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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Is Moderna Really Better Than Pfizer—Or Is It Just a Higher Dose?
Way back in February, when COVID-19 vaccines were still largely restricted to the most vulnerable among us, public-health leaders were determined to send a unified message: Don’t worry about the differences among the vaccines. “All three of them are really quite good, and people should take the one that’s most available to them,” Anthony Fauci said on Meet the Press.Now that hundreds of millions of vaccine doses have been distributed in the United States, we have plenty of reason to doubt that story. A recent (but not yet peer-reviewed) study of more than half a million U.S. veterans showed that the Johnson & Johnson shot’s protection against infection (whether or not that leads to disease or hospitalization) had plummeted from 88 percent to 3 percent by mid-August, while the other vaccines’ effectiveness had declined much less. Research published in the past few months also signals that Moderna’s shot beats out Pfizer’s in terms of both antibody count and hospitalizations prevented, while a National Institutes of Health study released earlier this month found that Moderna’s booster shot lifted participants’ antibody levels a bit more than Pfizer’s, and that both mRNA boosters were miles ahead of J&J’s.In light of all these data, it’s tempting to rank the vaccines by brand name: Moderna is better than Pfizer is better than J&J. But the same numbers hint at a different pattern: Maybe what matters most is not which vaccine you get, but how much of it.Consider how the vaccines differ in their dosing. J&J, the least effective in the studies, has only one shot in its primary series; the mRNA vaccines have two. So anyone who got J&J (and hasn’t yet gotten a booster) received half as many doses total. Comparing Pfizer with Moderna, you see another dose difference: Each shot of Pfizer contains 30 micrograms of mRNA, while each one of Moderna contains 100. (Doses for children could also differ in size: Pfizer has proposed 10-microgram shots, while Moderna is going with 50.) Just how much of the difference in the shots’ performance can be summed up by saying “More vaccine is better”?“More vaccine” is not a simple proposition. For one thing, doses of Pfizer and Moderna are measured in mass of mRNA lipid nanoparticles; J&J doses are measured by counting the number of harmless adenovirus particles that each one contains (about 50 billion). You can’t really compare lipid nanoparticles with viral particles, several experts told me. According to Michael Arand of the University of Zurich’s Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology, you shouldn’t even assume that each 50-billion-particle dose of J&J will be equivalent in size to the next one, since, depending on the details of production, some particles can be more infectious than others. A better dosage measure for adenovirus-based vaccines, he argued in a recent opinion paper, would be “infectious units.” When I asked him via email whether developing a standard measure that works across different vaccine platforms might be possible, he said, “I do not think so.”Comparing doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is much easier, since their mechanisms are so similar. Each shot of Moderna delivers more than three times as much of the active ingredient, compared with Pfizer, and seems to induce a higher antibody count and lead to more durable protection against infection and hospitalization. “Over time, that higher dose might be what is driving the difference in protective efficacy,” John Moore, a microbiology and immunology professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, told me.[Read: “I have an 11-year-old who’s turning 12 in three weeks. Should I wait? The higher dose seems better, right?”]The vaccines have differed in their dosing schedules too. Vaccinated (and un-boosted) Americans have received 60 micrograms of Pfizer over a period of three weeks, 200 micrograms of Moderna over four weeks, or 50 billion particles of J&J in one sitting. It’s apples and oranges, except you have to wolf down the apple all at once, and some of the oranges are tangerines, and you can eat only a few slices at a time.Even the one-week difference between Pfizer’s schedule and Moderna’s could be important. Mark Slifka, an immunologist at Oregon Health and Science University, told me that it could play into Moderna’s slightly longer-lasting protection. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, pointed out that the AstraZeneca vaccine—an adenovirus-vector design like J&J’s—also seems to provide more protection when its doses are spaced further apart.The number of vaccine doses you receive also matters, no matter their specific size and schedule. Slifka thinks that the number of times you get a vaccine is far more important than the amount of it delivered in each syringe. Getting more than one dose “is actually the great equalizer among vaccinations,” he said, because it teaches the immune system that a particular threat should be taken seriously. Having multiple rounds of a moderately sized dose may also be better than taking one megadose, because the more vaccine you get at once, the worse your side effects are likely to be. “With the mRNA vaccines and the adenovirus vectors, there’s an upper limit to how much you can give [in one dose] before it’s just not a good idea,” Slifka said.American public-health agencies haven’t yet come out and said it, but J&J “is really a two-dose vaccine,” Rasmussen told me. Paul Offit, who directs the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that J&J may turn out to be “every bit as good as the mRNA vaccines” when compared two doses to two doses. He also suspects that a single dose of J&J would prevent more hospitalizations and deaths than a single dose of Pfizer or Moderna.But that opinion is far from universal. “I have absolutely no doubt that adenoviruses are inferior technology to the mRNAs,” Moore said. Many fans of J&J’s shot speculate that its protection against hospitalization and death could last longer than the other vaccines’, thanks to the way it tickles a particular set of immune-system actors called T cells, which help prevent infections from progressing into severe disease. ​​“There’s a sort of T-cell mafia around,” Moore said, but some studies have shown that the mRNA vaccines produce T-cell responses with at least as much vigor as J&J’s. He says that antibodies are a better proxy for protection anyway, and the Moderna and Pfizer options consistently produce more of them in the vaccinated.[Read: Delay a shot? Skip one? Vaccine-dosing messaging is a nightmare.]A few experts continue to suspect that all three vaccines are somewhat interchangeable. Slifka, for example, thinks that the differences between the adenovirus and the mRNA formulas—the ways they target our cells, the nature of the immune response they raise in us—might not be particularly relevant to the protection they provide. “Both of them are nanoparticles. One is a virus nanoparticle and the other one is a lipid nanoparticle, but they’re both doing the same thing,” he said: delivering genetic material into human cells so those cells can produce the coronavirus’s distinctive spike protein and give the immune system target practice for when the real invader arrives.We’ll likely never know for sure how much of the difference among vaccines can be chalked up to their formulas, and how much comes from other factors. In theory, researchers could untangle those questions by running enormous randomized controlled trials of slightly larger and smaller doses of each shot, and of different intervals between (same-size) shots. But with half of the world still yet to receive a single dose of any COVID-19 vaccine, and plenty of good-enough regimens already identified, no one is going to devote resources to such fine-grained questions.“If last year hadn’t been such a shitstorm,” Moore said, “all of these issues would have been ironed out.” For now, we’ll have to keep bumbling forward with our clunky toolbox of boosters and waiting periods and half-doses—and count our blessings to live in a country where we have the luxury of asking how much vaccine is the best amount.
