy will go to people who cannot breathe, whereas it’s hard to get money to exactly the people who will be able to afford lifesaving treatment with the money and not without it. But giving people money is also more flexible, allowing people to choose what aid they want the most. Work by Nobel-winning economist Abhijit Banerjee last year found that cash transfers “significantly improved well-being on common measures such as hunger, sickness and depression in spite of the pandemic.” The GiveIndia Cash Transfer fundraiser gives one-time $400 payments to families who have recently lost a relative to Covid-19. It’s an established cash transfer charity with a good track record, and it’s positioned to absorb lots more funding. (That is, while some organizations end up with more money than they know what to do with after a surge of donations, GiveIndia can actually take in donations and use them to do immediate good.) Many of these charities have had to go through interesting workarounds to fundraise for India despite the new NGO fundraising law. Act Grants, which is a partner behind the Swasth’s Oxygen for India fundraiser, was set up by India’s tech community and largely raises money from Silicon Valley, and according to the New York Times it’s had to direct donations through charity partners because of the new law. But as of May 12, all of the organizations above are able to accept donations, have room for more funding to expand their operations, and are making a real difference. Ways of donating that don’t work as well Vaccination is the only real way out of the pandemic, but experts who’ve looked at giving opportunities in India are skeptical that individual donors can help speed vaccinations, which are mostly constrained by supply, not by insufficient funding. (Donating to Covax is still a good idea — it just won’t affect the near-term situation in India.) “Our current best guess is that private donations directed toward vaccination efforts in India — at least at the level of individual donors — is unlikely to substantially change vaccination rates, because the main bottleneck in the short term is vaccine supply, which depends significantly on government action,” Gupta and Subramaniam’s analysis finds. Sending vaccines to India would be a great idea, and the Biden administration should do it, but that’s not something regular people can do individually either. (Pressuring your congressional representative might well be a good idea.) Early in the pandemic last year, many logistics experts anticipated that ventilator shortages would be one of the biggest problems in a pandemic. India is indeed short on ventilators, but, more critically, it is short on trained nursing staff who can operate ventilators. As in New York City during the height of the US crisis, the equipment is proving to be less of a bottleneck than the staff — and there’s little an individual donor can do about that at this moment. The big picture The last principle worth keeping in mind for disaster relief as India is overwhelmed with the pandemic is a sobering one: It’s not just India. The same dynamic that drove this surge of cases in India — which is believed to be caused by more contagious variants, plus loosening of social distancing precautions after a year of wearying pandemic measures — is driving similar problems elsewhere. “If today, the suffering is in India, then in no amount of time it will go to the whole of the world,” Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti warned at Vox two weeks ago. The weeks since then have already proved him right: Brazil and Nepal are both overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases, and other countries are seeing their case numbers creep up. That’s not a reason not to send aid to India. Addressing the crisis in India will hopefully teach us lessons that can be used to address similar surges elsewhere. India is also a world-leading manufacturer of Covid-19 vaccines and protective equipment, so getting the country back on its feet will help the world combat the virus everywhere else. Sending aid to India will save lives and also equip us to solve the big-picture problem here — it would be a mistake to take the big-picture situation as a reason to do nothing at all. But with that said, rich countries can’t address the pandemic just by having their citizens send oxygen concentrators overseas. Ending the pandemic requires a much larger, more coordinated, more ambitious plan than that. The US has yet to spend the money that would be needed to buy vaccines for the whole world, scale up manufacturing, and deliver them to everyone — anywhere — who will take them. But the US government has shown some signs of being responsive to public pressure on global Covid-19 policy. At first, the Biden administration opposed a call by India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights for the Covid-19 vaccines, but after public outcry, they reversed course. Intellectual property waivers won’t do much by themselves, but there are things the Biden administration could do that would really matter: funding vaccinations for the whole world, investing in building more mRNA factories, and sending the doses the US has stockpiled. Keeping up public pressure on the Biden administration may, in the long run, be as crucial for India and the rest of the world as oxygen and medical supplies are.
What American kids need this summer
A child plays with her kindergarten class in Brentwood, California, during the reopening of playgrounds at early education centers and elementary schools across the district on Monday, May 3, 2021. | Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG To help students recover from a pandemic school year, experts are prescribing fun. For kids across the country, the 2020-21 school year has been difficult, to say the least. Many have attended class from their bedrooms, seeing their friends and teachers only on Zoom. Others have been unable to access even that much instruction because they don’t have a computer, an internet connection, or a quiet place to study. Even those who have returned to in-person school have faced a host of new stressors, from distancing requirements to fears of getting Covid-19, that can make the classroom an anxiety-producing place. And experts are worried that some students — especially Black, Indigenous, and other students of color, and those from low-income families — have lost countless hours of instructional time, a loss that could worsen educational inequality and put them at a disadvantage down the road. To help students catch up, many districts are planning for summer school — 47 of 100 urban districts surveyed in April by the Center on Reinventing Public Education had some form of summer program in place, up from 32 percent around this time last year. But summer school in America doesn’t exactly have a great reputation. Dan Weisberg, head of the education nonprofit TNTP, recently told the New York Times that a typical remedial summer program for fifth graders gives them “third-grade math problems and has them sit in the corner.” And singling out low-income students and students of color for summer classes while other kids have fun is hardly fair, Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation who has studied summer education, told Vox. “Why should they have to sit in a building and do math all day while their higher-income peers are off in some fancy camp?” That’s especially true when kids are coming off a difficult and traumatic year of school and need breaks and emotional support as much as they need academics. Experts say there’s a way to balance all these needs and help kids learn this summer. But it will require districts to rethink summer school now and in the future — to look beyond the four walls of the classroom and make space for something every kid should get to have this summer: fun. Why do we even have summer vacation? It’s often said that summer vacation is a relic of America’s farming past, but that isn’t quite true. Rather than rural kids needing the summer off to help with the harvest, as the conventional wisdom goes, summer vacation actually started in cities, education historian Kenneth Gold told PBS Newshour. Before air conditioning, urban schools would get extremely hot in the summer, and families with money would leave the city to vacation in cooler locales. So in the 19th century, school calendars around the country were standardized to give students a break during the months when some families were pulling their kids out anyway — and when school was an unpleasant place to be for everybody else. The change “reflected the rhythm of economies in the city, the habits of wealthier people who were beginning to flee hot cities in the summer months,” Gold told Vox. Today, some American schools (though by no means all) have air conditioning. But summer can still offer kids a break from the day-to-day routine of school. “Physical activity, being outside in nature, free play, using your creativity, trying on new skills and things that maybe you don’t normally do during the school year — that’s an important part of summer,” Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and founder of the nonprofit Challenge Success, told Vox. In recent years, however, there’s been a growing opposition to the idea of giving students time off in the warmer months. “Summer vacation is bad for kids and for America’s economic future,” Bridget Ansel, special assistant at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, wrote at Politico in 2014. “We need to end it — or at the very least provide stimulating summer enrichment for those who can’t afford it.” The argument is that, during the summer, kids forget what they learned during the school year, a process sometimes called the “summer slide.” Some research shows kids losing about a month of learning, on average, Ansel notes, with the effect more pronounced among low-income students than among children in more affluent families. Because of this, some teachers, advocates, and policymakers — including former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — have called for a longer school year, perhaps bringing us closer to the 248 days per year that were once standard in New York City (today it’s about 180). And it’s not just students who struggle with summer. Unlike kids, most parents don’t get the summer off, which means they need some form of alternate child care while they work. Wealthier families can afford camps and other summer programs for their kids, but many can’t (the average cost of day camp in the US is about $76 per day, according to, going up to $172 for sleep-away camp). Lower-income families are often left scrambling to find supervised activities for kids in the summer that won’t break their budget. Those were the pressures on summer before the pandemic hit. Now, kids around the country are coming off not one but two school years transformed by Covid-19. As Gold put it, “the stakes are higher this year.” “This summer is different” While experts were once concerned about students falling behind after just a couple of months, some are worried about what will happen to kids’ learning now that many have been out of classrooms for more than a year. A fall 2020 analysis of student test scores by the nonprofit NWEA showed only a moderate drop in math test scores during the pandemic and no drop in reading, but also raised a major concern: about a quarter of students didn’t take the test at all, perhaps because they were unable to access online learning. And those students were more likely to be Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, or to attend high-poverty schools — groups that face educational inequity even in normal times. As a result of data like this, many fear the pandemic could not merely slow down kids’ academic progress, but also further entrench the inequality in America’s education system. To combat these problems, many districts are instituting summer school. New York City, for example, will offer “Summer Rising,” a $120 million expansion of its usual summer programming, which will combine academic coursework with art and outdoor play, all at no cost to families. Schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will participate in a program called Ready. Set. Summer! to offer enrichment in partnership with local nonprofits. And the federal government is stepping in to help, with more than $1 billion set aside for summer enrichment in the American Rescue Plan, passed in March. Summer programs can be an “opportunity to accelerate learning, especially for those students most impacted by disruptions to learning during the school year,” the Department of Education advised in a handbook, released this spring, to help districts respond to Covid-19. At the same time, summer school has a reputation as something of a slog. “I don’t think summer education as a quality educational experience has a great track record,” Gold said. In part, that might be because “we are too wedded to the notion that it has to be a continuation of what’s already happened in the school year.” After all, he explained, if you give students a lesson during the school year and “it doesn’t work for them, and then you just give them more of the same in the summer, I just don’t think that’s the smartest move.” And while many districts’ offerings look to be dynamic, putting students in a lackluster summer program could backfire — especially this year. “What I’m worried about is if summer school is looked at like a punishment,” Pope said. Months of Zoom classes have been so exhausting for kids that if summer education “feels boring and monotonous and tedious, you could actually do more harm than good.” Instead, kids need something that gets them excited about learning again. “We’ve got to get the light back on in these kids’ eyes,” she said. That could mean incorporating nature, physical activity, and a sense of fun into summer offerings, beyond just repeating what could be done in the classroom during the regular school year. The most successful summer programs already do this, experts say. For example, Aim High, a 35-year-old summer enrichment program for low-income middle-schoolers in the San Francisco Bay Area, uses a Barbie doll bungee-jumping competition to teach kids math skills — and in the afternoon, kids can choose from activities like horseback riding, kayaking, or dance classes. Recent research on the program has shown that it reduces student absenteeism and suspensions in the regular school year, as well as boosting their test scores in English. Incorporating exciting, non-academic activities is “incredibly important for kids’ self-esteem” and their mental health, Augustine said. It also helps convince kids to attend, which is important since many summer programs are optional. And making summer school fun is an equity issue, Augustine said. “If a district is targeting kids experiencing poverty” for its summer programs, she explained, then “it’s not really fair” if those programs are tedious or punitive. Meanwhile, incorporating social and emotional learning will be especially critical this summer, since many students have spent the last year in relative isolation. “Kids need to be around other kids this summer,” Pope said. “They need to practice those really, really important social skills, communication skills, friendship-building skills,” which are important not just for mental health and wellbeing, but for learning as well. Beyond giving kids an opportunity to socialize, schools also “might want to have a summer program that really gives kids an opportunity to talk about what they experienced over this past year,” their anxiety about the coming school year, or their desire for life to go back to normal, Augustine said. After all, “this summer is different.” Indeed, as much as the summer can be a time for helping kids catch up, it shouldn’t be a time to add more anxiety, Margarita Alegría, a psychologist and chief of the Disparities Research Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mongan Institute, told Vox. Especially for students of color and others disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, it’s crucial “to provide activities that might add enrichment but not at the cost of stress and demands.” “If kids don’t feel emotionally stable,” she said, “it’s going to be very hard to teach them anything.” The pandemic could force a rethinking of summer for the future Covid-19 will continue to pose some challenges for schools this summer, especially since children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated. While some districts, like New York City, will offer in-person programs, others, like Aim High, will be largely virtual. And Covid-19 risk may be a concern for parents considering sending children to in-person summer school — even as more classrooms reopen, a significant number of families are choosing to keep their children home, with four in 10 students in the country still doing all their learning remotely, according to one March survey. But this year is by no means the last chance for districts to give kids a high-quality summer experience. The money in the American Rescue Plan will be available over the next three years, and even schools that may not have had time to plan ambitious summer offerings this year can still do so in the years to come, Augustine said. “I would encourage districts to think about this in phases.” And overall, this year could be a time when districts reevaluate what they do in the summer to be more strategic — and more exciting — now and in the future. “I’m hoping that school communities are going to be creative with how to use the money that comes through to rethink how they want to do summer learning,” Pope said. The goal, Augustine said, should be to “use the summer, but use it wisely.”
