The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman Want to Expand the Vocabulary of Friendship
Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.This week she talks with two friends who are also professional observers of friendship. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow have been exploring friendship, among other topics, on their podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, since 2014, and in their new book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, they tell the story of their own relationship alongside an examination of friendship’s role in society. In this interview, they propose expanding the vocabulary we use to talk about our friends, and discuss how they nearly lost their own friendship, and how couples therapy brought them back together. The Friends: Ann Friedman, 38, a co-author of Big Friendship, and co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, who lives in Los Angeles, California.Aminatou Sow, 35, a co-author of Big Friendship, and co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.Julie Beck: Let’s start at the beginning: How did you meet?Aminatou Sow: We met in Washington, D.C., in 2009, at a Gossip Girl viewing party.Ann Friedman: But we also met because a friend very intentionally wanted us to meet each other. Our mutual friend Dayo conspired to be the host that night in part so she could have both of us in attendance. So we were set up.Beck: My meta follow-up question to that is: How many times have you told that story now?Aminatou: My God, we’ve told that story too many times to count. When you tell the story of how you met, you tell this very superficial one line: “We met at this place, at this time.” That’s the meet-cute. But there’s another story behind how you meet. If that friend had not set us up, we would have eventually met somehow in the scene that we were in, in D.C. I don’t know that we would have the same friendship, but I think that we would have met regardless. There are a lot of things that conspire in the universe for you to meet someone.Beck: I really like the concept of “big friendship,” which your book is named for, because one of the interesting and sometimes frustrating things about the word friend is that it covers so many different kinds of relationships—from a work friend you get coffee with, to someone you talk to every day and spend holidays with. Could you explain what a “big friendship” is?Ann Friedman (left) and Aminatou Sow (right) (Milan Zrnic)Aminatou: I always make the distinction between someone who is my friend and someone who I am friendly with. I think those two things are very different. One of the reasons for writing Big Friendship was that a lack of vocabulary for what a friend is, or what a long-term, meaningful relationship with a friend is, was something that we had both struggled with. The key to figuring out what we meant to each other really lay in unlocking that vocabulary.There is something about the words bestie or BFF or even best friend that imply that it’s an exclusive relationship that you have with one person. And it feels a little infantilizing to me. Even though I [use those terms with] my adult friends, there’s just this implication that it’s a person you met at camp, or when you were younger. I was trying to understand the complexity of friendship at this time in my life, in my mid-30s. This term big friendship was meant to define friendships that are complicated and nuanced, friendships that you have had for a long time and that you want to keep in your life for a long time.[Read: How friendships change in adulthood]Beck: How did your personal friendship evolve from being friendly into a “big friendship”?Ann: Oh man, we had a very intense and short courtship. We went from zero to good friends very quickly.Aminatou: Within a week.Ann: Now that we have this vocabulary, I would not say we went from zero to a big friendship in one week. But I do think that feeling of wanting the friendship to last and feeling very invested in it, at least for me, was something that happened within the first handful of times that we hung out.But we didn’t quite understand what it meant to really follow through on that. You can be really close with someone and want that person around for the long term, and also be totally blindsided by the problems that crop up in that friendship.Our own evolution also includes this through line of working together. Even from the earliest days, we had weird blogs together. We have pretty much always been motivated to make things with each other. That was part of this initial attraction to each other as friends. I was just like, I want to know everything that is happening in this woman’s brilliant brain. I want to be in dialogue with it.Beck: On the creative collaboration—I think Shine Theory is the first instance where something personal from your friendship got co-opted for a broader audience, is that right?Ann: I think that's fair. In 2013, I was a columnist for The Cut. And long before 2013, we had a private meme in our friendship, where we would say to each other all the time, “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” It meant that we are mutually invested in each other and not competing with each other to get the things we want in this world.Anyway, in 2013, I wrote a column about this. It really was a very popular concept. It became something that we then wanted to protect [in part, by trademarking it] so that people wouldn’t use it for something that ran counterintuitively to how we actually saw Shine Theory working, which is deep investment over the long term, not a cute label for your conference or your networking event.Then in 2014, our friend Gina Delvac, who is an incredible audio producer, had suggested to us that maybe we would make for good podcast co-hosts. We thought it would be fun and interesting. We came up with the name, Call Your Girlfriend, and in the early days, truly, we would just call each other and talk. It was intentional in the sense that we knew we wanted to work together, but in real time, it did not feel like we were going into business together at the time we started the podcast.Beck: How did seeing those things blow up affect your friendship?Aminatou: On its face, it wasn’t threatening knowing that something that we shared privately was being shared with the world. When it starts to become an issue is when we are not in dialogue about those things. For us not to say to each other, “Oh, that Shine Theory column is huge. How does that make you feel?”—a conversation that we would have about almost anything else—to me, that is the tell.Courtesy Simon & SchusterThe same thing happened with the podcast in the sense that our lives were changing, we were participating in the changing of our lives, but we had a real inability to discuss it. The threats are never the things that you think about. [In the book], we write that there’s no friend equivalent of walking in on your husband with someone else—it’s never that dramatic.The actual act of working together, that was really easy and seamless. Where it started to become apparent that there were issues in the relationship is that we were missing each other in these very big and small ways communication-wise. As our podcast got more popular, for example, we were having a great time making the show, but there were big and small changes that we were going through that we were just not discussing. Talking about feelings is hard.Beck: So you went through this rough patch in your friendship, and you were clear from the very beginning of the book—the book that is your argument for friendship—that you had this dark period. Did that change how you tell the story of your friendship to yourselves?Ann: One thing that was really painful and frustrating for me is it always seemed like there was some big thing that I was missing. Like there was one giant misunderstanding that we could source all of our problems to. And that just was not the case. In the early days of our friendship, we were just in sync. We knew what the other person felt insecure about. We knew intuitively how to interpret each other’s brief text messages. It was all those little communication things that I think slowly started to break down.[Read: How friends become closer]You’ll have that moment of looking at a text and being like, Wait, I’m not sure what she means by this. And then it snowballed and snowballed. This is a dynamic that happens in a lot of friendships. This is a dynamic that happens in a lot of intimate relationships, full stop. It really took an intervention—going to therapy together—to learn how to identify what had happened and to start talking about it again.Beck: I was delightfully surprised to read in the book that you went to couples therapy to save the friendship. What was it like going to therapy with a friend? What did you learn?Aminatou: For a lot of people, going to therapy already feels weird. I myself have been in individual therapy for years and years. Going to therapy with a friend though … it’s out there. If you do a Google search for therapists for my friendship, it’s not well populated.Ann: There’s no Psychology Today directory for that.Aminatou: But I’m so happy that we did it, because we needed an adult to hold our hands to be able to talk. In the buildup to going to therapy, we had tried a rekindle-your-romance type of trip, and it ended up being sad.Milan ZrnicIt was a meeting about work that brought that all full circle. It was like, If we can’t do work, then we have bigger problems. The friendship is on the rocks. It was the first time that we said to each other, “This feels awful.” And when we started looking around for a framework for repairing a relationship, the only framework that comes to mind is therapy. For us, it was really telling that once it was suggested, even though both of us were weirded out by it, we thought that was still better than whatever weirdness we had been trying.Ann: That's how you know how bad it had gotten.Aminatou: But hearing Ann be willing to go to therapy—knowing her as well as I did, that feels not like something she would do—that was a real indicator to me that, one, it was very bad and, two, that she actually might still want to be friends with me. That was a very concrete reassurance. We were really privileged to be able to afford it—therapy is expensive and not available to most people in this country, and that is a huge shame. It was a literal financial investment in the well-being of our relationship.The goal was not to come out having the same friendship that we had had before. I actually went in very skeptical that we would be friends at all after this. I was pleasantly surprised, but also I have a renewed understanding of the amount of work that it really takes to talk to someone and tell them what you are feeling and for them to do the same for you.Beck: I appreciate you being so honest about the difficult patches that you’ve had, because I think even as friendship has become more celebrated in the culture, it’s still talked about either as this universally positive thing that can sometimes feel a little bit superficial, or as toxic.Ann: If you are only thinking of friendships in a superficial sense, where it’s all supposed to be great, you would never get to the point where you had long-running strife with someone. You would have just walked away before that happened. Part of understanding why we both wanted to stay invested in this friendship necessitated a new language around what kind of friendship this was. I also think that part of it is that humans are messy and intimacy is hard, no matter what form that takes.[Read: Disposable friendships in a mobile world]Aminatou: Watching the culture catch up to this understanding that friendship is an important relationship for people is really exciting. It’s exciting to watch TV shows about it. It is exciting to see people be so open about the people in their lives that they love. But I think in that celebration, the complexity, and the nuance, is lost. Back to that point about it feeling infantilizing, the celebration also feels that way. Like, sure, my friendships are all fun and great, but I think that part of the reality of growing up is also understanding that difficult things can be celebrated.Ann and I are very, very good friends. We will be very, very good friends. We have a blast together. She’s someone who has been part of the best moments of my life. But I think that part of having a visible friendship is also being really honest about the fact that it takes work. If you hear a couple say, "Our relationship is good, but it’s work,” everyone instinctively knows what that means. But with friendship, there is this expectation that it’s supposed to be easy, which contributes to infantilizing the lives of all the adults in the friendship and also is not an honest assessment of what any long-term, intimate bond looks like.Beck: There are a lot of different layers in how you two have been looking at friendship. There’s your personal friendship, of course. There’s the examination of your personal friendship that you did in therapy. There’s your public-facing friendship on the podcast and in the book. And then there’s the fact that a lot of the collaborative work that you are doing together as friends is itself looking at the concept of friendship.Ann: It’s a friendship turducken.Beck: Has the combination of all those things yielded any insights that you’ve brought into your life?Ann: I know it is such a cliché to be like, Oh yes, the personal is political. But really examining the choices that we both made in this friendship let me see how the broader social and cultural status of friendship seeps into how we all do it. Where we put energy is where we are putting importance in our lives.Aminatou: This question of “What does the world look like when you let adults make adult decisions for themselves?” is something that has always been at the front of my brain. Ann and I are two people who really despise paternalism in every single shape that it comes in. Even in friendship, paternalism has a hold. What could the world look like if you just let people who do not want to marry each other and who are not blood relatives decide that they want to build a life together? So much of my friendship with Ann and my friendships with other people is having an imagination for that world, saying, “How can we organize society in a healthy, productive way where adults are happy to make decisions for themselves?” Friendship really is at the core of that question. I don’t have a solution, but when I think of a different, better world that I could live in, friendship is at the center of that world in a really, really big way.On a personal note, the reason I care so much about all of this is that it’s been a really powerful lens to learn about myself and to learn about change. In some ways it is highly narcissistic—welcome to being a human being. We write in the book about Greek philosophers saying that friendship is a mirror that you hold to yourself and, as cliché as it sounds, it is true and it is very powerful. If you are interested in gaining self-knowledge, overcoming trauma, healing, and being a full person, you need to find ways to learn about yourself. Being a friend and having a friend is one of the most powerful ways you can do that.Ann: I also want to echo the thing about self-knowledge. I have learned so much about myself through this friendship, and through the mirror of my friend Aminatou Sow, that I really, really cherish. We are literally different people than we would be if we hadn’t met.If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.