2 h
How to Believe Ghost Stories Without Believing in Ghosts
Your aunt says she was unable to sleep a wink because her Airbnb on the Cape was haunted by a pirate. Your uncle, who survived a heart attack, claims to have a new zeal for life after talking with his deceased father in heaven. Does believing their stories mean believing in ghosts?No, it doesn’t. Because a story can be true in different ways.Now is the time for ghost stories—and not just the kind intended to scare the kids at night. It’s also the perfect moment to reconsider how we think about other seemingly unexplainable tales. If someone tells you they’ve seen a ghost—or had a near-death experience (NDE) in which they departed their corporeal self—resist the urge to scoff. There's a difference between ghost stories that are accurate and ones that are real.Unlike the scary stories we like to tell in the dark, first-person reports of ghost sightings warrant a presumption of truth. Unless you have good reason to think otherwise, trust that your aunt really did see a specter and that your uncle really did hear his dad’s voice. The fact that they saw and heard these things helps explain why she’s so tired and he’s so energized. And rather than rolling our eyes at stories that sound unexplainable, we can accept the profundity of these experiences and respect their sincerity without being committed to their accuracy.[Read: Why do people believe in ghosts?]Experience, after all, doesn’t always match reality. Consider hallucinations, a term we don’t often associate with the supernatural. When people hallucinate, they see and hear things that aren’t there—like that time your college roommate took some mushrooms and kept insisting that the rose on his Salvador Dalí poster was blooming. Accepting reports of what a person experienced can help explain their behavior, even if we know it was the result of a chemical imbalance or something they ingested.You might worry that comparing supernatural experiences to hallucinations stigmatizes those who see ghosts by suggesting they are mentally ill or on drugs. But drawing parallels with hallucinations is stigmatizing only if our presumption is that there is something wrong with having hallucinations in the first place. We need not accept this.Hallucinations occur for many reasons and are quite widespread. How many times have you felt your phone vibrate in your pocket, only to realize you didn’t actually get a text? Being the subject of a hallucinatory experience is nothing to be ashamed of.Moreover, comparing ghost sightings and other supernatural experiences to hallucinations can be illuminating. The results of induced hallucination studies, for example, may provide a window through which we can better understand what’s going on with ghost stories. In both cases, we have reason to think that what people perceive is influenced by their prior expectations. The subjects in these studies are primed to expect to hear a beep when they see a light, and that’s what happens, even when no beep occurs. Similarly, we can suppose that your aunt saw the ghost pirate because she read a comment in the guestbook that the house is haunted. She was expecting him! To reject the parallel between hallucinations and ghost sightings out of hand would be to unnecessarily curtail our powers of explanation.All of this can be easily applied to stories like your aunt’s encounter. We may not believe she saw a ghost, but we believe that she believes she saw one—and that therefore her experience was real. But what about your uncle’s chat with his dead father? Here we have a different category of ghost story altogether. And some insist that NDEs like your uncle’s prove the existence of the supernatural.Let’s look at a particularly compelling case reported by the cardiologist and NDE researcher Pim van Lommel. A heart-attack patient’s dentures were still missing a few days after he had been resuscitated in the hospital. One day while he was still in recovery, he recognized the nurse who had removed them from his mouth days earlier—and it all came back to him. Lo and behold, they were in the cart drawer, where the patient said the nurse had placed them! But how did he know? He was unconscious when the nurse had taken his dentures out. Because, he said, he’d been floating above his body during the procedure and had seen it all happen.[From the April 2015 issue: The science of near-death experiences]This experience contains a detail—the dentures in the drawer—that matches what occurred at the time the person was unconscious. It’s not clear how the man could’ve known this if he wasn’t floating above his body. This NDE seems to support belief in the supernatural by giving us reason to accept the reality of a disembodied consciousness. It seems to provide us with a firsthand story about a real ghost.We have plenty of reasons to resist this conclusion. For starters, accepting the supernatural explanation requires accepting the truth of things we can’t, even in principle, measure or observe. It requires giving up on the explanatory completeness of science. And it’s not clear we should do that yet. The fact that we don’t currently have a scientifically sound explanation for how this man could have known the whereabouts of his dentures doesn’t mean we won’t have one in the future. Science has been enormously successful in catching up with the apparently unexplainable, and it won’t stop.In the meantime, Team Supernatural can point to a ready explanation for how the man knew about his dentures: He was a disembodied mind. The only thing Team Science can offer in response is a request for patience. Isn’t this just trading faith in the supernatural for faith in science?Not quite. Team Science may not, at the moment, have an explanation handy for this man’s NDE, but its track record should instill confidence. Meanwhile, it isn’t in a worse position than Team Supernatural—both have some explaining to do.Even if we accept that this man knew his dentures were put in the drawer by granting that he was, for a time, a disembodied mind, the supernaturalist then has to explain how this mind could function in connection with this same body both before and after the NDE. Most of what this man has seen in his life, he’s seen through his eyeballs. Team Science reminds us that we know something about how a physical brain receives visual inputs from physical eyeballs. How does a nonphysical mind receive visual inputs from physical eyeballs? Team Supernatural still faces the task of explaining how the physical and nonphysical can interact.Until the believer in ghosts can provide a compelling explanation for this, it seems best to stick with science and believe some ghost stories without believing in ghosts.
4 h
The Disguises We Wear Every Day
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.A pandemic Halloween raises a number of questions about masking. Do we wear our COVID masks under our Halloween masks, or over them? Has the CDC issued guidelines on which costumes can best accommodate an N95 underneath? What will Anthony Fauci and Rochelle Walensky be wearing?Layering our literal masks sounds like a pain. But figuratively, many of us do this every day when we cloak our identities or true feelings by suppressing our thoughts or acting in certain ways. Some of these masks we like, and some we don’t. Some we are forced to wear to get along in life, and others we wear voluntarily and are afraid to remove.The merits of metaphorical masking are hotly debated. Some commentators exhort us to be our authentic selves for the sake of mental health and personal integrity; to disguise yourself is, in the immortal parlance of Holden Caulfield, to be a contemptible “phony.” Others support some amount of repression of our true selves when we’re out in the world; the political columnist George Will, for example, argues that doing so is a simple requirement of “civilization.” He regrets a good deal of the authenticity that we currently see in public life.[Gilad Edelman: Authenticity just means faking it well]Both sides are a little bit right. In the appropriate contexts, masking your true self can be healthy and freeing. And some inhibitions are a basic part of a functioning society. But when masking is a permanent and central part of your work or life, something is seriously amiss. Just as a surgical mask can’t be worn 24/7, our metaphorical masks must come off eventually.Putting on masks and disguises is undeniably fun. Most of us have happy childhood memories of dressing up for Halloween; since Halloween celebrations with disguises gained popularity in the United States during the great Irish immigration of the 1840s, the holiday has become Americans’ third-most favorite by some accounts, beaten out by only Christmas and Thanksgiving. During Carnival, celebrated before Lent in Catholic countries such as Italy and Brazil, adults can let loose in anonymous abandon before repenting for their sins for the subsequent 40 days. The German language has a special word for the happiness such customs bring: Maskenfreiheit—the freedom found behind a mask.[Read: Trick-or-treating isn’t what it used to be]The bliss of Maskenfreiheit can be literal; at Carnival celebrations, for example, hiding your face protects you from the judgments of others. But it doesn’t have to be. Think of the feeling you get when you are in a setting where you know absolutely no one. Maybe moving to a new city as a teenager changed your life for the better. Maybe you get a small thrill from striking up a conversation in a hotel bar with a stranger, in which you say things you would never tell someone you know. Maybe traveling solo makes you feel invincible.We also can find Maskenfreiheit in a crowd, even when we know everyone around us. Researchers have found that losing yourself in a group identity (also known as “the hive mind”) for defined periods of time can be an intensely pleasurable experience. Just look at the faces of people in religious ecstasy as a group—or at a Rolling Stones concert, for that matter—and you can see this phenomenon at work.Metaphorical masking becomes a problem when it is not voluntary. In many cases we feel obliged to hide our true emotions, particularly when they are negative. Such a mask is difficult to maintain. Consider the so-called Pan Am smile, named for flight attendants of the now-defunct airline, who were instructed to smile at passengers no matter what they were feeling. Genuine smiles of happiness involve two main groups of muscles: the zygomaticus major muscles, which pull up the corners of the mouth, and the orbicularis oculi muscles, which crinkle the corners of the eyes. In a Pan Am smile, the mouth does its duty. But the eyes fail to cooperate. Experiments show that people can usually tell the difference between genuine and fake smiles because of that difference around the eyes, which is why you can tell if someone is happy even behind their COVID mask.The fact that our masks can be transparent doesn’t stop us from wearing them, and from expecting others around us to do so for the sake of politeness. This can exact a toll on us. In one experiment, psychologists asked participants to field fake customer complaints at a hypothetical railroad call center. They were told to either defend themselves when people were rude or remain polite and friendly no matter what. Those in the second group experienced higher blood pressure and cardiac stress than those in the first, and were worse at expressing themselves during conversation. This experiment is a specific example of what researchers call “emotional labor”—effort exerted just to maintain an acceptable demeanor—which has been found to lower well-being.[Read: The concept creep of ‘emotional labor’]Perhaps you can relate to this if you have had a job or a relationship that stimulated strong or negative feelings that you were expected to suppress, day in and day out. This is physically and emotionally exhausting. You find your life satisfaction draining away—not only because of the unrewarding effort of pretending away your feelings but also because you are never allowed to bring your whole self into your career or your love.Throwing out our COVID masks once and for all would be a relief. Our emotional masks are another matter, however. A world in which everyone expresses themselves completely freely is unimaginable, and probably undesirable. I, for one, would surely have been fired many times without my masks. But all of us can mask and unmask in healthier ways than we’re used to. Here are three rules for doing so.1. Take a break from yourself.All good vacations have one ingredient in common: They make our unrelenting responsibilities and schedules stop for a little while, so we can rest without being harassed by our own commitments. The same idea applies to the responsibility of being you. The energy required to maintain your identity is probably greater than you realize, and finding a way to relinquish it regularly can help you recharge. Engaging in hive activities, such as religion and group entertainment, is an easy way to take a vacation from yourself. Or if you have more time and money on your hands, you might follow in the footsteps of the millionaire Malcolm Forbes, who at age 48 took up motorcycling around the country in relative anonymity. The key is to release yourself from your own constraints.[Read: What I learned about love when I stopped being honest]2. Remove your mask around those you love the most.Once, many years ago at preschool pickup, I watched my son play merrily with his friends for a few minutes before he caught sight of me. As soon as I called out to him, the smile left his face and he ran to me crying, telling me about all the horrors that had befallen him that day. “What gives?” I asked the teacher. She laughed and told me it’s classic: Kids are masked up all day but rip off the disguise as soon as their parents show up, because they know they are emotionally safe to do so.The point is not that my son should have been unfailingly “authentic” at school; it’s that he needed to be authentic with me and knew he could be. And the same is true for you. Your most important relationships—the ones in which you invest the lion’s share of your time and energy, whether they’re personal or professional—require you to be able to be yourself. If you are masked up 24 hours a day, something needs to change.[Read: How ‘service with a smile’ takes a toll on women]3. Make sure you like what’s behind your mask.As exhausting as keeping up the mask can be, letting it drop might be a terrifying prospect if you don’t especially like what it’s hiding. Maybe you are ashamed of carrying anger and hostility, or the sadness you keep bottled up inside. In cases like these, staying masked means missing out on an opportunity to face reality and make some positive changes. Research has shown that self-acceptance can lower anxiety and protect your mood in the face of setbacks—and isn’t associated with depression. You can even change personality traits you don’t like in yourself, but doing so requires honesty and conscious intervention.[Read: Can personality be changed?]In 1836, Nathaniel Hawthorne published a short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which chronicles the life of a small-town parson who one day begins to wear a veil over his face. He will not give a reason, and refuses to remove it at any time, even when his fiancée asks him to. She eventually breaks off their engagement, and people avoid the parson’s company. Even dying sinners, as the minister gives them a last blessing, “shuddered at the veiled face so near their own.” He wears the veil for the rest of his life.The story is absurd, almost Kafkaesque. And yet it forces any reader to consider their own black veil and the cost of it in life. “All through life that piece of crepe … had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love,” Hawthorne writes. The mask trapped the minister “in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.”The problem wasn’t the parson’s literal veil but the barrier he voluntarily created between himself and everyone around him, including those he loved the most. Hawthorne’s point almost 200 years ago still stands today: Don’t let your metaphorical mask cut you off from yourself, and from the generative love of others that you need and deserve.
