Change country:
Vox - All
Vox - All
Countries are limiting food exports. It may make global hunger worse.
Farmers harvest wheat on the outskirts of Jammu, India, on April 30. A recent heat wave has affected the yield of India’s wheat crops. | Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images Trade is vital to mitigating the global food crisis. Two weeks ago, India, the world’s second-largest producer of wheat by volume, announced export restrictions on the commodity. India’s wheat farmers are facing an estimated loss of 15 to 20 percent of their crop due to a devastating heat wave, and the government cited concerns about domestic food security in explaining the move. While India’s wheat only represents a small percentage of global wheat exports and the government announced that it still plans to export to countries in need, the restrictions are only the latest in a distressing global trend that, if it continues, will add to already-rising levels of global hunger. Before the war in Ukraine, food prices were already at some of their highest historical levels due to high fuel and energy prices, droughts, and the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Russia’s invasion exacerbated them, pushing prices to record highs in March. People in countries with high levels of food insecurity are at greater risk of hunger as bread becomes more expensive and scarce. The problem isn’t production. Even with the war in Ukraine — one of the world’s leading wheat producers — there’s actually enough wheat to feed everyone in the world. The USDA projects that 2022/2023 production will be down 0.6 percent from 2021/2022 — not good, but not catastrophic in itself. Major producers beyond Ukraine, including India, Argentina, Australia, and Canada, can actually make up for most of the wheat lost or restricted by Russia’s war. The problem is that it is getting more expensive than ever to move the wheat to where it needs to be, and that problem may only get worse. India is only the latest country in recent weeks to restrict exports. Countries like Serbia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and Egypt have restricted wheat exports this year, and other countries have restricted exports from sugar to vegetable oil to maize. While India’s wheat restrictions alone should have limited effect on global food prices, they could push even more countries to follow suit. And that would be disastrous, potentially tipping a volatile global food situation into a crisis. Here’s why experts think that, and why the world’s governments need to act differently to forestall a humanitarian catastrophe. The Ukraine war, energy, and the global food crisis Food prices are at near-record highs and have been rising almost continuously for the last two years. The war in Ukraine has made the situation worse, as Russia and Ukraine produce large percentages of the world’s wheat, sunflower oil, and other vital food commodities. A rise in fuel prices is also a major contributor to the rise in food prices, as food now costs more to store, process, and transport. Rising food prices are adding to hunger crises in countries with already-high levels of food insecurity and drought, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. They are also disproportionately affecting people in Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen, which rely on Russia and Ukraine for most of their wheat. The number of food-insecure people in the world has risen from an estimated 768 million in 2020 to 869 million in May 2022. Many countries outside of the Black Sea region export wheat, and about 30 percent of the world’s wheat is in storage, so there’s enough wheat to feed everyone in the world. But if wheat producers continue to put export restrictions in place, experts warn that prices will continue to rise to unmanageable levels and more people will go hungry. What do export restrictions mean for global hunger? On May 13, India announced export restrictions on wheat, but noted that it would honor pre-ban commitments and still accept requests from governments dealing with food insecurity. In the wake of the announcement, there was an immediate price spike (although that has since abated somewhat in the past week). The worry about India’s move is that it could contribute to the world’s looming food crisis. But the biggest problem isn’t necessarily the direct long-term effects of a ban on global prices — that could, in fact, be negligible. While India is a major global wheat producer, most of the wheat it produces is consumed locally; India accounted for less than 1 percent of global wheat exports in 2020. Rather, experts worry about the example it sets for other producers. Historically, when countries, particularly large global players, institute export bans, other countries follow suit. This leads to higher global prices due to decreased supply, which generate panic about shortages, which then sparks a vicious cycle of price-raising and more widespread hunger as food-insecure countries struggle to afford food for their populations. In a previous global food crisis in 2007-’08, which drought and fuel prices also contributed to, insulatingtrade policy changes are estimated to have led to almost half of the global rice price increase and about a third of the global wheat price increase. In our current crisis, export restrictions rose at the beginning of Covid-19, kicking off a period of price spikes, and have been on the rise again this year in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s estimated that pre-India trade restrictions contributed to about one-sixth, or 7 percentage points, of the global wheat price rise. For people living in poverty, an increase of that size can be catastrophic. Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images Workers stand next to a heap of wheat being loaded onto a ship at the Deendayal Port Authority seaport at Kandla, India, on May 18. In March, Chris Barrett, a professor at Cornell who researches food security, told me about economist Kym Anderson’s comparison of export bans to people standing up during a sports match at a stadium. At first, the people standing can see better, but then everyone follows suit and no one ends up benefiting. “In the end, nobody’s getting a better experience of the match,” Barrett said, “but there’s a lot of unnecessary conflict and unnecessary expenditure of energy to deliver an inferior result, and that’s where we wind up with export bans. Export bans don’t accomplish much, if anything, and nothing lasting for countries that implement them, but they cause real problems for others.” The potential implications of India’s export restrictions Economists are critical of India’s restrictions (its exceptions notwithstanding), and think that the negative impacts for both global markets and domestic producers could be similar to what we’ve seen in the past, even if it’s not directly through the loss of Indian wheat. Communication and perception end up being a big part of the story. If people think there’s scarcity, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; if countries say they’ll do one thing and instead do another, it also may lead to panic. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced in April, “We already have enough food for our people but our farmers seem to have made arrangements to feed the world,” offering to fill in some of the export gaps left by the war in Ukraine. “The exuberance about the ability to feed the world was not realistic,” Siraj Hussain, an expert on agriculture and rural economy at Arcus Policy Research, told me over email. While export bans are purportedly put in place to help people domestically, there’s little evidence they have this effect. In the case of India, export bans historically have ended up hurting farmer incomes by creating an unpredictable market environment and cutting off their access to markets that will give them higher prices. Those bans may help domestic consumers for a while — at least until everyone starts standing up in the stadium — but they end up hurting domestic farmers. Given that over 40 percent of people in India are employed in agriculture, that’s a lot of people who could get hurt. Export restrictions are easy to implement because they don’t cost money, and it “sends a strong policy message of, ‘we protect you and keep the food at home,’” said David Laborde, a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) who runs their Food and Fertilizer Export Restrictions Tracker. But “the reality is keeping food at home doesn’t mean it ends in the plate of the people who need it.” Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images A laborer works inside a mill producing refined wheat flour in Khanna, India, on May 18. To protect farmers and others at risk of hunger at a volatile time, governments can instead increase social protection such as cash transfers or school feeding programs, or raise the minimum support price for farmers. (India is providing social protection by continuing a food subsidy program reaching about 800 million people that was effective at fighting poverty during Covid-19.) The stringency of India’s restrictions will determine how much they ultimately affect global food prices. India has already announced that it will allow exports registered before May 13, and that it will continue to trade with food-insecure countries, particularly in the region. If India in practice ends up exporting basically what it would have anyway, then the export restrictions themselves shouldn’t have too many long-term price implications for the world. “For me the India ban is much more a communication problem and bad example than something that will traumatize markets,” Laborde said. Laborde noted that Argentina, another major global wheat supplier, would be the next to watch given its history of export restrictions. Negative knock-on effects extend not only to global producers, but also to regional producers who might be inspired to ban exports. Tanzania and Uganda, for example, aren’t big players in the global wheat market, but to a country like South Sudan already suffering from high food insecurity and conflict, a ban from those two countries could be devastating. There also may be negative longer-term effects of export restrictions for countries that implement them. The restrictions hit the credibility “of India as a reliable supplier of anything in global markets,” wrote agriculture researchers Ashok Gulati and Sanchit Gupta in the Indian Express. The World Trade Organization (WTO) doesn’t have disciplinary measures against export bans, Barrett said, because in 1994, when the protocols were written, it was more worried about import bans. Changes to international trade policy may be possible as early as June, when the WTO’s postponed 12th Ministerial Conference is set to take place. In the meantime, however, a food crisis looms. One big thing countries can do to prevent it is resist the temptation to restrict food exports amid the global economy’s gyrations.
2 h
With Ricky Gervais’s new special, Netflix yet again suffers transphobic fools
Ricky Gervais performs in Netflix’s 2018 special Humanity. The comedian’s latest Netflix special has come under fire for transphobia. | Ray Burmiston/Netflix Does Netflix even care that Ricky Gervais’s SuperNature is rife with transphobic TERF ideology? Who knows exactly what response Netflix expected for SuperNature, Ricky Gervais’s transphobic new standup special, but pardon us while we refrain from clapping. After the backlash to Dave Chappelle’s transphobic 2021 Netflix special The Closer, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said he believed in “artistic expression,” and that his stance toward Chappelle’s comedy hadn’t changed — implying that trans people would just have to get over it. That seems to be the platform’s party line on transphobia. The company’s long-term investment in Gervais includes releasing shows he stars in, like Derek and After Life, and reportedly paying him $40 million in total for his most recent pair of comedy specials. Humanity, released to Netflix in 2018, likewise reeked of transphobia. In SuperNature, the level of transphobia goes several degrees further than Humanity and even further than Chappelle’s seeming fixation on pronouns and genitalia. Gervais parrots numerous ideas that form the backbone of transphobic TERF ideology, then blames transgender audiences for being mad. Gervais, like many other comedians of late, has spent his last several cycles on the comedy circuit reacting over and over again to so-called “woke” culture and comedy, as if the concept of comedy that refuses to punch down is so egregious all he can do is continually react to it, then react to the reactions to his reactions. This time around, having been through repeated backlash over his previous offenses, he’s at pains to explain the structure of his comedy — to explain to us why he holds the comedic high ground over his invisible future catcallers. See, he stops to inform his audience, the joke he’s about to tell isn’t offensive because he’s being ironic. Now he’s being metaphorical. Now he’s using figurative language to illustrate that words aren’t violence. Gervais, predictably, given his overt approval of TERF talking points, builds his entire indignant anti-woke stance specifically around transgender people: their anatomies, their pronouns, their existence. It takes him all of two minutes to make his first trans joke: A mention of fellow British comic Eddie Izzard, who has long identified as transgender and began using she/her pronouns two years ago. The “joke” isn’t actually a joke, because Eddie Izzard merely existing isn’t inherently funny; but the audience laughs at Izzard’s name, right on cue, because Gervais, having already condescended to explain irony to us, expects us to laugh at the whole concept of Izzard, or maybe the concept of finding Izzard funny, or an uncomfortable mix of both. It doesn’t matter which of these jokes is intended, because Gervais has already rejected the counterargument that a hateful joke is only “ironic” when everyone is in on it and when no one is secretly having their actual bigotry reinforced by the cruelty at the center of said irony. Toward the end of the show, he drags out an appalling sketch full of racist Sinophobic stereotypes, which he insists isn’t racist because it’s “ironic.” Doesn’t matter that this kind of “irony” is what allows white supremacists to operate in plain sight. Doesn’t matter that five minutes into SuperNature an audience member audibly laughs at a mention of rape, which might indicate that perhaps Gervais’s audience isn’t as ironically humorous as he wants them to be. No, Gervais seems to have decided that because words aren’t literal physical violence, nothing he says can cause harm. And once establishing this up front, he proceeds to use trans people as a (metaphorical) punching bag. Gervais has said repeatedly that he doesn’t disrespect “real” trans people; rather, he only mocks specific people he sees as male sexual predators who’ve usurped “real” trans identity in order to prey on women by pretending to be women. This is pure TERF rhetoric divorced from reality. Gervais has spent years making fun of trans women onstage; on social media, he’s spent the past few years amplifying transphobic TERF talking points about how trans people (usually women) are rapists, perverts, liars, and linguistic terrorists. Much like JK Rowling, Gervais claims to be very concerned with the state of cis men pretending to be women in order to rape them, while insisting that “real” trans people should be respected; but if you look for examples of Gervais actually embracing, supporting, or affirming “real” trans women, you won’t find any. Trans people seem to only interest Gervais when he has an excuse to dismiss or dehumanize them — or joke about beating them up or compare them to rodents. Onstage, his obsession with trans people includes a vile fixation on anatomy. He expects his audience to laugh at the idea of a trans woman having male anatomy; he expects us to ridicule the idea that anyone wouldn’t laugh. Over and over again he “jokes” about trans women having penises. He says he personally supports trans rights, then talks about trans women raping other women, implies that trans people are “mental,” and implies that trans people invented “self-identification” sometime after the ’60s in order to exploit their marginalized status. Woe for today’s kids, he suggests, whose too-woke parents might force them into a “trendy” trans lifestyle. Any trans person who complains about his comedy is “virtue signaling.” Such trans people are, he tells us, motivated by superiority and a wish to tear other people down. It surely has nothing to do with the astronomically high levels of violence against trans people, nor the equally high levels of trans mental health issues and suicidal ideation — all of which are directly linked to harmful transphobic rhetoric. Of course Gervais makes no mention of this; it’s not funny, after all, and it undercuts his ultimate thesis that insensitive or deliberately offensive humor should be seen as a form of affection and caring. We’re expected to speak his lingua franca of bad jokes and meet him halfway by agreeing that “identity politics” should be just as susceptible to mockery as everything else. Given the TERF-y interludes, SuperNature is an unnecessarily cruel piece of transphobic rhetoric. But without the TERF-y parts, it just feels superfluous; there’s no real reason for it to exist. Gervais needs transphobia to have something to say, and apparently Netflix does too. The streaming service surely understood that by releasing this special, it would get more of the backlash it received after The Closer. During that backlash, Sarandos first said that he didn’t believe The Closer could cause any real-world harm, then recanted that statement, possibly after trans activists and allies pointed out horrifying trans suicide statistics. (It’s worth noting that Netflix has also made a significant financial investment in Chappelle.) Netflix went through all this once, yet still chose to release SuperNature at a moment when vulnerable trans people are already getting hit with wave after wave of unnecessary cruelty. The implication seems clear: Netflix is just fine suffering transphobic fools for views. It’s just fine inflicting bigoted hateful rhetoric on its subscribers. It’s just fine with the subsequent real-world harm that comes from amplifying such views. The platform’s choice to release this special now, during a wave of unprecedented anti-trans legislation, is unconscionable. It’s not just that Gervais, his fellow contrarian comedians, and his large audience may feel validated and affirmed in their hatred of trans people and will pay that forward in the form of more cruelty and discrimination. It’s not just that actual trans people may be hurt, may internalize harmful messages and shame because of SuperNature’s existence. It’s that Netflix is an influencer; its decisions make waves. By openly signaling that trans people and their allies are disposable within its business model, Netflix sets a precedent that many other companies in the tech and entertainment industries are likely to follow. And, sure, this is nothing new — but that doesn’t make it hurt less. If trans people are to be thrown to the wolves of comedy, one would hope the wolves would at least be funnier.