2 h
How the Union Promoted White Supremacy in the West
Three weeks ago, a sculpture of a Union soldier who had fought in the Civil War stood on a pedestal before the state Capitol building in Denver, gazing out toward the Rocky Mountains. Across the street, Christopher “Kit” Carson—a frontiersman and scout—kept his balance on a rearing horse, the centerpiece of a fountain dedicated to Colorado’s pioneers. Four hundred miles to the south, another Carson monument stood in front of the Santiago E. Campos United States Courthouse in Santa Fe: a sandstone obelisk that lauded his career with an inscription reading “Pioneer, Pathfinder, Soldier.” One block away, another large obelisk towered over Santa Fe Plaza. A granite and marble monument to Union soldiers who fought in New Mexico, the obelisk’s four sides commemorated these soldiers’ battles with Confederates and Native peoples, who were originally described on the monument as “savage Indians” (an Indigenous protester chiseled off the word savage in the 1970s).Today, these sites look strikingly different. The Union soldier in Denver is gone, pulled down by protesters demonstrating against police brutality and racial inequality. Carson had a less violent end, carted off by the city in anticipation of another protest. Santa Fe’s two obelisks are now covered in plywood to cover up tags labeling them as racist memorials of genocide and the theft of Indigenous lands.Those responsible for pulling down and tagging these monuments have not been identified, so we cannot know their motives, but some Americans might see these removals as part of a “slippery slope” that monument advocates warn against. After all, as Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, put it, these statues are of “Union heroes of the Civil War who fought and lost their lives to end slavery.” But while many Union soldiers did fight for emancipation in the East, Union soldiers in the West fought for Native annihilation and removal. For this reason, these monuments in Denver and Santa Fe deserve to be examined with the same scrutiny as Confederate statues.[Stephanie McCurry: The Confederacy was an antidemocratic, centralized state]In the fall of 1861, young white men of fighting age, most of them gold miners, began to volunteer for the Union Army in Colorado. They were called into action because an almost 3,000-man force was on its way to New Mexico from neighboring Confederate Texas, intent upon taking that territory and then California, whose gold mines and Pacific ports it coveted. Colorado’s soldiers were needed to march south into New Mexico, to defend that territory from the Texans.More than 600 men enlisted in the 1st Colorado Infantry and trained outside Denver, while several “independent” companies left for New Mexico in January 1862, joining a diverse fighting force of more than 3,000 Army regulars, Hispano New Mexican volunteers, and Ute and Pueblo scouts. One of the larger regiments in this army, the 1st New Mexico Volunteers, was commanded by Carson, who had enlisted at the outset of the war. In February 1862, the Army of New Mexico clashed with Confederates at the Battle of Valverde and lost.The Confederates took Albuquerque and Santa Fe before meeting the 1st Colorado Infantry and Army regulars at Apache Canyon and Glorieta Pass. At Glorieta, the commander of Union forces sent a contingent of Colorado troops to get behind the Confederate line and destroy the wagon train. Their success in this endeavor, led by a minister from Denver named John Chivington, meant that the Confederates’ conquest of the West was over. They could not hope to survive in the high deserts of the Southwest with no supplies.After the Texans retreated to San Antonio in the summer of 1862, some Colorado troops stayed in New Mexico for a few months. Many of these were reorganized and sent east to fight Confederate guerrillas; others served as a “home guard” along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, to defend white communities against Plains Indian raids. The 3rd Colorado Cavalry, organized specifically to fight Native peoples, moved south in November 1864 and launched an unprovoked attack on a nearby Cheyenne and Arapaho camp. The soldiers killed as many as 230 Native people, many of them women, children, and the elderly, burned down their lodges, and then mutilated the dead bodies. When they returned to Denver several weeks later, the soldiers marched through the streets, displaying the scalps and other body parts they had taken from Sand Creek as trophies. The city’s residents cheered them on. The mastermind behind the Sand Creek Massacre was John Chivington, the Union Army’s hero at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the Union Army broke off into mobile units, and redeployed against Apache and Navajo communities. These Native peoples had been resisting the U.S. Army’s attempts to build forts and travel through their territories since the 1840s. When the Civil War came to New Mexico, they siphoned off horses, cattle, and weapons from Union and Confederate camps. In September 1862, the new commander of the Department of New Mexico, James Henry Carleton, declared war on these new enemies and tapped Carson to lead the campaigns.[Read: The people who profited off the Trail of Tears]“All Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them,” Carleton instructed Carson in a letter, before sending him to fight Mescalero Apaches in the fall of 1862. Women and children would be taken prisoner. Carson was not to engage in any peace talks, only violence. “We believe if we kill some of their men in fair open war,” Carleton told him, “they will be apt to remember that it will be better for them to remain at peace than to be at war.” Carleton planned to send the survivors to live on reservations guarded by Union Army soldiers, and force them into full-time farming and Christianity.Carson followed orders. After a successful campaign against the Mescaleros, he rode across the Navajo homeland in the summer and fall of 1863 with 400 troops, burning crops and hogans (Navajo homes), and taking as many sheep as he could find. The point of this “hard war” strategy was to starve the Navajo out, forcing them to surrender to the Union. It worked perfectly; in January 1864, Carson led the first 270 Navajo prisoners out of their homeland and toward the Rio Grande.This was the first of many forced removals, collectively known as the Long Walk. Over two years, the Union Army forced as many as 10,000 Navajo people to travel 300 miles, from what is now Arizona to Bosque Redondo, a “reservation” on the Pecos River in central New Mexico. Bosque Redondo, overseen by Union soldiers posted at nearby Fort Sumner, was a disaster from the start. Poor water, spoiled rations, a lack of wood, and a series of insect infestations that destroyed corn crops resulted in mass malnutrition and rampant disease. The Navajo began to call the reservation “Hwéeldi,” Land of Suffering. By 1868—when they were able to negotiate a return to their homeland—more than 2,000 Navajo had died either on the Long Walk or at Bosque Redondo.The Long Walk was a pivotal moment in Navajo history, a traumatic period that marks all that came before and after for their people. Since 1868, Navajo peoples have continued to struggle with the federal government over land rights and resources. These fights have been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s determination to open Native lands to extractive industry, and by the coronavirus pandemic. In May, the Navajo Nation had the highest per capita infection rate in the U.S., and continues to be a major hot spot. As in the 1860s, the Navajo story today is one of suffering and survival. This is one of the stories that should be told in plazas and in front of capitol buildings across the West, rather than the myths embodied by laudatory sculptures of soldiers and frontiersmen.[Read: How America’s past shapes Native Americans’ present]Most Americans are not taught the history of the Union Army in the West, and its campaigns against Native peoples. They do not know that a plaque on the Civil War monument in front of Denver’s capitol, erected in 1909, lists the Sand Creek Massacre as a Union victory understood by the soldiers—as the historian Ari Kelman explains in his book A Misplaced Massacre—as a proud moment in their service.Most Americans do not know that the obelisk in Santa Fe Plaza, dedicated in 1868, lists the Union Army’s battles against “savage Indians” as part of its service to the Union, or that Kit Carson was among the vanguard of white supremacy in New Mexico. It is hard for many people to wrap their minds around the fact that Union Army soldiers fought to wrest Native lands away from multiple tribes, as part of the Union cause to create a free, white West.The monuments in Denver and Santa Fe glorify the settler colonialism enacted by Union troops. That is why activist groups such as the Three Sisters Collective in New Mexico and the American Indian Movement in Colorado have been calling for their removal for decades. For them, Union soldiers and Kit Carson represent racism and oppression in the same way that Confederates embody these values for Black Americans. In this transformative moment in American life, the combined efforts of Indigenous activists and Black Lives Matter demonstrators have finally brought them down.Communities are in the midst of deciding how these monument sites should look going forward. In Colorado, Governor Polis and the mayor of Denver have created committees to reassess the names of places and landmarks that honor controversial historical figures, but these measures do not include the evaluation of monuments. As of July 7, Polis’s position on these sites—that he will repair the Civil War monument to Colorado soldiers and arrest those responsible for bringing the sculpture down—does not seem to have changed. His decision ignores the state’s Civil War history and dismisses many Colorado residents’ demands.In Santa Fe, local politicians have chosen a different and more direct path. The mayor has called for the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to discuss the removal of the monuments and what should replace them; Indigenous representatives should have a voice in those decisions. In the meantime, city officials have invited residents to contribute artworks that will be affixed to the plaza obelisk, reimagining it as an inclusive space for the entire community to enjoy. This engagement with monument removal holds the most hope for a future in which public spaces are open to everyone and reflect the richness of diverse communities, while also acknowledging and reckoning with the dark history of the American West.