4 h
Trump Endorses His Legacy
Brazil’s next presidential election is a year away, but Donald Trump already knows whom he is supporting. “President Jair Bolsonaro and I have become great friends over the past few years,” the former president said in a statement on Tuesday. “He fights hard for, and loves, the people of Brazil—Just like I do for the people of the United States.”Reading between the lines, Trump’s support for the embattled Brazilian president, who faces potential criminal charges over his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t rooted in just their shared politics or leadership style. By endorsing Bolsonaro, Trump is endorsing his own legacy.Bolsonaro, after all, is one of the key figures maintaining Trumpism on the international stage. Like the former American president, Bolsonaro continues to balk at the threat posed by the pandemic, eschewing shutdowns and basic public-health measures such as wearing face masks. He is a purveyor of misinformation and has been known to attack experts, including those within his own government, who disagree with him. Even before the pandemic, Bolsonaro fancied himself the “Trump of the Tropics,” modeling his campaign and much of his presidency after his American counterpart. (Unlike the former president, however, Bolsonaro is unvaccinated—a status that relegated him to eating pizza on the sidewalk during the United Nations General Assembly, owing to New York City’s requirement that indoor diners provide proof of vaccination.)Even after Trump left the White House this year, Bolsonaro’s affinity for him didn’t change. If anything, the Brazilian president has doubled down on his commitment to Trump’s politics and, more recently, his repudiation of the democratic process. Bolsonaro has suggested that the only way he could possibly lose next year’s election would be because of “fraud,” in which case he would refuse to hand over power. “I have three alternatives for my future,” he said: “being arrested, killed, or victory.”In many ways, this response was predictable. Bolsonaro was one of the few world leaders to entertain Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud and among the last to recognize his defeat. It stands to reason that in the run-up to his own reelection—which polls predict he could lose to Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—he would want to lay the groundwork for his own voter-fraud claims. It also helps that Bolsonaro isn’t the first candidate to question the integrity of Brazil’s elections. Following the country’s close 2014 presidential contest, the center-right candidate suggested that the incumbent Dilma Rousseff’s victory was a result of foul play, but has since admitted “that this was just a ruse to sow doubt and to challenge the legitimacy of the president who had been reelected,” says Gustavo Ribeiro, the founder of The Brazilian Report, an English-language website on Brazilian politics and economics. Bolsonaro has since taken such claims further, even suggesting that his own 2018 victory was tainted by fraud (like Trump in 2016, he believes that he should have won more votes).[Anne Applebaum: Democracy is surprisingly easy to undermine]These days, Bolsonaro’s focus has been trained on the country’s voting system, which has been electronic for more than two decades. Although the system was designed to prevent abuse, Bolsonaro claims that it’s uniquely susceptible to mishandling. For this reason, Bolsonaro has advocated for the return to paper ballots—a proposal that was rejected by Brazilian lawmakers. But Ribeiro says this still works to the president’s advantage: “Bolsonaro is using that to say, ‘They don’t want us to really know what are the real results,’ and he’s trying to use that to sow doubt in the legitimacy of the process.”Bolsonaro isn’t the only leader who has flirted with Trump’s 2020 playbook. In Israel, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only grudgingly exited the official prime-ministerial residence following the formation of a new coalition government—one that Netanyahu declared was the result of “the greatest election fraud” in the history of democracy. In Peru, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the country’s former autocratic leader Alberto Fujimori, attributed her loss to a “systematic intent … to subvert the popular will.” Like Trump’s, both claims were determined to be baseless, and neither candidate was successful in overturning their electoral result.But in many ways, this hardly matters. Although Trump failed to overturn the result of the 2020 election, his efforts weren’t entirely futile. He succeeded in maintaining control of his party, which has largely backed his claims, and has managed to reinvigorate his base of supporters, who are primed for a Trump presidential bid in 2024. Perhaps most damaging of all, he successfully convinced millions of Americans that their electoral process can no longer be trusted. By following in Trump’s footsteps, world leaders might not be able to retain power, but they can at the very least create a new wave of grievance—one that they and their allies can ride into the next election, and the next, and the next.[Uri Friedman: The damage will last]This is what many Trumpian world leaders appear to be counting on. In anticipation of a close race, and facing the emergence of a united opposition, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has already begun the process of undermining the results of next year’s contest. Electoral interference “will happen,” Orbán told the Fox News host Tucker Carlson in August. “We are aware of that and we are prepared for that.”This is Trump’s global legacy. By sowing distrust in democracy at home, the American president designed a blueprint that like-minded leaders have been able to follow. Whether they are successful or not is immaterial. As far as Trump and his playbook are concerned, electoral concessions, and the notion that democracy depends on every candidate’s willingness to lose gracefully, are a thing of the past. Elections come and go, but grievance is forever.
