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Vox - Front Page
Republicans’ opening bid on infrastructure is about a quarter of the size of Biden’s plan
Senate Republicans unveiled a counteroffer to Biden’s infrastructure proposal on April 22. | Getty Images The GOP’s new, much narrower infrastructure counteroffer, explained. Senate Republicans have unveiled their $568 billion infrastructure counterproposal. While it sets a substantial amount of money toward fixing roads and bridges, it’s about a quarter of the size of the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure package. There’s a wide gap between the price tag on the GOP plan and the $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan President Joe Biden laid out. Not only is the cost much smaller; the Republican plan deals more narrowly with fixing America’s roads and bridges and other forms of transportation infrastructure, while Biden’s does that and more, doubling as a sweeping climate plan and a substantial investment to make long-term care more affordable. Republicans argue that their infrastructure plan is “robust.” Though it’s a fraction of Biden’s proposal, the Republican plan is actually larger than the last $305 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in 2015 that was signed into law by President Barack Obama. But the difference between these numbers and Biden’s latest plan underscores just how much Democrats have raised the stakes in the last five years. To Biden, infrastructure isn’t just about roads and bridges; it’s the last best hope the US has to tackle climate change in a real and fundamental way. The Biden administration held the first of a two-day international climate summit on Thursday, unveiling a new emissions target cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Biden’s campaign pledge on emissions was getting the US to net-zero emissions by 2050, and getting the American economy to run on 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2035. To do that, Biden intends to move the US economy aggressively towards clean energy — which will take significant federal investment. “We expect that when we get to the negotiating phase, climate will be a part of the discussion,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), the lead Republican on the bill and ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee told reporters on Thursday. There is some funding for electric vehicle infrastructure in the Republican plan, but it pales in comparison to Biden’s. Biden’s plan also contains a clean electricity standard, which many clean energy advocates see as a key way to cut US greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. Even though Capito and Republicans said they see their plan as a starting point in negotiations with the White House, it remains to be seen if the Biden administration thinks the gap is too wide, especially given the different approaches to the climate crisis. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the Republican proposal a “good faith effort,” and said the president is willing to have the discussion in the coming weeks. Psaki also said the White House sees more time to negotiate with Republicans than there was on Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief package. “There are a lot of details to be discussed, but we do see them differently,” Psaki said. “The American Rescue Plan was an emergency package. We have a little bit more time here, and we’re very open to hearing a range of options, a range of mechanisms for moving it forward.” What’s in the Republican proposal on infrastructure The release of Biden’s American Jobs Plan prompted a lot of debate about what’s actually considered “infrastructure,” with Republicans arguing that it should be limited to investments in traditional resources like roads, bridges and public transit — which make up the bulk of their plan. Broadly, Biden’s plan includes $621 billion for transportation infrastructure, including $115 billion for roads and bridges, $85 billion for public transit, $80 billion for passenger freight and rail and $174 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure. But it also includes $650 billion for home infrastructure like replacing lead pipes and installing broadband across the country. It also includes $400 billion to bolster long-term care, making the cost of caring for the elderly and disabled more affordable, and increasing pay for home health aides who look after them. The Republican plan is much more narrowly focused. It includes these categories: Roads and bridges,$299 billion Public transit systems, $61 billion Safety,$13 billion Drinking water and wastewater infrastructure,$35 billion Inland waterways and ports, $17 billion Airports, $44 billion Broadband infrastructure, $65 billion Water storage, $14 billion The other major difference between Biden’s proposal and the Senate Republican one is how it would be paid for. Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent to pay for his plan; Republicans have rejected raising taxes and are upset that Democrats are seeking to undo portions of their 2017 tax cut plan. Here, Republicans are instead offering up a mix of electric vehicle user fees and repurposed unused federal spending, although there are few concrete pay-for details in their initial plan. They call for “all users of certain types of infrastructure (ex.: electric vehicles)” to contribute to new revenue. Republicans also want to repurpose unused federal funding from the Covid-19 relief bill and extend the cap on the state and local tax deduction that some Democrats want repealed. What happens if Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on infrastructure Democrats’ approach to Covid-19 relief offers a glimpse of what could happen if the two parties don’t reach an agreement on infrastructure. Thanks to a procedural maneuver by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrats now have two more opportunities to use budget reconciliation to pass their key priorities with just 51 votes in the narrowly divided Senate, and they just might use one of them on infrastructure. “If [Republicans] don’t see the big, bold need for change in infrastructure and climate that the nation sees and wants and that we see and want, we will have to move forward without them,” Schumer said last week in a CNN interview. “But our first preference, let’s see if they can work in a bipartisan way.” Some Republicans have signaled that there’s room for common ground, as evidenced by the proposal they put forth on Thursday: Capito and Carper, for instance, have already collaborated on water infrastructure legislation intended to invest in resources that would improve access to clean drinking water. And Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and John Cornyn (R-TX) have previously floated the idea of approving a bipartisan $800 billion infrastructure measure, and considering the more contentious tenets separately. Whether a bipartisan agreement is actually possible, though, remains to be seen: Key Democratic priorities, including a $400 billion investment in boosting long-term care access, have been dinged by Republicans for being extraneous. And Republicans’ opening $568 billion bid — much like in the case of Covid-19 aid — is but a fraction of the more than $2 trillion plan that Biden has proposed. Depending on how much both parties are willing to compromise, it’s very possible that Democrats end up moving unilaterally, again. “Until the Republicans realize the needs are far, far greater from what they’re proposing, I don’t know that we’re going to get much further. I hope so … but we’re not going to wait forever,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) told Politico. Exactly what Democrats would be able to do under reconciliation is still somewhat unclear at the moment: Since such bills must focus on taxing and spending, all provisions are subject to review of the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who can determine whether certain tenets need to be stripped out. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House’s Transportation Committee, is among those who’s wondered whether programs including surface transportation and wastewater authorizations would qualify. “You cannot create a new program in reconciliation. There are myriad things you can’t do in reconciliation,” he told Reuters’s Susan Cornwell in mid-April. “The parliamentarian has a séance with a senator that has been dead for 11 years and created a rule 37 years ago. It’s arbitrary, capricious and stupid.” Confronting that question will be Democrats’ next challenge if they decide, once more, to go it alone.
3 h
vox.com
5 things to know about the brand new US climate commitment
President Joe Biden on Thursday presented the United States’ new commitment to curb greenhouse gases. | White House It’s the most ambitious target to date, but it still may not be big enough to atone for our outsize emissions. The United States has an aggressive new commitment for fighting climate change: cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent relative to 2005 levels in less than a decade. The announcement came at the White House’s Earth Day summit on Thursday, where 40 world leaders met virtually to discuss and announce their new ambitions for curbing greenhouse gases. “The United States isn’t waiting; we are resolving to take action,” said President Joe Biden on Thursday, highlighting his plans for investing in agriculture to store carbon in soil, making electric vehicles, capping pipelines that leak methane, and building green hydrogen plants. “By maintaining those investments and putting these people to work, the United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half by the end of this decade.” The new target is a huge step forward for the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, after China. And it’s meant to signal to the rest of the world that the US is jumping back into the 2015 Paris climate accord with both feet after withdrawing in late 2020. Some climate change activists and analysts are arguing that it’s not enough. And there are already some misleading claims about the target that have taken root. To put it in context, here are some key things to know. What is an NDC? And what makes the new US climate target so special? Under the 2015 Paris agreement, countries agreed to limit warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius compared to average global temperatures before the industrial revolution in the 1800s. The agreement also has a secondary target of limiting warming to less than 1.5 degrees C. To achieve that goal, every signatory to the accord (nearly every country in the world) is required to act. But it’s voluntary, and every country gets to set their own targets. Those self-imposed targets are known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs. From the outset, it was clear that the first round of NDCs that countries came up with wouldn’t be enough to meet the Paris goals. But the idea was that over time, as technology improved and as urgency mounted, countries would become more ambitious. The United States plays an outsize role in the process as the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, but also as the country that played a dominant role in shaping the Paris agreement to begin with. Previous attempts at organizing international climate agreements fell apart for many reasons, but a major hurdle was US objections to setting binding greenhouse gas reduction targets. The US also opposed letting some countries, particularly developing countries, off the hook for their emissions. Hence why every country has to produce an NDC but gets to set its own target. But when the US officially exited the Paris climate agreement in November, it became the only country to back out, which was particularly frustrating for countries that joined and came up with targets at the US’s behest. So the new, more ambitious commitment from the US (following Biden’s reentry into the agreement in January) is an important way to rebuild trust. The US issued its first NDC back in 2015. It aimed to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below the level of emissions produced in the year 2005. The new target aims to bring the US 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. According to the White House, these new goals are in line with keeping average warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. “As we look at the trajectory, the question for us very much has been: How can you make it consistent with getting on track to hold a temperature increase to less than 2, well less than 2, and to try to keep 1.5 degrees in sight alive? And that looks like it is consistent,” said a senior administration official on a call with reporters on Wednesday. Beyond the impact on warming, the goal could spur countries that don’t already have comparable goals to step up their own ambitions. “That is an extraordinary step that should be commended, and emulated by everyone,” said Christiana Figueres, one of the main negotiators of the Paris climate agreement, in a statement on Thursday. US officials, however, were vague about exactly how the country is mapping its route to its new climate goals, but a key component is going to be Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The proposal aims to ramp up clean energy and electric vehicles, and facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels, but it still needs to become a bill or bills that can be approved by Congress. The US’s new climate target is NOT a doubling of ambition or halving of emissions While Biden framed the new commitment as cutting US emissions in half, there are some critical caveats. Again, this is not the first US commitment to curb greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris agreement. The initial pledge made under President Obama was aimed at 2025. The new NDC is aimed at 2030. If the US were to simply meet its previous commitment, it would be on track to reduce emissions roughly 38 percent by 2030. So the new target is actually a 12 to 14 percent increase from the previous goal, not a doubling. And, to be clear, the US is currently not on track to meet its previous NDC, let alone the new one. The US is expected to announce a climate goal of cutting emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030One thing we need to clear up:**This is not double the Obama-era pledge for 2025**28% by 2025 is equivalent to ~38% by 2030So 50% isn't even a one-third increase in ambition! pic.twitter.com/1u5rHkVT7P— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) April 22, 2021 The other thing to keep in mind is the baseline. The US target is pegged to 2005, a year when annual US greenhouse gas emissions peaked above 6 gigatonnes. By 2020, emissions had fallen by roughly 21 percent compared to 2005 to 5.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, although the Covid-19 pandemic fueled the unprecedented drop in emissions last year. Emissions are expected to rise again in 2021 as the economy recovers. All of this is to say that the 50 to 52 percent reduction target is relative to where the US was 16 years ago, not where it is today, where emissions are lower. The new target is closer to a 42 percent reduction from 2021. It’s the biggest US commitment yet, but it still may not be big enough On one hand, if the US were to meet these new goals, it would still likely be the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter by the end of the decade. On the other hand, the new target represents an enormous reduction in emissions, about 2.1 gigatonnes in nine years. This is almost the entire output of India in a given year. It’s a vast financial, technological, and political challenge. While meeting this goal will help bring the world closer to limiting global warming this century, it doesn’t fully match the US contribution to the problem. The US currently produces about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions but is responsible for the largest share of historical emissions. Climate change is a cumulative problem; if one were to add up all the greenhouse gases the US has emitted, the US would top every other country. The largest share of human-produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now came from the US. The energy that created those emissions helped the US become one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The US also continues to have some of the highest per capita emissions of any country. Now the impacts of climate change are here, raising sea levels, fueling extreme weather, and wreaking havoc across economies, and the countries that contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most. That’s why some activists are arguing that the new NDC doesn’t go far enough. “As the world’s biggest historical emitter, the US has a responsibility to the most vulnerable nations on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA, in a statement. He added that a fairer US target would be closer to a 70 percent cut in emissions, coupled with financial support to developing countries suffering under climate change. US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry envoy acknowledged on Thursday that there is still more the country could do to limit warming beyond the new NDC. “Is it enough? No. But it’s the best we can do today,” Kerry said. The US could pull this off, but it won’t be easy or cheap The US has already seen a general decline in its greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade, but that came largely from replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas, which produces about half of the emissions per unit of energy. And before the Covid-19 pandemic, US emissions were beginning to creep up again. President Biden, however, has set a target of making the entire US economy carbon neutral by 2050. In the meantime, he wants an entirely carbon-free power grid by 2035. That means even the natural gas plants will have to go, or will have to add carbon dioxide scrubbers. And to curb emissions by 50 percent relative to 2005 by 2030, the US would have to start taking drastic action right away. A number of researchers and environmental groups have already analyzed whether such a target is feasible (see this Twitter thread highlighting the various papers out there looking at the new target). Almost all of them show that it is possible with our current technologies. For example, an analysis by Energy Innovation found that the US would have to phase out all of its remaining coal power plants and halve its natural gas use over the next decade. The country would also have to dramatically increase its energy efficiency and electrify vehicles. The analysis doesn’t lay out a figure for the outlay but estimates that these changes would add $570 billion per year to the US economy via creating new jobs and avoiding pollution and health problems associated with fossil fuels. According to a December study by researchers at Princeton University, the US is poised to spend $9.4 trillion over the next decade on energy infrastructure on its current trajectory. But getting on a path of net-zero emissions would just add an additional $300 billion to the price tag, raising it by 3 percent. Other research has shown that the health benefits alone from getting off of fossil fuels are massive and would more than pay for the transition toward clean energy. However, while there are massive health and economic benefits in switching toward clean energy, those benefits are dispersed over the whole population and spread out over years. To start on the journey toward the new 2030 target, the US would have to start making major investments and changes now — phasing out coal, building electric vehicle chargers, restoring ecosystems that can sequester carbon, pricing carbon, funding research and development to solve thorny technology problems, and setting new efficiency standards. That’s a political challenge, and it remains to be seen whether Biden has enough political capital to start this process. The United States is not the only game in town To limit climate change, the whole world needs to act not only to zero out greenhouse emissions but also to begin withdrawing them from the air by the middle of the century. At the Earth Day summit, other world leaders highlighted their own new targets. Canada is now aiming to reduce its emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Japan is aiming for 44 percent under the same benchmarks. And China is expecting that its emissions will continue to rise over the next decade but will peak in 2030 and decline thereafter, reaching net-zero emissions by 2060. These new commitments will be formalized at the next major international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, later this year. In total, about 59 countries have set some sort of benchmark for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. But the total global commitments to date are still not enough to reach the 1.5-degree target, and that target is slipping further out of reach every day. That’s going to be even more challenging as lower-income parts of the world develop. About 13 percent of the planet’s population, 940 million people, still don’t have access to electricity. They desperately need energy, and fossil fuels are often the only sources available to them. And many of these targets are set decades in the future. It’s the interim targets where the rubber will meet the road and more tangible results will be visible, yet many countries are reluctant to commit to specific climate benchmarks over the next five to 10 years. So a fresh round of more ambitious targets for limiting emissions has to be met with real-world action and meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. There is intense global momentum for action on climate change, but that has yet to bear out in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have now crossed 420 parts per million, the highest levels in human history. The planet has already warmed by at least 1 degree Celsius, and those effects are already visible in the ice caps, torrential rainfall, and wildfires. Some countries are certainly more responsible for climate change than others, but as Biden said, “no nation can solve this crisis on their own.”
5 h
vox.com
The Senate strongly condemns anti-Asian hate crimes by passing new bill 
Young participants are seen holding a placard near NYC City Hall during Stop Asian Hate demonstration to show support to Asian community in New York City. | Ryan Rahman/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images In a surprisingly bipartisan vote, lawmakers passed legislation to improve hate crime tracking. The Senate — in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote on Thursday — sent Congress’s strongest message yet condemning anti-Asian hate crimes by passing a bill aimed at improving data collection. The legislation, while somewhat narrow, intends to bolster hate crime tracking by designating a Justice Department official to specifically review potential hate crime incidents, providing grants for regional law enforcement agencies to set up reporting hotlines, and offering training to police on how to handle hate crime response. It ultimately passed 94-1 with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) as the lone vote against it. None of these measures are enough to fully combat hate crimes, but the bill is significant in that it marks a notable denouncement of anti-Asian racism, which has surged in the last year as Asian Americans have been scapegoated for the spread of coronavirus and as public officials including former President Donald Trump have used racist terms. According to a tracker from Stop AAPI Hate, nearly 3,800 incidents involving everything from verbal abuse and shunning to physical assault have been reported. Shootings in Georgia, which killed six women of Asian descent in March, as well as violent attacks on Asian American elders, have also renewed focus on the issue. The passage of this bill acknowledges this reality and makes some inroads to gathering better information about hate crimes in general: Currently, thousands of hate crimes go unreported each year, and federal data is also lacking since local law enforcement agencies don’t always keep tabs on or communicate their numbers. As ProPublica’s Ken Schwencke reported in 2017, there are serious gaps in the records that law enforcement agencies keep: The evidence suggests that many police agencies across the country are not working very hard to count hate crimes. Thousands of them opt not to participate in the FBI’s hate crime program at all. Among the 15,000 that do, some 88 percent reported they had no hate crimes. According to federal records, the Huntsville Police Department has never reported a hate crime. Local law enforcement agencies reported a total of 6,121 hate crimes in 2016 to the FBI, but estimates from the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the federal government, pin the number of potential hate crimes at almost 250,000 a year — one indication of the inadequacy of the FBI’s data. “At a time when the AAPI community is under siege, this bill is an important signal that Congress is taking anti-Asian racism and hatred seriously,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), a lead sponsor on the bill, said. What this bill will do This legislation is primarily focused on making it easier for people to report hate crimes by opening up more channels to do so and supporting better training for law enforcement officers. Additionally, by naming a specific Justice Department official to review anti-Asian hate crimes, it hopes to heighten federal focus on such incidents. Below are some of the key components of the bill: Designates a DOJ official to expedite the review of anti-Asian hate crimes, both to improve tracking and help with potential prosecution Calls on the DOJ to offer guidance to local and state law enforcement agencies about setting up online hate crime reporting platforms and public education campaigns Urges HHS and the DOJ to remove any discriminatory language in how agencies talk about the pandemic Provides grants to local and state law enforcement agencies so they can set up hotlines for reporting hate crimes and get training for reporting data about hate crimes to the federal government Pushes judges involved in sentencing for hate crimes to include community service and education about the group that was affected as part of the penalties they assign All of these efforts are focused on getting a better understanding of just how expansive the problem with hate crimes is, though as one legal expert told Vox, they likely won’t be effective at fully addressing the root causes of such attacks. “Enhancing criminal prosecutions of and requiring greater reporting on hate crimes are interventions that take place after bias incidents have taken place,” Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke told Vox. “Education, public messaging — particularly from elected officials — and other community-based programs aimed at reconciliation and repair are more likely to reduce the incidence of hate crimes.” The legislation presented a unique opportunity for bipartisanship The bipartisan passage of this legislation was ultimately somewhat surprising, including to Democrats who came in thinking Republicans would block the legislation from being debated. “We passed the first hurdle, which I didn’t think we would pass,” Hirono told HuffPost’s Igor Bobic after a procedural vote. Given how divided the Senate has been on most measures until now, it is a relatively rare occurrence, and a welcome joint effort, for legislation to endure debate and pass with support from both sides of the aisle on a problem that’s been broadly criticized. A major component of the bill that ended up garnering both Democratic and Republican backing was the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act — an amendment led by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), which included the grants to regional law enforcement. In the end, lawmakers in both parties agreed that the issue of racism and hate crimes warranted a collective policy response, even though it’s still a limited one. Upcoming votes, including one on HR 1, Democrats’ sweeping voting rights reform bill, are unlikely to pass as smoothly. If a bill is blocked, or filibustered, by even one member, after all, it will need 60 votes to pass, a tough threshold for Democrats to meet given the Senate’s current 50-50 breakdown. If the filibuster stays intact, a number of Democratic priorities — including gun control, police reform, and the $15 minimum wage — probably won’t pass. Like the hate crimes bill, these coming votes will further test the chamber’s potential for bipartisanship — and likely play a role in whether Democrats end up deciding to blow up the filibuster down the line.
5 h
vox.com
The new rom-com Together Together explores the romance of platonic friendship
Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in Together Together. | Bleecker Street Director Nikole Beckwith says there are “different ways to be the object of someone’s affection.” I get ornery about romantic comedies. Not because I don’t like them; not because I’m particularly cranky about romance. I just find myself wishing there were more movies about other kinds of relationships, about unlikely people building friendships that seem destined to last a lifetime. That’s why I loved Together Together, one of my favorite movies from this year’s (virtual) Sundance Film Festival. The film stars Ed Helms and Patti Harrison as Matt and Anna: Matt is a middle-aged man who wants a child but is single. Anna is in her twenties, and the two meet when she applies to be his surrogate. Their relationship grows steadily, but it doesn’t take the turns you might suspect from that setup. Instead, writer and director Nikole Beckwith tells a story that challenges how we imagine supportive relationships, the boundaries of friendships, and the many shapes love can take. (It’s also very funny.) After I saw Together Together, I knew I wanted to talk to Beckwith about why she made the movie and how she thinks about the wide spectrum of relationships we all form in our lives. We chatted over Zoom about love, friendship, the messed-up ways we talk about “romance,” and how a film set can be a place to learn about yourself. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. The premise of Together Together flips a typical “rom-com” on its head. Is that what you set out to do? I was really just thinking about what it would be like for two strangers to embark on such a crazy, intimate, emotionally charged endeavor, and to be so integral to each other while moving forward into the next chapter of their lives. I wrote from a place of curiosity: I wonder what that would be like? Once I got into this story and got to know the characters, that’s when I realized, Oh, yeah, I’ve got a massive appetite for a story about a different kind of love, a different kind of relationship, between a man and a woman. I have a huge appetite for seeing the male biological clock represented, seeing a man who wants to become a father, and seeing a woman who isn’t completely eclipsed by a pregnancy. The things I had been craving revealed themselves to me through the characters and through the story. Bleecker Street Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in Together Together. Together Together made me think about how many people I know who have mutually supportive, committed, and loving relationships between friends, but without any “will they or won’t they” expectation, or a desire to convert the relationship into a romance that’s “headed somewhere.” And yet, while watching the film, I felt like Matt and Anna’s relationship was surprising, and even strange. Why do you think it’s so unusual to see a relationship like this in a film when it’s not so unusual in real life? Why do screenwriters seem to gravitate toward plots where the two characters get together by the end, or where there’s a lot of drama over whether they’ll get together? I didn’t want them to get together! When Patti first read the script, she was nervous that they’d either get together, or that it would be revealed that Anna is a grifter and was never pregnant at all. And I was like, Yeah, right. I guess those are like the two lanes that we’re used to seeing. It’s so frustrating. It’s so, so frustrating. I feel like it happens when we’re young. We get fed fairy tales over and over and over again from such a young age, and it brainwashes us into thinking that being “with” someone is the paramount thing, the ultimate goal. I don’t know why we do that! As soon as we’re done with the how-to count, how to identify color books, you’re just pivoting right over to “And then he kissed the sleeping princess, and she was psyched.” Then those children grow into adults who have that in their head, not just in terms of a way of viewing the world, but also story structure! Also, girls grow up reading books with male protagonists. When we start reading chapter books, we’re reading White Fang, or Huckleberry Finn, or whatever. But young boys are not being assigned books with female protagonists. I was assigned Diary of Anne Frank and Little Women multiple times in school, but I know guys who have never once been assigned either of those books. That’s mind-blowing! Women are learning to identify with male protagonists and female protagonists, but boys are only learning to identify with male protagonists. And we’re living in a patriarchy; the boys grow up to write most of the stories and produce most of the movies. So male protagonists are what we see on screen, and female characters are Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Generations of people grew up watching those stories, and then it repeats itself. It’s a very weird cycle. But look at actual life. There’s a whole spectrum of love. There’s a whole spectrum of relationships. Why aren’t we representing them? I can’t possibly be the first person who wrote a movie like this. I’m just one of the first people to get it through the gatekeepers. It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time. And then, people watch and think, Oh, that was good. Why don’t we see more movies about relationships like that? So yeah, it’s a strange cycle. Stop reading fairy tales. Right. And the movies that try to turn the fairy tale structure on its head wind up telling the audience that you can either have the prince, or you can be alone. Maybe you can have some woodland creatures as friends if you’re lucky. I would love to see a prince story where they’re just like, Wow, you’re my best friend. This is great. We’re couldn’t be happier. In one interview, you said, “There are a lot of different ways to be the object of someone’s affection.” Yeah. There are so many, so many ways to love and so many ways to be loved. I love loving people. I’m not as good at being loved, candidly, but I do really love the people in my life. I love birthday gifts and Christmas gifts and figuring out how to make some special, perfect little gesture. That’s not just for people that I’m sleeping with! Why would that only be kept for people I’m sleeping with? If anything, it’s like, You’re already sleeping with me, you’re welcome, why am I bending over backward? (laughs) There are a lot of different ways to be the object of someone’s affection. But we don’t think of it that way. Matt and Anna aren’t sleeping together in this movie, thank god, but they are the object of each other’s affection. There is romance to it. We tend to categorize it as, well, it’s not a “romantic relationship.” But it is romantic. It’s just not sexual or physical. Our vocabulary is hindering us because there is a lot of romance in friendship. It’s one of the most romantic things to feel seen, and to see, to be understood and to understand, to be present, to be supportive, to be elated, to be lit up. The people who do this for you are your friends. Friendship really is the basis for everything. I’m one of those people where I’m always best friends with a person when I’m seriously dating them. If you’re not, what are you doing? When I’m in a long-term functioning relationship, that person’s got to be my best friend. It’s the foundation for all of it. It’s that layer that’s nurturing you and moving you forward and challenging you, giving you all this life sustenance. But I don’t know why it’s only “romance” if you’re also putting your tongues in each other’s mouths. [A friendship] is still a really important relationship. Bleecker Street Ed Helms and Patti Harrison in Together Together. So many of those assumptions about “romance” come from decades of watching movies and TV shows that tell you unless you graduate to that level, then it’s not a “real” relationship. In fact, we tend to use the word “relationship” only to refer to those dating relationships, which tells us how much we’ve bought that idea wholesale. As Julio [Torres’s] character says in the film, “Just because you’re not ‘together, together’ doesn’t mean it’s nothing.” Lots of different types of people are in relationships. Lots of different types of people break up. I’m sure if we take a closer look, it’s probably really detrimental to all of our minds, and especially young minds. And it’s likely also partially responsible for keeping people in unhealthy relationships because we’ve made the idea of being in a relationship out to be “you complete me.” We think that’s the type of relationship that’s going to complete you. That’s probably really, really bad! It gets candy-coated and glossed over so that this bad, toxic thing looks like a beautiful cupcake. But there’s poison in it. I keep describing Together Together as a “platonic rom-com,” but not “romantic.” Now I don’t even know if that’s the right way to put it. It’s hard, because when you’re saying it, you’re aware of the way it sounds. You say “romantic,” but then you have to lay out three caveats to contextualize. It’s complicated. When I’m asked, “What is the genre of the movie?” I don’t know. Just an honest, intimate, kind movie. That’s the genre. Is that a genre? I don’t know. Is it a comedy? Is it a “dramedy”? Is it a drama? I don’t know! Did you take away anything, personally, from making the movie? Even if it came from my own heart and mind originally, I’m still being confronted with what it says. I realized, through repeated exposure, what from my own life I was working out or exploring or celebrating or examining. Taking a good, hard look at those corners of my heart over and over again is illuminating. Also, when you make a movie, when you’re on set and you’re collaborating, you can’t help but learn things from each other, because you’re all working so closely together. We had a really beautiful set. We were enabling each other to make our best work. I think a common misconception, as a director, is that everyone on set is there to enable you to make your best work. But it’s the opposite. Your job as director is to enable everyone around you and to try to empower everyone around you to be making their best work. That’s what everyone should be doing. When you do that, there’s a sense of everyone being present with each other and taking care of each other — not unlike the themes in the film. That wasn’t totally surprising; no one who gravitated toward making this project made a lot of money. We were drawn to these feelings and these ideas and ideals. That’s the kind of set we had where we were all very present for each other. You learn a lot just by being in that environment every day. I think that’s strengthening. Not to use the word “nourishment” again, but once you are getting that kind of nourishment, you’re like, Oh, I should be eating that every day. And I should be putting that onto the world every day. That is definitely not the rule on every film set! Yeah. It’s hard to make a movie! I can see how when you add that to some kind of toxic masculinity it might be a difficult stew. Or you can approach that difficulty and stress with solidarity, with connectivity, with being in it together. And it can be really bonding in that way. Or I’m just a Care Bear! Together Together opens in limited theaters on April 23 and will premiere on digital on-demand platforms on May 11.