3 h
In Appalachia, a race to preserve the practice of plant healing
Andrew Bentley points out an eastern hemlock tree during a hike in the Red River Gorge at the Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky in April. | Stacy Kranitz for Vox Even as ginseng, St. John’s wort, and other herbs grow in popularity, the region is struggling to keep its age-old practice of herbalism alive for a new generation. Part of the May 2022 issueof The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Andrew Bentley paused at the base of a hemlock tree during a recent hike in Red River Gorge, an hour east of Lexington, Kentucky, in Daniel Boone National Forest. He ran his fingers over a spongy mat of pale deermoss with fondness, as if greeting an old friend. A moment later, he stopped again. “Pipsissewa!” he exclaimed, pointing at a crop of tiny, star-shaped flowers poking out of the earth. “You’d never see this in an herb shop.” Bentley is 45, with a bushy gray beard, and a quiet, philosophical air. A fourth-generation Appalachian herbalist who sources almost all of his medicinal tinctures in these woods, he is no stranger to the outdoors. He grew up in neighboring Lee County (population: 7,395), and as a child, he often roamed the dense, rolling hillsides with his three brothers. “Occasionally, you’d come across someone’s marijuana patch and they’d shoot at you,” he said, laughing. “It’s a lawless place. A lot of freedom.” It was early spring, and the leaves hadn’t all come in, but that didn’t stop Bentley from pointing out dangling strands of beard lichen, plus jewelweed, and pine needles, which he’s fond of boiling as a decongestant. Families with children and dogs passed him on the trail, but his attention was fixed entirely on the moss, ferns, violets, and soil. Every now and then, he placed his hands on a tree trunk and waited, listening. Stacy Kranitz for Vox Appalachian violets bloom in the Red River Gorge at the Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky. Stacy Kranitz for Vox Bentley points out pipsissewa, or spotted wintergreen, leaves in the Red River Gorge. The plants of the Appalachian region are incredibly diverse, and have been used by the surrounding communities for generations. Bentley isn’t a doctor. But with about 30 years as a practicing herbalist under his belt (he began treating people when he was just 16), he has attracted a following of people who turn to his plant-based remedies, hoping to relieve chronic pain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. If that sounds far-fetched, consider that roughly a third of all drugs come from plants, and that supermarkets such as Whole Foods now offer elderberry syrup (a supposed immune booster) and ginger tea (a digestion aid) alongside the Tylenol and Pepto Bismol. Folk medicine has long been lumped into the category of superstition — equivalent to faith healing and prayer candles — but the widening audience has made it easier for herbal practices like Bentley’s to thrive. “Until the ’90s, the practice of herbal medicine was a gray area legally,” Bentley explained. That changed in 1994, when the federal Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act placed herbs in a separate category from drugs, creating a regulatory framework for them under the Food and Drug Administration and effectively paving the way for the modern herbal supplement industry to flourish. The legislation spurred clinical trials of herbs like St. John’s wort, ginkgo biloba, and garlic, and normalized the use of plants in wellness, but it has also concerned health experts, who contend that the regulation of the industry is lax. For example, in 2015, the New York state attorney general accused four herbal supplement brands of mislabeling products as containing herbs when testing showed they contained none at all. The practice of herbalism is simpler here. When Bentley opened his Lexington practice in 2000, he was surprised by how many clients fondly recalled seeing herbs in their homes. “I kept hearing, ‘My grandmother used this stuff, but she didn’t teach anyone before she died.” Residents who had grown up in rural eastern Kentucky, like him, didn’t view herbal treatments as a novelty, but as something entirely familiar. Stacy Kranitz for Vox Bentley holds a horseradish tincture at his clinic in Lexington, Kentucky, in April. Bentley is an herbalist, having learned the trade from his father and grandfather. President Lyndon B. Johnson once referred to the remote Appalachian mountains as “a region apart.” Life here has had a way of eluding the mainstream. Poverty in some parts reaches 40 percent of the population, according to recent data. Crude stereotypes of Appalachian people (see: Deliverance) dominate many Americans’ understanding of this sizable stretch of the country, and those prejudices have been hard to reverse. These mountains, however, have been instrumental in supplying the nation with resources from timber and coal to tobacco, and, at one time, marijuana. American ginseng is another such resource. In the 1700s, the natural stimulant, which grows wild throughout these mountains, made history as one of the first US products exported to China, where it remains highly sought after today (at a going rate of between $500 and $1,000 a pound, it’s also the most lucrative Appalachian herb). Mary Hufford, a visiting professor of folklore studies at Ohio State University, explained that ginseng was often a trusted income source for Appalachians. “In times of bust, they’d get out their trowels and dig ginseng.” It helped coal miners stay afloat during strike periods, and ginseng buyers would line up ready to pay cash for the freshly dug roots. At the same time, Hufford said, an unspoken code of ethics helped prevent the overharvesting of ginseng. Because the plant takes up to eight years to reach maturity, foragers are careful to leave more than they take. Hufford recalled speaking to Dennis Dickens, a 90-year-old resident in Big Coal River, West Virginia, who used to snip off the young, berry-less stems to keep the plants hidden from impatient diggers. In recent decades, the collapse of industries such as coal and tobacco has led to poaching. Entire ginseng patches are ripped out of the ground to make a quick buck. Theft has become so problematic for forest farmers that many have installed security cameras just to protect their crops. Katie Commender, an agroforestry expert and director of the Appalachian Harvest Herb Hub, grew up around such home remedies. She spent weekends with her grandparents in Blackwater, Virginia, gathering medicinal herbs from the field. “They never went to the doctor,” she said, turning instead, as many have for generations, to their own vast backyard. The mixed mesophytic forests of the Appalachians are one of the most biodiverse regions in America, yielding dozens of plants that simply don’t grow anywhere else. Not just ginseng, but also black cohosh, goldenseal, and slippery elm — botanical powerhouses available at no cost to anyone who calls these mountains home. These days, fewer and fewer people do. In the 1950s and 1960s, approximately 7 million Appalachians left the mountains for northern states like Michigan and Ohio looking for factory jobs. Now, older generations of commercial harvesters have a hard time finding apprentices to take over the trade. “It’s back-breaking work,” Commender admitted, noting that wild harvesters often must haul 50-pound sacks through the woods for days at a time to source enough herbs to turn a profit. “There aren’t as many people who want to do that work anymore. You can make more at Walmart.” Commender is now developing a pilot program, launching this fall in Duffield, Virginia, to train new generations of wild herb harvesters. The goal, she said, is to “create a more robust economy” that links wholesale manufacturers with foragers who are well-versed in sustainability. This will ensure the forest’s finite supply doesn’t run out, and also, hopefully, keep this centuries-old practice intact for future generations. Bill Uhrich/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images A ginseng plant in Pennsylvania. Right now, the culture seems particularly receptive to healers like Bentley. From sound baths to yoni eggs to turmeric lattes, Americans have embraced alternative practices in tandem with conventional medicine, and herbs are no exception. Herb supplement sales saw double-digit growth in 2020, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, and the pandemic has caused demand for botanicals like echinacea (purported to boost immune function) and elderberry (a folk remedy flu-fighter) to soar. Rebecca Linger, the co-author of A Guide to the Toxicology of Select Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern North America, spent seven years researching the science behind Appalachian plant remedies. Some medicinal claims, she said, have turned out to be accurate. In her book, she cites joe-pye weed, traditionally ingested as a tea to relieve gallstones, as an example of a plant whose medicinal properties “are borne out when you look at the chemistry.” “Natural,” however, is not necessarily safe, she warned. “The marketplace for natural medicine has really skyrocketed in the past few years. People want to treat themselves naturally, so they are buying a lot of products from the herbal aisle without knowing how they work.” The herb boneset, for example, is often used as a fever reducer. But when mixed with Tylenol, compounds in boneset, known as pyrrolizidines, can react with Tylenol to cause serious liver damage. Another hazard are sedative herbs: For someone with low blood pressure, mixing such herbs with the wrong medication could result in excessively lowering blood pressure. Linger recently began a class on folk medicine at the University of Charleston, West Virginia, where she teaches, so her students will learn how to navigate instances in which patients have mixed and matched natural products with their medication. “Pharmacists and doctors end up saying you shouldn’t take any herbals. It’s not because they don’t think they work, it’s because they don’t understand them.” Health experts, too, warn that such supplements simply haven’t “received the same scientific scrutiny.” Bentley runs his fingers through a patch of plants in the Red River Gorge. In pockets of Appalachia, understanding herbs was often as simple as stepping outside. A direct path to the forest meant constant access not just to herbs but all sorts of provisions: fruit, vegetables, honey, and wild game. As these practices — boiling ginseng root, picking chamomile flowers — were refined over the years, they became part of the folklore. (Texts like Linger’s may offer a deeper understanding of the chemistry behind medicinal plants, but that data is bolstered by centuries of lived experience.) The awareness of certain plants and how they function can only be learned through careful observation of the land over multiple generations, explained Hufford. “When you have a cycle that exceeds the span of individual human lives, it’s so important that families preserve the knowledge.” Bentley pours a decoction of turkey tail mushroom into a four-ounce bottle. Myrrh and burdock tinctures made by Bentley. Tinctures line the shelves of Bentley’s clinic in Lexington, Kentucky. The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains in the world, so it stands to reason that Indigenous people were the first ones to synthesize knowledge of native plants in the region. However, due to the forced removal of Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee tribes in the early 1800s, evidence of their hand in Appalachian plant medicine is startlingly absent. “There’s a historical hole,” Hufford said. What has remained, for better or worse, are the deep connections Appalachians have forged with this ecology. Herbalists often act as a go-between, connecting plants to the residents who depend on them. Bentley, who inherited his herbal know-how from his father and grandfather, said he is all too aware of the importance of passing down this tradition. This year, he launched a year-long herbalist training program that includes four guided herb walks in the forest; he also offers webinars through the American Herbalists Guild). “For most of history, knowledge about herbal medicine has been handed down orally,” he said. “Storytelling has always been a part of that, and still is.” Often, when he’s leading students through the hickory and pine groves, he will include a narrative element to make a particular herb more interesting: “Like how Achilles used yarrow to treat injuries in the Iliad,” he said. Details like these illustrate what a plant is used for, and also establish just how long these practices have been around. “Narratives,” he said, “stay with people.” Alex Schechter is a Los Angeles-based writer focused on the natural world. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Monocle, the New York Times, and Lonely Planet.
3 h
America’s gun violence epidemic, in one chart
Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Kentucky, on July 22, 2021. | Jon Cherry/Bloomberg via Getty Images The US has lots of gun violence. It also has lots of guns. In the wake of yet another unspeakable tragedy, in which 19 children and two teachers were murdered by a gunman in a Texas elementary school, one reason for the US’s steady stream of mass shootings seems obvious. Right-wing politicians are quick to blame video games, race, mental illness, and literally anything else but guns for America’s high number of mass shootings. While it’s impossible to definitively say, “It’s the guns,” the sheer quantity of firearms in the United States is undeniable. The number of guns appears to be directly related to the number of gun deaths in America. The US leads the developed world in gun deaths, with about 12 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, according to data collected from Not coincidentally, the country also has a lot more guns. For every 100 Americans, the US has 120 guns. In response to the latest massacre, a number of politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz have suggested adding more guns to the mix by arming school teachers and security guards — a prospect that has no evidence of working. What’s needed is fewer guns. However, in the face of mass shootings, states like Texas have responded by loosening gun laws. Most recently, Texas politicians passed a law making it so that people don’t need a license or training to carry a handgun. This law does not appear poised to make the problem of guns go away. Other countries have responded aggressively to their own gun problems with success. In Scotland, after a similar school shooting in 1996, lawmakers banned private ownership of handguns and automatic weapons. There haven’t been any school shootings since. And in dealing with its own gun violence problems in the 1990s, Australia took and destroyed roughly 650,000 guns from private citizens as part of a buyback program. Rates of gun homicides and suicides plummeted. There are many extenuating circumstances that lead to gun deaths in the US. Let’s start with the easy one: guns.
The dangerous defeatism that follows mass shootings
Marnie Beale of Arlington, Virginia, holds a sign at the US Capitol calling for background checks on gun purchases on May 25, a day after the country’s latest mass shooting, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 children and two teachers. | Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images No, the gun control debate was not over after Sandy Hook. It’s not over after Uvalde either. Nineteen children and two teachers were murdered Tuesday at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, a recurrence of a uniquely American nightmare we seem doomed to repeat again and again and again. The five children dead and more than 30 injured at Cleveland Elementary in Stockton, California, in 1989 — one of the first of these large-scale tragedies — presaged this terrible trend. Twenty children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, didn’t stop these occurrences, even though the massacre was so horrific that it seemed, for a moment, that Congress would have no choice but to act. Countless other young people have been killed, injured, and traumatized by school shootings since the late ’90s with such frequency that their stories now often don’t even make headlines unless the body count is high enough. By every measure, it is dispiriting to behold, the reality of what decades of policy prioritizing the unfettered rights of gun owners over the safety of the public has wrought: We have failed our kids in the most basic sense of the word. The most vulnerable among us — children, and people who are targeted because of their race, religion, or cultural identity — bear the brunt of our collective inability to keep each other safe. In the face of this failure, it’s easy to fall back on a familiar kind of fatalism. “Nobody is going to do anything,” the Gravel Institute, which makes YouTube videos to promote progressive ideas, tweeted right after the Uvalde shooting. “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” wrote Dan Hodges, a British columnist, on Twitter in 2015. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” Every time another mass shooting happens, his tweet is shared over and over again. It’s an understandable impulse. It’s also a harmful one. The fight for safer schools (and restaurants and concerts and nightclubs and grocery stores and places of worship) simply cannot be over, especially when something as serious as children’s lives and our ability to be safe in public is at stake. “For Democrats to play into the hands of the corporate gun lobby, and just letting them define what the realm of possible is, it’s so defeatist to me,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told Vox in 2019. “At a time with the levels of carnage in our country, we don’t need people who are defeatist in their thinking about what’s possible.” This form of defeatism, rooted in so much heartbreak, diminishes the work of survivors and activists like Gabby Giffords and the Parkland students, who haven’t taken it as a given that their tragedies will be repeated in generations to come. It disregards the success that they’ve been able to bring on a state level, expanding background checks, banning bump stocks (which later became federal policy), and making it harder for high-risk individuals to get and keep guns. It is the least we can do, to honor their hard work and the memories of those who were killed, to not preemptively declare that they have lost. The idea that the fight for sensible gun reform failed because it didn’t happen immediately after the shooting in Newtown also rests on misguided assumptions about how large-scale social and political change happens. “That’s fundamentally the wrong way to look at how Washington works,” Sen. Chris Murphy, who represents Connecticut, told the New York Times last week, when asked if Congress missed its chance at gun reform after Sandy Hook. “I’ve studied enough great social change movements to know they often take decades to succeed. … I think I am part of one of these great social change movements, and I’m confident that you have to put up with a lot of failures before you’re met with success.” The civil rights movement didn’t spark change overnight, but was the result of years of organizing, lobbying, and building public support. Social reform takes time, and it is often only with the hindsight of history that we know which moments were really significant. Keeping weapons out of the hands of people who would use them for violence will be a gargantuan challenge, especially in a country with more guns than people, and a major political party that has, for more than a decade, staunchly refused attempts to control their proliferation and sale. That doesn’t mean that these efforts aren’t worth it, or that no good will ever come of them. It just makes the need for action ever more urgent. Even now, the gun control debate is not over — just look at the number of people raging, mourning, and demanding that America must do better. They are the best evidence that the matter is not settled, and they are indicative of the 53 percent of Americans who favor more restrictions on the purchase and ownership of firearms. Ninety percent of Americans support universal background checks and 72 percent say they support the creation of a national red flag law, which would make it easier for law enforcement to take guns from dangerous individuals. Everyone, presumably, wants their child to be safe in school. These are issues where a small minority has blocked action on proposals with widespread public support. Those who want change should focus their efforts on disrupting the “minority rule doom loop,” as Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate, calls it, rather than preemptively declaring that minority rule has won. It’s not just the public. While Republicans have thus far resisted political pressure, and Congress has gotten so dysfunctional that it can hardly respond to public needs, the reality is that the Senate has gotten close before, such as Sen. Joe Manchin’s proposal to expand background checks in 2015; the difference between action and inaction in the Senate is always (maddeningly) a matter of a handful of votes — and a refusal to change the filibuster. The House of Representatives has already passed expanded background check legislation this session. The NRA, once considered one of the dominant forces in American political life, has been weakened by scandals and lawsuits. It might be hard to remember now, but in the era of Blue Dog Democrats, many Democratic lawmakers boasted about their NRA ratings, and admonishments not to “politicize the tragedy” of mass shootings were a powerful tool for silencing critics of the gun lobby. The parameters of public debate on guns have shifted so significantly that it’s almost unimaginable today. None of this amounts to the real changes needed to prevent mass shootings, but it is a sign of a culture that has already begun to change how it thinks and talks about guns. On Tuesday evening, Murphy challenged his Republican colleagues to work with him on legislation that could prevent more mass shootings from happening. It “may not guarantee America never ever again sees a mass shooting,” he admitted. “But by doing something, we at least stop sending this quiet message of endorsement to these killers whose brains are breaking, who see the highest levels of government doing nothing, shooting after shooting.” Murphy is right. To do nothing is to endorse an intolerable status quo, one that puts all of us, and our children, at needless risk. It will continue to be true, no matter how hopeless it can feel. Making it harder for would-be mass shooters to access guns might not stop another tragedy like the one that happened at Robb Elementary. But it would be a start. America can’t afford not to try.
