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Vox - Front Page
The Supreme Court just handed down some truly awful news for voting rights
President Donald Trump shakes hands with US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh before delivering the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, | Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images Voting rights during the pandemic are in deep trouble thanks to this Supreme Court. The Supreme Court handed down two brief, unsigned orders on Friday concerning what restrictions states may place on absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Though neither order is a final judgment — one grants a temporary stay of a lower court decision, the other denies expedited review of an important voting rights case — the practical impact of both orders is that voters in Alabama and Texas will find it harder to cast a ballot during the pandemic. The Texas order is particularly ominous because it suggests that Texas will be able to apply election rules that ensure that older, Republican-leaning voters have an easy time casting a ballot — while younger voters could be forced to risk infection in order to vote. The Alabama case The Alabama case is Merrill v. People First of Alabama. Alabama law allows anyone to cast an absentee ballot during the pandemic, but it also imposes certain restrictions on those voters. Among other things, absentee voters must provide a copy of their photo ID, and their ballot must be signed by either two witnesses or one notary public. A lower court blocked these restrictions “for voters who cannot safely obtain the signatures of two witnesses or a notary public due to the COVID-19 pandemic” and “for absentee voters who are over the age of 65 or disabled and who cannot safely obtain a copy of their photo ID due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” But the Supreme Court stayed that lower court decision — ensuring that, at the very least, the restrictions will be in place for Alabama’s July 14 runoff primary election. Notably, the Supreme Court’s order in Merrill was joined only by the Court’s five Republicans. All four Democratic appointees dissented. Neither side explained why they voted the way that they did. The Texas case The Texas case, meanwhile, is Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott, and the stakes in that case are simply enormous. Texas law permits voters over the age of 65 to request absentee ballots without difficulty. But most voters under the age of 65 are not allowed to vote absentee. During a pandemic election, that means that older voters — a demographic that has historically favored Republicans over Democrats — will have a fairly easy time participating in the November election. But younger voters will likely have to risk infection at an in-person polling site if they wish to cast a ballot. This arrangement is difficult to square with the 26th Amendment, which provides that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.” The Court’s order in Texas Democratic Party is subtle, but it most likely means that Texas will be able to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of age, at least during the November election. Last month, the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit blocked a trial judge’s order that would have allowed younger Texans to vote absentee. Although this Fifth Circuit order is not the appeals court’s last word on this case, it is quite unlikely that the plaintiffs in Texas Democratic Party will prevail before the Fifth Circuit, which is among the most conservative courts in the country. So those plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to hear their case on an expedited basis. On Friday, the Supreme Court denied that request. As a practical matter, writes SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe, this refusal to expedite the Texas Democratic Party case “all but eliminated the prospect that the justices will weigh in on the merits of that dispute before the 2020 election in November.” Thus, even if the Supreme Court ultimately does decide that Texas’s age discrimination violates the 26th Amendment, that decision will almost certainly come too late to benefit anyone in November. The Supreme Court’s orders in Merrill and Texas Democratic Party fit a pattern. Last April, in Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee,the Supreme Court granted a request from the Republican Party, and ordered all ballots mailed after a certain date in Wisconsin’s April elections to be tossed out — a decision that, in practice, likely forced thousands of voters to risk infection in order to cast an in-person ballot. The Court’s decision in Republican National Committee was also 5-4, with all five Republican justices in the majority and all four Democrats in dissent. In recent weeks, the Court has handed down a handful of left-leaning decisions — including a narrow decision temporarily preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and an even narrower decision striking down a Louisiana anti-abortion law. But on the most important question in a democracy — whether citizens are empowered to choose their own leaders — this Supreme Court remains unsympathetic to parties seeking to protect the right to vote, despite the greatest public health crisis in more than a century.
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Why Hamilton is as frustrating as it is brilliant — and impossible to pin down
Hamilton cast performs in New York in 2015. | Disney Hamilton is an impossibly slippery text. The arguments over the show are part of what make it great. The smash-hit Broadway musical Hamilton arrives in movie form on Disney+ this weekend, making it accessible to more people than ever before. And with this glossy composite recording of the show comes a long-standing public debate: Is Hamilton a brilliant, visionary reframing of the narrative of America; a revisionist apologetic paying undue worship to the founding fathers; or an unholy mix of both? The timing of the film adaptation’s arrival helps to renew this argument. Disney+ is releasing Hamilton just in time for the Fourth of July, appropriate for the musical’s trappings of lavish patriotism. It also drops in concert with the most intense US political protests in recent memory — protests whose spirit the musical, by centering actors of color in a racebent narrative about revolution, also arguably upholds. It’s an uncomfortable duality, a tension that the beloved hip-hop musical has courted since day one. How can one story simultaneously broadcast a contemptible message of myopic reverence for America’s founding fathers to some, while others take from it an equally powerful repudiation of everything those founding fathers represent? Unraveling this question requires understanding Hamilton as the messy, mutable product of two masters: its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the constantly roiling cultural context in which it’s been viewed, especially in 2020. On one level, Hamilton is a wryly optimistic American love letter Hamilton is nominally about the founding of America, written by a man who in many ways personifies the most idealized version of the American Dream. Miranda, a native New Yorker and son of Puerto Rican immigrants, grew up in Washington Heights, tested into an elite prep school, wrote and staged his semi-autobiographical musical In the Heights while he was still in college, and saw that showbecome the toast of Broadway in 2007, when he was just 27. A year later, Miranda read historian Ron Chernow’s acclaimed 2004 biography about Alexander Hamilton, the oft-overlooked founding father who, despite causing several scandals and dying prematurely in a famous duel, did as much as any of his co-founders to establish America’s economic and legal foundation. Miranda felt immediately that Hamilton was a kindred spirit — another immigrant who fell hard for New York City, who sparred with the other ideologues of his day, not unlike many of the great rappers of the 1990s. Buoyed by these parallels, Miranda decided to write a hip-hop musical about Hamilton, featuring himself in the title role and using the template of historical America to explore modern America. He tied each of the founding fathers to iconic rap artists — the tactically taciturn Aaron Burr, for example, is “Javert [from the musical Les Misérables] meets Mos Def,” while Hamilton is “Eminem meets Sweeney Todd.” In the show, the fierce cabinet battles under President Washington become rap battles; the 10 historical rules for fighting in duels become an extended homage to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” Crucial to this entire conceit was casting mainly actors of color to play white historical figures. It’s a move that, along with the enlivening sound of hip-hop, instantly transformed Hamilton from a dry history lesson into an opulent, richly layered meta-text about the impossibility of fully accurate historical storytelling, about the American dream, and implicitly about the people of color who are so often left out of the narrative of that dream. In January 2015, when Hamilton opened off-Broadway, it felt progressive and full of hope. When it debuted on Broadway in August of that year, it was already the hottest ticket in town. It felt like exactly the right kind of diverse, surprising, self-aware historical deconstruction for a moment in which Hillary Clinton seemed primed to continue President Obama’s era of democratic idealism and inclusivity. (Plus, its songs were catchy as hell.) Even accounting for nostalgia, it’s difficult to overstate how huge the hype around Hamilton was. In 2009, the same year he began writing it, Miranda went viral when he previewed the show’s opening number at Obama’s White House Poetry Jam. The performance drew plenty of skeptics. Then-Daily Show host Jon Stewart, in a segment that has aged like asbestos, roundly mocked Miranda and the other poets of color featured in the event, snarking, “You’ve been dissed, disrespected, disenfranchised, but ’dis? Is kind of ridiculous.” But mostly, Miranda’s Hamilton musical drew years and years of anticipation. The show was an instant sellout at the Public, and those who scored tickets to the off-Broadway performance claimed (and still claim) ultimate insider status. Barely a month after its off-Broadway opening, a Tumblr countdown until it won a Pulitzer began. (It took 393 days.) The show broke pre-sales records. Chernow’s Hamilton biography became a bestseller. Many members of its large ensemble cast became household names among Broadway fans, in particular Leslie Odom Jr, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and master rapper Daveed Diggs, who all won Tonys for their performances. When NPR previewed the cast recording in September 2015 — the first time most people had ever heard the show — it garnered international media attention, and mainstream culture outside of New York began to take notice of the show. Tickets sold out for months and remained nearly impossible to get, especially at non-scalped prices — which didn’t stop floods of celebrities, including both President Obama and his political enemy, former Vice President Dick Cheney, from seeing it and singing its virtuous praises. “I was an entertainment reporter for years, and I have never, ever, ever seen [a] level of hype like this show received,” Martha Southgate, a novelist and playwright who taught a class on Hamilton for the New York Times, told me. After 11 Tony wins, a Pulitzer, a MacArthur genius grant, and endless late-night talk show appearances, however, even the most electrifying art may overstay its welcome. (“You don’t need to watch Hamilton,” Slate tells us now, after devoting at least 114 articles to the show since 2015.) As it has reached peak cultural saturation, much of Hamilton’s textual liberal centrism — a political stance that made it controversial from the beginning and has only come to seem more outdated and disingenuous during the Trump administration— has induced lots of eye-rolling and even more outright contempt: Want to eliminate white supremacist revisionist history & symbols? Let's include this revisionist & insulting nonsense represented by the play & now movie Hamilton! Its not just the colonized dressed up as white folks its myth of an anti-slavery Hamilton.— Ajamu Baraka (@ajamubaraka) June 25, 2020 For @Screwball_mag, I wrote about a pet peeve of mine - people believing that Hamilton: An American Musical is a radical upheaval of the genre. GUESS WHAT? It's just as revisionist and nonsensical as anything else on Broadway.— Clara Hill (@clara_ish) June 25, 2020 This level of scorn for the show now seems to have been adopted by an increasing number of audiences and critics, at the precise moment when it’s poised to reenter the cultural conversation on a much larger scale. “As a cultural product, the hype plays into expectations about it,” Southgate told me, “and that’s part of the critique, too.” Is the critique of the show — that it’s a revisionist, worshipful affirmation of the American patriarchy as well as an erasure of historical people of color — just as overinflated as the hype and praise? No, not exactly; Hamilton has never stood up well to criticisms of its historical accuracy. But that could be by design, because Hamilton itself is much less concerned with history than its historical critics want it to be. Hamilton is as multi-faceted as it is difficult to pin down One of the incontrovertible truths about Hamilton is that it is inextricably tied not just to its eponymous figure but to its creator. “You do have to consider where a work of art comes from,” Southgate told me. “[Miranda]’s dad worked in government. He’s certainly a Democrat, he raised money for Hillary — he’s kinda like Obama. [Hamilton] is the work of someone who is the somewhat-moderate, left-leaning son of an immigrant. Who grew up in Washington Heights and has struggled with being Puerto Rican.“ Southgate notes that Miranda “grew up in two worlds,” attending prestigious schools while also growing up in a poorer Latinx community. “You have to learn to code-switch and do all this juggling that makes you kind of guarded and makes you learn how to get along with everybody,” she said. “That’s the artist you’re dealing with, whether you like it or not.” That Hamilton’s creator is an unabashed believer in the American dream with perhaps just slightly left-of-center politics affects how we discuss Hamilton in 2020. It helps to remember we’re dealing with a story about a man who founded America’s banking system first conceived at the very beginning of the 2008 economic recession, before the growth of Occupy Wall Street and before a deeper cultural critique of capitalism became a sustained part of mainstream debate. The bottom line, for some interpreters, is that Hamilton may not have ever been as progressive as many of its fans always claimed it to be. The way the show was created also invites that notion. Apart from Miranda, its creative team consists of white men; the show has never, for example, had a Black musical director. Then there are moments in its history like a memorably uncomfortable scene from Hamilton’s popular pre-show street performance series, Ham4Ham. In it, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler performs some of the show’s dance moves, which originated from Fred Astaire’s blackface imitation of Bojangles — all without any apparent self-reflection beyond noting the layers were “a very deep-seated thing.” The delighted white audience looks on, but it’s hard not to watch this now and cringe. It encourages us to wonder whether Miranda and his creative team even considered how Black history factors into telling Hamilton’s story. “Hamilton is both a piece of art that troubles me deeply, and a piece of art that sustains me, that gives me life,” Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro wrote on Medium in 2017. Monteiro had previously publishedone of the first widely distributed pieces of academic criticism of Hamilton, which argued that “while the play is praised for its racially adventurous casting, it in fact uses the talents, bodies, and voices of black artists to mask an erasure of people of color from the actual story of the American Revolution.” There’s little wiggle room in Hamilton’s text here to defend itself. The show has zero named characters of color, apart from a pointedly throwaway line referring to Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved rape victim Sally Hemings. It emphatically aligns its heroes, most notably Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, with modern-day movements for Black equality without ever pointing out that they each supported slavery. “Washington had slaves,” theater educator Blaire Deziel told me bluntly. “His iconic teeth are slaves’ teeth. In its celebration of the other people who created American history, [Hamilton] whitewashes American history as well.” Okieriete Onaodowan, who played James Madison and Hercules Mulligan in Hamilton’s original cast, told me it didn’t surprise him that the play managed to provoke praise and criticism for the exact same reasons. “Hamilton is like any other art piece,” he said. “Everyone walks away with [what] they want. I’ve seen some people who did not like the show [because] we’re celebrating these people who owned slaves and thought Black people were three-fifths of a person, which is also 100 percent accurate. But then there were also other people who came ... who probably were like, ‘Yes, finally Black people knowing their place and telling the story of the founding fathers, rightfully so.’ “It makes sense why Dick Cheney would like it,” he said. “We’re not telling the story of Marcus Garvey. We’re not telling the story of Nat Turner, we’re not telling the story of Harriet Tubman. We’re telling the story of founding fathers, people who look like [Cheney], that uphold the ideals that he loves. So it makes sense that he likes it.” Can Hamilton, then, be read as a text that supports both Black lives and white supremacy? Some say yes. Onaodowan, for his part, notes that “Trump got elected the year that Hamilton came out [during the 2015–’16 Broadway season]. There are a lot of people who like both things.” Theduality of Hamilton is difficult and challenging and frankly upsetting. That’s probably why Hamilton has since its Broadway debut spawned countless takes and critiques attempting to navigate its competing readings, trying to define it as either regressive or progressive, historically valid or invalid. Often contradictory takes may come from different critics at the same outlet, including from Vox. In 2019, longtime Hamilton critic and playwright Ishmael Reed savaged Hamilton and Miranda in an original play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. The work,as the New Yorker describes it, stars “a fictionalized and comically exasperated Miranda [who] is harangued by a procession of ghosts: slaves owned by Hamilton’s in-laws, Native Americans absent from the story that the musical tells, an indentured white servant, Harriet Tubman ... Miranda begins to see the light when the ghost of Alexander Hamilton appears and proves to be a craven and openly racist man.” This sort of critique, however, requires holding Miranda’s work to a higher standard of historical accuracy than that which we expect from every other fictionalized historical musical. (For example, as Southgate pointed out to me, the recent revival of Oklahoma! was no less beloved for failing to center Native Americans.) Such criticism also assumes that Miranda’s work isn’t self-aware about the ways in which its absence of people of color from the narrative provokes this entire debate to begin with. But there’s plenty of textual evidence that it is. Take one early song, “My Shot.” In it, our hero Hamilton, having arrived in New York as an immigrant from the Caribbean, describes both himself and his new country as “young, scrappy, and hungry.” He clearly believes in the possibilities of this version of America. So does Lin-Manuel Miranda, who not only wrote the whole show but originated and left his indelible mark on the role of Hamilton. But later on in the very same song, Hamilton asks, “If we win our independence, / is that a guarantee of freedom/ for our descendants? / Or will the blood we shed begin an endless / cycle of vengeance and death / with no defendants?” In other words, Hamilton is overtly uplifting, but it also seems to be shrewd about the dark repercussions of patriotism and its own presentational contradictions. It constantly invites the audience to think about the ways in which our modern political problems have stemmed from the embedded failures of the historical ones onstage. “I will pop chicka-pop these cops till I’m free,” sings John Laurens, a character explicitly tied to the abolitionist movement, in “My Shot.” The use of “cops” to mean British soldiers is not just a convenient rhyme; when a Black man plays Laurens, the line gains parallels to modern resistance against police brutality. Laurens’s fight for freedom becomes a fight to be free not from British tyranny but from slavery and generations of systemic racism. Whether Hamilton’s contradictory impulses are intentional or not is another source of debate. From the first moment I heard the cast recording of Hamilton, I’ve believed that it’s a text that deconstructs itself. To me, all of the sharpest (and accurate) historical criticisms that can be made of the show were always intended to be a part of the point of the show. Many Hamilton fans argue that the show’s lack of characters of color and its refusal to address its heroes’ relationship to slavery have always been a part of Hamilton’s implicit, default, scathing commentary on historicity and the erasure of marginalized people from the story of America. As an audience member (I’ve seen the show twice), I read the glaring absence of these links as a long, intentionally looming shadow over each performance; it’s a silent-but-screaming commentary on the way people of color, especially Black and Indigenous Americans, have been denied agency over, or even a presence within, their own stories in so much of the history we’re taught in flawed textbooks. Until this week, when reconsidering the show ahead of its streaming premiere, I thought this interpretation of Hamilton was the baseline assumption under which most of its viewing audience operates. That Hamilton operates at that self-aware level seemed self-evident to me because Miranda himself is immersed in both hip-hop culture and internet culture, where such layered meta-commentary and implicit audience dialogue are foundational tools of the creative trade. And