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vox.com
I could have been Ma’Khia Bryant
An activist holds a placard protesting the police killing of Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, during a demonstration on April 21 in Columbus, Ohio. | Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Like Ma’Khia Bryant, I was exposed violence at a young age. I needed help, not bullets. I held my breath for weeks awaiting the verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial. The moment the conviction came in, I exhaled and was overcome with relief. Finally, a police officer was going to be held accountable for killing a Black person in America. But it was only a few minutes afterward that a headline sent my world spinning into disarray again. Police had shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant at her home. According to her mother, Ma’Khia had called the police herself for an attempted stabbing, but when the officers arrived on the scene, Ma’Khia was brandishing a knife and they opened fire, striking her four times. She died shortly after. The morning after Ma’Khia’s death, I could barely get out of bed. The heavy, haunted feeling had returned. And with it, a single thought: I’d been in Ma’Khia’s position before, dealing with violence in my own home, and I could’ve easily wound up just like her. Already, people are viewing the body camera video of the teen wielding a knife and using it to rationalize or justify the police’s deadly use of force against Bryant. Yet police treated Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager carrying a far deadlier weapon openly in the streets after killing two people, with kid gloves, not arresting him and even giving him a water bottle. For such people, only the “perfect” victim is worthy of justice, and to them, images of Ma’Khia with a knife prove she deserved to die. They don’t understand that the victimization of Black lives begins far before the police ever even get involved. Ma’Khia, like far too many Black teens, was a victim of systemic racism before she ever decided to pick up that knife. She was in foster care at the time of her death, a reality that Black children are far more likely to face than their white counterparts, and kids in foster care are often exposed to high levels of violence. Though it is unclear how she came to be in that predicament, we do know that Black children are more likely to come from impoverished and single-parent households and have family members who were swept into the carceral system. This leads to an increased likelihood that Black children will be exposed to abuse or violence in their adolescence. When I was a teen, I lived in an underprivileged Black community where violence was the norm — the kind of community created by centuries of oppression, redlining, discrimination, and poverty. By the time I was 12, I had already been jumped by a group of girls two times. I had been in so many fights that I lost count. To avoid confrontation, I chose to walk miles to school alone instead of riding the school bus. I lived my life in constant fear of my peers and my neighborhood. Eventually, that fear turned to anger. One evening, a group of 20 to 30 teens arrived at my doorstep. News of an impending brawl between me and another girl had spread like wildfire, and they all descended to watch. I remember the sound of rocks crashing through my windows. I was home alone with my brother, who was only a year my senior, and we were both terrified. My mom, a single parent working multiple jobs to make ends meet, wasn’t home. I darted toward the phone and dialed 911, desperate for help. The dispatcher asked if I saw any weapons, and when I said I wasn’t sure, the call ended ambiguously. The police never came. I felt helpless as the jeers and screams continued outside. Then I felt something I had never felt before: rage. I marched toward my kitchen, grabbed a pot, and began to boil water on the stove. In my young mind, the scalding water would simply scare the intruders away, not cause serious burns. As the pot boiled, my eyes fell on a shiny object: the kitchen knife. I grabbed it and felt both terrified and empowered. I thought of the way blood tasted in my mouth when a girl kicked me in the face during an earlier fight. “Help me,” I whispered to myself. There were no adults around to listen. As I watched the video of Ma’Khia wielding that knife, I could only imagine how she felt in that moment: the mix of anger, fear, and desperation. Though adults appeared to be around, no one stepped in to offer proper guidance or support. The cops were called because Ma’Khia thought there was a single lifeline remaining. And then officers showed up and took her life. I am grateful the police never showed up on the day the kids arrived at my doorstep for a fight. As for me, that day did not end without violence. Fortunately, I never went outside with the knife or the pot of boiling water. I nearly did, though. Existing so close to that alternate reality — one where my life could have ended in the same way as Ma’Khia Bryant’s — fills me with despair. I am fortunate that I didn’t have to use a knife that day. I am fortunate that the cops never came. I am fortunate that my mom eventually moved from that neighborhood to a safer one. I am fortunate that I was able to narrowly escape the trap of poverty and violence. But not all Black children are so lucky. Too many are stuck in the vicious cycle of systemic racism, which creates the very conditions that lead to poor outcomes and sometimes even death. Such conditions, coupled with a racist police force that is supposed to help stop crime but often mistreats Black people, only compounds violence. No Black teen should be pushed to the brink of life-threatening violence, especially when adult intervention could end with even more harm by police. What we are fighting for when we say “Black Lives Matter” is not just an end to police killing Black people with impunity but an end to the circumstances that result in altercations that lead to violence. Calls to abolish the police are often met with debasement, but they are sensible. Communities of color need more programs that support youth and single mothers, and promote employment, education, and access to safe neighborhoods. The truth is that by the time the police are summoned, many possible interventions were not available that should have been. And far too often, police do not show up to protect and serve in communities of color. The jury arriving at the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin’s deadly use of force against George Floyd is a landmark moment for America — but not for the right reasons. Black people should not have to fight for justice. Nor should we be subjected to fighting for our very survival. Tiffanie Drayton is a mom and a writer. Her memoir Black American Refugee, out in November, details her escape from American systemic racism.
7 h
vox.com
Why do we care how smart animals are?
Our author’s encounter with an urban duck had her questioning just what we value in animals. | Tim Graham/Getty Images Intelligence plays a role in how we treat them. Maybe it shouldn’t. Part of The Animals Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. One year ago, just before the pandemic hit, I fell in love with a duck. It was weird. I’d never remotely been interested in birds before. But then Molly the Mallard, as I dubbed her, decided to nest in a flowerbed on the sidewalk right outside my office. She looked so vulnerable, laying eggs in the middle of bustling Washington, DC, that I couldn’t help but get emotionally invested. What would happen to her and her future ducklings? The nearest body of water was a few miles away — would they safelymanage to find their way to it? How? Molly triggered empathy in others, too. Every day on my way into the office, when I tried to peek at the eggs beneath her iridescent blue feathers, I’d notice that other people had left well-intentioned but somewhat nonsensical things beside her: Half a poppyseed bagel. A cup of water. A bowl full of falafel leftovers. Lockdown put a sudden end to our ministrations. Stuck at home, I worried about whether Molly would be okay. I soon took it upon myself to learn all about birds: how some use the sun and stars to navigate, while others sense the Earth’s magnetic field; how individual birds, far from being mechanistic bundles of instinct, can make autonomous choices to split off from their migrating flock; how crows solve complex puzzles; and more. I was wowed by avian intelligence. Popular books like Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds urged me on in this direction. I never saw Molly again, but the more impressed I grew with birds’ smarts, the more my empathy for her and other animals like her increased. That’s very common. Faunalytics, a nonprofit that researches animal-related issues, recently surveyed more than 1,000 Americans on their beliefs about different species. The responses showed that people are more likely to want to help an animal — for example, by signing petitions — when they believe that animal to be intelligent. Lately, I have begun to question this impulse. Covid-19 has made it obvious that we live in an interconnected world where one infected animal, smart or not, can turn all our lives upside down. We ignore the well-being of animals and their ecosystems at our own peril. So is intelligence really the right yardstick to use when deciding which animals are worth protecting? From the 1993 blockbuster Free Willy to the recent Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, a core premise of the animal rights movement — that intelligent, autonomous creatures deserve our moral concern — has seeped into pop culture. As we’ve learned more about whale language, the movement to save the whales has grown. As we’ve learned that octopuses are brilliant puzzle-solvers and escape artists, the calls to stop eating them have gotten louder. People are rethinking farm animals like pigs, too; as the evidence mounts that pigs are smarter than human toddlers (they can use tools and play video games!), so do the arguments against eating them. Mikhail Pochuyev/TASS After a slew of beluga and orca whales were discovered captive in Russia in 2019, protesters took to the streets to call for their release. In one survey, many respondents said they were more likely to help an animal they found intelligent. Groups such as the Nonhuman Rights Project even go to court on behalf of chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins. They try to win legal rights for their “clients,” and their arguments are primarily based on the animals’ intelligence. For example, in 2013 the group filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hercules and Leo, two chimps used in lab research, arguing that they have the right to be freed from captivity given their “complex cognitive abilities.” The lawsuit failed. Yet it demonstrated the way some in the animal rights movement have used intelligence to make their case. But using intelligence as our yardstick for determining how much to care about an animal can too easily lead us astray, in large part because we suffer from an anthropocentric bias: We tend to think something counts as intelligence only when it looks like human intelligence. And if we humans use a faulty yardstick, that has broad implications for animals — from our failure to preserve species to decisions about how we farm and eat them. “There’s a risk that if we talk in terms of ‘these animals are really smart and therefore we should protect them,’ then we risk reinforcing the idea that you need a certain kind of intelligence in order to be worthy of protection,” said Jeff Sebo, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University. “That might work well for some animals but less well for animals who are intelligent in different ways that we might not notice or appreciate.” Ever since Aristotle developed the idea of the Scala Naturae, a “Natural Ladder” that classified some animals as higher life forms and others as lower, human beings (at least in the West) have underestimated the cognitive complexity of other species. Take chickens, for example. We’ve assumed they’re unintelligent and depicted them that way — remember the mindless sidekick in Moana and the paranoid bird in Chicken Little? Yet scientists have found that chickens have social lives and maternal instincts and even the ability to do basic math. It’s not just chickens. The more scientific research we do, the more we learn that creatures ranging from pigs to honeybees are smarter than we’d thought. As the scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer once said in an interview, “I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right?” The primatologist Frans de Waal argues that it’s high time we recognize that every species has its own brand of smarts. Each is perfectly adapted to its particular environment and survival needs. Squirrels, for example, bury nuts before winter and can remember the location of thousands of hiding places. “I even forget where I parked my car,” de Waal has written. So squirrels have an intelligence we don’t have. Sure, they would flunk a basic arithmetic test that a human child would ace — but that’s a pointless comparison, de Waal says. “It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to 10 if counting is not really what a squirrel’s life is about.” Sentience is the ability to have conscious experiences like pleasure and pain. Many philosophers — most famously, Peter Singer — argue that sentience, not intelligence, is the right yardstick for moral value, and this view is at the center of today’s broader animal welfare movement. It makes some intuitive sense. If you can’t feel pleasure or pain, then it doesn’t matter to you what happens to you. So if you’re a rock, I should be able to kick you down the street for fun without feeling bad. But if you’re a mouse, I have a moral obligation not to do that, because being kicked will feel really bad for you. But as with intelligence, humans constantly underestimate the sentience of other species. For example, many people think of fish as emotionally vacant, though recent experimental studies challenge that view. (It turns out romantic breakups really suck, even for fish.) Stephen Chernin/Getty Images Many have debated the sentience of fish. But science challenges the idea that fish don’t have emotional lives. Sebo believes that sentience is the most plausible basis for moral worth, but nevertheless said, “I am a bit humble here because I recognize that sentience is the next on a list of features that we share with other animals.” Historically, societies started by thinking that being a male human is what matters, he explained, and then expanded the notion to believe that being a human is what matters, and then that being an intelligent animal is what matters, and now that being sentient is what matters. “In light of that history, we should be a little skeptical of our current impression that we happen to now be fully morally enlightened and are including everybody we should be including,” Sebo said. “We have to recognize the fact that we’ve always been wrong before!” This open-mindedness means that he’s willing to consider that even plants might be sentient. In recent years, some scientists have argued that plants have a degree of sentience. They send out biochemical distress signals to other plants, they have some form of memory, and they “seem to lose consciousness” when sedated in scientific experiments. But the idea that plants are sentient is hotly contested. When I asked Singer his thoughts on it a couple of years ago, he said he doubts that a tree can experience a negative state such as pain. “Is there something that it’s ‘like’ to be a tree when that tree is being chopped down or not getting water and therefore dying? My guess is no.” Sebo is not so sure. After all, when a plant isn’t getting enough nourishment, it visibly strains and twists toward the light, suggesting it seeks out certain outcomes and avoids others. Is it possible that we just have a problem recognizing this as sentience because plants don’t have brains, eyes, and the other markers we humans associate with sentient beings? “We do have this pro-animal bias, so we’re more likely to see them as sentient than we are plants,” Sebo said. “When you study plant cognition and see how plants can learn, remember, and communicate, you do start to question that.” Other questions also plague the camp that values sentience above all, and trying to answer them gets very difficult very fast. If you think sentience confers moral worth, exactly how much sentience is required to make the cut? And how do you measure it? Do you start counting the number of neurons in each animal and use that as a proxy? Is that really a good stand-in? “Those are all really complicated questions,” Sebo said, “but honestly, I think that we have no reasonable alternative but to face those questions.” We could, however, sidestep them entirely. We could believe that anything that’s alive has moral value. Or, even more expansively, we could believe that anything that supports living things has moral value (think ecosystems like lakes or mountains). Environmental philosophers call the first position biocentrism and the second ecocentrism. Chris Cuomo, a philosopher at the University of Georgia, believes these approaches are much better than the sentience perspective. She told me a narrow focus on animal sentience “replicates a neoliberal tendency to focus our moral concern only on individual suffering,” and not on holistic ecosystem health or degradation more broadly. “It really leaves a lot out.” By contrast, biocentrists and ecocentrists are likely to concern themselves with climate change that destroys entire ecosystems and bad environmental practices that make pandemics more likely, instead of only worrying about the suffering of certain individual animals. These environmental views are by no means new — many Indigenous peoples and non-Western religious groups, such as Jains in India, have lived by them for millennia. In fact, the European philosopher and doctor Albert Schweitzer was taking inspiration from Jainism when he developed the philosophy he called “reverence for life,” whose emphasis on nonviolence to all living things had a deep effect on the Western environmental movement. Now, views like these are starting to gain more ground, not just in the halls of philosophy departments but also in the courts. Olivier Morin/AFP via Getty Images If you care about the whale, some philosophies argue you ought to care about the krill, which is necessary for the whale’s survival — and, while you’re at it, the ice, too, because it sustains the krill. The nascent “rights of nature” movement, which tries to win legal personhood status for ecosystems, has notched several victories in the past dozen years. Rivers, forests, and lakes have already won rights in countries like Ecuador, Colombia, India, New Zealand, and, yes, the United States. For example, Lake Erie became a legal “person” in 2019, enabling citizens to sue on behalf of the lake whenever its right to flourish is threatened — that is, whenever it’s in danger of major pollution. There are different ways to flesh out the environmental views. You might decide that all living things, or all ecosystems that support living things, have intrinsic moral value. Or you might decide that their value is just instrumental — that Antarctic sea ice is valuable but only because it enables tiny krill to flourish, and the krill is valuable but only because it feeds the bigger and brainier whale. Philosophers tend to get really hung up on the intrinsic versus instrumental debate, but honestly, it may not matter much at this point. Even if you only care about the highly intelligent and sentient whale, you’d better start caring about krill and sea ice, too — and fast, because without them, that whale may not survive much longer. For that matter, this year has brought home the realization that even if you only care about humans, you should probably start caring a lot about bats. Although for me, bats don’t inspire the same affection I felt for Molly the Mallard — I actually find them creepy — I should have been at least as concerned about their well-being a year ago as I was about the duck’s. If we were all taking greater care not to mess with bats and other wildlife and their ecosystems, we could make emerging pandemics much less likely. Still, there are tricky problems with the environmentalist views. What should we do, for example, when the needs of different species conflict? Australia has been dealing with this problem recently. It has a huge population of feral cats that has been wiping out lots of native plants and animals, especially small marsupials and rodents. Desperate to preserve its unique species, the Australian government in 2015 announced that it would kill 2 million cats. Immediately, animal rights activists became apoplectic; more than 160,000 people signed petitions; and celebrities including Brigitte Bardot wrote to the government to stop the “animal genocide.” If you believe intelligence is the yardstick for moral worth, you might try to solve this dilemma by determining which is smarter, a cat or a rodent. But if instead you believe all life has moral value, then what? Cuomo’s answer: “We should take the cats’ interest into account, while we also protect the wildlife. If we can’t do both, then we admit that it’s a tragedy, and we try to make up for it or do it better next time.” In other words, sometimes there will be tough trade-offs, and the best thing we can do is have the integrity to recognize that we’re making a fallible choice. As Schweitzer once put it, we should be “conscious of acting on subjective grounds … and know that [we] bear the responsibility for the life which is sacrificed.” Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images The numbat, a rare anteater indigenous to Australia, was so severely threatened by predators — namely, the massive population of feral cats in Western Australia — that at one point, the species dwindled to just 1,000 animals. Kimmerer reaches the same conclusion in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. The scientist describes how she had an algae-filled pond in her yard that she wanted to clear out so her daughters could swim in it. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, though, she believes that all life has moral worth. So as she raked out the muck and found that it was full of tadpoles, she plucked them all out so they could go on living. Then she inspected the pond water under her microscope and saw a ton of teensy organisms, each one a moral dilemma. She writes: As I raked and plucked, it challenged my conviction that all lives are valuable, protozoan or not. As a theoretical matter, I hold this to be true, but on a practical level it gets murky, the spiritual and the pragmatic bumping heads. With every rake I knew that I was prioritizing. Short, single-cell lives were ended because I wanted a clear pond. I’m bigger, I have a rake, so I win. That’s not a worldview I readily endorse. But it didn’t keep me awake at night, or halt my efforts; I simply acknowledged the choices I was making. The best I could do was to be respectful and not let the small lives go to waste. I plucked out whatever wee beasties I could and the rest went into the compost pile, to start the cycle again as soil. In a way, it’s an unsatisfying solution. We’re trained to want to clear-cut hierarchies, objective moral truths. And yet, why should we expect nature to come inscribed with any such thing? It makes sense that there would be no easy answers. We humans are ourselves animals, not static brains in vats. So our moral beliefs about other beings are always shaped by our evolving historical, social, and economic conditions, and by our relationships to those beings. For most of human history, we couldn’t have survived and thrived without killing or exploiting animals for food, transportation, and energy. As the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson points out, the social conditions for granting animals moral rights didn’t really exist on a mass scale until recently (although certain non-Western societies did ascribe moral worth to animals). “The possibility of moralizing our relations to animals,” she writes, “has come to us only lately, and even then not to us all, and not with respect to all animal species.” Anderson has noted that we feel different levels of moral obligation to different species, and that has to do not only with their intrinsic capacities like intelligence or sentience, but also with their relationships to us. It matters whether we’ve made them dependent on us by domesticating them, or whether they live in the wild. It also matters whether they’re fundamentally hostile to us. Thinking about vermin is a great (if disgusting) way to bring this point home. If you find bedbugs in your house, nobody expects you to say, “Well, they’re maybe sentient and definitely alive, so they have moral value. I’ll just live and let live!” It is absolutely expected that you will exterminate the shit out of them. Why? Because with vermin, Anderson writes, “there is no possibility of communication, much less compromise. We are in a permanent state of war with them, without possibility of negotiating for peace. To one-sidedly accommodate their interests … would amount to surrender.” Anderson’s point is not that intelligence and sentience don’t matter. It’s that lots of other things matter, too. Embracing this value pluralism makes things tricky. It suggests that the best we can do is look at creatures’ intelligence and sentience and aliveness and relationships to us as clues about their importance. But it doesn’t tell us how to weight those clues and what to do when they conflict. Annoying, isn’t it? But value pluralism can also give us more ways to make the case for protecting animals. Since we know that people are more likely to want to help animals they believe to be intelligent, it may make sense to keep harping on intelligence for now and hope to keep expanding the circle of moral concern. That might look like asking people to care even more about whales and octopuses and Molly the Mallard today, in the hopes that tomorrow they will take the lives of factory-farmed animals — or bats, for that matter — just as seriously. At the same time, as climate change and pandemics threaten us all, we can also make the case for protecting whole ecosystems. We can remind each other that if we only care about animals that appeal to us, we’re going to end up harming all animals, including ourselves. Sigal Samuel is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect, covering artificial intelligence, neuroscience, ethics, and the intersection of technology and religion.
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vox.com
We now have a solution to Covid-19 hotspots. Let’s use it.