Australia confiscated 650,000 guns. Murders and suicides plummeted.
That's a lot of guns. | (William West/AFP/Getty Images) In the wake of the killing in Uvalde, here’s what America can learn from Australia’s response to tragedy. Tuesday’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has already kicked off another national debate about gun control. It is worth considering, as one piece of evidence about what policies do and do not work, the experience of Australia in the late 1990s. Between October 1996 and September 1997, Australia responded to its own gun violence problem with a solution that was both straightforward and severe: It collected roughly 650,000 privately held guns. It was one of the largest mandatory gun buyback programs in recent history. And there’s decent reason to think it worked. That does not mean that something even remotely similar would work in the US — they are, needless to say, different countries — but it is worth at least looking at Australia’s experience. What Australia did Fairfax Media/Getty Images Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his wife at a service for the victims of Port Arthur in 1996. On April 28, 1996, a 28-year-old man with a troubled past named Martin Bryant walked into a cafe in Port Arthur, a tourist town on the island of Tasmania, and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle. He killed 35 people and wounded another 28. Australia's prime minister at the time, John Howard, had taken office just six weeks earlier at the head of a center-right coalition. He quickly drew a very clear conclusion from the Port Arthur killing: Australia had too many guns, and they were too easy to get. "I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people," Howard wrote in a 2013 op-ed for the New York Times. "I also knew it wouldn’t be easy." Howard persuaded both his coalition and Australia's states (the country has a federal system) to agree to a sweeping, nationwide reform of gun laws. The so-called National Firearms Agreement (NFA), drafted the month after the shooting, sharply restricted legal ownership of firearms in Australia. It also established a registry of all guns owned in the country, among other measures, and required a permit for all new firearm purchases. One of the most significant provisions of the NFA was a flat-out ban on certain kinds of guns, such as automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. But there were already a number of such guns in circulation in Australia, and the NFA required getting them off the streets. Australia solved this problem by introducing a mandatory buyback: Australia's states would take away all guns that had just been declared illegal. In exchange, they'd pay the guns' owners a fair price, set by a national committee using market value as a benchmark, to compensate for the loss of their property. The NFA also offered legal amnesty for anyone who handed in illegally owned guns, though they weren't compensated. There were fears that the mandatory buyback would provoke resistance: During one address to a crowd of gun rights supporters, Howard wore a bulletproof vest. Thankfully, fears of violence turned out to be unfounded. About 650,000 legally owned guns were peacefully seized, then destroyed, as part of the buyback. According to one academic estimate, this amounted to about 20 percent of all privately owned guns in Australia. Australia's program likely saved a lot of lives William West/AFP via Getty Images Australia’s gun buyback in action. In 2011, Harvard's David Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis reviewed the research on Australia's suicide and homicide rate after the NFA. Their conclusion was clear: "The NFA seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved." What they found is a decline in both suicide and homicide rates after the NFA. The average firearm suicide rate in Australia in the seven years after the bill declined by 57 percent compared with the seven years prior. The average firearm homicide rate went down by about 42 percent. Australia's homicide rate was already declining before the NFA was implemented, so you can't attribute all of the drops to the new laws. But there's some reason to believe the NFA, especially the buyback provisions, contributed to those declines. "First," Hemenway and Vriniotis write, "the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates." There is also this: 1996 and 1997, the two years in which the NFA was implemented, saw the largest percentage declines in the homicide rate in any two-year period in Australia between 1915 and 2004. In the years since Hemenway and Vriniotis’s study, there has been a great deal of research examining the precise effects of the NFA. A 2021 meta-analysis of the available evidence, conducted by the RAND Corporation, found that it’s very tricky to pin down the contribution of Australia’s policies to a reduction in gun violence due in part to the preexisting declining trend — that when it comes to overall homicides in particular, there’s not especially great evidence that Australia’s buyback had a significant effect. Nevertheless, the RAND authors conclude, “the strongest evidence is consistent with the claim that the NFA caused reductions in firearm suicides, mass shootings, and female homicide victimization.” So why these three effects? As my colleague Dylan Matthews points out, there is good reason why gun restrictions would prevent suicides. Suicide is often an impulsive choice, one often not repeated after a first attempt. Guns are specifically designed for killing, which makes suicide attempts with guns likelier to succeed than, for example, attempts with razors or pills. Limiting access to guns makes each attempt more likely to fail, thus making it more likely that people will survive and not attempt to harm themselves again. The logic for female homicide victimization is similar. Women are disproportionately likely to be murdered by male partners as part of a pattern of domestic abuse; an abuser with access to a weapon specifically designed to kill is more likely to murder their partner than they would be otherwise. And mass shootings are rare events undertaken by a small fraction of individuals; reducing the availability of guns makes it less likely for people who want to engage in such actions to be able to do so. A 2018 study found that in the 18 years before Port Arthur, Australia experienced 13 mass shootings — defined as incidents in which five or more people died. In the years since, the country suffered one such incident (there was also a shooting in 2019 that killed four). Bottom line: Australia's gun buyback may well have saved lives, likely by reducing homicides and almost certainly by reducing suicides. Again, Australian lessons might not necessarily apply to the US, given the many cultural and political differences between the two countries. But in thinking about gun violence and how to limit it, this seems like a worthwhile thing to look at. Watch: 18 charts that explain gun violence in America Update, May 25, 2022: This story has been updated to include recent research on the effects of the Australian gun buyback program.
A child can’t be a “good guy with a gun”
A girl is comforted as she cries outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, where earlier in the day an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School. | Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images How an NRA myth gave us the Uvalde nightmare. There is something about a mass shooting at an elementary school, about the slaughter of children like those in Uvalde, Texas, that clarifies the true nature of America’s gun politics. Nearly 10 years ago, days after the massacre of young kids at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne LaPierre gave a defiant press conference where he vowed not to give an inch on gun control. To justify the NRA’s absolutism, LaPierre uttered a phrase that would become one of the defining phrases of the debate over guns. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said. Of course, the children lying dead in Connecticut could not have taken up arms in their own defense. Nor could the kids who died in Texas. Instead, LaPierre was arguing for putting more guards in schools — a policy that has been repeatedly shown not to deter or prevent mass shootings. Yet immediately after the Uvalde shooting, gun rights advocates like Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Fox host Jeanine Pirro repeated LaPierre’s proposal — although there actually were armed police outside the elementary school who engaged the shooter before his massacre. There is something profoundly dangerous at work here. It is an ideology embedded in the very idea of gun rights as envisioned by people like LaPierre, Paxton, and Pirro: a vision that armed citizens, and not the state, represent the ultimate guarantors of freedom and civil peace. This gun rights ideology has become embedded both in Republican politics and in the culture of American gun ownership: an all-consuming political identity that has broken American politics. The gun rights ideology represents a dark vision of society — essentially the abolition of collective security and a state monopoly on violence in favor of individuals acting as laws unto themselves. For some, this works just fine; for many others, including those vulnerable people like children who cannot defend themselves, it can amount toa death sentence. The gun rights ideology and its dangers The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) is a US government-sponsored think tank that works to advise and assist war-torn countries in transitioning to peace. In a publication on how to arrive at a secure post-conflict environment, it highlights “legitimate state monopoly over the means of violence” as a “necessary condition.” If the government cannot bring armed individuals and groups to heel, and exercise control over violence, a return to civil conflict and anarchy becomes more and more likely. This advice comes not only from extensive observation of post-conflict situations but also from our most fundamental theories about the purpose and nature of government. Part of what it means for a government to exist is to exercise a monopoly over legitimate violence: that is, the power to use law enforcement and the military as ultimate and widely accepted arbiters of social order. A state that doesn’t have this capacity does not actually control the territory it governs; whatever one’s views about the proper role and size of government, the state monopoly on violence is the starting point. The gun rights ideology starts from the opposite view: that society is founded not on the state controlling violence, but rather on violent individuals controlling the state. On this view, government by its nature always poses a risk of devolving into tyranny. Citizens have an absolute right, if not an obligation, to arm themselves in order to defend against state overreach. The state can never have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; the second it does, we run the risk of totalitarianism. Ethan Miller/Getty Images A supporter of President Donald Trump holds up a flag during a protest outside the Clark County Election Department in North Las Vegas, Nevada, in November 2020. The gun rights ideology permeates American gun culture and, by extension, today’s Republican Party. Justice Antonin Scalia codified it in constitutional law in his 2008 opinion in DC vs. Heller, writing that one aim of the Second Amendment is “to assure the existence of a ‘citizens’ militia’ as a safeguard against tyranny.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump referenced it when he suggested that a President Hillary Clinton could legitimately be assassinated. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks ... although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is,” the future president mused at a rally in North Carolina. The throughline between Scalia’s erudite opinion and Trump’s crass comment is the notion that people should be perpetually prepared to engaged in armed rebellion: to rise up, as they did on January 6, but with firearms. This is not the same thing as the basic belief that an active citizenry should engage in collective protest against policies and governments they oppose. Instead, it is the idea that the survival of liberty depends on people being equipped to use violence against ever-creeping tyranny — a belief that’s rarely found among citizens of other advanced democracies. The popularity of this notion goes a long way toward explaining why the US has such different gun policies than virtually every developed country: Believers in the gun rights ideology see nearly any gun control measure, no matter how anodyne, as a potential step down the road to serfdom. Gun rights ideology makes the United States vulnerable in exactly the way the USIP has observed in post-conflict societies. When guns are everywhere, the people who own them become capable of enacting violence in the manner of their choosing. It is easy for terrorists and mass shooters to slaughter at their discretion; the same goes for gang members and abusive spouses. The state cannot check them more or less by design. If the government could adequately restrict gun ownership, according to the gun rights ideology,then liberty would be insecure. Instead, the gun rights ideologue argues, the responsibility for public safety falls in the hands of individuals: the “good guy with a gun.” If well-intentioned armed individuals are everywhere, then they can gun down evildoers in the act. Armed citizens supplement the police — and, in some life-and-death situations, replace them entirely. The research on this theory is not promising. Concealed carry laws do not appear to significantly reduce homicides or other violent crimes; placing armed guards in schools does not protect them from mass shootings. In fact, one study found that schools with armed guards were more likely to have a higher death toll during a mass shooting. What the omnipresence of firearms does instead is create a society governed by fear: a country where violence could break out at any time, forcing all of us to reshape our lives accordingly. Schools, which should be places of learning and play, become fortresses equipped with metal detectors. Students are forced to engage in scarring active shooter drills; posting armed guards in schools reinforces their fear and may inhibit learning. Gun rights ideology requires that America double down on this fearful vision — even after an event like the Uvalde mass shooting proves its limits. In an interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson just hours after the shooting, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said that “we have to harden these targets [schools] so no one can get in — ever — except through one entrance.” The notion that schools are “targets” that need to be “hardened” as if they are army bases only makes sense in a world where all society has been militarized — where widespread ownership of guns has thrown us into a conflictual state where public authorities have no real capacity to prevent mass slaughters. Elementary school students do not fit well into this cosmology. Fourth-graders cannot wield weapons safely; there is no such thing as a “good child with a gun.” But this is the country that gun rights ideology has created: one where the murder of little children becomes the price we pay for their vision of freedom.