The Gaza doom loop
Israeli police run after a Palestinian demonstrator at the al-Aqsa Mosque during Israel’s Jerusalem Day on May 10. | Laurent Van Der Stockt/Getty Images What’s happening in Israel and Gaza is the near-inevitable result of a grim status quo. Dozens have already died in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, and more will perish if the fighting continues to escalate. But there is little chance that the root cause of all this death — the long-running political status quo in the Israel-Palestinian conflict — will be altered in the slightest. Israeli-Palestinian warfare has become routinized; it follows a familiar script that repeats itself endlessly. Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, there have been three full-scale wars and numerous rounds of lower-level fighting. But the basic structure of the conflict — Israel’s blockade of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank, and Palestinian rule divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — has remained remarkably durable. It would seem as if the current round of violence emerged out of a complex series of events in Jerusalem, most notably heavy-handed actions by Israeli police and aggression by far-right Jewish nationalists. But in reality, these events were merely triggers for escalations made almost inevitable by the way the major parties have chosen to approach the conflict. Mahmoud Illean/AP Israeli police entered the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 10. The Jerusalem Day holiday celebrates the unification of the city under Israel’s control following the 1967 Six-Day War, and comes amid protests over the eviction of Palestinian families. Both Israeli and Palestinian leadership have basically accepted the painful political status quo in Gaza, seeing the violence and humanitarian suffering it causes as bad, but basically tolerable as part of an effort to secure their hold on power. Israel’s leadership bears particular responsibility: As the most powerful actor in the conflict, it has the greatest ability to break the pattern. But the current factions in power in Jerusalem have strong ideological and strategic reasons for keeping its Gaza policy in place. As a result, the underlying status quo will likely outlive this conflict, guaranteeing more violence. “It’s like the worst version of Groundhog Day,” says Khaled Elgindy, the director of the program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute. “[Leaders] just put a Band-Aid on it and we go back to the pre-crisis normal.” It’s a horrible equilibrium, one in which “manageable” levels of violence stand in for doing something to actually improve the lives of Israelis or Palestinians. It is also a direct result of the deepest political structure governing the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the iron hand of Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza’s border. The Israeli-Palestinian doom loop The current violence began with a series of conflicts in Jerusalem. Israeli police in the city blocked off the Damascus Gate, a popular gathering place for Arabs during Ramadan, sparking protests. An attempt by Jewish settlers to evict longtime Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, inflamed tensions dramatically, leading to violent clashes with Israeli police. Arab youth attacked ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city and Jewish extremists assailed Arab residents. All of this culminated in a violent Israeli police raid on the al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem’s holiest site for Muslims, located on the Temple Mount (the holiest site in the world for Jews). Then Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem. Ostensibly, this was a display of solidarity with the protesters on the ground. But it appears to have been a political calculation — Hamas attempting to capitalize on Palestinian anger over Jerusalem to expand its own influence, especially in the wake of recently canceled Palestinian elections that would likely have strengthened its political position. “This is much more about internal Palestinian politics than it is about what’s been going on in Jerusalem,” says Michael Koplow, the policy director at the Israel Policy Forum. The attacks on Jerusalem crossed what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to as a “red line,” breaking the unspoken rules that limited the pace and range of rocket attacks to limited barrages mostly targeting southern Israel. Israel responded with overwhelming force; massive air strikes targeting Hamas emplacements in densely populated Gaza. This prompted more rocket attacks from Hamas and, in turn, more bombings from Israel. As a result, at least seven Israelis and dozens of Palestinians are dead — with no end in sight. Heidi Levine/AP Israeli firefighters respond to damage created by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Holon, near Tel Aviv, on May 11. Oded Balilty/AP Palestinians evacuate a protester wounded by Israeli police at the Lions Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 10. But while the events that led to this point are unique, the broader pattern of events is not. This week’s violence is part of a recurring pattern determined by structural factors in the conflict. If the events in Jerusalem hadn’t prompted Hamas rocket fire and Israeli escalation, something else almost certainly would have. “The most likely scenario is unfortunately the one we’ve been in for the past 15 years,” says Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Goldenberg coauthored a report in 2018 documenting what he terms “the cycle of violence” between Israel and Hamas. It documents the ways in which the political status quo is arranged in a way that makes frequent violent flare-ups all but inevitable. The stage is set, Goldenberg and his coauthors say, by the policy approaches of both sides. Israel aims to minimize the threat posed by Hamas and other militant factions, imposing a harsh blockade on Gaza that limits the flow of goods and people into the territory. Hamas aims to cement its hold on power and expand its influence relative to its Palestinian rivals, seeing violence against Israel as a key tool in this struggle. This creates an underlying reality in which fighting breaks out again and again. “Eventually, humanitarian and economic pressure builds inside Gaza, and Hamas escalates its use of violence both to generate domestic political support and to pressure Israel to ease the economic situation,” they write. “Israel responds with its own escalation, including military strikes inside Gaza and punitive economic measures that further choke the Strip.” Once the fighting starts, it’s not clear how much it’ll escalate. Sometimes it ends swiftly and with minimal loss of life. Other times — as in 2008 to 2009, 2012, and 2014 — it turns into an all-out war, with hundreds of (mostly Palestinian) casualties. The current fighting is rapidly moving in that direction, with Israeli leaders pledging to continue the bombardment of Gaza indefinitely. “The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] will continue to strike and bring complete silence for the long term,” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on May 12. Adel Hana/AP A damaged building in Gaza City that was hit by an Israeli airstrike on May 12. Ultimately, the warring parties either unilaterally decide to stop bombing, or else agree to an internationally brokered settlement that does little to change the fundamental dynamics. This is the nature of current conflict: Many people die, and many more suffer, without any real prospect for change. “The question isn’t why this keeps happening,” Elgindy says. “It’s why anyone isn’t doing anything to prevent it from [continuing to] happen.” The doom loop has deep roots in Israeli politics It’s clear that that this status quo produces horrors. The problem, though, is that these terrible costs are seen as basically tolerable by the political leadership of all the major parties. Hamas continues to be able to rule Gaza and reaps the political benefits from being the party of armed resistance to Israeli occupation. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas appears cowed by Hamas’s power — most analysts believe he canceled the Palestinian election because he thought he would lose — and so is content to let Israel keep his rivals contained in Gaza. Israel is the most powerful actor of the three: It controls access to the Gaza Strip and operates a military occupation in the West Bank. If the Israeli leadership wanted to take actions to short-circuit the cycle of violence, like easing the blockade of Gaza, it could. But despite the persistent rocket threat, the leadership isn’t willing to try something new. Why? The last time I was in Israel, on a reporting trip in November 2019, I spoke with Yehuda Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence, a group that helps Israeli soldiers tell their stories about service in the Palestinian territories. He told me that the traditional categories used to describe politics — left, right, and center — are fundamentally inadequate when it comes to explaining what happens in Israel. These days, he argues, most of Israel’s leadership falls into what he terms the “annexation” camp or the “control” camp. The annexationists are Jewish extremists, who want to formally seize large chunks of Palestinian land while either expelling its residents or denying them political rights — ethnic cleansing or apartheid. The “control” camp, which includes current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sees things primarily through the lens of military and physical security: how the Palestinians are ruled is less important than minimizing the threat they pose to Israeli lives. “The driving principle [of the control camp] is a national security idea,” Shaul explains. “We are in a zero sum game: between the river and the sea, there is room for one sovereign power. It’s either us or the Palestinians.” The status quo in Gaza serves both groups. From the annexationist view, keeping the Palestinians weak and divided allows Israeli settlements to keep expanding and the seizure of both the West Bank and East Jerusalem to continue apace. Lifting the blockade on Gaza, and working to promote some kind of renewed peace process involving both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, jeopardizes the agenda of “Greater Israel.” “It is Israeli policy to fragment Palestinians politically and geographically, to isolate them into these different areas. It’s classic colonial strategy of divide and conquer,” Elgindy says. Majdi Mohammed/AP Palestinians mourn Rasheed Abu Arra, who was killed while confronting Israeli forces in Aqqaba near the West Bank town of Tubas, on May 12. Majdi Mohammed/AP Rasheed Abu Arra’s mother lays hands over her son. Meanwhile, the “control” camp sees this as the least bad option. Any easing of the Gaza blockade would risk Hamas breaking containment and expanding its presence in the West Bank, which would be far more dangerous than the rockets — a threat heavily mitigated by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. In this analysis, periodic flare-ups are a price that has to be paid to minimize the threat to Israeli lives — with heavy escalations like this one required to restore a basically tolerable status quo. I witnessed one of these flare-ups on the same trip where I met Shaul, reporting from Israel and the West Bank as Israel and Hamas exchanged fire. After a few days of mayhem and air raid sirens, life just went back to normal in Israel — as if nothing had happened, as if dozens of Palestinian lives had not just been snuffed out (there were no Israeli deaths in that round). “A lot of the Israeli security and political establishment has sort of internalized this idea that ... there’s a sort of stable equilibrium,” says Koplow. “You get occasional rockets, and Israel will respond with a few missile strikes on Gaza, but it happens very occasionally and things immediately quiet down.” For much of Israeli history, a third camp — which Shaul calls the “equality” camp — presented a different vision for achieving Israel’s security needs. Epitomized by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government formed in 1992, it believed that Palestinians deserved a political voice as a matter of principle — either in a single state or, more typically, through a two-state arrangement. Such an agreement would sap Palestinian support for violent groups like Hamas by taking away the population’s underlying grievance: the lack of a state to call their own. Yet the equality camp practically collapsed after the failure of the peace process and the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Its political vehicles among Israeli Jews, the Labor and Meretz parties, make up a little more than 10 percent of Israel’s current Knesset (parliament). The result is indefinite occupation with no end in sight; no fundamental rethinking of the approach to either Gaza or the West Bank. “As a society, the view is that the risks necessary to solve [the conflict with the Palestinians] are not worth it and it won’t work,” Goldenberg says. “So all we can deal with is the problem in front of us today, without really thinking long-term. We’ll deal with the other problems tomorrow — that’s basically the Israeli attitude.” None of this excuses Hamas from its role in escalating the current conflict, or makes the deep divisions between Palestinians themselves less significant. The status quo is not only Israel’s fault. But the Israeli government sets the terms for how Israelis and Palestinians interact, the underlying policy architecture that shapes the options available to the various different sides. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images An image of the Dome of the Rock constructed with rubber bullets and stun grenades fired by Israeli police against Palestinians in Jerusalem on May 10. So long as the annexation and control camps are in the driver’s seat in Israel, it will pursue policies that aim to maintain control over Palestinian land while simultaneously minimizing the security threats intrinsic to the enterprise of military rule over a hostile population. The Gaza situation is an outgrowth of this reality, the sort of policy that one pursues in a world where a more fundamental revision is ideologically foreclosed. Barring some international intervention, it’s hard to see how things get much better — and easy to see how the same terrible things keep happening, over and over again.
Open for a surprise: The endearing results of Twitter’s new image crop
Twitter Twitter users rarely agree on anything. When they do, it’s an opportunity for community building. Twitter recently made a small but striking change to its interface: It changed the aspect ratio of cropped images on users’ mobile feeds, meaning many photos that would usually be cropped can now be displayed in their entirety. The sudden shift — one among a slew of changes Twitter began testing in March — gave many people the impression that the social media site had done away with automatic image cropping overnight. (In actuality, the old cropping ratio is still in effect on desktop browsers, and cropping is still happening on mobile but in a different ratio.) Once users started noticing, celebrations ensued, with an outpouring of art-sharing, meme-making, and gentle ribbing. The response provides an interesting lesson in how we use social media and why such unexpected changes often become opportunities for vital community building. Welcome to the vertical art party! Two of the fundamental truths about modern social media is that every platform has its own quirks, and that different communities of users evolve and transform these characteristics in a way that makes each platform unique. Whether they’re well-liked, core features (such as Twitter’s overall brevity) or inconveniences users must work around (like Twitter’s lack of an edit button), it’s how a platform’s users respond to and incorporate these traits into their daily lives that matters. On Tumblr, for example, users evolved the “gifset,” a bundle of interlocking animated images that tell a story and could really only exist as a creative entity on Tumblr. On Vine, the fact a video could only be six seconds long became the linchpin of the entire platform, spawning a new medium of microvideos that continue to shape internet culture. One of TikTok’s defining qualities is the ability to reuse audio from someone else’s videos; while lots of sites enable remixes, TikTok users, building off earlier apps such as (which merged with TikTok in 2018), routinely utilize each other’s original art as the basis for glorious strings of duets, virtual choirs, and other vocal creations. Less popular features and quirks can reliably unite an entire community in complaining. On Twitter, users have spent years lobbying for an image crop that works correctly. Twitter began to crop photos around 2014, when it introduced different default aspect ratios for users to apply to their own photos during uploading. At one point in 2015, it announced it would completely do away with image cropping; it later reneged on that decision, and by 2018 it was using AI image detection to automatically crop the images people added to their tweets, much to their chagrin. Until this recent change, the auto-crop feature typically forced all images, regardless of size and original framing, into a landscape orientation, often trimming photos in unpredictable and sometimes nonsensical ways. The desire to circumvent the Twitter crop grew so strong that elaborate tutorials emerged explaining exactly how to crop and display images so they’d show in their entirety without being placed on the algorithmic chopping block. Another way Twitter users evolved and adapted to the crop is the “open for a surprise!” meme, where they strategically post photos (knowing Twitter will crop out the best parts) and invite others to click on the full version for a “surprise.” For example: Twitter Clicking into the photo reveals a bevy of kittens — surprise! With the Twitter crop thoroughly established as a source of both endless hilarity and petty annoyance, the change in aspect ratios quickly became cause for celebration. While some users understandably mourned the hit to the “open for a surprise!” meme, conversation about the new image crop spread across the platform, with trends like “RIP Twitter crop” and #VerticalArtParty gaining traction. RIP Twitter crop!Here is a favorite that I took recently in NYC— Rishi (@rishi_kara) May 5, 2021 It’s time for a #VerticalArtParty ! Post your vertical art that got slaughtered by twitter crop!This one is an old pencil piece of mine. I misspelled my last name on it because I finished it after an all nighter.— Karla Ortiz (@kortizart) May 5, 2021 To be clear, the site hasn’t actually done away with the crop; it’s merely changed the aspect ratio, meaning awkward crops can still happen. Twitter Or maybe, depending on your point of view, it’s still a fun gift: "open for a surprise" still works if you try hard enough— vy ️ (@vyxnilla) May 6, 2021 And because the new crop ratio still applies only to mobile and not laptop browsers right now, the issue of presentation is still a source of frustration for many artists. For example: desktop really said yes crop behead unicorn...— isadora zeferino (@imzeferino) May 5, 2021 People have already started updating their image guidelines, which are very important to visual artists who use Twitter, to accommodate the new crop ratio. It is unclear whether the recent change is permanent, whether more changes are forthcoming, or when, if ever, the new ratio will be applied to desktop browsers. Still, there’s another crucial reason to celebrate the change. The new crop ratio may help combat racist tendencies in Twitter’s AI Twitter’s automatic image-crop function is supposed to algorithmically detect the subject of a photo before cropping it. But its AI’s judgment is often revealing. Sometime the results are funny. Consider this photo of Untamed star Xiao Zhan walking away from the camera, which the algorithm cropped very pointedly: Twitter But as some users have periodically pointed out, there are very serious biases at work in the autofocus algorithm Twitter uses: Like many other algorithms, it has a tendency to be racist. People began noticing and testing how it worked in September 2020, and they repeatedly demonstrated that the algorithm defaulted to showing white people over Black people. The tweet below shows Twitter’s algorithm automatically cropped two images to display the lighter-skinned person, each time in instances where they’re displayed at opposite ends of a photo shot in portrait orientation: Trying a horrible experiment...Which will the Twitter algorithm pick: Mitch McConnell or Barack Obama?— Tony “Abolish ICE” Arcieri (@bascule) September 19, 2020 Here are the original, uncropped images from that tweet: Twitter automatically focused on the lighter-skinned man in both photos. In response to tweets calling out these examples of racial bias, a Twitter spokesperson apologized and promised the site would keep hacking away at the algorithm, noting, “It’s clear from these examples that we’ve got more analysis to do.” The newly revised crop ratio seems to be a direct result of Twitter’s promise to work on finding a solution, as many users were quick to speculate. Hey, do you think twitter removing crop was because it took them 6 months to try fixing the old crop's racism problem and finally went "fuck it, can't crop out Black faces if you don't crop in the first place"— Anosognosiogenesis (@pookleblinky) May 7, 2021 It’s unclear whether the new crop ratio has actually addressed the issue of automatic detection bias. Different users are reportedly seeing different results when uploading older images meant to test the algorithm. What we’re left with, then, is a platform that’s flawed but also in flux — and it’s when Twitter is in flux that we get glimpses of what really knits an internet community together. The updated image crop gave many Twitter users a moment of connection I didn’t realize the “twitter crop” was a point of contention for so many people.— Kelechi (@heykelechi) May 6, 2021 It’s not really surprising that so many people care so deeply about the Twitter crop, if you think about the platform not as a bunch of code but as a village. The inhabitants of that village all have their specific gripes about village life — but sharing those gripes and occasional joys with their neighbors is part of what makes the village feel like home. You don’t have to be an artist or a photographer to appreciate that when thousands of artists flood Twitter’s virtual streets with outpourings of creativity, all in response to a relatively banal code change, it’s not really about a couple of extra pixels. Sure, it’s partly about the satisfaction of being able to post tall images, but it’s also about everyone experiencing the same change and having something to celebrate together. No more crop??— Izz. (@izzakko) May 5, 2021 This shared collectivity undergirds much of the internet. For better or worse, the desire to do what everyone else is doing is a key motivating factor behind the spread of memes: You see someone making a meme, you want to make a version of the meme, and the meme spreads. This principle usually doesn’t apply to coding changes on a social media platform, but perhaps it should. As I said above, internet communities build themselves around each platform’s individual quirks and uniqueness. So when those things change, the community enters a moment of flux where it can choose how to react. Will it respond with backlash, a flurry of complaints, a mass exodus? Or will the community adjust and adapt? In the case of Twitter’s new crop ratio on mobile, people found an opportunity for communion, a rare event in an era of increasingly polarized social media discourse. More pixels showing up on people’s phone screens became a way to find connection — and to showcase gorgeous art, of course. Twitter is an ephemeral platform, with continuity and consensus sustained by retweets, hashtags, and memes. While not typically a repository of nuanced cultural debate, the site frequently yields great beauty, whether through viral pet videos, stunning photography, or mesmerizing artwork. It’s significant that many Twitter users rallied around an updated image crop as an example of positive change: Even when the site’s community can’t agree on anything else, it can generally agree that more art and creativity is a good thing. The new ability to better showcase that art and creativity is an unexpected win for us all.