5 h
The End of California's Coronavirus Miracle
On March 1, California seemed destined to be pummeled by the coronavirus. America’s most populous state has large, crowded cities and a diverse population, and travel between it and Asia and Europe is prodigious. Seattle, another West Coast hub, had just become the first U.S. city to be hit by the virus, and a cruise ship crawling with COVID-19 was about to enter San Francisco Bay.Three months later, California had weathered the virus’s first storm. By June 1, the state had experienced a total of 115,000 cases and 4,200 deaths. In contrast, New York State, its population half that of California, had seen 372,000 cases and 29,900 deaths, not counting thousands more who died at home. Had California’s per capita mortality rate equaled New York’s, 55,000 more people would have died.I and others dubbed it the “California miracle.”A month later, the miracle has evaporated. Case and hospitalization rates in California have doubled since early June. Although mortality rates have lagged, deaths will invariably follow. So will finger-pointing. How did the Golden State manage to screw things up after such a promising start? California’s experience shows that doing the right thing matters—but gives you no special privilege when you stop doing it.[Read: The week America lost control of the pandemic]A lot went right in the early months. California had good leadership (by mayors, health officials, the governor, and corporate CEOs, many of whom told their workers to stay home well before the state’s stay-at-home order on March 19), good citizenship (among residents who accepted the restrictions as legitimate and prudent, with little give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death bluster), and plain good luck.Why luck? In February and early March, when testing was scarce and Californians were all flying blind, the state somehow avoided a super-spreader event in a nursing home or at a parade or choir practice. This meant that COVID-19 was not out of hand when the state shut down, and things remained under control until it reopened.But the surge in cases beginning in mid-June showed that California’s luck had run out.The decision to end the shutdown and ease restrictions on businesses, a process that began on May 8, was not unreasonable. When a new pandemic breaks out, the whole point of stay-at-home orders is to give a region’s health-care system time to build capacity, so it can better handle a modest uptick in cases after those orders are lifted. And during the relatively benign months of March, April, and May, California acquired masks, gloves, and other protective equipment; added hospital and intensive-care beds; and expanded its ability to conduct testing, contact tracing, and disease monitoring. The drugs remdesivir and dexamethasone were proved to be moderately effective. By Memorial Day, the state seemed poised to be a model of reopening successfully, just as it had been a model of a successful lockdown.But that’s not what happened. As Californians left their homes and returned to work, as well as stores, restaurants, bars, and gyms, the state experienced surges in case numbers far larger than anticipated. Of course, states such as Arizona, Florida, and Texas, whose leaders were more cavalier about safety measures than California’s, fared correspondingly worse. (See chart) But that offered little solace as California’s per capita confirmed-infection rate caught up to and surpassed that of the nation as a whole.While the decision to lift stay-at-home orders might have seemed reasonable, the virus was soon spreading—and not just in newly reopened businesses. A huge outbreak occurred at San Quentin prison in Marin County after infected prisoners were transferred there from a Southern California facility. A surge of infections in Imperial County on the Mexican border was associated with cross-border traffic. The virus is undeterred by walls.[Barbara Bradley Hagerty: America's innocent prisoners are going to die of the coronavirus]The broader problem, however, was that too many people heard “We’re starting to open” but missed the next part: “… and we have to do it safely.” Safety meant that people needed to continue to maintain their distance from one another, reliably wear masks, and avoid large crowds. As shelter-in-place rules were relaxed, too many people—particularly, but not exclusively, young ones—interpreted opening up as permission to return to their pre-coronavirus life. They grew complacent. And with complacency came sloppiness.This is understandable. Maintaining vigilance for months on end is hard, particularly when you’re not hearing ambulance sirens wailing through the night or seeing refrigerated morgue trucks outside your hospitals. COVID-19 came to be seen as a New York problem, and Californians let down their guard.Several other factors explained the surge, none of them unique to California. While the state is reliably blue, it has plenty of right-wingers who seem to believe that wearing a mask is a sign of weakness or party disloyalty.Moreover, the messaging about masks was muddled, partly because the science was incomplete—the value of masks in preventing the coronavirus’s spread is far more evident now than in March—and partly because early concerns about having enough masks for the health-care system discouraged public-health officials from recommending them to lay people.Those who didn’t want to wear masks in June found validation in March’s ambiguity. But to argue that a mask is unnecessary because Anthony Fauci or the surgeon general or the World Health Organization said so several months ago is ridiculous. I’ve yet to hear a patient in the ICU say, “I don’t want you to give me remdesivir or dexamethasone, because you told me in March that you weren’t sure they worked.” Science evolves, and reasonable people evolve with it.Regardless of the reason Californians lowered their defenses, the virus seized the opportunity. The coronavirus doesn’t care that you had a terrific March and April, nor is it interested in who you vote for, that you don’t like the look or feel of masks, or that you’re desperate to get your job back and see your friends. It is interested only in whether it can find a warm, moist home in the back of your throat or nose. And, in June, too many Californians made those parts of their anatomy available to the coronavirus.[Read: Gavin Newsom’s nation-state ]If in fact the shelf-life for vigilance in the U.S. is only about 3 months, new surges may occur in the fall in previously hard-hit regions such as the Northeast—unless residents remember to stay afraid. California and other parts of the country could be fated to live a deadly game of COVID-19 ping-pong for the next year or longer.Another lesson from California is that the state’s failure to normalize coronavirus-safe behavior—much as it has normalized seat-belt requirements and smoking bans—sets the public up for failure. If we’re going to try to open up our world, we need a vigorous and creative campaign to persuade people to act safely. Having Gavin Newsom or even Donald Trump tell you to wear a mask will not be as effective as having sports and media influencers do so. The home of Silicon Valley and Hollywood has led the nation in addressing climate change and second-hand smoke. If any state can figure out how to promote safety during a pandemic, California can. For now, though, California’s surge shows that good governance is no guarantee of durable success, and that Americans’ greatest enemy may well be complacency.
5 h
The Cost of the Evangelical Betrayal
The closest thing social conservatives and evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump had to a conversation stopper, when pressed about their support for a president who is so manifestly corrupt, cruel, mendacious, and psychologically unwell, was a simple phrase: “But Gorsuch.”Those two words were shorthand for their belief that their reverential devotion to Trump would result in great advances for their priorities and their policy agenda, and no priority was more important than the Supreme Court.Donald Trump may be a flawed character, they argued, but at least he appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.And then came Bostock v. Clayton Country, Georgia.That is the case decided in mid-June in which the majority opinion, written by Justice Gorsuch, protected gay and transgender individuals from workplace discrimination, handing the LGBTQ movement a historic victory.[Garrett Epps: What ‘because of sex’ really means]“An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” Gorsuch wrote for the majority in the 6–3 ruling.It was a crushing blow for the religious right, and it must have dawned on more than a few of Trump’s evangelical supporters that if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, the outcome of the case would have been the same; the only difference is that the margin probably would have been 7–2.The Bostock case was not the only major legal setback for social conservatives and evangelical Christians. By a 5–4 margin, the Court—in June Medical Services v. Russo—delivered a significant defeat to the pro-life movement, striking down as unconstitutional a Louisiana law that could have left the state with only a single abortion clinic. This dashed the hopes of those who were counting on Trump’s appointees to lead the Court in overturning Roe v. Wade. (Both of Trump’s Supreme Court choices were in the minority.)Social conservatives can point to some important religious-liberty victories. But overall, this term was a judicial gut punch for the president’s evangelical supporters. The “but Gorsuch” argument has not been destroyed, but it has been substantially weakened.“The GOP gives social conservatives little or nothing legislatively, and hasn’t for a very long time,” the conservative blogger Rod Dreher told Vox’s Jane Coaston. “True, they have blocked some bad things over the years. That’s not nothing. But I think we’ve always known that judges are the real deal here.”“Every institution—the media, academia, corporations, and others—are against us on gay and transgender rights, and GOP lawmakers are gutless. The only hope we had was that federal judges would protect the status quo. Now that’s gone.”[Peter Wehner: The deepening crisis in evangelical Christianity]Legislatively, Trump, compared with other presidents, has not achieved all that much for the pro-life cause and religious-liberties protection. For example, George W. Bush’s pro-life record is stronger and Bill Clinton achieved more in the area of religious liberties, signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. (Trump has done a fair amount administratively for the pro-life cause.) Trump has also achieved next to nothing in terms of enacting education reforms.Elsewhere, Trump has engaged in a bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, the worst persecutor of Christians in the world, and established more intimate and admiring relationships with many of the world’s despots than with leaders of America’s traditional allies. And on issues that have traditionally concerned conservative evangelicals, such as fiscal responsibility and limited government, Trump has been awful: The deficit and the debt exploded under his watch, even pre-pandemic.Based strictly on the standard of advancing causes that conservative evangelicals most care about, a fair-minded assessment of the Trump record is that some important things were achieved, especially in appointing federal judges. That clearly would not have happened in a Hillary Clinton presidency. But in virtually every other area, including the outcome of several key Supreme Court decisions, Trump has fallen short of the promises and expectations.Now think about what the cost has been of the uncritical support given to Trump by evangelical Christians. For now, focus just on this: Christians who are supporters of the president have braided themselves to a man who in just the past few days and weeks tweeted a video of a supporter shouting “white power” (he later deleted it but has yet to denounce it); attacked NASCAR’s only black driver, Bubba Watson, while also criticizing the decision by NASCAR to ban Confederate flags from its races; threatened to veto this year’s annual defense bill if an amendment is included that would require the Pentagon to change the names of bases honoring Confederate military leaders; referred to COVID-19 as “kung flu” during a speech at a church in Phoenix; and blasted two sports teams, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, for considering name changes because of concerns by supporters of those franchises that those team names give undo offense.These provocations by the president aren’t anomalous; he’s a man who vaulted to political prominence by peddling a racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States—he later implied that Obama was a secret Muslim and dubbed him the “founder of ISIS”—and whose remarks about an Indiana-born judge with Mexican heritage were described by former House Speaker Paul Ryan as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”[Read: The unofficial racism consultants to the white evangelical world ]The white supremacist Richard Spencer, describing the neo-Nazi and white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, told The Atlantic, “There is no question that Charlottesville wouldn’t have occurred without Trump. It really was because of his campaign and this new potential for a nationalist candidate who was resonating with the public in a very intense way. The alt-right found something in Trump. He changed the paradigm and made this kind of public presence of the alt-right possible.” And David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, called the march a “turning point” for his own movement, which seeks to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”For his whole life, before and since becoming president, Trump has exploited racial divisions and appealed to racial resentments. The president is now doing so more, not less, than in the past, despite the fact—and probably because of the fact—that America is in the grips of a pandemic that he and his administration have badly bungled and that has claimed more than 130,000 American lives.As The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman pointed out on July 6, “Almost every day in the last two weeks, Mr. Trump has sought to stoke white fear and resentment.”White evangelicals are the core of Trump’s political support, and while the overwhelming number of the president’s evangelical supporters may not be racist, they are willing to back a man who openly attempts to divide people by race. That would be enough of an indictment, but the situation is actually a good deal worse than that, since Trump’s eagerness to inflame ugly passions is only one thread in his depraved moral tapestry.My hunch is that at the beginning of this Faustian bargain, most evangelicals didn’t imagine it would come to this, with them defending the indefensible, tarnishing their reputations, and doing incalculable damage to their causes.[Read: The last temptation]This is the worst year for America in more than a half century; a stunning 87 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going and only 17 percent feel proud when thinking about the state of the nation, while 71 percent feel angry and 66 percent are fearful. Donald Trump’s presidency is so polarizing and such a catastrophe that a plurality or outright majority of Americans now oppose much of whatever he supports. The mood of the public is the most progressive it’s been in nearly 70 years. During the Trump era, the nation has moved to the left on a whole series of issues, including those that matter most to evangelical Trump supporters.The Trump presidency, which has produced few significant legislative or governing achievements, has inflicted gaping wounds on the Republican Party, conservative causes, and the evangelical movement.IN HIS MARVELOUS book The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Alan Jacobs tells about the theater critic and essayist Kenneth Tynan, who, after reading Lewis’s The Hideous Strength, said, “How thrilling he makes goodness seem—how tangible and radiant!” (At Oxford, Lewis was a tutor to Tynan, who was not himself a believer.)Tynan perceived something essential about Lewis. One of his most impressive qualities was his ability to present the good life—and his Christian faith, which shaped his understanding of the good—as tangible and radiant, a thrilling and captivating journey, a way to find joy and fulfillment.That was hardly the whole story. Lewis faced a crisis in faith late in his life, when he was overwhelmed by grief after his wife, Joy Davidman, died of cancer—a crisis he recovered from, but which left its mark. Still, because of his faith, Lewis’s life was more alluring, more captivating, more vivifying. It was said of Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien that they never lost their enchantment with the world.The greatest cost of the Trump years to evangelical Christianity isn’t in the political sphere, but rather in what Christians refer to as bearing witness—showing how their lives have been transformed by their faith.[David A. Graham: Jeff Sessions explains why Christians support Trump]Much of the evangelical movement, in aligning itself with Donald Trump, has shown itself to be graceless and joyless, seized by fear, hypocritical, censorious, and filled with grievances. That is not true of all evangelicals, of course, and it’s not true of all evangelicals who are Trump supporters. But it’s true of enough of them, and certainly of the political leadership of the white evangelical movement, to have done deep injury to their public witness.I know this firsthand, from pastors around the country who have talked about the catastrophic effects of the unholy alliance between evangelicals and Donald Trump. One pastor of a large church on the Pacific coast told me: “There are many reasons why young people are turning away from the Church, but my observation is Trump has vastly accelerated that trend. He’s put it into hyperdrive.”This pastor, a lifelong Republican who declined to be quoted by name because of the position he occupies, wrote that “for decades Hollywood has portrayed conservative Christians as cruel, ignorant, greedy, and hypocritical. For 20 years I have worked, led, and sacrificed to put the lie to that stereotype, and have done so successfully here ... Because of how we have served the least of the least, city officials, school officials, and many atheists have formed a respect for Jesus and his church. And I’m watching all that get washed away.”He added, “Yes, Hollywood and the media created a decidedly unattractive stereotype of Christians. And Donald Trump fits it perfectly. Made it all seem true. And sadly, I now realize that stereotype is more true than I ever knew. It breaks my heart. In volleyball terms, Hollywood did the set, but Trump was the spike that drove the ball home. He’s everything I’ve been trying to say isn’t what the church is all about. But sadly, maybe it is.”In the midst of the wreckage, Trump’s evangelical supporters will undoubtedly comfort themselves with this thought: They got Gorsuch.