How gun ownership became a powerful political identity
Ethan Miller/Getty Images Or, how the NRA won. In the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde massacres, we need to talk about identity politics: both white identity politics, and the identity politics of gun owners. Ideological white nationalism appears to have been a key motivation in the Buffalo attack. And in the wake of the attack, gun owner identity politics is likely to spur fierce resistance to any additional gun control measures. To some extent, this is already happening. “Inevitably when there’s a murder of this kind, you see politicians try to politicize it, you see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Sen. Ted Cruz, whose constituents were murdered in Uvalde, told reporters shortly after the shooting. The way the responses to the gun massacres over the past week and a half played outwas about something deeper: the development of gun ownership into a powerful political identity, one that shapes national politics, even presidential politics, in a profound way. How gun ownership drives votes Gun ownership has not always had such a clear partisan tilt. Indeed, gun control was once embraced by right-wing racists as a tool to disempower Black Americans. “Few people realize it, but the Ku Klux Klan began as a gun control organization,” UCLA law professor Adam Winkler writes in Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “After the Civil War, the Klan and other violent racist groups sought to reaffirm white supremacy, which required confiscating the guns blacks had obtained for the first time during the conflict.” He notes that a century later, in the 1960s, politicians turned to gun control measures to “disarm politically radical urban blacks, like the Black Panthers.” Over the course of the past four decades, though, gun ownership has firmly sorted along party lines. In a 2017 paper, University of Kansas political scientists Mark Joslyn, Don Haider-Markel, Michael Baggs, and Andrew Bilbo found that the correlation between owning a gun and presidential vote choice increased markedly from 1972 to 2012. Javier Zarracina/Vox; data via Joslyn, Haider-Markel, Baggs, and Bilbo, 2017 In 1972, about 66 percent of gun owners voted for Richard Nixon, compared to 55 percent of non-gun owners, for a gap of 11 percentage points. In 2012, 56 percent of gun owners voted for Mitt Romney, compared to 26 percent of non-gun owners. The gap was 30 percent, almost triple what it was in 1972. Joslyn and Haider-Markel updated their study in 2017, and found that the gap in 2016 wasn’t quite as large as in 2012 — 62 percent of gun owners and 38 percent of non-owners voted for Trump — but it did remain significant and far larger than in the 1970s and ’80s. Indeed, a SurveyMonkey poll found that in 2016, Trump won gun owners in every single state except Vermont, and lost non-gun owners in every state but West Virginia and Wyoming. Stark maps ... 50-state view of 2016 vote in gun vs. non-gun households via @SurveyMonkey— Jon Cohen (@jcpolls) October 2, 2017 More recently, in 2021, the Pew Research Center found that self-identified Republicans were much likelier (54 percent) to report having a gun than self-identified Democrats (31 percent). Joslyn (who’s expanded his work into a book, The Gun Gap) and coauthors find that even after you control for gender, race, education, age, rural/urban status, and even party affiliation, gun ownership still correlates strongly with presidential vote choice. Indeed, they find that in their regressions, it “exerts a greater influence on likelihood of voting Republican than gender, education, or rural residence, and rivals age.” These regressions can’t prove causality — that is, they can’t prove that gun ownership causes people to vote Republican. But they do show that the phenomenon we’re seeing isn’t just an effect of which racial groups or genders are likely to own guns. Gun ownership on its own appears to matter. Democrats who own guns are likelier to vote for Republican presidential candidates than Democrats who don’t; Black Americans who own guns are likelier to vote Republican than Black Americans who don’t; women who own guns are likelier to vote Republican than women who don’t, and on and on and on. How gun owners became part of the conservative coalition Matthew Lacombe, a political science professor at Barnard College, has spent years trying to figure out how gun ownership, and NRA membership specifically, became such a potent political identity. As part of his PhD dissertation research at Northwestern University, excerpted in a Journal of Politics article, he combed through 79 years of back issues of American Rifleman, the NRA’s flagship publication, from 1930 to 2008, reviewing some 422 staff editorials on political, gun control-related topics. He also analyzed more than 3,200 letters to the editor about gun issues in the New York Times, the Arizona Republic, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Chicago Tribune over the same period. The NRA’s editorials, he found, were filled with language meant to cultivate a clear political identity for gun owners rather than argue policy issues on the technical merits. And the specific identity the NRA sought to build, based in American traditions of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and the like, was designed to fit well with American conservatism. “Rather than confronting a situation where the gun owner identity is potentially in conflict with the partisan identities of gun owners, they seem to fit together really well. I think that’s no coincidence,” Lacombe told me in a 2018 interview. “The NRA has been pushing characteristics we now associate with conservatism for a long time, which is why it was so well positioned to become an important part of the Republican Party coalition.” This isn’t a recent phenomenon, or even one that began in the 1960s and ’70s. “The identity existed, I would argue, all the way back in the 1930s, when the first federal attempts on gun control were made,” Lacombe said. Even then, the group was mobilizing members to call Congress and try to weaken or defeat new restrictions, contrary to some narratives of the group as largely nonpartisan up until 40 to 50 years ago. American political parties haven’t always sorted ideologically; for decades, even into the 1970s and ’80s, there were quite liberal Republicans (like Charles Mathis or John Chafee) and very conservative Democrats (like Jim Eastland or Larry McDonald) in Congress. But as conservatism became the clear province of the Republican Party over the past four decades, gun owners became a central part of the Republican coalition, creating the trends in gun owner voting that Joslyn and his team found. This grounding of gun owners’ conservative politics in a deep social identity helps make them a potent base of political support for the NRA and other opponents of gun control. Gun owners are much likelier to report having contacted an elected official about the issue or donated to a pro-gun organization than are non-owners who support gun control. They’re also likelier to identify themselves as single-issue voters than gun control opponents are, and Republican gun owners are likelier to say their gun owner identity is important to them than Democratic gun owners. Duke political scientist Kristin Goss has documented a clear organizational gap on the issue, with gun control opponents lacking the organizational heft and capacity of supporters. Work by Joslyn and the political science team at Kansas confirms the existence of this participation gap. “Gun owners are more likely to vote than non-gun owners, both for presidential candidates and down-the-ballot races,” Joslyn told me in 2018. “They are also more likely to engage in other campaign-related activities. On gun issues specifically, gun owners are more active, willing to contribute to gun-friendly candidates, contact public officials about gun policies, sign petitions, etc.” Lacombe notes that some of the participation gap could be caused by the nonpolitical functions of the NRA. “More than a million people annually participate in NRA programs, which provide real services and experiences for people who enjoy firearms,” he told me, referencing the group’s firearms trainings, shooting ranges, and other events. “Once they’re there, they’re exposed to the NRA’s really politically charged, identity-based appeals. That gives them an advantage a lot of other groups don’t have.” The cultural attitudes that drive the gun debate The conservative themes that Lacombe alluded to in the gun debate — an individualist spirit, paired with a respect for traditional family values — can be broken down in a couple of ways. First, there is a divide between an individualist attitude, which places a premium on individual autonomy, and a communitarian attitude, in which the community or nation is in this together and sometimes needs to make individual sacrifices for the greater good. Second, there’s a divide between a hierarchical worldview, where traditional practices and distinctions between genders, ages, social groups, etc. are viewed as important and justified, and an egalitarian worldview that views such distinctions as fundamentally arbitrary. Donald Braman, a professor at George Washington University law school who holds a PhD in anthropology, has, with his Yale colleague Dan Kahan, examined the gun debate through these cultural divisions, using an approach known as the “cultural theory of risk.” Pioneered by the late anthropologist Mary Douglas, the theory holds that people’s cultural environments, particularly the groups of which they’re members, help determine what people view as significant risks: Is the more significant threat “insufficient control of concealed weapons, leaving citizens vulnerable to deliberate or accidental shootings”? Or is it “excessive control, leaving citizens unable to defend themselves from attackers”? This perception, in turn, colors how people interpret empirical evidence and form conclusions about policy. Gun ownership is a particularly powerful identity, even starting as early as childhood. “We found that growing up in a household where firearms were present and having a firearm in the home was a strong determinant of how dangerous people thought firearms were,” with people growing up with gunsperceiving them to beless dangerous, says Braman. Childhood exposure to guns is also a strong determinant of whether people keep firearms to this day. And gun control advocates’ views are also, in significant measure, culturally and identity-determined. For this group, “guns connote … the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the wellbeing of strangers,” Braman and Kahan write. “These individuals instinctively support gun control as a means of repudiating these significations and of promoting an alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonaggression.” Using evidence from the General Social Survey, Kahan and Braman found that respondents’ expression of certain cultural values — support for societal hierarchy versus egalitarian views, support for individualism versus communitarianism — had a strong effect on their opinion regarding gun control. People with more hierarchical but simultaneously individualistic worldviews are less likely to support gun control, and people of a communitarian, egalitarian bent are more likely. “With the exception of gender, no other characteristic comes close to the explanatory power of cultural orientations,” they write. “Cultural orientations have an impact on gun control attitudes that is over three times larger than being Catholic, over two times larger than fear of crime, and nearly four times larger than residing in the West.” That leads Kahan and Braman to urge that advocates in the gun debate focus less, when trying to persuade others, on the consequences of given gun policies, since empirical evidence on these policies is filtered through these cultural lenses. “Moderate citizens must openly attend not just to the consequences that gun control laws promote but to the cultural values they express,” Braman and Kahan write. Is there any way out? The NRA and the anti-gun control lobby have a number of advantages, most of which, contrary to popular belief, don’t have much to do with an ability to buy off politicians with campaign contributions. They have an extensive network of events that bring people together into actual, real-life social networks, built on fun activities like going to a shooting range rather than an explicitly political end. Grassroots gun rights supporters have remarkable discipline about contacting politicians. Lacombe looked through letters and phone calls to the White House about guns over the years, and found that while pro-gun control letters and calls spike after mass shootings, there’s a constant stream of anti-gun control contacts from gun owners, which easily matches and outpaces the calls for stricter regulation. But this state of affairs isn’t necessarily permanent. For one thing, gun ownership has been on a long-term decline, in part because of the urbanization and suburbanization of American society, and while the pandemic appears to have at least temporarily reversed that trend, far fewer US households report owning guns than did decades ago. “Many of the characteristics and cultural practices of gun owners have been challenged or threatened because hunting is very hard to do if you don’t have wilderness to go hunting in,” Braman told me in 2018. “There have been shooting ranges and those types of things, but they tend not to be as common as hunting used to be. … We also have a smaller portion of the population involved in the military and law enforcement, so those populations are also not as prominent.” And while there is no easy-to-build gun control equivalent of the rifle clubs that the NRA uses as its base of support, Lacombe stresses that similar organizing might be possible among supporters of increased regulation. “The gun control side can never have its own version of rifle clubs, but that doesn’t mean it can’t engage in identity building,” he said. Arguably, this happened in the wake of the 2018 Parkland shooting, with high school students becoming a mobilized group in their own right, a group that, like the NRA, has nonpolitical activities and physical spaces it can use for networking and organizing. It remains to be seen if a similar movement will crop up after Buffalo and Uvalde. It’s definitely an approach that could help gun control advocates succeed. But it would also intensify polarization around the issue, especially if it challenges gun owners by implying that the gun enthusiast part of their identity is incompatible with parenting. What no one seems to know is how to make the debate less about identity and more about evidence — or if such a move is even possible. It might be that the most we can hope for is an ever-escalating clash of identities that somehow results, against all odds, in sensible policy. Update, May 25, 2022, 1:30 pm: This story has been updated to include new research and responses to the Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, mass shootings.
Masculinity, explained by WWE
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, right, takes on John Cena at the 2012 edition of WWE’s WrestleMania. Both men started out as wrestlers and have become huge movie stars. | Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images An expert tells us how professional wrestling endlessly evolves to reflect changing masculine gender norms. For several years now, I’ve been fascinated by the rise of a new crop of musclebound male stars, who are seemingly everywhere in film and TV. Yes, there have always been musclemen in our pop culture, but in the past, they were largely assigned to very narrow archetypes: the brawny action hero or the snarling henchman to the main villain. In recent years, however, more and more big men are following in the footsteps of Arnold Schwarzenegger and playing all sorts of roles in all sorts of movies. Notably, John Cena seems just as comfortable playing an antiheroic superhero with a bad dad as he is playing an overbearing father who comedically gets super involved in his teen daughter’s sex life. Cena, like fellow hulking hunks Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dave Bautista, first rose to fame as a professional wrestler, and the more I thought about Cena’s surprising vulnerability, the more I realized that, perversely, the over-the-top shenanigans and violence of the wrestling ring might be key to his appeal. Especially in the 21st century, wrestling has turned its wrestlers’ private lives into fodder for its storytelling, creating a kind of need to authentically and vulnerably perform the self. Was there anything to this idea? I asked Sharon Mazer, professor of theater and performance studies at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. She literally wrote the book on this topic, Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle, and she dug into the ways that performance within wrestling has shifted and evolved, as well as the ways that shift has been influenced by our evolving ideas on what it means to be a man — and how wrestling has influenced societal notions of masculine performance right back. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For as long as I’ve been alive, wrestlers have tried to break through as movie stars. Hulk Hogan was the biggest wrestling star when I was a kid, but he flopped as a movie star. And now Dwayne Johnson and Dave Bautista and John Cena have all had real success in movies. Do you think these guys are better actors than Hulk was? Or has wrestling changed in a way that better prepared them to star in movies? If you look at the evolution of wrestling since the glam years of the 1980s, obviously, [WWE CEO] Vince McMahon has a lot to answer for. Vince brought the cameras into the arena in a much closer and more calculated way. He brought scriptwriters in in a closer and more calculated way. So wrestling itself began to leave behind its carnival roots and its improvisatory structures and became much more scripted toward the end of the ’80s and certainly into the ’90s. Now, it’s very heavily controlled and contained. It’s mapped for cameras. The live spectacle is much more controlled and contained and aimed toward the cameras. In that late’ 80s, early ’90s phase, what was interesting was to watch the wrestlers who could work the camera versus those who were just very good at being caught by the cameras and to watch how deft that technology was starting to be in picking up the action and getting us in closer than we used to be. As a consequence, I think there’s been a naturalization of the wrestler’s persona, especially male wrestlers. We hear about their wives and their children. They have storylines where one of the wrestlers is chasing the other and attacking his wife. This isn’t at all the same as the triangle between Macho Man, Miss Elizabeth, and Hulk Hogan in the 1980s. This is something entirely different because the cameras go into their homes — or what are meant to be their homes. So performances that have become mobile, from the squared circle into the realm of film and television, is also a movement from a very social presentation of a wrestler’s persona into a very individuated, very personal persona, devoid of a larger social set of identifications. Now, these guys present themselves almost straight [in the sense of basic and unaffected] to begin with. They’re usually in basic briefs, maybe a pretty robe here or there. But they’re so straight in their presentation as wrestlers. They’re just strong guys. There’s no exaggeration to let go of. They’re presented as regular, working guys. They’ve got muscles, but so do other working guys. I wonder if their real role model is Arnold Schwarzenegger more than any other wrestler. He made a really good transition into film from his bodybuilding, and he was much more extreme as a bodybuilder. But if you look at Pumping Iron [the documentary that broke Schwarzenegger through to global fame], he was the breakout star in part because he seemed like a real person onscreen, and he worked the screen really well. He had a knack for it. So these guys seem to have been brought into the game because of some humanist appeal, for lack of a better word. When he’s working, you can see who Dwayne Johnson is. You can see who John Cena is when he’s working. You get one generation beyond them [the group that came up in the ’90s and 2000s], and they’re looking much more like a normal person. The least looking-like-a-person wrestlers right now are Vince McMahon himself and his son Shane. I do wonder if the camera coming into these guys’ houses, as scripted as it is, has added an element of their ability to be real and vulnerable and play some version of themselves on camera. It’s heightened, but it’s a heightened version of who they are. The big innovations of the early Vince years were that the cameras would go backstage. You’d have wrestlers racing backstage, punching each other backstage, sometimes racing out into the street. But cameras have become much more mobile, and we carry cameras with us all the time, so people are much more used to staging ourselves that way and seeing ourselves staged that way. Wrestlers have had to go through an evolution about dialing it back [as cameras have entered the ring more]. They do much more holding still. There’s a much clearer distinction between when they’re showing us a persona and when they’re actually doing the thing live. And a lot of that’s enforced because they go from town to town and have to deliver much the same show, in much the same way, from one city to the next, whether it’s in the United States or overseas. This whole generation of young wrestlers has lived in a different world than Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage came up in. And they’re just different men more generally. Men have changed, and this might just be changing norms of masculinity. They’re still exaggerated from what we would hope to see in everyday life, but not in the same way that they were 20 to 30 years ago. I don’t know how big of an evolution of masculinity it is, but the shift toward more personal stories in wrestling from the days of Hulk Hogan or whoever feels of a piece with something larger in the culture, to me at least. In the US, there are competing masculinities, and whatever war is being fought this week or the next, even the war on women’s bodies, those wars are being fought about definitions of masculinity at base and whose ideological stance is going to prevail in terms of masculine performance. We have assumptions about the 1950s and ’60s and homophobia and masculine dominance and how it was a truly oppressive era. So you have the wrestler Gorgeous George, who’s a villain, fluffing his hair and his robe and doing his fancy thing. The crowd just loved hating him. And yet when he stripped down and started wrestling, yes, he cheated in the end of his matches, but there’s always a period where you could say he was a really good wrestler. At the same time, you’d have Ricky Starr, a ballet dancer from Greenwich Village, prancing around in ballet slippers with little miniature ballet slippers that he would fling into the audience. And they loved him! He was so tiny that he could leap on his opponent’s back and legitimately win. The point seemed to be in the ’50s and ’60s that just being a man was enough. If you had a penis, that was enough. The only thing that matters is that, at some point, you could beat another guy up, and you could demonstrate that in wrestling in a way that was unlike any other arena. It was a very reassuring portrayal of masculinity. Yes, it was rife with sexism, homophobia, all of that, but at base, its message was: You’re a man, and therefore, we’re all men, and that’s all that matters. The symbol of a real man is that he shows he can win. He loses often, but he gets back up and he fights again. The only difference is a good man wins by following the rules and defending the community, and a bad man wins by breaking the rules and thumbing his nose at the community. Those were the moral, ethical, ideological paradigms of the period, and they held even through the ’80s. What makes [wrestling] so fascinating is that it is so representative of and informative to whatever is going on in the dominant culture at any given moment, and the thread that runs through it is one about defining what a real man is and somehow extending that definition to every man. Yeah, our political battles, especially in the US but everywhere around the world, are so often about what masculinity is. But wrestling and action movies externalize that question in really interesting ways. So how has wrestling evolved along with our idea of what being a man is? Or hasn’t it? To some degree, what you’re observing in these wrestlers-turned-actors is reflective of the evolving understanding of what a real man is and how a real man is to behave in the real world. But these are not exclusive. It’s not like the representation is on one side and the reality is on the other. One of the things that was always fascinating to me about wrestlers is how gentle they were with each other. When wrestlers greeted each other back in the day at the gym, they would go, “Hey, man,” and they would slide two fingers [on both sides of the other man’s wrist] and barely touch. And that was how they would touch each other in the ring. You’d barely feel it. Because they have to work together to make the spectacle, wrestlers have to be extraordinarily sensitive to each other’s bodies and spirits in the ring. You can’t throw someone across the ring safely unless the two of you are communicating really well and your bodies are touching in exactly the right way. I always felt in the wrestlers’ gym that the point of the gentle greeting that I saw was that they were saying to each other, “I can hold it back. I am in control of this. I don’t have to hurt you. But if you push me the wrong way, I will pound you into the pavement.” And I’ve seen that as well. So masculinity [in the wrestling gym] was about having the power but also the restraint and following the rules. If you’re talking about the guys on Fox News or Donald Trump, they didn’t learn that lesson. What’s appealing about a John Cena or a Dwayne Johnson is that they’ve had that lesson. What’s revolting about these other men is that they didn’t get the memo that first you learn to cooperate, and then you beat someone up. Donald Trump in 2007 for the Battle of the Billionaires was taught very carefully his stunt with Vince McMahon where he threw him down and pretended to punch him. And then he actually almost hurt Vince McMahon in throwing him down and punching him. He didn’t pull his punches. He wasn’t gentle. He missed the lesson he was given and went for it because he didn’t know the difference between how one is supposed to perform in this context. When I was teaching a women and trauma course at Columbia over 30 years ago, I used to argue with the women in my class. “Do you simply want to hear what everybody playing by the rules says, or do you want to see what they’re suppressing, what violence, what impulses are really there? Is it better to have those things repressed so that we can all get along and pretend to be civilized? Or should we, once in a while, open up and see what’s really going on here?” It’s no less violent for being oppressed. It’s no less violent for being gentle. It just means that we know how to be acceptable in those performances. It may be appealing to see these wrestlers-turned-actors being vulnerable and showing us their feeling selves. But I wonder what is not being seen as a result and if that’s still the more meaningful takeaway from these performances.