then there’s the casting: For Miranda to racebend the whole cast with any self-awareness, surely he’d also have intended his show’s erasure of historical characters of color to be part of the discussion of his multiracial performers. Right? Or is it a privileged view to give Hamilton that much credit — to assume that the textual erasure of BIPOC is anything but pernicious, full stop? As it turns out, nearly everyone I spoke with for this article found my meta-reading surprising. Even Onaodowan was surprised by the idea that Hamilton was a commentary on itself. He told me that when the cast was developing Hamilton in 2015, they were focused on building the body of the show, not unpacking its many layers of implied meta-references. “All Hamilton does is present itself,” he told me. “What people do with what we present — that is not on Hamilton. And as an artist, you have to just make your art — how people use it and distort it, you have no control over it once you put it out there.” The meaning of Hamilton is still evolving Perhaps the best way to describe Hamilton, then, is “slippery.” Like the story it’s trying to tell, just when you think you’ve got it pegged as a text, it wriggles free from your grasp to take a different shape or invite a different frame of reference. As I talked to fans and critics about the show, a recurring theme was how difficult it is to evaluate because it is just five years old; its place and artistic legacy is still evolving. But another, undeniable reason it’s hard to pin Hamilton into place is that it has been responsive to dozens of different historical moments since it first opened off-Broadway. The beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 preceded Hamilton by just five months. When the show opened off-Broadway in January 2015, New York City was just settling down from months of demonstrations over the lack of an indictment against police officers in the death of Eric Garner. Internationally, the Syrian refugee crisis was mainstreaming an immigration debate that Donald Trump was already fully embracing as he campaigned for president — a debate Hamilton slyly responds to and shuts down through a single line (“Immigrants — we get the job done”) that frequently causes spontaneous audience ovations. Well after its opening, Hamilton continues to intersect with an unraveling present-day history. In November 2016, shortly after the election, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended the show amid a tense, politically charged atmosphere that culminated in actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressing Pence onstage with a plea for tolerance from the show’s cast and crew. The day of the show’s sweep at the 2017 Tonys was also the day of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, then the largest mass shooting in US history and widely believed at that time to be a hate crime. In response to the shooting, the cast removed the prop guns from its Tonys performance of “Yorktown.” Hamilton also found itself in President Trump’s crosshairs following Pence’s visit, and that feud has continued, bolstered by Miranda’s blistering personal response to Trump’s reluctance to send aid to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017. Southgate told me she felt that the years since the 2016 election have been something of a personal evolution for Miranda himself, “who I think is not by nature an intensely political person” — the centrist peacenik, then, increasingly becoming more revolutionary, like the characters he put onstage. Miranda’s and his show’s political awakening may have been unexpectedly complicated by this year’s nationwide protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd. In late May, Miranda issued an official statement from the show in support of Black Lives Matter: We stand on the side of justice. Black Lives Matter. Take action now in the links below. #BlackLivesMatter— Hamilton (@HamiltonMusical) May 31, 2020 Multiple people I spoke with for this story mentioned Hamilton’s renewed relevance in light of the protests. “At at least two demonstrations now, I’ve heard people [reference the line], ‘This is not a moment, it’s the movement,’” Southgate told me. It makes sense: The most progressive thing about Hamilton is its implied argument that anti-racist protest is patriotic revolution. As one of my favorite commentaries on the show puts it: Why do we consider the founding fathers revolutionaries and not the Black Panthers or the Brown Berets or any number of other anti-racist revolutionary organizations? Whose rebellion is valued? Who is allowed to be heroic through defiance? By making the founding fathers people of colour, Hamilton puts people of colour into the American narrative, while simultaneously applying that narrative to the present. “It’s just curious to see how the people who are utilizing [Hamilton right now] happen to be all the protesters,” Onaodowan echoed. “All the lines that seem applicable to today seem applicable to the people who are in the streets protesting the murder of George Floyd.” “For me, Hamilton is on the side of the protesters,” Minister Darrick Jackson told me. “It is a story about revolution, and ... the current protests are more than just decrying injustice, [they are] calling for a revolution, to change the institution that allows the brutality in the first place.” Jackson, a Unitarian Universalist from Chicago who’s seen the show three times, told me he believes Hamilton is “a beacon in the midst of the Trump administration.” “It reminds us of a commitment to centering marginalized communities. It reminds us to think about what legacy we want to leave for the future. It reminds us that imperfection is not irredeemable and that forgiveness is possible,” he said. “For me, the ending of Hamilton is a charge to think about what story we want told about this lifetime, and who we allow to tell that story. If we want a different narrative, we have to work to make it so.” Put that way, Hamilton seems like it’s been a part of the racial protest narrative all along. But now that the show is poised to reach a much wider audience through its arrival on streaming — anecdotally at Vox, many of our staffers’ parents appear to be signing up for Disney+ just to watch Hamilton — the many heated conversations around the musical may be headed in entirely new directions. And that, Southgate emphasized, is exactly the sort of engagement that keeps Hamilton relevant. “All this thinking and excitement, and all the thinking, even the [criticism], indicates how significant it is, and how worth thinking about it is,” she told me. “Just like it’s worth thinking about this country.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. 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How The Baby-Sitters Club raised a generation
Left to right, Shay Rudolph, Momona Tamada, Malia Baker, and Sophie Grace as the Baby-Sitters Club. | Netflix The 213-volume series was built on the pleasures of repetition. Netflix’s new TV series will continue its legacy. I was raised by the Baby-Sitters Club. And if you were a girl growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, you probably were too. The Baby-Sitters Club, Ann M. Martin’s book series about a group of middle-school girls who leverage their child care capabilities into their own small business, was foundational for a generation. From 1986 to 2000, Martin and a small army of ghostwriters wrote 213 volumes (131 in the main series and the other 82 in spinoffs), with 176 million copies printed. Ostensibly the books were for kids ages 9 to 12, but I read them when I was much younger, and so did most of my friends. Young children are voracious consumers, and for much of the series run, the Baby-Sitters industrial complex was putting out one book every month. They were like comic books, only about children taking care of younger children instead of fighting supervillains. (They did occasionally solve mysteries, though; mostly in the Mysteries and Super Mysteries spinoff series.) And now, a new generation is meeting the babysitters. On July 3, Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club premieres. It’s a triumph of a TV show, faithful to the books in characters and spirit and style, but updated for a new generation. The new babysitters have smartphones (but still use a retro landline for official club business), and a social media campaign (but they still hand out flyers to better access their target clientele of worried parents). But what’s best about Netflix’s version of The Baby-Sitters Club is that it breathes out the old-fashioned warmth and charm the books had at their very best. That charm wasn’t necessary for a faithful adaptation; the Baby-Sitters Club books were often not at their very best, and generally were not particularly charming or particularly warm. They were churned out in a factory, and it showed. But the books didn’t actually need to be warm and charming or objectively well-written to do their job. That’s not why they existed. That’s not why they were beloved by a generation. They existed to give their young readers a safe, secure, and unchanging space. And to do as much, they needed to be just a little bit terrible. In early volumes, Kristy Thomas is as compelling and complex as Ramona Quimby. That complexity fades rapidly, and that’s okay. Kailey Schwerman/Netflix Early Kristy is the kind of brash and bold little girl children’s literature can’t get enough of. Here, she’s played by Sophie Grace. The saga of the babysitters begins with 1986’s Kristy’s Great Idea, in which 12-year-old Kristy — the bossiest of the babysitters and hence their de facto leader — is inspired to begin the club after witnessing her mother struggle to find a sitter on short notice. Taking note of the number of hassled commuter parents in their small middle-class town of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, Kristy recruits her best friends Mary Anne and Claudia, plus the cool new girl Stacey. The goal is to create a club so that busy parents only have to call one number to reach a whole passel of responsible, experienced babysitters. Before long, the girls have a business plan and a loyal clientele, and soon they’re raking in the money. Kristy’s Great Idea is actually a good book, by which I mean that you can read it as an adult and enjoy yourself. Kristy, who builds her first small business at the age of 12 and is completely successful at it, is one of those brash and bold little girls that children’s literature is full of, a close cousin of both Ramona Quimby and Harriet the spy. And she’s a natural story engine: She’s so brimming with ambition and plans that you can’t help but likeher, but she’s so abrasive and bossy to her friends that you can’t blame them when tension arises within the group that will need to be sorted out. It’s immensely pleasurable to watch Kristy’s determination and drive push her into a bad situation, and then to watch her use that same determination and drive — and the power of friendship! — to make her way out of it. And the interpersonal tensions between the girls are, at these early stages, beautifully drawn. Kristy and Mary Anne are both plainly still kids, and while they’re responsible enough to take care of smaller children, by and large they dress and behave like kids. Claudia and Stacey, meanwhile, are aspiring toward teendom. They’ve developed new fascinations with clothes and makeup and boys. Kristy and Mary Anne feel left behind and rejected; Claudia and Stacey feel awkward and uncomfortable about hanging out with girls less cool than they are. They all care about each other and enjoy each other’s company regardless. It’s the kind of friend group fracture that emerges all the time around age 12, and reading along as the babysitters navigate it is wildly compelling. But there’s a steep downhill drop in quality after that first book, perhaps because Martin began releasing new volumes with increasing speed. And after the first 35 novels, when Martin took a step back and the ghostwriters arrived, the quality of the books rapidly deteriorated. They lost their specificity of voice and the distinctive energy that drove Kristy’s Great Idea forward. Plot developments stopped mattering from one book to another. Under Martin’s auspices the girls aged from 12 to 13 and moved forward from the seventh to the eighth grade, but as ghostwriters took over, the members of the Baby-Sitters Club became stuck in time and stopped progressing. However many summertime beach vacations they would serve as mother’s helpers on, when school came back in the fall, they would always find themselves starting eighth grade all over again. (Except Claudia, who got moved back a year after she found out she was dyslexic.) But these quality considerations don’t matter so much when you’re a small child plowing your way through the series, not when you have the pleasures of formula to look forward to. Children love repetition, and the Baby-Sitters Club books repeat exquisitely. The Baby-Sitters Club books were built on formula. That’s what made them fun to read. Kailey Schwerman/Netflix Left to right, Shay Rudolph, Momona Tamada, Sophie Grace, and Malia Baker. Note the killer pattern combination on Claudia (Tamada). The formula of each Baby-Sitters Club book is simple. And all 131 volumes of the central series repeated it exactly. In chapter one, we meet our narrator for the book. (Each book is narrated by a different babysitter in the first person.) She describes her own appearance and personality, and then she lays out her central conflict for the book: Perhaps Stacey is too interested in boys and is losing track of what really matters, or Claudia is having a hard time focusing on her schoolwork when she’s so much more invested in her art and her babysitting. In chapter two, the narrator attends a Baby-Sitters Club meeting in Claudia’s bedroom, because Claudia has her own telephone line and also is prone to stashing junk food in secret hiding places. There the narrator looks around at her friends, and one by one she describes their clothing, their two central personality traits, and where they fit in the club’s interpersonal network. Always this section will include a lengthy description of Claudia’s truly astonishing wardrobe, because Claudia’s defining personality trait is that she is artistic and loves clothes. Her outfit descriptions are always the most playful and creative passages of each book, which is probably why they have become the most enduring legacy of the series and there are multiple blogs and Instagrams devoted to Claudia’s sense of fashion. Personally, I will never forget the time she decided to dress up as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus to go to school because she had a big science test coming up and she thought dressing as Ms. Frizzle would inspire her. I am reading Kristy’s Great Idea to prep for the new Netflix Baby-Sitter’s Club and can we all take a second to appreciate the very first Claudia Kishi outfit? Truly a legend— Constance Grady (@constancegrady) June 28, 2020 From there, the book proceeds through a few episodic babysitting jobs, while the current narrator handles her own interpersonal and/or family issues. By the end of the book, the whole thing will have been resolved, with the help and unfailing support of the Baby-Sitters Club. For a child reader, this repeated formula is the next best thing to hearing your favorite song on a loop until you’re so tired of it that it’s physically painful to hear it again. There’s a sense of deep comfort, an almost voluptuous feeling of security, that comes in knowing exactly what will happen from one book to the next. It’s pleasurable in the same way that having old episodes of Friends on in the background is pleasurable. You’re hanging out with your friends, watching them do exactly the same thing they always do. How wonderful. And you also have the pleasure of self-identification. Each babysitter has approximately two personality traits, which is exactly as many as you need to figure out which one you identify with most, like a proto-Sex and the City sorting: Kristy is bossy and tomboyish, while Stacey is a trendy New Yorker and also diabetic. I myself (bookish and shy) figured myself for a Mary Anne as soon as I cracked open my first book. But when Martin promoted 11-year-old Mallory Pike, who is also bookish and shy, into the ranks of the club, I had a minor existential crisis. Which one was I? As an adult, I can see that both Mary Anne and Mallory are the weakest characters in the series, but, ah, I was young. The Baby-Sitters Club taught a generation of kids how to be human beings. There are pluses and minuses to that. Kailey Schwerman/Netflix Netflix’s updated Dawn might not change herself for a boy, but she definitely still drinks green juice. Here, she’s played by Xochitl Gomez. One of the reasons The Baby-Sitters Club is so precious to so many people is that we read the book series when we were very young children, and it became our guide to developing into fully socialized human beings. The Baby-Sitters Club taught us to dream big, to work hard, to fulfill our responsibilities, and to support our friends. And it taught us less wholesome things, too. I learned about femininity from The Baby-Sitters Club. Specifically, I learned one of the rules of femininity of the ’90s: You had to be beautiful, but it was not cool to be someone who cared about beauty. You had to look perfect, but you should never ever put in any work to get there. That message was embedded in a fair amount of pop culture of the ’90s. The 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You pointedly showed us Julia Stiles’s Kat washing her face in a contrast to her sister Bianca’s primping and preening, with the implication being that cool girls didn’t obsess over their grooming like Bianca did. They washed their faces and called it a day. But you can only really get away with that attitude if you look like young Julia Stiles did in 10 Things I Hate About You, and in real life, that’s a look that takes some grooming. Volume 50 of The Baby-Sitters Club, which came out in 1992, is called Dawn’s Big Date. It features Dawn, who joined the Baby-Sitters Club in book 5 (personality traits: from California, hippie), giving herself a makeover so that she can attract a boy she likes. She also revamps her personality so that she’ll seem more cool, acting dumb in math class because she thinks cool kids don’t do well in school. The other babysitters are appalled and outraged at her behavior, and in the end, it turns out that Dawn didn’t need to do any of the things she did because the boy liked her just the way she was. So Dawn ditches her makeup and curlers and reverts back to her old smart and responsible hippie self. The ostensible message of the story is that you should always be true to yourself, you should never sell yourself short for a boy, and if he’s worth your time he’ll like you just the way you are. But when I read it as a 7- or 8-year-old girl, I remember feeling a vicious contempt for Dawn, a contempt so ferocious it slanted toward hatred. How dare she not know the rules of the story in which she was living? How dare she want something so much that she tried to bend the fabric of reality around it, when everyone knows girls shouldn’t express a desire for anything? How dare she put any work at all into her appearance, especially when — as the cover art for Dawn’s Big Date clearly showed me — she already looked perfect? I thought it was good and right that Dawn should be punished for her sins through the disapproval of her friends. I found it cathartic. And I knew, although I could never have put it into words at the time, that what she was being punished for wasn’t rejecting her true self. It was that she had let everyone see her put in the work toward building the self she wanted. The Baby-Sitters Club continued for so long you had time to get sick of it. That’s kind of beautiful. Marianne Barcellona/LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images Ann M. Martin surrounded by her official fan club at PS 2 in Chinatown in New York City. The Baby-Sitters Club is the first cultural work to which I can remember having an aesthetic reaction. By this I mean that the first book to ever prompt in me the thought, “Huh, I don’t think this is very good, and I’m pretty sure the fault lies in it and not with me,” was a Baby-Sitters Club book. Which volume it was, exactly, is lost to the mists of time, but it must certainly have been in the upper reaches of the central series, around the ’80s or ’90s. I stuck with The Baby-Sitters Club regardless into the 100s out of a sense of duty and a completist ethic, but around volume 109 (1997’s Mary Anne to the Rescue — it was one of the one’s about Mary Anne’s boyfriend Logan, and I could never take Logan books), I was overcome with a sense of despair. I could not, I absolutely would not, keep reading, no matter how long Martin wanted to extend the series. I could not bear to do it. I had listened to the song so many times in a row that just hearing it caused me pain. Today, more than 20 years later, I think there’s something a bit beautiful about getting to reach that point in a series, the point where you stop reading not because there’s nothing left to read but because you have satiated yourself. Because The Baby-Sitters Club was that rare creature: a series that went on so long that you could outgrow it in real time. It is foundational, and part of what makes it so foundational is that you can depend on it enough to feel secure when you leave it. Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club is by and large better crafted than the books were. It doesn’t feel as though it’s being churned out by an assembly line on that bruising one-book-a-monthpace. It feels as though it’s been crafted by a team who cares about quality. It also feels like a show aimed at both nostalgic millennials and their young children. And because it is a show that young children are going to watch, it is also undoubtedly going to be a show from which younger viewers pick up confused and mangled lessons that no one quite realizes the show is teaching them. The test of whether the TV show will be as enduring and foundational as its source material is not just whether or not it is well-crafted television. It’s whether or not it will grow into such an institution that the children who watch it now will be able to walk away from it when they’re finished with it, secure in the knowledge that it will always be there, as stable and unchanging as that chapter two formula. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
How can we ban facial recognition when it’s already everywhere?