4 h
The Trump Comeback Looms
Losers don’t usually get a second chance in modern U.S. presidential politics. Back in the days of nominating conventions and party bosses, an Adlai Stevenson or a Thomas Dewey could gain two consecutive nominations. Richard Nixon actually won the presidency in 1968 after losing in 1960. But since the coming of primary contests, it’s win—or retire. Even Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000, was debarred in 2004.Donald Trump, who upended so many previous presidential precedents, now seems likely to upend one more. Trump has to be considered the massive front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination. He’s already running hard, and he’s already dominating the field. Fox News’s intense promotion of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as an alternative to Trump is not working out any better in 2024 than its similar effort on behalf of then–New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2016. Trump dominates in the polls. He has the lead in fundraising. Down-ballot races turn on loyalty to Trump. Potential rivals vow they will not run for president if Trump does.It’s an amazing spectacle, because Donald Trump was no ordinary political loser. He was a huge political loser. He lost the popular vote in two consecutive presidential elections, the second time by a margin of 8 million votes. He led his party to a brutal midterm defeat in 2018 amid the strongest economy since the late 1990s. He was the first president to have been impeached twice, the second time for inciting a mob to invade and attack Congress to overturn a national election result. He now faces more criminal and civil jeopardy than Richard Nixon did ahead of his presidential pardon in 1974.[David Frum: Trump may not have to steal 2024]Trump is campaigning on two themes: nostalgia for the strong pre-pandemic economy, plus resentment over the outcome of the vote in 2020. It’s not much, but it’s enough—enough to force DeSantis, the would-be Trump replacement, into desperate stunts to prove himself Trumpier than Trump: handing out $5,000 rewards to cops who refuse vaccination; identifying himself with a state surgeon general who advises anti-vaxxers to trust their “intuitions.”But nobody is Trumpier than Trump. There’s no Trumpism that’s bigger than Trump. “It’s about a movement, not a man” is a venerable cliché applied to populist politics. In this case, though, it’s about a man, not a movement. In 2016, Trump endorsed allowing transgender people to “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.” In 2017, he crammed through a huge tax cut for the rich. On the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump was negotiating a giveaway trade deal with China. Those are all supposed populist no-no’s. Trump followers paid no mind. If Trump does it, it’s okay. They don’t much care about the content of his politics. They care about its mood.Anybody who follows politics even casually can see the Trump comeback emerging. Well-sourced reporters carefully detail the comeback’s mechanics. But almost nobody is prepared for the malicious destructiveness of what is to come.In a 2011 speech, Donald Trump explained his single top rule in life: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” He’s repeated the same idea over and over again in speeches, tweets, and books published under his byline. In 2024, the targets of Trump’s revenge are American law and American democracy. At a September 25 rally in Perry, Georgia, Trump excoriated state Republican officials who failed to subvert the state election for him. In Iowa two weeks later, Trump delivered more attacks on the 2020 election process, focusing this time on state Republicans who failed to steal Arizona for him.In 2016 and through the early part of Trump’s presidency, there was often an edge of Friars Club comedy to Trump’s rally performances: not very nice comedy, a little out of style in tone and sensibility, but comedy all the same. Not in 2021. Now it’s all dark and bitter.[David A. Graham: America is not ready for Trump’s second term]Here’s video from a Georgia television station of the entirety of Trump’s Perry rally. Trump’s own speech starts at 1:37:38. Watch as much as you can stand and tell me if you detect even a moment of humor, Friars Club or otherwise. The most quoted bit—Trump’s quasi-endorsement of the Democrat Stacey Abrams as a better governor for Georgia than the Republican Brian Kemp—is not any kind of joke. It’s a deliberately delivered challenge, lower jaw jutting beyond the upper teeth, eyes slitted with anger.That’s the guy who wants to return as the 47th president.In Trump’s first term, the country was protected to some degree by his ignorance and ineptitude. He kept trying to do bad things, but it took him a while to figure out how the controls operated, where the kill-switches were located. By the time of his attempt to extort the Ukrainian president, in 2019, Trump had achieved a higher degree of mastery. But by then it was too late. Then the pandemic struck, and Trump bumped into a new wall of failure. In a second Trump presidency, however, the burglars will arrive already knowing how to bypass the alarms and disable the locks. He’ll understand that it’s not enough to install an ally as attorney general—he must control the secondary and tertiary ranks of the Justice Department too. He won’t allow himself to be talked into another chief of staff with an independent sense of duty, such as John Kelly, who averted much harm from the middle of 2017 to the beginning of 2019. It’ll be Mark Meadows types from day one to day last. And he’ll bring with them a new generation of Republican officeholders whose top priority will be rearranging their states’ election laws so that Republicans do not lose power even if they lose the vote.That’s the future Trump is preparing.Be ready.
5 h
The Experiment Podcast: What Does It Mean to Give Away Our DNA?
Listen and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google PodcastsJust as the Navajo researcher Rene Begay started to fall in love with the field of genetics, she learned that the Navajo Nation had banned all genetic testing on tribal land. Now she is struggling to figure out what the future of genetics might look like, and whether the Navajo and other Indigenous communities should be a part of it.Further reading: “Race, Genetics, and Scientific Freedom,” “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” “​​The Search for America’s Atlantis,” “Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Is Not Her Identity”A transcript of this episode will soon be made available. Please check back. Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at episode was produced by Peter Bresnan and Julia Longoria, with help from Tracie Hunte and Alina Kulman. Editing by Jenny Lawton and Emily Botein. Fact-check by Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman, with additional engineering by Joe Plourde. Transcription by Caleb Codding. Special thanks to Pauly Denetclaw.Music by Keyboard (“Ojima,” “Staying In,” and “Being There”), Naran Ratan (“Jam for Bwengo”), Parish Council (“It’s Purple, Not Blue,” “Durdle Door,” and “Scented Letters”), R McCarthy (“Contemplation at Lon Lon”), and Column (“スキャン 「Scan」”), provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional audio from the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program.
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Democrats Might Give Up on a Methane Tax. What if That’s Okay?
Yet another climate provision may be out of the Democrats’ signature spending bill. On Monday, The New York Times and Reuters reported that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of two pivotal Democratic votes, wants to remove the bill’s tax on methane leaks from oil and gas operations. (A spokesperson for Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware whose committee oversees that proposal, denied the reports on Twitter.)Such a cut would cost the bill about 10 percent of its total emissions reductions, according to an analysis from researchers at Princeton. But at least so far, the reaction to its loss has not been as apocalyptic as what greeted the demise of the so-called Clean Electricity Program, one of the few parts of the bill that actually mandated carbon-pollution reductions.The apathy might seem weird because methane is this year’s “it” climate pollutant. Later this week, the Environmental Protection Agency will propose sweeping new rules to limit methane leaks from oil and gas drilling nationwide. The upcoming United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, could see the world’s largest economies adopt a pact to reduce methane pollution by 30 percent by 2030.Regulators are mounting this emergency effort because methane has a distinctive MO as a greenhouse gas: It is both more powerful and more fickle than carbon dioxide. Unlike carbon dioxide, which can persist in the atmosphere for centuries, methane falls out after only a decade or so. But methane is at least 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Even a comparative smidgen of methane can despoil the climate.That’s bad enough, but since 2013, annual global methane emissions have accelerated by 50 percent. Last year saw the biggest jump in methane concentrations on record. At least some of this spike seems to have come from fossil-fuel operations—especially oil and natural-gas infrastructure. That’s partially because the fossil-fuel concoction that we call “natural gas” is about 94 percent methane. (If you turn on a burner on your gas stove, methane comes out.) As North America and Europe have shifted their energy mix to favor natural gas over the past decade, the potential for large methane leaks has increased.So a methane fee sounds great, right? It would charge fossil-fuel companies for each ton of methane that they leak into the atmosphere, punishing them for environmental destruction while generating revenue to fund the rest of the Democrats’ agenda. But beyond that, it would serve as a test case for the sort of pollution pricing that experts eventually hope to deploy on carbon dioxide. Economists have long hoped that passing even a limited, inexpensive carbon tax could clear the way for something bigger: Once governments taste the revenue that such a tax could unleash, they wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from increasing its price or enlarging its scope into other sectors. Perhaps the same thing would happen with a methane tax, which could clear the way for a carbon tax itself.But instead of mourning the potential loss of the methane fee, some policy scholars, economists, and even some of my most ardently pro-carbon-tax sources have shrugged it off, murmuring that the new EPA rules will likely be superior to the fee.Their argument has two parts. The first is technical: The necessary investment in monitoring, reporting, and verifying methane pollution is likely to be high enough that there probably won’t be a big difference between the amount of pollution that the EPA rules could prohibit and what a fee could discourage. Because the tax would be levied on fossil fuels that result in methane leaks, its goal is to create a price difference between “leaky” and “non-leaky” oil and gas. But unlike a carbon tax, which would beset the entire fossil-fuel market, the methane fee likely wouldn’t be expensive enough to change the performance of leaky gas compared with its non-leaky counterpart. That makes it a less useful policy.The second, broader concern is conceptual. Traditionally, a carbon tax treats climate change as an enormous cost-benefit problem. By making it cost money to emit carbon, a carbon tax forces consumers to decide when a pollution-generating activity is worth it. Everyone’s choice will be different, but inherent to the policy is a recognition that, in some cases—an intercontinental flight to see family, perhaps, or a certain form of steelmaking—people and businesses will determine that carbon pollution is worth its social cost.But when methane leaks from oil and gas operations, what’s the worthwhile trade-off? There isn’t one, really; the leaked methane isn’t serving a higher cause like international travel or high-tech manufacturing. It’s just waste. The correct amount of methane leaks from oil and gas operations is zero. That makes it a better candidate for regulation than taxation.Taxation has backfired before in such instances. In the 1970s and ’80s, the European Union decided to discourage the use of leaded gasoline by taxing it, while Canada and the United States chose instead to phase it out. Lead is a deadly poison: It causes diseases of the kidney, heart, and brain; it obstructs children’s healthy development; its prevalence in blood may beis linked to higher crime rates. But by taxing leaded gasoline, the EU turned it into a funding source, making politicians loath to fully abolish it. Canada and the U.S. wound up eliminating leaded gasoline years before the EU did.Should any of this influence Democrats’s decision making? I’m not sure. Perhaps passing climate policy through Congress is so difficult that Democrats should take any opportunity that presents itself, whether or not it’s the most correct one. Or perhaps Democrats should heed the lessons of history and make do with the EPA rules. Either way, this saga shows that passing climate policy isn’t easy even when people agree that something should be done. Larger political, economic, and ethical questions still remain.