1 d
The plant-based future of food doesn’t always taste that great
Plant-based meat, milk, and egg products have come a long way in the last decade, but they still have a ways to go to make a dent in conventional animal product sales. | Getty Images/iStockphoto What I’ve learned from four months of vegan food samples. I cover the plant-based food industry for Vox, so I get a lot of free food samples. A lot. Some of the products that startups mail me are delicious, many are just okay, and a few have been downright awful, bad enough to make me wonder out loud, “Why are they letting people eat this stuff?” A plant-based steak from the startup Juicy Marbles in Slovenia was meaty and, well, quite juicy, while another startup’s steak was watery and flavorless. A new plant-based milk product from Silk, one of the more established brands,was rich and smooth, while a new startup’s milk was much too sweet and left behind a chalky aftertaste. I’ve also sampled enough vegan chicken nuggets and tenders to feed a small village, though that village would be left gastronomically unsatisfied, as most were mediocre, with only a few standouts: nuggets from VFC and Tindle, and wings from Simulate. The new foods I’ve tried are just a smattering of what’s on offer from the dozens and dozens (and dozens) of plant-based startups that have sprung up in recent years, fueled by billions of dollars in venture capital cash. It’s the vegan gold rush, and while all that investment has been great for the companies, I worry about the downside for consumers and the plant-based movement: a glut of mediocre products. The vegan gold rush is a direct effect of the sheer difficulty of changing hearts and minds — not to mention diets — on meat-eating by trying to appeal to consumers’ stomachs. Nearly all meat, milk, and eggs are produced on factory farms that pose a risk of incubating the next pandemic while polluting the air and water, not to mention condemning animals to a lifetime of miseryand subjecting meatpacking workers to hazardous conditions. Despite a majority of Americans telling pollsters they support a societal shift toward plant-based eating, moral pleas have largely gone unrequited: US per capita meat consumption continues to rise, while global meat consumption (excluding fish) jumped from 65 pounds per person in 2000 to 75 pounds in 2019 and is projected to increase significantly in coming decades, especially in low- and middle-income countries. The new generation of animal-free meat, milk, and eggs has been promoted as a way to shortcut the moral debate by using technology to make plant-based ingredients taste uncannily like animals. If that can happen, the thinking goes, consumers will be more eager to switch over because they won’t feel as though they’re sacrificing their taste buds to their ethics. It’s much too early to tell if that theory of change is right. It usually takes decades, not years, for a new technology to achieve widespread adoption, and many never do. The same goes for new culinary categories. But for that shift to happen on a wider scale, plant-based foods need to deliver on their gastronomic promise, and the glut of mediocre products that have landed in my mailbox certainly isn’t going to help the sector’s long-term goal, and may very well threaten it. “If there’s a plethora of really poor products on the market, and people who don’t do their research or haven’t been exposed to [better] products choose one of those as their first foray into plant-based foods, that can certainly create a negative halo around the category,” says Jennifer Bartashus, a senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. It’s hard to tease out the effect of sub-par products on the broader plant-based meat sector, but after years of startups capturing the public’s curiosity — and food dollars — there is evidence that the category is starting to plateau. The plant-based industry’s growing pains The president of Maple Leaf Foods, a major Canadian food company that entered the plant-based market in 2017, said in a February 2022 earnings callthat the refrigerated plant-based meat category experienced explosive growth in 2019 (59 percent) and 2020 (75 percent), but just 1 percent in 2021. His explanation: “Consumers’ needs simply were not met, and they did not repeat purchases.” Plant-based meat is hurtingat the drive-thru too; analysts say sales of McDonald’s McPlant burger, made with Beyond Meat, are lower than anticipated. The singlelargest Burger King franchise operator in the US said in late 2020 that Impossible Whopper sales had fallen by half from around 30 per store per day compared towhen it first launched in August 2019. It was unrealistic for the explosive growth of the past few years to be sustained, and many players in Big Foodare as bullish as ever on plant-based food. For example, Nestlé is quickly launching new products across Europe (hopefully not too quickly, though), while Unilever has pledged to make one-fifth of its ice-cream portfolio dairy-free by 2030. But to meaningfully displace conventional animal agriculture, the plant-based sector will need to entice disengaged consumers with new and superior offerings; after all, according to one survey, consumers say novelty and curiosity are their primary motivations to give meat from plants a shot. Producers maintaining a much higher bar for taste and texture will be key. Patience pays (and so does feedback) One lesson that can be learned from the biggest players in the field is that patience pays. Impossible Foods was in stealth mode for five years developing its burger before it launched, and it’s now available in every Burger King. Eat Just toiled away on its egg product for almost six years and it says it now has 99 percent of the US plant-based egg market (though they have very little competition). Beyond Meat spent several years on its flagship burger before its massive IPO in 2019. The company says it allocates 14.4 percent of its net revenue to R&D. Today, though, many startups are putting out products just a couple of years after securing funding, and unreasonable expectations from investors could be a cause. “We are seeing more generalists [investors] enter the space and we’re seeing that education is important so they understand what’s happening in order to make the products that they’re backing,” says Laine Clark of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for alternative proteins like plant-based and cell-cultured meats. “When these startups come to market with a product, they’re taking a significant risk that consumers won’t give the brand a second chance if the first experience isn’t pretty darn good.” But much of the blame can’t be laid at the feet of investors; startup founders, like the rest of us, can be too optimistic in estimating how long something will take to do, says Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just, which makes plant-based eggs and cell-cultured chicken meat. “An entrepreneur truly will believe that they [can launch a product] in 18 months, let’s say, and they’re raising capital to do that, and they made that outside commitment [to investors]. And understandably so, now there’s pressure and expectations to do that.” One upside of getting a product to market — even if it’s too soon — is that it can light a fire underneath startups to make it better. “When you know something is out there, there is a bit more of a motivation to improve it,” Tetrick says. And when startups feel they have improved a product, some use it as an opportunity to communicate their iterative approach to consumers. While food companies are constantly reformulating their products, some plant-based startups number each reformulation like a software company would; for example, Beyond Meat is now on version 3.0 of its “beef” burger, while Simulate is on version 2.0 of its “chicken” nugget. Consumers say taste is the top factor when deciding which meat alternative brand to buy, but “clean labels/recognizable ingredients” comes in second. Bartashus argues that too many startups are shaping products around that second expectation, which could also help explain the mediocrity of the results. “So if the focus is on all-organic, non-GMO, and all-vegan, and it’s got no gluten — you’re in the pursuit of labels that sometimes you lose sight [that] the product itself has to taste good.” All food companies conduct taste tests, but when I visited Beyond Meat’s headquarters earlier this year, it was apparent just how seriously they take feedback. The company has a room dedicated to gathering it, conducting dozens of sensory tests each week, and third-party off-site taste tests too. “The room was specifically designed to remove bias — from the paint color on the walls to the light bulbs used in the booths — to ensure that we can get unbiased real-time feedback on our product development work,” a Beyond Meat spokesperson told me over email. Courtesy of Beyond Meat Taste-test participants in the sensory room at Beyond Meat headquarters. If big R&D budgets, rigorous taste-testing,and mega-celebrity partnerships (Beyond Meat just appointed Kim Kardashian as its “chief taste consultant”) aren’t enough to dethrone animal meat from the center of the plate, cell-cultured meat — created by taking a small sample of animal cells and growing them in bioreactors — might win over consumers, at least on taste. During a recent trip to San Francisco, I tried cell-cultured salmon, chicken, bacon, sausage, burgers, and meatballs. While some were 100 percent cell-cultured — meaning they were biologically almost identical to meat from animals — most included both cell-cultured and plant-based ingredients. But one thing was for certain: All of the products were noticeably meatier — juicier, firmer, and tastier — than their purely plant-based counterparts. Whether these startups will be able to produce cell-cultured meat at scale at an affordable price point, and get consumers on board with such a novel food product, is an open question. They currently lack US regulatory approval to commercially sell their products, and in Singapore, the one country that has approved a cell-cultured product, Eat Just is selling its chicken nuggets at a loss. Courtesy of Eat Just Eat Just’s cell-cultured chicken. The distance that even the best startups still have to go to make hyperrealistic analogues — despite billions in collective investment — illustrates just how hard it is to make plant-based meat, milk, and eggs that can compare to conventional products. And easy money might be drying up; venture capital firms are tightening their belts in the current economic environment. We’re in the boom times of the vegan gold rush and, eventually, many startups will go bust. That’s just the nature of Silicon Valley and the business cycle more broadly. If a tech startup goes bust with a bad product, however, it doesn’t sour people on computers and smartphones. But there’s a real risk that if the plant-based industry doesn’t improve its offerings, all that consumers will be left with is a bad taste in their mouths.
1 d
The rise of the sadboi big man
Beth Hoeckel for Vox/Getty Images From John Cena to Jason Momoa, our most muscular movie stars are increasingly our most vulnerable too. Part of the May 2022 issueof The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Early in the first season of HBO Max’s 2022 series Peacemaker, the titular antihero collapses on the bed in his tiny trailer and breaks down sobbing. He’s finally processing the events of the 2021 film The Suicide Squad, which introduced John Cena as Peacemaker. In that film, he killed government agent and nominally good guy Rick Flag. He feels bad about it. Maybe he and Rick could have been friends? But he didn’t even give them a shot. Cena, who plays the complicated hero, is a former wrestler built like an extremely buff, smooth version of Gossamer, the big monster covered in red hair who was always threatening Bugs Bunny. Because of pop culture’s longstanding ambivalence toward the idea of a man of Cena’s size and stature openly weeping, it’s hard to watch this Peacemaker scene and not think there’s meant to be an ironic gloss on it. This is … supposed to be funny, right? Like the scene from the 2018 comedy Blockers in which the same actor sobs as he butt chugs? The ironic gloss falls away the more you look at it. Yes, the emotions are so heightened that the scene is a little ridiculous, but both Cena and director James Gunn play this moment as sincere. When Peacemaker slaps himself and says that nobody likes him, there’s something more raw there than you might expect. Still, this is a superhero show, and the question of “How seriously am I meant to take this?” is endemic to everything James Gunn makes. He’s fond of complicated tonal mishmashes that sometimes involve asking the audience to take seriously a sentient raccoon tearing up. Peacemaker is thornier than even that, however, because it’s balancing that tonal mishmash across eight full episodes of television, with more to come, and in every episode, John Cena invites you to be baffled by his try-hard dad energy. This scene strikes me as a useful synecdoche for a larger cultural moment. We’re living through a new boomlet of muscle boys in our biggest movies and TV shows. In addition to Cena, Jason Momoa (the heartthrob) and Dave Bautista (the slightly too-intense coworker) have broken through to starring roles in the last decade, following in the footsteps of the enormously successful Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel. Yet this new wave of absolute units feels like a direct response to — and a subversion of — Johnson’s on-screen persona. Where The Rock tends to play unflappable, effortlessly charismatic guys who never met an earthquake or skyscraper or jungle-themed board game they couldn’t dominate, the new crop of stars is comfortable with the emotional tension that arises when you’re not sure whether to laugh at them or cry with them. This new trio of bulky himbo friends embraces our growing understanding that men can cry, too. So does this new wave of anhedonic Adonises represent a substantial break from the past? The answer is: a qualified possibly. A brief history of musclemen, vulnerable and (mostly) otherwise Before we get into how Bautista, Cena, and Momoa subvert (or don’t subvert) the archetype of a man so enormous even God cannot lift him, it’s worth understanding what that archetype is. A complete rundown of the role of the muscleman in American culture would be impossible in so limited a space, so let’s narrow things down. When considering the current crop, it’s worth understanding three major roles that mountains of man-flesh have played in our popular imagination: the action star, the professional wrestler, and the object of queer desire. The action star will be the easiest lens through which many people will view the up-and-coming hunks. Musclebound movie heroes have been with us always, but the ultra-buff hero archetype has its roots in two 1980s and ’90s stars: Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two men came to stand in for a very Hollywood brand of hyper-machismo that wedded the taciturn stoicism of classic movie men to an enormous brawn that appealed to the consumerist Reagan era. Stallone started out in vulnerable roles — he broke through with 1976’s Rocky, in which he played a down-on-his-luck working-class boxer — but he very quickly hardened himself. Schwarzenegger traveled a roughly opposite path, going from playing monosyllabic killer robots to family men as he became the biggest star in the world. “The deeper Schwarzenegger got into his marriage [to Maria Shriver], the more domestic subjects became prevalent in all of his movies,” says Matt Singer, the editor of ScreenCrush, who has argued at length for Schwarzenegger as an auteur. “Can this Arnold figure settle down? Can he play a married man? Can he be happy being a married man?” The enormous popularity of Schwarzenegger worldwide created the stardom archetype that all musclemen to follow would offer their own spin on, none more successfully than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson first obtained fame as a professional wrestler, another avenue through which big men could make their name. Though many wrestling superstars who attempted to move into other forms of performance found themselves unable to (Hulk Hogan bombed as a movie star), the performance sport commands a healthy audience even in this age of depressed TV ratings. In wrestling, “the symbol of a real man is that he shows he can win. He loses, often, but he gets back up and he fights again,” says Sharon Mazer, a professor of theater and performance studies at the Auckland University of Technology and the author of the book Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle. “The only difference is a good man wins by following the rules and defending the community. And a bad man wins by breaking the rules and thumbing his nose at the community.” Almost all wrestlers switch with abandon between playing good guys (“faces”) and bad guys (“heels”) across their careers. Those roles also echo the simplistic roles they tend to play on the big screen when they break through, either taking on the role of the unstoppable force who will do anything to save the day or the burly brick wall who protects the villain from seeing any consequences. Yet if you notice a commonality between the brawny action star and the hyper-muscular wrestler, it’s that both archetypes feel a little sexless. There’s a simple reason for this, theorizes Lee Mandelo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky who teaches a course on gender in popular culture: For much of the first half of the 20th century, you were most likely to encounter the muscleman in the era’s equivalent of gay porn. To get around obscenity laws at that time, many magazines catering to queer men would bill themselves as “physique” magazines. They would have articles about how to build a better, more muscular body, but they would also come with lots and lots of pictures of barely clad men showing off their figures. Most subscribers weren’t getting these magazines for the articles. As such, for most of the early 20th century, strongmen were heavily associated with homosexuality. That’s a legacy musclemen have run from, in complicated ways. The poses in those magazines are not all that dissimilar to the poses that Schwarzenegger made as a bodybuilder or that wrestlers ape in the ring. Indeed, Mazer says, for much of the early history of mainstream professional wrestling, many “villainous” wrestlers were queer-coded, with names like “Gorgeous George.” They could still fight, but they were also suggested to be gay. Mandelo theorizes that all of that combined into a weird psychosexual soup that added up to: Straight men should want to look like this but never want to fuck it. And that continues to this day. “There’s a sexuality to that that made straight men very uncomfortable. You cannot have the power fantasy for straight cisgender men by staring at a John Cena without being able to completely desexualize it,” Mandelo says. “If the body that you’re staring at to fantasize about this ideal masculine man is erotic, then you are participating in that eroticization of a man’s body.” As obscenity laws lifted and it became easier to legally obtain images of half-naked or even completely naked men, the idea of the muscleman as an object of queer desire never entirely lifted. Offsetting this, Schwarzenegger and The Rock tend to star in very chaste love scenes (if they do at all), and when characters played by Cena or Bautista suggest that they might be sexual beings, the other characters tend to find that idea