A crypto billionaire donated $1 billion to India. Make sure you include an asterisk.
Vitalik Buterlin is a 27-year-old billionaire philanthropist. | David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images The saga highlights just how uncharted the territory is in the world of crypto philanthropy. A cryptocurrency billionaire seems to have made one of the largest contributions to save lives in India from the coronavirus pandemic: Over $1 billion. But as there so often is in the world of cryptocurrency, there is a massive catch. And it’s a catch that over the next few years will likely come up again and again and again as crypto billionaires ascend to become major players in the world of philanthropy. Here’s what happened: Vitalik Buterlin, the 27-year-old programmer who founded the cryptocurrency Ethereum, disclosed on Wednesday that he had contributed about $1.5 billion worth of coins to nonprofit organizations, some of which came in his own (and relatively stable) Ether. But $1 billion of that came in a donation of a more … unusual type. He donated it in the form of a meme digital currency called Shiba Inu Coin — yes, after the dog breed — that Buterlin was gifted for free. (Like the popular DogeCoin, which also features the dog as its mascot, the Shiba Coin has much hype but questionable underlying value.) But then, as is prone to happen in the topsy-turvy world of meme assets, Shiba Coin proceeded to tank in value immediately after Buterlin’s donation was disclosed — perhaps because buyers and sellers expected the billionaire to soon liquidate his holdings. The saga highlights just how uncharted the territory is in the world of crypto philanthropy — and perhaps the need to come up with a new vocabulary to describe these donations altogether. Should the donation of a meme cryptocurrency be considered equivalent to the donation of a publicly listed stock? What is a “real” donation, what deserves an asterisk, and who gets to make that call? And how can billionaires protect the value of their crypto donations — while also making sure that nonprofits can actually use their money? That all matters because there is a new generation of philanthropists who have built massive fortunes in not just traditional cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and but also in more out-there coins like those inspired by Dogecoin, the meme digital asset pumped up by Elon Musk. Nonprofits want to welcome these donors, but need to figure out how to handle assets that can tank in value overnight. What happened with Buterlin is instructive. Some of his contributions on Wednesday came in Ether, the highly-traded cryptocurrency and relatively older coin that he founded back in 2015. $50 million worth of Ether went to GiveWell, for instance, an intermediary that dispenses money to nonprofits that are proven to be the most effective based on rigorous data analysis. The price of Ether was relatively stable after his donation. But most of the headline value of the donation — and possibly also the tax writeoff that comes with it, depending on how the gift was structured — came from the memecoin, not Ether. Buterlin was given about 50% last year of the total supply of the coin, which is meant as an imitator to Dogecoin. But as soon as Buterlin’s donation became public, the value of the coin plummeted about 40%. That meant that the nonprofit, the India Covid-Crypto Relief, suddenly had less money on its hands than it did when Buterlin made the donation just moments before. And because of concerns that it could drop even further, the nonprofit’s head had to put out word that they would “act responsibly” to not hurt the price of the Shiba coin. That might mean not selling large chunks of the currency at once to covert into cash and tangible Covid-19 aid. That sensitivity could mean less liquid money for the relief fund to help India weather the humanitarian crisis that is gripping the country. The country is suffering from an oxygen shortage and is the world’s most troubling hotspot during this phase of the pandemic, with over 4,000 reported deaths some days. To be sure, this is hardly the first time that a billionaire has made donations in difficult-to-liquidate assets — whether it is rare art or stock in public companies that are held by current C-suite executives. But the rise of cryptocurrencies in the last few years has posed unique accounting and logistical challenges to institutions like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a favorite philanthropy of the tech billionaire class. But it’s clear that this problem, so to speak, is only going to get worse. While many mature nonprofits today are comfortable accepting a digital asset like Bitcoin, what new, volatile coins will the ingenious billionaire set seek to donate in the future? And this is increasingly not a fringe hypothetical, given that crypto billionaires are all over the list of the wealthiest people in the world. There is real money on the line, whether the donations come in Bitcoin or Shiba coin. And the world will have to adapt to these crypto billionaires if it wants to see their riches put to good use.
1 d
Beers, doughnuts, and discounts: The growing list of vaccine freebies
New Jersey residents who’ve received their first vaccine dose can receive a free beer at a participating brewery for the month of May. | Getty Images Half of American adults have received one vaccine dose. Could incentives close the gap? It’s been almost a month since all American adults were deemed eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine. About 50 percent of Americans have received one dose so far, and cases in the US are on the decline. And while the pool of people who have expressed hesitation about being vaccinated has shrunk, vaccine incentives have become mainstream, initiated by corporations and politicians alike. Major corporations began announcing initiatives that “strongly encouraged” employee vaccination as early as February, with some offering extra pay and bonuses. As of late, however, such messaging has been geared toward the general public. In May, the White House announced a nationwide partnership with Uber and Lyft to offer free rides to and from vaccination sites from May 24 until July 4; it will also work with national grocery chains, retailers, and sports leagues to offer discounts and promotions for those who have been vaccinated. Local governments, in partnership with small businesses, have also championed freebies, with some leaning on booze or cash. New Jersey residents who’ve received their first vaccine dose can get a free beer at a participating brewery in May; so will Connecticut locals at certain restaurants from May 19 to May 31. More than two dozen Miami Beach businesses will offer free drinks and discounts throughout the end of the month; Chicago will host a concert series available to fully vaccinated residents starting May 22; and New Yorkers will be eligible for free tickets or deals to attractions like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. Meanwhile, cash incentives have been wielded more strategically: West Virginia will offer $100 savings bonds to 16- to 35-year-olds, in an effort to boost vaccination rates among young people. Maryland will pay state employees $100 to get a vaccine, and Detroit residents can receive a $50 prepaid card by participating in a city program to schedule and drive a neighbor to a vaccination site. A host of smaller limited-time vaccination deals have also made headlines. On April 20, for example, DC marijuana activists handed out free joints outside the city’s vaccination sites. The city of New Orleans will give vaccine recipients at one local clinic a free pound of crawfish on May 13, from 4 to 7 pm. So far, research suggests that some incentives are more effective in encouraging shots than others: Surveys conducted by researchers at UCLA determined that monetary payments and the ability to walk around maskless were the two strongest motivating factors when it came to getting vaccinated, although some experts are cautious of how financial offers could backfire. David Asch, executive director of the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation, said in a recent interview with the Association of American Medical Colleges that money only works if people are already interested in pursuing a behavior. “If someone really doesn’t want to get vaccinated, I’m not sure there’s an amount of money we’d be willing to offer that would also work,” he said. “If we do offer money, we might actually inflame their concerns. Someone who has a lot of distrust of the vaccine might think, ‘They’d never offer money if this was a good thing.’” This was a similar line of concern for employers, who worried that such strategies could be seen as coercive or even discriminatory to those who are medically unable to take vaccines. “If someone really doesn’t want to get vaccinated, I’m not sure there’s an amount of money we’d be willing to offer that would also work” The varying levels of skepticism and hesitancy toward the vaccine make it challenging to gauge how effective incentives can be. Some might change their minds after observing the vaccine’s side effects on friends and family, and a freebie can provide an extra nudge. Others will be harder to convince. According to data from UCLA’s Covid-19 Health and Politics Project, a quarter of unvaccinated people say they don’t trust the government’s motives, and 14 percent believe Covid-19 is not a threat to them. The free incentives offered by local governments are generally geared toward those who’ve been on the fence or are in no hurry to receive a shot. Asch referred to a strategy called “social norming,” which leads people to actions when it seems like everyone around them is participating. People tend to be emotional rather than rational, he added, which is why incentives need to “anticipate the ways in which we’re not rational.” Online, people have shared all sorts of random anecdotes as to what motivated their family members and friends to get a shot. “I just found out that my dad is literally only getting vaccinated because of the krispy kreme thing,” one person shared in a viral (albeit unverifiable) tweet. In New York’s Erie County, a free beer promotion at a local brewery led to more than 100 vaccinations in one afternoon, according to the Buffalo News. According to a county executive, the brewery vaccine site attracted more people than most first-dose clinics in the past week. Convenience could also be a highly influential factor in whether a person is vaccinated. A number of unvaccinated Americans aren’t opposed or even skeptical to the vaccine, the New York Times reported, citing a new US Census estimate. About 30 million Americans just haven’t managed to, as a result of work schedules, language barriers, lack of transportation, disabilities, or other accessibility issues. “Hesitancy makes a better story because you’ve got controversy,” Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Times. “But there’s a bigger problem of access than there is of hesitancy.” Certain freebies, like Uber and Lyft rides, could mitigate the prevailing problem of vaccine access, in addition to distribution location. Some states and cities are also shifting away from mass vaccination sites and considering more community-focused methods. Still, incentives come in handy because Americans love free stuff, even as some complain about the lengths needed to encourage others to get a vaccine. For what it’s worth, the “shot and beer” program has garnered enthusiasm among New Jersey residents, who thinks the strategy is in line with the state’s cultural reputation. Similar incentives have popped up nationwide, from Illinois to Minnesota to Colorado, leading people to declare, “I’d get the vaccine again if I can get free beer.”