A group of teenagers serving as “Covid-19 student ambassadors” joined Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to receive a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Ford Field on April 6, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. | Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images There’s no reason to let cities or states suffer when the US has the vaccines. As America beats back Covid-19, it’s likely going to see more Michigans — hotspots where the coronavirus is surging in what’s hopefully a final hurrah for the pathogen that’s twisted our lives so much over the past year. But experts now say the solution for these hotspots is the same thing digging many other places out of the pandemic: vaccines. The idea is straightforward: If a place sees a surge in Covid-19 cases, it should get a surge in Covid-19 vaccinations. That doesn’t mean just more doses of the vaccine, but also more people who can actually administer the shot, resources that bring vaccines closer to workplaces and homes, and education and awareness efforts to convince more of the public to get the shot. “Why not?” Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California in San Francisco, told me. “Luckily, we actually have quite a lot of vaccine supply. And new rises in cases in any given region will lead to hospitalizations and deaths that didn’t have to happen if we could vaccinate more quickly.” It’s the kind of solution that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for. As Michigan saw a new wave in Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, she asked President Joe Biden’s administration to ramp up vaccinations for her state. But the Biden administration seemed skeptical, saying it would send more vaccinators and other treatment resources to the state but otherwise refusing to send extra doses to Michigan. Some experts were critical of the administration’s decision. They argue that not only should the Biden administration have sent more vaccines to Michigan — where an outbreak no longer seems to be getting worse yet cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remain very high — but that the administration should be ready to surge vaccines to future places, down to the local level, hit by new waves of Covid-19. That may require the federal government to even set aside some vaccines going forward exclusively for hotspots. “It’s a strategy we’ve used in public health for a long time,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told me, pointing to recent vaccine surges used against Ebola across Africa. “And we use it because it largely works.” This is not the US’s current strategy. The Biden administration is committed to a model that distributes vaccines based solely on population. The administration seems to be skeptical that some places really could use more supply, given that no state, including Michigan, has administered all the vaccine doses they’ve obtained. There’s also questions about fairness — if some states see the administration as taking away doses to give them to another state. But vaccine surges could help curb hotspots. A vaccine surge really could work If you need evidence a vaccine surge could work, look at Israel. With the speed and success of its vaccination campaign, Israel effectively surged vaccines to the entire country. About 62 percent of Israelis already got at least one shot, compared to 40 percent of Americans. That’s come with very good news: Even as Israel has almost fully reopened its economy, its daily new Covid-19 cases are down more than 98 percent from a mid-January peak. Our World in Data Israel’s example is a shot of mercy for the world and particularly the US. For the past year, America has struggled to contain its many Covid-19 hotspots. Masks are easy enough, but they didn’t seem to be enough on their own. Social distancing works, but requires a kind of sacrifice that doesn’t seem sustainable. A testing-and-tracing regime could have worked, but it seems contingent on keeping cases below a certain threshold — one the US has long since passed — to avoid overwhelming tracers. Now, we have a better answer: the vaccines. If a place gets enough of the shots, it can get back to normal and eliminate the threat of Covid-19. One lingering question is what the inflection point is for vaccine efforts: At what level is enough of the population vaccinated that cases start to truly plummet? Israel’s decline in cases appeared to begin in earnest around early February, when about 40 percent of the population had received at least one shot. Perhaps that’s close to the inflection point — though it’s likely an underestimate, because natural immunity from getting sick with Covid-19 also offers protection from future infection but isn’t counted in the vaccination numbers. Whatever the figure might be, the goal of a vaccine surge would be to get the population to that inflection point as fast as possible. That comes with a big caveat: The vaccines take a while to take effect. The two currently available vaccines require two doses, spaced weeks apart, and then the vaccines build up immunity further over at least two more weeks. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine only requires one shot, but it’s on pause due to an investigation over blood clots, and it still needs two or more weeks to take full effect. So the full effects of a surge won’t be immediate. But that doesn’t mean a surge can’t help. A Covid-19 wave can last far longer than the time it takes for vaccines to take effect — the fall-winter wave in the US lasted months. Vaccine surges could help in that time window, potentially causing a decline in cases or, if nothing else, at least speeding up the decline as vaccines kick in. And while vaccines need weeks to take full effect, the evidence suggests they produce at least some level of immunity against the coronavirus within days, even after the first dose from one of the two-shot vaccines. It’s just that immunity continues to build up further over weeks and with the second shot. So vaccine surges could still lead to short-term benefits. “This is a broader public health problem: People are continuing to underappreciate how valuable these vaccines are,” Jha said. “If three weeks ago, when a bunch of started saying Michigan should get [a vaccine surge], Michigan would be in a totally different place right now.” It’s about more than extra vaccine doses The most obvious element of a surge is flooding a Covid-19 hotspot with way more vaccine doses. After all, more doses would let more people get the vaccine — ending the outbreak. But that alone wouldn’t be enough. As the Biden administration has pointed out, the states aren’t using all the doses they’ve been given. The vast majority of states have administered less than 90 percent of their supply, and more than half are below 80 percent. That suggests other kinds of resources could be needed along with more doses. Maybe a state doesn’t have the people it needs to actually administer the shots, so a surge of health care workers or other trained personnel would be just as valuable, if not more so, than just getting more doses. Or maybe a state needs to find a way to get vaccines closer to where people actually are, so giving it vaccine vans or helping it build makeshift vaccination sites could help. Or maybe a state’s real problem is hesitancy and apathy toward a vaccine, so the best support could come through extra expertise to create and deploy public education and awareness campaigns, focused on local issues, to encourage people to get vaccinated. Or it could be a mix of all of the above. “It’s not just vaccines,” Shan Soe-Lin, a global health specialist at Yale University, told me. “It’s vaccination.” To put it another way: More vaccines have to be paired with those other resources to make sure the doses actually get used. Experts emphasized that this should be done not just at the state but the local level too. So far, Michigan’s Covid-19 outbreak in the middle of widespread vaccination efforts seems unique — and experts expect truly statewide outbreaks to happen less often, if at all, over time. But there are still going to be outbreaks at the local level, and vaccine surges could help in such settings. One concern about this concept is more political: Some states may feel like they’re losing or giving up vaccine supply to help contain outbreaks in other places. Even worse, some states may feel like they’re essentially being punished for containing the coronavirus — if they’re getting fewer doses because they have fewer coronavirus cases. When I asked experts about this, they acknowledged it doesn’t necessarily feel fair. But they pushed back on framing a vaccine surge around such rigid questions of fairness. First, there’s the practical consideration. The vaccine effort is mainly about saving lives. A place with more Covid-19 cases is obviously at greater risk of the coronavirus. So getting a vaccine to those places would save more lives. Second, there are selfish reasons for other states to want Covid-19 hotspots to get more vaccines. A coronavirus wave in one state could easily spill over to another. And if a surge system is put in place now, it could come to benefit the same states that feel they’re giving up doses today, given the above-zero chance of any state getting hit by Covid-19 in the future. “We live in a society,” Gandhi said. “We’re all connected.” There also may be a way to get around concerns about fairness: Instead of yanking supply that was meant for one state and giving it to another, the federal government could always set aside a portion of its vaccines to go to hotspots. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggested setting aside a portion of vaccine doses — perhaps 10 percent — for this kind of purpose. If those vaccines were never directed at a particular state, it’s going to be harder for that state to feel like it lost something. In some cases, a vaccine surge may not even necessarily involve extra doses. Take a state like Alabama, which is currently administering a little more than 60 percent of the doses it’s getting — the worst rate in the country. If Alabama became a Covid-19 hotspot, arguably the biggest help it would need is not more doses but help in using the doses that it already has. In that context, a vaccine surge may need to focus on the other resources above and beyond more doses. Particularly in Republican strongholds, where people are more likely to be vaccine-hesitant, a surge could come down to concentrated education and outreach efforts. Places with surges can’t ease up on other restrictions yet One point experts repeatedly emphasized: A vaccine surge doesn’t mean other precautions against Covid-19, from masking to social distancing, should be prematurely discarded. Vaccines are the way toward getting life back to normal. Israel’s experience is real-world evidence of that. But until Covid-19 cases are sufficiently suppressed nationwide, and until the US surpasses the inflection point for vaccines, there’s always going to be a risk of a coronavirus outbreak. The other precautions — the ones we’ve heard so much about in the previous year — add an extra layer of security until that point. Michigan’s current Covid-19 wave came as it eased restrictions related to the coronavirus. And Gov. Whitmer, dealing with restraints imposed by politics, the public, the legislature, and the courts, has resisted reimposing the restrictions. Paired with a new, more infectious coronavirus variant that first surfaced in the UK, the relaxed rules allowed Covid-19 to take off in the state. Some critics have argued that Michigan should have focused on the other precautions instead of calling for a vaccine surge. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, claimed that in outbreaks like Michigan’s, “the best thing to do is try to contain” the virus and “really to shut down things much more so.” But it doesn’t have to be either-or. Michigan and other parts of the US could continue with the precautions we’ve all heard about over the past year, while vaccine surges could help further in hotspots as they pop up. That applies even to hotspots with coronavirus variants, which the vaccines work against. The measures likely won’t even be needed that much longer. At current rates, the US is on its way to vaccinating every adult by midsummer. If that holds true, we’ll be able to meet people unmasked, indoors, and do all those things that were considered too risky just months prior. Until then, America should deploy every tool it has to get to the end quicker and with more people alive. That includes vaccine surges.
7 h
vox.com
We now have a solution to Covid-19 hot spots. Let’s use it.
A group of teenagers serving as “Covid-19 student ambassadors” joined Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to receive a dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Ford Field on April 6, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. | Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images There’s no reason to let cities or states suffer when the US has the vaccines. As America beats back Covid-19, it’s likely going to see more Michigans — hot spots where the coronavirus is surging in what’s hopefully a final hurrah for the pathogen that’s twisted our lives so much over the past year. But experts now say the solution for these hot spots is the same thing digging many other places out of the pandemic: vaccines. The idea is straightforward: If a place sees a surge in Covid-19 cases, it should get a surge in Covid-19 vaccinations. That doesn’t mean just more doses of the vaccine, but also more people who can actually administer the shot, resources that bring vaccines closer to workplaces and homes, and education and awareness efforts to convince more of the public to get the shot. “Why not?” Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California in San Francisco, told me. “Luckily, we actually have quite a lot of vaccine supply. And new rises in cases in any given region will lead to hospitalizations and deaths that didn’t have to happen if we could vaccinate more quickly.” It’s the kind of solution that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for. As Michigan saw a new wave in Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, she asked President Joe Biden’s administration to ramp up vaccinations for her state. But the Biden administration seemed skeptical, saying it would send more vaccinators and other treatment resources to the state but otherwise refusing to send extra doses to Michigan. Some experts were critical of the administration’s decision. They argue that not only should the Biden administration have sent more vaccines to Michigan — where an outbreak no longer seems to be getting worse yet cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remain very high — but that the administration should be ready to surge vaccines to future places, down to the local level, hit by new waves of Covid-19. That may require the federal government to even set aside some vaccines going forward exclusively for hot spots. “It’s a strategy we’ve used in public health for a long time,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told me, pointing to recent vaccine surges used against Ebola across Africa. “And we use it because it largely works.” This is not the US’s current strategy. The Biden administration is committed to a model that distributes vaccines based solely on population. The administration seems to be skeptical that some places really could use more supply, given that no state, including Michigan, has administered all the vaccine doses they’ve obtained. There’s also questions about fairness — if some states see the administration as taking away doses to give them to another state. But vaccine surges could help curb hot spots. A vaccine surge really could work If you need evidence a vaccine surge could work, look at Israel. With the speed and success of its vaccination campaign, Israel effectively surged vaccines to the entire country. About 62 percent of Israelis already got at least one shot, compared to 40 percent of Americans. That’s come with very good news: Even as Israel has almost fully reopened its economy, its daily new Covid-19 cases are down more than 98 percent from a mid-January peak. Our World in Data Israel’s example is a shot of mercy for the world and particularly the US. For the past year, America has struggled to contain its many Covid-19 hot spots. Masks are easy enough, but they didn’t seem to be enough on their own. Social distancing works, but requires a kind of sacrifice that doesn’t seem sustainable. A testing-and-tracing regime could have worked, but it seems contingent on keeping cases below a certain threshold — one the US has long since passed — to avoid overwhelming tracers. Now, we have a better answer: the vaccines. If a place gets enough of the shots, it can get back to normal and eliminate the threat of Covid-19. One lingering question is what the inflection point is for vaccine efforts: At what level is enough of the population vaccinated that cases start to truly plummet? Israel’s decline in cases appeared to begin in earnest around early February, when about 40 percent of the population had received at least one shot. Perhaps that’s close to the inflection point — though it’s likely an underestimate, because natural immunity from getting sick with Covid-19 also offers protection from future infection but isn’t counted in the vaccination numbers. Whatever the figure might be, the goal of a vaccine surge would be to get the population to that inflection point as fast as possible. That comes with a big caveat: The vaccines take a while to take effect. The two currently available vaccines require two doses, spaced weeks apart, and then the vaccines build up immunity further over at least two more weeks. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine only requires one shot, but it’s on pause due to an investigation over blood clots, and it still needs two or more weeks to take full effect. So the full effects of a surge won’t be immediate. But that doesn’t mean a surge can’t help. A Covid-19 wave can last far longer than the time it takes for vaccines to take effect — the fall-winter wave in the US lasted months. Vaccine surges could help in that time window, potentially causing a decline in cases or, if nothing else, at least speeding up the decline as vaccines kick in. And while vaccines need weeks to take full effect, the evidence suggests they produce at least some level of immunity against the coronavirus within days, even after the first dose from one of the two-shot vaccines. It’s just that immunity continues to build up further over weeks and with the second shot. So vaccine surges could still lead to short-term benefits. “This is a broader public health problem: People are continuing to underappreciate how valuable these vaccines are,” Jha said. “If three weeks ago, when a bunch of started saying Michigan should get [a vaccine surge], Michigan would be in a totally different place right now.” It’s about more than extra vaccine doses The most obvious element of a surge is flooding a Covid-19 hot spot with way more vaccine doses. After all, more doses would let more people get the vaccine — ending the outbreak. But that alone wouldn’t be enough. As the Biden administration has pointed out, the states aren’t using all the doses they’ve been given. The vast majority of states have administered less than 90 percent of their supply, and more than half are below 80 percent. That suggests other kinds of resources could be needed along with more doses. Maybe a state doesn’t have the people it needs to actually administer the shots, so a surge of health care workers or other trained personnel would be just as valuable, if not more so, than just getting more doses. Or maybe a state needs to find a way to get vaccines closer to where people actually are, so giving it vaccine vans or helping it build makeshift vaccination sites could help. Or maybe a state’s real problem is hesitancy and apathy toward a vaccine, so the best support could come through extra expertise to create and deploy public education and awareness campaigns, focused on local issues, to encourage people to get vaccinated. Or it could be a mix of all of the above. “It’s not just vaccines,” Shan Soe-Lin, a global health specialist at Yale University, told me. “It’s vaccination.” To put it another way: More vaccines have to be paired with those other resources to make sure the doses actually get used. Experts emphasized that this should be done not just at the state but the local level too. So far, Michigan’s Covid-19 outbreak in the middle of widespread vaccination efforts seems unique — and experts expect truly statewide outbreaks to happen less often, if at all, over time. But there are still going to be outbreaks at the local level, and vaccine surges could help in such settings. One concern about this concept is more political: Some states may feel like they’re losing or giving up vaccine supply to help contain outbreaks in other places. Even worse, some states may feel like they’re essentially being punished for containing the coronavirus — if they’re getting fewer doses because they have fewer coronavirus cases. When I asked experts about this, they acknowledged it doesn’t necessarily feel fair. But they pushed back on framing a vaccine surge around such rigid questions of fairness. First, there’s the practical consideration. The vaccine effort is mainly about saving lives. A place with more Covid-19 cases is obviously at greater risk of the coronavirus. So getting a vaccine to those places would save more lives. Second, there are selfish reasons for other states to want Covid-19 hot spots to get more vaccines. A coronavirus wave in one state could easily spill over to another. And if a surge system is put in place now, it could come to benefit the same states that feel they’re giving up doses today, given the above-zero chance of any state getting hit by Covid-19 in the future. “We live in a society,” Gandhi said. “We’re all connected.” There also may be a way to get around concerns about fairness: Instead of yanking supply that was meant for one state and giving it to another, the federal government could always set aside a portion of its vaccines to go to hot spots. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggested setting aside a portion of vaccine doses — perhaps 10 percent — for this kind of purpose. If those vaccines were never directed at a particular state, it’s going to be harder for that state to feel like it lost something. In some cases, a vaccine surge may not even necessarily involve extra doses. Take a state like Alabama, which is currently administering a little more than 60 percent of the doses it’s getting — the worst rate in the country. If Alabama became a Covid-19 hot spot, arguably the biggest help it would need is not more doses but help in using the doses that it already has. In that context, a vaccine surge may need to focus on the other resources above and beyond more doses. Particularly in Republican strongholds, where people are more likely to be vaccine-hesitant, a surge could come down to concentrated education and outreach efforts. Places with surges can’t ease up on other restrictions yet One point experts repeatedly emphasized: A vaccine surge doesn’t mean other precautions against Covid-19, from masking to social distancing, should be prematurely discarded. Vaccines are the way toward getting life back to normal. Israel’s experience is real-world evidence of that. But until Covid-19 cases are sufficiently suppressed nationwide, and until the US surpasses the inflection point for vaccines, there’s always going to be a risk of a coronavirus outbreak. The other precautions — the ones we’ve heard so much about in the previous year — add an extra layer of security until that point. Michigan’s current Covid-19 wave came as it eased restrictions related to the coronavirus. And Gov. Whitmer, dealing with restraints imposed by politics, the public, the legislature, and the courts, has resisted reimposing the restrictions. Paired with a new, more infectious coronavirus variant that first surfaced in the UK, the relaxed rules allowed Covid-19 to take off in the state. Some critics have argued that Michigan should have focused on the other precautions instead of calling for a vaccine surge. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, claimed that in outbreaks like Michigan’s, “the best thing to do is try to contain” the virus and “really to shut down things much more so.” But it doesn’t have to be either-or. Michigan and other parts of the US could continue with the precautions we’ve all heard about over the past year, while vaccine surges could help further in hot spots as they pop up. That applies even to hot spots with coronavirus variants, which the vaccines work against. The measures likely won’t even be needed that much longer. At current rates, the US is on its way to vaccinating every adult by midsummer. If that holds true, we’ll be able to meet people unmasked, indoors, and do all those things that were considered too risky just months prior. Until then, America should deploy every tool it has to get to the end quicker and with more people alive. That includes vaccine surges.
7 h
vox.com
How climate became the centerpiece of Biden’s economic agenda
New Yorkers with the Sunrise Movement take action In Brooklyn for an economic recovery and infrastructure package prioritizing climate, care, jobs, and justice, calling on Congress to pass the THRIVE Act on April 7, 2021, in New York City. | Noam Galai/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network The politics and urgency around climate change are shifting. At long last, combating climate change is having a moment in the United States. Over the course of a few years, addressing climate went from being a backburner issue to a centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, a crucial plank of his economic policy. A career moderate, Biden is an unlikely champion of the issue. But as the politics and urgency around climate change has shifted, so too has Biden. The Biden administration on Thursday formally committed to cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Biden’s campaign pledge on emissions was getting the US to net-zero emissions by 2050, and getting the American economy to run on 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2035. “Transforming the energy system was both essential and a tremendous opportunity,” John Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress and former climate adviser to President Barack Obama, told Vox in a recent interview. “It went from being a down-the-list environmental issue to the center of his economic project.” For perspective, at a 2017 climate march in Washington, DC, progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders (VT) and Jeff Merkley (OR) unveiled a new bill calling for 100 percent of US energy to be generated by clean and renewable sources by 2050. Four years later, Biden is speeding up the timeline significantly. Public polling from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that while a slimmer majority of voters believe the US should tackle global warming, transitioning to clean energy sources like wind and solar is broadly popular across parties. That could be a boon for Biden as he aggressively sells his $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan to Congress — a jobs and infrastructure package that doubles as a climate bill. There’s no doubt Biden was influenced by young climate activists and other progressives in the Democratic Party pushing him to embrace the Green New Deal and go big on climate. While Biden has been careful to separate his plan from the Green New Deal, he has also adopted some of its key tenets. For one, Biden recognized the ability to pair his climate ambitions with an optimistic economic message: “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs,’” Biden said during a July campaign speech. No president of either party has so fully embraced tackling climate change before, but the hardest part for Biden is yet to come. Though White House officials have insisted they have multiple pathways to halve emissions from 2005 levels in less than a decade, it will be difficult without passing Biden’s American Jobs plan through a divided Congress. Obama’s signature climate bill, cap and trade, failed in 2010. And though the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s regulatory effort to lower emissions, largely withstood President Donald Trump’s efforts to weaken it, the Biden administration wants to implement something more ambitious. “That policy change has been driven by a significant transformation, essentially the zeitgeist of climate change,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, told Vox in an interview. “The conversation used to be about how the heck do we get people to care about climate change when it feel so far off.” How the public perception around climate has changed The politics around climate change — and what to do about it — have changed significantly over the past decade. Compiling data for the past 13 years, researchers at Yale and George Mason universities used to see about 12 percent of people they classified as “alarmed” about climate and the same amount who were “dismissive” about the issue. Over the years, the numbers have shifted. Those in the alarmed group have grown to about 26 percent (there’s another 29 percent who classify themselves as “concerned” about climate change), while the number in the dismissive category has shrunk to 8 percent. “The bigger question is, is public engagement in climate increasing — and the answer is unequivocally yes,” said Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. At the same time, Maibach and his colleagues have noted there’s widespread support among voters for the US to embrace clean energy. In a December survey, Maibach and his fellow researchers found that 66 percent of registered voters said developing sources of clean energy should be a “high” or “very high” priority for the president and Congress. That number was 13 percentage points higher than the number of registered voters who said global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress, the poll found. And 72 percent of registered voters supported transitioning the US economy from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. (Of course, it’s worth repeating that Biden wants to speed up this timeline.) “While there is clearly a divide in America between liberals and conservatives on the issue of climate change, that divide is much much smaller with regard to clean energy and support for clean energy,” Maibach said. “It is still true that Democrats are much more likely to support an aggressive pivot toward transitioning to clean energy; it’s also true a large majority of Republicans support the same.” As Democrats have wholeheartedly embraced climate as both an environmental and an economic issue, Republican politicians are still trying to articulate the party’s position. For the most part, Republicans are no longer the party of outright climate denial, recognizing a fundamental shift in the electorate. At the same time, their initial plans to tackle climate change revolve around planting 1 trillion trees worldwide and investing in technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere — rather than reorienting the American economy to not produce carbon in the first place. And the GOP is sounding the alarm about Biden’s decarbonization targets, saying a departure from fossil fuels will wound the economy. “I’d say there isn’t an overall Republican strategy to combat the climate crisis where it is,” said Joe Bonfiglio, president of the Environmental Defense Action Fund. “What we’re seeing now is a party grappling with a need to have climate plans that neatly fit under the policy umbrella of all of the above energy strategy that doesn’t reduce fossil use.” Republicans are also not going along with Biden’s infrastructure and climate push, releasing their own, narrower plan that deals more with fixing the nation’s roads and bridges. While Democrats can pass Biden’s American Jobs Plan through the Senate without Republican support using an obscure procedural tool called budget reconciliation, they have a limited window to get policy through Congress and shovels in the ground. The Biden White House is very aware of the potential for climate progress to be reversed by Republicans if and when they win in the midterms or the next presidential election. That’s why it is far more focused on proposing concrete changes that are “hard to roll back,” a White House official told Vox. Many in the energy industry are moving ahead When slashing environmental regulations and lowering emissions standards, Trump often cast his actions as being friendly to businesses. At the same time, many businesses and utilities recognized that the broader economy was heading toward renewable sources of energy, in large part because wind- and solar-generated energy has become much cheaper than energy generated from fossil fuels. There are about 3 million clean energy workers in America, according to the latest annual jobs report from the national nonpartisan group E2. Nearly three times as many workers are employed in clean energy, compared to fossil fuel extraction and generation workers. “It is consensus that the urgency around this is growing, so that momentum has been moving for quite some time,” said Mike Boots, executive vice president of Breakthrough Energy. “It’s always helpful to have a consistent and durable policy at the federal level.” The wild swings from Obama to Trump to Biden and a lack of stable federal policy on climate and clean energy has been difficult to contend with, experts told Vox. “Investors like certainty, and they haven’t gotten any certainty at the federal level,” Karen Wayland, policy adviser to electricity utility coalition group Gridwise Alliance, told Vox. “The utilities have embraced this decarbonization agenda, and they do long-term planning.” In the Trump years, Wayland added, utilities were “setting goals absent federal policy.” At the same time, a recent study from the Rhodium Group found that though the US is indeed on target to hit the Obama-era emissions goals, that hasn’t happened purely because of the good intentions of American business and industry. The Rhodium Group study found that the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly grinding the economy to a halt led to a 10.3 percent drop in US greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. “With coronavirus vaccines now in distribution, we expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the US economy, emissions will likely rise again as well,” the Rhodium Group study concluded. In other words, the federal government can’t count on businesses to do the right thing. It needs to set the tone moving forward. Biden’s promise to modernize the electrical grid and invest in cleaner sources of energy is welcome to some industry groups and leaders, but there are many more who oppose the push. Oil and gas groups are not happy, and some unions are uneasy about what the transition could mean for workers who have made more, on average, from fossil fuel jobs. The 2019 median annual wage for solar photovoltaic installers was $44,890, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the median annual wage for wind turbine service technicians was $52,910. Comparatively, jobs in the fossil fuel power sector pay between $70,310 and $81,460, and tend to be more heavily unionized compared to the emerging clean energy sector. “In order for us to get where all of us want to go, we have to bring everyone along with us,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told Vox recently. “We can’t just jettison people. That’s the transition we have to strike, and I think this administration understands that transition.”
7 h
vox.com
The Supreme Court’s “cursing cheerleader” case could reshape students’ First Amendment rights
iStock/Getty Images A case about a high school student acting like a high school student raises difficult First Amendment questions. The facts of Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., a case that the Supreme Court will hear next Wednesday, involve the kind of conflict between an authority-flouting student and overzealous school officials that probably occur in thousands of high schools every year. But look beyond the familiar outlines of the dispute and you have a case that could potentially reshape the free speech rights of public school students. In May 2017, high school sophomore Brandi Levy, who is identified only as “B.L.” in court filings even though her full name has been reported widely, tried out for her school’s varsity cheerleading team. She did not make the team, and was instead assigned to the junior varsity squad. Shortly thereafter, Levy posted an angry message on Snapchat showing her and a friend holding up their middle fingers. The caption read “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” Unfortunately for Levy, her school’s cheerleading coaches reacted to this Snapchat post by suspending her from cheerleading for a year. Unfortunately for the school, Levy’s father decided to bring a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU, claiming that the school violated her First Amendment rights. The case has now stretched on for so long that Levy is no longer in high school. It’s hardly the most earth-shattering conflict to reach the justices. But the implications of this case could be profound. In its landmark decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the Supreme Court held that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But Tinker also recognized that students’ free speech rights are diminished in the school context. A public school may punish its students for speech that “would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” Teachers and school administrators have to have the authority to maintain classroom order, to punish bullying, and to otherwise maintain an orderly learning environment for schools to function. And so a public school student who, for example, screams the words “fuck cheer” in the middle of a crowded school hallway may be disciplined, even though that same student would have a First Amendment right to say these words outside of the school setting. Yet, while Tinker’s holding that the First Amendment is diminished, but not eliminated, when a student enters a school setting has endured for more than half a century, courts have never drawn a clear line between what constitutes a school setting and what does not. In the past, this line did not matter nearly as much. Students have no doubt complained about not making the varsity team — sometimes in vulgar teams — for as long as there have been varsity teams. But, before the age of social media, these complaints would typically be voiced in private conversations among friends. And only the most draconian school officials would claim that a student uttering the words “fuck cheer” to a classmate while the two were hanging out off campus might “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” In a world with social media, however, Levy’s Snapchat posts could potentially be read by hundreds of other students — with some of them reading it on their phones while attending school. The barrier between on-campus and off-campus speech has become much more porous, and that has very significant implications for how Tinker should apply. If you are unconvinced that a cheerleader’s vulgarity is a good reason to apply Tinker’s diminished protections to students who write things on social media while they are not in class, consider the facts of Wisniewski v. Board of Education, a 2007 casein which the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the legality of a school suspension. In that case, a student posted an image online of a pistol firing a bullet into a man’s head. Under the picture, the student posted the words “Kill Mr. VanderMolen” — his English teacher. Should the school’s ability to discipline that student really turn on whether the student posted this image during school hours or on his home computer? Though the facts of the B.L. case involve a far more trivial dispute than the one in Wisniewski, B.L. gives the justices an opportunity to decide what rule should apply in all cases involving student speech that occurs away from school. It’s a difficult question that lower courts have struggled to answer. The courts have struggled to determine when Tinker applies to off-campus speech It’s well established that Tinker can apply beyond the literal gates of a schoolhouse. In Morse v. Frederick (2007), for example, the Court upheld a school district’s suspension of a student, who held up a banner reading “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS,” during an off-campus but school-sponsored event. “Schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for his Court in Morse. Several lower courts have held that Tinker applies to some student speech that occurs both off-campus and away from any school-sponsored activity — although there is no consensus among the lower courts regarding when students who engage in off-campus speech have diminished First Amendment rights. In Wisniewski, for example, the Second Circuit indicated that Tinker’s reduced First Amendment protections apply to students who engage in off-campus speech if there is a “reasonably foreseeable risk that the [speech] would come to the attention of school authorities.” Other circuits follow a different legal rule. As the Fourth Circuit described this alternative rule, Tinker applies to off-campus speech if there is a sufficient “nexus” between the student’s speech and the school’s “pedagogical interests.” The Fifth Circuit, for its part, has declined to “adopt a specific rule” to off-campus speech, but it did conclude that Tinker applies to a student who posted a video online which contained “threatening language against two high school teachers/coaches.” And then there’s the Third Circuit, which heard the B.L. case. That court held that “Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech — that is, speech that is outside school-owned, -operated, or -supervised channels and that is not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school’s imprimatur” — although the Third Circuit also left open the possibility that a different rule might apply to “off-campus student speech threatening violence or harassing particular students or teachers.” The question of when Tinker’s diminished First Amendment protections should apply to off-campus speech, in other words, is a giant doctrinal mess. Courts have struggled to come up with a single legal rule that should apply to these cases, and for good reason. It’s not easy to articulate a rule that applies fairly to cursing cheerleaders and to students who threaten to murder teachers. Both the school district’s brief and the ACLU’s brief on behalf of Levy point to a parade of disturbing consequences that could follow if the Supreme Court errs too far in protecting, or not protecting, student free speech. The former brief opens with a list of compelling examples where off-campus speech would almost certainly disrupt a school’s ability to function — and do serious harm to students and teachers in the process. A swollen-eyed student breaks down during English class; her teacher discovers that her classmates are calling her worthless on social media and urging her to kill herself. The science teacher goes on leave after his students create a fake email account that impersonates him and spews invective about other students, prompting outrage from parents. Five students cheat on a test because another student, who took the test the day before, posted her answers online. Students upset with the gymnastics coach’s tryout regimen crank-call her all night; she resigns, leaving the team without a coach. Older students follow a disabled student home and describe sexual acts in such graphic terms that he cannot face returning to school. The ACLU’s brief, meanwhile, features a list of cases where Tinker permitted schools to censor students for expressing common political views — such as opposition to abortion or a desire for more permissive immigration policy. In one particularly stark case, a federal appeals court permitted a school to discipline football players because they organized a petition lobbying the school administration to replace a coach they believed to be abusive. Tinker applies a context-specific rule to student speech. The case involved high school students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War, and the Supreme Court held that these students had a First Amendment right to do so because “the record does not demonstrate any facts which might reasonably have led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.” It’s possible to imagine a different school where some students did the exact same thing — wearing black armbands to protest a war — but this act of protest so angered those students’ classmates that arguments and even fights break out in the classrooms and hallways. In this hypothetical school, Tinker would allow school officials to order students to remove the armbands. If Tinker is extended to large swaths of off-campus speech, then a student who, for example, posts a picture of themselves wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt on Instagram, could be censored by the school if the student’s MAGA classmates object to the shirt and try to pick a fight with the student. How can the courts protect student speech without giving the green light to cyberbullying? The Biden administration, for its part, filed a brief in B.L. urging the Court to recognize that different rules should apply to different kinds of speech. Under the Justice Department’s proposed rule, certain forms of off-campus speech — including “speech that (1) threatens the school community, (2) intentionally targets specific individuals or groups in the school community, or (3) intentionally targets specific school functions or programs regarding matters essential to or inherent in the functions or programs themselves” — would be subject to Tinker. Other off-campus speech might enjoy full First Amendment protection. There’s plenty of room to debate whether these three categories are too narrow or too broad. The ACLU, for its part, objects to DOJ’s third category because it fears that “a school that maintained ... that ‘cohesion’ and ‘morale’ were essential to a school program could prohibit all criticism of that program, even the reporting of a teacher, coach, or administrator for abuse, discrimination, harassment, or simply for being ineffectual.” But the Biden administration is correct that a student who bullies a classmate online is different in kind from a student who wears a shirt with a political message such as “Black Lives Matter” or “Abortion is murder.” And they are probably correct that the Court needs to explicitly distinguish different kinds of off-campus speech. A rule that applies Tinker’s reduced First Amendment protections to all off-campus speech gives far too much power to school districts. But a rule that never applies Tinker to off-campus speech could render schools powerless against genuinely abusive behavior, so long as the students who engage in that behavior do so off-campus. To give just one example of why the Court needs to craft different rules for off-campus speech than it applies to on-campus speech, consider the Court’s decision in Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986). In Fraser, a high school student delivered a speech laden with sexual innuendo at a school assembly. (“I know a man who is firm. He’s firm in his pants.”) In holding that this speech was not protected by the First Amendment, the Court held that schools “may determine that the essential lessons of civil, mature conduct cannot be conveyed in a school that tolerates lewd, indecent, or offensive speech.” It’s a perfectly sensible rule. Schools are professional settings, and high schools should be allowed to expect professional language from students for the same reason that Vox Media can require me not to use the kind of language in our newsroom that I might use during a night of drinking with friends. But it would be ridiculous to apply Fraser to off-campus speech. Do we really want public schools to be able to punish a student who uses the word “fuck” in a private, off-campus conversation with a friend? Or who engages in sexual innuendo while they are consensually flirting with a date? A sensible Court, in other words, is going to need to construct a new set of legal rules that recognizes that off-campus speech is distinct from on-campus speech, but also that off-campus speech can sometimes impact the school community in ways that schools need to be equipped to handle. It will not be an easy task, even if the Supreme Court is inclined to be sensible.