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The Atlantic Daily: Trump Wins Himself Some Time
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / GETTYDonald Trump, the man, lost at the Supreme Court today. But Donald Trump, the candidate, can claim victory.As part of the fallout from the new rulings, “the president may eventually face legal liability,” David Frum argues, “but he will not face a public reckoning for his actions before November.”Or, as another staff writer, David A. Graham, put it: Trump’s strategy of running out the clock is paying off.Said clock continues to tick. We’re just a few months away from the general election. Let’s check in on Team Trump’s 2020 campaign strategy—with three observations from our writers:1. Trump continues to exploit racial grievances. It may cost him.“He captured the White House with a campaign based on racial backlash,” Graham writes, “and now, after nearly four years of racist remarks and appeals, backlash to the backlash may doom his campaign.”2. He’s making a bad bet on a dwindling population of voters.“The Americans he is targeting with his messages of racial resentment and cultural backlash are uniformly a smaller share of American society now than they were [in 1968],” our polling expert Ronald Brownstein notes.3. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence is attempting to save them both.Their fates are intertwined. Or, as one anonymous former official told our White House correspondent Peter Nicholas: “You get the Trump stink on you, it’s hard to get it off.”THE ATLANTICOne question, answered: COVID-19 cases are rising. So why are deaths flatlining?Derek Thompson talks through five possible explanations for the gap. First is this: People die after getting sick. A lag, therefore, makes sense.“The death lag is probably the most important thing to understand in evaluating the case-death gap,” he writes. “But it doesn’t explain everything.”Explore four more explanations.What to read if … you want practical tips: Our state-by-state coronavirus tracker A guide to staying safe as states reopen 8 films to watch right now, according to the Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins 25 half-hour shows to watch now 20 books to read in quarantine this summer What to read if … you’re looking for a break from the news: Read our science reporter Sarah Zhang’s dispatch on the birdsong that took over North America.Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.
Trump Is Successfully Running Out the Clock
Fifty-five days ago, President Trump was supposed to file his annual personal financial disclosures, which give a broad snapshot of his money situation. The White House gave its employees 45 extra days to file the report, citing the coronavirus pandemic, making the new deadline June 29.That was 10 days ago, and Trump still hasn’t released the disclosure. The White House told The New York Times that the president had been given another 45 days, again because of the pandemic, but that “intends to file as soon as possible.”Don’t hold your breath, and don’t place any big bets on seeing the documents before November 3. The Trump White House has perfected the art of foot-dragging, producing a regime in which the president is ostensibly required to do certain things as a matter of transparency and accountability—but in reality, has wide leeway to avoid it. In theory, rule of law stands. In practice, where it stands is outside the door, rapping fiercely but fruitlessly to come in.[David A. Graham: Trump’s defeat on tax returns signals a big problem for the president]Two major Supreme Court decisions released Thursday, both related to the president’s financial disclosures, have the same effect. In legal terms, the justices delivered a pair of devastating blows to Trump’s lawyers, rejecting attempts by the president to prevent the House of Representatives and the Manhattan district attorney from subpoenaing his tax records. Neither case was especially close: In both cases, seven of the nine justices ruled against the president (with some differences), including both of Trump’s appointees to the Court, while the other two were also skeptical of some of his key claims.These decisions affirm the rule of law, asserting that the president is, at the end of the day, like any other American citizen, and does not have the sweeping immunity he claimed. But they are more blows against the executive in general than they are against Trump himself, at least for now. In both cases, the Court’s rulings send cases back to lower courts, where they are likely to simmer until after Election Day. In the Manhattan case, the decision opens the door for the president’s lawyers to register new objections. Even if that moves quickly, it’s probably too late for a prosecutor to get the documents and bring a serious case before the election. In the House case, the justices remanded back to the lower courts, which also means more legal wrangling—at a time when Congress’s work is probably nearly finished until after voting.[David A. Graham: Trump’s obstruction letter]It’s too cynical to say that what happens after the election doesn’t matter. Perhaps Trump will someday face criminal liability for financial crimes in New York, although no charges have yet been brought. (There are allegations of widespread past fraud, including some bolstered by documents provided to the Times by Mary Trump, the president’s niece, who will next week publish a tell-all memoir.) But a delayed decision surely matters less: It deprives voters of information they might use to cast their ballots in November, and if Trump wins a second term, he will never be directly accountable to voters again.As for the financial disclosure, it’s unclear whether there’s any way to compel Trump to release that in a timely manner, either. Congress or some other entity could try suing, which would send the matter right to court, where it would be promptly bottled up, probably past November. As I have written, the court system has not recognized the urgency of dealing with a president who has little regard for rule of law, choosing instead to operate on the same dilatory schedule it usually does.[David A. Graham: Trump has successfully gamed the courts]One of Trump’s greatest insights into the presidency has been the power of simply saying no. (It’s not a privilege he affords others.) Since Democrats took over the House in 2019, they have attempted a range of oversight measures, many of them straightforwardly political but within their traditional power. In response, the White House has generally just refused to follow its legal obligations. One thread led to the Mazar’s case. Another led to Trump’s impeachment. The administration did blink on both releasing aid to Ukraine and then releasing a summary of a call with the Ukrainian president, but it refused to cooperate with the process of impeachment. White House lawyers bluntly announced their intention to stonewall, and while that earned the president an additional count of impeachment for obstruction, it sort of worked: The House didn’t get to hear from all the witnesses or see all the documents it wanted. (Of course, even if it had, it’s unlikely it would have changed the outcome of the Senate trial—although the information it obtained or shared might have altered public perceptions.)The White House has simply said no in other cases, too. Adviser Kellyanne Conway has repeatedly broken the Hatch Act and should be fired, according to the Office of Special Counsel, but the only person who can actually fire her is Trump, and he naturally hasn’t done so. (“Let me know when the jail sentence starts,” Conway smirked.)Congress has no answer for a president who operates in bad faith, except impeachment—and as the Senate’s hasty dismissal of charges demonstrated, that only works if both houses are acting in good faith themselves. The courts have no answer either. All the public gets is some legal rulings that seem good on paper, and a government-accountability koan: If the president has to disclose certain things but no one can force him to do so in a timely fashion, does he really have to disclose them?