2 d
The prospects for Democrats’ major voting rights bill look grim in the Senate
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). | Patrick Smith/Getty Images The filibuster is a problem, but it’s not the only problem. Congressional Democrats have declared the For the People Act their must-pass voting rights bill, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer saying that “failure is not an option.” But what if the must-pass bill can’t pass? That’s the dilemma party leaders may be forced to confront soon, as they try to move the bill, which passed the House in March, through the Senate. The upper chamber’s Democrats plan to meet to discuss strategy around the bill on Thursday. The nearly 800-page bill (often referred to by “HR 1” or “S 1,” its numbering in each chamber) would overhaul elections policy in the United States, setting national standards aimed at making it easier for more people to vote, outlawing partisan gerrymandering, and supercharging the power of small donations to federal candidates, among many other provisions. With the Republican Party becoming increasingly hostile to the idea of respecting election results (as seen in the purge of Rep. Liz Cheney from the House GOP’s leadership), Democrats argue something must be done to protect American democracy. Specifically, the For the People Act would counteract many voting restrictions passed by Republicans on the state level, and try to preempt a new round of partisan gerrymandering in GOP-controlled states. The bill has many provisions that poll well, but it faces formidable obstacles to passage through the Senate — from the filibuster to critiques from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to quieter misgivings from other Democrats. It doesn’t currently seem that Democrats have a plausible strategy for overcoming those obstacles. Schumer has indicated that his first step will be to try to unite all 50 Senate Democrats around the bill, rather than rushing toward consideration of a rules change aimed at getting it past the filibuster. That would entail winning over Manchin. But even if he achieves that, he’d also have to get Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and other moderates on board with changing the Senate’s rules. It won’t be easy. Four obstacles to the For the People Act’s chances of passing The For the People Act’s first problem is, of course, the legislative filibuster. Under current Senate rules, this bill would take 60 votes to advance past a certain GOP filibuster. Democrats have only 50 Senate seats, so they’d need to win over 10 Republicans. That isn’t happening — congressional Republicans have uniformly opposed the bill, believing it would hurt their party’s chances at winning elections. So for it to pass in anything like its current form, a change to Senate rules would be necessary. Democrats theoretically could ram through a rules change with their votes alone, either to abolish the filibuster entirely or to create a special new exemption to it for voting rights bills. The second problem, then, is that moderate Democrats simply don’t want to change the Senate’s rules to weaken the filibuster. Sens. Manchin and Sinema have been the most outspoken opponents of a rules change — Manchin told me last month that “if we get rid of the filibuster, we would lose the purpose of this democracy.” An unknown number of other moderate Democrats sympathize with this view. So they don’t have the votes for a rules change right now. The third problem is that, even if Democrats lined up the votes to abolish the filibuster somehow, Manchin has said he’s inclined to oppose any party-line effort to overhaul voting in the country. “How in the world could you, with the tension we have right now, allow a voting bill to restructure the voting of America on a partisan line?” he asked, arguing that such a move would fuel more “anarchy” of the kind that occurred at the Capitol on January 6. If Manchin holds firm on this, the For the People Act is essentially dead. Then there’s a fourth problem — that other congressional Democrats quietly have misgivings about aspects of the For the People Act, as I wrote in April. The party has near-unanimity around the bill in public, with all but one House Democrat voting for it, and every Senate Democrat except Manchin co-sponsors it. But some members of the Congressional Black Caucus aren’t thrilled about it (fearing its redistricting reforms would dilute predominantly Black districts), and moderate senators have doubts as well. So there’s really only one even remotely plausibleway the For the People Act can become law: All 50 Democratic senators, including Manchin, have to be united in support of not only the bill itself (meaning either the bill has to change or the holdouts have to cave) but also of a Senate rules change that would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority and escape a filibuster. Activists say they’ll fight to try to make sure that happens, with Ezra Levin of the progressive group Indivisible telling NBC News, “We are at an inflection point in American history. Down one path is a Trump-inspired white plutocracy, and down the other is a representative democracy.” But it’s unclear whether these activists have any leverage in dealing with Manchin, who is the last Democrat standing in a state that Trump won by a margin of nearly 39 points in 2020. Progressives hope someone — whether that’s Schumer, President Joe Biden, or someone else — can figure out how to make Manchin move. In the end, though, the decision will be up to him. And when I asked him about the filibuster, he said his recent op-ed declaring there is “no circumstance” in which he will vote to weaken or eliminate it means what it says. “If you want to argue about it for two years,” he told me, “then you’re going to waste a lot of your energy and your time.” If he holds firm, that puts Democratic leaders in quite an awkward position. They’ve insisted to their base that passing this bill is essential to preserve American democracy — yet they may not be able to actually do it.
2 d
Tesla is casting a spotlight on the government’s struggle to keep up with self-driving cars
Tesla is one of several car companies introducing increasingly autonomous features into cars meant to be operated by human drivers. | Toru Hanai/Bloomberg via Getty Images Concerns about features like Autopilot aren’t going unnoticed in Washington. Tesla’s Autopilot software, an advanced driver assistance feature, is in the news again. And not in a good way. Over the weekend, a short video of a person sitting in the back seat of a driverless Tesla operating on public roads in California caught the internet’s attention. The six-second video shows a man staring out the window from the back of the Tesla that’s driving down the road. There’s nobody in the driver’s seat. California Highway Patrol says it’s now searching for the man behind the “unusual incident.” This latest viral video may not even be the first time this particular person has tried the stunt and is especially concerning since two people died in a Tesla crash in Texas last month. Following the crash, local authorities suggested that no one was in the driver’s seat, causing speculation that the vehicle was being operated through its driver assistance feature Autopilot, a claim that Tesla CEO Elon Musk and other executives at the company disputed. A preliminary report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that Autopilot couldn’t have been in use at the time of the crash. The NTSB is continuing to research the accident, and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting its own investigation. Still, the event highlights the dangerous, ongoing confusion over Tesla’s autonomous driving capabilities and how people are using them.All new Tesla vehicles come with all the sensors and cameras the company says it needs to deliver autonomous driving features, though the technology is not quite the same as more elaborate setups you might see in self-driving cars from companies like Waymo. In fact, Tesla drivers can buy both the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features as software upgrades. There even seems to be some confusion between Musk and Tesla over what the self-driving features can do. A newly published public records report shows Tesla officials saying that Elon Musk has been overpromising the autonomous abilities of Tesla cars. Musk said in January that he’s “extremely confident” that Tesla cars will reach full autonomy by the end of this year. He’s made similar statements over the past five years. Ongoing concerns about Tesla highlight how lawmakers and regulators are struggling to keep up with self-driving technology that’s showing up in cars that aren’t quite fully autonomous. While states make their own rules for the testing of self-driving vehicles, federal standards for commercially available vehicles are set by the NHTSA. The body can also exempt a certain number of vehicles from these standards for the purpose of testing self-driving cars. But there’s still ongoing debate about how the government should approach the increasingly autonomous features popping up in our everyday cars. Now some members of Congress are pushing the Transportation Department to do more, and through new proposed legislation, lawmakers are broadening the agency’s role in order to evaluate the safety and efficacy of new features, like pedestrian avoidance and driver monitoring. Last week, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) proposed new legislation that would force the agency to study crash avoidance tech, following up on legislation reintroduced this year that would force companies with advanced driver assistance tech to monitor that drivers are actually paying attention. But as long as car companies, like Tesla, continue to push out new, ever-more-autonomous features — without clear regulatory standards — people will be driving in a potentially dangerous gray zone. Self-driving car tech, briefly explained While fully autonomous cars that don’t need a human driver behind the wheel are still in development, plenty of semi-autonomous features are already available in the vehicles that are on the road.These tools use different types of sensors to observe what’s happening on the road, and then employ sophisticated computing power to make decisions for the vehicle. The transition to fully autonomous vehicles isn’t happening all at once. It’s happening gradually as individual features that require the driver to do less and less get rolled out. The NHTSA sorts autonomy into six levels, where Level 0 has no autonomous features and Level 5 is fully autonomous and doesn’t require a driver. “Right now, the automation systems that are on the road from companies such as Tesla, Mercedes, GM, and Volvo, are Level 2, meaning the car controls steering and speed on a well-marked highway, but a driver still has to supervise,” explained Vox’s Emily Stewart in 2019. “By comparison, a Honda vehicle equipped with its ‘Sensing’ suite of technologies, including adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance, and emergency braking detection, is a Level 1.” Sorting out and enforcing the dividing line between these various levels of autonomy has proven complicated and can give people a false sense of security in these cars’ capabilities. Tesla’s Autopilot feature, in particular, has been a source of confusion. Autopilot allows the car to operate itself within a given lane, combining a cruise control feature and an auto-steering feature. In the recently published documents that showed the gap between what Elon Musk has said in public about Autopilot’s capabilities and what the feature can actually do, the California Department of Motor Vehicles said that “Tesla is currently at Level 2.” Since at least 2016, Musk has been saying that every new Tesla could drive itself, a claim he’s repeated many times. Tesla officials have said privately that what Musk says about Autopilot and full self-driving capabilities for Tesla’s vehicles does not “match engineering reality.” (Waymo, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, dropped the term “self-driving” earlier this year and committed to using “more deliberate language” in its marketing.) Autopilot currently requires drivers to pay attention and keep their hands on the steering wheel. But drivers can end up overrelying on the tech, and it appears some have figured out ways to avoid Tesla’s related safety features. There have been multiple videos showing people riding alone in the back seat of Tesla vehicles, and people have been caught asleep at the wheel presumably with Autopilot engaged. There is also a growing list of Autopilot-related crashes. At the same time, Tesla has moved to beef up Autopilot’s autonomous capabilities by adding a feature for automatic lane changing and is now rolling out the full self-driving feature in beta mode to a small group of drivers. The company promises to make its cars fully autonomous and plans a broad release later this year. But it’s not clear that Autopilot is entirely safe. The NHTSA is investigating 23 crashes that may have involved Tesla Autopilot. Tesla, which dissolved its PR department last year, did not reply to Recode’s request for comment. Federal agencies like the NHTSA are supposed to be taking the lead on setting standards for evaluating autonomous features. However, in April, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) urged the agency to “develop recommendations for improving automated driving and driver assistance systems” and “implement policy changes that stop these preventable deaths from occurring.” They’re not alone, and other members of Congress have been also been thinking about creating new rules, like expanding the number of self-driving exemptions the NHSTA can give. Even car manufacturers have signed on to the idea that the NHSTA could do more. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group that represents carmakers like Ford and General Motors, says that forward collision warnings, automatic braking, and lane assistance tech need to be evaluated by regulators and included in NHSTA’s new car rating system. Lawmakers want murky standards improved Lawmakers, safety advocates, and even representatives of the industry are demanding more discerning federal standards to govern autonomous features, including crash avoidance features and driver assistance tools built into cars that are already on the road. These critics are specifically calling for more research from the Transportation Department, a task they say is important even before fully self-driving cars are on the road. “Before we get to autonomous technology that can do everything that people can do, there’s a real opportunity to introduce lifesaving technology into vehicles that people will still be driving,” said Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit that focuses on auto industry consumers. The NHTSA has created testing protocols for some features, like collision warnings and automatic emergency braking. It has also requested public comment on what autonomous vehicle safety rules should be. But the agency has yet to create any national standards for how well crash avoidance and driver assistance features ought to perform, according to Ensar Becic, an investigator for highway safety for the NTSB. Still, cars are increasingly being equipped with increasingly autonomous features. As automakers debut more and more advanced driver and safety features and inch toward more self-driving abilities, NHSTA has recommended more and more of these tools. But there’s also growing concern that the agency isn’t providing enough information about how well these tools should actually work. “Manufacturers are out there advertising their different versions of this technology, without any true sense of oversight,” Levine added. Now lawmakers think the NHTSA and the Transportation Department as a whole should have a role in more stringently evaluating this tech. Last month, Sens. Markey, Blumenthal, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) reintroduced the Stay Aware for Everyone Act, which would require the Department of Transportation to look at how driver assistance tools, like Tesla’s Autopilot, are impacting driver disengagement and distraction, and would mandate that companies institute driver monitoring tools to make sure drivers are paying attention to the road. “With NHTSA often slow to act and auto manufacturers rushing to put new autonomous features in cars, this bill and other congressional action that puts public and driver safety first is necessary,” Blumenthal told Recode. He’s also urging President Joe Biden to fill the vacancy for NHTSA administrator to “ensure our country’s top auto safety agency has the leadership needed as this new technology rapidly advances.” Others also want a better system for regulating how well these autonomous features perform. The legislation Rush, the Democratic representative from Illinois, introduced last week with his Republican co-sponsor Larry Bucshon (R-IN) would order Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to commission a study on the safety of crash avoidance features and how well these systems identify pedestrians and cyclists with different skin tones. The bill, called the Crash Avoidance System Evaluation Act, comes after research from the Georgia Institute of Technology finding that people with darker skin tones are less accurately detected by technology that could be used in self-driving cars. “We certainly do not want to unleash vehicles on our nation’s streets and highways that can’t guarantee all Americans, all pedestrians, all bicyclists that they are protected equally,” Rush told Recode. “I am concerned … the technology can’t guarantee that I have the same protection against being harmed by a self-driving vehicle as someone who has a darker skin tone or a lighter skin tone.” Rush’s proposal, Levine added, would force the agency to make this key type of safety information public. In February, the NTSB chair wrote to the NHTSA urging the agency to develop performance standards for collision avoidance features, like vehicle detection and emergency braking. “We know that creating new motor vehicle safety standards or revising old ones to bring up to date is very time-consuming and very resource-intensive,” said Will Wallace, the manager for safety policy at Consumer Reports. “This is an agency that is chronically underfunded. The agency doesn’t have anywhere near the resources that it needs to protect the public effectively. It’s incumbent on Congress to give the agency what it really needs.” Lack of detailed requirements for these kinds of autonomous tools put the US behind other parts of the world, including new car rating systems in Japan, Australia, and Europe. The US’s new car assessment program doesn’t rate these advantaged technologies, explained Becic of the NTSB. Neither automatic braking nor lane assistance features are designed to allow a car to operate without a driver’s full attention. And, again, the public availability of fully autonomous cars is still years away. Some think that moment may never arrive. Still, these features set a foundation for what regulating roads full of self-driving vehicles could eventually involve. Figuring out how to regulate autonomous car features is important not just for cars that already offer them — it’s key to building a future where the roads are safe for everyone.