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The history of police killing children in America
A small memorial where 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer in the Little Village neighborhood on April 15, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois. | Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo, and law enforcement’s long tradition of policing and brutalizing Black and brown children. Just 25 minutes before the country took a collective sigh of relief as Derek Chauvin was declared guilty on all counts for the murder of George Floyd, another Black person was killed by police. This time, the victim was a child. Columbus police officer Nicholas Reardon shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in the chest multiple times after he and several other officers responded to a call that Bryant herself placed. “My daughter dispatched Columbus police for protection, not to be a homicide today,” her mother, Paula Bryant, told 10TV News. “[Ma’Khia] promoted peace. And that’s something that I always want to be remembered” she said. Bryant’s death is one more in a long list of Black and brown children who have died at the hands of police officers: Last week, 17-year-old Anthony J. Thompson Jr. was shot in his high school bathroom when police responded to an emergency call. Last month, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed by a police officer as he raised his hands in surrender. Even though it was Ma’Khia’s name that protesters chanted the night she died and Toledo’s face on the signs that community members carried to his vigil, the grief and anger that is echoing across the country stems from years of violence by officers who take the lives of young people in seconds. According to a study by researchers at the Children’s National Hospital, Black children are six times more likely to be fatally shot by police than white children, and between 2003 and 2018, about 93 percent of the children killed were boys. The odds for the adult population are similar — a Black person in America is three times more likely to be killed by police than a white person. So do officers fail to recognize the distinction between an adult man and a boy when they fire a gun, or do they just not care? One answer to this can be found in a study published in 2014, which showed that Black children are often perceived as older than their white counterparts of the same age. The study reported that police officers “overestimated the age of Black and Latino child crime suspects. White children, on the other hand, were not subjected to such overestimations.” This racist tendency can lead an officer to see a nonwhite child as a threat capable of inflicting harm which seamlessly translates to a willingness to condemn nonwhite children or, in Toledo’s case, to kill them. Black and brown children are being cheated of the protection that society should offer them because officers in positions of power view them as adults. To put this into context, I talked to Kristin Henning, the director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law and author of the forthcoming book The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth, to understand how Bryant’s and Toledo’s deaths speak to a long history of police brutality towards children. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, touches on the history of policing children in America; why police officers see race, even in children, as a threat; and how to productively move forward from tragedy. Maryam Gamar The Chicago PD has killed more young people than any other local law enforcement agency in the country. The Columbus PD is a close second. How do these numbers contextualize Adam Toledo’s and Ma’Khia Bryant’s deaths? Kristin Henning We know that young people are more likely to experience police force than adults, and that police use of force is more common with Black and brown children than with white children, so you really have the double whammy of both age and race. I suspect that the fact that use of force is more prevalent with young people has a lot to do with what we know about adolescent development. Young people are emotional, impulsive; they don’t think ahead to the long-term consequences, which creates these very rapid volatile situations. That is not to blame the victim at all. It is to say that police departments have to be trained to work effectively with young people and have an understanding of their behaviors. There’s research showing that police academies across the country spend less than 1 percent of their total training hours on youth-related issues. So there has to be some reform around that. Maryam Gamar Historically, how has America dealt with policing children, especially Black and brown children? Kristin Henning We can go all the way back from slavery until today and see a throughline. Obviously Black children were perceived to be the property of the white slave owner, so as a result, slave masters who thought that Black children had committed a crime could punish them without any oversight by the state whatsoever. Then, between emancipation and 1899, children were tried and sentenced just like adults — there was no distinction between childhood and adulthood. This changed in the late 1800s when the progressive child savers emerged and began advocating for refuge homes and specialized juvenile courts. But it’s important to remember that the progressive reformers were not interested in rehabilitating Black children. Their mission was to transform European immigrant children into virtuous white citizens like themselves. Black, brown, and Indigenous children were segregated and trained to meet the labor needs of the day. If we fast-forward to the 1990s, we saw a temporary uptick in juvenile crime among Black youth because of the crack epidemic and the easy access to guns. To be clear, that was a temporary uptick, but, again, conservative politicians and the media capitalized on that and exaggerated fears of Black children. The superpredator movement increased fear and anxiety surrounding Black children, and the reality is we have never recovered from that. Today, we are in many ways back to the rehabilitative approach to children, but Black children and brown children are still the subject of fear and demonization because of this complicated history. So what we see now as a result is aggressive overpolicing and hyper-surveillance arising out of these unfounded and unfair perspectives of Black children. Maryam Gamar That child police victims are overwhelmingly Black and brown males mirrors the largest demographic of adult police victims. What does this say about the way police view race as a threat? Kristin Henning When police officers are given great discretion, there is a higher tendency to rely on their racial biases. They default to those stereotypes and assumptions that are deeply embedded in American society, namely the ones that link Blackness to criminality. There’s a body of implicit racial bias research showing that people, including police officers, are more likely to perceive an ambiguous behavior or facial expression as hostile, violent, or threatening when associated with a Black or brown face than when they associate those same behaviors with a white face. So you add all of that together — fast-moving scene, high stress — and officers are likely to default to those threat assumptions. Maryam Gamar Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun. Adam Toledo dropped his gun before police opened fire. Police often excuse firing their weapons because they thought their target was a threat, even if it’s a child. What does “posing a threat,” to the point that opening fire on the individual in question is necessary, actually mean? Kristin Henning It’s entirely subjective. Officers are trained to look for things like a weapon, and at face value, that sounds like a rational conclusion to make: person with weapon. But the misperception of an ambiguous uncertain object as a weapon is more likely to happen with a person of color than it is with a white person. The other thing that is important is this notion of speed — Tamir Rice was shot within two or three seconds after officers approached the scene, what I would call an avoidable situation. Had those officers slowed the situation down, they may have realized that his toy gun did not in fact pose a threat, and things may have turned out differently. Another thing to consider is how to properly dispel threats instead of immediately firing. It’s almost impossible for an adult to process a request and then comply in two to three seconds. So think about how much more difficult that would have been for a 12-year-old who is terrified of the police. It was the same thing with Adam Toledo. The officer yelled a command, Adam tried to comply, but the officer still fired without giving the child the necessary time to process. Maryam Gamar Talk to me about the long-term consequences that Black and brown children face as a result of the racism and brutality from police. Kristin Henning Black and brown youth experience extraordinary psychological and physical trauma because of policing. Research shows that Black and brown children who have experienced police stops and frisking and who live in communities that are heavily surveilled by police experience high rates of fear, anxiety, and depression. They become hyper-vigilant, and their distrust of officers transfers to other state actors like teachers. This type of trauma occurs not only from being the direct target of police intrusion but also from hearing about it from friends and family and even observing it online. So watching George Floyd’s death, watching Tamir Rice, watching Adam Toledo getting shot by the police is just as traumatic as being there, and produces those same kinds of stress responses. Research also shows that police encounters with youth are criminogenic, meaning that they increase crime instead of reducing crime. Some researchers have looked at Black and Hispanic young people who were the target of police stops and frisking, and they found that the more intrusive those stops were, the more likely the child was to engage in crime in the future. And it’s not just psychological. Years of chronic stress from this kind of trauma can have a long-term impact on physical health. So ulcers, diabetes, and heart attacks have all been attributed to these chronic stressors that our Black and brown children are experiencing in light of contemporary policing practices. Maryam Gamar We’ve had this discussion every time a Black or brown child is killed — from Anthony J. Thompson last week to Ma’Khia Bryant yesterday. When will it be different? Kristin Henning It’s not going to be different until we radically reduce the footprint of police officers in the lives of Black and brown children. That means reducing stops and frisks, it means police-free schools, it means narrowing the role police officers have in society. We are engaging police with young people far more than necessary. Right now police officers are intervening in circumstances where a mental health counselor, a peer mediator, or a social worker would be so much better. So, for example, following the lead of a program called CAHOOTS based in Oregon, which is a mobile crisis unit that people can call to handle mental health crises instead of the police. Second, we have to radically shift the narrative, to help people understand that Black children and brown children are children. They have the same features of adolescence, you know, experimenting with drugs, impulsivity, and resilience and rehabilitation are true for Black and brown children as they are for white children. Third, until we shift that narrative, we have to have rules and regulations in place to narrow police discretion. We should prohibit use of force for young people. Most children can be redirected and safely managed without deadly force. We also don’t need tasers, we don’t need chokeholds, we don’t need body slams, and we don’t need pepper spray. And when force is absolutely necessary, it has to be non-deadly force. The thing to remember is that we cannot police our way out of these situations. We cannot kill our way out of the situation. Even though Adam Toledo had a gun and Ma’Khia Bryant had a knife, they were still children, and the solution shouldn’t be to use force.
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Could the solution to fashion pollution be … tiny nuclear reactors?
Would factories worldwide be better off with teeny nuclear reactors? | Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via Getty Images Considering they don’t exist yet, probably not, no. When I first received Ricky Ruff’s email, I was flummoxed. “We are deploying Micro Nuclear Reactors at clothing factories around the world to displace oil, coal, and gas, bringing fashion production to net-zero carbon emissions,” his pitch read. That’s right, a man named Ricky Ruff wants to outfit every single one of the more than 8,000 fashion suppliers worldwide — chemical manufacturers, dye houses, garment factories — with their own personal, miniature nuclear reactor. On its face, this seems like a terrible idea. Every week there seems to be another deadly fire, flood, or collapse in a garment factory (or a building illegally housing one). Myanmar’s garment factories are currently being smashed and set on fire by citizens rebelling against the military coup. If garment factories can’t even keep their boilers from exploding, why would we trust them with a nuclear reactor? Also: Most of the factories I've worked with still had AOL and Hotmail emails. Good luck with a mini nuclear reactor— Peter Nguyen (@theessentialman) March 23, 2021 I wasn’t alone in this assessment. “If you can’t solve a problem, make it bigger, right?” says Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director at the advocacy group Stand.earth. These micronuclear reactors aren’t even here yet. Several startups and companies are promising they’ll have an operational microreactor by the end of this decade, and the Pentagon has asked two companies to submit designs for what they’re calling portable nuclear power plants, which could be quickly installed at remote army locations. That’s not necessarily a recommendation. The Army has a very recent history of spending billions of its seemingly limitless budget on technology that it’s never actually used. But after the president of Apparel Impact Institute (AII), Lewis Perkins, had a laugh with me, he got serious. “The concept is certainly in the ballpark of where we need to be,” he says. “Without disruptive innovation, the industry is not going to meet their science-based targets by 2030.” The thing is, the fashion industry does far more toxic and dangerous things every single day than run a small nuclear reactor. I couldn’t get Ruff’s idea out of my head, as strange as it seemed at first. So yeah, I’ll bite. What is “micronuclear?” Who is Ricky Ruff? And is this idea ... feasible? Pollute now, apologize later The fashion industry is well aware that it needs to overhaul its operations. It’s estimated to be responsible for around 5 percent of global carbon emissions, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which includes Reformation, H&M, Zara, Patagonia, Levi’s, Walmart, and Boohoo, has set for its members a target of 45 percent emissions reductions by 2030. Exactly how they will achieve this is remarkably fuzzy. While fashion brands have made a big deal about purchasing wind power for their corporate headquarters and swapping lightbulbs in their stores, upward of 90 percent of total emissions for most brands and retailers come from so-called Scope 3 emissions, and roughly 80 percent of these emissions come from the supply chain where apparel and footwear are made, according to a soon-to-be-published report co-authored by AII, which identifies and scales decarbonization projects in the fashion industry, and World Resources Institute (WRI). Almost all fashion suppliers are located in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, and Turkey, which are powered by coal, and research by Stand.earth shows a dramatic increase in the number of new coal power plants planned in these countries. Renewable energy is getting cheaper all the time, but it has some serious limitations, one being space. Arvind Limited, a large Indian textile manufacturer, has covered all its available roof space with solar panels. At 18 megawatts, it’s the largest industrial solar plant in India, yet maxes out at only 15 percent of Arvind’s electricity needs. Textile fabrication and coloration are particularly energy and emissions-intensive. Dye houses and laundries need thermal energy to run their boilers. “You have to burn something in order to get the water temperature hot enough to do its job,” says Perkins. “Solar will not do it. Geothermal will not do it.” That “something” is usually cheap, abundant coal or, when it’s available, natural gas, which is only slightly better. “The alternative sometimes is to burn forests,” Perkins says. Biomass, or plant-based agricultural waste, could be one solution, and Perkins says AII is looking into running a pilot in Vietnam using rice husks. But according to Abhishek Bansal, head of sustainability at Arvind, a boiler can only incorporate up to 30 percent biomass. It’s also not emissions-free, just low-emissions compared to coal. Plus, as an agricultural product, it’s only seasonally available, and there are concerns that there could be unintended consequences, similar to what biofuel did to global food prices. Arvind is also trying new waterless indigo dying technology for some of its denim. If that could be applied to all of its textiles, that could potentially reduce boiler use by half. Potentially. “You don’t see too many companies clearly disclose how they’re doing against their targets” There’s now solar thermal energy coming to market that could boil water, but it’s expensive. “To get rid of coal at our facility, we have to look at the order of magnitude of a $100 million investment,” Bansal says. (For context, Arvind’s reported annual revenue in March 2020 was about $900 million.) So, is there any brand that will hit its emissions reduction target? “It’s really hard to tell, because you don’t see too many companies clearly disclose how they’re doing against their targets,” says Michael Sadowski, a fashion and climate research consultant to WRI. “If I had to guess, I would say no one is on track for Scope 3 targets. And, you know, because these brands have so many suppliers ... yeah.” He sighs. “It’s not easy to decarbonize.” The call to greatness The website for Global Nuclear Concepts, as Ruff’s venture is called, has an epic video of him on the top of a mountain gazing into the distance. It also solicits financial contributions to the cause, which he markets as carbon offsets. But it’s short on details. So I emailed him back and asked for an interview. He called in from Colorado, where he grew up and where he’s been remotely working during the pandemic. He wore a collared sweatshirt with a stylized Ruff embroidered on the chest for our interview. Ruff is unlike anyone else I’ve met in the sustainable fashion space. A former football player, he calls himself an industrialist, and cites Barack Obama and Google’s Sergey Brin as his inspirations, plus Gilded Age titans JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. But he also is very much in love with fashion. “I started in fashion as a 7-year-old kid with a sewing machine,” he says. “I was very sure since I was born almost that I was going to be in this industry. I feel uniquely called to work in it and advance it.” While getting an undergraduate degree in fashion design and merchandising from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, he spent his senior year in Hong Kong, where he met a Ralph Lauren employee who told him to apply to intern in New York. “I just remember sitting in the room during orientation. It’s myself and about 50 or 60 other interns, and I just want this more than anyone in this room. Honestly, I imagine that’s what love at first sight feels like, where this passion just erupted inside of me.” Within a month, he was offered a paid position. Seven years later, he had worked his way up to leading a team to launch new manufacturing software across the company. He’s rhapsodic about his time at Ralph Lauren, but decided to take a couple years to get his MBA in international management in Switzerland. “I think that’s where past efforts with sustainability have failed, because they’re asking people to do less and be less and have less” It was there that he did a case study on nuclear energy and fell in love with its possibilities. He has a personal connection as well; his mother worked for Cold War Patriots, helping connect former uranium miners and nuclear weapons workers with health care and cash compensation from the government. Surprisingly, her experience led her to support her son’s mission, because, he says, she saw firsthand the safety strides the industry made after the 1970s. Ruff is also different from typical sustainability advocates who are calling for a stop to the growth mindset of the fashion industry. “I think that’s where past efforts with sustainability have failed, because they’re asking people to do less and be less and have less,” he says. “I’m not trying to use less. I’m just trying to make more.” Ruff sees nuclear power as the leapfrog technology that will allow developing countries to grow their entire economies with clean energy. When he heard about modular nuclear reactors, factory-built plants that can fit on the back of an 18-wheeler and be assembled on-site, like Legos, the idea clicked into place. “A huge plant was sort of a long-range goal and out of the question at the moment,” Ruff says. “But if we look at the energy needs to run a factory, that’s something that a micronuclear reactor could absolutely facilitate.” In that, he is correct. While a traditional nuclear power plant produces 1,000 megawatts, these micronuclear reactors could provide anywhere from 1 to 300 MW of energy. A typical fashion industrial park would require a 5 MW to 100 MW power plant, according to An Zhou, AII’s senior technical director. Laski Diffusion/Liaison The Chernobyl nuclear plant, following the 1986 explosion. Some of these modular reactors are fueled with nuclear waste, another appealing aspect to the eco crowd. And they’re safe! At least one of the startups, X-Energy, uses technology that has been declared by researchers as meltdown-proof. That is, you could not have a Chernobyl or Fukushima if you tried, so you can situate it right next to whatever you’re trying to power: a remote community in Alaska that has been flying in diesel, an island whose power grid was wiped out by a natural disaster, or, Ruff is hoping, a large factory or industrial park. (That description not sexy enough? I encourage you to go learn more about modular nuclear reactors from model and recently turned nuclear influencer Isabelle Boemeke. It’s a soothing ASMR video, enjoy.) Ruff says he’s been in conversation with micronuclear companies and factories in China, Vietnam, and South Korea that are interested in the technology. But he’s not a full-time startup founder … yet. He’s currently the senior global manager of global brand processing operations for Adidas and will hopefully be moving to Shanghai this spring for the role. He says Adidas is cool with his side hustle as long as he doesn’t leverage their name. Which to be clear, he didn’t. It’s just right there at the top of his LinkedIn page when you look him up, as I did. “The thing is, I am seriously, unashamedly promoting the use of nuclear power. I really believe in it as an environmental tool,” he says. “And I know that it can be divisive.” Okay, but would this wild idea work? “It’s a good idea,” Watson says. He sees microreactors as a neat solution for the problem of onsite thermal energy for boilers. “That’s where I think these plants will come into their own.” And, shocker, nuclear energy is actually quite safe. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about nuclear, about how dangerous it is,” says David Watson, a nuclear safety engineer from the UK who advocates for nuclear energy via his magazine, Generation Atomic. “When you start delving into the statistics around safety of nuclear, people are always very surprised.” For example, 30 people died immediately from Chernobyl, and estimates of people who died later due to cancer caused by the accident range from 4,000 to 60,000. (It’s hard to connect cancer to any one cause.) Air pollution from fossil fuels, like the kind that comes from dye houses burning coal for their boilers, currently kills 7 million people a year worldwide. “Fossil fuels going right kills more people than when nuclear goes wrong,” Watson says. The question of nuclear waste is somewhat unresolved, mainly because it needs to be safely stored for thousands of years. But, what we have of it is minuscule and not leaking into the environment like, say, toxic wastewater from dye houses. “People think there’s a waste problem, but fossil fuels are the waste problem,” Watson says. “It all goes out of the chimney. That reactor doesn’t release any waste in an environment. It’s all completely controlled. It’s the only industry that does that.” “Fossil fuels going right kills more people than when nuclear goes wrong” Plus, Watson says that with these modular nuclear reactors being buried underground, security is a low concern. “If you want to make a weapon, there’s a much easier way of doing it just by taking fuel from a mine and enriching it yourself.” Still, that doesn’t mean we can give out mini nuclear plants to factories like Oprah giving goodies to her audience. “If this was going to happen in the fashion industry, I would expect to see it in Europe or the United States,” Watson says. “It’s not that Bangladesh couldn’t have it, because Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India are all building nuclear plants. And at that level, they have the human resources and the technical capability to do it. But in terms of like putting it into a small-ish factory in the outskirts of a city, they’re probably not there yet.” As you may have noticed, nuclear power is politically untenable in many countries right now, including Germany and Italy. In others, like the United States, it’s a delicate conversation that the Biden administration is currently navigating. “If we’re talking China, it’s definitely possible. They’re building like 50 nuclear plants right now,” Watson says. “I think it’s something that could work in the long run. I certainly believe this kind of technology will eventually be everywhere.” The voices in the environmental movement advocating for nuclear energy have been growing louder. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advocates for nuclear energy as a crucial strategy for staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and documents leaked in late March show that advisers to the EU say it qualifies as sustainable energy. So, micronuclear is safe, it’s politically feasible in China, the world’s largest manufacturer of fashion, and it would be a tidy fix to fashion’s most troublesome climate impacts. What’s the catch? A luxury energy product Now we get to a more mundane consideration: cost. Watson says the only price he’s seen for this new technology is for the startup Oklo’s demo microreactor, which in renderings looks like the kind of futuristic A-frame mountain lodge you would rent on Airbnb. It will generate 1.5 MW — equivalent to one wind turbine — and cost $10 million to build and $3 million a year to run. That is a lot of money. It’s the kind of money that only, say, the Defense Department for a highly militarized world power would consider spending on power. “The price will need to come down by orders of magnitude,” Ruff admits. “But it’s coming down with all the competition in the market,” he adds. “The price will need to come down by orders of magnitude” Everyone else I talked to agrees that the fashion industry is too miserly to invest not only in this technology, but most clean technology. Brands shop around to factories for the lowest price, and then they shop around to countries, moving from the US to Mexico to China to Bangladesh and now Ethiopia. “If these garment companies really cared that much about their emissions, they’d have the factories in their own country,” Watson points out. Factories are faced with the prospect of investing in a solar array with a payback of 15 years, and seeing their main customer switch to another factory with cheaper prices not long after. Why on earth would they throw down $10 million for a microreactor? “Factories are pretty antiquated places,” Sadowski says. “Like, I wouldn’t start by deploying micronuclear; I would start by actually closing the windows.” (A few large brands like Levi’s and H&M are doing just that by funding efficiency assessments of factories through AII and their own programs. But they are in the minority.) “We have other things that show they can scale, they’re available now — a mixture of renewable energy, with solar, wind in some places, geothermal, etc,” Cook says. “And if you can combine that with storage that’s beating fossil fuels, let’s do that. Because it’s ready to go.” Cook thinks brands should provide financing to factories for renewable upgrades, or follow the tech industry’s lead and commit to large renewable energy projects that can feed an entire industrial park. “Electronics is signing world-record deals for wind in South Asia and in Taiwan,” he says. “Because they made commitments — Apple, Google, Facebook — utilities are now shifting their investments, they’re dumping coal like crazy, they’re starting to stop building gas plants, and investing in the renewables their customers want.” We have yet to see the same commitments from H&M, Zara, Walmart, and Nike. Just strongly worded letters to Cambodia and Vietnam telling them to stop building coal plants. Pretty please. Despite all the promises the fashion industry has made, it hasn’t engaged with the issue of its climate impact with any real seriousness. And now Ricky Ruff is calling their bluff with a technology that could do it if there were enough willpower and funding. “Without the right regulatory signal, there’s only so much a company’s gonna do” “I’ve been working in the private sector for 20 years,” says Sadowski, who most recently was on Nike’s sustainable innovation team. “I thought the private sector had to do it, because the government wasn’t going to do it. But I don’t see how we get there without government intervention. Without the right regulatory signal, there’s only so much a company’s gonna do; it just doesn’t pencil out on a financial perspective. And frankly, you need that regulatory framework to stimulate innovation.” When I bring up all these concerns to Ruff, he is undeterred. “You’re totally right, it is a heavy lift. It’s a lifetime mission,” he says. “I’m in the storytelling phase to get the vision out there. But I think with the proper support, though, it’s absolutely not impossible.” He grins at me. “I’m very much an optimist if you can’t tell.”