mildly ridiculous. Obviously, individual attractions vary, and you might think any one of these actors is incredibly hot. In the wider popular culture of the US, however, our movies and TV shows typically present these men as action figures who almost might seem to lack genitalia. So, burly action star, professional wrestler, extremely buff but weirdly sexless man: Put ’em all together and whaddya get? On the significance of John Cena dancing in the Peacemaker opening credits Big men never left our collective subconscious. For much of the 21st century, one of the biggest stars in the world has been Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson, however, is ... kind of boring as a movie star. He stars in movies with names like Skyscraper and Rampage and Jungle Cruise, movies where the title pretty much tells you what you’re going to get. “His body of work has the same effect as pouring some water on a sizzling hot sidewalk. In a few minutes, it’s going to disappear,” says critic Angelica Jade Bastién, who works for Vox’s sister site Vulture. “I’ve seen so many of his movies, and I barely, barely remember most. He’s not doing anything interesting physically or with humor. He’s just a block of body that has been sculpted, like some automaton that’s been created in a Hollywood lab.” The hyper-competence and artificiality of Johnson left plenty of space for an enormous man who would show his softer side. A few dudes stepped into that niche. Vin Diesel became the chief creative mastermind behind the Fast & Furious movies and turned them into maybe the sappiest thing at the multiplex. Similarly, the work of Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello in the Magic Mike franchise presented two big, beefy boys who only cared about her pleasure. “These are very buff dudes, and they’re presenting themselves overtly as like, ‘Hey, you can look at me. This is fine. This is for you,’” says writer and critic Jude Doyle. “When men have the humility that allows them to be soft and approachable and funny and when we feel like they’re presenting themselves to us, for our enjoyment, and not just inflicting themselves on the world, there are ways in which that shifts and challenges power.” Thus, the stage was set for the rise of our current sensitive (but not too sensitive!) big men: Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, and John Cena. And that means it’s time to talk about the opening credits of HBO Max’s Peacemaker, specifically John Cena’s dancing. This sequence could have come off as ridiculous. Cena seems uncomfortable, and his moves are stiff and unconvincing, particularly compared to some of his costars. Indeed, Cena wasn’t terribly comfortable! “I don’t dance; it’s something I’m not very comfortable with,” he told Vox sister site Polygon of a different dance number in Peacemaker. Cena’s discomfort is a potent example of what makes these men seem so vulnerable on screen: They have a willingness to seem imperfect, despite their enormous, sculpted bodies. Directors like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad auteur James Gunn (who has worked with both Bautista and Cena) and Dune’s Denis Villeneuve (who has worked with both Bautista and Momoa) love to use those imperfections against the actors’ assumed on-screen personas. Villeneuve might turn Bautista into a sad robot who just wants to be a farmer or have Momoa play an expert warrior who nevertheless spends several moments before a huge fight staring at a bug crawling around on his hand. Gunn is deeply invested in forcing you to see his stars’ imperfections. In the second Guardians of the Galaxy film, he slowly but surely shows you the soft underbelly of Bautista’s humongous, destructive warrior Drax the Destroyer. Drax has the requisite tragic backstory (his family was murdered), which is explored in the first film. In the second, Drax opens up even more, becoming friends with the new character Mantis, in a relationship that is as close to a raw, genuine friendship as the Marvel Cinematic Universe allows itself to get. The scenes are touching and even tender, laced with deep melancholy and occasional bursts of self-deprecating laughter. Within the tightly controlled confines of the MCU, only so much in the way of genuine emotion that’s not undercut with snark is possible. Maybe that’s why Gunn goes even further in Peacemaker. Or maybe it’s just John Cena. “I knew there was a vulnerability to John Cena that I would be able to help carve out and present to the world,” Gunn told the Hollywood Reporter shortly before Peacemaker debuted. And Peacemaker in particular goes over the top in terms of its attempts to get you to see Cena as more than his physique. He argues with his racist dad. He sincerely befriends the other members of his elite assassin squad. He makes fun of himself with abandon. And he dances, including in his tighty-whities. The wonders and limitations of big men being vulnerable on screen Momoa, Bautista, and Cena have very different on-screen energies. For instance, Momoa tends to play big guys who yell a lot, which would seem the opposite of vulnerability, but he’s also quite comfortable with being an object of on-screen desire. Of this trio of brawny stars, he seems most capable of pulling off a genuine love scene. And you can’t be comfortable being desired if you’re not comfortable letting your guard down just a little bit. What’s more, both Cena and Momoa have been more than willing to show off their off-screen vulnerability in ways that underscore that they’re just enormous dudes who seem fun to hang out with. Momoa did a whole press cycle about how he’s glad to be super sensitive. Cena has arguably spent even more time expressing the idea that his vulnerability and his status as an enormous hunk can live right next door to each other. “John Cena has done commercials about how the average American is not a white man, [in which he’s] speaking to predominantly other straight white men who would idolize him for his body and his fitness,” Mandelo says. “He talks about softness being important and how men should open up more.” The degree to which these mountains of man-flesh have made that vulnerability core to their on-screen personas goes beyond what earlier musclemen have made central to who they are. It feels as though it’s in conversation with a larger willingness in our culture to talk about how men need to embrace their emotions. Is that enough? Maybe not. Vulture’s Bastién threw a bit of cold water on my notion that these performers represent something exciting. Yes, they’re more interesting on-screen performers than Johnson, but ... what a low bar! Bastién argues that these stars put on imperfections as an affectation. It doesn’t matter that John Cena can’t dance if his body is completely perfect. “Leading men’s bodies and their star image exist at the intersection of virile and vulnerable. We’re in a moment where there’s no balance between those two poles. Someone like Timothée Chalamet is vulnerable to the point of being joked about as if he’s the ghost of a Victorian child,” Bastién says. “On the other end of the spectrum, they’re so muscular it feels like it’s in some weird, uncanny valley territory. We’re not really seeing male stars who exist on a more interesting continuum.” Cena, Bautista, Momoa — they’re all the virile subsuming the vulnerable, trying to be everything all at once. And that chokes out anything else. No matter how vulnerable these actors are on screen, none of that re-sexualizes the muscular man because the idea that an enormous guy could also be hot runs headlong into our cultural homophobia. Mandelo points to K-pop star Wonho as the kind of big, muscular guy that would cause many American brains to short-circuit. Yeah, he’s built, but he’s also in videos like this one, where he’s just rolling around in bed. “It is not the Superman body that is untouchable and idealized. This is a body that can be naked, that can roll around and get sweaty,” Mandelo says. “I think our discourse around desire has gotten so wonky and hyper-conservative since the ’70s that we have trouble seeing being the object of desire as a positive, particularly for men.” When vulnerability is a weapon The understandable temptation when thinking about how Peacemaker’s tears are a very, very slight course correction from former, more impervious heroes is to label those tears as somehow vaguely feminist or progressive. “Finally! Someone is saying men can have emotions!” goes the clickbait headline in my mind. As several of the people I talked to suggested, however, overstating the value of such an advance might run the risk of saying that all men have to do to build a better masculinity is be a little more open with their vulnerability. Men’s vulnerability isn’t nothing, but it’s not everything either. That said: I don’t want to understate the importance either, because contrast John Cena dancing in the Peacemaker credits with whatever this is. I promise you are not prepared for Tucker's latest montage— nikki mccann ramírez (@NikkiMcR) April 16, 2022 Excerpted from Tucker Carlson’s nightly Fox News talk show by Nikki McCann Ramírez, an associate research director at Media Matters for America, the clip is a forthright celebration of testosterone, which Carlson fears is disappearing from American life. The clip depicts manly men flipping over tires and firing guns and irradiating their testicles (like you do). It is, frankly, bonkers. (Mandelo snarked to me that “just about every gay man on the internet was, like, ‘Somehow he accidentally made the intro to a porn.’”) When you contrast Carlson’s clip with the more sensitive performances and off-screen personas of Bautista, Cena, and Momoa, it’s tempting to read the two cultural movements as being in direct opposition, or at least pulling in wildly different directions. To some degree, that’s true. Carlson’s celebration of testosterone isn’t directly in conversation with a dancin’ John Cena, but they’re definitely two different visions of American masculinity. And Carlson’s vision is one designed to cater to and comfort an audience whose own manhood might feel less immediately potent as they age. “Fox News’s audience tends to be a little older, and a lot of this masculine testosterone craze is targeted at people who are going through a natural cycle of aging. Their testosterone levels are decreasing. They’re not the virile men they were in their 20s,” says Ramírez. “What Fox does very effectively is conflate a natural progression of life and society as a personal attack by political forces.” What’s super weird about this is that outside of the mega-buff Joe Rogan (who isn’t a Fox News personality but is deeply involved in the extremely masculine world of UFC), the right-of-center audience Fox News targets doesn’t have a physical form to hold up as “what a man is.” Instead, Carlson’s clip imagines a man who might possibly exist somewhere and will come to save testosterone. Or something. “What they have are strains and pieces of things that they like, but there’s no whole person for them to project that onto. There’s no figurehead, really, outside of Rogan,” Kristen Warner, an associate professor of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama, says. “There is no symbol. There is no image to cast your eyes and your fantasies upon. So what they do is just kind of make shit up to approximate something real as best as possible.” Yet Fox News keeps trying to prop up that imagined man all the same. Every few months, it turns up with another story about how maybe it’s weird when men cry. However, when emotions are expressed for a purpose that the network reads as worthy, then those emotions become okay to express. I probably only need to mention Brett Kavanaugh’s or Kyle Rittenhouse’s tears to make this point, but the network’s entire m.o. involves stoking anger and fear and frustration in its viewers. “I actually think hegemonic masculinity allows for a lot of emotions,” Mandelo says. “In fact, it may mythologize that men are supposed to be stoic, but in reality, it’s more of an excuse to feel extremes of emotion and make them other people’s problem.” That’s the thing: On-screen vulnerability is always being used somehow, whether to make a larger political point or just to get you to consider that maybe if John Cena can cry, you can cry too (which is also a larger political point). I don’t know if there’s a lot of value in seeing big, vulnerable dudes, but it’s also not valueless. And that’s why I and so many others I talked to for this article keep coming back to John Cena. “He pushes farther than what Schwarzenegger and his peers did or thought they wanted to do,” Warner says. “He’s pushing into this place where he’s, like, ‘No, my body isn’t a symbol of all these things that you read it as. I would actually like to re-appropriate what my body signals and what my body stands for.’” Peacemaker, after all, is a literal tool of the US government, a hard body who was used to do terrible things. Yet the arc of his TV show is about what it might mean to try to break free of that mold, to find a way to be a hero that doesn’t involve simply doing what he’s told. Maybe that’s not revolutionary to someone like me, who spends lots of time thinking about this stuff, but it sure seems like it’s revolutionary to somebody. Maybe, just maybe, it’s chipping away at some very old, very suffocating ideas, one tighty-whitie dance at a time. Emily St. James is Senior Correspondent for Vox.
1 d
How to make money during the tech crash: Write about it
A London bus ad for Gopuff, an “instant delivery” service now under scrutiny as the tech industry retracts. | Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images The bad news: Your startup is on the ropes. The good news: Here’s an offer for a discounted subscription. On the morning of May 10, the Information published a hard-hitting story about Gopuff, a much-hyped startup competing in the much-hyped “instant delivery” industry. The company, most recently valued at $15 billion, is bleeding cash and has been struggling to raise new funding. Now, its employees are openly questioning whether its 29-year-old co-founders are in over their heads. A few hours later, the Information published another item. But this one was emailed directly to some Gopuff employees: Would they like to subscribe to the Information — so they could read other articles like the one it just published about their company? “Because you work at COMPANY, we thought that you might be interested in this exclusive feature on Gopuff,” read the automated marketing message, which presumably meant to replace “COMPANY” with “Gopuff.” The email included a link to the original piece and an offer for a 25 percent discount for a one-year subscription to the Information, which normally goes for $400. Welcome to the other part of the subscription boom, the part that’s rarely mentioned in the many stories about Substack and other subscription-based media startups: The difficult, grinding work that goes into finding people who might want to pay for your stuff, getting in front of them, and getting them to take out their credit card. And yes, in the case of the Information, that can sometimes lead to pitches sent to people working at companies you’ve just written difficult stories about, says Jessica Lessin, the company’s founder and CEO. “We intentionally reach out to people we think are interested in our articles,” using custom-built software to predict what kind of readers might be interested in a story, she told me. And that could certainly include people who work at a company the Information had just written about. “It’s like Netflix recommendations,” she said. I do think Lessin and her team are going to have plenty of opportunities to repeat the Gopuff playbook in the coming months, assuming widely held predictions about a tech industry reversal pan out: Easy investor money turns scarce, companies that used to spend wildly become manic cost-cutters, and layoffs turn tech startup employees into ex-startup employees. At the Information, there are plenty of examples of high-flying tech companies quickly reassessing their plans, halting new hires, or even letting people go as the market convulses: Gorillas, a Gopuff competitor, is laying off 300 people — about half of its headquarters staff; Cameo, a once-buzzy company that lets you hire celebrities to create personalized videos, is cutting 25 percent of its staff; even Amazon is canceling plans to expand its empire of warehouses. The question for the Information: Is the tech pullback bad for business? Or is it an opportunity? Lessin is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who launched the Information in 2013, and explicitly set out to compete with the most established business publications in the world: the Financial Times, the New York Times, and her former employer. Her staff of 50 routinely publishes scoops and timely analysis other publications need to follow up on. (Disclosure: I’m such a fan that I asked her and Information reporter Wayne Ma to collaborate with me on a recent season of Recode’s Land of the Giants podcast series, about Apple.) But as Lessin’s Gopuff fast-twitch marketing underscores, running a successful subscription business requires a lot of work. Simply typing something up and hoping someone pays you to read it is a nonstarter. “One of the big differences between us and different news orgs is we don’t just publish that article on the homepage and hope people find it,” she said. Earlier in her career, Lessin was obsessed with breaking news; now she is consumed with figuring out how to bring in paying subscribers. She’s tried all kinds of experiments: bundling her publication with others, like Bloomberg; offering student discounts; letting existing subscribers recruit new blood by sending them free articles. She also tries to spread the gospel of the subscription media model, an effort that includes an “accelerator” program for people trying to launch their own subscription-based companies. The person who sent me the Information’s Gopuff marketing email also added a concern-troll commentary: What if Lessin spends her time chasing stories about wobbly startups so she can sell them subscriptions? But ick factor aside, I don’t worry about that at all. The obvious truth about journalism biases — one that routinely eludes critics across the spectrum — is that most journalists are biased in favor of novel stories people haven’t heard before. Right now, that’s going to mean focusing on layoffs and cutbacks in a tech sector that has been up and to the right for more than a decade. But the more we see of these, the less novel they’ll be. Which isn’t to say that layoff and collapse stories don’t bring in eyeballs in the short run. Back when I worked for Insider CEO Henry Blodget in 2007, at what was then called Silicon Alley Insider, we had zero traffic at launch and for months after that. Then Blodget got a tip that AOL — at the time, still a digital company that people cared about — was going to have significant layoffs. After he published it, traffic spiked, and much of it was coming from IP addresses in Dulles, Virginia — AOL’s headquarters at the time — and we responded by writing story after story about AOL. In theory, our publication covered the business of the internet; in truth, for a time, we were essentially an updated version of Fucked Company (look it up) for a single company. I don’t see the Information headed that direction. Even if things get very grim in tech, there’s still going to be plenty of other stuff to write about. But if I get a customized email telling me her staff has written a new story about Vox Media, I may have my own worries.