2 d
The many Asian Americas
Illustration by Julia Kuo for Vox Six writers on where they grew up and how it shaped their identities. This article is part of the Asian American identity series. For the fast-growing group of roughly 23 million Asian Americans, where a person grows up can have a particularly profound effect on their sense of cultural identity. The Asian diaspora spreads across all 50 states. But the largest Asian populations tend to be in diverse coastal cities where immigrants have historically clustered. The largest Asian American community by population is in New York City, while the next four — Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, and San Diego — are in California, which sits on the coast closer to the Asian continent. These locations have deep ties to the history of Asian migration, and Chinese neighborhoods in many of these cities date back to the 1800s, when migrants started arriving in large numbers as laborers. Hawaii, too, has a long history of Filipino, Japanese, and other Asian arrivals who migrated to work as laborers and remained on the islands. Honolulu today is the American city with the highest percentage of Asian Americans, who make up almost 70 percent of the population. Still, many Asian Americans don’t grow up in places like Honolulu, but in diverse cities or enclaves far from the coasts or mostly white rural towns or suburbs. And many who responded to a recent Vox survey about Asian American identity told us that where they grew up (and where they eventually moved) had a significant impact on how they perceived themselves. “It was infuriating when I first came to the US and moved to a small town in Alabama and experienced my first racial mocking and physical harassment at middle school.” “I think I was relatively fortunate to not experience too much overt racism, coming from a lower-income, multicultural neighborhood.” “I grew up in a very white, upper-middle-class area, and I just wanted to fit in. I hid my Asianness throughout my entire childhood.” “As a third-generation ‘American’ having lived most of my life in Hawaii, I don’t even know if I can really say I’ve experienced any ‘real’ racism that was meant to be hateful.” “The PEN15 episode where Maya has to be Scary Spice was ripped scene-for-scene from my childhood. I moved to the Bay Area to raise my kids so that they don’t have to experience the ‘othering’ in the way that I did.” “I grew up in an Irish Italian Catholic suburb. The racism I encountered was annoying but ultimately benign.” “Having lived mostly in California and Hawaii, I think we have it easy, as opposed to my cousins who grew up in Texas.” “I grew up as one of few Asians and the only Cantonese person in my Southern US community. How I feel about being Asian is quite different as an adult living in Los Angeles, where being Asian is far more common.” We also asked six Asian American writers to share how they were shaped by their environments, and whether there were places they eventually visited that challenged their notions of identity. Their responses revealed a patchwork of different experiences in the many Asian Americas that exist across the country, from small, homogeneous towns to diverse, working-class city communities to wealthy white suburbs. While racial identity is only one facet of a person’s life, for these writers, growing up in or eventually discovering a cultural community shaped their sense of safety and freedom to be themselves as Asian Americans. Here are their stories. “It made me start to think: Maybe someday I won’t live in this super-white place” I grew up in southern Oregon, around five hours from Portland, which was the closest big city. I’m Korean American and my adoptive family is white — so not only did I grow up in a place that felt very insular and was very white, especially around the time that I was growing up there, I [also] did not actually get to know or become close with any fellow Korean Americans the entire time I lived there. Like a lot of kids, I looked for representation without knowing to call it that. I didn’t have any mirrors in real life, and at the time representation was also hard to find in literature or movies or shows. Because I didn’t see anyone else like me as a little kid, sometimes I really did feel like the only Asian — even though, intellectually, I knew I wasn’t. When I was 10, my parents took me back to Seattle, where I was born and adopted. It was the first time I had been around large groups of fellow Asians [or] had ever seen so many just walking around in public. We went to the Chinatown-International District, and I remember obsessively watching people there all day long. I looked at every Asian woman around my mother’s age and wondered, “Could she be my mother?” I felt deeply comforted by that trip and that day specifically; it made me start to think about what it would be like not to be the only Asian kid I knew. I thought, maybe someday I won’t live in this super-white little town; maybe I’ll live somewhere that feels more comfortable to me. Until I actually saw it, I didn’t know it was possible. Being the only Korean I knew growing up was formative in a lot of ways, but at the same time, those ways are hard to identify and pin down when you’re still living there. It took years of no longer living there to begin to unravel the different ways that it shaped me. When I went to college, I remember being conscious of wanting to live in a more diverse space and not be the only Asian or the only person of color in the room anymore. But the biggest change for me, honestly, was in how I talked about my adoption. Once I was no longer with my white family day in and day out, once that was no longer the context in which people knew or saw me, it was my choice to disclose whether or not I was adopted. I’d grown up answering people’s questions about my family and how I got to be in it, why I had white parents. To suddenly not have to do that all the time anymore was a huge change. —Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know “I didn’t fit in. ... But within my immigrant community, there were kids like me.” I was born and raised in a suburb of Miami, Florida, and never knew a time that I was not part of my close-knit Pakistani American community. One of the first things my father did when he immigrated to the United States in the ’60s was to grab a phone book and go down the names methodically, calling anyone with surnames from the motherland and hoping for someone to answer his call. The method proved fruitful. He found the location of the nearby mosque and the beginnings of lifelong friendships. My childhood memories are filled with potluck parties and savory saag, hand-tossed rotis, and an ever-present vat of chai simmering on the stove. These gatherings were a place of comfort for my parents. A safe space where they could speak in Urdu or Punjabi and feel completely understood. It was a safe haven for me, too. Growing up, school was not a place to learn but instead a place to survive bullies and taunts. I didn’t fit in. The food packed in my lunchbox was unfamiliar and presumed disgusting. My mismatched clothes, my too-short haircut, were rife for taunts. But within my immigrant community, there were kids like me, straddling their hyphenated American identities, who understood my situation. When difficult school moments arose, it was these kids I turned to. As an adult now, my personal community is far more expansive in diversity and scope than the one I grew up in, but I remain grateful for my childhood experiences with fellow ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) kids. I am grateful I did not have to navigate my hyphenated identity alone. —Aisha Saeed, author of Amal Unbound and Written in the Stars “I couldn’t help but feel ... that while indeed I was Asian, I wasn’t the ‘correct’ kind of Asian” I grew up in a diverse, working-class community in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. I was aware of my Asian American identity as simply skin color and where my parents were from — a big continent called Asia. It wasn’t until I started going to high school in a more affluent area that I realized how different I was from even other Asian Americans. My Asian American classmates had parents who were doctors and lawyers, who spoke English without an accent, and whose family tree in the US could be traced back several generations. Meanwhile, my parents were immigrants who did manual labor and were more comfortable speaking Vietnamese. I couldn’t help but feel my Asian American identity differently then, feeling that while indeed I was Asian, I wasn’t the “correct” kind of Asian from a place people could easily identify (China, Japan, South Korea) with a lifestyle that I wasn’t familiar with (new cars for birthdays, summers without a food service job, connections to Ivy League schools). There was working-class teenage jealousy there, but at the same time it made me feel more tied to the working-class people I grew up with. It wasn’t until Ali Wong joked about “Fancy Asians” and “Jungle Asians” that I understood how Asian American identity is entangled in ethnicity and class. Today I make more than my parents have ever made, and I live near the area where those classmates once lived. But there’s still that consciousness of class, race, and ethnicity that took root in my younger years. —Eric Nguyen, author of Things We Lost to The Water “It wasn’t until junior high, once I started reading more about current events, that I’d understood Asian people to be a minority in this country” I was born in Seoul, and then I moved to LA with my family. In fifth grade, we moved to a small town called Cerritos, which is where I did the bulk of my growing up. The town itself is mostly Asian, and my high school was something like 80 percent Asian. Koreans made up a majority of that 80 percent, and I’m Korean. There were so many Koreans that the languagewas offered as an elective. Even people who weren’t Korean would take it, and they joked that it was because they wanted to know what the rest of us were saying when we were talking shit. It wasn’t until junior high, once I started reading more about current events, that I’d understood Asian people to be a minority in this country. Then I went to college on the East Coast and lived in New York for a few years after that. College came as a shock, especially given the town I was from. In college, in addition to the high concentration of white people, the level of wealth was wild to me. There, and again in grad school, when I started attending literary parties and events in New York, it was so common that I would go somewhere and be the only person of color or Asian person in the entire room. Then I moved to the Bay Area. I remember I went to meet some friends of a friend, and I texted them, “I’ll be the Asian girl wearing black.” And they both just laughed and were like “Dude, that’s not going to fly here. There are so many Asian women wearing black.” I thought, “What on earth? That always worked in New York!” It was so wonderful. I was so tired of being the only Asian person in the room. I feel really lucky, in some ways, that I grew up around so many Asians. And as an adult, I don’t feel any shame whatsoever around my race. I have plenty of shame otherwise; shame is the water I’m swimming in, but I don’t feel that way about being Asian. I love being Asian, I love being Korean, and I always have. And that’s not something that all my Asian friends have necessarily been given by their own upbringing, which means I’ve been very lucky, and which means that I should — and very much want to — pass along that luck. —R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries “America still holds that sense of exotica for me” Before starting middle school in America, I had fantasized for months in India about a school with lockers, no uniforms, some teachers who audaciously went by their first names, brightly colored classrooms, and plastic lunch trays. School in New Delhi had not looked like that, but I watched The Wonder Years every evening as though it were a documentary about a fascinating faraway place. America was so exotic to me. In the US, I showed up on day one in my J.C. Penney purple leggings and everyone in the class instantly connected my name to a dick, a penis, and laughed. They had no idea how to pronounce a soft D. They asked me if I rode a camel to school in India. I was too shocked by their limited imagination about India to be offended. But, “fair enough,” I thought, “they don’t know anything about India.” I myself was wrong about students in America only taking folders to class like Kevin Arnold. Everyone had backpacks. Now, years later — as I divide my time between India and America, fortunate enough to be able to call both home — America still holds that sense of exotica for me. Living on two different sides of the world means that America is not my center. I grew up surrounded by Bollywood, and now my husband and I live and work on the peripheries of this industry in which I see myself constantly represented. It’s one reason why the very idea of representation, and wanting more of it in America, rarely occurs to me. If home is where I don’t have to give the Starbucks barista a fake name, then India it is. But if home is where I graduated from high school, then the United States it is. And I choose both. That feels increasingly precarious in the US where others may label me an outsider based on my skin and vocal intonations. But I choose to be Indian and American, no hyphens, no division, no combination.—Diksha Basu, author of Destination Wedding and The Windfall “In Hawaii, being Asian American and being mixed are the norms, and I experienced the privilege, power, and ease that come with that” I grew up in one of the whitest towns in California, in Marin County. Perhaps predictably, living there, I didn’t want anything to do with my Japanese American identity. I hated my Japanese first name and strove to get as close to white as possible. I was quick to say that I knew nothing about Japan — and that I didn’t even like rice! All that started to change in college. There, the student body was more diverse, and I started taking classes on race, identity, and history.Before long, I did a 180 and dove into my Japanese-ness, learning the language and studying abroad in Japan. As a fourth-generation, mixed-race Japanese American, however, I didn’t exactly feel accepted in the motherland, either. I didn’t feel instantly at home anywhere until I moved to Honolulu in my late 20s. I initially went just for the summer, to dog-sit for a friend’s law professor, but once I was there, I didn’t want to leave. In Hawaii, being Asian American and being mixed are the norms, and I experienced the privilege, power, and ease that come with that. People could pronounce my name; everywhere, I saw my Japanese American culture reflected back at me; and an Asian-white face like mine was both common and held up as an ideal. Living in Hawaii felt intoxicating, but over time I saw how that experience came at a price. My acceptance there came at the expense of Native Hawaiians who have been displaced. Being at the top of the racial hierarchy only feels good if you don’t think about the people below you. After a couple of years, I moved back to California, seeking places with more diversity than where I grew up. I now live in Sacramento, a city with a large Asian American population, but also racial segregation, due to a history of redlining and racial exclusion covenants. These days, I think a lot about what neighborhood I want to raise my daughter in, knowing how much her location can shape her Asian American identity. —Akemi Johnson, author of Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa
2 d
Myanmar’s coup is uniting a country riven by ethnic divisions. Will it last?
Protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in downtown Yangon on May 6. | STR/AFP via Getty Images Protesters and activists faced a reckoning about Myanmar’s past decade of civilian rule. Now they say they are fighting for a real federal democracy. Su Thit has a table in a corner by the window in her home. She no longer sits there at night. “You never know when the bullets will fly,” she says. She fears the Myanmar military might shoot at random. At 8 pm, when people still bang pots and pans in protest, security forces will sometimes fire at the sounds — with slingshots, stones, bullets. Su Thit, a pseudonym she is using for her safety, lives in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. She began protesting in early February, when demonstrators swarmed the streets in defiance of a military coup that toppled the country’s quasi-democratic government and detained its civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Su Thit, 30, lived abroad but returned to Myanmar in the past decade when the country, with a new constitution, began to ease into civilian rule. She wanted to be a small part of that future. She supported Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and, like the rest of her family, she voted for the party in the elections last November. When the military claimed voter fraud in that election to justify its takeover of the civilian government, she knew it was a lie. When the military began massacring protesters, she knew her purpose — to be a small part of Myanmar’s future — would now require something different. Out on the streets, among the mass of protesters, she felt motivated. “We began to understand that it will be a long road,” Su Thit says. “It would not be finished in one week or one month.” Just a little more than three months since the coup, Su Thit’s belief in a long road is bearing out. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) — professionals and civil servants who refused to work — and street protests have turned into something much more sustained. STR/AFP via Getty Images Security forces walk past shops searching for protesters in downtown Yangon on May 6. “Everyone is against the military,” Wathone, a 27-year-old protester in Yangon, said, using a pseudonym that he says means “rain”; it used to be his pen name when he wrote poetry as a teen. “If there was no coup,” Wathone added, “we wouldn’t have this kind of unity.” This unrelenting opposition to Myanmar’s military has brought together people of different classes, ages, and most importantly, ethnic and religious groups — many of whom have been marginalized and brutalized by Myanmar’s military, some for the entire life of the country. “We have our own common enemy,” said Moon Nay Lin, a spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, an advocacy and human rights organization to help those in Kachin state, where an insurgent movement has been at war with the state on and off for decades. “All of the people from Burma, including the ethnic people, are the same feeling on military,” Moon Nay Lin added, referring to Myanmar by its former name. The coalition that has formed against the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is called, has also forced the country to reckon with what should, or could, replace it. At first, the protesters called for the release of political detainees and the restoration of democracy. Now they want something radically different. “The call is much bigger now,” said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, an activist with Burma Campaign UK. They want to see the military dictatorship fall; they want to see the 2008 constitution — which ushered in Myanmar’s civilian government but kept ultimate authority in the military’s hands — abolished for good. They want to establish a federal democratic union with equal rights and equal treatment for all. “If there was no coup, we wouldn’t have this kind of unity” “That’s why people are very determined to get rid of this military, once and for all, because we don’t want to go back to this situation in another 10 years' time,” Wai Hnin added. This determination has, against dangerous and unfathomably difficult odds, lent the movement a kind of desperate optimism. Protesters, advocates, and ethnic civil society groups inside and outside Myanmar believe the struggle is winnable, although they realize it’s unlikely to happen with nonviolent protests alone. For now, Su Thit avoids the table by the window and makes sure her phone is clear of any social media if she goes outside. She still helps organize protests, small ones, where people converge quickly in one location, and just as quickly disappear. This is daily life in Myanmar, a country convulsing toward revolution. “I think we can still win,” Su Thit said. “It’s just that I’m not too sure how — and how long will it take.” The great awakening that gave the protests life Ashley Wai, a 20-year-old former medical student in Yangon, used to believe Aung San Suu Kyi would take care of everything. She trusted her, as did most people she knew. “We thought everything she did was right,” she said. Suu Kyi is an almost mythical figure in Myanmar. She is the daughter of the man who helped win the country’s independence, and the country’s pro-democracy champion, put under house arrest by the military from 1989 until 2010. So when Suu Kyi defended the military’s brutal operations in Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims there — operations a United Nations report found were carried out with “genocidal intent” — Wai supported them. She thought the military was defending her from invaders. She called the Rohingya “Bengalis” — a conspiracy theory that suggests the Rohingya are foreigners and unauthorized immigrants. K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images An overview of a Rohingya refugee camp after a fire broke out on March 22, destroying thousands of shelters and killing 15 people. When the coup happened, Wai joined protests calling for Suu Kyi to be freed. But something felt wrong. She started to see the military’s shocking violence at these protests, the so-called defenders of the nation turning their weapons on their own people. She started learning about the military’s history, her country’s history. A mentor in the movement told her to read a book about the Rohingya genocide. “Why didn’t I know? Why was I silent when they did the same in Rakhine? Why didn’t I know? Why was I so stupid?” she said she asks herself, over and over. In early February, Wai publicly apologized for the treatment of the Rohingya people, and for her ignorance. It was scary, she said, and a few friends turned against her. But she is also ashamed and angry for having done nothing before. For her,this fight to build a new country is part awakening, part atonement. Wai’s experience is an extreme example of the kind of revelation that has happened among many young protesters, especially among the majority Bamar ethnic group. “Some of us were brainwashed,” Wathone, the protester in Yangon, said. “But now everyone understands what the Rohingya feel, what the ethnic groups feel.” Myanmar’s military has had some degree of control since the country gained independence in 1948. In the late 1980s, protests kicked off by students built a pro-democracy movement where Suu Kyi rose to prominence, and which tried to challenge the military’s grip. In the decade that followed, Myanmar remained cut off from the world. The repressive regime became a political and economic pariah in the West, and the US placed hefty sanctions on the country for years. In 2008, the Tatmadaw adopted a new constitution with some small democratic openings. In 2015, Suu Kyi won the elections and became the de facto civilian leader. In response, the US lifted those sanctions. The military retained significant power under the new arrangement. Suu Kyi, too, also deferred to the Tatmadaw, most notably in its campaign against the Rohingya. She referred to evidence of atrocities as “fake news” and framed the crackdown as operations against terrorism. And in 2019, she defended Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands. And many of her biggest supporters, especially those in the Bamar majority like Ashley Wai, deferred to her. Myanmar is an ethnically diverse state, but minority ethnic groups have been long marginalized and, like the Rohingya, face discrimination, structural racism, and often violence. The military, throughout its history, used this to its advantage, framing these groups as a threat to the country that necessitated a strong military response. “The military has based its profits and power on perpetuating eternal ethnic conflict in the country, because that was its very rationale for its existence,” said David Brenner, a lecturer in conflict and security at the University of Sussex and author of Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands. Many supporters of Suu Kyi and the NLD who believed in democracy and distrusted military rule didn’t necessarily reject a role for the military. A thread of chauvinism ran through it all, and tightly controlled information — or outright misinformation — meant people didn’t fully understand the scale and relentless of the military’s violence against some groups. Stringer/Getty Images Mourners make three-fingered salutes while carrying the coffin of Aung Kaung Htet, 15, who was killed when military junta forces opened fire on anti-coup protesters in Yangon, on March 21. Stringer/Getty Images Aung Kaung Htet’s sister cries while holding a portrait of him during his funeral. Nickey Diamond, a human rights advocate with Fortify Rights, said that, especially when it came to the Rohingya, they were framed as “an external threat like Islamic terrorism.” The coup has dramatically shaken that faith. “Many of them have changed their opinion after what they have seen, the true color of military,” Su Thit said. “They were like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know that. This could actually happen in other areas as well. And it happened to us.’” That has led to public apologies like Wai’s, regrets and admonitions flooding Facebook and other social media networks of young protesters and activists. “We did apologize to Rohingya people, to ethnic people,” Wathone said. “Now we understand what you have suffered. We will no longer discriminate; we will no longer ignore your identity.” Feelings about Aung San Suu Kyi are much more complicated, and some protesters I spoke to still see her as doing her best against the military. She’s a figure they still admire and honor, even if, perhaps, a new generation is rising up. Ashley Wai told me, “I hate her because I loved her so much.” But on the military, the feelings are clear: “People are very united,” said Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya and founder of the Women’s Peace Network, which advocates for human rights and democracy in Myanmar. “They started to realize the suffering of the Rohingya, the Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, all of these things were true. In the past, they did not believe they were true, but now they started to realize that if this could happen to us, for this community, it could be worse.” The civil wars and ethnic conflicts they had ignored or disbelieved had come to Yangon and Mandalay, their own cities. And when that happened, protesters turned to the ethnic armed organizations themselves for protection. Unity, but with wariness attached Nickey Diamond fled from Yangon in mid-March. His work on human rights had always made him a target, but the danger only intensified after the coup. He sought haven from the Karen National Union, a political organization representing the Karen people, which operates in eastern Myanmar, in the jungle borderlands with Thailand. The conflict there, which has existed in some form since 1948, is sometimes called the world’s longest-running civil war. Diamond, who asked to use his English name, is not alone; as the military escalated its crackdown in cities like Yangon, protesters, activists, and members of the Civil Disobedience Movement fled to areas held or defended by armed ethnic organizations. These groups are now sheltering them and providing them food. They are also, in some cases, providing military training, to prepare them to fight the junta. These groups are providing this aid as the Myanmar military is continuing to target these areas with air strikes and other attacks, displacing civilians and forcing some to flee, such as ethnic Karen trying to escape into Thailand. This is not a new role for these groups. “There is a history of ethnic armed groups looking after these young Bamar activists,”saidJenny Hedström, associate senior lecturer in war studies at the Swedish Defense University. During the student uprising in late 1980s and ’90s, protesters also escaped to territories controlled by ethnic armed organizations. There, they sought refuge, food, and training. “60 years of division and 60 years of racial and ethnic vitriol don’t go away overnight” Butthe refuge and support they provided to pro-democracy activists did not necessarily translate to a change in status for the ethnic minority groups, including during the transition to democracy under the leadership of the NLD. That has made those groups a bit wary this time around. “The sense that I get the most is of excitement and potential new mindset — but also huge mistrust and fear that are they going to be used once again,” said Mabrur Ahmed, founder and director of Restless Beings, a UK-based human rights group that works closely with Rohingya communities. He said there is genuine hope for reform and a belief in a new Myanmar and in reconciliation. “But 60 years of division and 60 years of racial and ethnic vitriol don’t go away overnight,” Ahmed added. It’s a complicated calculus: On the one hand, there is a long history of distrust to overcome. On the other, all share the common enemy of the Tatmadaw. Naw Wah Ku Shee, director of the Karen Peace Support Network, an organization that works with ethnic Karen civil society groups in Myanmar and Thailand, told me that they really do see a change, especially among the younger generations. “They apologize about what’s happened in the past and that they have been silent,” she said. “They have ignored what’s happening to the suffering of other ethnic people, and they’re sorry for what’s happened.” But wariness and skepticism still exist. The big question is how deep this push for accountability and reconciliation will go — and whether it’s a lasting shift or one driven by necessity against that common enemy. Naw Wah Ku Shee said ethnic minorities have felt betrayed before, but she also believes this moment is different. “The brutality of the Burma military is even worse,” she said. “Our first priority is to end this military dictatorship, which is why we need to work together.” Stringer/Getty Images Anti-coup demonstrators block a road in Yangon on March 20. Stringer/Getty Images The movement has been clear that its goal is the creation of a federal democracy. It has not been a perfect relationship so far. Myanmar has many ethnic groups and armed ethnic organizations, and some have been much more openly supportive of the protest movement than others. Early on, some protesters criticized the armed ethnic groups for failing to come to the defense of the movement sooner, which had echoes of both chauvinism and hypocrisy. That has changed as ethnic groups have sheltered and fed and offered assistance to protesters — and that support is shared and celebrated among the social networks of protesters, something that didn’t happen during the pro-democracy movement in the late ’80s and ’90s. That visibility has created a shift, Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher who studies security and human rights in Myanmar, said, “both in terms of realizing quite how bad the military is, but also that the armed groups are genuinely doing something for political change — and are actually trying to fight against dictatorship.” Still, as Ahmed said, there’s a lot going on — confronting a complicated ethnic history while waging a revolt against the perpetrators of it. But the armed ethnic groups are also in a position of relative strength. They are the ones with the weapons and the experience fighting the Tatmadaw. And what they have been fighting for, a federal democracy, is finally a demand of the protesters themselves. “There has never been this kind of chance before,” Naw Wah Ku Shee said. The movement is united against the military. But what comes next? The movement has been clear that its goal is the creation of a federal democracy. But how to get there, how inclusive it would actually be, and what victory over the Tatmadaw would even look like — no one has the answers yet. Ousted NLD lawmakers have reconstituted as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH — Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is the name of Myanmar’s legislature) and have since formed a parallel National Unity Government (NUG) that includes some members of the protest movement and ethnic organizations. The NUG has promised to create a new constitution built on the idea of Myanmar as a federal democracy, which may hold the promise of giving a stake to ethnic minority and religious groups. The CRPH, and its NUG, is the body that’s advocating for Myanmar’s democracy movement with the international community. But members of the Civil Disobedience Movement and other younger activists expressed some skepticism about whether the NUG was really as committed to the idea of an inclusive, federal democracy. At the same time, in an otherwise leaderless and diverse movement, they have risen to the top. Many see the CRPH and NUG as using the right rhetoric, but as failing to give real decision-making power to ethnic groups, or at least stakeholders in those communities that have a lot of clout. Others I spoke to criticized the body for failing to fully condemn the treatment of ethnic minorities in the past, including the Rohingya. One cabinet minister has issued a public apology to the Rohingya, but as Wai Wai Nu pointed out, government officials have not yet adopted an official policy on the Rohingya. (The CRPH did not respond to an emailed request for comment.) SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Supporters of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) hold a demonstration in London on May 2. Htuu Lou Rae, a UK-based member of of the Anti-Junta Mass Movement, said that he and other members are working to try to pressure the CRPH and NUG to be more inclusive, including of working-class people. Many see the NUG as a reshuffled version of the NLD, just with people who didn’t have power during Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the party now in charge. “It’s difficult because, is the CPRH just a version of the NLD? And I think that’s where the doubt comes in. It’s not that the NLD is necessarily not wanted, it’s just — is that what the people want?” Ahmed said. Some activists also fear this new government will strike some sort of deal with the military that would keep them in power. “We’re starting to worry that the federal democracy that the CRPH is describing will look like what was under the 2008 military coup, but with a civilian government in control of the military,” Htuu Lou Rea said. Others told me that defeating the military remains the main goal — and next comes the difficult reckoning with what would replace it. “There needs to be a lot of work after the fall of the dictatorship, we’re not fooled by, ‘Oh, there’s unity now, and everything will be okay.’ It’s a start,” Wai Hnin, with Burma Campaign UK, said. “Nonviolence is maybe not working” Almost all the people I spoke to, especially those inside the country, are preparing for more bloodshed. Many I spoke with are proud of the nonviolent origins of the movement, but they recognize that status is tenuous. The Civil Disobedience Movement has lasted for months, but there is real worry over how long people can continue to resist, especially civil servants and other workers who do not have money saved up. “They are barely surviving,” said Tin Tin Nyo of the Burmese Women’s Union. Others see this uprising turning into something else. “Even though we understand that nonviolence is the answer, nonviolence is maybe not working,” Wathone, the protester in Yangon, said. “So we need some armed resistance.” Wathone was in a safe house when we spoke via an encrypted app, with the phone connection going in and out. He didn’t think he could stay there long. He knows colleagues who have been arrested, others who have been interrogated, hands tied behind their backs, and stripped of their money and their phones. He always makes sure he has an escape route from his apartment. If security forces were to crash through his door, he would go out the window and down a ladder, though if it couldn’t hold him, or if he fell, he would be dead. Other protesters I spoke with also said they believe an armed revolution is the only way out. But what role they see themselves playing in such a revolution is less clear. Su Thit told me that she would support a revolution with communications and logistics, but that she could not kill. Ashley Wai has asthma, and worries that might make it physically difficult to fight. But she also does not want to stay and hide. “They realize they cannot win this fight with their bare hands,” Tin Tin Nyo said. AP Anti-coup protesters run as soldiers arrive to disperse their demonstration in Yangon on May 11. Others are more skeptical that the military can be defeated or excised from Myanmar altogether. “The problem is that whatever solution you come up with, you have to include the military, whether you like it or not,” said Harn Yawnghwe, executive director of Euro-Burma. “Because they are the ones with all the guns and are in the strongest position right now.” Experts and advocates I spoke to said the Myanmar military, especially if it had to fight widespread resistance, could be weakened and stretched thin through a war of attrition. But Harn Yawnghe said he feared such an outcome would lead to chaos and make Myanmar vulnerable to its powerful neighbors — like China — that might get drawn in. Many are also looking to the international community for support. Experts and advocates I spoke to believe an arms embargo and more aggressive sanctions could weaken the Myanmar military. “They have a lot to lose: their power, their business, their everything. It’s the public who has nothing to lose, not them,” Wai Wai Nu said. Yet they also understand the limits of international support. Wathone said that many protesters talk about when the United States will come and intervene. He tells them it’s just a fantasy story. “We only have us. We can only save each other,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been telling them every day.”