vox.com
How Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah questions the meaning of freedom
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. | Warner Bros. The powerful drama about the assassination of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton presents moral queries that rhyme with the present. This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win? Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, director of audience and engagement Nisha Chittal, video producer Coleman Lowndes, and identities reporter Fabiola Cineas talk about Judas and the Black Messiah, Shaka King’s powerful drama about the assassination of Black Panthers Illinois Chapter Chairman Fred Hampton. Judas and the Black Messiah’s dynamic recapturing of history Alissa Wilkinson: Judas and the Black Messiah blew me away when I first watched it. Partly for obvious reasons — the story is powerful and damning — and partly because it’s just tremendously well-directed. I know I won’t forget Daniel Kaluuya and (my personal favorite) LaKeith Stanfield’s performances when it’s time to make my best-of-2021 lists later this year. I knew the basic outlines of the story of Fred Hampton’s assassination and the FBI’s attempt to quash Black activism and the Panthers at that time. But I didn’t know about Bill O’Neal, and it felt smart to me to cast them in the bigger messiah/traitor mold — and then subvert it to show that even O’Neal was the victim of betrayal. But I’d like to hear from you: When you watched the film, what drew you into it? What stuck in your mind? And how did you feel about O’Neal by the end? Nisha Chittal: I didn’t know a lot about Judas and the Black Messiah going in — I hadn’t read any reviews or coverage, so I had little idea of what to expect and then found myself just totally gripped by the film the entire time. I felt like I needed to decompress afterward because it had been such an intense viewing experience, but in a good way. It’s the kind of film that is so well-made that it completely captures your undivided attention from start to finish. Like you, Alissa, I knew the basic outlines of Fred Hampton’s story but I didn’t know about Bill O’Neal. I thought the film did a good job of capturing the complexity of his story and his own struggles instead of just casting him as a pure villain. And yes, everyone’s talking about LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya’s performances, and with good reason. But another character that really stayed with me was Hampton’s partner Deborah Jones, played by Dominique Fishback. I thought her performance was really moving and deserves more attention, too. Coleman Lowndes: I also didn’t know much about Judas and the Black Messiah going into it, and to be totally honest I didn’t know the story of Fred Hampton. But the way the opening credits blends rich archival footage seamlessly into the film’s setup was a really engaging way to bring any viewer up to speed on the context of the story. That, coupled with the first scene, where LaKeith Stanfield clumsily poses as an FBI agent to steal a car, totally hooked me. Those first few minutes really set the tone of a high-stakes historical drama and a carefully crafted period piece dripping with cool and deception. The rest of the movie didn’t disappoint. Like Nisha, I appreciated that the film was careful not to portray O’Neal as an outright villain, and more of an extension of a sinister FBI. Stanfield’s performance of the character felt like what I imagine the real O’Neal was: a sort of incompetent con man in way over his head. Warner Bros. Black Panther Party members, led by Fred Hampton. Fabiola Cineas: I can’t get over how young all of these people were. That Hampton was only 21 when he was assassinated and that O’Neal was only 17 when he started informing the FBI about the Panthers in Chicago blows my mind. But this startling reality holds true in how Kaluuya, 32, and Stanfield, 29, portrayed these characters. It’s evident in how Stanfield is clumsy (the way he scrambled around the Panthers headquarters before the shootout) and almost naive in his race traitor lifestyle. The moment when he asked FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) how much money he makes is a great example of this. Kaluuya is masterful in the way he plays a character who is somewhat gentle and soft but also speaks of revolution, AK-47s, and killing pigs. I’m impressed by how the script skillfully presented layers of nuance, questioning what it means to really be “free,” for example. Hampton speaks of freedom when he’s out of prison, saying he’s finally free, but it was clear he wasn’t. Following Hampton’s assassination, Mitchell tells O’Neal he’s finally free, but it was clear he wasn’t. This movie did not make me hate O’Neal. I pitied him because of how writer-director Shaka King managed to show O’Neal’s suffering. I found myself keeping tabs on what was moral and immoral in this film, and O’Neal actions definitely landed on the immoral side most of the time. Alissa: I think the switch-up of expectations that the film creates from the title — that O’Neal will be the “Judas” of the story (and he is, to an extent) — is wonderfully undercut by the realization that O’Neal is railroaded by the FBI. As I said in my review, there’s another layer here: That the people who are supposedly given authority to “protect” citizens are actually actively trying to harm them is, itself, a betrayal. Also, I’m with Nisha on not forgetting that Dominique Fishback, who plays Hampton’s partner Deborah Johnson, is fantastic in what is arguably a too-small role! I’m curious about something you said, Fabiola — the idea of freedom that this movie sets up. For instance, Hampton and the Black Panthers see that for everyone to be free, they have to create a coalition between groups that might otherwise be fighting for whatever scraps of freedom the powerful send their way. Are there ways that Judas and the Black Messiah made you think about freedom, or about even today’s politics, in different ways? And if so, how? Judas and the Black Messiah is about events in the past, but it resonates loudly today Nisha: I agree with Fabiola that the movie made me feel pity for O’Neal. Just portraying him as the “bad guy” would be too binary; he clearly wrestled with the moral consequences of what he was doing, but he had very few choices himself — he was not free. It certainly felt very relevant to today’s politics; I thought a lot about the events of 2020 and how so little has changed. I think it can be easy for some audiences to watch this movie about the government brutally murdering a Black man and think wow, I can’t believe that happened, it’s not like that today. But in many ways it still is; racism and police brutality against Black Americans is obviously still persisting, we’re in the middle of the trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd right now as we speak. Watching the film made me reflect on how much has changed and yet how little has changed. Coleman: What really stuck out to me as something that still feels very contemporary was the language that advocates of white supremacy use around the “right way” to press for basic human rights. In that same scene Fabiola mentioned, where O’Neal is in Mitchell’s house for the first time, Mitchell says something along the lines of being “all for equality” but “you can’t jump the line,” referring to the Panthers’ willingness to arm themselves and use violence when necessary. That same language of “taking it too far” was used to condemn the upheaval after Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police in Baltimore in 2015, and around the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s killing by police last summer. The theme of oppressors determining who gets to be free, and when, plays out in Mitchell and O’Neal’s relationship, too. Even after Hampton is imprisoned, and O’Neal wants out, Mitchell lets O’Neal know that he hasn’t done enough yet to earn his own freedom. Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Fred Hampton and William O’Neal (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield) in Judas and the Black Messiah. Fabiola: Judas and the Black Messiah only affirmed what has been true for centuries about the relationship between white supremacy and violence in America. Those who want to uphold white supremacy will go lengths to protect it. This is evident in the loaded question FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) asks Mitchell about his eight-month-old daughter: “What will you do when she brings home a Negro?” The question throws Mitchell off-guard and Hoover uses it as an opportunity to verbalize the FBI’s racist mission that’s at the core of the film: “When you look at Hampton, think of Samantha, because that’s what’s at stake if we lose this war. Our entire way of life. Rape. Pillage. Conquer. You follow me?” This scene escalates the intensity of the film and pushes us through the final half of it. A desire to preserve whiteness and its benefits is what’s wrong with policing, housing, education, health, and other areas of our society. The line that you pointed out, Coleman, definitely stuck with me, too. The narrative is still that we have to wait and not “cheat” for civil rights — this reasoning didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now. It also connects to how Mitchell equates the Panthers with the KKK when he says that both groups are “one and the same” with a shared aim of sowing hatred and inspiring terror. Today, there’s a constant false equivalency made between white extremists and Black Lives Matter, with claims that there’s violence on all sides. And it was recently found that that FBI and other police organizations were surveilling and spying on Black journalists and activists. Alissa: Honestly, despite the gap of many years since this film’s events and today, everything in it seems incredibly fresh. That’s just so angering to consider. Okay, so I have one more question. If someone watched Judas and the Black Messiah and wanted more recommendations on what to check out next, where would you send them? Movies, podcasts, shows, books — anything that reminded you of this movie, or might help fill out the story more? What to watch and read after you’ve seen Judas and the Black Messiah Fabiola: The Spook Who Sat By the Door was on my mind. It’s definitely a bit of a flip on the Judas and the Black Messiah story but totally related. In the 1969 Sam Greenlee novel (published 10 months before Hampton’s assassination), the CIA hires Dan Freeman as its only Black operative via an affirmative action program. He’s secretly a Black nationalist, so when the CIA treats him as the token he eventually leaves and heads back to his hometown of Chicago. There, he secretly trains groups of young Black men in the tactics he learned from the CIA, leading them to overthrow “the system.” The book was adapted into the 1973 film by the same name and there’s an upcoming FX pilot of the story produced by Lee Daniels. I also want to direct people to The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011) and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) — two powerful documentaries that provide a lot of raw context about the Party and its aims. And since we all agree that Dominique Fishback’s portrayal of Deborah Johnson, now Akua Njeri, was impeccable, I want to spotlight how women were key to the Black Panther Party. I recommend the autobiography “Assata,” in which former Black Panther Assata Shakur (she eventually left the Party for the Black Liberation Army) chronicles the harrowing story of how she was a target of the state and J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to criminalize Black nationalists. Lastly, A Taste of Power is the memoir of the Black Panther Party’s only chairwoman Elaine Brown. She led the party from 1974 to 1977 when Chairman Huey P. Newton went into exile in Cuba. Her story is important and isn’t talked about enough. Nisha: Fabiola’s recommendations are excellent! From my end, I’d say that Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are both among the best actors working today, and it’s worth seeking out some of their other performances. You can see them both together in Get Out, but for the very best of Stanfield, you have to watch Atlanta. Daniel Kaluuya is terrifying in Steve McQueen’s film Widows. And for context, Fred Hampton’s death figures into a critical moment in another one of this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, from a very different point of view. I recommend watching both and making up your own mind about how each story is told. Coleman: To be honest, I’m not sure what to add! I knew very little about the Black Panther Party going into this film, and it definitely left me wanting to learn more. Fabiola’s recommendations seem like a great place to start. Seconding what Nisha said, and if you want more LaKeith Stanfield in particular, writer/director Boots Riley’s 2018 debut Sorry to Bother You is an absolute must-see. Alissa: Ooh, yes — Sorry to Bother You is a banger, and a radical film all on its own. I’d also add Agnes Varda’s short 1970 documentary Black Panthers (which you can rent on digital platforms, though it’s also streaming on the Criterion Channel). It really digs into what the Panthers were doing during the time period this film covers, and includes a lot of interviews with the Panthers, including Huey Newton, who at the time was in prison. And I’ve recommended this over and over this year, but for a different twist on the work of the Panthers — this time in the UK — I can’t recommend Steve McQueen’s Mangrove more. It’s part of his Small Axe collection of films from 2020, and it’s the best courtroom drama I’ve ever seen. Judas and the Black Messiah is playing in theaters and available to digitally rent on platforms including Apple TV, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Google Play. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.
vox.com
The uncertain prospects for police reform in the Senate, explained
Protesters march through the streets of Columbus, Ohio, with signs reading “Justice for Casey Goodson Jr.” and “End Qualified Immunity.” | Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images Lawmakers are searching for a compromise on qualified immunity that may not materialize. In the wake of former police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, the Senate is facing tough questions about whether it will actually get anything done on police reform, something it’s stalled on since last year. While the US House passed Democrats’ George Floyd Justice in Policing Act for the second time in March, the Senate still has yet to advance any police reform bill of its own — and it’s unclear when exactly it will. Among the recurring issues at hand is the subject of qualified immunity, a legal shield that makes it incredibly difficult to sue police officers for wrongdoing they committed on the job. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has explained, because of qualified immunity, civil suits against police officers typically fail unless the officer violates “clearly established” law. In practice, this can mean that a case against an officer for something like an injury or property damage is very tough to pursue. Democrats have long wanted to weaken these protections in order to increase police accountability, while Republicans have shied away from such changes because they argue that it could open officers up to overwhelming liability. Last year, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the GOP’s chief negotiator on police reform, went so far as to call the provision a “poison pill” for many members, a dynamic that could sink any new legislation, too. Scott on Wednesday noted that qualified immunity was one of a handful of areas that were still being worked out, though he was optimistic that the parties could find a compromise. “There is a way to put more of the onus or the burden on the department or on the employer than on the employee,” Scott told Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan, adding that Democrats he’s spoken with, including Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), the lead sponsor of police reform in the House, seemed open to that idea. Effectively, this suggestion would mean that police departments, rather than individual officers, would have to deal with potential lawsuits over misconduct. The thinking behind it is that it would still pressure police to be more accountable, while reducing some of the potential risks an individual officer would face. Bass declined to share details of current talks with reporters, but said she was hopeful. “We need the individual officers and the agencies to be accountable,” she emphasized. “Because I think if the agencies, the cities, if they’re concerned about lawsuits, they will not want to have problem officers.” Currently Scott and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have been spearheading talks in the Senate, while Bass has been doing the same in the lower chamber. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) also plans to hold a hearing about police reform in May, which is poised to keep the focus on the issue. Whether these conversations can lead to a deal that gets 60 votes in the Senate — the threshold the bill will need to hit if it gets filibustered — remains to be seen. Even as Senate Democrats, as well as President Joe Biden, pushed for the Justice in Policing Act following the Chauvin verdict, multiple Republicans who spoke with Vox noted that they were interested in starting with a narrower measure that focused on training and data collection, similar to what Scott had proposed last year in the Justice Act. “I’m not going to support getting rid of qualified immunity for our law enforcement officials. It will devastate every law enforcement agency in our country,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said. The differences between the Democratic and Republican proposals so far, briefly explained Neither Democrats or Republicans have put forth new bills yet, though they did introduce two versions of police reform in 2020 that have some pretty significant differences. Democrats’ bill is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which recently passed the House again, and Republicans’ is the Justice Act, which failed during a Senate vote last year after Democrats blocked it. This year, members of both parties are trying to see if it’s possible to eke out a compromise, and build on the commonalities in the legislation — in spite of the gaps that exist. “Just about anything coming out of the House is likely to be partisan and extreme,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said of the Democratic proposal, though he added that he hadn’t taken a close look at the measure yet. Democrats, too, have been unimpressed with the Republican offering. “The Republican proposal is heavy on gestures and light on real reform,” Booker said last year when the GOP bill was introduced. “If we’re serious about ending police brutality and changing the culture of law enforcement, this bill is not the solution.” The proposals overlap some, though Republicans’ is much narrower: Both would ramp up the use of body cameras, make lynching a federal crime, and incentivize state and local police departments to ban the use of chokeholds. But the GOP bill doesn’t touch qualified immunity or other legal protections police have. Below is a rundown on the similarities between the two measures — and some of their differences: What they have in common: Both incentivize state and local police to ban chokeholds: In 2014, Eric Garner was killed by New York police, who used a chokehold to restrain him during an arrest. And last May, Floyd died after Chauvin pinned him by the neck with his knee for more than nine minutes. Both bills use federal funding to incentivize state and local police to ban chokeholds except when deadly force is authorized. Such bans have already been supported by localities across the country including, most recently, Minneapolis, though an NPR review found their effectiveness to be limited. Both bolster grant programs for body cameras: The use of body cameras is a technical reform that’s increasingly been adopted by law enforcement agencies across the country, as a means of documenting use of force and other police actions. These measures would set up a grant program that state and local police forces could tap into to support their use of such tech. Cameras are a potentially useful tool, but there are limitations to the cameras’ efficacy, as PR Lockhart explained for Vox. During the police shooting of David McAtee in Louisville last June, officers’ body cameras were off. And in several past cases, body camera footage hasn’t been sufficient evidence for juries to decisively convict officers of misconduct. Both make lynching a federal crime: The killings of both Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was shot by two white men in Georgia, have been described as modern-day lynchings. Despite more than 200 attempts to consider bills addressing such acts, there remains no law on the books classifying lynchings as a federal crime. While the House and Senate have respectively passed their own legislation that would do so, the two have yet to approve one bill and get it signed into law. Both measures would guarantee that lynching — described by Rep. Steny Hoyer as “the premeditated, extrajudicial killing by a mob or group of people to instill fear” — would be treated as a federal crime. They would also classify conspiring to commit civil rights offenses, such as a hate crime, as a lynching. Both require states to report use of force to the Justice Department: Right now, little is known about the frequency with which police officers use force, something the two bills are striving to change. By mandating state documentation of use of force, law enforcement agencies can begin to determine how often police engage in such actions. What’s different: Federal bans of chokeholds: Although a federal ban would only apply to a limited number of officers, since most are employed at the state and local levels, Democrats’ bill would bar federal officers from using chokeholds, while Republicans’ would not. Such a ban would further condemn the use of this tactic by police and give the Justice Department more power to levy charges against law enforcement officers who use this maneuver. Federal ban of no-knock warrants in drug cases: Democrats’ bill would also prohibit federal police officers from using no-knock warrants in drug cases — the type of warrant that was used when Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police in Louisville last spring — while Republicans’ would not. Democrats would also use grants to incentivize state and local governments to bar the use of no-knock warrants, and Republicans’ version would collect data about no-knock warrants instead. Establishing a national registry for police misconduct: Democrats’ legislation sets up a national registry to track officer misconduct, so those who are disciplined in one locality can’t just easily move to another one. Republicans’ version, meanwhile, would require local and state agencies to keep these records on their own. Reducing qualified immunity protections: In order to improve accountability for police misconduct, Democrats’ bill curbs current qualified immunity protections, a provision that Republicans have been eager to preserve. Without qualified immunity, victims would be able to more easily file civil suits in the cases of property damage and bodily harm. Giving DOJ more power to oversee local agencies: The Justice in Policing Act would give DOJ subpoena power to hold local law enforcement agencies accountable, and enable state attorneys general to bring a wider range of cases in the instances of misconduct by regional police departments. Limiting the transfer of military equipment to local police departments: Currently, the military is able to distribute excess equipment including armored vehicles and ammunition to local law enforcement agencies under the 1033 program. Democrats’ bill would prohibit the distribution of some “controlled” military equipment by the Department of Defense, such as firearms, grenades, vehicles, and weaponized drones. There are scenarios when departments could waive this rule, however, such as when police need a vehicle for a natural disaster response. As Vox’s German Lopez has previously reported, many reforms need to take place at the state and local levels which oversee the majority of policing, though these measures make an effort to use federal money to pressure regional agencies to make key changes. Neither bill is viewed as strong enough by activists, who have pushed instead for shifting funding away from police and toward other social services like mental health care and education. Democrats’ bill, however, is seen by many police reform advocates as a better baseline approach than the GOP proposal. Attempts at compromise fell apart last year — and the same thing might happen again Barring any changes to the filibuster, any police reform bill will need 60 votes to pass, which means the 50-person Democratic caucus would have to stick together and also pick up 10 Republican votes. As a result, the two parties will need to work out a deal for anything to actually get through, a prospect that’s a bit of a longshot. Last year, Democrats blocked Scott’s bill from passing — a sign of how limited they considered it — and this year, there will need to be substantial changes to both measures in order for either piece of legislation to get the bipartisan backing it requires to advance. Scott’s proposal around qualified immunity could be a start to securing that support, though it would require both Democrats and a number of Republicans to get on board to actually be tenable. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a member of the Judiciary Committee, signaled some openness to it, noting that it was “worth considering, but it’s going to depend on exactly how it’s done.” “That may be a reasonable idea for compromise,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) also told Vox, adding that he still needed to study the idea. “That’s an interesting approach. It just shows Tim Scott really does want to make progress on police reform.” As fatal police shootings during and immediately after the Chauvin trial underscored, the need for police reform remains incredibly urgent — and also quite popular with the broader public — a sign that Congress must act quickly. Whether lawmakers do, though, is no sure thing given how the measure has fallen by the wayside before, and how other similarly important measures, like gun control, have foundered. “At some point, our nation needs to make a decision about how many more instances of police brutality do we need to witness before we do something about it,” Bass, the lead sponsor of the Democratic bill in the House, wrote in a recent op-ed.