5 Lingering Questions About COVID Vaccines for Kids
Some good news finally—finally—appears to be on the horizon for roughly 28 million of the United States’ youngest residents. On the heels of an advisory meeting convened yesterday, the FDA is likely on the cusp of green-lighting a kid-size dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines for Americans ages 5 to 11, a move that’s been months in the making.After the agency’s expected emergency authorization, Pfizer’s formulation will need a recommendation from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who’s expected to weigh in next week, after her own advisory committee holds a vote. But the nation is ready: Already, 15 million pediatric doses of Pfizer’s vaccine—which will be administered at a third of the amount doled out to adults—have become available for states to order in advance.Yesterday’s discussions were tense, understandably so. These immunizations will protect both the kids who get them and the people they mingle with, and they represent one of the few big levers the government has left to pull in the fight against the coronavirus. But as age eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines continues to drop, the risk-benefit calculations get tougher, and more emotional. This age group has been much less likely than others to come down with serious cases of COVID-19. Stacked up alongside that relative resilience are two rare but serious vaccine side effects: myocarditis and pericarditis, or inflammation of the heart and its surrounding tissue, which have appeared more commonly in boys and young men who have received mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines. Most of the cases have been relatively minor—notedly less severe, for instance, than the heart inflammation that can follow a SARS-CoV-2 infection—but the phenomenon remains poorly understood.The FDA’s own analysis of the (somewhat limited) data on this age group, presented at yesterday’s meeting, came out in favor of giving pediatric shots the official okay. COVID, after all, is now one of the top 10 causes of death among children ages 5 to 11; the disease has also hit Black, Latino, and Native kids especially hard. But a side effect that’s “less risky than COVID” could still be cause for concern. Maybe the vaccine should be given only to a subset of kids, some committee members argued—those who have medical conditions that up their chances of getting seriously sick, for instance. Still, the panel gave a near-unanimous thumbs-up to the vaccine, with one member abstaining.[Read: Vaccine data for kids under 5 are coming “before the end of the year”]Now comes the hard part: actually getting inoculations into little arms, by no means a slam dunk. As shots become available, just in advance of the holidays, parents will have to opt their children in to receive them—two more jabs, on top of the recommended seasonal flu shot, that potentially come with side effects and may confer protection of debated durability. Adopting any new health intervention requires a gamble, but this one might feel especially fraught. There’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 in the youngest among us, and the vaccines we’re using to shield them.To help make sense of what’s next, I caught up with Sallie Permar, the chair of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and pediatrician in chief at New York–Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.Katherine J. Wu: The FDA is probably on track to authorize this vaccine within the next couple of days—before the CDC’s advisory panel, ACIP, meets next week. What’s the greatest impact this could have on the pandemic overall, assuming we successfully convince parents to sign their kids up for shots?Sallie Permar: To me, the most important thing is that this vaccine takes three new diseases that we’re dealing with in children, and seeing consistently in our health systems, and makes them vaccine-preventable. The first is severe COVID-19, the respiratory disease that’s more rare in kids, but still happens, especially in our adolescent populations and those with high risk. The second is MIS-C, an [inflammatory] condition that happens in 1 in every 3,000 or so infections in children, [and is most common] in the 5-to-11-year age group. And the third is long COVID, which children continue to suffer for months after, due to persistent symptoms.The second biggest benefit would be about transmission. Children can be protected by masks, and they probably transmit less often [than adults]. But children can definitely be part of the transmission chain, especially when it comes to households, and even in settings where precautions are being used.Vaccinating our children will make it so we can recapture school as we once knew it, with kids picking who they want to sit at their lunch table, or being able to face any direction in the classroom, and not a certain distance away from their neighbor—maybe even thinking about whether kids can safely go back to school without masks. Masks might still be a good idea when everybody’s indoors and has runny noses during the winter. But we’ll be able to walk back a lot of the restrictions that have been in place. We can’t even think about that until we get high [vaccine] coverage in our children.Wu: That sounds wonderful, but an authorized vaccine doesn’t guarantee an administered vaccine. You’re a practicing pediatrician—what’s been your sense of how parents will receive this news?Permar: I foresee a lot of my time in the next few weeks being devoted to [navigating] that. Parents want to make the best decision for their children. And they want to make a very careful decision, and they want to consider all of the information that’s available. It is scary to think about: If I choose a vaccination and my child is one that has a rare side effect, how am I going to feel about that? That’s definitely going through parents’ minds.The chance that your child will have a severe COVID infection is rare; the chance that your child will have MIS-C is also pretty rare. Not a lot of people know someone who’s had a child in the hospital with COVID. But what’s even more rare is the chance that there will be an ill effect from the vaccine. We have to educate about those numbers.Not vaccinating is still a risk, and it’s a higher risk than giving your child a vaccine. In fact, we don’t even know if myocarditis is going to be a concern [in 5-to-11-year-olds]. There were no cases in that age group in [Pfizer’s efficacy trial]. Myocarditis tends to be more common in older children. So taking what we know, in this younger age group, it’s postulated to be less of a concern. And let me just say, I am so thrilled that there has been all of this work that went into identifying an age-specific dose for this population. We want to achieve the immune response needed for protection, with the smallest dose to reduce side effects. That is what we should be doing for every new vaccine going forward.One question I get often is “I have an 11-year-old who’s turning 12 in three weeks. Should I wait? The higher dose seems better, right?” First of all, don’t wait for the bigger dose—you never know when COVID will enter your life or your child’s life. Secondly, I think I would actually prefer to get them the lower dose. Pediatric immune systems are more well set up to respond to low doses. They may even achieve a better response. We’ve been studying this in the HIV-vaccine world for several years now. A lower dose in a young age group can achieve a better immune response than even a higher dose. I wouldn’t be surprised if we go to an even lower dose with the youngest age groups.[Read: Why is it taking so long to get vaccines for kids?]Wu: That sounds really promising. At the same time, though, we don’t have certainty on side effects yet. Pfizer’s trial was small—too small to pick up a reliable signal of myocarditis, so we’ll need to wait to see what happens when the vaccine rolls out to a much larger group. How should parents weigh the risk of a rare side effect against the risk of COVID-19, which is less common among young kids? And should certain children be prioritized for the vaccine, and others advised to wait?Permar: If you were playing the numbers and reading the data, you would give your child the vaccine every time. [The alternative] would be taking an unknown risk, and making that the reason you’re not going to protect your child against a known risk that you know how to protect against.Severe infections have been unusual in children, which has been a blessing. But we have no idea what predicts who is going to have MIS-C. Hopefully, we’ll go forward and identify those things. We have some idea of who might be at risk for severe respiratory COVID—older adolescents, [kids with] obesity, diabetes. But there are also children where we don’t know what made them at risk for infection. We see this in flu, too. Totally healthy children just get a very severe illness. We see totally healthy children just get very sick, and you can’t put your finger on it.Wu: Will vaccinating kids feel less urgent if transmission rates plummet?Permar: One thing we know will happen is that there will be new variants of this virus. If the pattern holds true, they will be more transmissible. They may even be vaccine resistant. What drove a lot of parents of adolescents to finally get vaccines [this summer] was that the case numbers rose immensely with the more transmissible Delta variant. That’s great, but it was also too late. It takes five to six weeks [from the first dose] to get fully immune. So we have to anticipate there will be other variants that we will deal with. My hope is we get this last segment highly vaccinated, and that will maybe slow down the variants. But we should not count out a new variant, and we have to anticipate that.[Read: Delta is bad news for kids]Wu: Getting vaccines down to young kids took a very long time, and we still haven’t reached the under-5 crowd. What can we learn from this? Did it have to be this way?Permar: We’ve got to do this differently in the future. It is a travesty that we sent kids back to school without this vaccine available to them, while adults were benefiting from vaccine immunity, going to restaurants with our vaccine cards. We should not leave children to the very last. Maybe in the future, we can start testing age groups in parallel.