2 d
How a tiny, wobbling particle could unlock mysteries of the universe
The results of a new muon experiment are stirring up particle physics. It’s an exciting time in particle physics. The results of a new experiment out of Fermilab in Illinois — involving a subatomic particle wobbling weirdly — could pave the way to new ways of understanding our universe. To understand why physicists are so excited, consider the ambitious task they’ve set for themselves: decoding the fundamental building blocks of everything in the universe. For decades, they’ve been trying to do that by building a big, overarching theory known as the standard model. The standard model is like a glossary, describing all the building blocks of the universe that we’ve found so far: subatomic particles like electrons, neutrinos, and quarks that make up everything around us, and three of the four fundamental forces (electromagnetic, weak, and strong) that hold everything together. But, as Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermilab, tells Vox, scientists suspect this model is incomplete. “One of the big reasons why we know it’s incomplete is because of gravity. We know it exists because apples fall from trees and I’m not floating off my seat,” Esquivel says. But they haven’t yet found a fundamental particle that conveys gravity’s force, so it’s not in the standard model. Esquivel says that the model also doesn’t explain two of the biggest mysteries in the universe: dark matter, an elusive substance that holds galaxies together, and dark energy, an even more poorly understood force that is accelerating the universe’s expansion. And since the overwhelming majority of the universe might be made up of dark matter and dark energy, that’s a pretty big oversight. The problem is, on its own, the standard model works really well. It describes the matter and energy we’re most familiar with, and how it all works together, superbly. Yet, as physicists have tried to expand the model to account for gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, they’ve always come up short. That’s why Esquivel and the many other particle physicists we’ve spoken to are so excited about the results of a new experiment at Fermilab. It involves muons — subatomic particles that are like electrons’ heavier, less stable cousins. And this experiment with these muons might, finally, have confirmed a crack in the standard model for particle physicists to explore. It’s possible that crack could lead them to find new, fundamental building blocks of nature. Esquivel worked on the experiment, so we asked her to walk us through it for the Unexplainable podcast. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity and length. oam Hassenfeld What was this muon experiment? Jessica Esquivel So at Fermilab, we can create particle beams of muons — a very, very intense beam. You can imagine it like a laser beam of particles. And we shoot them into detectors. And then by taking a super, super close measurement of those muons, we can use that as kind of a probe into physics beyond our standard model. Noam Hassenfeld So how, exactly, does this muon experiment point to a hole in the model, or to a new particle to fill that gap? Jessica Esquivel So the muon g-2 experiment is actually taking a very precise measurement of this thing that we call the precession frequency. And what that means is that we shoot a whole bunch of muons into a very, very precise magnetic field and we watch them dance. Noam Hassenfeld They dance? Jessica Esquivel Yeah! When muons go into a magnetic field, they precess, or they spin like a spinning top. One of the really weird quantum-y, sci-fi things that happens is that when you are in a vacuum or an empty space, it actually isn’t empty. It’s filled with this roiling, bubbling sea of virtual particles that just pop in and out of existence whenever they want, spontaneously. So when we shoot muons into this vacuum, there are not just muons going around our magnet. These virtual particles are popping in and out and changing how the muon wobbles. Noam Hassenfeld Wait, sorry ... what exactly are these virtual particles popping in and out? Jessica Esquivel So, virtual particles, I ... see them as like ghosts of actual particles. We have photons that kind of pop in and out and they’re just kind of like there, but not really there. I think a really good depiction of this, the weirdness of quantum mechanics, is Ant-Man. There’s this scene where he shrinks down to the quantum realm, and he gets stuck and everything is kind of like wibbly-wobbling and something’s there, but it’s really not there. That’s kind of like what virtual particles are. It’s just hints of particles that we’re used to seeing. But they’re not actually there. They just pop in and out and just mess with things. Noam Hassenfeld So quantum mechanics says that there are virtual particles, sort of like ghosts of particles we already know about in our standard model, popping in and out of existence. And they’re bumping into muons, and making them wobble? Jessica Esquivel Yes. But again, theoretical physicists know this, and they’ve come up with a really good theory of how the muon will change with regards to which particles are popping in and out.So we know specifically how every single one of these particles interacts with each other and within the magnetic field, and they build their theories based on what we already know— what is in the standard model. Noam Hassenfeld Got it. So even though there are these virtual ghost particles popping in and out, as long as they’re versions of particles we know, then physicists can predict exactly how the muons are gonna wobble. So were the predictions off? Jessica Esquivel So what we just unveiled is that precise measurement doesn’t align with the theoretical predictions of how the muons are supposed to wobblein a magnetic field. It wobbled differently. Noam Hassenfeld And the idea is that you have no idea what’s making it do that extra wobble, so it might be something that hasn’t been discovered yet? Something outside the standard model? Jessica Esquivel Yeah, exactly. It’s not considered new physics yet because we as physicists give ourselves a very high bar to reach before we say something is potentially new physics. And that’s 5 sigma [a measure of the probability that this finding wasn’t a statistical error, or a random accident.] And right now, we’re at 4.2 sigma. But it’s pretty exciting. Noam Hassenfeld So if it clears that bar, would this break the standard model? Because I’ve seen that framing in a bunch of headlines. Jessica Esquivel No, I don’t think I would say the standard model is broken. I mean, we’ve known for a long time that it’s missing stuff. So it’s not that what’s there doesn’t work as it’s supposed to work. It’s just that we’re adding more stuff to the standard model, potentially. Just like back in the day when scientists were adding more elements to the periodic table ... even back then, they had spots where they knew an element should go, but they hadn’t been able to see it yet. That’s essentially where we’re at now. We know we have the standard model, but we’re missing things. So we have holes that we’re trying to fill. Noam Hassenfeld How exciting does all of this feel? Jessica Esquivel I think it’s like a career-defining moment. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime. We’re chasing new physics and we’re so close, we can taste it. What I’m studying isn’t in any textbook that I’ve read or peeked through before, and the fact that the work that I’m doing could potentially be in textbooks in the future ... that people can be learning about the dark matter particle that g-2 had a role in finding ... it gives me chills just thinking about it!
2 d
The case for sleeping in separate beds
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images Honey, hear me out. About four years ago, my wife and I moved into a house just outside DC. It was our first house and it happened to have an extra bedroom, which was a plus since we were thinking about having a kid. We had lived together for several years before we bought the house, and one of the recurring frustrations was our nightly pre-sleep routine. I’ve battled light insomnia for most of my adult life, so sleep has always been a struggle. But I also like a little mindless TV before bed. She prefers music. We could never compromise and it created ... tension. But the house with the extra room meant that we could occasionally sleep in separate beds. At first, we did it when someone was sick or especially tired. Over time, we realized what should’ve been obvious: We slept way better apart. So we started sleeping in separate beds more often and eventually it became normal. I’m not going to say it was the best thing we’ve ever done, but it’s definitely one of the best things we’ve done. Everyone sleeps better now, there’s no more resentment over who won the showdown the night before, and we probably fight less because more sleep means less crankiness and, hopefully, more patience. All of this makes me wonder why we didn’t do this sooner. Why we do assume sleeping in separate beds signals trouble in a relationship? Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation and the author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep. She studies the blurry relationship between sleep and relationship health. I asked her if it’s true that most of us sleep better alone and, if so, why is there still a weird taboo around sleeping in separate beds? We also talk about how to broach the topic with your partner if you’re interested in giving this a try. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. Sean Illing Do people sleep better when they sleep alone? Wendy Troxel We have a limited amount of research on this topic but it does show pretty clearly that people sleep worse while sharing a bedas compared to sleeping alone. But if you ask those people, “Do you prefer to share a bed with your partner or sleep alone?” most will say they prefer to share a bed. So there’s this discrepancy between what our objective measures show and the subjective experience of sleep quality. Sean Illing Even if most people aren’t aware of this research, they should know from experience that they sleep better alone, so why don’t they? Why do we insist on sleeping together? Wendy Troxel It speaks to our social nature. Sleep is a very vulnerable state and we derive a sense of safety and security when someone’s next to us, and that feeling can actually facilitate good, healthy sleep. So in some cases there may be real psychological benefits from sleeping together that for many overwhelm the objective costs of sharing a bed. Sean Illing So we’re not completely deluding ourselves about the value of sleeping in the same bed? There are real benefits? Wendy Troxel Well, it’s a spectrum. If you’re sharing a bed with someone who is tossing and turning or snoring like a freight train and you simply can’t sleep, that probably reaches a threshold where the psychological benefits no longer override the minor objective costs. But for many people, the objective costs of sharing a bed — more noise, more movement, maybe getting awakened a few times — are minor enough that it’s still worth it. I always say it depends on the couple. If you’re at a point where neither partner is sleeping well, then it might be worth stepping back and rethinking things. If you’re not getting the sleep you need, then you’re probably paying too high a price for the psychological benefits of sharing a bed. But it’s complicated, right? The experience of cuddling and closeness is a big deal for a lot of people, that feeling of warmth and protection is real, and for some it may really help them sleep. So there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Sean Illing Let me be clear: I’m pro-cuddling. I cuddle all the time. I encourage everyone to cuddle as much as possible. But you can always cuddle and then fall back to separate beds. Wendy Troxel Absolutely! I tell couples all the time that you can disentangle the experience of cuddling and closeness and sexual activity from the actual experience of sleeping together. You can maintain all of those things even if your choice as a couple is to part ways when it’s time for sleep. But here’s the other thing: Getting better sleep is likely to be a good path to getting you better sex, because when we’re well-rested, we enjoy sex more, our sexual frequency goes up, the sex drive goes up. So there are lots of relationship benefits to be had from prioritizing sleep. Sean Illing Where does the taboo against sleeping in separate beds come from? Wendy Troxel The taboo shifts a lot across time periods. In medieval times, the norm was a communal bed, not just shared with partners, but with family members, maybe even other people in the household. It wasn’t until the Victorian Era that sleeping apart became a status thing because it meant that you could afford separate bedrooms, and sleeping apart was a kind of luxury. And there were also some half-baked ideas about diseases being transmitted by the fouls smells of other people. People thought that your partner’s morning breath could transmit diseases. But then if you fast-forward to the 1960s sexual revolution, there was this reaction to the I Love Lucy stereotype of a married couple that was sleeping apart on TV. It was seen as a sign of prudishness. So then we saw another shift toward this stigma attached to sleeping apart, which is still with us today. And it leaves many couples feeling shameful about questioning their decision to sleep in the same bed. Sean Illing Is that partly why you want us to think of sleep less as an individual act and more as a social behavior? Wendy Troxel Yeah, it’s important to think of sleep as a social behavior because sleep affects our relationships and our relationships affect our sleep. There’s now quite a bit of research showing a bi-directional influence: When we sleep poorly, we’re not good partners and we have more conflicts, and when we fight more, that negatively impacts our sleep quality. So these things are very connected. Sean Illing What other effects does poor sleep have on relationships? Wendy Troxel When you’re sleep-deprived, your frustration tolerance is lower. And who are we most likely to project our frustrations on? Not our bosses or our coworkers but our closest partners. This is why we can see links between sleep disturbances and poor relationship satisfaction. We’ve also seen that insufficient sleep makes us less empathic, less able to read our partner’s emotions. That’s an incredibly important thing in a relationship. You need to be able to notice when you overstep, or when your partner is feeling raw or vulnerable, and not sleeping enough makes this very difficult. Sean Illing Because there is a stigma associated with separate beds, do you have any advice for how to broach the topic with a partner without making it ... weird? Wendy Troxel Just start a conversation about how each of you is sleeping. What are your expectations for sleep? Just because you’re married to someone or you’re partnered with someone doesn’t mean your sleeping habits should be perfectly aligned. One of you might be a night owl; the other one may be a morning person. That’s all fine. But have a conversation about it and explore options. What happens too often is that couples end up sleeping apart without ever making a conscious decision to do it — it’s more an act of desperation. I encourage couples to start talking about all of this before that happens. We spend a third of our lives sleeping, so it matters not just for our individual health but for our relationships. It deserves a conversation.
2 d
As McConnell gears up for obstruction, 43 percent of Republican voters say they prefer bipartisanship
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attends a Senate Rules Committee markup on S-1, an election and ethics reform package, on May 11, 2021, in Washington, DC. | Win McNamee/Getty Images Some Republicans say they’d still like to see lawmakers work with President Joe Biden. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear what he hopes to do this term: obstruct President Joe Biden’s administration in the same way he obstructed then-President Barack Obama’s. “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” McConnell said at a press conference. “What we have in the United States Senate is total unity from Susan Collins to Ted Cruz in opposition to what the new Biden administration is trying to do to this country.” McConnell later caveated his comments slightly, noting: “I’m anxious on stopping the Biden agenda — depending on what it is.” According to a survey fielded by Vox and Data for Progress prior to McConnell’s comments, some Republican voters don’t necessarily want lawmakers to do that. Instead, they maintain a focus on bipartisanship that’s consistent with past surveys — and one that looks increasingly untenable in the current Congress. Per that poll, 68 percent of all people, including 43 percent of Republicans, said they think it’s more important for GOP members of Congress to find ways to work with Biden rather than refusing to compromise. Meanwhile, 50 percent of Republicans said they were in favor of Republicans refusing to compromise, while 7 percent weren’t sure. That breakdown speaks to a general preference for bipartisanship that voters have expressed in polls in the past as well: In a Monmouth survey this past January, 71 percent of all voters also emphasized that they wanted Republicans to work with Biden, including 41 percent of Republicans. McConnell’s comments, though, speak to how unlikely bipartisanship on key policies really is moving forward, and why Democrats have already used budget reconciliation as a way to pass coronavirus aid unilaterally. Because of Republican opposition, Democrats might have to use the same methods once again for other priorities like infrastructure and child care. Already, Republicans put forth an infrastructure offer that’s much narrower than what the White House has proposed: As the Biden administration moves to advance a sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes expansive funding for roads, bridges, and broadband, which would be paid for by tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations, Senate Republicans have balked at the pay-fors and countered with a roughly $570 billion proposal. It’s worth noting that there is some appetite for a bipartisan compromise, though the two parties have yet to reconcile key differences. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) recently told Politico Republicans are willing to go higher than their initial offer, and McConnell suggested that his cap is $800 billion. At the same time, Democrats are trying to figure out if they have the votes for their own proposal, given concerns raised by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) about the tax provisions, complicating matters further. Still, on the whole, the prospects for bipartisanship are dim — particularly on other issues including voting rights legislation, immigration reform, and gun control, on which Republicans have long signaled pushback, too. The current state of Congress, ultimately, suggests that lawmakers may not be able to work in the bipartisan fashion that many likely voters desire given Republicans’ stated plans for obstruction, and Democrats’ hopes of passing more ambitious policies. The Vox/DFP poll was conducted from April 30 to May 2 with 1,402 likely voters, and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Biden’s highest marks are on the pandemic This survey also revealed that President Biden’s highest marks — across party lines — come on his handling of the pandemic, which 61 percent of people overall approve of. In the poll, Biden has about 50 percent approval on most issues, including when it comes to his efforts on jobs and the economy (50 percent), his work on race and race relations (47 percent), policies on the environment (51 percent), and work unifying the country (48 percent). His lowest approval numbers were related to his approach to taxation (42 percent). Biden’s disapproval ratings across these subjects, meanwhile, hover between 30 and 45 percent, with the highest disapprovals on his approach to taxation (44 percent) and unifying the country (41 percent.) Across the other issues, 39 percent of people disapprove of his work on jobs and the economy, 32 percent disapprove of his efforts on the pandemic, 39 percent disapprove of his handling on race and race relations, and 35 percent disapprove of his handling of the environment. Biden’s response to the pandemic — which has included passage of a massive coronavirus relief package and the goal of distributing at least one vaccine dose to 70 percent of adults by July 4 — had the highest approval rating from members of all parties, including Republicans, of the issues tested. His pandemic policies received 85 percent of Democrats’ approval, 55 percent of Independents’, and 37 percent of Republicans’. Conversely, on issues like jobs and the economy and work on unifying the country, Biden received just 19 percent and 18 percent of Republicans’ support. These findings are consistent with a recent AP-NORC poll in which Biden had a 63 percent overall approval rating, with 71 percent of people supporting his work on the pandemic. Overall, the DFP poll also finds that 49 percent of people think Biden has been governing for both Democrats and Republicans, while 42 percent think he has been pushing a partisan agenda, since coronavirus relief passed without GOP support. Voters prioritize the economy and reducing health care costs Looking ahead, likely voters are most interested in strengthening the nation’s economy (81 percent), making sure the Social Security system is financially sound (76 percent), combating the pandemic (75 percent), reducing the costs of health care and prescription drugs (74 percent), and reducing crime (73 percent). These five issues were most likely to be classified as a top priority among a list of 20 issue areas that were surveyed. But many other issues were also rated a top priority by a majority of people, including making sure voting rights are protected (72 percent), dealing with the issue of immigration (71 percent), reducing gun violence (63 percent), and improving the educational system (63 percent). These ratings differed some across party line as well: For Republicans, the top priorities were strengthening the nation’s economy (85 percent), dealing with the issue of immigration (81 percent), and reducing crime (80 percent). For independents, they were taking steps to make the Social Security system financially sound (75 percent), strengthening the nation’s economy (75 percent), and reducing health care and prescription drug costs (74 percent). And for Democrats, they were dealing with the coronavirus outbreak (85 percent), strengthening the nation’s economy (81 percent), and reducing gun violence (80 percent). Likely voters overall were more likely to believe that their own party was more capable of addressing the priorities they cared about. Seventy-six percent of Democrats were more likely to trust their own party to effectively strengthen the economy, for instance, while 84 percent of Republicans said the same of the GOP. On issues including raising the minimum wage, increasing access to paid leave and child care, and dealing with climate change, though, a fifth or more of Republicans were more likely to trust Democrats on the matter, a higher proportion compared to other issue areas. About a quarter of Democrats also said they trust Republicans more when it comes to strengthening the military. Congress and the White House have a hefty agenda to address moving forward including the American Jobs Plan, focusing on infrastructure and climate change; the American Families Plan, focusing on child care, universal pre-K, and paid leave; police reform; voting rights; gun control; and immigration reform. Given ongoing Republican efforts to pare down or stymie several of these measures — and dissent within the Democratic caucus on some of these issues — it’s unclear just how much will advance this term.