vox.com
How to walk away from an awkward conversation
gremlin/Getty Images A psychologist explains why we want conversations to end sooner but usually get stuck. Have you ever been stuck in an awkward conversation? Of course you have. Who hasn’t bumped into that weirdo at the party who can’t stop talking? Or the chatty “gym guy” who can’t seem to understand that wearing headphones means “leave me alone”? Or the coworker who has to complain about something new every morning in the elevator? Here’s the good news: The pandemic is almost over. We’re all going to be re-released into the social wilderness. The bad news is that you won’t be able to avoid thorny encounters anymore. And if there’s a universal form of anxiety, it’s the feeling you get when you desperately want an interaction to end but can’t make it happen. The strange thing is it’s totally unnecessary: If we weren’t so desperate to avoid awkwardness, we could walk away or simply tell people what we want. But most of us don’t. A study by a group of psychologists published in March throws some light on these dynamics. The researchers monitored more than 900 conversations and asked participants to report how they felt about the interaction, when they wanted it to end, and when they thought the other person wanted it to end. The findings won’t surprise you: Conversations “almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to” and “rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to.” It turns out that, on average, conversations lasted about twice as long as people desired. And that’s true not just of random conversations, like those at the gym, but also of interactions with friends, family, and loved ones. Roughly two-thirds of people said they wanted those conversations to end sooner. I reached out to Adam Mastroianni, a doctoral student at Harvard and the study’s lead researcher, to talk about why our conversations last too long, how we can end them sooner, and why we should be less pessimistic about our interactions — and perhaps lean into the awkwardness. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows. Sean Illing Why do most of our conversations last longer than we want them to? Adam Mastroianni Actually, the question of whether they last longer or shorter than we want them to is pretty complicated. The paper is about how conversations last a different amount of time than we want them to, which is both longer and shorter. I can walk you through the levels, and you can stop me whenever you get bored. Cool? Sean Illing Cool. Adam Mastroianni So when you just ask people, “Was there a point at which you felt ready for that conversation to end?” About 70 percent say “yes.” And for the vast majority of those people, they wanted it to end way earlier. So if you just look at that number, it looks like most people want their conversations to end before they do. Then there’s a minority of people, roughly 30 percent, who wanted the conversation to keep going, and they wanted it to keep going by about as much as the other people wanted it to end sooner. You could look at that and think they cancel each other out, and therefore conversations don’t really end sooner or later than people want them to. But if you dig a little deeper, you see that these numbers mean something different. If I say I wanted to go five minutes earlier, I’m totally sure about that. But when someone says they wanted to go 20 minutes longer, that’s a prediction. Maybe they would, or maybe they’d change their mind after a few minutes. So we can’t really weigh these numbers against each other. Sean Illing I’m starting to get bored … Adam Mastroianni Yes, most people wish conversations ended sooner. Sean Illing Is this true not just of conversations with random people but also [of conversations] with friends, family, and loved ones? Do those tend to last longer than we want them to? Adam Mastroianni Yeah, this was true of every kind of conversation that we studied. In one of our studies, we brought people into the lab who were meeting each other for the first time, and they talked as long as they wanted to. In our other study, we surveyed people about the last conversation that they had. If you think back to the last conversation you had, it’s probably with someone that you know really well and talk to all the time, especially in times like these. And we got the same results in both studies. Very few people say the conversation ended when they wanted it to, and they didn’t think it ended when the other person wanted it to either. “Who wants to cut off grandma in the middle of her story? I don’t. Sometimes it’s good for us to just sit there and listen.” Sean Illing Confusion is unavoidable, but the one thing we can always do is communicate our preferences to the person we’re talking to. Why don’t we do it? Adam Mastroianni Imagine what would happen if you did. If you said, “I want to go,” you could offend me because I wanted to keep going. And now all of a sudden you’re saying that you’re done. If you said, “I want to keep going,” now you might trap me because I wanted to stop. And so instead of taking that risk and offending people one way or the other, we both hide our desires, so maybe nobody gets what they want but we also don’t offend anybody. And so we both leave dissatisfied, but we also leave as friends. This might be one of the prices that we pay for living in a decent society — we don’t all get exactly what we want all the time. Sean Illing So you’re saying the price of a decent society is a veneer of bullshit? Adam Mastroianni I mean, you could call it bullshit or you could call it politeness. Sean Illing Did you find that most people were afraid to offend the other person? Is that the main concern? Adam Mastroianni We’re afraid of offending people but also trapping them. If I was talking to you, and you had a little billboard that flipped up on your forehead when you wanted to go, I’d want to go too. I don’t want to talk to somebody who doesn’t want to talk to me. If I knew you wanted to continue, maybe I also would want to continue. One of the reasons why conversations don’t end when people want them to is that we want different things. And part of the reason we want different things is because we don’t know what the other person wants. And this is a unique situation in which what I want is dependent, at least in part, on what you want. Sean Illing Those things — honesty and politeness — are really in conflict, aren’t they? Adam Mastroianni Yeah, you can think of politeness as a series of rules. And the whole reason you have rules is because this isn’t what you would do if you did exactly what you want. We don’t need a rule that says you should continue to breathe, or that you should eat a bunch of ice cream. These are things that people would do whether you told them to or not. But we do need rules to govern people’s behavior around things that they might not do automatically. What we think of as politeness is typically something that we think we do with strangers. But we don’t really think of it as politeness with people we know; we just think of it as kindness. But it’s the same thing: It’s a series of rules that govern your behavior toward another person. If I didn’t want to be kind to my partner or to my mother or to my friends, I would just walk away exactly when I wanted to. But because I care about them, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings and they don’t want to hurt mine, we’re willing to all stick around maybe a little longer than we would otherwise. Sean Illing The shitty thing is that we all kind of know when someone has checked out of a conversation. You can see it in their face [and] in their eyes, and yet most of the time we keep on chatting. No one’s willing to acknowledge what both people already know. Are we just stuck with what game theorists call a “coordination problem”? Adam Mastroianni There’s actually two problems at play here that create this coordination problem. One is that we might think we know when the other person wants to leave, but when you notice that someone is shifting around, maybe breaking eye contact, looking a little glazed over, maybe that was the first moment they felt ready to leave, or maybe they felt ready to leave 10 minutes ago and you didn’t notice it then, or they didn’t signal it to you then. When we ask people to guess when the other people wanted to leave, they were off by about 60 percent of the length of their conversations. They had no idea when that person wanted to go. So that’s the first problem. The other problem is that even when we’re pretty sure of what the other person wants, you can’t just end a conversation at any time. You can think of a conversation like driving down the highway. You can’t just exit at any point, or else you’re going to end up in a ditch or in a storefront or running into a tree. I can’t just interrupt a story. There are all these rules that make it pretty clear to both of us when we’re allowed to get out. And those exits have some distance between them. “It’s definitely better to leave people wanting more than it is to leave people wanting less” Sean Illing I’ve had a couple periods in my life where I really tried to be authentic in my personal interactions, and I learned pretty quickly that people don’t like that. We’re so used to playing this choreographed social game, and radical honesty blows the whole thing up … Adam Mastroianni But what is your authentic self? Is it the thing that wants what it wants in the very moment that it wants it? Or is it the part of you that also cares about what the other person thinks? Is your authentic self the one that wants to rip a big fart the second you feel a rumbling in your tummy? Or is it the part that goes, “I don’t want to make other people feel embarrassed or have to smell the noxious fumes coming out of my ass.” Both of those could be some part of your authentic self, and maybe your authentic self is whatever emerges from the conflict between those desires. Sean Illing Yeah, I don’t think my authentic self has ever wanted to drop farts on interlocutors, but I did find that if you really listen to people, if you give them your total attention, it can create some awkwardness because it’s not normal. But let me ask you this: Do you think the social benefits of playing the politeness game outweigh the potential benefits of a more honest game? Adam Mastroianni I don’t know for sure, and I’d love to know better. All of our studies were on Americans, and you and I are both pretty familiar with the rules that govern conversations in America. They’re not universal rules. In other cultures, the rules are much stricter, and so people might get stuck a lot more often than they do here. In other places, the rules are a lot more loose, and you can just say something like, “I’m done. Goodbye.” And what we don’t yet know is whether people actually enjoy conversations more when they tilt more toward the strict or more toward the loose. Sean Illing If it’s true that most conversations last longer than both people want them to, wouldn’t someone be relieved if you’re actually willing to own that and be the one to pull the rip cord? Are we just overthinking this? Adam Mastroianni Maybe. We do know that the people who are left wanting more, that 30 percent, enjoy the conversation just as much as people who say it ended exactly [when] they wanted it to end. There’s not many of those people, but those two points are pretty much the same. So it’s definitely better to leave people wanting more than it is to leave people wanting less. Sean Illing What’s your best advice to people who want to get better at ending conversations without also being assholes? Adam Mastroianni The big tip is that it’s almost always better to go too short than too long. If you’re feeling unsure about whether the other person wants to go but think that you do, that’s a pretty appropriate time to go. Especially if you could always talk to that person again. But the trick is that one of the reasons why conversations are so fraught is that it feels like the very fact of our parting is evidence that something has gone wrong, because if I liked you and you liked me and we were having a nice time, why don’t we keep going? You don’t stop eating ice cream when the ice cream tastes really good. You stop when you’re sick. I think the best way to end a conversation is to address that problem head-on, to signal to the other person that nothing has gone wrong here — it’s just that sometimes, two people have to stop talking to each other, and this is one of those times. And this is why a main way people end their conversations is by signaling that they have to. You say, “I’d love to keep talking, but I gotta do X.” But another way to do it without lying is just to say, “I had a nice time talking to you, looking forward to doing it again.” Sean Illing What do you do when you collide with that person — and we all know this person — who just refuses to notice your signals? Adam Mastroianni One of these people sort of inspired the paper. There was a person in our department who will remain nameless and, in fact, isn’t even there anymore. But you knew that if you were walking by this person you should be on the other side of the room or on the phone, because otherwise you’d be talking to them for an hour. How do you get out of a conversation with such a person? Maybe tell them about this study and they’ll get the hint. But otherwise, the nuclear option — besides walking away — is literally to say, “This has been really nice. I have to go.” If they don’t get it at that point, there’s no hope. You should probably walk away. “You can think of a conversation like driving down the highway. You can’t just exit at any point, or else you’re going to end up in a ditch.” Sean Illing Most people are probably more comfortable being honest with friends and family, but do you think we should try to take the same approach to ending conversations with everyone? Adam Mastroianni That’s a good question. I think people might feel more comfortable with their families and friends, but the stakes are higher. If we’re chatting because we’re both waiting for a bus, I don’t want to hurt you because you’re another person, but I’m not as worried about what you think about me. But if you’re my partner or my mom, I am more worried. You mean a lot to me, and I don’t want to hurt you. So the relationship means more, and it’s hard to take the same strategy. I mean, who wants to cut off grandma in the middle of her story? I don’t. Sometimes it’s good for us to just sit there and listen. Sean Illing I also think most of us are too pessimistic about our interactions. Sometimes conversations die not because we run out of stuff to say but because we’re in our damn heads too much. We’re not present, and that inattentiveness kills momentum. Adam Mastroianni That’s totally true. We can see this in our studies. This is a unique domain in which people are more pessimistic than they should be. Usually people are more optimistic than they should be. “I think I might win the lottery,” or “I definitely won’t break my leg,” that’s something that happens to other people. But when it comes to social interactions, people say things like, “Oh, I’m worse than other people at remembering names,” or in our studies, “I think other people liked me less than I liked them.” Worrying is a huge dead weight on conversations. The best thing we can probably do is relax and just let the conversation run its course. All of these people that we’re trying to get out of conversations with, maybe they’re the ones having the most fun, and we should be doing what they’re doing instead of giving ourselves over to our neurotic thoughts and trying to escape. Sean Illing Conversations will always be fraught with uncertainty because we can never know what someone else is thinking. But the anxiety we feel is a choice and a consequence of worrying too much. I’m going to try and do less of that. Adam Mastroianni Maybe the best way to think about ending conversations is what happens when you start having thoughts about leaving. Ask yourself: “Is this an anxious thought? Am I running because I’m afraid that I’m being judged? Or do I really need to get back to work (or whatever)”? If it’s the latter, if it’s real, then yeah, that’s a good time to leave. But if it’s fear, then maybe that’s the time to stick it out.
vox.com
Elon Musk’s $150 million charity spending spree
Elon Musk has donated $150 million to charities this year — more than in all previous years combined. | Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images Texas schools. A food bank. Now a climate-change prize. The Tesla founder discovers Big Philanthropy. Elon Musk is on a philanthropy spending spree. In the months immediately after briefly becoming the world’s richest person, Musk has been transforming his profile as a philanthropist, appearing seemingly every few weeks bearing gifts — in public. That represents a departure from Musk’s penchant for privacy and his relatively thin history as a major donor, despite being one of the country’s wealthiest people for a decade. In the last few months, the Tesla founder appears to have been on the most aggressive streak of charitable giving in his life, moving so fast that he sometimes fails to give the recipients a heads-up. He is making his largest public donations ever and at a pace that seems to outstrip any other point in his career. All of that activity will be highlighted on Thursday when Musk speaks at a buzzy rollout for his single-biggest donation, a $100 million jackpot for the winner of a climate contest he created. Over just the first four months of 2021, Musk has committed almost $150 million directly to charities, according to Recode reporting and public announcements. That more than doubles Recode’s best estimate of all his charitable giving before 2021, which amounted to about $100 million based on available information. And that’s not all. Behind the scenes over the last few months, Musk’s foundation has been spending more time reaching out to other major philanthropists and intermediaries to try and find ideas for grants and learn best practices, Recode is told. It makes sense that Musk’s lean philanthropy team — it has no known full-time staff — would do that. Philanthropists are often encouraged to borrow one another’s ideas and share notes if they are struggling to find worthy places to grant money — an ailment that Musk has recently copped to. “Critical feedback is always super appreciated, as well as ways to donate money that really make a difference (way harder than it seems)” he tweeted in January. Part of what happened next was coincidental. Part of it was the fallout of that tweet. Over the next three months, Musk committed: $100 million for Thursday’s prize $30 million to nonprofits in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas; $20 million of that goes to local district and charter schools, the other $10 million is meant to revitalize the downtown of the city of Brownsville, Texas $5 million to Khan Academy, a platform for online courses, which came as a complete “surprise” to the nonprofit, a spokesperson said $5 million to a pair of Boston-area researchers studying the coronavirus $1 million to Feeding Texas, which operates food banks in the new home state of Musk and his foundation Gifts of undisclosed amounts to a fund run by Barstool Sports (after initially resisting); a space-focused competition run by SteamSpace; and a project run by UNICEF to expand internet access in the developing world But it is the XPrize competition that is Musk’s single largest charitable commitment to date. The $100 million will be awarded to entrepreneurs who come up with the best technologies to capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and lock it away permanently. Musk is set to unveil the details of the four-year competition and answer questions in a glitzy rollout live from Cape Canaveral, Florida. That donation was a direct consequence of his January tweet. Peter Diamandis, an entrepreneur who runs the competition, saw his request and replied publicly and then privately to Musk, who had backed a previous XPrize. Diamandis had an idea: What if we did another one on a new issue? “One of the attributes about Elon is when he’s clear about wanting to do something, he moves very fast,” said Diamandis. Musk eventually agreed to headline a launch event, too. “The reason for the publicity is to get as many people to know that this prize exists.” Some of Musk’s other donations have been more low-key. Last fall, the head of Musk’s family office, Jared Birchall, “reached out of the blue” to Feeding Texas head Celia Cole after seeing a tweet about her organization. Musk was interested in making a $100,000 donation for Covid-19 relief. When the winter storms struck Texas this winter, Cole’s team reached back out to Musk’s — who added another zero to his first gift. “It was a quick ask and a quick yes,” Cole recalled. “He seems to be settling into Texas, and maybe he’s working to make Texas his focus.” Musk is also being quite transparent — even playful, coy, and attention-seeking with tweets that tease multi-part announcements and create several independent news cycles. All of those donations have been announced publicly, despite his previous belief that his charitable giving should be anonymous. This Elon publicity machine sometimes gets ahead of itself, as he is prone to do on Twitter. When Musk first announced the XPrize contest in a tweet, he said “details next week” — they didn’t come until almost three weeks later. When Musk told the world that he’d give $30 million to the Brownsville area, he somehow forgot to tell the city of Brownsville, whose mayor said he had no idea the money was coming before the tweet was sent. That money hasn’t yet arrived. The mayor, Trey Mendez, told Recode that the city “has had initial discussions” with the Musk Foundation about the contribution since the tweet a month ago. City officials are now belatedly putting together a plan for how to spend it. It was a similar manna-from-heaven moment for the area’s schools, which primarily teach Latino students in a part of the country where more than one-third of families live in poverty. Beginning just after Easter, Musk’s team called a series of meetings with Cameron County superintendents and charter school heads to inquire how much money they might need and what was on their wish lists. $5 million of the $20 million for area schools was deposited last Friday — awarded based on the number of students enrolled in each district. The other $15 million is expected to be distributed in future tranches beginning this summer for more projects, based in part on any early accomplishments. “Their judgment will be if we did what we said we’re going to do and if they got the bang for the buck that they wanted us to get, is my impression,” said Roger Lee, whose Rio Hondo Independent School District was awarded $100,000 to boost local transportation services and to support a robotics program at an elementary school. Musk’s private spacecraft company, SpaceX, has been building operations out in the Rio Grande Valley, and his philanthropy to the area surely helps tend to local relations, too. He has brought superintendents like Lee to SpaceX offices, and his interest in improving local schools and job training could pay dividends in the long run for SpaceX, which Musk says needs to hire more local technical talent. In his corporate career, Musk has displayed this similar speed and flair for pizzazz. Musk moves quickly — sometimes too quickly — which in mega-philanthropy can get money out the door but can backfire if corners are cut. The pizzazz at Tesla and SpaceX has turned Musk into something of a showman, which if applied to charity, could help burnish Musk’s reputation. To be sure, even with this spurt of charity, Musk has a long way to go before his name is to be etched among his generation’s great philanthropists. While he is no longer the world’s wealthiest person, Tesla stock has skyrocketed and brought his net worth with it, boosting his estimated assets to $190 billion. His $250 million or so in disclosed lifetime giving is only about 0.1 percent of those assets, as critics are quick to point out. He has said not to expect major charitable gifts — the types that would satisfy the Giving Pledge he signed, for instance — until decades from now, when he may feel free to finally sell some Tesla stock. And this is all to say nothing of whether Musk’s charitable gifts will actually do any good or whether the system that allows him to choose winners among nonprofits and cities is fundamentally fair and democratic. But for the first time in a while, Musk appears to be doing the work. Change may be afoot.
vox.com
Now that Derek Chauvin has been convicted, here’s what happens next
Sentencing, a civil trial, and appeals. After a year of protests, anguish, and a weekslong trial, former police officer Derek Chauvin has been found guilty of murdering George Floyd. The jury found that, by kneeling on Floyd’s neck until Floyd died, the disgraced ex-cop committed second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter — although, for reasons explained below, he’s likely to only face prison time for the first of these three charges. Shortly after Judge Peter Cahill read the verdict and verified that each of the jurors supported Chauvin’s three convictions, the judge announced that he would sentence Chauvin in eight weeks. Court officials will spend the bulk of that time conducting a pre-sentence investigation, a process that examines both Chauvin’s background and the circumstances of his crime, in order to inform Cahill’s sentencing decision. Cahill also revoked Chauvin’s bail and ordered him remanded to custody, meaning that he will spend the period between his conviction and his sentencing behind bars. According to the New York Times, Chauvin is being held in solitary confinement and away from other prisoners due to “fears for his safety.” At least for the time being, he will spend 23 hours a day in his cell. While he may spend the remaining hour exercising, he will also be kept away from prisoners during that time. How much time is Chauvin likely to spend in prison? The length of Chauvin’s sentence is a bit unclear, in part because Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines likely give Cahill a fair amount of discretion to increase Chauvin’s sentence up to the statutory maximum. Although Chauvin was convicted of violating three separate criminal statutes, he is likely to serve his sentences for all three crimes at the same time. That’s because, while Chauvin was convicted of three separate offenses, he did not commit three separate criminal acts. He committed one — the killing of George Floyd — which violated three different criminal laws. The most serious of the three crimes he was convicted of is second-degree unintentionalmurder. Although state law provides that the maximum sentence for this crime is 40 years, Minnesota judges typically rely on the state’s sentencing guidelines, rather than statutory maximums, when handing down criminal sentences. To determine the proper sentence under these guidelines, a judge ordinarily begins with a grid that lays out the “presumptive sentence” based on the crime that someone was convicted of and their past criminal history. Minnesota state government A portion of Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines grid. Because Chauvin has no prior criminal conviction, his “criminal history score” under the state sentencing guidelines is zero. Therefore, his base sentence for second-degree unintentional murder is 150 months, or 12.5 years. But that’s not the end of the process. The guidelines also allow a sentencing judge to increase an offender’s sentence if a jury determines that one or more aggravating factors made the crime especially serious; alternatively, the judge can make this determination if the defendant waives their right to have a jury do so. Chauvin has waived this right. Prosecutors claim that several aggravating factors were present when Chauvin murdered Floyd, including the fact that children were present, that Chauvin acted with “particular cruelty,” and that Chauvin “abused his position of authority.” If Cahill agrees with the prosecution on any of these points, he has a fair amount of freedom to determine the appropriate sentence, up to the 40-year maximum. According to the guidelines, when a judge departs from the presumptive sentence for a given offender, that departure “is not controlled by the Guidelines, but rather, is an exercise of judicial discretion constrained by statute or case law.” Can Chauvin appeal his conviction? Under Minnesota law, Chauvin has the right to appeal his conviction or sentence to a state appeals court, and the state court of appeals must hear this appeal and render a judgment on it. As a general rule, a criminal defendant can appeal any legal matter that they objected to at the trial level, so it remains to been seen which specific matters Chauvin’s lawyer decides to raise on appeal. One issue that is likely to come up on appeal is a statement by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) in which she suggested that protesters need to “stay on the street” and “get more confrontational.” Late in the trial, defense attorney Eric Nelson asked Cahill to declare a mistrial because of Waters’s statement, claiming that it could have prejudiced the jury against his client. Although Cahill labeled Waters’s statement “disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch,” he rejected the request for a mistrial — noting, among other things, that the jury was instructed to avoid news reports. Nevertheless, Cahill also commented that Waters’s comment “may have given you something on appeal.” (President Joe Biden also suggested in a public statement earlier in the day that the evidence against Chauvin is “overwhelming,” but he made these comments while the jury was sequestered, so it’s highly unlikely that jurors were aware of them.) Realistically, an appeals court is unlikely to second-guess Cahill’s decision to allow the trial to move forward. Though the Supreme Court has recognized that, in extreme cases, news reports can so severely prejudice a jury that their decision to convict a defendant is invalid, these sorts of claims are typically disfavored. As the Court held most recently in Skilling v. United States (2010), “a trial court’s findings of juror impartiality may be overturned only for manifest error.” As a general rule, appeals courts are advised to defer to trial judges in cases alleging juror prejudice, on the theory that the trial judge is better able to observe the jury and determine if the jurors are somehow tainted. Indeed, if appeals courts were too quick to overturn convictions because a public figure expressed an opinion about the case, then it’s doubtful that any high-profile conviction could stand. As the Supreme Court warned more than 140 years ago: [E]very case of public interest is almost, as a matter of necessity, brought to the attention of all the intelligent people in the vicinity, and scarcely any one can be found among those best fitted for jurors who has not read or heard of it, and who has not some impression or some opinion in respect to its merits. This warning is all the more true today, and it’s especially true in the Chauvin trial, a case that inspired months of protests in cities across the nation. It was inevitable that jurors would have read about this case and potentially heard other people’s opinions about it before they were empaneled. Given the extraordinary amount of news coverage surrounding this trial, it’s unlikely that Waters’s comment was the tipping point that pushed a juror into convicting Chauvin — if the jurors were even aware of that comment in the first place. Will there be a civil trial against Chauvin? Last July, lawyers representing George Floyd’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Chauvin, the city of Minneapolis, and three other former officers who allegedly contributed to Floyd’s murder —Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng. The suit alleges that these former officers used “excessive and deadly force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and clearly established law.” The city agreed to settle this case for $27 million last month, but the suit against the four former officers continues. Realistically, it’s not clear how much money is actually at stake in the suit against the ex-cops. It’s unlikely that any of these four individuals has deep pockets, especially after they have all hired legal counsel to defend them in criminal trials. But this civil suit could provide additional vindication for Floyd’s family. It’s also unclear whether this civil lawsuit will be resolved anytime soon. The defendants asked the judge to stay any proceedings in the case “pending resolution of a parallel criminal case against the individual Defendants.” The three remaining officers are expected to be tried in August for aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder.
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vox.com
Why Apple’s latest gadget is catching the attention of antitrust regulators
Apple’s Air Tags, which go on sale later this month, seem pretty similar to Tile’s item-tracking devices. | Apple Apple’s new AirTag looks and works a lot like the trackers produced by Tile. On Tuesday, Apple announced the release of AirTag, a small, electronic tracker people can attach to keys, a piece of luggage, or anything, really, and then use Apple’s Find My system to find that item. For Apple fans, it’s another handy product. But for Tile, the maker of a similar tracker, the long-awaited announcement is another sign of Apple’s anticompetitive behavior. Tile is once again encouraging Congress to take a closer look at Apple ahead of a Senate antitrust hearing, where Tile’s general counsel, Kirsten Daru, will testify alongside executives from Spotify, Match, Google, and Apple. The hearing comes as Apple has repeatedly been accused of anticompetitive behavior due to its requirement for all iOS apps to be distributed through Apple’s App Store, where Apple takes a commission for sales. But in the case of the new AirTags, the criticism goes further. Tile says that Apple is not only creating hardware that’s similar to its own, but is also designing Apple software in a way that favors its own products and disadvantages Tile’s products. “We welcome competition, as long as it is fair competition,” said CJ Prober, Tile’s chief executive officer, in a statement soon after Apple’s AirTag announcement. “Unfortunately, given Apple’s well-documented history of using its platform advantage to unfairly limit competition for its products, we’re skeptical.” Apple AirTags, which go on sale at the end of April, do what Tile’s products have done for a while: keep track of things. The new trackers use Bluetooth technology to locate these lost items. AirTags also feature the U1 chip, which uses ultrawide band technology for more precise object location. This approach — and even the physical design of the trackers — is very similar to what Tile’s been doing for years. Tile also uses Bluetooth to locate objects, and the company is in the midst of launching ultra wideband capabilities (along with an augmented reality feature) on its trackers. One big difference between the new AirTags and Tile trackers: Tile relies on Apple to keep its location-tracking tools running smoothly in the Apple App Store and iOS, but not the other way around. Tile has long argued that Apple unfairly designed its mobile operating system, iOS, and the Find My app to favor of its own location-tracking tools. Tile did not respond to Recode’s request for comment ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. Apple, for its part, has pushed back against this criticism. “Apple created Find My over a decade ago to help users locate and manage lost devices in a private and secure way,” the company told Recode in a statement. “We have always embraced competition as the best way to drive great experiences for our customers, and we have worked hard to build a platform in iOS that enables third-party developers to thrive.” The standoff between Apple and Tile has been years in the making. Rumors emerged back in 2019 that Apple was working on a tracker system that would compete with Tile’s products. Daru, Tile’s general counsel, told Congress last January that Apple was making it harder for users to connect their iPhone to Tile devices by requiring permissions in iOS 13.5 that were buried in settings and also prompting users to turn off those permissions after the devices had been set up. Daru also claimed that Apple’s Find My app competed with Tile’s own app. Tile sent a letter to European authorities accusing Apple of anticompetitive behavior, saying that iOS 13.5 was built to favor Apple’s Find My app over Tile’s app, among other complaints. Apple “strenuously” denied the allegations. Following the volley of lawyer letters, Apple announced last summer that it would be launching a new program that would enable third-party trackers to work with its Find My app. But it wasn’t until early April of this year — two weeks ahead of the AirTags launch — that Apple finally updated the Find My app to allow it to work with third-party devices. It’s not clear how lawmakers or regulators will react to this update. The argument that Apple unfairly nudges users toward the Find My system over Tile’s system has gotten traction in Congress in the past, however. An expansive House antitrust report from last October claimed that “Apple’s service would require companies like Tile to abandon their apps and the ability to differentiate their service from Apple’s and other competitors” and put companies like Tile “at a competitive disadvantage.” In advance of Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar called Apple’s announcement of AirTags “timely,” telling Reuters “that this is the type of conduct that we’ll be talking about at the hearing.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
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vox.com
Biden wants to convince the world America can be trusted on climate change
President Joe Biden speaks about climate change issues at the White House on January 27. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images It’s going to be a tough sell. President Joe Biden’s administration has quite the pitch to 40 nations at this week’s global climate summit: Yes, America hasn’t truly led on climate change recently, but we will now and into the future. Trust us. Senior administration officials spoke with reporters on a Wednesday call ahead of two days of remote meetings featuring world leaders like Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. While they didn’t confirm reports that the US hopes to cut emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, they did answer Vox’s question on why other nations should trust America to keep its climate promises — given the US government has swung wildly on climate policy depending on who the president is. One of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity per the White House’s guidelines, offered an illuminating — though not entirely convincing — three-part answer. It makes clear that the Biden administration could struggle to convince other nations that the US really is trustworthy as a climate leader, regardless of what the president and his team say. First, this official said that climate change is a global problem that other nations must, and therefore will, address. “We’re No. 2 in the global emissions ... But at the same time, currently we’re at about 13 percent, so the rest of the world’s going to have to act, and they know that,” the official said. Of course, that’s more an argument for why nations should take climate change seriously, not necessarily America’s moves to curb its effects. Second, countries shouldn’t read too much into the last four years of President Donald Trump, who abruptly pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord and appointed fossil fuel lobbyists to run America’s environmental agencies. Despite Trump falsely claiming climate change is a hoax fabricated by China, state and local governments and even businesses didn’t necessarily follow Trump’s lead, and still pushed to cut their carbon emissions. In other words, it doesn’t just matter what the president says, but what the US is doing as a whole. “We look at the Obama administration and the commitments that have been made at that point in time, and look at where we are, we are pretty close to being on the trajectory that we said we would be on,” the official told Vox, pointing to the fact the US is on track to meet the Obama administration’s goal to get economy-wide emissions about 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. “The fact that the change [in] administration led to a topline view that [climate] wasn’t the priority didn’t in fact affect a lot of the trajectory in the country,” the official continued. That point is fair, but could signal to other leaders that they personally don’t have to make climate change a big deal or priority if progress happens without a top-down mandate. Third, America will lead by example, and other countries should follow it — and feel free to critique the US if it fails to live up to its promises. “We are urging people to pay attention to what we say, and what we do, and what we deliver,” the administration official told Vox. The Biden administration’s commitments, participation from state and local governments, and buy-in from the private sector “are things you can watch, and you can judge.” “We think there’s going to be a lot of engagement and willingness to support us going forward, and all three of those reasons have been well received by our partners around the world,” the official concluded. That all sounds well and good, and fits with Biden’s mantra that “America is back.” It also tracks with the administration’s desire to treat climate change as the top national security threat of our times. The question is if other nations, namely other top carbon emitters including China, India, and Russia, will buy what America is selling. Experts say it’s not entirely clear that they would follow Washington’s lead anyway because each nation has its own priorities and sense of how existential climate change is. But the Biden administration’s thinking is that if America leads and sets the right example, others will join the climate fight — even adversaries. The problem is, they already seem skeptical. “The US chose to come and go as it likes with regard to the Paris Agreement,” Zhao Lijian, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said recently. “Its return is by no means a glorious comeback but rather the student playing truant getting back to class.” America’s political swings make meaningful progress difficult The biggest issue with the Biden administration’s argument that it’s back to being a world leader on climate could be the next midterm election. World leaders have watched as two previous Republican presidents — George W. Bush in 2001 and Donald Trump in 2017 — have either rejected major climate treaties or pulled out of them altogether. And Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on how bold the US should go in response to climate change. So even if Biden or a Democrat wins four more years in the White House in 2024, the swings of Congressional elections every two years could mean progress grinds to a standstill if there’s a split Congress after the 2022 elections. In other words, the US has an extremely limited window to make significant strides toward deep emissions reductions. Under the Paris Agreement, countries across the world agreed that the goal should be to limit warming to below 2°C by 2100. But as Vox’s Umair Irfan noted, “At our current rate of emissions, we’re likely to soar past 1.5°C as early as 2030 and hit 3ºC by 2100.” Keeping emissions to 1.5°C is the best-case scenario, but even that level of warming will be devastating to the world’s most vulnerable areas. On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to decarbonize the US electricity sector by 2035 and put the country on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050. Administration officials view the president’s American Jobs Plan — which would move US transportation decisively toward electric vehicles and enact a clean electricity standard — as their best bet to get there. Democrats have the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 split US Senate, giving them the slimmest of majorities. This could be enough to get Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan — which doubles as the president’s climate bill — through without Republican support using an obscure procedural tool called budget reconciliation. But the fact remains that whether it’s in 2022, 2024, or 2028, Republicans will likely gain control of at least one chamber of Congress or the White House again, which could put Biden’s current climate ambitions in serious doubt. While both parties mostly agree that climate change is real, Republicans’ initial plans to tackle climate change revolve around planting 1 trillion trees worldwide and investing in technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere — rather than reorienting the American economy to not produce carbon in the first place. “Their rhetoric has been so lacking in any specifics or follow-through,” Josh Freed, the head of the climate and energy program at center-left think tank Third Way, told Vox in a recent interview. “What are their ideas? Do they actually want to govern and solve problems, or do they want to compete to get on Fox News and Newsmax?” The Biden White House is very aware of the potential for climate progress to be reversed by Republicans. That’s why it is far more focused on proposing concrete changes that are “hard to roll back,” according to a White House official. That includes constructing 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations around the nation’s roads, building energy-efficient homes and offices, and doubling down on solar and wind to power clean energy in the country. Still, itcomplicates things for world leaders looking for assurances. Businesses and states are looking for federal guidance The second issue with the Biden administration’s argument is that many experts agree that in order to achieve steep emissions reductions needed to avert global catastrophe, the US needs strong federal leadership. The Biden administration is correct that many businesses, states, and municipalities forged ahead with climate goals in the absence of any leadership from Trump. As Trump was slashing environmental regulations for vehicles, states like California were stepping up to implement stronger emissions standards for cars. “States and cities have been the engines of both innovation and deployment of existing opportunities for the past four years,” White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy told Vox in a recent interview. “They have been a remarkable success; it’s like 25 states have renewable energy or clean energy standards. We’re talking about hundreds of cities. The very last thing I would ever do as someone who worked at the state level for more than 20 years is forget about them.” It’s true some states have set their own ambitious goals. But the federal response to climate still matters, and wild political swings from Barack Obama toTrump to Biden have meant investors, public utilities, and businesses have been on edge, waiting for the next curveball. “Investors like certainty and they haven’t gotten any certainty at the federal level,” Karen Wayland, policy adviser to electricity utility coalition group Gridwise Alliance, told Vox. In the Trump years, Wayland added, utilities were “setting goals absent federal policy.” A recent study from the Rhodium Group found that though the US is indeed on target to hit the Obama-era emissions goals, that hasn’t necessarily happened because of the good intentions of American business and industry. The Rhodium Group study found that the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly grinding the economy to a halt led to a 10.3 percent drop in US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020. “With coronavirus vaccines now in distribution, we expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the US economy, emissions will likely rise again as well,” the Rhodium Group study concluded. In other words, the federal government can’t just rely on businesses to do the right thing. The Biden administration has come in with firmer guidance, and many businesses are already responding. American automaker General Motors announced this year that they were moving their cars to be zero-emissions by 2035, following Ford and others. American industry is headed toward zero emissions, but it takes leadership from the federal government — and major investments in infrastructure — to follow through on big pledges.