1 d
A deadly elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas
Photo by ALLISON DINNER/AFP via Getty Images Uvalde joins America’s long list of horrific school shootings. An 18-year-old gunman killed 18 students and at least one adult at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, 2022. It’s the deadliest US school shooting since 2018, when 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the second-deadliest to occur at an elementary school since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It marks the 27th school shooting this year alone: Altogether, at least 25 people have been killed in school shootings since January. If history is any evidence, it’s unlikely that Texas Republican lawmakers, who control the state legislature and pushed to loosen state gun laws in the lead-up to the midterms, will change course as a result of the Uvalde shooting. Follow here for all of Vox’s coverage on the latest news, political reaction, analysis, and more.
2 d
What we know about the Uvalde elementary school shooting
Police walk near Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, after a gunman killed 14 students and a teacher there. | Dario Lopez-Mills/AP Uvalde joins Parkland, Sandy Hook, and America’s long list of horrific school shootings. An 18-year-old gunman killed 14 students and a teacher at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday morning, just 10 days after another mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, that claimed the lives of 10 people. It’s the deadliest US school shooting since 2018, when 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the second deadliest to occur at an elementary school since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It marks the 27th school shooting this year alone; at least 21 people have been killed in school shootings since January. The gunman allegedly entered the school with a handgun and possibly a rifle, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. The shooter is now dead, believed to have been killed by responding officers, according to Abbott. “He shot and killed, horrifically, incomprehensibly, 14 students and killed a teacher,” Abbott said. The governor was scheduled to speak Friday at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston and has led successful state legislative efforts to relax gun laws, most recently signing legislation to remove permit requirements to carry a concealed handgun in public. Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images People react outside Robb Elementary School on May 24. It’s not clear where the gunman obtained his weapons. There is no age restriction on possessing guns in Texas, but you have to be 21 or older to carry a concealed handgun without a license under the permitless carry law that went into effect last September. And it’s generally not legal to carry a handgun on K-12 public school property, though one Republican lawmaker sought to make that possible for licensed adults in the last session of the Texas legislature. There are no specific state law restrictions on carrying a rifle. There have already been two school shootings in Texas this year at high schools, which each left one injured. But the Uvalde school shooting is the worst in Texas since 2018, when a student at Santa Fe High School near Houston shot and killed 10 people and wounded another 13. The Uvalde shooting — the second in a month — puts a renewed spotlight on gun control Two mass shootings in 10 days should be a wake-up call for lawmakers. After the Buffalo shooting, nothing was done to tighten federal gun laws. The House passed a bill aimed at addressing domestic terrorism, since the shooter was a white supremacist who invoked the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory before he opened fire on shoppers in a predominantly Black neighborhood. But even that bill, which only tangentially addresses the underlying gun violence issue, has stalled in the Senate. The Uvalde shooting isn’t likely to meaningfully change the status quo. Uvalde’s Rep. Tony Gonzalez, a Republican who is running for reelection this year, has repeatedly voted against gun control measures while in Congress, including legislation that would require a background check for every firearm sale and for private transfer of firearms. “My heart breaks for the city of Uvalde. Pray for our families,” he tweeted on Tuesday. Dario Lopez-Mills/AP Emergency personnel gather near Robb Elementary School following the shooting on May 24. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut and a leading proponent of gun control, urged Congress to take action in the wake of the second mass shooting in two weeks. “The 14 kids dead in an elementary school in Texas right now. What are we doing? What are we doing? Just days after a shooter walked into a grocery store to gun down African American patrons, we have another Sandy Hook on our hands,” he said in an address on the Senate floor Tuesday. If history is any evidence, it’s unlikely that Texas Republican lawmakers, who control the state legislature and pushed to loosen state gun laws in the lead-up to the midterms, will change course as a result of the Uvalde shooting. After the Santa Fe shooting, Abbott signed bills that bolstered mental health initiatives for children, removed the cap on how many school marshals can carry guns on public school campuses, and gave school districts money to prevent and make emergency preparations for shootings — but didn’t enact gun control measures. That’s in contrast to New York Democrats’ response to the Buffalo shooting, which was to tighten the state’s already restrictive gun laws. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced last week that police will now be required to bar individuals who are believed to pose a danger to themselves or others from possessing firearms. She also called on the state legislature to pass bills that would require police to report guns associated with crimes within 24 hours and mandate that semiautomatic pistols sold in New York be microstamped so that law enforcement can link cartridges found at crime scenes to the gun that fired them. But there’s only so much that individual states can do without federal gun control measures, which have remained stalled in Congress for a decade due to Republican opposition. Tuesday’s shooting, particularly because it happened in a deep red state, probably won’t soften that longstanding opposition.
2 d
Florida’s social media free speech law has been blocked for likely violating free speech laws
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may have scored scored political points with the law, but a court of law wasn’t thrilled. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images The Florida law prevented certain platforms from banning political candidates. A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling that blocked a controversial Florida law aimed at prohibiting certain social media platforms from banning political candidates or “journalistic enterprises” from their services has been blocked. The law, which the state legislature passed last year and was largely seen as a response to perceived censorship of conservative politicians and media, was the first of its kind to be signed. “We’re pleased the court ensured that social media can remain family-friendly by delaying Florida’s law from taking effect,” Steve DelBianco, president of NetChoice, an industry group that was one of the plaintiffs suing to overturn the law, said in a statement after the judge’s ruling last year. “This order protects private businesses against the state’s demand that social media carry user posts that are against their community standards.” The law, which is called the Stop Social Media Censorship Act, was proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in January 2021, shortly after then-President Trump was banned or suspended from multiple social media platforms — most notably Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — for encouraging the January 6 insurrection of the Capitol building. The law also came after years of unfounded complaints from conservatives that Big Tech companies unfairly moderate their speech, and after the failure of Trump’s own multi-pronged attack on Section 230, a federal law that allows online platforms to moderate user content how they see fit. Research, however, has shown that platforms do not discriminate against conservative content. If anything, they do the exact opposite. The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the ruling in May 2022, saying that most of the Florida law was “substantially likely” to be a violation of social media platforms’ First Amendment rights. A few parts of the law were allowed to stand, including allowing banned users access to their data for at least 60 days, requiring platforms to publish “detailed definitions” of the standards it uses to censor or ban users, and requiring platforms to notify users of rule changes. The Stop Social Media Censorship Act easily passed Florida’s Republican-majority House and Senate. DeSantis signed it into law in May 2021, a move he celebrated on the same social media platforms he claims are unfairly censoring conservative politicians and made such a law necessary. Among other things, the law would have fined social media platforms $250,000 per day for banning candidates for statewide office, and $25,000 for candidates for lower offices, and allowed the state and individuals to sue platforms if they feel the law had been violated. Additionally, any content that was “by or about” a candidate could not be “shadow banned,” or hidden or suppressed from the view of other users. The law only applied to social media platforms that did business in the state (basically, had users in Florida) and had an annual revenue of $100 million or at least 100 million monthly active users globally. Platforms owned by a company that also owned a theme park in the state were exempt. Many experts said from the start that the law was on shaky legal ground. Industry groups that represent the Big Tech companies affected — NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) — sued the state to overturn the law a few days after DeSantis signed it, claiming it violated those companies’ First and 14th Amendment rights and that content moderation was allowed under Section 230. The plaintiffs requested a preliminary injunction preventing it from taking effect before a court could decide its constitutionality. Both sides argued their case in front of federal judge Robert Hinkle on June 28, 2021. Hinkle made little effort at the hearing to hide his disdain for the law, saying it was “poorly drafted” and questioning why it offered an exemption for companies that operated theme parks in Florida — a seemingly naked attempt to give the state’s biggest tourist attractions special treatment even though none of them own social media platforms that the law would apply to. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when Hinkle granted the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying that the law was “an effort to rein in social media providers deemed too large and too liberal” and “not a legitimate government interest.” It was also discriminatory and potentially violated the First Amendment free speech rights of Big Tech platforms, as it did not apply to the smaller platforms or any platforms owned by a company with a theme park in Florida. “Discrimination between speakers is often a tell for content discrimination,” Hinkle wrote. That is, a law supposedly designed to prevent content discrimination may itself be practicing content discrimination. Finally, the judge said the law “expressly” violated Section 230, which allows for platforms to moderate content and says no state may make a law that is inconsistent with Section 230. The plaintiffs were pleased with the Court of Appeals’ decision. “This ruling means platforms cannot be forced by the government to disseminate vile, abusive and extremist content under penalty of law. This is good news for internet users, the First Amendment and free speech in a democracy,” CCIA President Matt Schruers said in a statement. Florida can now either ask for the full panel of 11th Circuit judge to review the decision, appeal to the Supreme Court, or drop the matter. “The Court’s central holding that social media platforms are similar to newspapers and parades, rather than common carriers that transmit others’ messages, is stupefying,” Gov. DeSantis’s office said in a statement, adding that the state was looking at options for appeal. “We will continue to fight big tech censorship and protect the First Amendment rights of Floridians.” The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to block a similar state law from Texas. Regardless of what ultimately happens to DeSantis’s law, he got to take his shot at Big Tech and repeat unfounded claims popular with many in the Republican Party — and in the process, he gained political capital for his anticipated 2024 presidential run. Update, May 24, 2022: Updated to include the Court of Appeals’ decision in the social media case.
2 d
Meet the new subvariants, your summer bummers
A Covid-19 testing site in Times Square in New York City on May 17. New York City has raised its Covid-19 alert level to high amid increasing pressure on the health care system, and cases in the US are once again rising as new subvariants of the omicron variant take hold. | Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images The omicron variant of Covid-19 has branched out into more transmissible and evasive versions. After the month of May saw the United States cross the line of more than 1 million reported deaths from Covid-19, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease is continuing to mutate. That means a growing number of new omicron subvariants are now fueling another rise in infections. The formula for containing the worst effects of the pandemic — namely vaccinations and treatments — still holds up. But progress has been slow, leaving the world vulnerable to more troubling changes to the virus. The US is inching closer to authorizing Covid-19 vaccines for the one of the last unprotected age groups, children under 5 years old. Pfizer and BioNTech reported preliminary data this week that a three-dose sequence of its Covid-19 vaccine yielded 80 percent efficacy in preventing disease in kids between six months and 5 years old. But the Food and Drug Administration will not meet until next month to consider granting emergency approval for these shots. Treatments have also hit some snags. The mutations in omicron have rendered several monoclonal antibody treatments ineffective. Some doctors have also reported that Covid-19 symptoms in patients rebounded after completing a course of the antiviral drug Paxlovid. All the while, another wave of Covid-19 cases is poised to wash over the US as summer heat forces people back indoors, creating more opportunities to spread the virus. Many parts of the country have also lifted face mask requirements and social distancing rules. Covid-19 cases number around 100,000 per day, but the rise of at-home testing means the official tallies are likely an underestimate, if people bother to get tested at all. “We know that the number of infections is actually substantially higher than that,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, White House Covid-19 response coordinator during a press conference last week. “[It’s] hard to know exactly how many, but we know that a lot of people are getting diagnosed using home tests.” Covid-19 hospitalizations are now rising across the country as well, which means deaths may soon follow. For much of the country, Covid-19 will get worse before it gets better, though likely not anywhere near as bad as it was in January. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid-19 deaths in the US are far below their winter peak. The good news is that the number of deaths and severe illnesses does appear to be separating from the number of cases from omicron. That’s due in part to effective Covid-19 treatments being more available for those who fall ill. It’s also a consequence of the current stage of the pandemic. Between Covid-19 vaccines and infections from the virus, there are few people left who have had no exposure at all to SARS-CoV-2. Most have some degree of protection against the virus. Covid-19 vaccines, in particular, still prevent severe illness from new variants. But the level of protection isn’t the same across the board. Resistance to infection fades with time, so booster doses of vaccines are critical to shoring up immune defenses ahead of new waves. Yet despite expanded eligibility, less than half of people in the US who have received a Covid-19 vaccine have had a booster shot. More than 20 percent of US residents have not received any Covid-19 vaccine doses. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of people across the world have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Such widespread variation in immunity means the SAR-CoV-2 virus can continue to spread and mutate. But scientists have long warned that it also creates selection pressure to favor versions of the virus that can evade immunity and spread more readily. Recent research shows that prior infections are not enough on their own to prevent reinfections, even from similar versions of the virus. That’s playing out now with the rise of the BA.2.12.1, BA.4, and BA.5 subvariants of omicron, which itself was a more transmissible version of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. “They are more contagious with more immune escape, and they are driving a lot of the increases in infection that we’re seeing across the nation right now,” Jha said. As the Covid-19 pandemic stretches into its exhausting third year, the virus is killing fewer people but still taking a huge toll on health and the economy. Drawing this down further demands a more concerted effort to close gaps in vaccination, make treatments more accessible, and detect mutations in the virus before they spread widely. Otherwise, the cycle of new variants causing more infection waves will continue. The new omicron subvariants appear more likely to cause reinfections Viruses exist to make copies of themselves, but they’re pretty clumsy at it. The more a virus spreads, the more it mutates. Most of these changes are harmful to the virus or have no effect, but occasionally a mutation crops up that gives the virus an advantage, like making it easier to catch or harder to detect. The World Health Organization decided that when a version of SARS-CoV-2 acquired a distinct grouping of mutations, it would become a named variant and get a shorthand classification with a Greek letter — alpha, beta, gamma, and so on. There is actually a range of changes within every variant, but after the omicron variant erupted in late 2021, a specific subvariant called BA.2 began to dominate new infections. It’s not genetically distinct enough to get its own Greek letter, but BA.2 had such a commanding advantage that researchers and health officials focused on it. Since then, BA.2 has continued mutating and optimizing itself. Its latest form is BA.2.12.1, which is now beginning to make up a larger share of new cases in the US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention The BA.2.12.1 subvariant of the omicron variant is steadily gaining ground in the US. Other parts of the world are seeing different subvariants. South Africa, which has generally been ahead of the US in terms of emerging versions of SARS-CoV-2, is now reporting the rise of BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, which they detected in January and February, respectively. They don’t appear to cause any different symptoms, but together they account for about half of new infections in South Africa. These subvariants have also been detected in wastewater in the US, but still remain a minority of cases. In general, the subvariants gain ground because they spread more easily between people and are harder for the immune system to target. That means they are more likely to cause breakthrough infections in vaccinated people and reinfections in those previously infected. “The thing with omicron, though, and all the [subvariants] therein is now a lot of the growth advantage is driven by reinfections,” said Dr. Aaron Richterman, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Vaccines and infections coach the immune system to make antibodies, proteins that can inhibit a virus from causing an infection. Antibody levels naturally wane over the course of several months, but the immune system still has memory cells that can mount defenses if the virus comes back. The trouble is these memory cells can take several days to spool up, during which time, a fast-incubating virus like SARS-CoV-2 can take root and spread to others, especially if it’s mutated. That’s why people who received their shots can still get infected and transmit the virus, though the vast majority of them will not become severely ill. Boosters do shore up antibody levels to prevent infections in the first place, but these effects also fade with time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommend a fourth vaccine dose for mRNA vaccines given to people who are immunocompromised. The winter omicron wave hints at what the new subvariants might do The parent of these subvariants, omicron, provides some important lessons about what to expect with BA.2.12.1, BA.4, and BA.5. Omicron stands out from past Covid-19 variants because it has so many changes, close to 50 mutations compared to the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. Many are in the virus’s spike protein, enhancing how it breaks into human cells and making it harder for the immune system to target. So protection conferred by the previous versions of SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t translate as well to omicron and its subvariants. Omicron also appears to replicate much faster in the upper airways, making it easier to breathe out virus particles and spread them to others. Health officials warned in January that omicron would “find just about everybody.” The result was that this past winter, omicron triggered a massive spike in Covid-19 cases in the US followed by an equally sharp decline. Some researchers theorized that omicron’s long reach would infect so many people across the population that it would effectively act as a vaccine, albeit one that came at an immense cost in human lives. In states like Massachusetts, the omicron wave was deadlier than the delta wave. But new research shows that an omicron infection is a poor substitute for a vaccine. In a study published last week in the journal Nature, researchers looked at immune responses in mice and humans after infection with different variants. They found that an omicron infection provided little shielding against other versions of the virus. “Omicron by itself sweeping through the world is not going to induce a very robust immune status protective against other variants in the future if you are not vaccinated,” said Dr. Melanie Ott, an author and a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of California San Francisco. On the other hand, an omicron infection after vaccination yielded a broader spectrum of protection against other variants. “The message is really get vaccinated even if you have been infected,” Ott said. As for BA.2.12.1, BA.4, and BA.5, these new subvariants appear to dodge some of the immunity generated by BA.1 and BA.2. So people infected with earlier versions of omicron could still contract the more recent subvariants. That will likely fuel more Covid-19 cases throughout the summer. “Even slight changes to omicron in these new variants seem to be sufficient to actually circumvent this neutralizing activity,” Ott said. It’s also likely that these reinfections will be annoyances rather than debilitating diseases in most people. But there are still people with serious risk of dangerous illness, like those who are immunocompromised and older adults. And even mild infections can have lasting consequences like long Covid, so it behooves everyone to take steps to avoid getting infected in the first place. Covid-19 may surge, but there are ways to stay ahead The ongoing spikes and drops in Covid-19 cases mean it hasn’t yet settled into the regular pattern of an endemic disease, but it’s getting closer, and the gap between infections and severe disease appears to be widening. “Until we get to that steady state, we should expect that every subsequent wave is less severe than the one before it,” Richterman said. “In general, we can expect that over time, the overall burden of severe disease is going to go down.” At the same time, immune protection varies drastically in the US and around the world. There are people who have received four doses of a vaccine and have been infected, while there are others who still have not encountered the virus. That has created the ideal training ground for new variants. Closing off these routes for new variants will require administering vaccines around the world, as well as ensuring everyone who is eligible for a booster gets one. Staying ahead of variants and subvariants also demands vigilance, from looking at wastewater to predict looming infection spikes to sequencing genomes of the virus to identify new mutations. And if a new variant arises that does lead to a large increase in severe illness in vaccinated people, then the vaccines themselves might need to be updated to target the more recent versions of the virus. Progress against Covid-19 is fragile, and with more than 6 million dead around the world, it’s proven costly. But as tired as everyone is from dealing with the pandemic, the virus doesn’t care, and we cannot take the disease for granted.