Gossip Bloggers Caught Canoodling With QAnon
Gossiping about celebrities is fun because you don’t know them personally and therefore you can’t hurt their feelings or directly ruin their lives. The idea that celebrity gossip could ever be dangerous is silly. For example, let’s say I told the woman who cuts my hair (whom I am always trying to entertain) that Jay-Z supposedly threatened to have Chris Brown murdered because Chris Brown keeps claiming to be part of the Illuminati, and Jay-Z is often associated with the Illuminati, and also Jay-Z doesn’t want anyone to think that he would ever hang out with Chris Brown even if they were both in the same, centuries-old secret society, which they’re not. No one on the planet could possibly be harmed by this hypothetical exchange with the woman who cuts my hair. It’s just very funny!Or maybe that’s no longer true. Maybe celebrity gossip has a different character now, amid ceaseless worries over disinformation and conspiracist thinking. We’re experiencing an epistemological crisis, smart people keep telling me, so you have to wonder whether the habit of passing around possibly made-up information about famous people and their secret lives is contributing to whatever that precisely is. Reading and sharing gossip used to be a mindless escape. Now it seems to come with responsibility.Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News’s Katie Notopoulos reported on concerns among longtime fans of the anonymous, omniscient-seeming blogger Enty, who runs a popular blind-item blog called Crazy Days and Nights. Some have apparently been disturbed by the site’s recent, gossipy posts about Bill Gates, and by others alleging that Hollywood stars are participating in a “rape club.” “It’s really disturbing to see this right-wing conspiracy-theory bullshit show up in gossip,” one former fan told Notopoulos. But according to the story, “gossip fans and QAnoners share a core belief: that behind closed doors, celebrities are doing unspeakable things.”[Have you heard? Gossip is actually good and useful]The idea that Enty has been pulled into the QAnon conspiracy theory had been floating around for a while. (Pajiba’s Kayleigh Donaldson referred to his site as “QAnon Central” back in May.) Enty started writing in 2006, and many of his blind items have been lurid and impossible to -prove; there is plenty of murder and Satanism, and he once had a three-part story about an A-list actor who would purchase huge pieces of fresh fish, then wrap them up and throw them out in public bathrooms. Enty has also shown an interest in some of the same famous people who fascinateas QAnon devotees—for instance, the Swedish DJ Avicii, believed by conspiracy theorists to have been murdered because of his knowledge of a child-trafficking ring.But this represents just a sliver of Enty’s offerings. He far more often writes up standard gossip, about cheating and drug use and embarrassing mishaps, and he has never endorsed the view that Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities are blood-drinking pedophiles who deserve to be executed. When I spoke with Enty recently, he suggested that readers may now simply see his style of celebrity gossip in a different light, given their cultural immersion in right-wing conspiracy theories. “I had been writing the same kind of stuff long before QAnon existed,” he said, “but now that QAnon exists, it seems like QAnon.” For example, he published blind items about the NXIVM cult, in which women were branded and referred to as slaves, long before its leaders were indicted for sex trafficking in 2018. “If I was to write that now, I think people would say, ‘Wow, he’s gone Q.’”Enty described most of what he publishes as “stuff that tabloids wouldn’t do now but they would have done 10 years ago.” He noted an industry-wide shift that occurred when celebrities started using Instagram and other social platforms to snatch back power from paparazzi and reporters, leaving outlets such as Us Weekly and People to play nice and beg for crumbs of access. The tastes of younger audiences who grew up in the celebrity-gossip environment that followed can be manic and unpredictable. The beloved, crowd-sourced Instagram account DeuxMoi, which started posting early in the pandemic and now has more than 1 million followers, often flags “sightings” of celebs with no interesting context, or else posts items so bland that they must have come from publicists. Meanwhile, on TikTok, the red yarn is out of control: There was a whole season of combing Justin Bieber’s Instagram posts and music videos for clues as to his possible long-ago victimhood at the hands of a child-sex-trafficking ring; the platform is also home to the second coming of an old Tumblr conspiracy theory about a former member of the boy band One Direction, who is supposedly secretly married to another former member of that band, and also not the real father of his son, who could be a child actor but was once believed to be a plastic doll.[From 'The Iliad' to 'Us Weekly': The history of celebrity gossip]These things don’t feel so benign and silly as they might have at another time. For a while, I was following an Instagram account that was fixated on proving that Zayn Malik—yet another former member of One Direction—was not really the father of the model Gigi Hadid’s baby. During her pregnancy, commenters on that account said they hoped she would miscarry. I have also spent a lot of time on Tumblr reading about which actors’ wives are high priestesses in Satanic cults and whether a beloved actor owns a secret apartment on the Isle of Wight, which may or may not be overrun by Freemasons. It’s all absurd, but again, the comments hint at what it’s doing to some people’s worldview. When the indie musician Mitski was accused, without evidence, of keeping a child slave in her college dorm room, Tumblr users accused one another of being too cowardly to admit that Mitski deserved to be “canceled.” The whole thing circled around Tumblr for weeks as drama and entertainment, and Mitski was eventually pushed to make a statement denying the story.Light-hearted celebrity gossip is still out there to be found. Personally, I look for it in email newsletters: Hunter Harris’s Hung Up, for example, indulges in obsessive questioning about topics such as the location of Martin Scorsese’s glasses, while Allie Jones’s Gossip Time elegantly catches famous people in obvious lies. Gossip can be productive, too, in that it Kaitlyprovides a way of talking about the cultural significance of celebrities, questioning public-relations narratives, and passing along information that could be confirmed with a little reporting work. Tinfoil-hat gossipers are also sometimes correct. Britney Spears’s father once denounced the #FreeBritney crowd as conspiracy theorists, but when that drama came to its climax last winter, their vigilant note taking appeared prescient and compassionatekind-hearted—as opposed to the vicious and judgmental dishing about the same woman from years earlier, when so many people relished in her public disintegration.Gossip isn’t ruined, exactly, but it is in a moment of moral panic: If a rumor mentions blood, then it must be QAnon! Certainly there’s too much gossipy speculation around—both the boring kind and the wild, scary kind—and too many people sharing it, many of whom have unclear motives. But readers of celebrity gossip have always had to differentiate between merely entertaining rumors and those that could spiral into harm (while sifting out the ones that are simply dull). Before QAnon, they had to do the mental work of drawing these distinctions for themselves, and they had to set their own standards for the information they passed along. Now it’s easier just to sort that information into buckets—bad or good, Q or not. That can lead to another form of paranoia, though: When you’re that afraid of seeing dangerous disinformation, you start to see it everywhere.
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My Church Doesn’t Know What to Do Anymore
After fielding back-to-back complaints about masks in church—one regarding a fellow parishioner who had shirked a mask during a recent service and the other wondering whether our congregation had changed its policy from “strongly recommended” to “required,” because “everyone” was wearing them—I realized something surprising: Leading a church is harder now, in 2021, than it was in 2020, during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, state and diocesan mandates meant I could throw up my hands and respond, “Sorry, not up to me.” And anyway, the answer was, for the most part, a straightforward “no”—no, we can’t gather for services, and no, we can’t sing. Now it is up to me, the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and I am struggling to find a way forward.Like so many other communities, we first closed to in-person worship in mid-March 2020. We reopened in a limited way that July: Singing wasn’t allowed, every other pew as well as prayer books and hymnals had been removed, masks and reservations were required, seating charts enforced social distancing, no plate was passed, and people in Ghostbuster-like getups sanitized between services. We were compelled to close again in December 2020 because of rising case numbers in our county, and we reopened on Palm Sunday this year. During the closures, I told everyone we were still open, just in a different way. We live-streamed on Sundays. We set up times when people could come pick up factory-sealed sacraments, without ever having to get out of their car. We put on drive-through events for kids. We provided Sunday-school videos. Kids created virtual stations of the cross—they drew, made Lego scenes of, or enacted the 14 stations—photos of which we collected and posted in a Facebook album during Holy Week.Funerals and weddings were canceled, postponed, or held with limited numbers of attendees and without receptions. I could not perform last rites—praying and anointing with blessed oil—for a dear man who died from COVID-19. Instead, I texted with his family at the end. “He loved you,” his wife said.