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10 things we learned about Earth since the last Earth Day
On September 9, 2020, smoke from wildfires burning across California blew over San Francisco, turning the sky blood orange. | Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images The secret to wombat poop, how skies turn orange, and what a cold ocean blob could mean for the climate. This story is part of Down to Earth, a new Vox reporting initiative on the science, politics, and economics of the biodiversity crisis. This time last April, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the world was coming to grips with the isolation of quarantine and the economic and travel slowdowns that defined the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even now, with the rollout of vaccines, the virus continues to affect our daily lives. And the toll keeps growing: 3 million dead and more than 140 million cases worldwide. If anything, the worst public health crisis in a century has brought our understanding of our planet, and our place in the fragile yet resilient web of life throughout it, into stark relief. Amid so much grief and loss and uncertainty, the biodiversity crisis paced ahead over the past year, becoming a much bigger theme on the world stage. The climate crisis worsened, too. Wildfires blazed. Ecosystems became even more fouled up than they already were. At the same time, the marked reduction in human activity spurred by the pandemic — what some experts have dubbed the “Anthropause” — has afforded scientists and researchers opportunities to observe the natural world like never before. Coinciding with these unique observational windows has been an increase in attention on Indigenous knowledge and land stewardship as a way forward in combating ecological catastrophe. In true Vox tradition, here are the 10 most concerning, intriguing, and — dare we say — hopeful things we learned about our planet since the last Earth Day. 1) We saw just how quickly ocean noise pollution can drop, and how much that can help marine life For a moment last spring, things got very quiet in the oceans. The drop in human activity that came with the pandemic resulted in drastic and voluntary sound reductions that ran the underwater gamut: from a drop in shipping noise, the predominant source of man-made ocean noise pollution, to decreases in recreation and tourism. All of it suddenly ceased. In Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, the foraging grounds of humpback whales, the loudest underwater sounds last May were less than half as loud as those in May 2018, according to a Cornell University analysis. A May 2020 paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that underwater noise off the Vancouver coast was half as loud in April as the loudest sounds recorded in the months preceding the shipping traffic slowdown. Chronic underwater ocean noise had been rising over the past few decades, to the detriment of marine life that have evolved to use sound to navigate their world. “There is clear evidence that noise compromises hearing ability and induces physiological and behavioral changes in marine animals,” reads an assessment of marine noise pollution research published in the journal Science in February. Richard Shucksmith/Barcroft Im/Barcroft Media via Getty Images A humpback whale seen near Shetland Islands, Scotland, December 2016. The majority of ocean noise pollution is a byproduct of economic activity. But compared with massively complex issues like climate change, noise is relatively easy to turn down, at least a little. Silencing it at its source has an immediate positive impact: Famously, researchers studying right whales on the East Coast measured a drop in the animals’ stress hormones in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, after shipping traffic abruptly dropped. Even tiny fish larvae are better able to locate the coral reefs where they were born, which themselves emit sound, when the oceans get quiet. Man-made ocean noise has since ramped back up and is now stabilized near pre-pandemic levels. But it fell silent for long enough last March, April, and May that a global team of scientists is actively scrubbing through audio recordings gathered by around 230 non-military hydrophones — underwater microphones — that monitor ocean noise around the world. They aim to study the “year of the quiet ocean” in the context of ocean sounds before, during, and after the pandemic. 2) A new study found that the Amazon is likely warming — not cooling — the planet The world’s largest and most species-rich tropical forest, the Amazon, is home to billions of trees that not only provide refuge to a diverse assemblage oforganisms but also store and absorb a huge amount of carbon dioxide. That’s what makes the conclusion of a study published this spring so alarming: Due to human activity, the Amazon is likely contributing to — not offsetting, as one might expect— global warming. “The current net biogeochemical effect of the Amazon Basin is most likely to warm the atmosphere,” the researchers wrote in the paper. Tarso Sarraf/AFP via Getty Images A deforested region of the Amazon in the municipality of Melgaco, Para State, Brazil on July 30, 2020. While the Amazon is still absorbing loads of CO2, human activities in the basin, such as deforestation, are driving up emissions of CO2 and other more potent greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide across the basin. Deforestation, for one, deals a double punch: It both releases gases into the atmosphere and removes CO2-absorbing trees from the equation. That equation now sees the Amazon generating more greenhouse gases than it emits, the study suggests. (It’s worth noting, though, this is all really complicated. For more, check out Craig Welch’s story in National Geographic or read the full study here.) 3) We discovered a bunch of new species While humans have made a mark on all corners of Earth, we’ve only discovered a small fraction of the species that occupy it. In fact, that fraction could be smaller than 1 percent. And remarkably, not all of those species are tiny microbes and insects. They’re also fish, lizards, bats, and even whales. That’s right: Even giant mammals can elude scientists. In January, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they discovered a new species of baleen whale in the Gulf of Mexico. (You can find the paper describing the discovery here.) Other teams of scientists are also on the trail of what could be yet another new whale species. AP/Frank Glaw Brookesia nana, a recently discovered species of chameleon native to northern Madagascar. Last year, researchers documented scores of new plants and animals, from geckos and sea slugs to flowering plants and sand dollars, as Vox’s Brian Resnick reported. Our favorite? Brookesia nana, a thumbnail-sized chameleon native to northern Madagascar. It may be the smallest reptile on Earth; it’s certainly the cutest. 4) We got a much clearer picture of just how much wildlife we’re losing The numbers aren’t good. In September, the World Wildlife Fund published a report showing that the global populations of several major animal groups, including mammals and birds, have declined by almost 70 percent in the last 50 years due to human activity. A separate report, published in Nature this year, found that populations of ocean sharks and rays have plummeted by more than 70 percent in roughly the same period. And one-third of freshwater fish have been found to be at risk of extinction. Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images Two gray reef sharks swim over a coral reef in Gambier Archipelago, French Polynesia, on February 19, 2018. A number of species were also declared extinct over the last year. Those include the smooth handfish, a bottom-dweller that rests atop human-like appendages on the seafloor. It was the first marine fish species to be declared extinct in modern history. (Environmental journalist John Platt has a list of recent extinctions in 2020 at Scientific American.) 5) Protecting plants and animals hinges on a thriving ecotourism industry In the early days of the pandemic, the popular “Nature is healing” meme overshadowed a darker reality in many parts of the world: As travel ground to a halt, so did revenue from wildlife tourism, putting some wildlife conservation efforts at risk. The fallout was most severe in Africa. According to a new collection of research from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a government and civil society group, more than half of the continent’s protected areas had to pause or limit field patrols and other operations to stop poachers in the wake of the pandemic. “Parks have emptied out to a large extent and there’s no money coming in,” Nigel Dudley, a co-author of one of the IUCN papers, told Reuters last month. Roger de la Harpe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images A mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Some communities are deeply reliant on wildlife tourism. Late last year, Vox’s Brian Resnick spoke to veterinarian Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, who is working to keep coronavirus-susceptible gorillas alive in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. When tourism dropped, “everybody was struggling,” she said. “The local economy suffered and poaching went up.” (You can read more of Resnick’s conversation with her here.) 6) Researchers uncovered more proof that a key system of ocean currents is weakening Graphics that show changes in ocean temperature over time generally reveal one trend: The ocean is heating up. But there’s one critical exception. Just below Greenland lies a large patch of water that’s cooling off. And that patch has scientists concerned that we could be nearing a tipping point for the climate. The cold patch, scientists say, signals that a network of currents that bring warm water to the North Atlantic — known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC — is slowing down, and the melting of ice on Greenland is likely a culprit. One paper, published in the journal Nature in March, suggests that the current AMOC slowdown is “unprecedented in over a thousand years.” NASA Goddard Ocean surface currents between June 2005 and December 2007. The AMOC shapes weather across multiple continents, so any major slowdown will carry major consequences that could include faster sea-level rise in some regions, stronger hurricanes, and other changes in weather, to say nothing of the impacts to marine ecosystems. But to be clear, the science on this is new and complex. For a great run-down, check out this recent visual feature in the New York Times. 7) The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs gave rise to the Amazon rainforest The massive asteroid that struck Earth 66 million years ago may be best known for driving non-avian dinosaurs to extinction, but it also transformed entire ecosystems. It may have even given rise to the Amazon rainforest, according to a study published in Scienceearlier this month. The finding is based on an analysis of about 50,000 fossil pollen records and 6,000 fossil leaf records in Colombia from before and after the asteroid crashed into what is now Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The data reveals two vastly different forests. Before the event, the forests were stocked with conifers and ferns, and the trees were spread out, with plenty of room for light to stream through the canopy. After the asteroid event, however, flowering plants started to dominate the landscape and the canopy became much more tightly packed, resembling the forest we know today. Getty Images The Amazon rainforest in Belém, Brazil. “If you returned to the day before the meteorite fall, the forest would have an open canopy with a lot of ferns, many conifers, and dinosaurs,” study co-author Carlos Jaramillo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama told New Scientist. “The forest we have today is the product of one event 66 million years ago.” The idea here is that the asteroid impact somehow triggered a series of events that led to the modern Amazon rainforest. What were those events? One theory the researchers offer is that, before the asteroid, herbivorous dinosaurs prevented the forest from becoming dense by eating and trampling plants. 8) A review of more than 300 studies showed that the rate of deforestation is lower on Indigenous lands The globalconservation movement is pushing forward a plan to conserve 30 percent of the Earth by 2030 — an initiative known as 30 by 30 — and increasingly calling for Indigenous communities to be central to that effort. These groups have historically been uprooted from land in the name of wildlife conservation. There is also greater evidence that forests fare better when they are governed by Indigenous and tribal territories. Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images In Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, members of the local community harvest and sell palm fronds of the xate plant, which are used in flower arrangements. A recent UN review of more than 300 studies found that forests within tribal territories in Latin America and the Caribbean have significantly lower rates of deforestation where land rights are formally recognized. “In just about every country in the region Indigenous and tribal territories have lower deforestation rates than other forest areas,” wrote the authors of the report, which was published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. “Many Indigenous territories prevent deforestation as effectively as non-Indigenous protected areas, and some even more effectively.” 9) Wildfire smoke can turn the sky an apocalyptic orange If there was one day in 2020 that defined the climate emergency, it could have been September 9, when the sky above San Francisco turned completely orange. Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images Smoke from wildfires turned the sky above San Francisco orange on September 9, 2020. Strong winds had carried smoke from fires burning across California to the atmosphere above the city. Particles of soot absorbed or reflected blue light from the sun, letting only orange-ish light through. (Wired has the details.) But what made the image go viral wasn’t so much the science but what it symbolized: a growing climate catastrophe. Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and severe, and 2020 provided more devastating evidence. Last year was California’s worst wildfire season on record. By the end of the year, nearly 10,000 fires had burned over 4 million acres — an astonishing 4 percent of California’s total land, according to the state. 10) Scientists finally solved the mystery of why wombats poop cubes Sure, it may not have kept you up at night, but the mystery of the bare-nosed wombat’s poop puzzled scientists for decades. Why do these adorable, chunky marsupials, native to Australia and Tasmania, leave behind feces with six sides? Thanks to a new study — published in the journal Soft Matter — we now have the answer. Getty Images Cube-shaped wombat poop in Kosciuszko National Park in Australia. Building on research published a few years earlier, a team of scientists found that wombat intestines have regions of varying thickness and elasticity that contract at different speeds: The stiffer regions contract relatively quickly, while softer sections squeeze more slowly, together forming a cube-like shape. But there’s still a bit of mystery left: Whyis their poop shaped like this? The jury’s still out, but some researchers believe it’s because wombats climb up on rocks and logs, and the cube-like shape prevents the feces from rolling away. This is key for wombats because they use piles of feces to communicate with other wombats. What a difference a year makes, truly.
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Just because you can work from home doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed to
Depending on your job, company, and industry, you might have to go back to the office soon. | Getty Images Which jobs are heading back to the office and which can stay home varies widely. America’s vaccine rollout is happening faster than expected, with the general population now eligible to get their shot this week instead of in May or June, as originally anticipated. In turn, some office workers in the United States are going back to the office sooner than we thought. When they return and how often they’re expected to be at their desks, however, could vary widely. And as the return to the office picks up, the extent to which American office workers are allowed to continue working from home — which the vast majority of them have done during the pandemic — stands to affect everything from their satisfaction at work to where they are able to live. This summer, offices are generally opening on an optional basis and will open with more expectations for workers to be present this fall. The most flexibility will go to knowledge workers. These high-skilled workers, whose jobs are mediated by computers, will be much more likely than before the pandemic to be allowed to work from home at least some of the time in what’s called the hybrid work model. But everything from which employees can work from home to the number of days they can do so will depend on a number of factors, including their job, company, and industry. Even among industries well-suited to online work, there is a range in who is allowed to work remotely or not. On one end of the spectrum are the finance and law sectors, whose workers have been less likely to work from home all along despite a high potential for their work to be done remotely. These industries are going back to the office sooner, and workers will be less likely than in other types of work to be allowed to complete their work remotely thanks to work cultures that prioritize in-person interactions, whether they’re necessary or not. On the other end are a variety of industries including tech, where some companies like Twitter and DropBox are giving employees the option to permanently work remote. Of course, even within tech there is variation. Amazon, known for its brutal corporate culture, plans to have most of its white-collar workers back in the office by early fall, saying it wants to return to an “office-centric culture as our baseline.” Meanwhile, companies that choose not to allow workers flexibility in where they work will be met with resistance. The vast majority of employees — 89 percent — say they want to be allowed to work remotely some or all of the time. So companies with stricter office rules could have trouble attracting and keeping talent, with one in four employees saying they might quit their jobs after the pandemic, mostly because they want to look for work with greater flexibility. Whether you can continue to work remotely varies by your job and industry The question of whether a given industry is sending workers back to the office early is hardly binary. The future of office attendance depends on a number of factors. McKinsey Global Institute looked at more than 2,000 activities in more than 800 occupations to figure out which had the greatest potential to be done remotely. The authors found that jobs where primary activities include updating knowledge and learning or interacting with computers could largely be done remotely without productivity loss. Meanwhile, jobs that required handling and moving objects or controlling machinery, unsurprisingly, had to be done in person. That means that while some jobs within a company might go partially or completely remote, others are less likely. Anu Madgavkar, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute, gave the example of an e-commerce company, where employees on the business development team “with rapid iterative types of cycles should be encouraged to spend more time together in physical spaces designed for interactions.” Meanwhile, people doing backend web development at that same e-commerce company “can spend much more time working on their own” from home. “Within a company and even within teams, there’s a gradation going on,” Madgavkar said. Activities particularly reliant on being in person include things like creating a company culture, negotiations, sales, first-time conversations with clients, onboarding, coaching, feedback, and problem-solving, especially within interdisciplinary teams. As a whole, jobs with the highest remote potential were concentrated in a few sectors, including finance and insurance as well as management and professional services. Sectors with the least potential included construction, food services, and agriculture. McKinsey estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the workforce could work from home three to five days per week without any loss to productivity. It’s 40 percent if you look at those who could work from home at least one day a week. Job categories with the highest number of remote job postings on FlexJobs, a job site for remote work, were computer & IT, project management, and marketing. However, just because a job can be done effectively remotely doesn’t mean that it will be. A number of industries have cultural barriers to remote work that prevented them from being done remotely, even during the pandemic. Again, despite having jobs with a high potential for remote work, law and finance jobs tend to require more office time. People in those industries worked remotely only a little over half of the time during the pandemic. Law and finance are also likely to remain resistant to remote work post-pandemic. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has said he wants “nearly all” traders and bank branch employees back at physical locations, pointing to the shortcomings of remote work for maintaining a company’s culture. His opinions mirror many others in the finance industry. The financial publication Bloomberg wants its employees back as soon as they’re vaccinated, making it a standout from the media industry, which is generally adopting a hybrid model. While privacy and data security in finance are certainly a concern with working from home, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle from a technical point of view (as evidenced by all the work in those fields that did get done with much of the workforce working remotely). Rather, it’s a cultural one. “Some industries that technically could do it, maybe culturally are not ready,” Orsolya Kovács-Ondrejkovic, associate director of people strategy and human resources at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), told Recode. Investment banks, in particular, have been known for their controversial work requirements, often based on executives’ caprice. Look no further than investment bankers in New York having to commute to Greenwich, Connecticut, for work. It’s also worth noting that during the pandemic, employees working from home reported their employers to the Securities and Exchange Commission for corporate wrongdoing at a record clip. Law firms nationwide have had occupancy rates above average throughout the pandemic, according to data from Kastle Systems, an office security company that collects anonymized swipe-in data from 41,000 businesses across the country. Currently, law firms have a 40 percent occupancy rate, about 15 percentage points higher than the cross-industry average. Many law firms have a staid, old-school culture. Notably for those afraid of spreading disease in open office spaces, law firms are also more likely to have private offices than peers in other white-collar industries. Really it depends on what leadership does, and leadership at finance and law firms typically don’t seem to be fully on board with remote work. That could hurt those industries in the future. Workers might rebel. A third to a half of workers have said they’d leave their jobs if their employers didn’t offer remote work. “Can these companies still do it and ask people to go back? Yes, and people probably will,” Kovács-Ondrejkovic said. “But whether this will cause them an issue with their talent pipeline in the next five-ish years? Probably.” The issue will be particularly pressing in coming years among young people, she said, who’ve now had experience working from home successfully. “I think for them,” she added, “it will just feel very, very antiquated to be five days in an office.” Industries like tech and STEM, where talent is in high demand and where future job growth is predicted, will more likely have to offer remote work. “If you’re in an industry where talent is scarce, then you will get a sense pretty quickly that workers want flexibility and bake that into the talent value proposition,” Madgavkar, from McKinsey, said. “Or you will use [remote work] to target and tap talent pools in cities you weren’t able to harness previously.” The percentages of people who actually worked from home during the pandemic would be a good indication of what percentage of people in those fields might work remotely — at least some of the time — post-pandemic, according to the authors of the BCG study published in March. While it’s unclear how much office work will be done remotely, the prospects are at least much brighter than they were pre-pandemic, when less than 5 percent of the workforce worked remotely. The move back to the office is just starting So far, the average weekly office occupancy in April across all industries in 10 major US cities jumped slightly to 26 percent last week, according to Kastle Systems data. Occupancy rates were highest in Texas cities, with Dallas, Austin, and Houston all above 30 percent, and lowest in San Francisco, whose office occupancy was 14 percent. The low national occupancy rate has remained mostly steady for the last year, but Mark Ein, chairman of Kastle Systems, expects it to rise sharply in the coming months, after the working-age population goes through its vaccine cycle. It will likely take a few months after being widely available for Americans to book and get both vaccine doses and for them to be fully effective. Ein, whose business relies on selling software for physical offices, is particularly bullish on the return to the office. Once employees are vaccinated, “there won’t be any reason people shouldn’t be back in the office,” Ein said. “Even people who leaned into working from home early on are talking about getting their workforce back.” He says they’re eager to do things that are difficult to do from home, such as rebuild their work culture and collaborate with new employees. On the other hand, people who’ve gotten a taste of working from home will likely want to continue doing so. The aforementioned BCG study found that nearly 90 percent of workers want to work from home some or all of the time. And many employers are seeing remote work as a cheaper alternative to pricey office real estate, or at least a way to cut down on some of their real estate footprint. There’s also been huge growth in the availability of remote jobs. The number of postings for fully remote jobs on FlexJobs rose 76 percent between 2019 and 2020, while the number of partially remote positions rose about 20 percent (there are now roughly equal numbers of each on the site). All that said, the future of office work will likely look more like a hybrid model, somewhere in the middle of being fully remote and fully in the office. Jamie Hodari, CEO and co-founder of the coworking office space company Industrious, likens the difference in remote work allowances before and after the pandemic to the difference between high school and college. In high school, people’s behaviors and days were much more regulated compared with the relative autonomy college students have to come and go as they please. As such, office workers will have a lot more autonomy in where and when they work. Hodari takes the metaphor further, urging for a balance between remote and in-person work: Jobs that are completely remote may run into trouble maintaining their culture and completing certain tasks, much like online colleges have much lower graduation rates than in-person colleges. Employers that offer workers a mix of remote and in-person work will be able to maintain their company culture and accomplish necessary in-office activities while also giving workers the flexibility they want. Jobs where that’s not the case could run into tension between employers and employees. In any case, if your boss is making you go back to the office and you want to stay remote, your prospects for finding a new remote job have never been better.