Apple iPhones offer Face ID, which allows you to unlock your phone and some apps by using a facial scan. | AFP via Getty Images A growing number of gadgets are scanning your face. Facial recognition is having a reckoning. Recent protests against racism and police brutality have shined a light on the surveillance tools available to law enforcement, and major tech companies are temporarily backing away from facial recognition and urging federal officials to step in and regulate. Late last month, we learned of the first-known false arrest caused by a faulty facial recognition system, involving a Black man in Michigan identified by software that Detroit’s police chief later admitted had a 96 percent misidentification rate. And a policy group from the Association for Computing Machinery, a computing society with nearly 100,000 members, has called for the suspension of corporate and government use of the technology, citing concerns that its built-in biases could seriously endanger people. There’s also pressure from Congress. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Ayanna Pressley and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ed Markey have proposed new legislation that would prohibit federal government use of facial recognition and encourage state and local governments to do the same. It’s one of the most sweeping proposals to limit the controversial biometric technology in the United States yet and has been hailed by racial justice and privacy advocates. All of this follows a move by several major technology companies, including IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft, to pause or limit law enforcement’s access to their own facial recognition programs. But amid the focus on government use of facial recognition, many companies are still integrating the technology into a wide range of consumer products. In June, Apple announced that it would be incorporating facial recognition into its HomeKit accessories and that its Face ID technology would be expanded to support logging into sites on Safari. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, some firms have raced to put forward more contactless biometric tech, such as facial recognition-enabled access control. “When we think about all of these seemingly innocuous ways that our images are being captured, we have to remember we do not have the laws to protect us,” Mutale Nkonde, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center, told Recode. “And so those images could be used against you.” The convenience that many find in consumer devices equipped with facial recognition features stands in stark contrast to the growing pressure to regulate and even ban the technology’s use by the government. That’s a sign that officials looking to effectively regulate the tech will have to take into account its range of uses, from facial recognition that unlocks a smartphone to the dystopian-sounding databases operated by law enforcement. After all, when earlier this year Recode asked Sen. Jeff Merkley what inspired his push to regulate the technology, he pointed out how quickly the Photos app on his iPhone could identify members of his family. He was struck by how easily law enforcement could be able to track people with the technology, but also how powerful it had already become on his own device. “You can hit that person, and every picture that you’ve taken with that person in it will show up,” Merkley said at the time. “I’m just going, ‘Wow.’” Facial recognition is becoming more widespread in consumer devices One of the most popular uses of facial recognition is verification, which is often used for logging into electronic devices. Rather than typing in a passcode, a front-facing camera on the phone snaps a picture of the user and then deploys facial recognition algorithms to confirm their identity. It’s a convenient (though not completely fool-proof) feature made popular when Apple launched Face ID with the iPhone X in 2017. Many other phone companies, including Samsung, LG, and Motorola, now provide facial recognition-based phone unlocking, and the technology is increasingly being used for easier log-ins on gaming consoles, laptops, and apps of all kinds. But some consumer-focused applications of facial recognition go beyond verification, meaning they’re not just trying to identify their own users but also other people. One early example of this is Facebook’s facial recognition-based photo tagging, which scans through photos users post to the platform in order to suggest certain friends they can tag. Similar technology is also at work in apps like Google Photos and Apple Photos, both of which can automatically identify and tag subjects in a photo. Apple is actually using the tagging feature in its Photos app to power the new facial recognition feature in HomeKit-enabled security cameras and smart doorbells. Faces that show up in the camera feed can be cross-referenced with the database from the Photos app, so that you’re notified when, for instance, a specific friend is knocking on your door. Google’s Nest cameras and other facial recognition-enabled security systems offer similar features. Face-based identification is also popping up in some smart TVs that can recognize which member of a household is watching and suggest tailored content. Facial recognition is being used for identification and verification in a growing number of devices, but there will likely be possibilities for the technology that go beyond those two consumer applications. The company HireVue scans faces with artificial intelligence to evaluate job applicants. Some cars, like the Subaru Forester, use biometrics and cameras to track whether drivers are staying focused on the road, and several companies are exploring software that can sense emotion in a face, a feature that could be used to monitor drivers. But that can introduce new bias problems, too. “In the context of self-driving cars, they want to see if the driver is tired. And the idea is if the driver is tired then the car will take over,” said Nkonde, who also runs the nonprofit AI for the People. “The problem is, we don’t [all] emote in the same way. “ The blurry line between facial recognition for home security and private surveillance for police Facial recognition systems have three primary ingredients: a source image, a database, and an algorithm that’s trained to match faces across different images. These algorithms can vary widely in their accuracy and, as researchers like MIT’s Joy Buolamwini have documented, have been shown disproportionately inaccurate based on categories like gender and race. Still, facial recognition systems can differ in the size of their databases — that is, how many people a system can identify — as well as by the number of cameras or images they have access to. Face ID is an example of a facial recognition technology used for identity verification. The system checks that a user’s face matches up with the face that’s trying to open the device. For Face ID, the details of an individual user’s face have been previously registered on the device. As such, the Apple algorithm is simply answering the question of whether or not the person is the phone’s user. It is not designed to identify a large number of people. Only one user’s biometric information is involved, and importantly, Apple does not send that biometric data to the cloud; it remains on the user’s device. When more than one person is involved, facial recognition-based identity verification is more complicated. Take Facebook’s facial recognition-based photo tagging, for instance. It scans through a user’s photos to identify their friends, so it’s not just identifying the user, which is Face ID’s only job. It’s trying to spot any of the user’s friends that have opted in to the facial recognition-based tagging feature. Facebook says it doesn’t share peoples’ facial templates with anyone, but it took years for the company to give users control over the feature. Facebook failed to get users’ permission before implementing the photo-tagging feature back in 2010; this year, the company agreed to pay $550 billion to settle a lawsuit over violating users’ privacy. Facebook did not start asking users to opt in until 2019. The question of consent becomes downright problematic in the context of security camera footage. Google Nest Cams, Apple HomeKit cameras, and other devices can let users create albums of familiar faces so they can get a notification when the camera’s facial recognition technology spots one of those people. According to Apple, the new HomeKit facial recognition feature lets users turn on notifications for when people tagged in their Photos app appear on camera. It also lets them set alerts for people who frequently come to their doorway, like a dog-walker, but not in their photo library app. Apple says the identification all happens locally on the devices. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images Google Nest Cameras provide a video feed through a smartphone app and, for a small monthly fee, offer facial recognition features. The new Apple feature is similar to the familiar face detection feature that can be used with Google’s Nest doorbell and security cameras. But use of the feature, which is turned off by default, is somewhat murky. Google warns users that, depending on the laws where they live, they may need to get the consent of those they add notifications for, and some may not be able to use it at all. For instance, Google does not make the feature available in Illinois, where the state’s strict Biometric Information Privacy Act requires explicit permission for the collection of biometric data. (This law was at the center of the recent $550 billion Facebook settlement.) Google says its users’ face libraries are “stored in the cloud, where it is encrypted in transit and at rest, and faces aren’t shared beyond their structure.” So Google- and Apple-powered security cameras are explicitly geared to consumers, and the databases used by their facial recognition algorithms are more or less limited. The line between consumer tech like this and the potential for powerful police surveillance tools, however, becomes blurred with the security systems made by Ring. Ring, which is owned by Amazon, partners with police departments, and while Ring says its products do not currently use facial recognition technology, multiple reports indicate that the company sought to build facial recognition-based neighborhood watchlists. Ring has also distributed surveys to beta testers to see how they would feel about facial recognition features. The scope of these partnerships is worrisome enough that on Thursday Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, head of the House Oversight Committee, asked for more information about Ring’s potential facial recognition integrations, among other questions about the product’s long-standing problem with racism. So it seems that as facial recognition systems become more ambitious — as their databases become larger and their algorithms are tasked with more difficult jobs — they become more problematic. Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Recode that facial recognition needs to be evaluated on a “sliding scale of harm.” When the technology is used in your phone, it spends most of its time in your pocket, not scanning through public spaces. “A Ring camera, on the other hand, isn’t deployed just for the purpose of looking at your face,” Guariglia said. “If facial recognition was enabled, that’d be looking at the faces of every pedestrian who walked by and could be identifying them.” So it’s hardly a surprise that officials are most aggressively pushing to limit the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. Police departments and similar agencies not only have access to a tremendous amount of camera footage but also incredibly large face databases. In fact, the Georgetown Center for Privacy and Technology found in 2016 that more than half of Americans are in a facial recognition database, which can include mug shots or simply profile pictures taken at the DMV. And recently, the scope of face databases available to police has grown even larger. The controversial startup Clearview AI claims to have mined the web for billions of photos posted online and on social media to create a massive facial recognition database, which it has made available to law enforcement agencies. According to Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, this represents a frightening future for facial recognition technology. “Its effects, when it’s in government’s hands, can be really severe,” Laperruque said. “It can be really severe if it doesn’t work, and you have false IDs that suddenly become a lead that become the basis of a whole case and could cause someone to get stopped or arrested.” He added, “And it can be really severe if it does work well and if it’s being used to catalog lists of people who are at protests or a political rally.” Regulating facial recognition will be piecemeal The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act recently introduced on Capitol Hill is sweeping. It would prohibit federal use of not only facial recognition but also other types of biometric technologies, such as voice recognition and gait recognition, until Congress passes another law regulating the technology. The bill follows other proposals to limit government use of the technology, including one that would require a court-issued warrant to use facial recognition and another that would limit biometrics in federally assisted housing. Some local governments, like San Francisco, have also limited their own acquisition of the technology. So what about facial recognition when it’s used on people’s personal devices or by private companies? Congress has discussed the use of commercial facial recognition and artificial intelligence more broadly. A bill called the Consumer Facial Recognition Privacy Act would require the explicit consent of companies collecting peoples’ biometric information, and the Algorithmic Transparency Act would require large companies to check their artificial intelligence, including facial recognition systems, for bias. But the ubiquitous nature of facial recognition means that regulating the technology will inevitably require piecemeal legislation and attention to detail so that specific use cases don’t get overlooked. San Francisco, for example, had to amend its facial recognition ordinance after it accidentally made police-department-owned iPhones illegal. When Boston passed its recent facial recognition ordinance, it created an exclusion for facial recognition used for logging into personal devices like laptops and phones. “The mechanisms to regulators are so different,” said Brian Hofer, who helped craft San Francisco’s facial recognition ban, adding that he’s now looking at creating local laws modeled after Illinois’ Biometric Privacy Act that focus more on consumers. “The laws are so different it would be probably impossible to write a clean, clearly understood bill regulating both consumer and government.” A single law regulating facial recognition technology might not be enough. Researchers from the Algorithmic Justice League, an organization that focuses on equitable artificial intelligence, have called for a more comprehensive approach. They argue that the technology should be regulated and controlled by a federal office. In a May proposal, the researchers outlined how the Food and Drug Administration could serve as a model for a new agency that would be able to adapt to a wide range of government, corporate, and private uses of the technology. This could provide a regulatory framework to protect consumers from what they buy, including devices that come with facial recognition. Meanwhile, the growing ubiquity of facial recognition technology stands to normalize a form of surveillance. As Rochester Institute of Technology professor Evan Selinger argues, “As people adapt to routinely using any facial scanning system and it fades to the background as yet another unremarkable aspect of contemporary digitally mediated life, their desires and beliefs can become reengineered.” And so, even if there is a ban on law enforcement using facial recognition and it’s effective to a degree, the technology is still becoming a part of everyday life. We’ll eventually have to deal with its consequences. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
The Senate goes home for July Fourth recess as states wait on coronavirus stimulus
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves after a closed-door briefing at the US Capitol on July 2, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images Economists see the uncertainty as devastating for state budgets. It’s now been more than six weeks since the House passed the HEROES Act, its latest take on additional stimulus as workers, businesses, and states continue to grapple with the economic fallout of the coronavirus. The Senate, however, wants to wait two more before considering a bill of its own. Both chambers of Congress have officially left for a two-week July Fourth recess and Senate Republicans have said floor consideration of stimulus legislation won’t happen until they’re back. “A month from now we should be in the final stages of getting that bill together,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) told reporters earlier this week. (The House is focused on committee work in the interim.) Democrats have argued that this delay could have serious consequences, as states stare down budget cuts and households across the country deal with layoffs and upcoming rent and mortgage payments. Republicans, meanwhile, have noted that some of the previous stimulus funding is still being distributed and emphasize that they’re waiting to see how the economy performs as some states reopen. The updates, so far, have been mixed: This past week, a monthly report showed an influx of 4.8 million jobs in June, a seemingly promising boost, but data collected more recently also revealed that more than 1 million new unemployment claims were filed last week. Additionally, the current unemployment rate remains one of the highest the country has seen in years, at 11.1 percent. Another complicating factor: Some recent gains are a result of states reopening businesses, a move that some have had to reverse as coronavirus cases have spiked. Economists tell Vox they’re particularly concerned about the limbo states are left in as a result of the Senate’s stimulus timing. While many have rainy-day funds, the delays of additional support make it tough for states to plan how well they will (or won’t) be able to provide public schooling, support for higher ed and Medicaid payments as they keep fielding sharp dips in revenue. For many states, their fiscal year budgets began on July 1, which has now come and gone. “States are making decisions every day about what services they can provide and where they are going to need to lay people off, and, if they don’t know for sure that more funding is in the pipeline, they are going to err on the side of caution,” says Harvard Kennedy School economics professor Karen Dynan, a former chief economist for the Treasury Department. “That can’t be good, particularly when we are seeing cases surge in some places and all the more need for good health care and aggressive public health policy.” Democrats’ legislation would have allocated more than $900 billion to states and localities to help cover some of the revenue shortfalls they’ve experienced, in addition to the $150 billion that’s already been set aside to help address coronavirus-related costs in the CARES Act. In the past, however, Republicans have chafed at providing more federal aid to states, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissing such efforts as a “bailout” that could be used to address “preexisting” problems. He’s since noted that more funding is likely needed but shied away from the amounts Democrats have proposed. It’s unclear whether Democrats and Republicans will be able to reach an agreement on the boost in state funds and next steps on other important programs, including pandemic unemployment insurance, which is due to expire at the end of July. For now, it’s a question the Senate won’t be addressing for a few weeks. State funding and pandemic UI are immediate areas where more action is needed Additional state funding and an agreement on pandemic unemployment are among the areas where there’s an urgent need for more action. As Vox’s Emily Stewart has reported, state and city budgets have faced immense strain throughout the pandemic as they’ve seen massive declines in both sales and income tax revenues, as well as growing costs associated with addressing the coronavirus. Before the coronavirus outbreak, “Arizona expected a $1 billion surplus and is now staring down a $1.1 billion deficit,” she writes. Some states, including Michigan, have already proposed significant cuts to the budgets for the next fiscal year, including more than $450 million in reductions to schools and universities. According to Pew, state and local governments have temporarily laid off or furloughed 1.5 million workers as of June. “Assuming that this is just a delay and that Congress eventually passes a bill, I think the most immediate impact is on state budgets,” says UC Berkeley public policy and economics professor Jesse Rothstein. “States have been kicking the can down the road, hoping that the federal government gets its act together. ... The longer that is delayed, the worse off we will all be.” At this point, it’s uncertain if Senate Republicans will be on board with much state funding even after they return to the Capitol: Top leaders including McConnell have signaled more openness to the idea but have been reluctant about an expansive package. If states don’t get the support they need — fast — more layoffs and budget reductions could add to the current economic fallout. “When you cut the budget, you have to cut positions for workers, and that further compounds the recession that we’re having right now,” says University of Kansas economics professor Donna Ginther. “This is the exact wrong time for state governments to fend for themselves.” A July 31 deadline is also looming over the expanded unemployment insurance that was included in the CARES Act. Slated to sunset at the end of the month, this policy adds another $600 per week to the unemployment support that individuals receive. Given the ongoing nature of the pandemic, and the layoffs that have persisted at many businesses, Democrats have argued that this support should continue. As Cecilia Rouse, a former economic adviser for the Obama administration, previously told Vox, ideal pandemic response policies would help put the economy on pause and tide workers over, while the country resolves the public health crisis. Republicans, though, have argued that state reopenings will provide a key boost and worried that extending the increased UI will deter people from returning to work as businesses rehire. The Labor Department’s most recent unemployment report, which saw an additional 1.4 million people file last week, however, made clear that many people are still dealing with job losses. If the expanded UI benefits end by August, this change could have a notable impact on consumer spending and households’ ability to cover living costs including food and rent. “Everything I’ve seen suggests that unemployment is going to come part of the way back, but not all the way,” says Ginther. Lawmakers have a narrow window to approve stimulus in July and August Now that it’s off for recess, the Senate won’t be back until Monday, July 20 — when lawmakers will have a narrow window to strike a deal on the next package, before they’re due to leave once again for their next recess on August 10. The upcoming UI deadline is among the notable dates putting pressure on Congress to work something out — both to ensure individuals continue to have the support they need and so that states can have the time to update their approach to UI distribution if that’s required. Complicating the issue, as usual, is the White House. “The shape of any kind of package is very much up in the air,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Thursday, while noting that the administration opposes the pandemic unemployment insurance. Experts emphasize that more stimulus is sorely needed, especially as cases of the coronavirus are spiking again in several states including Arizona, Texas, and Florida. “The health crisis — and thus the economic crisis — show no signs of slowing down, and now is not the time to scale back on support to those who need it most,” says Natasha Sarin, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