2 d
Why you’re noticing flowers now more than ever
Flowering magnolia trees are a sign of spring in many parts of the world. | Stephan Schulz/picture alliance/Getty Images Flowers have always held meaning. Then the pandemic came. fnNew York went into lockdown just as the city was blooming. Many of us are now familiar with the way one week smears into the next when you rarely leave your home, but I still find it alarming how muddy my memories of those early days in quarantine are. What I do remember, vividly, is taking anxious early-morning walks around my neighborhood in Brooklyn and feeling utterly disoriented by the magnolia trees that had blossomed along the sidewalk. Magnolias are a parody of a flowering tree. They’re gorgeous and excessive, dripping large pink petals everywhere. They make me think of the girl who upstages everyone at a house party by bringing a homemade cake for the host even though it’s no one’s birthday. (You resent her for it, then you realize this means there’s cake.) Last spring, I was grateful for the blush-hued flowers on my block, but they seemed surreal against the backdrop of fear and loss gripping the city. Spring is a feeling as much as anything, and I couldn’t find it anywhere in my body. A year later, things are different here. More and more people are getting vaccinated (though not enough, and not in all parts of the world) and socializing with friends and family is starting to be less fraught. When in March I came across a patch of snowdrops in Prospect Park — some of the first flowers of the year, fresh and green among the dead leaves and bare trees — it felt like we were moving in the same direction. Frank Bienewald/LightRocket/Getty Images Snowdrops bloom among dead leaves. “I’m excited about getting vaccinated and inviting new energy into my life,” my cousin told me over the phone recently. She was out for a walk on the West Coast. “But there’s still a heaviness I’m feeling. This has been a year of death and violence. It feels bittersweet to be like, ‘Things are blooming,’ because there are so many people not with us.” After we hung up, she sent me a photo of a red rose she’d come across, retina-burning in the April sunshine. I feel a little silly writing about flowers like this, as though they don’t always signal a kind of renewal. As though they’re a novelty and not a massive global business — as though human civilizations around the world haven’t attached deep symbolism to them for millennia, using them in rites of passage and linking them to love, death, wealth, piety. At the Cornell Botanic Gardens in Ithaca, New York, there’s a space dedicated to answering the question of why flowers “charm and amaze us.” The garden features flowers like roses, lilies, and tulips, with detailed information on their historical significance across cultures: daisies are depicted in paintings of the Madonna and child as a symbol of the infant Christ’s innocence, whereas in ancient Mesopotamia they stood for protection and good luck. “Flowers are cyclical, so they’re life-affirming in a sense,” says Sarah Fiorello, interpretation coordinator at the Cornell Botanic Gardens. “But they’re also ephemeral, so they reflect the finite nature of all life.” Flowers ask the big questions, which may be why they seem to have meant a little more this year. On a practical level, people tend to interact with flowers in three ways. There are the flowers we buy for ourselves as an act of self-love, just to brighten our own day. There are the flowers we exchange with others to express affection and support — to connect. And there are the living flowers we encounter in nature, parks, and planters, reminding us that we’re part of something bigger. At a time when many of us have struggled with our mental health, when we’ve been denied the nourishment of other people’s company, when our worlds have shrunk so dramatically, it’s no wonder flowers hold a particular appeal. They’re a counterweight to the forces that might otherwise drag us down. Maybe they don’t tip the scales completely — some of them are very small — but they do help. Joan Slatkin/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images Bouquets of zinnias at a farmers market stand. The writer and cartoonist Jonny Sun is big on houseplants; they’re a major theme in his new book, Goodbye, Again. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that he and his wife started regularly buying cut flowers for their home, ultimately signing up for a monthly bouquet subscription with the LA-based floral design studio Bia Blooms. “Things have felt so purgatorial and endless,” Sun says. “Every day feels the same. I’ve really looked to flowers as a sign that time is indeed passing in some sort of regular way.” The cycle of buying a bouquet, watching the flowers fade, and purchasing another provided a strange sense of stability and comfort. Faced with a world and a mess of feelings that often feel unpredictable and out of control, Sun also appreciates the way flowers establish a kind of emotional schedule for him. He knows that when they die, he’ll feel bummed out. “I’m buying this now, and I’m entering a contract with myself that I’ll feel sad in two weeks,” he says. “Knowing you’ll feel this emotion in a few weeks is kind of nice.” Nana Agyemang started buying herself flowers every week during the pandemic, too, because it lifted her spirits. “I didn’t have the finances to do so before Covid, but because I was saving money on not commuting to work and not going out as often to restaurants to eat, I repurposed that income to treat myself,” she says. Agyemang is the CEO and founder of Every Stylish Girl, an organization promoting the advancement of Black and Brown women in fashion and media. The pandemic forced Agyemang to make a “huge company pivot” away from in-person events, and buying bouquets was an act of appreciation for herself during that stressful transition. “Getting the flowers was like, ‘Hey, Nana, keep doing what you’re doing. You are excelling in every possible way you can, and these flowers are a reminder every day when you get up that you’re doing the damn thing,’” she says. Here’s the thing: When you start buying flowers for yourself, you may very well want to give them to other people, too. Starting last summer, Agyemang partnered with florists to hold several flower arrangement giveaways, her way of expanding the circle of support and affirmation. “When someone does good work, you give them flowers,” she says. “This was a time of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I felt like a lot of Black women and Black-owned businesses weren’t getting the flowers they deserved.” Helene Wiesenhaan/BSR Agency/Getty Images Tulips growing in Hillegom, Netherlands, early in the pandemic, in April 2020. For many people, flowers became a poignant way of connecting with loved ones they couldn’t otherwise see. Before the pandemic, Chicago-based artist Hyun Jung Jun enjoyed making cakes for her friends, creating unequivocally charming landscapes out of flowers and other vegetal materials: lavender placed like birthday candles, fennel fronds used to evoke towering trees. When 2020 rolled around, though, the cakes became an excuse to pick up homegrown flowers from one friend and then treat them — or someone else — to the finished product. “They’d come pick up the cake, so at least I got to see them a little bit,” Jun says. Sam Herzog, director of sales and marketing at the accessories brand Kara, was already in the habit of giving people flowers before the pandemic, but she’s ramped way up, sending them to her parents in California and to friends as housewarming gifts and breakup support. When she meets up with friends in the park, she likes to bring them a bouquet. “I think it’s this really beautiful thing because it’s just a gesture of care,” Herzog says. “Flowers don’t have any functional purpose. They’re purchased purely for making someone feel appreciated or cared for. It’s like a hug.” My friend James started sending flowers to his male friends a few months ago, in an effort to normalize it as an acceptable way of showing platonic affection for and among men. “I think I wanted someone to give me flowers,” he says. Unemployed for much of the pandemic, James had cut back on his habit of buying sunflowers for his own apartment, but on his 30th birthday, he gave himself permission to buy an arrangement. His parents wound up sending him a bunch too, transforming his apartment into a vibrant floral landscape for a few weeks. Joan Slatkin/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images Cut sunflowers for sale in New York City. When millennials talk about buying flowers for their loved ones, particularly their peers, a word that comes up a lot is “old-fashioned.” Handing someone a bouquet rings of courtship from a bygone era. Sending an arrangement has a certain formality and seriousness, not to mention an often significant price tag. But if you can’t show your appreciation for a friend by buying them a drink at the bar, flowers start to seem like a reasonable substitute, for any occasion or no occasion at all. They’re heartfelt and earnest. They speak to the romance of platonic friendships. And as my cousin Katie Lovins, a floral designer in Portland, Maine, pointed out to me, there’s a sense of theater when a bunch of flowers arrive on someone’s doorstep. In some cases, flowers were a romantic gesture, full stop. My other cousin, the one who sent me the photo of that perfect rose, realized she was going to fall in love with someone when they sent her pressed flowers from their garden last summer. They had matched on Tinder before the pandemic, but only started seeing each other afterward — from opposite sides of the country, communicating incessantly via phone calls, FaceTimes, and selfies. “I think flowers are this universally romantic gesture, especially when you’ve grown them and picked them. It felt like, here is this small thing that’s beautiful, because you deserve it,” she says. “It was a level of connection and thoughtfulness that I was craving.” The relationship didn’t work out, and in retrospect, my cousin wonders if she imbued those pressed flowers with a little too much meaning. (For whatever it’s worth, the Victorians were all about it.) Romantic that she is, she brought yellow mums to a subsequent first date, though she claims she merely pulled a few stems from a bouquet she’d already bought. LaParis Phillips, the owner of Brooklyn Blooms, saw a marked uptick in people sending “just because” flowers to their loved ones throughout 2020. “People were really valuing their time and valuing being in the moment. Like, ‘I don’t care what day it is, it’s a special day. I’m living and I’m healthy, so it’s special,’” she said. “If I can sum up those flower orders that made us busy, gratitude is the word.” George Rose/Getty Images Poppies and lupine are among the wildflowers that signal the start of spring in central California. Despite some people’s newfound enthusiasm for flowers, this was a difficult year for the floral industry as a whole. Canceled weddings, closed office buildings, and shuttered restaurants hit local retailers hard and disrupted the global supply chain, with some growers shredding or composting their unsold stems. Phillips says she was able to stay afloat because her business was already oriented toward daily orders from individuals, rather than corporate clients or events; Brooklyn Blooms also was included on a number of lists promoting Black-owned businesses during the protests following George Floyd’s death, and for several months, Phillips was working overtime filling orders. It felt good, during a year of such turmoil, to be sending out those flowers and seeing the kind messages that people had for one another, Phillips says. It’s impossible to forget the grief that sparked those well-wishes, though. “I wish it didn’t take a pandemic and somebody dying for nine minutes for this to happen, but that’s what it takes for humans to move,” she says. Finally, the third kind of floral experience — taking in a patch of buttercups growing on the side of the road, or happening upon a vibrant bed of tulips in someone’s yard — flourished this year for the same reason that other nature-related activities, like cultivating houseplants and birdwatching, did. Interacting with non-human living things eased feelings of isolation and provided a grounding alternative to staring at a screen for 18 hours straight. I know someone who took it upon herself to finally learn the names of the many wildflowers that grow near her house in Idaho, perhaps recognizing that, as Fiorello says, “even looking at plants around us gives us a boost of chemicals in our brains.” One unnamed individual started pilfering wild chives from a local park, eventually pulling up a bunch at the root to cultivate in a pot at home. He looks forward to the edible purple chive blossoms that should arrive this summer. Over the last year, I spent a lot of time staring at plants in parks, too. It was easier than spending time with people. On one of the first truly gorgeous days of spring, a month or two ago, I took an afternoon walk through the park. I was feeling itchy and grouchy, overdressed in a heavy jacket and still reflexively shooting dirty looks at anyone not wearing a mask. Heading south, I emerged from a wooded path into an open field, where a lone dude was stretched out in the grass, wearing nothing but a Speedo and framed by a bunch of yellow daffodils. It was like something out of an oil painting. They projected the same vibe, this stranger and the flowers: at ease in the world, simply enjoying the sun and breeze at 1 pm on a weekday. I couldn’t muster that energy for myself, but I liked the idea of it. Recognizing it as an idea at all felt like a kind of thawing.
2 d