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Why Biden still hasn’t raised the refugee cap
A child stands in front of a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tent as Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province camp at the Um Raquba camp in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref state, on November 19, 2020. | Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images Conditions at the US-Mexico border have derailed Biden’s refugee agenda. On Friday afternoon, President Joe Biden announced that he would not increase refugee admissions this fiscal year, saying that the current annual cap of 15,000 — a record low set by the Trump administration — “remains justified.” Less than two hours later, after sharp blowback from Democratic members of Congress and refugee advocacy groups, the White House made an about-face, clarifying that Biden would actually be issuing an unspecified, increased cap by May 15. White House press secretary Jen Psaki passed it off as a misunderstanding and told reporters on Monday that Biden always had the intention of increasing refugee admissions down the line if the US was able to reach the existing cap before the end of the fiscal year in October. But the controversy confused and dismayed immigrant advocates who had expected Biden to take a more open-arms approach US refugee policy, particularly after promising on the campaign trail to raise the refugee cap to 125,000 or even higher — which Psaki described Monday as more of an “aspirational goal.” It also laid bare the practical challenges of restoring an immigration system that former President Donald Trump sought to dismantle, and revealed the enduring political power of his anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric. The White House has framed Biden’s failure to act on his promises to increase refugee admissions so far as the result of a scarcity of resources and manpower at refugee agencies that were hollowed out by the previous administration. But it seems as though the arrival of record numbers of unaccompanied children at the southern border and Republicans’ efforts to label it a “Biden border crisis” may have also stymied momentum on refugee issues, which were once a bipartisan priority. “The right-wing media ecosystem and Republican members of Congress are cranking this issue up every day and in every way,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said in a statement. “If the President holds his nerve and resists the reflex to use cruelty to deal with political pressures, he can forge a workable immigration system that is, at once, both orderly and humane.”’ The White House has cited practical concerns with increasing refugee admissions Unlike many of the president’s other policy priorities — some of which have been stalled in the 50-50 Senate — raising the refugee cap is something Biden could do unilaterally by issuing a presidential proclamation. But Psaki said during a briefing on Monday that the “challenge is not the cap.” “The challenge is the ability to process, the funding, the staffing [to] welcome refugees,” she added. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which assists in the resettlement and integration of refugees, is already overwhelmed by the immense task of caring for unaccompanied children arriving on the southern border. Psaki said that the Biden administration has been considering reallocating funds to effectively address both the situation on the border and refugee admissions simultaneously, but that the administration is not yet weighing an emergency supplemental budget request to Congress. Nongovernmental organizations that help resettle refugees are also in the process of rebuilding. Under Trump, they saw their federal funding decrease due to lower admissions levels, forcing them to substantially scale back their infrastructure and staffing to keep their resettlement programs afloat. More than 100 resettlement offices closed, and many government staff tasked with processing refugees abroad were laid off or reassigned. The Covid-19 pandemic has further complicated things, particularly after the US paused its refugee program entirely for a period of months last year. It meant that the US only resettled a total of 11,814 refugees in the last fiscal year, falling well short of the ceiling for that year and leaving a total of 35,000 refugees who have already been vetted by the federal government stranded abroad. Anticipating some of those challenges, Biden tempered his campaign promise to resettle 125,000 refugees once he took office, instead setting an initial goal of admitting 62,500 refugees this fiscal year. But Psaki said in a statement Friday that, after evaluating the status of the refugee program, even that reduced goal was looking “unlikely.” “It took us some time to recognize how hollowed out these systems were,” she said. The task of rebuilding is urgent. The pandemic has only deepened the plight of the world’s most vulnerable populations. There are more refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people today than at any time since World War II, and those numbers are only growing due to ongoing crises in Hong Kong, Syria, Venezuela, and other countries. Trump succeeded in politicizing the once-bipartisan refugee program Practical concerns weren’t the only factor in Biden’s decision not to immediately increase the refugee cap. Several media reports have cited administration officials who say that the humanitarian crisis at the border has made the White House wary of drastically increasing the refugee cap for fear of political fallout as the GOP tries to paint Biden as too soft on migration. It’s a sign that Trump and his virulently anti-immigrant senior adviser Stephen Miller, were able to change the narrative around the refugee program, which had historically flourished under both Republican and Democratic presidents who acknowledged the US’s role in modeling how a powerful country should support people fleeing desperate situations in their home countries. Even in previous Republican administrations seeking to curtail immigration, no one ever set the cap on refugee admissions as low as Trump did. President George W. Bush briefly cut the number of refugees admitted after the 9/11 attacks, but even then, the limit was set at 70,000. Rather than deeming refugees worthy of protection, Trump portrayed them as a terror threat and a drain on US resources. On the campaign trail, Trump sought to stir up fear about Syrian refugees, baselessly suggesting that they were raising an army to launch an attack on the US and promising that all of them would be “going back” if he won the election. He said that he would tell Syrian children to their faces that they could not come to the US, speculating that they could be a “Trojan horse.” And in September 2019, he issued an executive order that allowed local governments that do not have the ability to support refugees in becoming “self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance” to turn them away, though courts prevented it from going into effect. Miller also lobbied heavily to reduce the refugee cap to zero and has continued to do so since leaving the White House, arguing that the US is already fulfilling its obligations by absorbing migrants arriving on the southern border. In doing so, he disingenuously conflates asylum seekers with refugees. But the two categories are distinct, and the US must protect both populations under its own laws and international human rights agreements. Migrants can apply for asylum only after they have arrived in the US or at the border and if their claim is found to be valid, the US is under obligation to offer them protection. There is no concrete limit on how many asylees the US accepts in a given year. Refugees, on the other hand, are typically processed by humanitarian agencies abroad and sent to the US for resettlement. Despite the fact that the refugee admissions program and the asylum system are separate, the Biden administration has still used conditions at the border to justify maintaining Trump’s refugee cap, echoing some of the Trump administration’s talking points. “Welcoming the persecuted is our moral and legal obligation, and it is not a zero-sum game,” Blaine Bookey, the legal director for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, said in a statement. “The United States is more than capable of both resettling refugees and instituting a fair process for families, children, and adults seeking asylum at the border.”
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vox.com
Why is it so hard to prosecute police? It starts with the investigation.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (center) is taken into custody after being found guilty for the murder of George Floyd. | Court TV via AP Police are protected by a mix of policy and culture from the very beginning. When a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, it did something very unusual. The reality in America today is it’s notoriously difficult to prosecute police officers for killings — less than 2 percent of fatal shootings are ever prosecuted for murder or manslaughter, and even fewer are convicted. That difficulty begins with the immediate aftermath of a police officer killing someone: The event is investigated by the police themselves, who have very different incentives than they do during a typical investigation. You can probably conjure up images of a crime scene from shows like CSI or Law & Order: Police descend onto the scene, gathering evidence down to the molecular level. They talk to any witnesses. Officials from other offices — prosecutors in particular — might be present to get an early lead on where the investigation could go. Everything is geared toward not just figuring out who committed the crime, but making sure that, if charges are brought, they can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in court. As Philip Matthew Stinson at Bowling Green State University previously told me, things look very different after an officer kills someone. Most importantly, the underlying attitude in the investigation is not to prove the officer did anything wrong but in many cases the opposite: to help a fellow colleague prove that the killing was explainable, if not justified. To the extent the scene of the killing is considered a crime scene at all, police are often focused on whatever crime the victim allegedly committed. So while the scene of a killing typically involves collecting evidence to prove that the individual was responsible and committed a crime, an investigation into a police killing aims to find evidence that the victim did something wrong and that the officer’s actions were justified. While murder investigations typically try to get witnesses on the record as quickly as possible, in police killing investigations officers who kill someone are usually given days — sometimes under the law — before they take an interview. If officers witness a crime, they’ll usually testify; in a police killing investigation, there’s a no-snitching code known as the “blue wall of silence” that encourages officers to not talk and to avoid incriminating their colleagues in any way. Investigators — themselves police — will readily accept and encourage all of this, seeing themselves as part of the team. A 2000 study, published in the National Institute of Justice Journal, found that murders are much more likely to be solved when police are faster at securing a scene, notifying homicide detectives, and identifying witnesses. Each step in a police killing investigation can go in the opposite direction — which would be considered an unacceptable blunder in just about any other criminal investigation. “Everything is done different” than in a typical murder, Stinson said. “It makes it difficult for prosecutors to figure it out and to make a rational decision, an informed decision, in terms of charging.” Difficulties in the investigation trickle down to prosecutors’ work The differences continue as the case progresses from the officers' and detectives' level to the prosecutor’s office, which is in charge of building the case if it goes to trial. For one, prosecutors have incentives to not push police too hard. They work closely with police on a day-to-day basis — they need officers to swarm at that typical murder scene, gathering evidence needed to prove a case. If prosecutors go after the police, officers could retaliate by slacking at their jobs — not unheard of, as cases of “blue flu” attest to — and leave the prosecutor unable to do their job in court. If prosecutors do push ahead with an investigation into an officer, though, they’re much less likely to get cooperation from the police, as that blue wall of silence rears its head again. This isn’t theoretical. After the 2017 Minneapolis police killing of Justine Damond, Hennepin County prosecutor Mike Freeman complained he could not get much cooperation from officers to prove the charges against the shooting officer, Mohamed Noor. Although Noor was ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison, the path to get there was difficult. “A number of the officers, for reasons we do not understand … refused to come answer questions,” Freeman said in 2018. “I’ve been privileged to have this job nearly 18 years, I’ve never had police officers who weren’t suspects refuse to do their duty and come forward to talk to us.” That’s if a prosecutor seeks charges at all. Knowing the hurdles involved from the start, a lot of prosecutors don’t pursue these cases to begin with. The collision of policy and culture protects police from the start This kind of dynamic — in which the law, policy, and culture work together to protect police — helps explain why officers are prosecuted for murder or manslaughter in less than 2 percent of fatal shootings, based on Stinson’s data. Many, perhaps even most, of the shootings are justified, as a police officer was in genuine danger or had the legal right to use lethal force. But Stinson said he’s skeptical that the correct rate of justified shootings is really less than 2 percent: “In my opinion, it’s got to be that more of the fatal shootings are unjustified.” Policy could help. From the start, officers could be guided to not approach police killing investigations with a bias toward letting their colleagues go free. The law could be changed to raise the standard for when use of force is justified. Putting independent prosecutors, who don’t have a direct relationship with the officers being investigated, in charge of cases could help. But as the beginning of a police investigation makes clear, much of the problem is cultural. At some level, fellow officers have to be invested in holding one other accountable. Other actors in the justice system, policymakers, and the public have to expect it from police, too. This might require complicating the image of all police officers as unquestioned heroes who always do the right thing. Otherwise, investigations into police officers will go wrong from the very start. And verdicts like Chauvin’s will remain rare. For more on why it’s difficult to prosecute police, read Vox’s full explainer.
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vox.com
Chauvin’s conviction shouldn’t obscure how broken our criminal justice system is
In the lead-up to the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer now convicted of the murder of George Floyd, demonstrators gathered in various cities around America. Here, protesters in Chicago marched on March 8. | Scott Olson/Getty Images A criminal justice expert explains how Chauvin’s conviction could undermine broader efforts for police reform. While Americans waited Tuesday for the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Fordham Law professor and prominent criminologist John Pfaff tweeted something grim. He wondered: Would a conviction, “however much justice demands it,” actually be a step forward? “Would an acquittal here,” Pfaff continued, “push more people to demand more radical change? Does a conviction lead too many to think ‘the system corrects itself.’ Or... not?” I genuinely wonder if a conviction, however much justice demands it, is actually—practically, empirically—a step forward.Would an acquittal here push more ppl to demand more radical change? Does a conviction lead too many to think “the system corrects itself.”Or... not?— John Pfaff (@JohnFPfaff) April 20, 2021 An hour later, Chauvin was found guilty on three separate charges: Second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. The verdict, Floyd’s brother Philonise said, meant he and their family are finally “able to breathe again.” But even as the family said the fight for systemic change must go on, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) said the verdict was proof “the justice system works” and Axios reported that senior Democratic and Republican aides said “the convictions have lessened pressure for change.” I spoke with Pfaff about his concerns about how a conviction could undercut broader police and criminal justice reform efforts — concerns that evoke a complicated debate about how to square broader social reform with the individual need for justice for Floyd. Especially as elected officials like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey made widely panned statements insinuating that Floyd was a sacrifice to better Minneapolis and the nation. “There’s this sort of individualistic approach that says when someone does something wrong, we’ll punish them,” Pfaff argues. “But seeing the conviction as a success ignores the fact that Chauvin should perhaps never have been a police officer to begin with or, if he was, he should never have been going after a $20 bill in this way — in every way the system failed. While punishing Chauvin is critical and essential accountability for the harm that he did, it doesn’t address the bigger systemic failings that got us here.” The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Jerusalem Demsas Talk to me about your tweet, why did you start grappling with what an acquittal or conviction would mean for the broader criminal justice fight? John Pfaff A guilty verdict was essential in this case for many reasons, but I think it’s very essential also to understand how limited an accomplishment it is and how limited an outcome it is. It provides much-needed accountability for one particular person who did one specifically bad thing. But I get concerned it will be seen that somehow in this situation our institutions actually worked. And what I was wrestling with is that the risk that seeing the conviction as the system working frames as individualistic something that is much more systemic. That to react after the harm has happened somehow makes up for the fact that we never took the necessary steps to prevent that in the first place. [TV producer] Dick Wolf’s whole career has been built around “law and order”and “Chicago Fire” — not around Health and Human Services and Chicago Department of Buildings. We glorify the fact that once we failed to provide the services and someone is dead, the police heroically show up and solve that problem. Jerusalem Demsas You mentioned in your tweet “demanding more radical change.” What do you think is necessary here? What does accountability look like if it’s not just Derek Chauvin and others who might be implicated in the death of George Floyd are convicted? John Pfaff I think one struggle we have culturally when thinking about what reform should look like is that we have such a narrow, blinkered view of what accountability looks like. The only form of accountability we feel comfortable with is punishment. We definitely want Chauvin to take accountability for his actions but accountability is also the system taking a look at itself and saying “this is what we should have done better.” So we’ve shown that we can correct our mistakes but how do you make sure that there isn’t a future officer to correct? Whether it’s training differently or removing entire swaths of responsibility away from police to begin with. Our view of accountability is just far too narrow and far too individualistic. The system is so big and so sprawling and so uncoordinated and decentralized that any sort of small change you make adapts to it and keeps lumbering mindlessly, decentralized-ly, on the direction it’s going. Real change requires much more of a fundamental upheaval. There’s some concern that these convictions can almost work against that. They can reinforce this sense that these incremental steps get things better and better. Obviously, an acquittal tonight would have been hugely counterproductive also. It certainly would have led to protests, and protests that would have gotten violent. And I know you cited Omar Wasow’s work the other day[that violent protests in the past shifted whites toward voting for Republicans and shifted news agendas, elite discourse, and public concern toward “social control,” not reform]— those kinds of protests only make the system more repressive and more reactionary. So, what a path towards a more fundamental upheaval is not something I have an answer for. But I also have increasingly understood that incremental reforms may make things slightly better but will keep us in the current general universe that we’re in that’s just not working. Jerusalem Demsas Axios just reported that Democratic and Republican senior aides say that the conviction means there’s less likely to be action at the federal level. Is that the sort of response you’re concerned about? John Pfaff Putting aside whether I think there’s much the feds can do, that’s the exact attitude I’m worried about. That we’re going to look at this trial and say that our current system works, orwe say this one bad apple does this really bad thing the courts can come in and fix it. But the expression is “one bad apple ruins the bunch.” What you see in Axios’s reporting is exactly the fear I have. There’s this sort of individualistic approach saying when someone does something wrong, we’ll punish them. But seeing the conviction as a success ignores the fact that Chauvin should perhaps never have been a police officer to begin with or, if he was, he should never have been going after a $20 bill in this way — in every way the system failed. While punishing Chauvin is critical and essential accountability for the harm that he did, it doesn’t address the bigger systemic failings that got us here. Jerusalem Demsas There’s this tension here where we’re talking about both this individual person, George Floyd, who was murdered, and we have a system of justice that is set up to provide some sort of recompense for that. And then there’s this larger conversation about what that death can turn into or what it can or should mean. And people often cringe away from that because it dehumanizes the individual. How do we reconcile the fact that this is both an intensely personal individual decision about one man’s murder and also that it has had massive implications for criminal justice reform in this country? The largest movement in American history happened last year following George Floyd’s death. So how do we think about those things? John Pfaff It’s challenging. I think sometimes economists — and this is where I come from — tend to err on the side of reducing the humanity of people away to these broader policy questions and that’s not okay. George Floyd’s death demanded accountability from the person who killed him. But that’s a much different question from “what does justice demand from the situation?” So we can say that accountability was achieved today. Accountability for the death of a person, a man, a son, and someone whose life had meaning and was taken away. But that doesn’t get us to justice. Justice is something bigger, and more systemic and demands something more radical and transformative. I do think the way we choose to talk about things can be incredibly important. Words matter. There is something important in what happened today but we need to frame it correctly — to understand just how much wasn’t accomplished. The micro-level accountability did take place, and that is something that is truly important. But it would be just as dehumanizing to try to claim it was anything more. Because to claim it is something more is to put more Black men at risk of being killed down the line. We don’t know who they are yet but if we treat this as too big a win, their lives are put in jeopardy as well. Jerusalem Demsas One of the big theses you’ve worked on is that ending mass incarceration means we have to be more lenient with violent criminals. The amount of nonviolent criminals is just not the driver of mass incarceration. How do we think about that in relation to wanting to convict and sentence police officers who kill civilians? John Pfaff The people who lead and serve in [police] abolitionist projects have been consistent that we need accountability but also that locking up the police doesn’t solve this. The goal is not to lock up a different set of people. I don’t see myself as an abolitionist ... but if they give Chauvin 25 or 30 years, that would still, I would argue, be excessive. I said it’s excessive for other cases, it would be excessive for this one too. Language matters. This isn’t about being lenient towards people who commit violent crimes, we should think differently about what accountability means. It may not necessarily be more lenient — plenty of people who have gone through restorative justice programs have said it’s almost harder than prison. You’re forced to sit there with the people you’ve hurt and talk about what you’ve done and what the consequences of your behavior are for them and their families. That’s really hard. That’s not necessarily lenient, it’s just different. It doesn’t have that retributive edge to it that we sometimes view as essential. When you punish your own children — I don’t lock my kids in their room for three days and say anything less than that is “lenient.” What helps my son understand what he did and take responsibility for that? We have internalized so deeply the sense that the prison and the police officer — that’s where everything starts and stops — that anything else feels lenient, even if it might accomplish deeper forms of accountability and justice more successfully.
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vox.com
Taylor Swift’s songs haven’t changed. But she has.
Taylor Swift performs at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards in March. | Photo by TAS Rights Management 2021 via Getty Images On the re-recorded version of her 2008 album Fearless, the artist’s new perspective on her work shines through. If you read the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen” without knowing anything about the song, you might easily assume they were written by an adult woman looking back wistfully on her adolescence. Told in a series of autobiographical vignettes, “Fifteen” follows Swift and her best friend, Abigail, through their freshman year of high school, as the two become friends and date boys who end up treating them poorly. (Teenage boys, it turns out, aren’t always the nicest.) They learn lessons about broken hearts and forever friendships. And as she sings, Swift looks back on that period in her life with a kind of bittersweet fondness. She didn’t know then what she knows now, and that made all the difference. Near the end of the song, she muses: I’ve found time can heal most anythingAnd you just might find who you’re supposed to beI didn’t know who I was supposed to beAt fifteen That sweetly devastating lyric has the feeling of looking back on adolescence after many intervening years. In particular, the idea that Swift didn’t know who she was supposed to be at 15 sounds like a woman in her 20s or 30s smiling and shaking her head at the many twists her life has taken since then. “Fifteen” is a fairly famous song, so you might well know that Swift wrote it in her own teen years, and released it on the album Fearless in 2008, when she was just 18 years old. Which is not to say that teenagers can’t experience nostalgia for their younger selves — have you met a graduating senior? But it is to say that “Fifteen” has a world-weariness to it that fit Swift a little awkwardly when Fearless was originally released. Now, thanks to Swift’s decision to re-record all of her old music to gain control of the rights tied to the master recordings, she really is revisiting songs like “Fifteen” from the perspective of a woman in her 30s. And “Fifteen” as released by a 31-year-old Swift sounds surprisingly different from “Fifteen” as released by an 18-year-old Swift, despite little but the singer having changed. Artists revisit their old work more often than you might expect — but the results are hit and miss The impulse for an artist to revisit their old work can spark from a number of places. They might feel they didn’t quite get something right the first time. They might now have the power to finally do something with their art they couldn’t do when it first came out. They might just be older and have a new perspective. I don’t know that I’ve ever met an artist who can look at even their most acclaimed work and say, “Yeah, that’s perfect as it is.” Artists are tinkerers, and no matter how good something is, there’s something that got left behind on the journey from their brain onto the canvas or page. But it’s relatively rare for a revisited work to turn out better than the original. The Star Wars special editions, for instance, are perfectly fine movies, but their ungainly CGI effects and weird storytelling choices don’t improve upon the original cuts. (Then again, as someone who first saw the Star Wars movies before the special editions existed, I would say that.) Stephen King’s expanded edition of The Stand is totally fine, if you like that sort of thing, but I’m not sure the many extra pages add anything all that special. But both King and Star Wars director George Lucas (and numerous other filmmakers and authors who have tweaked their work over the years but were less famous than King and Lucas) were making changes to their established works in an effort to improve them, not starting over from the beginning. What Swift is doing is different. Though her motivations largely stem from wanting to have creative control over her extensive catalog (and though the Billboard charts seem to bear out her creative instinct), she’s also following in a long tradition of musicians who re-record their most famous songs years down the line to show how they’ve changed. Joni Mitchell, for instance, first released “Both Sides, Now” (the one where she looks at clouds from both sides, now) in 1968, and it went on to become one of her most famous songs, inspiring covers by everyone from Judy Collins to Willie Nelson to Carly Rae Jepsen. But Mitchell herself revisited the song 32 years later, on Both Sides Now, a 2000 album in which she performed covers of jazz standards with backing from jazz musicians. In addition to those standards, Mitchell included covers of “Both Sides, Now” and her 1971 song “A Case of You.” If you listen to Mitchell’s pure and crystalline vocals on the 1968 and 1971 recordings alongside her more weathered offerings on the 2000 recording, you’ll hear a woman whose maturation, both as a singer and an artist, allowed her a new perspective on a song that ostensibly hadn’t changed. “Both Sides, Now” was still a song about seeing life from multiple perspectives and learning to embrace that complexity. And when she re-recorded it, the weight of that idea was even more obvious. The practice of re-recording old songs extends beyond Mitchell, too. Just consider Bruce Springsteen, U2, Brian Wilson, the Righteous Brothers, and many others, all of whom have revisited old material for wildly different reasons. (And that’s before we get to artists who perform different arrangements of their most popular songs in concert.) Swift’s re-recording of her 2008 songs isn’t as radical a reinvention, but in trying to literally remake “Taylor’s version” of Fearless, she’s revealed just how much she has matured and changed as an artist since writing it. And the result is deeply fascinating. Taylor Swift’s songs haven’t changed. But she has. Though I am an avowed Taylor Swift super-fan, I always held Fearless at arm’s length. You don’t have to have been 15 to have appreciated “Fifteen” in 2008, but I’m willing to bet it helped. Swift has been a clear and prodigious songwriting talent since she first became a star in 2006, but her talent could bump up against the naturally limited perspective anybody has as a teenager. As an example, consider “You Belong With Me,” one of Swift’s few big hits that I’ve just never gotten on board with. That song was the centerpiece of the early 2010s discourse over whether Swift’s music was somehow anti-feminist, because of how she had a tendency to frame many of her songs as tales of good-hearted girls next door pining away for cute boys who fell for cheerleader jezebels. Even then, I thought this anti-feminist reading ignored how willing Swift was to play both women in that dichotomy — including literally in the song’s music video — and how playfully over the top her music could be in its yearning. But the gap between Swift’s songwriting talent and the raw emotionality of her subject matter created a kind of earnest vulnerability that could be alienating to those of us who, at the time, were about to lose the “young” in front of “adult.” And “You Belong With Me” thrived on earnest vulnerability and raw emotionality. (It could also be alienating to those of us who prided ourselves on being detached and above it all because we would need to start taking synthesized estrogen to truly get in touch with our own earnest vulnerability and raw emotionality, but that might just be me.) Now it’s almost 13 years later, and I am obsessed with the 2021 re-recording of “You Belong With Me,” even though outwardly it shows very little difference from the original. One difference is readily obvious, I think: Swift’s singing voice is much, much better in 2021 than it was in 2008. Her vocals on her earliest recordings were a bit thin — not bad, but really not her greatest strength. In her 30s, as a product of both her age and just having been singing professionally for so much longer, her voice is stronger all around. Where 2008 Swift sometimes chased high notes she could barely cling to, 2021 Swift is much more comfortable settling into her natural alto range. (Listen to the 2008 version and you’ll hear Swift pushing her vocals so they sit just on top of the pitch, like a hat; in the 2021 version, she sounds much more comfortable settling into the exact middle of a note, like a belt. The notes are the same; her approach is different.) To my mind, though, the even more notable difference between these two recordings is the perspective that the passage of time naturally brings to Swift’s delivery. An 18-year-old singing about how deeply she longs for the boy of her dreams will inevitably have a different outlook from her 31-year-old self, now in a successful romantic relationship, looking back on that young woman. “You Belong With Me” has an element of over-the-top theatricality to it that Swift has always been aware of, but where the 2008 version hitched that theatricality to the franticness of furiously texting your best friend after learning that your crush was dating your worst enemy, the 2021 version is warmer and more empathetic. It’s gonna be okay, kid, Swift seems to say to herself, even as she has a smile on her face at how excessive her teen angst can be. The song hasn’t changed; the singer has. Swift has also revealed across the rest of her career just how good she is at writing songs in so many different popular music idioms, so hearing her return to her country music roots after nearly a decade of making pop music has a similar sense of homecoming.And because the emotional tone of country music is so often nakedly nostalgic for something within the singer’s memory but no longer available to them, just the simple act of having aged gives Swift an advantage in returning to this form. (It will be interesting to see how her perspective shifts on, say, the poppier 1989 when she re-records it.) But our understanding of Swift as listeners has changed too. Her 2008 self was on the cusp of becoming a global superstar, so her image was somehow at once more malleable (we didn’t know a lot about her ...) and more susceptible to “definitive interpretation” (... so lots of other people could tell us what her deal was). In 2021, as a global superstar, Swift’s persona can now encompass everything from queer readings (notice how the singer of “You Belong With Me” lavishes so much attention on this other girl and not their mutual crush?) to anti-anti-feminist readings that directly rebut earlier interpretations of her work. Swift’s ubiquity, paradoxically, makes it possible to shape her work into whatever you need it to be to enjoy it. When Swift began the process of re-recording her old songs, I was entertained by the thought of her foiling the plans of the much-loathed music exec Scooter Braun, but I also wondered if there was really so much to gain from revisiting this music, to make it worth the time and effort she might otherwise invest in making new stuff. (Swift, who released two albums of new music in 2020, can clearly do both at once, so who knows what I was worried about.) Now, I’m all in. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is both a terrific album in and of itself and a fascinating document of a woman accidentally exposing herself in the process of trying to literally recreate who she was more than a decade ago. After hearing it, I’ve come to view Swift’s re-recordings as one of the most captivating creative projects across all of American pop culture right now, and I can’t wait for more. The songs haven’t changed, but the singer has. (Taylor, if you’re reading this, and if I may be so bold as to call you “Taylor”: Do Speak Now next? That album is super underrated.) And to get nakedly autobiographical (my new friend Taylor would want it that way): Maybe I just love this version of Fearless so much because I’ve changed too. We all have. I really do believe that Swift’s maturation as a singer and a human has brought something new to her old songs, but it would be very silly to pretend that my life is no different in 2021 than it was in 2008, in ways both immediately obvious and in ways that I’m still not aware of. I wasn’t really me in 2008, and I had a tendency to define myself not by who I was but by who I wasn’t. Sure, I found Taylor Swift songs catchy, but I wasn’t a fan! I was a cool guy critic! I wrote about pop culture on the internet! You wouldn’t catch me praising something so nakedly mainstream. But I wasn’t that person after all, and being a critic wasn’t about blindly lashing out at things I didn’t like in an attempt to define myself against them. I was an adult woman, whose Swift fandom was fluttering around inside of me. Those songs struck me as so impossibly catchy because they were trying to lead me back to who I had been all along. And now, here I am, in 2021, the same but incredibly different, and getting to hear these songs again, with fresh ears, feels like an unexpected gift. The songs haven’t changed, but the listener has.
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