The radicalism of the American Revolution — and its lessons for today
Danielle Allen will change how you think about the Declaration of Independence. | Neilson Barnard/Getty Images Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen discusses the American founding, prison abolition, and the future of democracy. My first conversation with Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen on The Ezra Klein Show in fall 2019 was one of my all-time favorites. I didn’t expect to have Allen on again so soon, but her work is unusually relevant to our current moment. Allen has written an entire book about the deeper argument of the Declaration of Independence and the way our superficial reading and folk history of the document obscures its radicalism. (It’ll make you look at July Fourth in a whole new way.) Her most recent book, Cuz, is a searing indictment of the American criminal justice system, driven by watching her cousin go through it and motivated by his murder. Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which Allen directs, has released the most comprehensive, operational road map for mobilizing and reopening the US economy amid the Covid-19 crisis. And to top it all off, a two-year bipartisan commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which Allen co-chaired, recently released a report with more than 30 recommendations on how to reform American democracy — and they’re very, very good. This is a wide-ranging conversation for a wide-ranging moment. Allen and I discuss what “all men are created equal” really means, why the myth of Thomas Jefferson’s sole authorship of the Declaration of Independence muddies its message, the role of police brutality in the American Revolution, democracy reforms such as ranked-choice voting, DC statehood, mandatory voting, how to deal with a Republican Party that opposes expanding democracy, the case for prison abolition, the various pandemic response paths before us, the failure of political leadership in this moment, and much more. An edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show. Ezra Klein What do we get wrong about the Declaration of Independence? Danielle Allen The first thing we get wrong is the notion that we should focus on Thomas Jefferson as the author. He put on his tombstone “author, the Declaration of Independence.” That was a real self-aggrandizing gesture. In fact, he was just the scribe. The intellectual work of the declaration was driven significantly by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. That’s an important thing to say out loud because Adams is someone who never owned slaves and Franklin was somebody who was an enslaver earlier in his life but repudiated enslavement and became a vocal advocate of abolition. Both Adams and Franklin were in a different place on enslavement than Jefferson was. That matters. The Declaration of Independence fed straight into abolitionist movements and efforts. It was the basis of a text that was submitted in Massachusetts in January 1777 moving forward abolition, and abolition had been achieved already in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania by the early 1770s and 1780s. When we focus on Jefferson, we get one part of America’s story — the story of the slaveholding South. We don’t get the part of the story which was about how abolitionism was developing already, even in the 18th century. That’s part of our story in history, too. We should see it and tell it. Ezra Klein That’s a corrective to something that I’ve bought into myself, which is that the central story of the Declaration of Independence is one of hypocrisy — at the same time these beautiful ideals were being written, they were being betrayed. What you seem to be saying is that this story is only partial — that feeding into the Declaration Independence was conscious abolitionist intent. Danielle Allen Yes, there was already conscious abolitionist intention by the 1770s. The person who is famous for having coined the “no taxation without representation” argument, James Otis, had already in 1760 written a powerful pamphlet against enslavement. So there was a strand of revolutionary thought that worked its way all the way through to seeing the need for the end of enslavement. Thomas Paine was another figure of whom that’s true. That’s not to say that they were awfully egalitarian. John Adams was also explicit that while he thought that the sort of universal rights [in] the declaration applied to everybody — men, women, poor people, people of color — he also was convinced that nonetheless, power should be left in the hands of white men with property. He had this paradoxical view that the institution should secure well-being and rights for everybody, but that the responsibility for securing those rights should lie with white men with property. So there is a sort of bifurcation between this notion that rights pertain to everybody and the question of who would actually have access to political power and be able to control political institutions. Ezra Klein What do you mean when you say the declaration is “best read as an ordinary memo”? Danielle Allen At the end of the day, human life and human organization depends on people being able to coordinate around a shared plan. And in order to coordinate around a shared plan, you have to make that plan memorable. That was the job of the Decoration of Independence. They had this set of colonies with extended lines of communication where it could take weeks for a message to travel from the north to the south end, and they needed somehow to be able to move together. So they had a moment of punctuation that memorialized for everybody what their purpose was: What were they trying to do together? That’s the sense in which it’s a memo. Memo is short for the Latin word memorandum, which is the thing that must be remembered. That’s the sense in which it’s just like any other ordinary office memo that’s seeking to coordinate the actions of disparate people. Ezra Klein In your view, what does the memo say? What is the argument the declaration actually makes? Danielle Allen It’s pretty straightforward. It’s a group of people who look around and say, we don’t like this world. So it starts, “When in the course of human events.” It’s a diagnosis of a problematic state of affairs. The problematic state of affairs is that the British government is not securing the rights of the colonists as they understood them. They understood their rights through a long history of thinking about the rights of Englishmen. Specifically, they thought the crown was violating those rights, and they sought an alternative. They had pursued petitions for change internally to the system for a long time, and after 10 years of efforts, they’d reached the point where they thought it was time to start something new. So it’s a diagnosis and a prescription of a forward path based on independence. It’s also a justification of that self-governing action, that choice of their own, on the grounds that human beings are best off when they can govern themselves. Ezra Klein One of the arguments you make in the book is that the declaration is often read as an argument for freedom over equality, but, in your view, its fundamental point is that there is no freedom in the absence of equality. Can you talk about how one of those views came to predominate over the other and why you hold the one you do? Danielle Allen In the 18th century, when people thought about self-government, they often described it as a product of free and equal self-governing citizens. Free and equal always went together. In order to be free, you actually had to be able to play a role in your local institutions. You had to have equal standing as a decision-maker. So freedom and equality were mutually reinforcing. That concept of self-government predates the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, and the remarkable transformations of the global economy achieved by industrialization and modern capitalism. As the economy transformed, as you saw the immiseration of populations in industrial centers, the question of equality came to have a different balance. There was a new question on the table: How does economic structure interact with freedom and with equality? So with the 19th century and early 20th century, you began to have a sort of refashioning of the concept of equality primarily around economic concerns and conceptions and castes. That way, there seems to be a tension between a market economy defined as somehow rooted in a concept of freedom and equality based on equal distribution of economic resources. The Cold War brought that to a really high pitch, with the Soviet Union characterized as the political structure in favor of equality and the United States characterized as the political structure in favor of freedom. But what that debate between those two physical systems did was obscure the fact that at their core, freedom and equality have to be linked to each other. You can’t actually have freedom for all unless most people have equal standing relationship to each other. That’s a political point in the first question. And then you fold in economic issues by asking the question: If we need to achieve equal political standing, then what kind of economic structure do we need to deliver that? I think it is possible to have market structures that are compatible with egalitarian distributive outcomes. I think you need an egalitarian economy. You don’t need, strictly speaking, an equal distribution of material goods in order to support the kind of political equality that gives people equal standing and of shared ownership of political institutions. Ezra Klein Let’s hold on that idea of political equality versus economic equality. When people hear “we’re all created equal” or “we all are equal,” the mind naturally jumps to the places where we’re not. Some people are taller than others. Some people are born into a different station than others. The list goes on. Your argument in the book is that equality here means something different — it’s a way of relating to one another, not a way of equalizing against each other. Can you talk about what that difference is? Danielle Allen We’re all not the same, but we are equal in some fundamental respects. The most important way in which we’re equal is that we are all creatures who proceed through our day trying to make tomorrow better than yesterday, and seeking to shape a life course that delivers to us a sense of well-being. So we’re all equal in being judges of our circumstances and seekers of a pathway to a more flourishing tomorrow than we had yesterday. That in itself — the fact that we can judge our circumstances and diagnose them and see solutions to a better future — makes us political creatures and makes us people who want to control our surroundings. That’s what we all share. In order for that to be activated for all human beings, we need an opportunity to participate in political institutions that tap into that human capacity. As we participate in our shared institutions, will bring a variety of different kinds of resources to that process. We have different interests. We have different capacities. We have different experiences that build out different perspectives. So there’s this huge diversity of what we can all bring to the process of judging together about the shape of our future. But it is that judging that we all have the capacity for and that we all have a right to participate in. Ezra Klein Do you see any parallels between the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the American Revolution? Danielle Allen The American Revolution was massively fueled by resentment of the arbitrary use of police power on the part of the British. The writs of assistance, for example, in Boston were rules that gave British customs officers the right to search people without any specific reason for searching them. It was stop-and-frisk in the 18th century, basically. In other words, arbitrary use of police power was at the core of the American Revolution. Arbitrary use of police power and excessive penalty in our criminal justice system have been at the center of many people’s attention for quite a period of time now. In the declaration, they say, all of our petitions have just been met by repeated injury. Such has been the experience for the last decade too, I think, for people who’ve been working on police reform and reimagining of our justice and public safety system. So I think there’s a lot of continuity. There’s a really strong sense of what rights should be protected and what it means not to have basic rights protected. There’s a strong sense of what it means to have invested public authorities with power. Why do we invest them with power? Mainly so they can secure our rights. So when the power is turned around and not used to secure our rights, then the social contract itself, the original compact, has been breached. So I think everything we’re watching is fully recognizable and understandable in the original terms of the revolution and the declaration and Constitution. Ezra Klein Is there a tension in the way America views itself in terms of how we celebrate the moment of revolution and the ultimately violent uprisings that met the abuse of British power against Americans — and the fact that there is intense pressure to keep the protests today peaceful, and any deviation from that is seen as inherently illegitimate? Danielle Allen I think there’s a necessary tension that comes out of being a society born in revolution. At the end of the day, to be a successful society is to avoid revolution. So we have to celebrate as our origin something that every society also wishes to avoid. In the Declaration of Independence, there’s this distinction drawn between altering the government and abolishing it and establishing a new one. That distinction in the declaration is used to justify a full-scale revolution, but it simultaneously points to the idea that the sustainability of constitutional democracy is going to have to focus instead on this concept of alteration. So the question really is, can you achieve internal capacity in your institutions and social structures to make alteration a real possibility from one generation to the next? We should all know from the get-go that we live in a world that has made an alteration one of its fundamental necessities in an ongoing way. And I think that’s the kind of proposition being tested now. It’s past due time for alteration in our administration of justice, in our approach to public safety. So let’s figure out what capacity for alteration we have. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
The QAnon supporters winning congressional primaries, explained
Trump supporters displaying QAnon posters appeared at a Trump rally in Tampa, Florida, on July 31, 2018. | Thomas O’Neill/NurPhoto via Getty Images QAnon started on an obscure internet forum. Now its supporters are running for Congress. “Where we go one, we go all” is a frequent slogan of adherents to QAnon, a fringe conspiracy theory that posits the existence of a pedophilic “deep state” working against President Donald Trump. Now, it looks like at least a couple of them could be going to Washington. On Tuesday, restaurateur Lauren Boebert defeated five-term incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton for the GOP nomination in Colorado’s Third District. Boebert is a conservative gun rights activist who touts her support for Trump, as well as her belief in “personal freedom, citizen rights, and upholding the Constitution of the United States,” on her campaign website. She’s seemingly also on board with QAnon: In May, she told far-right personality and QAnon supporter Ann Vandersteel that the theory isn’t really her “thing,” but then later added, “I hope that [Q] is real, because it only means America is getting stronger and better and people are returning to conservative values.” And in the traditionally Republican Colorado Third District — Tipton won by about 8 points in 2018 — Boebert is also the favorite to win in November. If she does, odds are good she won’t be alone in her familiarity with QAnon when she gets to Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, almost won her primary outright in Georgia’s 14th District, which lacks an incumbent, and she’s on track to win again in the August runoff. Greene is even more open in her support for the conspiracy theory: In a 2017 video discussing it — one of several first uncovered by Politico — she told supporters that “there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it.” Boebert and Greene are the two QAnon-supporting candidates most likely to make it to Congress this November, but they’re not the only ones who have a shot. According to Media Matters, there are at least eight other QAnon-friendly candidates for Congress who have already won their primaries, as well as one more (in addition to Greene) who’s headed for a runoff. It’s a surprising number of people to have successfully running for office while embracing an objectively wild conspiracy theory. But maybe not that surprising — after all, one of the president’s sons posted a QAnon graphic on Instagram just last month. Candidates don’t need to explicitly endorse conspiracy theories to elevate them According to Travis View, a QAnon expert and co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, part of it is just politics, albeit a particularly Faustian variety. The fanatical dedication to QAnon that characterizes many of the conspiracy’s acolytes turns out to be very effective when it comes to spreading a particular candidate’s message — or, at least, it is if they think a candidate is on their side. Of Boebert, View says, “I feel like she’s being very crafty in that she seems aware of what she needs to say in order to give enough wink and acknowledgment to the QAnon community without out-and-out endorsing it.” We can now add Lauren Boebert to the ever-growing list of QAnon supporters who are running for Congress.— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) May 18, 2020 Boebert has continued to walk that fine line since her win on Tuesday. “I’m glad the [inspector general] and the [attorney general] are investigating deep state activities that undermine the President,” she said in a statement to Vox. “I don’t follow QAnon.” But Graham Brookie, an expert on disinformation and the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, says that whether candidates like Boebert officially lay claim to the conspiracy theory doesn’t matter too much. “She may not identify as an adherent of QAnon conspiracy theories,” Brookie, a native of Colorado’s Third District, said in an interview with Vox, “but she has certainly amplified them provably, and the impact is the same on the audience.” I was born & raised in #CO03. This is my home. I also happen to run a nonpartisan center dedicated to identifying & explaining disinformation. So let me explain this: Lauren Boebert is an unabashed conspiracy theorist, who spreads QAnon & is unfit for elected office.— Graham Brookie (@GrahamBrookie) July 1, 2020 QAnon supporters — and believers of other conspiracies — are “primed to believe in code words and secrets,” as Vox’s Jane Coaston explained: Conspiracy theories create order out of chaos, attempting to make sense of events that don’t make sense. And researchers have found that fact-based arguments against them only serve to reinforce them in the minds of believers. That’s what makes QAnon or Sandy Hook trutherism or any other conspiracy theory so difficult to combat: Because conspiracy theories aren’t based on facts, conspiracy theorists aren’t receptive to them either. Not all QAnon-friendly candidates are like Boebert, though: Some exist much closer to the Greene end of the spectrum. Specifically, View describes some QAnon supporters as “pragmatic” in their embrace of the conspiracy theory: “cynical grifters who see the QAnon community as a bunch of people who can be exploited for money or online audiences,” or even to win a Republican primary. But in other cases, he says, “you see people who are genuinely radicalized by the QAnon story.” For example, View says, Jo Rae Perkins, who won the Republican nomination for Senate in Oregon, appears to be a “true believer”; she even made explicit reference to Q in her victory speech this May. Tacit support for QAnon makes sense for some candidates in today’s GOP When it comes to the recent surge in QAnon-supporting candidates, most of their voters — and there are about 600,000 of them, according to a calculation by the Washington Post — aren’t voting for Q directly. In fact, just over three-quarters of Americans have never heard of QAnon. But while QAnon encompasses a lot of truly wild conspiracies, at its heart, View says, is “pervasive institutional distrust”: a belief that “the whole of mainstream media, the whole of the political system is entirely, irredeemably corrupt.” And in the era of Donald Trump, that kind of populist messaging plays really, really well with the Republican primary electorate. (Not only with Republicans — as the Atlantic’s David A. Graham points out, voters of all stripes can be conspiracy-prone, and our current political environment isn’t helping. But the Satanic-pedophilia stuff is basically only a thing in on the extreme fringes of the GOP.) Tipton, the Republican incumbent Boebert defeated, was endorsed by Trump — but Brookie argues that that endorsement was in name only. “From an ideological standpoint, candidates like Boebert tend to play to the kind of basest parts of Trump’s base, which his rhetoric has consistently promoted, endorsed, amplified,” Brookie said. “So a victory of a candidate like Boebert can’t be seen as anything other than an extension of Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party.” In other words, elements of the worldview underpinning QAnon don’t look all that different from what’s coming from the top of the ticket — which would explain the prevalence of QAnon signs at Trump rallies. just some extremely normal people at an extremely normal political rally for an extremely normal president— Andrew Kirell (@AndrewKirell) July 31, 2018 The result is a fairly widespread acceptance of — or at least an openness to — it and other conspiracy theories. For example, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll in late May found that “half of all Americans who name Fox News as their primary TV news source believe the conspiracy theory (that Bill Gates wants to use mass vaccination to implant microchips), and 44 percent of voters who cast ballots for Trump in 2016 do as well.” "Half of all Americans who name Fox News as their primary TV news source believe the conspiracy theory (that Bill Gates wants to use mass vaccination to implant microchips), and 44 percent of voters who cast ballots for Trump in 2016 do as well."— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) May 22, 2020 As NBC’s Ben Collins points out, that’s not a theory that Fox ever boosted. But the channel has “spent the pandemic sowing constant distrust in disease experts, leaving a gaping hole for answers that’s been filled by opportunistic, algorithm-gaming grifters online.” And it’s not too much of a jump from a conspiracy theory about Bill Gates and vaccines to QAnon. According to View, QAnon functions as “a meta-conspiracy theory that can connect with every other sort of conspiratorial narrative,” however out there it might be. Republicans also haven’t been especially proactive in condemning QAnon when it crops up in candidates. After Boebert’s win, the National Republican Congressional Committee reiterated its support for her. When asked by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee if it intended to disavow Boebert, the NRCC said in a statement shared on Twitter by Huffington Post reporter Kevin Robillard that “we’ll get back to you when Cheri Bustos and the DCCC disavow dangerous conspiracy theorists like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff.” View says that failure to forcefully condemn the conspiracy theory means that QAnon is likely to stick around in the Republican Party: “Anything short of a clear, forceful repudiation,” he said, “they will take as acceptance.” It’s unclear how Boebert’s hardline populism and flirtations with QAnon might hold up come November, though. It worked out well for her in the primary — she becomes one of just a small handful of candidates to successfully oust an incumbent of their own party this cycle — but Anand Sokhey, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder, isn’t so sure the same will be true in the general election. “I think it’s very competitive now,” Sokhey said. “It looks like it’s certainly possible for the Democratic candidate, Diane Mitsch Bush, to run strong in that district where we normally wouldn’t have thought it would have been possible.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Russia has paved the way for Putin to be president for life