The Woman Who Made the Best Action Movie of 2020
Gina Prince-Bythewood has never been afraid of tackling new genres. The writer and director has made three excellent films set in very different spheres: the coming-of-age masterpiece Love & Basketball, the 1960s-set drama The Secret Life of Bees, and the glittery superstar romance Beyond the Lights. But for years she’s craved the scope of a blockbuster action film, the type that studios and audiences gravitate toward in this franchise-stuffed era. She was attached to a Sony/Marvel project called Silver & Black that took place in the Spider-Man universe, but after that fell apart, she moved on to another comic-book property, a grittier series created by Greg Rucka called The Old Guard.The resulting film, which hits Netflix tomorrow, is the best action movie of the year so far—a crisply made, globe-trotting adventure about a group of immortals who recruit a new member to their team while doing battle with someone trying to steal their powers. The Old Guard focuses on Andy (played by Charlize Theron), a 6,000-year-old warrior, but it’s an ensemble piece that digs into the strange family dynamics of a team that’s been fighting together for centuries. The new recruit, Nile (KiKi Layne), is a U.S. marine who’s wounded in battle and discovers that she has fantastical healing abilities—in addition to being functionally unkillable (though there are a few exceptions to that rule).Prince-Bythewood is known for her exceptional attention to detail, but her prior films were smaller-scale and focused on just a few characters in great depth. The Old Guard loses nothing by painting on a wider canvas. The director’s deep affection for every member of the ensemble helps the film stand out, as does the impressively intense and gory action, which delights in the magical healing powers of the group. I spoke with Prince-Bythewood about seeking out action projects, the dearth of female and Black filmmakers in the blockbuster space, and doing post-production at home. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.David Sims: How’s it going?Gina Prince-Bythewood: Oh, you know, the combination of a global pandemic and a national reckoning takes an emotional toll! But I think important things are finally happening, both in the country and in Hollywood. I know a lot of artists are struggling with what to do in this moment. I had the benefit of having to finish this film, so that gave me something to focus on, creatively.Sims: Have you been doing a lot of the post-production remotely?Prince-Bythewood: We were ready to lock the film when [COVID-19] hit. We ended up having everyone put their equipment in their homes literally on a Monday, and by the end of the week we were in full shutdown. So it was figuring out looping, color-timing, and mixing; all of that is such an intimate process! Our score was going to have to be electronic, which was horrifying to me. But then [the composers] Dustin [O’Halloran] and Hauschka created a beautiful score—it just so happened [that team was] was in Iceland, [one of the only countries] in the world that had an orchestra that was allowed to play. So we were up at three in the morning to listen to it live.Sims: Usually you write your films, but this is the first you aren’t a credited screenwriter on. Did you come to Greg Rucka’s comic book first, or the script?Prince-Bythewood: I love action films. And I love the direction they’ve taken in the last few years—Black Panther, Logan, where they were more action-dramas, with all the elements you love in an action film, yet I cried at the end of both. They said something to the world, and I loved that we could do that with the genre. I thought [my next movie would be] Silver & Black with Marvel and Sony, but that didn’t work out. And as that wasn’t working out, I got sent this script by [the production company] Skydance.I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make [action movies], given the way that Hollywood is. But all praise to Patty Jenkins, who killed Wonder Woman and opened the door a crack for some of us to squeak through. Skydance was intentional on wanting to find a female director. They loved Beyond the Lights and Love & Basketball. They wanted the feel of those, what I do with characters, so that The Old Guard could feel like an action-drama.Sims: Did you read the book then?Prince-Bythewood: I hadn’t been familiar with the graphic novel, so I was reading it completely fresh. I was moved by the characters’ search for purpose. And then it was two women at the head of it, one of them a young Black female hero, something that has been desperately needed.Sims: Does it really feel like there’s been a sea change post–Wonder Woman? Some kind of atmospheric shift, producers realizing there’s an audience for more than just the same story?Prince-Bythewood: It’s funny, I use the word sea change often and then I catch myself, because the bar was at zero. But I was so excited about this year because there were five other female-directed blockbusters. Obviously Patty [with Wonder Woman 1984], there’s Cate Shortland doing Black Widow, Mulan with Niki Caro, The Eternals with Chloé Zhao, and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. So in one year, all of us were getting this opportunity. And that is a sea change—that has never happened in the history of Hollywood. Now we have to wait on a number of those movies, but I hope we can destroy this narrative that women don’t love action, because we do. And also that women don’t want to shoot action, because some of us do.Sims: The narrative was that female filmmakers don’t want to make these kinds of movies.Prince-Bythewood: I think it’s absolutely time for new blood and new perspectives to disrupt the genre. Because there are so many of [these movies], and there’s been a bit of a sameness.Sims: In terms of that sameness, coming to The Old Guard, what do you want to do to put your stamp on it?Prince-Bythewood: There were a couple of things I wanted to bring to the script; I wanted to expand Nile [the character played by Layne], give her more agency in terms of the plot, give her more heroic moments and a backstory so she felt as full as the other characters, and Greg was all on board with that.The other big thing I wanted to add came from a great book I read in my research for this, called On Killing. It’s a definitive book for soldiers that talks about how the act of taking a life is as emotionally and psychologically damaging as your fear of losing your life on the battlefield. It felt like we hadn’t seen that in an action film before, and it was so perfect for these characters, especially Andy [played by Theron], who has to take a life to save many. What would that toll be after 6,000 years? It is a violent film, and I’m unapologetic about that, but I never wanted it to feel like a celebration.Sims: The characters are immortal, so they’re mostly invincible, but the violence is still painful, and you feel the toll it’s taking on them.Prince-Bythewood: When I read the script, I knew immediately that I wanted the film to feel grounded and real despite the fantastical elements. That’s the most important thing for a film, regardless of size or budget: You’ve got to connect with the characters.Sims: Was Charlize Theron already on board when you came to the project?Prince-Bythewood: No. Skydance had developed it with Greg for about a year, then I came on and continued to develop. Thinking of who could embody Andy, Charlize is such a good actress, but also she’s done it before. Knowing what I wanted to do with the action, to see the actors doing it rather than their stunt doubles, she’s proven that she can do it.Sims: She has that action-movie gravitas from films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde. That kind of informs this character, who’s supposed to have so much experience.Kiki Layne (left) and Charlize Theron (right) doing their own stunts in a fight scene from The Old Guard. (Aimee Spinks / Netflix)Prince-Bythewood: Doing action is really hard! I love watching the training videos that every actor puts out, and they’re always cool and set to music and they look sexy, but the reality is, it is months of hard training. KiKi had never done a film like this before, and when I cast her, I trusted her because she had this desire to do it and be great. She did two-a-day training sessions, five days a week, for a couple months. I told her, “This training process is your rehearsal,” because she’s building the character, a marine, she’s getting that swagger, that posture. When you walk down the street and know you can kick someone’s ass, can protect yourself, that changes your gait, the way you stand. It’s a great tool.Sims: Did everyone do that kind of training? Because the action feels very authentic.Prince-Bythewood: Every actor I talked to, I made it clear: You are going to be doing your action. They were all in. KiKi and Charlize trained in L.A. before we got to the U.K.; the guys, who were in all different countries, came about two months prior to shooting and trained together. That was a great bonding experience. It was fun for them, and competitive, because nobody wanted to be the weak link.Sims: Are there action films you’re looking at where you’re thinking, This is how I want my action to look? Or is it more, This is how I don’t want my action to look.Prince-Bythewood: [Laughs] I knew I wanted each action sequence to feel different. I’m not going to name names, but there were a couple things where I was like, “I do not want it to be this. I hate the way the action is in this.” On the flip side, our templates were The Raid, Logan, Zero Dark Thirty, Man on Fire. I watched at least 20 Asian action films—there are so many great directors working in that genre. And the last thing was the bathroom fight in the last Mission: Impossible. That fight is perfect. I remember telling [the action choreographer Danny Hernandez] that I wanted that for the plane fight. I wanted that feeling. And he was like, “You know, they had about three weeks to shoot that and we have three days.” And I said, “I don’t care, let’s just go for it.”Sims: In Mission: Impossible—Fallout, both Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill feel indestructible, which is the same sort of vibe here.Prince-Bythewood: But I loved that in The Old Guard—that the characters could be hurt. That they’re immortal mostly. That allows you some jeopardy in the fights. In talking with Danny, it was, “How can we make it believable that the Old Guard can defeat 16 people with automatic weaponry?” We decided, since they’ve been around for centuries, they started fighting hand to hand, doing up-close killing, whereas modern soldiers are learning to kill from miles away sometimes. We realized that hesitation was what the Old Guard could use to their advantage.Sims: As you mentioned, you were attached to Silver & Black in the Spider-Man universe, which didn’t come to fruition. Had you been casting around for an action movie for a while?Prince-Bythewood: I was. Cloak & Dagger, the TV pilot that I did for Marvel, that was very intentional. I specifically wanted to start getting into that world, proving that I could do it. Obviously that was smaller-scale, but it was my first chance to work with visual effects and stunts. But the reason I was in the room for Skydance was because they loved Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, two films that have no stunts.[Read: ‘Beyond the Lights’ and other movie masterpieces to watch in quarantine]Sims: You’ve been making movies for 20 years; they’ve all been well-received. Has your experience changed at all in terms of securing the next project? How much has Hollywood evolved?Prince-Bythewood: I’m extremely particular about what I do. Most of the time, I direct what I’ve written, because it’s 100 percent my vision, and I have these stories gnawing at me. I take a long time to write, which I hate; I wish I could write quicker. But I do get offered a ton of stuff, and really could do a film a year if I wanted. But I have two boys, I have a husband; if I’m going to be away, it has to be something I’m passionate about. What I’m mostly passionate about as a filmmaker, as an artist, and as a Black woman are films that focus on Black women and become universal.For me, growing up and not being able to see myself reflected on-screen, how invisible I felt, now I want the world to see our humanity and enjoy our films. And those are the hardest films to get made, 100 percent. When people look at the gaps in my filmography and ask why it took four or five years to get to the next one … Each project is a fight. I will say, the miraculous thing is that the next two projects I have lined up are both big, both focus on Black women, and were not a fight, for the first time in my career.Sims: I just wanted to beg you for a Love & Basketball sequel. It’s been 20 years, it could be about the [central couple’s] daughter. But it sounds like you’re very particular, so it might be hard to fit that in.Prince-Bythewood: [Laughs] I love that people want another one. It’s humbling. But I feel like everyone would be disappointed. I told the story I wanted to tell. But I will say, the Academy put on a 20-year-anniversary panel for that film and brought us back together. And sitting there with Alfre Woodard, and Sanaa Lathan, and Kyla Pratt … I loved working with those actors, and I’d want to do it again. So I just have to write something different that would bring us all back together.Sims: My only complaint about The Old Guard is that I couldn’t see it with a big audience, to feel them reacting to the crucial moments. But it’ll be on Netflix; it’ll be widely accessible.Prince-Bythewood: In 190 countries! All my films, it’s always a fight, and they never get foreign distribution, because you always hear, “Oh, Black characters don’t travel.” And you want to punch somebody. It’s because they don’t try. I’m so curious for what it’s going to feel like—is it going to be like that Friday where you sneak into a theater and see it with an audience? I have no idea. But 190 countries? It’s stunning.