2 d
Welcome to the May issue of The Highlight
Illustration by Julia Kuo for Vox In this issue: The anti-abortion movement’s post-Roe future, the plant peddlers of Appalachia, the real effect of the child tax credit now that it’s gone, and more. Roughly a year ago, the government began dispatching payments of hundreds of dollars a month, no strings attached, to a broad swath of American parents. A response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the expanded child tax credit had an immediate and striking effect on the economic security of millions of children, briefly lifting them out of poverty — until, that is, the payments stopped late last year. The abrupt end of America’s successful experiment to help families and children is just one of the national conversations we’re exploring in this month’s issue of the Highlight. One of the most pressing stories of our day is the future of legal abortion; the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion this month has left many Americans contemplating the fall of Roe v. Wade and the effective end of abortion in approximately half of US states. Experts say medication abortion will become the best option for those wishing to end their pregnancies in the early weeks, in the privacy of their homes, sometimes without ever visiting a clinic — making pregnant people both patient and provider. All of these developments, writes Anna North in our cover story, are creating a schism within the anti-abortion movement, with a new, more radical guard preparing for the next battles just as the movement attains one of its biggest victories ever. For centuries, butterfly collectors — also known as lepidopterists — have pursued their quarries with a standard set of equipment: vials of alcohol, cyanide bricks, metal pins, jars, a butterfly net. Now, as scientists are beginning to document what appears to be an alarming rate of insect death, many are questioning that strategy. Is it simply time to take advantage of technological advancements and pin down butterflies with binoculars and cameras, instead? Herbalism has a long history in the Appalachians, and today, despite the increasing popularity of plant supplements in American medicine cabinets — think: echinacea, ginseng and St. John’s wort — those who grow and forage native herbs in Appalachia are facing the end of an era. We dispatched a reporter to the forests of Kentucky to learn more about herbalism and how overharvesting and population declines are threatening this long-held practice. And finally, we look at the rise of the emo muscle boys of our biggest movies and TV shows. From John Cena to Jason Momoa to Dave Bautista, this new trio of bulky himbo friends embraces our growing understanding that men can cry, too. So does this new wave of anhedonic Adonises represent a substantial break from the past? Séan Alonzo Harris for Vox The profound impact of giving American families a little more cash Six months of payments lifted millions of children out of poverty. Then they stopped. By Marin Cogan Amanda Northrop/Vox To kill or not to kill: Butterflying during the “insect apocalypse” Is it still ethical to collect butterflies for science? By Joanna Thompson Beth Hoeckel for Vox/Getty Images The rise of the sadboi big man (Coming Wednesday) From John Cena to Jason Momoa, our most muscular movie stars are increasingly our most vulnerable, too. By Emily St. James Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images The anti-abortion movement is about to win. Even they aren’t ready for what comes next. (Coming Thursday) The post-Roe landscape will look like nothing before. By Anna North Stacy Kranitz for Vox In Appalachia, a race to preserve the practice of plant healing (Coming Friday) Even as ginseng, St. John’s wort, and other herbs grow in popularity, the region is struggling to keep its age-old practice of herbalism alive for a new generation. By Alex Schechter
2 d
The complicated tension of telling the truth at Cannes
The Cannes Film Festival 2022 poster paying tribute to The Truman Show is displayed at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes. | John Phillips/Getty Images The world’s most glamorous film festival lingers in the tension between celebrating the rich and eating them. For its design display every year, the Cannes Film Festival creates an original commemorative poster, which gets splashed across the buildings and billboards of the seaside Cote d’Azur town that lends the festival its streets and name for two weeks every summer. In the recent past, those posters have mostly featured film icons: Agnes Varda, Spike Lee, Ingmar Bergman, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Marilyn Monroe, Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo. This year, it’s Jim Carrey climbing a set of stairs overlaid with a blue sky flecked with wispy clouds. It’s an instantly recognizable image: the final moments of Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show. Carrey, as Truman Burbank, has unknowingly spent his life since birth living in a vast dome, every aspect of his existence engineered by a set of producers and broadcast live to a devoted audience. But now he’s discovered his faux existence and, climbing the steps, is about to enter the real world outside. Weir’s film didn’t play at Cannes when it was released nearly 25 years ago, so when the poster was unveiled a month ahead of the festival, some explanation was in order. “Peter Weir and Andrew Niccol’s The Truman Show (1998) is a modern reflection of Plato’s cave and the decisive scene urges viewers to not only experience the border between reality and its representation but to ponder the power of fiction, between manipulation and catharsis,” the festival’s website announced. A reasonable enough sentiment, if a bit broadly applicable to every film festival on earth. But then things take a left turn: “Just as Truman escapes falsehood as he rises, the Festival, with its famous ascending red carpet, offers viewers the truth of the artists when they enter the theater.” It reads like a challenge, or a promise — one that, late in the festival, having climbed that red carpet dozens of times myself and pondered a truth-suppressing scandal, I’m still wondering if it can meet. The Cannes Film Festival has fixated on truth-telling from the start, particularly on truth of a political nature. Its 1938 founding was explicitly initiated to counteract the fascist takeovers that were, at the time, evident in the Venice Film Festival, held in nearby Mussolini-controlled Italy. Over the years, it has been postponed for wars and been the site of protests, most notably in 1968 when demonstrations in solidarity with widespread student and labor strikes across the country shut the festival down. Cannes proudly situates itself as an advocate for free artistic expression across the world, playing films in competition from directors who are officially suppressed by their governments, can’t leave their countries, and even have to have their work smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake. Laurent Emmanuel / AFP via Getty Images Luxury yachts outside the Cannes Film Festival. So at this glamorous celebration of a complicated industry, with a bunch of luxury yachts parked nearby, there’s always a bit of discomfort, palpable even to a newbie. My first year in Cannes was 2017, when news of Trump administration corruption collided with bombings at both an Egyptian church and an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England; meanwhile, the films mostly focused on the ongoing immigrant crisis on Europe’s shores, a matter that felt both immensely pressing and one from which many would prefer to turn away. The following year, the Croisette was abuzz with a prominently missing figure — Harvey Weinstein, about whom a bombshell story had broken seven months earlier, sparking the Me Too movement and seemingly changing the film world forever. Following a red-carpet protest led by some of the film industry’s most prominent women, festival leaders signed a landmark pledge for gender equity in the film industry. Hopes and rhetoric ran high. And in 2019, all the films seemed to be about a world about to explode along class and racial lines. “Each of these films (and undoubtedly more to come before the festival concludes in about a week) posits a world that’s poised to come crashing down,” I wrote, concluding that “only the willfully blind could miss what’s going on.” After pandemic cancellation in 2020 and a delayed fest in 2021, Cannes is back in full force, and it’s evident that the organizers (and, perhaps more importantly, the filmmakers) knew that there was no point in avoiding the festival’s aspirations to be a place for explosive and at times chaotic statements in art. So some of the festival’s buzziest titles — the ones that will make their way to theaters this year, some very soon — have been explicitly political, dealing with inequality and authoritarianism and the once-again rising tides of fascism, at times bluntly so. Focus Features Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in Armageddon Time. The best of the buzz so far is James Gray’s Armageddon Time, a semi-autofictional story of a sixth-grader named Paul (Banks Repeta) growing up in Queens in the 1980s who, after some trouble in his public school, ends up at a private academy at the behest of his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). A jolt of a cameo with political implications appears midway through — I don’t want to ruin it — but the film’s broader aim is to excavate the layers of privilege that the protagonist, whose ancestors fled the Holocaust, is slowly coming to realize. His family leans leftward, but his parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) are casually racist and abusive and also loving and worried for their children’s future. They’re all navigating the gluey border between being the target of anti-Semitism and enjoying the opportunities and social standing that their Black neighbors will never have. Meanwhile, Paul is caught between his politically progressive family and the children at his new school who casually drop racial slurs, or pump fists and chant “Reagan! Reagan!” at the mention of an upcoming election. It’s a truly poignant and troubling film, and in interviews Gray has said the film targets the oligarchies borne out of large-state capitalism. “There is something ossified about a system that keeps the same people at the top,” he told the Guardian. It’s hard not to lay that film next to the festival’s earliest scandal, which broke just before opening ceremonies: The festival had been requiring journalists to exorcise material from interviews with Cannes director Thierry Frémaux regarding questions about the oft-promised gender parity among the selected directors, as well as racial and socioeconomic representation. There are almost no Black directors in the lineup this year, and while Cannes finally broke its record for women filmmakers among the official selections, that means a grand total of five. When asked, Frémaux more or less shrugged at the figures, saying that “it takes time for cinema to come into its own.” What that means, I don’t know. The systemic issue of underrepresentation in the industry will be solved at the ground level, rather than by festivals — which by nature come into the process near the end of a film production’s lifecycle — but the fact that Cannes asked that Frémaux’s questions about those matters be excised from interviews signals they’re aware there’s a problem. (In France, unlike the US, it’s common for journalists to agree to subjects having editorial control over the final interview; the story was broken by Deadline, an American publication that initially agreed to the terms in exchange for access.) And it raises questions about the “escaping falsehood” and the power of stories that the festival’s Truman Show poster touts. If the festival is committed to open expression and free speech, then why request the removal of the director’s own speech about privilege and representation from the media? Similarly, it’s unnerving to simultaneously hear that Cannes is banning Russian delegations in response to Putin’s ongoing war on Ukraine, while seeing sponsorship, widespread advertising, and festive events touting the Saudi film industry and film festival — a country not known for its tolerance of dissidents. Ironically, this cognitive dissonance is in keeping with some of the stories actually told on screen. A number of films, including Boy From Heaven, Tirailleurs, Hunt, and Holy Spider, explore how extremists prey on religion and politics to suppress the truth, curb freedom, and redefine justice in ways that favor the powerful. Others, like the trio of dazzling stunners Return to Seoul, One Fine Morning, and Aftersun, are more introspective, probing personal experience and memory to see how truth resides within. The devastating R.M.N. portrays a Romanian town gripped by anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment that’s turning violent; it feels like an all-too-familiar story no matter where you’re from. Cannes Film Festival Snapping thirst traps on a luxury yacht as the world burns in Triangle of Sadness. And then there’s Triangle of Sadness, a battering ram of a farce from Ruben Östlund about how rich people are the worst, smeared in every manner of bodily fluids. Östlund, who won the festival’s top prize in 2017 for his art-world satire The Square, places most of his action on a luxury yacht cruise piloted by a fantastically drunk socialist Woody Harrelson and populated by kindly British arms dealers, vapid European model-influencers, and, of course, a Reagan-quoting Russian oligarch who has hauled both his wife and his mistress along. It’s not so much on the nose as a series of repeated uppercuts straight to the kisser. (And it’s exhilaratingly, cruelly, uproariously funny.) But to get the full effect of it, I suspect, you have to see it as Cannes crowds did: sitting in red-carpeted theaters full of tuxedoed and ballgowned guests, a few hundred yards from the whole fleet of luxury yachts that drop anchor near the Mediterranean shore for the festival’s duration. In that room, the laughter becomes multilayered: we are laughing at ourselves, and with ourselves, and uneasily for ourselves, because, well, we are watching ourselves. I’d like to exclude myself from that narrative. I don’t have a yacht or an expense account, and I’m running around Cannes in sneakers, subsisting on panini and cheap rose. But (almost) anyone lucky enough to be here can identify at least a little with Harrelson’s character, who pontificates at length during a stormy bender about how he can’t ever be a worthy socialist because, well, look at him! He’s the captain of a luxury yacht! “While you’re surviving in abundance, the rest of the world is drowning in misery,” he hollers at the passengers. Except he’s looking right at us. Mike Marsland/WireImage The cast of Top Gun: Maverick at the top of the red carpet prior to the film’s premiere at Cannes. In his thoughtful remarks on the festival’s opening night, jury president Vincent Lindon reflected on these same questions, wondering if it was even appropriate to be celebrating right now. “Should we not rather, from this stage, upon which, for a brief moment, the eyes of the world are focused, decry the torments of a planet that is bleeding and in pain, a planet that is suffocating and burning as the powers that be look on indifferently?” he asked. “Yes, we probably should. But what can we say that hasn’t already been said? That might at least be useful?” What’s more mind-boggling than what’s happening in the world around us? Lindon concluded that the festival can only “render essential what would otherwise be obscene: projecting glorious images over the top of the abominable ones coming to us from the heroic and martyrized Ukraine, or burying under a melody of joy the silent massacres that rip through Yemen or Darfur.” Which brings me back to The Truman Show. The point of that movie isn’t that Truman, a victorious escapee from Plato’s cave, ascends to see the truth. It’s that the truth can so easily be manipulated by the powerful, by the metaphorical producer in the sky who tells us what to believe and arranges our lives so that we have no reason to believe anything else. The role of disinformation worldwide, the once-again rising tide of fascism across the world, the feeling of needing to close our eyes because it’s all too much — it all makes us susceptible to those producers, to just lying down on the yacht deck chair and checking out of reality. One has to know, sitting in the Palais, that the tension can’t ever be solved at a film festival. But we can wonder if the tension is the whole point.
2 d