Russian president Vladimir Putin watches a Victory Day military parade on Red Square, marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia. | Photo by Ramil Sitdikov - Host Photo Agency via Getty Images The Russian leader got his popular mandate, but he might not be as powerful as a referendum makes him sound. Russian President Vladimir Putin just got what he’s wanted from a recent vote: the veneer of a popular mandate on a plan that allows him to stay in power far beyond his current term limit — and could essentially make him president for life. On July 1, Russia tallied the results of a week-long national vote on a slew of constitutional reforms, including a constitutional amendment that allows Putin to nix term limits and remain president until 2036. Such an outcome was expected, and largely predetermined, given Russia’s long track record of electoral fraud. This latest vote also saw some, well, irregularities. Putin, who’s been in power in Russia one way or another since 1999, was scheduled to leave office in 2024, though most observers figured he’d likely find a way to drag that out. The Russian leader’s plans became clearer this March, when, in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, Russia’s parliament unrolled a whole bunch of proposed constitutional changes. They included a tweak that would reset presidential term limits, which could effectively make Putin Russia’s president for the rest of his life, or at least most of it (he’ll be 83 in 2036). At the time, Putin proposed holding a national vote in April to get popular backing for these changes, but the Kremlin postponed the vote because of the coronavirus. They ultimately held it this week. But here’s the fun part:Putin didn’t actually need the Russian people to back these changes in the vote; he’d already gotten the necessary approval from Parliament, regional governments, and the courts. In fact, not only had the constitutional amendments already been enacted, the newly amended constitution had actually been printed and sent to bookstores for sale — before the vote even happened. That doesn’t mean the vote didn’t matter, though. It did, just for a different reason.Putin may not have needed peoples’ votes, but he wantedthem — lots of them — to try to legitimize the power grab, and to help signal, especially to Russia’s powerful elite, that Putin’s still the guy. And, as was expected, he got the votes he wanted:According to Russia’s Central Election Commission, more than 77 percent of voters supported the changes to the Russian constitution. Of course, Putin was always going to win, one way or another, thanks to all the electoral shenanigans he’d put in place (more on that in a bit). So Putin got approval for lifetime job security, at least on paper. But the Russian president is in a bit more precarious position than the vote tallies might suggest. The country’s economy remains stagnant, and that was true before the pandemic hit. It might be partly why Putin wanted this vote now. “It’s a very ironic situation,” Thomas Frye, a professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University, told me. The constitutional amendments are a “grab for power that’s being done in some ways from a position of weakness rather than strength.” How to win a mostly fake election, according to Russia Voting began June 25, giving voters about a week to cast their ballots in person. Russia lifted all of its coronavirus restrictions the day before voting began, marked with a nice, big parade. Voting stations were set up all over, including in places like the trunks of cars and also the trunks of actual trees. Online voting was also rolled out, though at least one Russian journalist reported that the system allowed him to vote twice, once in person and once online, according to the Washington Post. Observers have noted lots of other irregularities in the process, most notably widespread reports of employers pressuring their employees to back the amendments. Experts told me this commonly happens in Russian elections, especially in the public sector, and reports suggest the campaign was deployed quite heavily during this upcoming vote. Even more craftily, though, the amendment to change Putin’s term limit also appeared on the ballot with many other amendments, some of which were pretty popular. They included a guarantee on pensions, an amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and another that affirmed Russians’ belief in God. There were nearly 200 in total, according to the Wall Street Journal. And these were all packaged together in a single up-or-down vote — which meant if you wanted a pension guarantee, or if you wanted to make it super clear you and your compatriots really do believe in God, then oh, by the way, that also meant you just voted to approve a lifetime Putin presidency. The Kremlin also campaigned on these more popular issues, making them the centerpiece of the vote and downplaying all that term limit stuff. “They were distractions, because obviously the intention was to get a positive vote for Putin to stay on,” Sir Andrew Wood, associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House who served as Britain’s ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000, told me. Given this, it’s no surprise the Russian opposition called the vote a sham. “We’ll never recognize this result,” Alexei Navalny, one of Russia’s most prominent opposition leaders, said. The coronavirus — and the social distancing restrictions that banned mass gatherings — had also made it challenging for Putin critics to voice their displeasure or protest before the vote, somewhat quieting possible opposition. But, again, Putin didn’t technically need nearly 78 percent of Russians to vote for the amendment. These changes were mostly a done deal. But Putin wanted to say that all these people backed this plan. That’s a big part of what this vote is about. Putin’s job security might not be as strong as the vote makes it seem Putin’s victory in this “referendum” might seem at first glance to underscore Putin’s popularity — at least, Putin would like everyone to believe that. But the Russian president has faced a lot of pressure recently, and that may continue to build in the aftermath of the pandemic and a deepening economic crisis. This May, his popularity dipped to its lowest point ever: 59 percent. And while, sure, 59 percent is still pretty impressive (Trump, for example, hasn’t ever cracked 49 percent), it’s down from about 70 percent earlier in the year. Russia’s economy also continues to struggle. Declining oil prices and Western sanctions for Russia’s international misdeeds, from Ukraine to election interference have squeezed the Russian economy. Putin’s attempt to give it a boost have also floundered; a $400 billion stimulus plan hasn’t yet delivered the promised growth. And that crisis is may deepen now that the entire world is facing a prolonged recession. Exactly how bad the coronavirus situation is in Russia is still a bit cloudy; the country has reported more than 660,000 cases — the third-most cases in the world behind the US and Brazil — and fewer than 10,000 deaths. It’s unlikely those statistics are entirely accurate, though. But even if they’re off by quite a bit, the toll likely won’t be as bad as it has in some other Western countries (specifically, the US, which has more than 2.7 million cases and more than 128,000 deaths, as of July 2.) The fallout from all of this is still wildly unclear, which may be why Putin seized the moment to push through these constitutional changes at this time of uncertainty. The referendum was a “way for Putin to say, ‘Look, I’m still in charge here. I’m the one with the popular mandate. Everyone quiet down,’ as a way to demonstrate his power,” Ora John Reuter, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told me. It was meant to send a message to the people — and especially the elites — of Russia that in such turbulent times, they need Putin’s leadership more than ever. Putin himself basically said as much after the vote: “We are still very vulnerable in many ways, we have done our best, we need internal stability and time to strengthen the country, all its institutions,” he said in a speech Thursday. But orchestrating a national vote to prove this doesn’t exactly inspire that much confidence, either. “The more the Kremlin has try to get people to turn out to vote, and to engage in things like packaging together all these amendments, or not allowing rivals to run against him, the harder it is for them to make the case to the average Russian that Putin is really popular,” Frye, the Columbia professor, said. It’s that position of weakness, not strength, that is the true undercurrent of what’s happening right now. And the “referendum” doesn’t actually tell Russia or the rest of the world all that much about Putin’s future plans. Putin hasn’t officially announced that he’ll run again after 2024, but he almost certainly will, and the constitutional amendment removes any political jockeying or worries over a successor that might have crept up. “In a weird way, I don’t think this actually gives us much new information about what his intentions are vis-a-vis 2024,” Reuter said. “It opens the door, legally, to him staying on — but no one ever thought that the main impediment to him staying on was that the pesky law was going to get in the way.” “So I think the question is still about the future is still kind of open,” he added. “Obviously, any of the betting odds will stay. But, you know, a lot of things can happen between now and then.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Hong Kong’s future under China’s new security law, explained
Riot police secure an area in front of a burning roadblock during a demonstration against the new national security law on July 1, 2020, in Hong Kong. | Anthony Kwan/Getty Images “It’s really the first time that I had a genuine feeling that I would be arrested just because of speaking aloud a slogan or holding a poster on the street.” July 1 in Hong Kong has always been a day of protest. It marks the anniversary of the territory’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. This year, 23 years later, Hongkongers protested again — but this time, there was far more at stake than at perhaps any other time since. That’s because July 1, 2020, was the first full day that China’s new national security law, which gives Beijing broad powers to crack down on political dissent against the Chinese Communist Party, was in full effect in Hong Kong. The full details of the legislation weren’t known until it went into effect. The law specifically criminalizes “secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” What falls under those categories is vague, according to experts. That’s a recipe for broad application of the law, one that also carries steep penalties, including up to life imprisonment for the most serious of offenses. When Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, it was with the promise that Beijing would honor Hong Kong’s quasi-independence until at least 2047, under the rule known as “one country, two systems.” The Chinese government has slowly eroded Hong Kong’s autonomy in the years since, while still rhetorically committing to the principle. The imposition of the national security law rips away that facade completely, directly threatening Hong Kong’s civil society, independent press, and, most obviously, the territory’s sustained pro-democracy movement. The law means the “complete and total control of Hong Kong and total destruction of Hong Kong’s system,” Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a political science professor at Notre Dame University, told me. Pro-democracy protesters I spoke with expressed similar sentiments. “I guess we have all seen this coming, but it just feels very surreal to everyone that Hong Kong is truly under ‘one country, one system,’” Fung, a 27-year-old protester who asked to be identified by only her surname name out of concern for her safety, told me. Fung said that she and many of her friends awakened, bit by bit, to the totalitarianism of the Communist Party. Yet she still held on to a little hope, a kind of dream, that the Chinese Communist Party could become more liberal, more free. Until now. “Today, with this law passed, me and my friends think that we can never go back to what things were. Now we’re just another city, like Guangzhou or Shanghai or Beijing, one of the cities under mainland China’s control,” Fung said. But the new threat of being arrested or prosecuted for speaking out didn’t stop Fung and thousands of others from protesting on July 1 (nor did the city’s ongoing ban on public gatherings due to the coronavirus). According to the Hong Kong Free Press, some protesters scattered joss papers — a custom at Chinese funerals — on the streets to represent the death of “one country, two systems.” “It’s really the first time that I had a genuine feeling that I would be arrested just because of speaking aloud a slogan or holding a poster on the street,” a 22-year-old protester, who asked to remain anonymous for their safety, said via WhatsApp. But the protester said that some friends decided not to join the demonstrations, considering it much more dangerous to speak out or take to the streets now because the power of the Chinese Communist Party “is too strong to confront or even revolt against.” And Hong Kong’s authorities wasted no time with enforcement. At least 10 people were arrested Wednesday under the national security legislation. That included a man arrested for having a Hong Kong independence flag, a woman arrested for holding a sign calling for Hong Kong’s independence (which also featured British and American flags), and a 15-year-old girl arrested for waving a Hong Kong independence flag, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. #NationalSecurityLaw in effect. #HKPolice further arrested a female for showing a material with #HKIndependence slogan in #CausewayBay, Hong Kong. #HKPolice will take resolute enforcement action in accordance with #NSL.— Hong Kong Police Force (@hkpoliceforce) July 1, 2020 An additional 370 people were also detained, according to Hong Kong police, who used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to try to break up the demonstrations, relying on the same heavy-handed tactics that galvanized Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters last year. But one 24-year-old protester, who also wished to remain anonymous, said they believe the new law gives police even more “justification” to carry out police brutality. So while demonstrators have for years taken to the streets on July 1 to protest China’s interference, this July 1 felt like a turning point for the territory. “This time is different,” Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist, told US lawmakers during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday. “So much is now lost in the city I love: the freedom to tell the truth.” China has long dreamed of asserting more direct control over Hong Kong Last spring, Hong Kong’s legislature tried to pass an extradition bill that critics feared would allow the Chinese government to arbitrarily detain Hongkongers. That ignited massive protests, leading to months of unrest that sometimes turned violent. The bill was withdrawn in September, but the demonstrations continued as the fight transformed into a larger battle to protect Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. The coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures put some of that public activism on hold. But Beijing has used the pandemic to further crack down on the pro-democracy movement, including by arresting pro-democracy lawmakers in April. Then, in May, China announced its plan to impose a new national security law intended to curtail foreign interference or activities that undermine the state. The specific details of the law weren’t known, but there was little doubt about its purpose. That’s because such a law has long been a dream of the Chinese government. In 2003, the Hong Kong legislature attempted to pass a national security law under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (the closest thing Hong Kong has to a constitution). This would have established rules against subverting the state and foreign interference, but the law got shelved after mass protests. The difference then was that Hong Kong’s quasi-democratically elected legislature was taking up the proposed law, giving it the veneer of legitimacy. Now China has decided to just go ahead and impose the law on its own, direct from Beijing, without bothering to even pretend to involve the local institutions. “The way this was done — not through the local authorities, but rather from Beijing — and with China having asserted authority that it had not previously asserted in that way, suggests that it’s very much the mainland basically saying, ‘We have the bottom line on things we consider national security, and that includes political security for the [Chinese Communist Party] and the regime,” Jacob Stokes, a senior policy analyst on China at the US Institute of Peace, told me. Even Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the nominal leader of Hong Kong whose close ties with Beijing have led critics to portray her as little more than a puppet of the Chinese government, reportedly didn’t know the full details of the new national security law until it was unveiled to the public this week. And the law is extensive. It contains 66 articles, some of which are very detailed and specific and others that are much more vague — which almost certainly means they’ll be subject to interpretation. What the new law says — and what it purposely doesn’t say The law prohibits four broad activities: secessionism, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces. (Read the full text of the official English translation of the law here.) Under each of these activities are some specific offenses. For example, damaging government buildings could qualify as “subversion,” a serious-enough offense that could result in life imprisonment. On July 1, 2019, Hongkongers stormed and defaced the Hong Kong Legislative Council to protest the extradition bill, making this provision look very much like a response to previous protest tactics. Another example: Under the “colluding with foreign forces” provision, the law says Hongkongers could be arrested and prosecuted if they lobby or work with foreign entities against the Chinese government, including “enacting laws and policies that cause serious obstruction or serious consequences to Hong Kong or China,” according to the Hong Kong Free Press. This could implicate human rights groups, or even individuals who have called for sanctions or increased pressure on China to stop its intervention on Hong Kong. The Chinese government has blamed outsiders, specifically those in the West, for fomenting opposition against its rule in Hong Kong, and this looks to be a way to silence its critics. Of course, these expansive definitions are kind of the point. “If mainland practice to date is any guide — and it is — then the definitions don’t matter that much. Anything can be stretched as necessary to cover something done by the person being targeted,” Donald Clarke, an expert on Chinese law and professor at the University of Washington School of Law, writes in an analysis of the legislation. “As the old cliché goes, 欲加之罪何患无辞.” (That translates roughly to, “If you are determined to convict, you needn’t worry about the lack of grounds.”) Another remarkable feature of this law is its reach: Not only does it apply to Hongkongers, it could potentially also apply to foreignerswho speak out for Hong Kong or oppose China’s interventions there, regardless of where in the world they do so, should they ever set foot in Hong Kong. This is beyond even the laws in mainland China, and as Clarke puts it, this asserts “extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet.” This is basically saying that speaking out against China or supporting pro-democracy protests — maybe in a column, or a video, or a tweet — could put that individual at risk in the future, no matter their location at the time of the “offense.” Finally, the law also gives China more power to interfere directly in Hong Kong’s legal system, fully undermining its rule of law. As NPR notes, “The law empowers China to set up a ‘National Security Committee’ to oversee the investigation and prosecution of any violations. This committee is subject neither to judicial review nor Hong Kong law — meaning it operates without any local checks or balances.” The law also allows for Chinese judges in mainland China to try the most serious or complicated national security cases, or an extradition bill by different means. “It’s the end ... a very formal, total end of Hong Kong’s system,” Notre Dame’s Hui told me. What happens to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? Those massive pro-democracy marches, where millions of Hongkongers demonstrated — those may never happen again, Fung told me. There isn’t much space for freedom of speech in the city anymore, and she doesn’t feel that will change. The options left to her and her fellow citizens, she said, are limited. “We can continue to live in the city [and] choose to forget about the freedom and values and demands that we believe in,” she said. “Or maybe we will have to just leave the city to continue this kind of spirit somewhere else.” That is the dilemma facing many young Hongkongers I spoke to, who see themselves as democracy’s last gasp in the territory. They aren’t sure if there’s still a place for them there. As the generation born right around the time of the territory’s handover from Britain to China, they’ve grown up enjoying Hong Kong’s freedoms, even as they watched them slowly begin to slip away. This generation fueled Hong Kong’s resistance to the extradition bill, demanded democracy, and did it powerfully enough that Beijing fought back. “In the long term, I anticipate the law would turn HK [Hong Kong] into China — no democracy, no freedom, and, HK people would live under fear,” a 24-year-old protester who asked to remain anonymous, said via WhatsApp. “Our next generation might receive brainwashing education stating China [is] the best.” Some Hongkongers are already deleting their old social media posts or changing their names online, just in case. Betty Lau, the editor of InMedia HK, which posts pro-democracy articles, told the New York Times that writers had asked her to delete old posts. The site has since removed more than 100. A prominent pro-democracy group, Demosisto, also disbanded in the wake of the law. One of its leaders, Joshua Wong, said on Twitter that he was leaving the group. “If my voice will not be heard soon, I hope that the international community will continue to speak up for Hong Kong and step up concrete efforts to defend our last bit of freedom,” he wrote. Soon other prominent leaders of the group, including Nathan Law (who testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday) and Agnes Chow, another prominent pro-democracy activist, said they were stepping down. The group then dissolved. Activists like Wong and Chow have been targeted before by Hong Kong authorities; for example, they were arrested last year for allegedly participating in an “unauthorized” assembly during the summer protests. Given their prominence, are likely are risk under this new law. The chilling effect is the point. Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow on China at the Heritage Foundation, told me that China’s most useful approach is “to impose a condition of self-censorship, where you learn not what to say.” Activists disbanding their groups or taking down their pro-democracy social media posts because they fear repercussions — with good reason — is exactly what Beijing wants. “The [Chinese Communist Party] is very, very practiced at political control. They have very developed theories of how to do that,” Stokes, from the US Institute of Peace, said. “And they believe it works in the mainland.” The way China’s leaders see it, he added, the problem with Hong Kong is simply that the government there hasn’t implemented Beijing’s “successful” system. Protesters did come out into the streets in defiance of the new law on Wednesday. But the ones I spoke to all expressed nervousness, fear, and confusion about whether they will keep doing so if it becomes dangerous. Fung said she thinks she will continue to post online, and maybe support other protesters who do go out in the streets by serving as a driver, offering to help people flee if police crack down. But that is dangerous, too. The pro-democracy movement goes beyond just protesters and activists, though. The citizenry of Hong Kong has largely been divided in two factions: the “yellow” camp — those who sympathize with the pro-democracy movement, and the “blue” camp — those seen as supporting the police and the Hong Kong government. Many in the “yellow” camp, though they supported the protesters’ aims, didn’t participate in the protests themselves. So while the hardcore protesters may continue to take to the streets and speak out publicly despite the risks, the fear is that many others — young professionals, those with families, people who feel they have a lot to lose — may begin to rethink about whether they will continue to do so publicly. Peter, a 28-year-old Hongkonger, never considered himself a hardcore protester. He sympathized with the movement and attended some demonstrations, but he wouldn’t consider himself part of the frontlines. He, and others like him, are at that crossroads. “A lot of moderate protesters like myself are going to step back, because a lot of us still have a job here, we have families,” he said. “One thing that’s really scary,” he said, is that “if you’re accused under this new law, they have all the authority to send you back to China.” “Be like water” became a slogan and a strategy of the Hong Kong protests, a way to move fluidly and adapt to police tactics and to the government’s response. When the Hong Kong government denied a permit for the annual vigil honoring the Tiananmen Square massacre in June, for instance, organizers instructed people to instead light a candle, wherever they were, to show their support. Hui told me she sees the protests taking on an even more decentralized form and finding new methods for Hongkongers to signal their solidarity. An independence flag may be banned, but officials can’t outlaw a candle. Maybe people just take a walk — all together, at the same time. Taking even small acts of resistance, whatever they are, and making them part of daily life. “One country, two systems” might be dead, but whether that means the end of Hong Kong is a different question, Hui said. “Hong Kong is not dead unless the people let it.” Hongkongers are looking to the rest of the world. But will help come? “I know the whole world is watching us,” Fung told me. “And one of the key objectives today is to let the whole world see that Hong Kong people are still willing to go out and protest even under this kind of threat.” China’s national security law has been broadly condemned internationally— including by the United States. The Trump administration had already declared last month that because of the new national security law (which was expected to pass soon), Hong Kong was no longer considered autonomous from China. Shortly after, the United States also announced that it would be removing Hong Kong’s special trade status, which gives it slightly different treatment from the rest of mainland China. “The United States will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday. The US, he said, had taken other steps to pull back Hong Kong’s special status, including imposing visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party officials involved in “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy” and ending defense and some technology exports to the territory. Pompeo added that “per President Trump’s instruction,” the US would be eliminating most of the “policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment, with few exceptions.” How much further the Trump administration will go is an open question. Trump has taken an aggressive stance toward China on a number of issues, particularly on trade, and, more recently, for failing to stop the coronavirus from spreading into a pandemic. But when it comes to China’s human rights abuses, Trump has been far less critical. The US Congress has backed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement with strong bipartisan support, though. Last year, Trump signed into law the Hong Kong Freedom and Democracy Act, which, in addition to evaluating Hong Kong’s autonomous status, calls on the president to impose sanctions on officials who violate human rights in Hong Kong. That support remains strong. On Wednesday, the House unanimously passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which would impose mandatory sanctions on entities that violate either the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty between the UK and China that allowed for the handover and laid out the “one country, two systems” principle until 2047, or Hong Kong’s Basic Law (its de facto constitution.) On Thursday, so did the Senate, sending the bill to Trump’s desk. The White House has not said whether he will sign it. A bipartisan group of senators has also introduced a bill that would grant refugee status to Hong Kong residents who face persecution under the new national security law, including those who might have participated in the pro-democracy and anti-extradition bill protests. If passed and signed into law, it would be a powerful statement on human rights and democracy from the United States. But it would also show a disconnect in the federal government, as the Trump administration has drastically cut the number of refugees coming from just about everywhere else. Other countries are taking steps to help Hong Kong as well. The United Kingdom will grant additional rights to Hongkongers who are are British Nationals Overseas passport holders. Previously, they could stay in the UK for six months, but the UK government extended to the five years, after which the possibility for residency and later citizenship is available. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would allow the UK to “uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong.” It could apply to as many as 3 million people. Taiwan — which has a particular stake in standing up to China — just on Wednesday unveiled a new office explicitly created to help Hong Kong asylum seekers. Offering an escape route from Hong Kong will protect many, and leaving is an option that many Hongkongers said they would consider if life in the territory becomes untenable. At the same time, though, it is still a fraught decision. Hong Kong is home, and leaving feels a bit like a surrender, giving up on preserving Hong Kong’s democracy and letting China win. And some worry that a failure to taking action against China to stop or punish it for its power grab in Hong Kong would encourage China to become even more aggressive, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Or, as one protester put it: “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow the world.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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One of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors is exploring a new anti-Trump boycott
Reid Hoffman, former executive chair of LinkedIn, on July 11, 2017, in Sun Valley, Idaho. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images After the boycott of Facebook, Reid Hoffman thinks maybe it’s time for a boycott of Trump. Amid the advertiser boycott of Facebook, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest megadonors, Reid Hoffman, is exploring ways to launch a similar boycott of President Trump and his White House. Hoffman, the billionaire founder of LinkedIn, could spend as much as $100 million this cycle and has elbowed his way into becoming one of the most powerful players in Democratic politics. So what issues attract his attention and, correspondingly, his money matter, because they can help explain where the progressive movement will focus over the summer. Hoffman foreshadowed what may be his next political move this week when asked about the building protest movement against Facebook over its unwillingness to aggressively moderate Trump’s inflammatory posts. Hoffman volunteered a revealing tidbit about his political thinking. “Frankly, on the political side, one of the things I’ve been thinking about trying to go stimulate for the next month is an anti-Trump boycott,” Hoffman said in an interview on Tuesday with Anne-Marie Slaughter, the head of New America. “The various forms of enrichment with Mar-a-Lago and all the rest should not be part of an American political system. It should be protested in economic ways, as well as political ways.” Hoffman didn’t offer much detail about the idea, which is said to be in its early stages. But if companies are thinking about ways to stand up against racial hatred, Hoffman’s team thinks they shouldn’t just boycott Facebook, which broadcasts that hatred, but rather those who voice it, like Trump. Based on some of his past conversations, the move by Hoffman could resemble an effort like Grab Your Wallet, a campaign that convinced some retailers, including Nordstrom and T.J. Maxx, to drop products associated with Trump and his family. According to Shannon Coulter, the campaign’s leader, Hoffman’s team reached out to Grab Your Wallet and has had extensive talks about a donation since 2017. Hoffman’s team has declined to fund Grab Your Wallet, because Coulter said they preferred to focus on electoral politics, and she hasn’t heard from Hoffman’s team in about a year. Grab Your Wallet has now broadened its work to focus on boycotting companies with board members or executives that have supported Trump politically. There are signs that this type of organizing works — the attendance at SoulCycle fell after a boycott sprang up to protest that the fitness company’s majority investor, Stephen Ross, was hosting a fundraiser for Trump. Another possibility is that Hoffman may try to organize some boycott of Trump properties, such as Mar-a-Lago, which he mentioned in the interview. The problem with that approach, though, is that now, five years after Trump announced his run for president, the brands and people that are willing to be associated with Trump properties, including his hotel in Washington, DC, have already weathered much blowback and chosen to stick around. “Something focused on Mar-a-Lago is unlikely to work, in my opinion, for the same reason it doesn’t work to boycott Trump’s hotels,” Coulter said. “The people who patronize those places are already very much on Team Trump.” The advertiser boycott of Facebook has perhaps proven a model for boycotts of brands. After Facebook repeatedly declined to moderate Trump’s inflammatory posts about racial justice protests, a group of civil rights organizations launched a campaign called Stop Hate for Profit that has convinced some of the country’s biggest brands to pause advertising on Facebook, even if it’s unclear whether that will make a serious dent in Facebook’s revenue. Facebook recently announced new plans to regulate hate speech. One of Facebook’s early investors was Hoffman’s venture capital firm, Greylock, and Hoffman and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg remain close. What Hoffman chooses to fund is closely watched in the Democratic Party. While he has had his share of stumbles and detractors in the world of politics, he and his team are the tip of the Silicon Valley spear as the tech community marshals its considerable resources to boost presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. But there are some signs that the tech community and Biden still don’t see totally eye to eye. Biden has called for the immediate revocation of Section 230, the landmark law that protects publishers like Facebook from liability over what third parties say or do on the platform. Asked what Hoffman, who has advised Biden on digital campaigning, would say to Biden about Section 230, Hoffman drew some distance from his chosen candidate, saying that there should be “less-absolute-than-publisher liability, but more than no liability.” A viewer of the session asked Hoffman about a recent Washington Post editorial saying that both Biden and Trump — who also wants to revoke Section 230, albeit for different reasons — were wrong. “Both of those two positions seem to be badly put from an American values perspective,” Hoffman said. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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What Ghislaine Maxwell’s arrest could mean for the Epstein case
Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Audrey Strauss, speaks to the media at a press conference to announce the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell, the longtime girlfriend and accused accomplice of deceased accused sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein on July 2, 2020, in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images Maxwell’s arrest is a chance for victims to get a measure of justice. British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested on Thursday for allegedly luring girls into situations where she knew they would be sexually abused by her billionaire ex-boyfriend Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell is accused of using predatory techniques to prime girls for sexual abuse, first befriending them and then using that trust to make it easier for Epstein to victimize them. In the indictment, she is accused of doing this to three underage and unnamed girls — some as young as 14 years old — from 1994 to 1997, according to a federal indictment from the US Southern District of New York. Though Maxwell has yet to say anything publicly, she has previously denied any wrongdoing.Epstein was accused of sexually abusing dozens of girls and was awaiting trial when he apparently committed suicide in a New York City jail cell. He’d previously pleaded guilty and been convicted in 2008 of soliciting an underage prostitute. Maxwell’s arrest could signify a major turning point in the Epstein case. Epstein’s victims and their attorneys have alleged that Epstein couldn’t have abused as many girls as he did without the help of collaborators. Maxwell was a central figure in the trafficking scheme for years, according to sworn statements from Virginia Roberts Giuffre, Maria Farmer, and others. “Maxwell was among Epstein’s closest associates and helped him exploit girls that were as young as 14,”Audrey Strauss, the acting United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said on Thursday. For the many of those , Maxwell’s arrest is a new opportunity for them to seek justice. “The trajectory of the Jeffrey Epstein part of this case ended prematurely. This represents an opportunity for these women to see justice done,” Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University and former prosecutor in Manhattan, told Vox. “For the women who allege they were abused by both of them, this is the remaining outlet, this is the only possible way to see at least criminal justice.” Maxwell was one of many women who allegedly helped Epstein abuse girls After months of speculation about her whereabouts,Maxwell was arrested in Bradford, New Hampshire, on Thursday morning, according to the FBI. She is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Concord, New Hampshire, on Thursday. Speaking at a Thursday press conference, federal officials would not say exactly how long they had been tracking Maxwell or where else she may have traveled. “We had been discreetly keeping tabs on Maxwell’s whereabouts as we worked this investigation,” said Bill Sweeney, assistant director-in-charge of the New York Office of the FBI. Epstein allegedly had numerous female assistants who found underage girls for him to abuse. Some of these women say they were coerced victims of abuse themselves, leaving prosecutors reportedly grappling with the complex question of whether to charge them. Maxwell has not alleged Epstein abused her, and officials have documented a years-long pattern of behavior suggesting she was a close associate and co-conspirator. Palm Beach investigators, for instance, focused in on Maxwell “from the start,” the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher reported last year: The girls they interviewed repeatedly described Maxwell as the coordinator of Epstein’s sex-trafficking operation. But detectives were never able to interview Maxwell. Maxwell is being charged on six counts: enticing minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, transportation of a minor with intent to engage in sexual activity, two conspiracy counts related to the prior charges, and two counts of perjury for allegedly lying under oath in a 2016 deposition related to Epstein. “Maxwell lied because the truth as alleged was almost unspeakable,” said Strauss. “Maxwell enticed minor girls, got them to trust her, then delivered them into the trap she and Epstein had set for them.” Maxwell’s indictment paints a picture of earlier decades of abuse The key thing about Maxwell’s indictment is that it covers an earlier period of time than a previous indictment filed against Epstein last summer. The 2019 indictment against Epstein contained an array of charges that, from 2002 to 2005, the former billionaire recruited multiple underage girls to his Palm Beach residence and Manhattan house, where he sexually abused them. Maxwell’s charges stem from incidents involving three minor victims that allegedlytook place from 1994 to 1997, when she was in an intimate and professional relationship with Epstein. “This case against Ghislaine Maxwell is the prequel to the earlier case that we brought against Jeffrey Epstein,” Strauss told reporters. The federal indictment against Maxwell describes a pattern of behavior by Maxwell and Epstein in the mid-1990s. Either together or separately, they allegedly groomed minor victims by befriending them and taking them shopping or to the movies, the indictment says. Once a rapport was developed, “Maxwell would try to normalize sexual abuse for a minor victim by, among other things, discussing sexual topics, undressing in front of the victim, being present when a minor victim was undressed, and/or being present for sex acts involving the minor victim and Epstein,” the indictment reads. During this time period, Maxwell enticed minor victims to travel to Epstein’s residence in various states including New York, Florida, and New Mexico, as well as London, England, knowing full well what awaited the underage girls at his residences, the indictment alleges. “As far as I’m concerned, everyone who came to his house was an adult professional person,” Maxwell said in a 2016 deposition. Some of Epstein’s accusers dispute that characterization in their own depositions. “Ghislaine Maxwell was heavily involved in the illegal sex,” said Virginia Roberts Giuffre in a January 2015 court filing. “She used Epstein’s money and he used her name and connections to gain power and prestige. One way to describe Maxwell’s role was as the ‘madame.’ She assumed a position of trust for all the girls, including me.” Maxwell “facilitated Jeffrey Epstein’s access to minor victims knowing that he had a sexual preference for underage girls and that he intended to engage in sexual activity with those victims,” Thursday’s indictment reads. How the continuation of the Epstein case could impact victims At the end of the Thursday press conference, officials thanked Epstein’s victims for coming forward in difficult circumstances. “For the many victims of other adult perpetrators who may be listening, the example set by the women involved in this investigation has been a powerful one,” Sweeney said. “They persevered against the rich and connected, and they did so without a badge, a gun, or subpoena, and they stood together.” But as Tuerkheimer told Vox, the process of seeing justice fully served for these women could be long and arduous. Maxwell’s arrest, while certainly significant, is an early step. “If [Maxwell] fights the charges and she wants to go to trial and wants the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, these women are going to have to testify, they’re going to have to be cross-examined, and that’s not easy,” Tuerkheimer said. “To get from here to the end of the road for the alleged victims in the case is likely very difficult.” For many of these women, the prospect of testifying against someone who not only allegedly facilitated their abuse but abused them herself could be very difficult. The fact that Maxwell initially served as a friendly figure to them before the abuse started could make it even more fraught. “They groomed people they knew they could take advantage of because they were already vulnerable,” Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Overcoming Trauma and PTSD, told Vox. “That level of betrayal is even more because she was this mother figure for some of them.” The legal system is often not easy for victims of sexual assault and trauma, in large part because it places a high priority on victims remembering things exactly as they happened. “The lack of education about traumatic events, about sexual trauma in particular, really pervades the legal system and judges and juries,” said Raja. “The legal system is a double-edged sword for many survivors of trauma. On the one hand, they want justice. On the other hand, the process may be re-traumatizing for survivors.” But just as the horror of the Epstein case lies in the large number of victims who were abused, those victims now have strength in numbers. “The number of victims and alleged victims is something that matters when you think about the criminal justice system to get called into action,” Tuerkheimer said. “When you have this credibility in numbers, that can make a difference.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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The Trump administration is targeting homeless trans people in the middle of a pandemic