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We Can't End AIDS Without Fighting Racism
The color of your skin should not determine the quality of your health. But in the United States, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is exacerbated by racism, bias, and discrimination. As America continues its long-overdue reckoning with racism and systemic injustice, we must address the devastating impact of the disease on the Black community. An end to the AIDS epidemic can only be achieved through dignity, respect, love, and compassion for all.The 2020 International AIDS Conference—the world’s premier event to showcase advances, highlight challenges, and galvanize collaboration against AIDS—was scheduled to return on July 6 to San Francisco and Oakland, California, where it was held 30 years ago at the height of the epidemic. COVID-19 has forced the conference to go virtual, but it remains a key part of the effort to end AIDS.[Read: ‘The disease of the century’: Reporting on the origin of AIDS]Over the past three decades, America has made impressive strides toward that goal. U.S. government initiatives have mobilized resources and attention, from the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990 to last year’s Ending the HIV Epidemic plan for reducing transmission by 90 percent by 2030. Preventative-treatment breakthroughs such as PrEP and supervised injection sites have reduced the likelihood of transmission. Innovations such as oral swabs have made testing easier, more effective, and more accessible. Antiretroviral treatments continue to improve, so that HIV infection is no longer a death sentence, but a manageable condition.As a result of these efforts and sustained public activism, HIV-related deaths in the United States have plummeted by more than 80 percent since 1995.But even as we celebrate these achievements, inequities stand out in black and white.While Black Americans make up just 13 percent of the population, they represented 42 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2018. If you’re a gay or bisexual Black man in the United States, you have a 50 percent lifetime chance of being diagnosed with HIV, compared with just 9 percent for gay or bisexual white men. In the American South—home to the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection in the U.S.— gay and bisexual Black men account for 60 percent of new diagnoses. Black trans women are more vulnerable still: As of last year, an estimated 44 percent of all Black trans women were living with HIV. Worst of all, Black people living with HIV/AIDS are seven times more likely than white people to die from the virus.[Read: The gay men who have lived for years with someone waiting on their death]These disparities are not random. Rather, they reflect centuries of discrimination. Persistent structural inequities in economic opportunity, education, and housing disproportionately expose Black families to serious health risks, including HIV/AIDS. And a lack of representation, combined with a painful history of racism in medicine, has undermined the Black community’s trust in health-care systems and made people less likely to seek care. The same disparities have become glaringly apparent as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic; Black Americans are dying at more than two times the rate of white Americans, and the death rate rises to sixfold in pandemic hot spots.I started the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992 because I believe that everyone deserves the right to a healthy life, no matter who you love, who you are, or where you’re from. Today, I’m proud that it supports organizations that serve and uplift marginalized communities.Some of our most inspiring partners are in my adopted hometown of Atlanta, home to 37,000 people living with HIV—more than 70 percent of whom are Black. These partners include Thrive SS, a self-help support network for gay Black men living with HIV/AIDS, and Positive Impact Health Centers, which offer HIV preventive care and treatment, as well as services for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse. To ensure continued HIV care and treatment during the pandemic, my foundation has helped organizations transition from face-to-face to virtual appointments and provided personal protective equipment for staff members and the people they serve, as well as at-home delivery of lifesaving treatments and HIV self-testing kits. This tackles the immediate needs, but not the long-lasting stigma.[Read: The LGBTQ health clinic that faced a dark truth about the AIDS crisis]When I visited Atlanta’s Grady Health System Ponce De Leon Center in 2018, I met a man named Andrew Williams. He had come to Grady a few years prior with a host of debilitating conditions that had put him in a wheelchair and made his life difficult. At 31, Andrew was suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease—all undiagnosed. When he tested positive for HIV as well, he feared the worst. But thanks to the care he received at Grady, within two months the virus was undetectable in his body. Andrew said he wanted to use his new lease on life to help others like him know that they too were going to be okay.Stories like Andrew’s give me hope. We can achieve an AIDS-free generation in America—but only if we design a system of care that embraces Black people and marginalized communities, and tackles structural racism head-on. Organizations such as Grady, Thrive SS, and Positive Impact are doing that work every day, but they can’t do it alone. They need federal, state, and local governments behind them, and they need our communities to recognize the truth: that in America today, racism and bigotry drive HIV/AIDS.Scientists, activists, and decision makers are virtually coming together at the International AIDS Conference to share good news about how we can defeat AIDS medically. Policy makers and the public must also come together and commit to defeating the inherent bias that means AIDS is still a death sentence for some. Only then can we end the AIDS epidemic once and for all.
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These 8 Basic Steps Will Let Us Reopen Schools
In any other July, millions of American schoolchildren, their families, and their teachers would be eagerly anticipating, or perhaps dreading, the start of a new school year. This year is different. With coronavirus case counts increasing rapidly in many states, it’s natural to wonder whether there will be school at all.Education is an essential foundation of society. The disruptions caused by the pandemic this spring cost millions of students precious school time and slowed or stalled their educational progress, worsening an already unequal system: The poorest children are the ones falling furthest behind. What’s more, going to school benefits the social, physical, and mental health of children.One of us served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the others as secretaries of education in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Those experiences inform our approach to the current crisis.We need to reopen schools this fall. But we have to do it carefully. If we move too fast, ignore science, or reopen without careful planning, this will backfire. We can reopen if we follow commonsense guidelines.[Juliette Kayyem: Reopening schools was just an afterthought]Severe illness from COVID-19 in children is rare. The risk of death from the coronavirus for an infected child is hundreds of times lower than for older adults. But serious illness, such as the recently documented rare inflammatory syndrome, does occur—just as serious illness occurs with influenza, which in most years kills 100 or more children, including many who get infected in schools. We don’t close our schools because of the risk of influenza, and we don’t necessarily need to close them because of the risk of COVID-19.The single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe has nothing to do with what happens in schools. It’s how well communities control the coronavirus throughout the community. Such control of COVID-19 requires adhering to the three W’s—wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance—and boxing in the virus with strategic testing, effective isolation, complete contact tracing, and supportive quarantine—providing services and, if necessary, alternative temporary housing so patients and contacts don’t spread disease others.The CDC has released helpful , which each state and school district will need to apply to its specific context. Localities will need to develop solutions tailored to their unique needs and based on the latest information on the virus. In places where the virus is spreading explosively, it may be difficult or impossible to have in-person schooling. But in most school districts most of the time, schools should look to reopen by following these eight basic safety measures.First, shield the most vulnerable. Children, older staff, and those who have underlying health conditions that put them at high risk should not return to school in person unless there is little or no community transmission; the school system should enable them to participate remotely to the greatest extent possible.Second, reduce risk wherever possible. Large in-person student assemblies will be out. Cafeterias may need to close, with students instead eating in classrooms. On-site food preparation may be replaced by prepackaged meals and disposable dishware. And schools can reduce the number of surfaces touched by multiple people, for example by keeping hallway doors open. Some essential services must continue—such as in-school meals which many students depend on. Others may need to be modified—libraries will likely need capacity restrictions.[Sarah Cohodes: A better fall is possible]Because group singing increases risk, large choir rehearsals will need to stop. In areas where the coronavirus is under good control, band and orchestra practice may be able to continue. Team sports may be too risky; clusters of cases have been reported among college and professional sports teams. Recess and physical-education classes are possible if students play outdoors in small groups, wear masks, and observe physical-distancing guidelines.For older students who are able to tele-school—high schoolers and some middle schoolers—distance learning may be a safer option, unless there is little or no virus circulating in the community.Third, keep the virus out. Schools should forbid nonessential visits and require everyone who enters the school—not only students and staff but also parents, delivery people, and maintenance workers—to wash their hands (or apply hand sanitizer) and wear a face mask. Families must understand that their children should not go to school when sick. Class attendance policies should be revised to reflect the urgency of staying home when ill, and absences should not require a doctor’s note. Every person who works at a school, including staff members, contractors, and maintenance workers, must be given paid sick leave. Paid sick leave has been demonstrated to significantly reduce the risk of ill people continuing to work and spreading infection to others.Fourth, wear a mask. Students, teachers, and staff should all wear masks throughout the school day, although this may be challenging for younger children. Consider adopting reward systems to encourage mask wearing and hand-washing.Fifth, reduce mixing among students and staff. Divide students into smaller cohorts, or pods, that stay together throughout the day, rather than mixing and re-forming different class units. Remaining primarily within a smaller unit reduces the risk of extensive disease spread and makes contact tracing easier if there are cases. Staff break rooms should be closed: In hospitals, many employees became infected while socializing with other employees.Sixth, reduce occupancy, especially indoors. Classrooms may need to operate at reduced capacity to provide increased physical distance. Schools can alleviate overcrowding by moving to a split-shift schedule (incorporating morning and an afternoon session) or by alternating students between in-person and remote learning. Classrooms can be rearranged to reduce transmission, such as by placing desks facing the same direction. If conditions allow, holding class outdoors is safer.[Emily Oster: Parents can’t wait around forever]Seventh, implement new health and safety protocols, such as more frequent and thorough cleaning and disinfecting, including of buses. Hand-washing and sanitizing stations should be installed; their use should be required. There will need to be more cleaning during the day, when classes are in session, as well as at the end of the day. That will require safe usage and storage of cleaning products, to protect children from exposure. Sharing of classroom supplies and other items should also be limited; when sharing is necessary, equipment should be disinfected after each use.Eighth, prepare for cases. Despite precautions, there will inevitably be coronavirus cases at schools. Schools must function as if the virus could arrive at any moment, and operate so that they can reduce transmission and provide ongoing education when it occurs. Responding well can prevent outbreaks; detailed and rehearsed protocols will enhance readiness. Daily temperature symptom checks are advisable. Students or staff members who become sick must stay home in isolation until they have met the CDC’s criteria to return. All contacts of new cases must be traced and quarantined. Any classroom with a reported case will need to be thoroughly disinfected and, if necessary, closed temporarily. Schools should also prepare to close if necessary because of outbreaks or explosive spread in the community.Reopening schools will not be easy, but if we all work together to stop the virus, we can succeed. Our children’s future depends on it.