[Read: The pastors already planning to rebel against future shutdowns]Eventually the bishop who oversees the diocese of southern Virginia lifted all mandates except the prohibition on the common chalice, empowering parish clergy to make the decisions that others had dictated to us for more than a year. By that time, most of the adults in our congregation had been vaccinated, but kids under 12 still couldn’t be. We put all the chairs back in the nave, opened the windows, and made masks mandatory for unvaccinated people and encouraged for everyone else.We started to allow a little singing, with masks, but we shortened the songs to keep services brief. I trimmed my sermons to 1,000 words. For those who were uncomfortable with this, we created a separate seating area in the parish hall where masks were required, singing was prohibited, and people could watch the live-stream projected on a wall. A few families with young kids, as well as some who had other health concerns, tried that. It worked for a couple of weeks. Then they asked, “Why don’t you make the people who don’t want to wear masks sit in here instead?” If they were watching the live-stream projected on a wall, they reasoned, they might as well watch from home.I don’t know how to make this work. After a year of trying to assure people that we were still the church even when we weren’t in the same room, I don’t know how to convince them now of the importance of gathering in person. I know that if they are watching from home, fancier churches all over the country offer much slicker streamed services than our suburban church with its secondhand camera and duct-taped tripod. And no matter what we do, it isn’t going to work for someone. A few families have started attending larger churches with more—or less—restrictive masking policies. I also know that kids’ sports, held outdoors, have fewer restrictions, and that returning to a church habit after 20 months away gets harder with each passing Sunday.In 2020, no one could come to church. Now some of my parishioners are choosing not to. I can see on social media that many are at restaurants or parties, but I don’t see them in person on Sunday mornings. The pandemic has accelerated trends I’ve heard about at church conferences since I was first ordained: Sunday attendance will shrink, so churches need to focus on the people outside our walls. Just before the pandemic began, a study published by Faith Communities Today, a multifaith research organization, found a 7 percent median decline in religious attendance across the country. Although membership in our church rose until 2020, attendance had declined since 2014. Our annual reports didn’t ask for last year’s attendance figures, but this year, we’re averaging 66 people on the Sundays we’ve been open. Before we shut down in 2020, our average Sunday attendance was 139.No one has yet complained about short sermons, but some wish we had cut more music instead of two Bible readings. When people complain, they sometimes add, “But we know you have to.” But I don’t have to in 2021. I am trying to follow guidance, but the only actual mandate now is about the chalice. I can’t imagine the drama that will unfold when a common chalice is permissible again. Some want it already, while others want us to keep the pre-packaged sacrament forever. Does this mean 2022 will be even harder than 2020 and 2021? Our donation pledges were down last year. I’m wincing in anticipation of this year’s fundraising campaign. In 2020, we had a Paycheck Protection Program loan that helped us with payroll. But after last year’s campaign, I had to cut my hours. We don’t have an endowment.[Elizabeth Bruenig: How is a Catholic supposed to think about the COVID vaccine?]Of course, this is about more than the finances of our parish: These people who are not coming to church aren’t clients or subscribers or colleagues. They are my parishioners. I have held their hands as they cried after telling me secrets or while grieving—but not lately, because we cannot touch. I have pressed home-baked bread into their hands—but not lately, because we use factory-sealed sacraments. I have hugged their children and drenched adults and kids with waters of baptism—but the last time I baptized someone was in January 2020.Colleagues tell me to put my faith in Jesus. That makes me feel horrible as I struggle to find solutions to help us thrive both now and when things are “back to normal.” I am sick of innovating and pivoting and wondering if St. David’s is struggling because my faith isn’t strong enough. When others tell me that 47 people have joined their church since the beginning of the pandemic, expletives dance in my head.Historically, the Episcopal Church has embraced middle ground. Queen Elizabeth I tempered the controversy surrounding Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Church of England during the Reformation by encouraging worshipping the same way, via a common prayer book, while allowing for a diversity of beliefs. St. David’s, the church I have served for 10 years, is a genuinely diverse congregation in terms of belief, socioeconomic class, and political views. We’ve weathered the controversy over gay marriage and the political divisions wrought by the 2016 election, but I worry that we won’t be able to make it through the rest of pandemic with our differing risk tolerances and approaches to masks. I can’t find a middle way in these times.
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The French Press Hasn’t Learned From America’s Mistakes
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A television star eyes a presidential run as an outsider ready to take on the political establishment. Unlike his competitors, he doesn’t shy away from religious or racial provocation, nor does he hide his penchant for conspiracies. He is a vocal opponent of immigration, political correctness, and feminism. To his supporters, he is a familiar face who isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is.” To detractors, he’s an inflammatory populist set on dividing the country. The media’s wall-to-wall coverage makes him an inescapable presence.This isn’t Donald Trump, though it might be France’s version of him. Éric Zemmour, a far-right pundit who has gained ground in recent polls ahead of the country’s presidential election next year, has yet to descend from his proverbial golden elevator to announce his candidacy. But the overwhelming coverage of him in the French media, as well as his increasing presence in the international press, suggests that it’s only a matter of time before he does.That Zemmour has managed to attract outsize attention relative to the rest of France’s presidential hopefuls is a testament to his ability to remain provocative—a skill that he has honed over the course of his career. Like Trump, he has vexed his way onto front pages and prime-time news broadcasts simply by being the most outrageous voice in the room. The goal, it would appear, is to drum up enough momentum to bolster his anticipated candidacy. And so far, the French press has proved happy to oblige.The media have been here before. Although the American media did not create Trump (like Zemmour, he was a household name long before he was ever a candidate), they did grant him a disproportionate level of coverage, bestowing upon him more attention and legitimacy than they’ve given any of his competitors. With six months left until election day (still a long way away, by French standards), France’s contest has scarcely begun. Yet by over-indexing on a single candidate—or, in Zemmour’s case, a potential candidate—French journalists look doomed to repeat the mistakes of their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.Much of the media’s fascination with Zemmour seems to be excited by his similarities with Trump, a comparison that the 63-year-old Frenchman appears all too happy to embrace. In an interview with The New York Times, he claimed that the cover of his latest book, France Has Not Yet Said Its Last Word, was modeled after the former American president’s book Great Again, which, like Zemmour’s, was published in the run-up to a presidential election. He also played up some of their other apparent commonalities: their status as political outsiders, as well as their shared concerns over immigration and trade.Zemmour isn’t quite the outsider he claims to be, though. Born in the suburbs of Paris to a Berber Jewish family from Algeria, he studied at Sciences Po, a training ground for the French political class, before becoming a journalist. During his decades-long career, he worked for Le Figaro, France’s center-right newspaper of record, and CNews, the country’s equivalent of Fox News.What separates him from much of the rest of the French elite is his radical worldview. In addition to his incendiary comments about immigrants and Muslims (he has twice been convicted of inciting racial hatred), he also peddles in historical revisionism (falsely claiming that France’s wartime Vichy government, which openly collaborated with Nazi Germany, saved French Jews) and conspiracy theories (he is a proponent of “the great replacement,” an ethno-nationalist theory popularized by the French writer Renaud Camus that claims that indigenous white Europeans are being replaced by non-white immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa).Having witnessed the rise of Trump, the French press knows the perils of turning Zemmour into some kind of political spectacle or, worse yet, normalizing his extreme views. “Should we start asking ourselves some questions, or do we continue to be manipulated?” the French journalist Salhia Brakhlia quizzed her colleagues in response to a tweet by Zemmour, which included a photo of him being swarmed by reporters that he captioned, “My friends, the journalists.”“We’ve been having big debates within the newspaper about how we should cover him,” a senior editor at one of France’s center-left dailies, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told me. Part of the calculus comes down to the fact that Zemmour isn’t technically a candidate (he still needs to secure the support of at least 500 mayors across the country in order to be eligible). The other factor is the growing buzz around his campaign. According to the French media watchdog Acrimed, there were 4,167 mentions of Zemmour in the French press in September alone—the equivalent of 139 mentions a day. During the same period, Zemmour received more than 11 hours of airtime, Robin Andraca, a journalist based in Paris who tracks Zemmour’s television appearances relative to those of rivals, told me. By comparison, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo received two hours of airtime. Marine Le Pen, Zemmour’s main competitor for far-right votes, got even less, at a little more than an hour.The way Andraca sees it, the media “cannot resist” divisive figures such as Zemmour, because they make for compelling television and good stories. “You are pretty sure that he’s going to say something very racist, very problematic, but then it’s okay because you can talk about that thing for two days,” Andraca surmised. “That’s magical for journalists.”