The Reclaim Pride Coalition took to the streets of Manhattan for the second annual Queer Liberation March on June 28, 2020. | Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images The proposed rule would allow shelters to ignore a trans person’s gender identity and house them according to their birth-assigned sex. The Housing and Urban Development Agency announced a proposed rule Wednesday that would allow homeless shelters that receive federal funding to discriminate against transgender people. Though the text of the proposed rule is not yet available and the rule has not been posted on the Federal Register, the agency issued a press release announcing it, explaining that while shelters are barred from excluding people based on their transgender status, they are also allowed to ignore a person’s gender identity and house them according to their assigned sex at birth or their legal sex. In other words, a trans woman can’t be turned away from a shelter for being trans, but she can be forced to house in a men’s shelter. Dylan Waguespack, a spokesperson for True Colors United, an advocacy group that focuses on supporting LGBTQ homeless youth, said that HUD Secretary Ben Carson is “talking out of both sides of his mouth.” “They are trying to put forward this narrative in which transgender people are protected from discrimination, but in fact, when you read the proposal itself, it does the exact opposite,” he told Vox. “It creates unsafe conditions and unsafe barriers to housing and services for trans people in the midst of a global pandemic.” The rule, if finalized, would not overrule state and local laws, but it would go into effect in the 38 states that do not already have housing protections for transgender people. It’s the latest in a long line of anti-trans policies rolled out by the Trump administration. Almost immediately after he took office in 2017, the administration rolled back an Obama-era memo for schools to fairly treat trans students. Then in July of that year, Trump announced he would be ordering the military to ban trans people from serving. The administration went after trans prisoners as well in May 2018,deciding that in most cases, trans people should be housed according to their assigned sex at birth. “This is a continual angle for the administration to try to do anything to just harm my community,” LaLa Zannell, trans justice campaign manager for the ACLU, told Vox. “With a pandemic going on, the Department of Housing and Urban Development could be focusing on making sure that [trans] people are staying in the houses that they already have, and that they’re in safe and stable housing. They should not invest in resources that could crack down on homelessness for more trans people.” The rule will allow shelters in most states to ignore a trans person’s gender identity when making housing policies As Waguespack noted, the text of HUD’s release is confusing. Here’s how it could affect trans people looking for shelter. “The new rule allows shelter providers that lawfully operate as single-sex or sex-segregated facilities to voluntarily establish a policy that will govern admissions determinations for situations when an individual’s gender identity does not match their biological sex,” the agency said in a statement. This means that the rule allows shelters to completely ignore a trans person’s gender identity and can instead choose to house them according to their assigned sex at birth, which goes against the 2016 Equal Access Rule established by the Obama administration. The statement continues:“Each shelter’s policy is required to be consistent with state and local law, must not discriminate based on sexual orientation or transgender status, and may incorporate practical considerations of shelter providers that often operate in difficult conditions.” What the agency is seemingly trying to do with the rule is define discrimination against trans people as based on their transgender status rather than their gender identity— but for trans people, the two are intertwined.In other words, a shelter provider cannot simply disallow all trans people from utilizing their services, but they can, for example, house trans women in men’s shelters. There are two main problems with forcing trans homeless people into spaces that correspond with their birth-assigned gender rather than their gender identity. The first is that such a policy exposes trans people, especially trans women, to potential violence and sexual assault inside those spaces. And as a result, trans people are more likely to choose sleeping in the streets rather than risk going to a shelter. Because of a cycle of discrimination and poverty, trans people are more likely than their cisgender peers to experience homelessness. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 29 percent of trans people live in poverty, and one in five trans people in the US will be homeless at some point in their lifetimes. The numbers are even starker for Black trans people: A 2015 report indicated that 34 percent of Black trans people live in extreme poverty, compared to 9 percent of Black cis people. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) has been an outspoken critic of HUD’s rule change ever since the department first said it was pursuing a change last May. “Requiring trans people to be housed according to their birth gender rather than their gender identity is a recipe for harassment and sexual or physical assault,” she told Vox. “This population is already under enough attack. We can’t have them avoid staying shelters.” Wexton recalled asking Carson during a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee in May 2019 whether he had any intention of changing the Equal Access Rule. “He said he had no plans to do so. And the very next day, [HUD] announced their intention to gut the equal access rule. So they are not being honest.” The rule’s timing, about two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination against transgender people constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex, caught the eye of both Wexton and LGBTQ advocates. According to a letter obtained by Vox from Wexton and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) to Carson and dated June 29, HUD’s proposed rule was in process before the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County. “The release of a potentially applicable Supreme Court decision during the period of our regulatory review is unique and raises concerns about the applicability and implementation of the proposed rule,” reads Wexton and Waters’s letter, which asked Carson to reconsider publishing the proposed rule before conducting additional legal analysis. The proposed rule now enters a 60-day public comment period before it can be finalized. “They’re rushing to get it through before they may not be in control anymore,” said Wexton. “It’s disappointing but not surprising that they’re rushing it through in this way, especially given the broad implications of Bostock.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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A likely culprit in Covid-19 surges: People hell-bent on ignoring social distancing orders
Despite a disturbing spike in coronavirus cases in Texas and nationwide last month, tubers took to Texas’s Comal River in New Braunfels on June 25. Officials are now blaming young people and their failure to socially distance this summer for the increases. | AP Turbulent reopenings and partisan mask wars have only highlighted the nation’s preoccupation with personal liberty above all — even a deadly pandemic. For months, it’s been clear that the world has separated into two camps: the rule followers, observant of social distancing and hopeful of quashing the pandemic; and the risk takers, who have been storming the nation’s beaches, bars, and burger joints in spite of the coronavirus — and public health efforts to curtail its spread. Some states, such as New York, have contained new cases, but others, including Texas and Arizona, brazenly reopened even as cases continued to rise,unleashing a torrent of pent-up partiers. Now, even as an illusion of normalcy has slowly returned, rates of infection are reaching new records, with cases surging in dozens of states. The US is “going in the wrong direction,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and frequent face of the Trump administration’s virus response, warned senators recently. In March, the new virus pushed dozens of countries to implement strict isolation methods to prevent a global health crisis. In China, coronavirus measures were hard to evade, as authorities sealed apartment buildings and scanned millions for rising body temperatures. But in the United States, these restrictions have been harder to devise and enforce, mostly because democratic norms and a strong sense of individual liberty prevail. So, instead, the crisis has exposed humanity’s tendency to flout the rules. Masks — although recommended by federal and world health officials as effective in slowing the virus’s spread — have become a polarizing symbol of this dangerous phenomenon. In recent weeks, protesters have descended on government buildings and private businesses to decry face-covering requirements, calling them “muzzles” and “communist.” In one viral video, a maskless Florida man shoved a Walmart employee who tried to enforce the store’s face-covering policy. In another, a woman at a California Trader Joe’s screamed at employees and customers after others in the store criticized her for shopping without a mask. Some scofflaws have taken to brandishing sham cards from a phony “Freedom to Breathe Agency” that purportedly exempt them from mask-wearing. Adding fuel to this fire, officials say, are the multitudes of young people determined to socialize. Some have tried to pin the problem on the Black Lives Matter protests that have continued for weeks, but preliminary research using geolocation data suggests these events had no impact on the virus’s spread. Instead, public health experts are attributing the surge in new cases to the mask-free masses flocking to reopened restaurants and bars, pool parties and lazy rivers. “They’re conducting themselves like it’s pre-Covid, and that’s not going to work anymore,” Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa Health Department, told the Washington Post. Younger people, he said, are“not social distancing, not wearing masks or paying attention to hand-washing.” In one stunning case shortly after Memorial Day, a group of 16 friends all tested positive for the virus after visiting a newly reopened bar in Florida. In the months since worldwide lockdowns were adopted, there’s been a recurring theme among coronavirus rebels: They do what they want.In the early weeks of the pandemic, people swarmed beaches around the world, from Florida to Bondi Beach in Australia. “If I get corona, I get corona,” one spring breaker told Reuters. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” (He later apologized, calling his comment “insensitive.”) Even after quarantines had been instituted, Washington, DC, Metro officials in March had to practically beg riders not to visit the city’s famous cherry blossoms, which they did anyway, in droves. Brits took to crowded pubs to chant “f*** coronavirus!” And one woman went viral when she tweeted about her defiant trip to a crowded Red Robin restaurant. “It was delicious,” she tweeted, “and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.” Even officials are taking smug positions on the public health warnings. “I don’t need his advice anymore,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said of Fauci on Fox News in late June. Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images Visitors walk around the Washington, DC’s Tidal Basin on March 21 to see the cherry blossoms, despite social distance warnings and city efforts to dissuade visitors. The poor reaction of a growing number of people to social distancing and mask policies — even as the virus resurges — comes as no surprise to psychologists, sociologists, and public health experts. No one alive today has experience with a pandemic of this severity, catching even the most experienced researchers off-guard, not to mention the average person sorting through their Facebook feed. Conflicting government messaging and reopenings of restaurants, bars, hair salons, and gyms in many states have only exacerbated the wildly divergent individual responses, and reliance on personal responsibility in public health matters. It’s created fertile ground for the public to practice the long-held wisdom that we must “carry on” in a crisis: For at least a century, citizens have believed that in the midst of a disaster, their job is to go on with their daily lives as best they can — as if it were a safeguard against an unseen enemy. “We feel like we have to do something,” said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University and author of Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. But without a good frame of reference for the present crisis, we’ve looked to lessons learned from past calamities, including natural disasters, terrorism, war, and economic collapse, to guide us. “We’re a little bit like generals fighting the last war,” he said. But the old rules no longer apply. The pandemic is unprecedented, said Amy Fairchild, a public health ethicist and the dean of Ohio State University’s College of Public Health. “In this moment in time, ‘carry on’ could be a formula for disaster.” When the coronavirus first arrived in the United States, people cast about for comparisons. “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu,” President Trump tweeted on March 9. “It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” Experts including Fauci debunked the comparison. “The flu has a mortality of 0.1%,” he told Congress on March 11. “This has a mortality rate of 10 times that.” But the analogy — intended to make an extraordinary threat look like ordinary — persists. In reality, the coronavirus has no clear analogue. “The normal mechanisms we’re using to predict things don’t work,” said Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London who studies human motivation. “Actually, nothing else that has happened before in our lifetimes is relevant or helpful here.” Many contemporary disaster mantras emerged in past wars, and they often contained a kernel of a consumerist message. At the outset of World War I, British politicians such as Winston Churchill encouraged “business as usual,” suggesting that both companies and citizens should continue to behave just as they did in peacetime. But the status quo eventually gave way to a coordinated defense effort when the state realized it would need to control manufacturing, trade, and commerce to win the war. Twenty years later, in World War II, the British government coined “Keep Calm and Carry On” to boost morale in anticipation of a Nazi invasion. But it quickly pulped the test posters; other campaigns about courage in a crisis provoked public outcry as many people found the messages tone-deaf. After half a century, however, the phrase was exhumed — in part as a message to those weathering the Great Recession. Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images The Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto bears the famous British wartime poster reading “Keep Calm and Carry On” on March 17. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images An electronic ad from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a Washington, DC, subway station on March 14. The “Keep Calm” message, discarded during WWII, became newly popular in the Great Recession. In times of crisis, Americans have borrowed English idioms, and coined a few of their own homespun mottos for personal and economic perseverance. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made an enemy of an emotion, telling the public, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush gave this famed aphorism a consumerist spin when he told airline employees, “When [the terrorists] struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” “Get down to Disney World” was probably never meant to apply to the people who actually traveled to the Magic Kingdom in Marchamid public health warnings to avoid crowds. (Disney eventually closed its theme parks to visitors, though some reopenings are imminent.)But that didn’tstop some politicians from applying this logic to the coronavirus. In a White House press briefing, President Trump said, “America will again and be soon open for business,” and later suggested relaxing guidelines by Easter. That jingoistic outlook quickly dissipated as the virus seemed to metastasize, killing more than 120,000 Americans and requiring social distancing to continue for months. And Americans haven’t been the best socially distant citizens: Memorial Day weekend festivities served as a new catalyst for the spread of the virus, and many officials are desperate to reinstate or expand social distancing policies before the Fourth of July. At the Lake of the Ozarks, for example, a raucous pool party was later linked to multiple coronavirus infections. Alabama students reportedly threw parties attended by infected students that one local lawmaker has alleged were “Covid parties,” aimed at intentionally getting others sick. “It’s almost like we don’t want the virus to win, so we’re going to go out drinking, go to parties, go out to the beach,” Wuthnow said. But these are risky responses when the enemy is not a person or a bad year for the stock market, but a virus — one that can be transmitted asymptomatically. “It’s almost like we don’t want the virus to win, so we’re going to go out drinking, go to parties, go out to the beach” Humans are generally terrible at assessing risk. But it’s proven especially true in the case of the coronavirus. “It’s about our risk to others, and that might make it a little more difficult to understand,” said Cynthia Rohrbeck, an associate professor in clinical and community psychology at George Washington University. People are used to talking with their doctors about their personal health, but taking responsibility for the health of others comes up only infrequently, often in public discourse around smoking, drinking and driving, and getting vaccinated. Our judgment could be clouded by optimism bias, the tendency to believe you are less likely than others to experience something negative. In late February, researchers polled 4,348 people in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland and found half of them believed they were less likely to get the coronavirus than others, sans real evidence. Another poll, conducted in mid-March on more than 800 people from the US, the United Kingdom, and Germany, suggested this optimism was bolstered by people’s belief that they had fewer human interactions than their peers, making their risk of contracting the virus inherently lower. When countries finally began to roll out isolation measures, they encountered additional obstacles. “One of the most important things for people is to have a sense that they are in control of their own life, that they have agency,” Sharot said. In a paper in The Lancet, researchers reviewed 24 past publications on the psychological effects of quarantine and found it can cause post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. But the desire for agency can have an ideological component, too. In China, the authoritarian government has wide latitude to control the behavior of its citizens. But in the United States, few Americans have experienced government-imposed restrictions on when they can go out and whom they can see. Many politicians criticized the rules as an infringement on people’s freedom, not to mention a disaster for the economy. In March, Arizona state Rep. Anthony Kern (R) and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) both tweeted (and deleted) defiant photos from crowded restaurants. “We can’t all just shut ourselves and stay home,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The economy has to move forward.”And even the president has refused to be photographed wearing a mask, underscoring the way protective face coverings have become a partisan lightning rod. Now, as states are seeing terrifying spikes in their coronavirus cases, some are reinstating the social distancing strategies they just rolled back. “Me, personally, I just refuse to live my life in fear,” Katie Williams, the 30-year-old Las Vegas resident who went viral for her Red Robin tweet, told Vox in March. “As Americans, we typically do what we want. It’s kind of that attitude we’ve always had,” she added. “I think if we’re going to start pressuring people that they have to stay home, or publicly shaming them like pariahs, I think we’re just starting to lose a little bit of our sense of country and our sense of rights.” I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I'm 30.It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I'll do what I want.— Katie Williams (@realkatiejow) March 14, 2020 Fairchild, the public health ethicist, said she understands these concerns. But there are other rights to consider. “As an individual, I have a right not to be infected by somebody who is not paying attention,” she said. Jenny Evans/Getty Images Frolicking crowds at Australia’s Bondi Beach on March 20 amid coronavirus concerns garnered international news coverage, and led the government to close it and similar beaches. People may bristle at being told what to do — especially whenAmerican coronavirus quarantine strategies look superficially similar to those used by authoritarian nations such as China or Singapore. But Susan Michie, a health psychologist and the director of the Center for Behavior Change at the University College London, saw it another way: “We elect people to [make] decisions at a national level to look after ourselves. That’s not authoritarianism; that’s democracy.” And officials are largely dependent on the public’s compliance in a crisis. “This is not something we are doing because we are the fun police,” an Australian official said in a press conference as he implored people to stay home in March. “This is about saving lives.” To convince people to cooperate, Michie said, politicians need to continue tocommunicate a clear sense of urgency, while providing support for everyone who is forced indoors. “We’re interconnected,” she said, and the coronavirus proves it. Eleanor Cummins reports on the intersection of science and popular culture. She’s a former assistant editor at Popular Science and writes a newsletter about death. She previously wrote about the “death-positive generation” for The Highlight. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Breonna Taylor was killed by police in March. The officers involved have not been arrested.