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A First Draft of a History-Textbook Entry for the Year 2020
History never ends. But history textbooks must. As deadlines for new editions loom, every textbook writer lurches to a sudden stop. The last chapter always ends in uncertainty: unfinished and unresolved. I’ve experienced this many times myself, as a co-author on several history textbooks.By now it seems clear that we are all living through a major turning point in history, one that will be studied for years to come. Future textbook authors will write entries on the year 2020, revise them, and revise them some more with each new edition. What follows is an attempt at—literally—a first draft of history: what I might write if I were wrapping up the last chapter of a high-school history textbook right now.The Year 2020: Matters of Life and BreathBy any measure, the first three years of the Trump administration had been tumultuous. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller won convictions of several of the president’s associates for witness tampering, lying to Congress and the FBI, and bank fraud. (“A Witch Hunt,” the president complained.) Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with the president of Ukraine led the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to impeach him, though the Republican-controlled Senate failed to convict. (See Chapter 34.) Only twice before in American history had a president been impeached, and none had ever been convicted.Yet these controversies and others were soon overshadowed by the events that unfolded in the first half of 2020. Within the space of a few months, the nation found itself drawn into two crises whose underlying causes threatened its health, wealth, and perhaps its very existence as a democratic republic.The threat seemed distant at first. On the last day of 2019, officials in Wuhan, China, publicly reported that doctors were treating dozens of patients for pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, caused by an unknown virus. The first death, reported two weeks later, was that of a 61-year-old man. At that point, news headlines in America were focusing more on massive wildfires in Australia, which killed an estimated 1 billion animals, and several dozen people, and forced thousands of Australians to flee for their lives through heat, smoke, and flames.By the end of January, Chinese officials had closed off the entire city of Wuhan, and the World Health Organization declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The disease, which scientists named COVID-19, was caused by a new strain of the coronavirus. Health experts called for immediate action. People had to be tested to see how far the virus had spread. They needed to “shelter in place”—essentially, stay home as much as humanly possible—to keep the infection from spreading. One particular danger was that people who showed no signs of illness could spread the infection.For older people and those with existing health problems, COVID-19 could be ruthless. Most people experienced only mild symptoms, such as fever or a cough, or no symptoms at all. But others found themselves fighting for life as their lungs filled with fluids. Over time, doctors discovered that coronavirus infections could lead to complications such as stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure.[Read: How the pandemic will end]Scientists and some high officials in the Trump administration recognized by late January that the new disease was far more serious than the ordinary flu. They warned privately that COVID-19 could evolve into “a full-blown pandemic,” spreading across the globe and endangering “the lives of millions of Americans.” But President Trump downplayed the danger. “We have it totally under control,” he insisted. He restricted travel from China, but by then, COVID-19 had already spread to Europe and was making its way to the United States from there.The virus hit many areas across the country hard, including Washington State, California, and Arizona. New York City had a particularly bad outbreak. By April, the city’s hospitals overflowed with coronavirus patients. “Walking made me lose my breath,” reported one man. “I was just gasping. It felt like drowning.” All over America, doctors, nurses, and paramedics worked day and night, wearing gowns, goggles, and face masks to keep from being infected. Some were forced to see patients with completely inadequate protection, because of a failure of hospitals and the government to secure needed supplies. Thousands upon thousands of ventilators were needed—machines used to supply oxygen through tubes inserted down patients’ throats. By late May, more than 100,000 Americans had died from the disease.Defending against COVID-19 created economic hardships. As people sheltered in place, businesses and public services small and large were forced to close. Schools were among the first organizations to respond to the crisis by sending students home. Then restaurants, hair salons, and gyms shut down. So did theaters, sports arenas, and stadiums. Congress passed several bills providing $3 trillion in relief, to keep the economy from collapsing. Many Americans received a stimulus check for up to $1,200 and small businesses could apply for loans or grants that would allow them to keep their workers on the job.Even so, millions of Americans found themselves without money to pay rent or buy groceries. Thousands of cars lined up at drive-through food banks. By the end of May, about a fifth of the nation’s workers were either unemployed or working part-time. The pandemic had produced the worst downturn since the Great Depression.Scientists worked overtime to develop a vaccine, but none was expected for at least a year. Meanwhile, Americans were divided about how best to confront the situation. Health experts insisted that people needed to continue sheltering in place until infection rates began to die down. They strongly recommended that face masks be worn in public spaces. President Trump and his allies wanted to restart the economy sooner rather than later, even if doing so risked a greater spread of infection. Trump refused to wear a mask in public.Medical personnel at NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. (Noam Galai / Getty)On Memorial Day 2020, the unofficial beginning of the summer season, a second unexpected event shook the nation, one that was also marked by the death of a single person whose breath failed him.George Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a 6-foot-7-inch “gentle giant” and “a natural comedian,” according to one friend. He was killed by a police officer after being arrested, handcuffed, and pulled to the ground, where the officer pressed a knee onto his neck and held it there for nearly nine minutes, as three other officers stood by. Bystanders captured almost the entire sequence on video. Among Floyd’s last words was the phrase “I can’t breathe,” repeated over and over.The next evening, protesters marched through Minneapolis. Within days, the protests spread to major cities across the country, including Memphis, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta, and New York City. Demonstrators wore masks and shared hand sanitizer, trying to stay safe from the coronavirus even as they gathered in large groups. While most protesters were peaceful, some set fires or vandalized police cruisers and stores. Police were out, and many of them responded with extreme force, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons, and rounding up protesters to arrest them in droves.Those who marched were not merely angry over Floyd’s death; they were incensed that he was only one of many Black people killed by the police over the years. That pattern pointed to the second crisis: a problem of systemic racism—prejudice that was built into the police system itself, not just the deeds of a few bad actors. For that reason, protesters called for reform or even the abolition of the entire policing system.[Read: “It’s been setting in on me that this is like a cycle”]When a large crowd of demonstrators gathered around the White House in Washington, the Secret Service ushered President Trump into an underground bunker. Worried about appearing weak, and determined to “dominate” the situation, Trump spoke several days later. “I am your president of law and order,” he declared. At the same time, police and D.C. National Guard units were ordered to clear peaceful protesters from an area facing the White House, so the president could walk to a church and be photographed holding a Bible. General James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, joined other military leaders in condemning the president for being divisive and using military force to disperse and control citizens.In the two weeks that followed, the protests grew larger. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 2,000 cities and towns. Perhaps more astonishing, similar demonstrations spread around the world—to France, Sweden, and Britain, as well as Germany, Kenya, and Australia. “I’ve never seen so many emotions expressed by so many people in my whole lifetime of protesting,” said one Australian. “I want to and need to be here,” commented a Denver marcher.Both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests for racial justice hit home because they seemed urgent, matters of life and death. “I can’t breathe,” chanted marchers, echoing George Floyd’s cry of pain. COVID-19, too, denied life’s breath. Though 2020 may have been the breaking point for America’s public-health system and the country’s institutionalized racism, these twin crises had been building over decades, if not longer.The threat of a viral pandemic had surfaced several times in the 21st century, as diseases that originated in animals found new opportunities to infect humans. An earlier deadly outbreak of a coronavirus occurred in 2003, in a disease known as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). None spread as widely as the virus that caused COVID-19 would later, but with each new strain, scientists warned that it was only a matter of time before a more serious pandemic struck. The Ebola virus of 2014 convinced then-President Barack Obama to establish an Ebola task force and an emergency fund designed to prepare for future outbreaks. The Trump administration disbanded the global-health security team in 2018.As for George Floyd, he was the latest of a long line of Black Americans who died at the hands of U.S. authorities. Slavery, Reconstruction, and decades of Jim Crow segregation had produced countless instances of deadly violence against Black people over the lifespan of the United States, in addition to police killings that were all too common. In the first half of 2020, two other such incidents captured the country’s attention: In February, in Glynn County, Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and shot by a former police officer and his son. In Louisville, Kentucky, Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician, was killed in her home during a police raid that targeted her residence in March. In Minneapolis, Floyd’s hometown, a New York Times study in 2020 showed that Black people made up 19 percent of the city’s population, but endured 58 percent of the incidents in which the police used force. And the new demonstrations resulted in dozens more instances of police misconduct against protesters recorded by cellphones, even as some officers joined protesters in marching and kneeling in prayer.Like two waves rolling in from different directions to crash ashore together, racism and the pandemic each magnified the dangers of the other. COVID-19 killed Black Americans at nearly three times the rate of white Americans, for a number of reasons that can be linked to structural racism. For instance, the virus spread more easily in crowded living conditions—the kind of housing to which racial discrimination consigned many Black Americans. Overcrowding, unemployment, poverty, and the stress of discrimination all contributed to poorer health for Black people in the U.S. compared with white people, which also made them more at risk for COVID-19.For those marching in search of a better world, despite their precautions, it was still hard to “socially distance” from fellow protesters, even when they weren’t coughing from tear gas. Many police officers at the protests did not wear masks, increasing the risk of virus transmission. Still, marchers took the risk, and many public-health experts supported them in an open letter that prioritized “opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response.”In a poignant demonstration of just how connected these two crises were, an autopsy revealed that George Floyd, though he exhibited no symptoms, had been infected with COVID-19 when he died.Protest for George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Hossein Fatemi / Panos Pictures / ​Redux)I can’t breathe … How would these twin crises of life and breath resolve themselves? Scientists feared that the number of COVID-19 infections might spike again, along with the number of deaths, as protesters marched and shops and restaurants reopened. Economists warned that hardships would worsen once government relief programs ran out midsummer. Environmentalists worried that natural disasters, amplified by global warming, might add yet more crises to the mix. Hurricane season had started early; so had the fire season in the western United States. “How do you fight a wildfire in a pandemic?” one climate scientist asked. He understood that COVID-19 would spread more quickly among firefighters working closely together on the ground, as well as in crowded evacuation shelters provided for those fleeing the flames.Could the nation’s political system survive these stresses? 2020 was an election year, and it wasn’t clear how the outcome would be affected. Would President Trump’s resistance to addressing the pandemic and his animosity toward the protesters cost him reelection? Would the threat of COVID-19 make voting harder? Or would it push more citizens to the polls despite the risks?History moves at its own unpredictable pace. Would Americans soon be marveling at how fleeting the events in the first half of 2020 had been, when compared with those of the second half? Would democratic societies survive, both at home and abroad? And if so, in what forms?Whatever the shape of things to come, surely the answers would be global. Both the pandemic and the protests spanned the world at remarkable speed. In the 21st century, as never before, social media, travel, and international trade had made the world one. Now deadly threats to humankind and the environment placed that world in peril.
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France Is Officially Color-Blind. Reality Isn’t.