[James Fallows: The media learned nothing from 2016]In this way, French journalists are falling into the same trap as their American counterparts. By rewarding Zemmour’s extremism with more airtime, as the U.S. press did with Trump ahead of the 2016 election, they send the implicit, if unintentional, message that only the most radical rhetoric is worthy of being reported on. The consequences of this when Trump ran were twofold: Not only did it overrepresent more extreme views in the public debate, but it also encouraged politicians to be more outlandish. Even today, “people like Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Ted Cruz of Texas get much more attention in the media than more moderate senators who actually make up the majority of the Republican Party in the Senate,” Tom Rosenstiel, a press critic who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, told me. “It’s a lesson we know but haven’t learned.”Zemmour isn’t simply attracting the lion’s share of media attention. He is effectively setting the terms of France’s presidential debate, much like Trump did. By overwhelming journalists with a seemingly endless stream of news (or, as the former president’s one-time chief strategist Steve Bannon crudely put it, by endeavoring to “flood the zone with shit”) and by exhausting public attention, Trump succeeded in turning the press into a kind of pulpit. “The agenda of Zemmour is what we’re talking about in France today: immigration, security, Islam,” ​​Thomas Snégaroff, a Paris-based journalist and historian, told me, noting that even in many interviews that don’t include Zemmour, his opponents are asked to react to things he’s said.Not all coverage of Zemmour is complimentary, of course. In fact, much of what is written about him is critical, especially as it relates to his more incendiary views. But if there’s one lesson that the press ought to have taken from the Trump era, it’s that whether coverage is critical hardly matters. “We’re accustomed to the idea that bad coverage is bad for the president, but in the way that Trump operated, it reversed itself, and negative coverage became for him proof with his base that ‘these people are critical of me because they hate you,’” Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of the PressThink blog, told me. “What I would say to the French is, as soon as you see that happening, where the very criticism that you try to level against this candidate gets incorporated into his pitch, you are in the danger zone and you’ve got to reconsider your practices.”Here lies the fundamental tension facing the French press right now. To dedicate too much time and space to Zemmour would be to give him the clout that he no doubt craves, and signal to audiences that he is more deserving of their attention than other potential candidates. To ignore him, however, would be to risk falling short of its journalistic duty to report on and scrutinize a viable contender for the French presidency: Two recent polls showed Zemmour winning anywhere from 16 to 17 percent of the national vote, second only to President Emmanuel Macron and, crucially, outflanking Le Pen. (One of the surveys also found that more than six in 10 French voters think the media spend too much time on Zemmour.)Other factors drive the French media’s editorial decision making. For one thing, someone who is seemingly everywhere is difficult to ignore. ​​As the country’s minister of justice bemoaned last week, Zemmour is like a weather forecast—“every day there is something new.” What’s more, coverage of him is lucrative: A recent issue of Paris Match, which featured a photo of Zemmour embracing his 28-year-old political adviser and alleged mistress on its cover, reportedly became one of the weekly magazine’s recent best sellers.But perhaps the main reason that the French media are so saturated with Zemmour coverage is because, out of the dozen or so candidates vying for the presidency (including notable figures such as Hidalgo and the former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier), he is the most contentious. “He knows how to control the media agenda,” Benjamin Haddad, the senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council think tank, in Washington, D.C., and, like Zemmour, a graduate of Sciences Po, told me. “He says something horrible and then everyone talks about it … It’s this vicious cycle that is very difficult to break.”Zemmour’s latest stunt, which drew widespread coverage and condemnation, was to point a sniper rifle at journalists while attending an arms fair in Paris, laughing and telling reporters to “back off.” More instructive is another controversy: Zemmour recently pledged that, if elected, he would seek to reimpose a 19th-century ban on foreign names such as Mohammed (no such restrictions currently exist, barring a few exceptions). It was reaction-inducing, perhaps by design. But it wasn’t new. In fact, the topic of French names has long been a pet issue of his. In 2016, he publicly criticized a government minister for naming her child Zohra, after her mother, rather than choosing a traditionally French Christian name. He leveled a similar diatribe two years later against a fellow journalist, purportedly telling her that her Senegelese name was “an insult” to France.[Read: How to discuss the far right without empowering it]Some news outlets, in France and around the world, published stories on Zemmour’s name comments. Others, however, made the decision not to. “That is something we didn’t cover,” the editor at the center-left newspaper told me, on the grounds that it was not new and was, instead, “ridiculous.”How the French media cover Zemmour will ultimately come down to these kinds of editorial choices, whether he declares his candidacy, and how long he retains his position in the polls. But these factors are related. The more incendiary Zemmour is, the more likely he is to draw media attention, and the more likely he is to remain in the public debate.The way some journalists see it, Zemmour might already be too big to ignore. “If we don’t talk about Zemmour today, we will be accused of not talking about something we don’t like,” Snégaroff said, and likened the French media’s relationship with Zemmour to that of Frankenstein and his monster. “He was made in large part by us, and now he’s here. So what do we do?”
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Do You Even Lift, Embryo?
Some cuckoos are born assassins. Within a day or two of hatching, the infant birds—still blind, pink, and featherless—will start to evict the other residents of their nest, hurling them over the edge and to their death.Technically, the evictions they carry out are from living quarters that aren’t even their own. The cuckoos are parasites, strategically placed by their mother into the abode of another species so they can mooch their way through adolescence. The more of their foster siblings they kill in cold blood, the more food and attention they can con out of their adoptive parents.The acts are ruthless, but also remarkable physical feats. Fresh out of their shells, the birds are jacked, capable of hoisting hefty eggs or chicks—including some that weigh about as much as they do—onto their back before throwing them out like trash. “It’s like a newborn baby lifting a bowling ball,” Stephanie McClelland, a biologist at the Royal Holloway University of London, told me. “It’s just crazy.”By peeping on cuckoo chicks during development, McClelland and her colleagues have homed in on one of the major strategies these birds, and several others like them, use to achieve their super-swole status at such a young age. In a new study, they describe how the animals exercise as embryos while they’re still incubating in the egg, a sort of prenatal CrossFit that preps them for the slaughterous rampage that follows. “It’s a home gym in the egg,” Mark Hauber, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who collaborated with McClelland on the study, told me. By the time these birds hatch, their foster siblings already don’t stand a chance.[Read: Why do mammals kill each other?]The notion that embryos can wriggle around in the womb or egg isn’t new. Human pregnancy is a prime example: Fetuses spend months executing a mix of twitches, stretches, and kicks that are thought to be an in utero trial run for the motions “they need to survive after birth,” Niamh Nowlan, a developmental-biomechanics expert at University College Dublin, told me. The situation isn’t all that different for birds, which start flexing their muscles just a few days after their egg is laid. These little full-body bootcamps are vital: Animals that skip their pre-birth workouts tend to emerge with bones and muscles that are weak and underdeveloped.McClelland and her graduate adviser, Steven Portugal, decided to check if embryos could push that trend in the other direction—adding on exercise to the standard regimen of squirming, perhaps as a way to ensure that they’re born extra buff. If any animals were good candidates for pumping prenatal iron, they figured, cuckoos and other nest-invading birds, formally known as brood parasites, might be among them, given what they get up to in infancy.Proving that, though, wouldn’t be easy. That’s because dozens of bird species are thought to engage in some form of brood parasitism, each with their own violent flair. Some, like the common cuckoo, are egg-tossing executioners; others, like the cowbirds that Hauber studies, let their host siblings survive, but still jostle them out of the way to beg, loudly and insistently, for food. Most macabre of all might be the lesser honeyguide, a fanged felon that will stab its nest-mates with the piercing-sharp hook that adorns the front of its beak or “shake them like a terrier” until they drop dead, Claire Spottiswoode, a biologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town who studies honeyguides, told me. If McClelland wanted to find a connection between pre-hatch calisthenics and the shredded status of brood-parasite chicks, she’d need to spy on a whole lot of embryos while they were still in their shells. A greater honeyguide nibbling on Stephanie McClelland’s finger. (Credit: Stephanie McClelland) So McClelland enlisted Hauber, Spottiswoode, and several others to help her out. The researchers spent several years collecting the eggs of 14 bird species—some parasitic, some not—scattered across three continents. Using a device called an Egg Buddy, they beamed harmless lasers into their specimens, and tallied up how much the embryos were shifting around. The work was sometimes grueling, and not just because they were dealing with bloodthirsty birds: While gathering data in a rural region of Illinois, McClelland’s mobile laboratory, full of equipment and chemicals, was mistakenly flagged by locals as a meth lab.But the project yielded exactly the results McClelland and her colleagues were hoping to see. While inside their egg, most brood parasites tended to fidget about more often than the host birds they tormented, especially during later stages of incubation. They were also jigglier than closely related birds that were raised by their own parents. Brood parasitism is thought to have arisen independently at least seven times in the avian family tree; “to see a similar pattern” across species and continents makes the team’s results especially compelling, Iliana Medina Guzman, a brood-parasite expert at the University of Melbourne who wasn’t involved in the study, told me.[Read: The survival advantage of being a fancy baby coot]The results aren’t totally ironclad. Nowlan, who wasn’t involved in the study, pointed out that the researchers weren’t able to check how the chicks in each species actually turned out, making it hard to confirm whether in-egg gains actually did produce brawnier birds. And the movement gaps among species also weren’t huge—more the difference between two casual weight lifters than a bodybuilder and a couch potato. Still, “when you look at a small difference in embryo movement or muscle development, it compounds on itself,” says Facundo Fernandez-Duque, an avian biologist who is advised by Hauber but wasn’t involved in the study. For a weary cuckoo chick, a few extra strength-training sessions might make all the difference between booting its fourth and final nest-mate and having to share its chow.For Spottiswoode, the link feels intuitive, like confirmation of the years of work she’s done in the field, examining and handling murderous birds. Freshly hatched honeyguides even feel kind of toned. “They have an almost rubbery quality to them,” Spottiswoode said. That sinewy stuff is exactly what makes the baby birds’ bods so lethal. Even clutched in human hands, they’ll lunge and snap and fling their fangs about, “trying to find something, anything, to bite,” she said. Sometimes, survival of the fittest really does mean the fittest.
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