Nearly 20 years ago, one of France’s most prestigious schools, Sciences Po, took what was then seen as a bold step: It became the first elite French university to attempt to diversify its student body. The program is small, with only about 1,000 graduates in total since its inception, but has generally been regarded as successful, offering scholarships to many who would not otherwise have had access.Its nature, though, reveals something significant about France: The program is not defined in terms of race, but entirely by socioeconomics and geography. Sciences Po—officially l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris—makes a point of recruiting a percentage of its students from high schools in areas that are economically disadvantaged. Though the point of the program is to diversify the school’s intake, it does not specifically target ethnic minorities. That is because, officially at least, France is color-blind.In the aftermath of the French Revolution, an ancien régime in which lives were entirely circumscribed by economic capacity inherited at birth (peasants, landowners, aristocrats, clergy) was replaced with the universal category of citizen. France reinforced its commitment to its universal ideals after the Second World War, during which the Vichy regime had singled out Jews for deportation. And so today, unlike the United States, where the census tracks race, France does not formally keep statistics about race or religion, recognizing only two categories of people: citizens and immigrants.But these ideals run up against the complexities of lived reality. France is one of the most multiethnic societies in the West, and just because it doesn’t formally recognize race naturally doesn’t mean race, or racism, don’t exist. The upheavals over the killing of George Floyd have resonated in the country, generating public demonstrations against police brutality and debates about institutional racism and white privilege, about France’s history of slavery and colonialism, about whether statues of French historical figures complicit in slavery should be removed. In France, Black Lives Matter has broadened into a conversation about social and economic mobility, and access to housing, education, and jobs. Fewer than 1 percent of the CEOs of companies listed on the French stock exchange are of “non-European origin,” Le Monde recently reported.[Read: France’s paradoxes, embodied in a cathedral]That inevitably leads back to France’s grandes écoles, prestigious public universities such as Sciences Po that are at the heart of the tensions between the country’s universalist meritocratic ideals and the schools’ creation of a self-perpetuating, predominantly white elite that excludes many students from the provinces or France’s banlieues, suburbs with high concentrations of immigrant communities.France’s grandes écoles are far more powerful than the Ivy League, or even Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge. They were founded as free, publicly funded postgraduate schools designed to train the functionaries who would run France, and for years they have had a solid monopoly on all French systems of power, educating presidents, lawmakers, and the heads of major state institutions and corporations. (There are hundreds of grandes écoles, with different specialties and levels of selectivity. The École Polytechnique, for instance, which trains engineers, is run by the Ministry of Defense.)In theory, access to the grandes écoles is based on an entrance exam for which anyone can apply. In practice, the test is so difficult that most aspiring students spend several years studying in special preparatory schools, many of which are private and costly by French standards. As a result, the majority of students who gain entrance come from a handful of the country’s best high schools and preparatory programs. Even the gatekeepers have gatekeepers.The entrance exams themselves are not simply written affairs or multiple-choice tests, but involve oral exams in which a faculty jury asks prospective students to speak with fluency on a range of topics—more like the bar exam than the SAT. The mise-en-scène, or stagecraft, is designed “to produce deference, respect, social distance between the student and the institution,” and thus produces inequality, Annabelle Allouch, a sociology professor at the University of Picardie Jules Verne in Amiens and Sciences Po, and the author of a book on the exams, told me. “The grandes écoles are invested in this kind of magic thinking that they are superior.” Students from ethnic minorities in France have “internalized the fact that discourse about social class is legitimate and the discourse about race is illegitimate,” she added.[Read: A letter from wartime France]So how do you create an elite that reflects the country without knowing the country’s composition? How do you recognize, let alone compensate for the fact, that not all students have equal access to educational opportunities and still adhere to the ideal that the state acknowledges individuals for their potential and merit, not their race or ethnicity? And, when it comes down to it, do the grandes écoles really want to change?At Sciences Po, the program to recruit a broader range of students involves encouraging teachers at more than 100 high schools in economically underperforming areas across France to have their best students apply. The admissions process is based on written and oral entrance exams, but also takes the student’s education and background into consideration.Despite efforts at other grandes écoles, the Sciences Po program remains something of an outlier. The École Nationale d’Administration—the most prestigious of the grandes écoles—offers a scholarship program to help bright students and graduates from lower-income backgrounds prepare for its entrance exam. The program is taught by ENA graduates, with one-on-one coaching and a special focus on public speaking and debate skills required to pass the oral exam. But the program, which began in 2009 and is known as CP’ENA, has only about 36 slots a year and has trained 138 students overall, offering a total of €220,000, or about $250,000, a year in state support. “It’s really very little,” David Foltz, a graduate of CP’ENA and ENA who now works in the interior ministry, told me.ENA, which has about 100 graduates a year, has itself become so emblematic of the French elite and its disconnect from the rest of the country that last year President Emmanuel Macron proposed shutting it down. Macron is an ENA graduate, as are three of his recent predecessors and the most recent prime ministers. Macron made his proposal at a moment of anti-elitist fervor, when months of protests by the Yellow Vest movement had taken direct aim at him and more broadly called attention to France’s inequality of income and access to state services. This year, the government announced that it wouldn’t shut ENA down but would change it, possibly merging it with other schools that train functionaries, and keeping its name.France has made other attempts to develop more inclusion in higher education, yet has skirted the issue of race throughout. In 2014, it started a program in which students who have placed in the top 10 percent in their high school exams can apply to top French universities and preparatory programs—a system inspired by similar efforts in Texas and California, according to Patrick Weil, who helped design the French program and teaches at Yale Law School and Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. Weil is an immigration historian and, like many French intellectuals, is adamant that a student’s race and religion not be a factor in admissions, fearful that the compilation of racial or religious statistics could be used for the wrong reasons. “Do you think when the Front National wants to count the number of Muslim students, they want to do it to promote them?” he said, using the previous name of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party.The problem, in Weil’s view, is one of class, rather than race or ethnicity—only wealthier students have the educational training and the means to spend years in the preparatory schools. “It’s the children of the elite reproducing itself,” he told me. “We have to target all the working class—the children of farmers, people from every area, white and people of color. It’s very important to give justice to all social classes and also to people from French overseas territories, who are also French.”But to many, including a younger generation of French activists, there’s no way to have these conversations without talking about race. Rokhaya Diallo, a journalist and filmmaker who has called out what she sees as institutionalized racism in France, told me she doesn’t really see much progress from the grandes écoles, despite Sciences Po’s program. “It doesn’t really change the figures, the picture of the classrooms,” Diallo said. “I think it’s been a way to avoid race, because there haven’t been major changes.”[Read: France’s double standard for populist uprisings]Though Macron’s cabinet is overwhelmingly white, following a recent cabinet reshuffle, his new equality minister is Black, and his former government spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye, was born in Senegal and came to France as a teenager. After tens of thousands took to the streets in France’s answer to Black Lives Matter protests, Ndiaye, as government spokesperson, wrote in an opinion piece in Le Monde that it was time to “break the taboo” about collecting statistics on race, so France could have a more honest conversation about the discrimination faced by people of color.Sooner or later, the conversation has to circle back to the elite universities. Until France can figure out how to grant a broader range of students access to the grandes écoles, the country’s government and institutions won’t reflect its population. And it’s hard to imagine how a solution is possible without acknowledging race.Allouch, for her part, is hopeful that things will change. “I think we’re witnessing a sort of #MeToo of race,” she told me. Topics that a few years ago were considered niche issues in France—feminism, gender theory, homosexuality—have become part of a more public discourse. “We’re going to arrive at a tipping point,” she said, “where the question of race will no longer be considered a taboo.”
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The Moving Lights of a World in Quarantine
Even during the worst of the pandemic in New York City, when the threat of the virus had emptied out the streets, the lights of Times Square stayed on, its many towering advertisements flashing and flickering. The coronavirus had driven millions of people indoors, but the city’s most recognizable plaza was illuminated—a symbol, George Lence, a spokesperson for Times Square’s sign operators, told me, of “New York’s strength and resiliency,” a marker that everything might still be fine. If Times Square—or any other famous monument in a major city—were to go dark, it would send a worrying message.Outdoor lighting signals security, a bright deterrent against misdeeds that would otherwise flourish under the cover of darkness, and that idea extends to other definitions of security. “We have this idea that light is something positive, and we are in dark times, so we need some light to brighten us up,” says Annette Krop-Benesch, a researcher in Berlin who studies the effects of artificial light on the biological rhythms of humans and animals.But Times Square was something of an aberration: Everything, of course, was not fine in the United States and beyond.From a satellite’s perspective, Earth at night, under cloudless conditions, is, in normal times, a navy-blue marble with a dusting of gold. The electric sparks of human activity shimmer in the darkness: a bustling downtown, a well-traveled highway, a fleet of container ships in open water. But when the coronavirus swept across the globe, the glow of civilization shifted from city centers to residential areas. Entire stretches of road, once shiny like strands of tinsel from car headlights, vanished from the nighttime map. As entire populations and industries curtailed their usual movements, pixels of light on satellite images rearranged themselves accordingly—a new bright cluster here, a fresh spot of darkness there.Some changes have coincided with the implementation of emergency measures meant to slow the transmission of the fast-spreading virus. The effect was stark in China, according to Qian Liu, a doctoral student in geography at George Mason University in Virginia. Liu and her fellow researchers used images from a weather satellite to examine the average nighttime radiance—a measure of artificial light on the ground—across the country’s provinces. They found that radiance levels decreased from December, when the first coronavirus cases were reported, to January and February, when officials put entire cities on strict lockdowns.Near Wuhan, the city where the virus first emerged, the data showed that residential areas brightened while commercial areas dimmed this spring—a sign that more people were staying home than usual. “In China, people’s commercial areas and living areas are separate,” Liu says. The levels appeared to return to normal as provinces lifted restrictions in March, with the exception of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, which remained under quarantine until April.Christopher Elvidge, a researcher who specializes in nighttime observations of light sources at the Colorado School of Mines, found similar effects in the U.S. Analyzing data from the same satellite that Liu’s team used, Elvidge and his colleagues found that from February to March, artificial light dimmed in states such as New York and California, which were among the first to introduce widespread stay-at-home orders, but remained unchanged in states such as Florida and Arizona, which took a less stringent approach.Satellite data might have even captured the result of plummeting oil prices. In late April, as U.S. oil prices dropped below zero for the first time in history, oil fields in Texas appeared significantly dimmer compared with satellite images taken three months earlier. As demand had diminished worldwide, oil companies had sharply cut their operations, which apparently eliminated the need to keep their deserted sites lit. The drop in oil prices may be causing some lights to go out in oil-producing parts of the world. Here, @NOAASatellites measurements of light ( over south and west Texas on 24th Jan & 24th Apr. Changes in the Permian Basin (upper L) & Eagle Ford (lower R). — Dr. John Barentine FRAS (@JohnBarentine) May 7, 2020Such views can tell us only so much, though; weather satellites aren’t spy satellites, and their resolution at night isn’t good enough to resolve small-scale sources of artificial light. When researchers spot dimming in a particular region, “we can’t necessarily say, ‘Okay, this was advertising lighting that turned off,’ or, ‘People went to bed earlier,’ or, ‘There’s less traffic,’” says Christopher Kyba, a researcher at the German Research Center for Geoscience who studies the ecological impacts of nighttime artificial light.On the ground, different cities managed the electric lights within their borders in different ways. In Spain, for example, authorities in Pamplona and A Coruña decided to turn off lighting in certain public spaces for the duration of the nationwide lockdown this spring, in part to save energy. Alejandro Sánchez de Miguel, a light-pollution researcher at the University of Exeter, says some towns even encouraged residents to turn off their lights at night so that they could see more stars in the sky than usual. (It helped that the atmosphere itself was cleaner; with fewer vehicles on the road and power plants in operation, there were fewer air pollutants to scatter light and magnify its glow.) For a few days in March, thousands of people across Italy turned off all of the lights in their home and aimed their smartphone cameras outside to collect data for researchers studying light pollution.In these metaphorically dark times, New York wasn’t the only place that tried to keep its most brilliant lights burning; parts of the world even became, for a time, significantly brighter than usual. Several locations in the United Kingdom installed blue light beams meant to pay tribute to health workers battling the pandemic. These beacons happened to turn on during the migratory bird season, when they risked luring birds away from their flight paths and disorienting them to the point of exhaustion. “Light can make people feel good and bring people together, but we need to think carefully about when and where we use it,” Kyba says.When it’s well deployed, though, light can give a glimmer of hope. For a month this spring, Matterhorn mountain in Switzerland was illuminated in bright projections each night—the flags of other nations, thank-yous written in different languages, and hashtagged advice to stay home. Such luminous shows of support appeared at other landmarks around the world, from the Great Pyramid in Egypt to the Las Vegas Strip, already one of the brightest spots on the planet as seen from space. Even if everything wasn’t fine, there were beacons to illuminate a way forward.
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