Breonna Taylor in an undated family photo. She was fatally shot in her apartment by Louisville police on March 13. | Justice for Breonna Demands for justice are widespread and only continue to grow. It has been more than 100 days since Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her own homeinLouisville, Kentucky. Thousands of protesters have chanted her name across the country, demanding justice for the EMT, who would have turned 27 on June 5. As the country is reckoning with its history of racist police violence, many advocates want to know why charges still haven’t been filed against the officers who shot her dead. Meanwhile, those who want to abolish the carceral state are rethinking what justice in the Taylor case should actually look like. Most advocates agree that another Black woman is dead because of a lack of police accountability — and something needs to change. On March 13, three officers with a no-knock warrant entered Taylor’s apartment looking for two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. The officers fired more than 20 rounds into the apartment, hitting Taylor at least eight times. After months of investigation, the Louisville Police Department (LMPD) fired officer Brett Hankison on June 23; the other two officers remain on administrative assignment. A special Kentucky prosecutor is leading an investigation into both the shooting and the department’s handling of the shooting to determine whether to charge the three officers who fired their weapons; the FBI is leading its own investigation. On June 29, the Louisville Metro Council also announced a resolution to investigate the actions of Mayor Greg Fischer and his administration surrounding Taylor’s death. The council hopes to create greater transparency around who made what decisions in the Taylor case, according to a news release. Taylor’s deathtook place amid a slate of high-profile killings of unarmed Black people — it was just three weeks after Ahmaud Arbery was killed by white vigilantes while jogging and about 10 weeks before the fatal arrest of George Floyd. The suspects involved in Arbery’s case were arrested and charged two weeks after video of the incident went viral. The four officers involved in the killing of George Floyd were fired four days after Floyd’s death, with the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck charged with murder. By contrast, not much has happened in Taylor’s case. In the meantime, Taylor’s family, alleging excessive force and gross negligence in her death, filed a lawsuit on April 27 against the officers involved in the shooting. “I want justice for her,” Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, told the 19th in May. “I want them to say her name. There’s no reason Breonna should be dead at all.” Police came looking for a drug suspect. Breonna Taylor ended up dead instead. On the night of March 13, Louisville police had a warrant to enter Taylor’s apartment because they believed that a suspect in a narcotics investigation was storing drugs or money or receiving packages at her home, according to USA Today. However, according to the suit filed by Taylor’s family, the man police were searching for, Jamarcus Glover, did not live in her apartment complex and had already been detained by the time officers showed up. Taylor had dated Glover two years ago, according to a family attorney, and did not maintain an active friendship with him. Police said that the three officers knocked on the door to announce themselves. But multiple neighbors say the officers neither knocked nor identified themselves, according to the family’s lawsuit. It was later uncovered that the police had been granted a no-knock warrant by a judge, which allowed them to enter Taylor’s apartment without announcing themselves. They also weren’t wearing body cams. When police arrived, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, says he woke up and believed someone was trying to break into the apartment. He fired one shot, hitting an officer in the leg. Police then fired more than 20 rounds into the apartment. Taylor died at the scene. Walker was arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer and aggravated assault. Police found no drugs in the apartment, and both Taylor and Walker have no criminal history. On May 22, Kentucky prosecutors announced that they had dismissed all charges against Walker, who said he fired a shot in self-defense when he believed he and Taylor were under attack. On June 11, police released an incident report for the night Taylor was killed, but it was largely blank. Though Taylor was fatally shot, the four-page report listed her injuries as “none.” The report also stated there was no forced entry, though witnesses say the police used a battering ram to enter the apartment, according to CBS News. Meanwhile, it came to light that the officer who shot her, Hankison, had a history of misconduct allegations. He was already facing an ongoing federal lawsuit at the time of Taylor’s death in which Kendrick Wilson accused Hankison of “harassing suspects with unnecessary arrests and planting drugs on them,” according to USA Today. Wilson alleges that Hankison targeted him and arrested him three times in a two-year period. After Taylor’s death, claims of sexual assault surfaced, too, with at least two women coming forward in early June to allege that Hankison assaulted them. In both allegations, which are similar to one another, Hankison offered the women rides home after they had been drinking at local bars. In one case, Hankison allegedly followed the woman into her home and assaulted her while she was unconscious. In the other case, Hankison reportedly made sexual advances toward the woman while she sat in his unmarked car, including rubbing her thighs and kissing her face. On June 23, he was fired. LMPD posted Hankison’s termination letter on Twitter, which stated Hankison “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life when you wantonly and blindly fired ten (10) rounds into the apartment of Breonna Taylor…” The letter also stated Hankison violated the department’s protocol on use of deadly force when he shot through a patio door and window that was covered. This prevented him from determining whether there was an immediate threat or innocent people present; some of the bullets even traveled to a neighbor’s apartment where three people were endangered, according to the letter. Hankison has appealed his termination. The other two officers who fired rounds that night, John Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, remain on the force and have been placed on administrative reassignment. The case is still under independent investigation with Kentucky’s Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, who has said he will not provide additional details or a timeline for the investigation. Protests are ongoing, and calls for justice in the investigation continue In May, Benjamin Crump, the Taylor family’s attorney, argued that the killings of Black women have tended to receive less media attention than the deaths of Black men. “They’re killing our sisters just like they’re killing our brothers, but for whatever reason, we have not given our sisters the same attention that we have given to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald,” he told the 19th. “Breonna’s name should be known by everybody in America who said those other names, because she was in her own home, doing absolutely nothing wrong.” Protests where the crowds chant, “Say her name, Breonna Taylor,” have attempted to reverse the lack of attention.In 2015, activists around the country demonstrated and used the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to women who had lost their lives, including Gabriella Nevarez, Michelle Cusseaux, and Alexia Christian, as Jenée Desmond-Harris reported for Vox at the time. The death of Sandra Bland in jail after she was arrested during a traffic stop also drew national attention to the impact of police brutality and racism on Black women’s lives. Around the country, activists organized marches and signed petitions on Taylor’s June 5 birthday, saying she should’ve been alive to see the day. In Louisville, protesters have gathered in Breonna Taylor’s name to protest police brutality in a number of demonstrations since May. After a protest-imposed curfew onMay 31, law enforcement shot and killed David McAtee, 53, a local restaurant owner. Following his death, Louisville Police Chief Steve Conrad was fired, though it is still unclear exactly who shot McAtee, Vox’s Anna North reported. While there have been other changes in the police department since Taylor’s death — on June 11 the Louisville Metro Council voted unanimously to ban no-knock warrants — advocates, activists, and celebrities are asking why the three officers involved in Taylor’s killing haven’t been arrested. On June 14, Beyoncé wrote an open letter to Kentucky’s attorney general, demanding that criminal charges be brought against the three officers to “show the value of a Black woman’s life.” She also asked that the office bring greater transparency to the investigation. At a June 18 press conference, Cameron — the first Black attorney general in Kentucky and a former legal counsel for Sen. Mitch McConnell — emphasized that the investigation is ongoing, without giving any specific details. “To all those involved in this case, you have my commitment that our office is undertaking a thorough and fair investigation,” he said. “This is also a commitment that I’m making to the Louisville community, which has suffered tremendously in the days since March 13.” Cameron was also the first Republican attorney general elected in the state, according to the New York Times, on a platform that backed Trump and some of the president’s signature efforts, like building a border wall.He has criticized some of protesters’ demands, including the call to defund the police. “Radical rhetoric and calls to ‘defund the police’ threaten public safety and only serve to divide us further, rather than bringing us together,” he said in a press release on June 24. Wake Forest Law professor Ronald Wright,who specializes in the work of criminal prosecutors,told Vox that Cameron’s comments regarding defunding the police are worth watching because they are relevant to how Cameron handles the case. “If he starts to sound like an advocate for law enforcement, voicing broad support for police officers and defending them in general terms, that would make me wonder if he can evaluate charges fairly in this case,” Wright said. “It is tough to convince the public that you will hold the police accountable for their wrongdoing if you never find anything to criticize in their work.” Why there haven’t been arrests in the case so far Wright told Vox in May that in officer-involved shooting cases like Taylor’s, the length of time the prosecutor takes to bring forth charges should not necessarily be the issue. Rather, people should question and examine what the prosecutor does during their investigation. “I don’t really fault prosecutors for taking their time, gathering the facts, being thorough. The timing doesn’t really bother me as much as the amount of effort. If what you’re doing is you’re not doing anything and you’re stalling, and you don’t really intend to press the case as hard as you would press any shooting in your district, then that’s a problem,” Wright told Vox. Since these cases are especially difficult to win at trial, Wright pointed out, prosecutors must take the time to build a really strong case. “The delay could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on whether they are putting in the effort into building a great case,” he said. In the high-profile Baltimore police custody death of Freddie Gray, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby arrested the three officers involved just days after Gray’s death and charged them with offenses including second-degree “depraved heart” murder and manslaughter. All three officers in the case were acquitted. “It may have been that it would have been better to go a little slower and get more evidence for charges after some delay,” Wright told Vox. Many advocates, however, point to the speed at which arrests came in the Arbery and Floyd cases —and the fact that years-long delays in Eric Garner’s case still didn’t lead to justice.Garner died in July 2014 after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a banned chokehold. One day before the five-year anniversary of Garner’s death in July 2019, federal prosecutors announced they would not bring charges against Pantaleo. The NYPD fired Pantaleo in August 2019, more than five years after Garner’s death. And in the three cases above there were videos of the incidents. Wright said that even with footage, cases against police officers are difficult to prosecute. Videos do represent extra proof — a form of evidence Taylor’s case lacks. The influence of police unions, which have come under criticism from activists and protesters during the unrest, may also contribute to delays. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews reported, police unions have become engrossed in preventing the discipline of officers who kill unarmed Black people: In local cases, this attitude has translated to a defense of officers who kill or wound innocent civilians. The Louisville Metro Police Department [had first] been limited to just announcing its “intention” to fire Brett Hankison, a detective who shot his gun 10 times during the raid that killed Breonna Taylor, rather than actually firing him outright. This limitation is largely because of the city’s contract with the police union, which gives Hankison multiple opportunities to appeal. He is first allowed a “pretermination hearing” with counsel, and then, once terminated, an appeal to the police merit board, of which Hankison himself is a member. In May, the Louisville police union also demanded an apology from Louisville council member Jessica Green, who called Taylor’s boyfriend a hero after he was charged with shooting Mattingly the night Taylor was killed. “Calling someone that shot an on-duty police officer, in the performance of official duties, a hero is a slap in the face,” said Ryan Nichols, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 614. Green said she would not apologize. But Wright said that Hankison’s firing does offer a clue to how a criminal case could swing. That the LMPD found that he showed “extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly” fired 10 rounds into the apartment means there’s a chance for a conviction if a jury were to find the same conclusion. “If a jury in a criminal trial were to reach the same conclusions after hearing the facts, they could properly convict him of a lesser version of homicide,” Wright told Vox. At the recent press conference,Cameron refused to discuss any potential roadblocks, stating that “an investigation of this magnitude, when done correctly, requires time and patience.” He added, “To those across the country we have heard from with cards, emails, and letters, and calls, who are asking us to complete the investigation as soon as possible — we hear you and we are working around the clock to follow the law to the truth.” Defunding the Louisville police and its ties to justice for Taylor Amid a growing call to “defund” or “abolish the police,” there are others advocating for justice who view the calls to arrest officers as taking away from the larger goal of dismantling the system. According to anti-criminalization organizer Mariame Kaba, director of the anti youth incarceration grassroots organization Project NIA, celebrating charges for officers signals our dependence on a criminal justice system that was created to uphold white supremacy. “To transform a death-making system, our expectations have to be much higher,” she wrote last month in the New York Times. “Celebrating charges is like celebrating bread crumbs. ... I understand why people do it, but I think according great significance to charges misses the point and it also freezes people in place. It has the effect of demobilizing collective action.” Kaba explained that justice is not just closing down police departments but making them obsolete. “The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers,” she wrote. But on June 25, the Louisville Metro Council approved a budget that wouldn’t even begin to defund LMPD. The new spending plan will merely “require police to put the money toward recruiting a more diverse force, additional training and exploring co-responder models that could send behavioral health professionals on calls with officers,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Funding will also be directed to a civilian review board that will oversee LMPD, following the 24-1 vote. Black Lives Matter demanded that more money be shifted to community services. Today Metro Council votes on the 20-21 Budget. 49% is allocated to @lmpd and corrections. Demand better for our communities! When we say #defundpolice there is a clear vision of what is possible. give money directly to community #DefendBlackLife— BLM Louisville (@BLMLouisville) June 25, 2020 On the same day the budget was approved, a crowd of more than 500 demonstrators, including activists, community members, and celebrities, gathered on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol in Louisville for a #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor rally, according to the Louisville Courier-Post. Activist Tamika Mallory emphasized the need to keep calling for justice and accountability in Taylor’s case. “I’m sure we all understand that Breonna Taylor is everywhere,” she said. “The issue of Black women being killed and our voices being too low is a problem.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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On Buddhism and Blackness
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (center) and Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh (right) attend a news conference in Chicago on May 31, 1966. | manhhai via CC BY Black activism and Buddhist mindfulness share a fascinating history — and future. Valerie Brown is positioned at the intersection of two traditions that can be very helpful to us all right now. She’s a Black woman who’s involved in racial justice work, and she’s a Buddhist teacher who shows people how to use mindfulness to navigate life’s challenges —challenges like, say, a pandemic, a huge economic collapse, racial injustice, and social unrest. For 20 years, Brown had a high-powered career as a lawyer and lobbyist. Then she radically shifted the focus of her attention to Buddhism. She learned at the feet of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and was ordained as a mindfulness teacher. I recently spoke with Brown for Future Perfect’s new limited-series podcast, The Way Through, which is all about mining the world’s rich philosophical and spiritual traditions for guidance that can help us through these challenging times. We talked about the fascinating historical connections between Buddhist practice and Black activism. She explained how we can use mindfulness not just to soothe us as individuals, but also to tackle broader racial inequality today. And she shared some classic Buddhist mindfulness training, which she recently helped rewrite through a racial justice lens. We know the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately taking Black lives, and for Brown, that’s deeply personal: Her brother died of presumed Covid-19 just a few months ago. You can hear our entire conversation in the podcast here. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows. Subscribe to Future Perfect: The Way Through on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts. Sigal Samuel Valerie, tell me a bit about yourself and how you became interested in Buddhist meditation. You didn’t grow up with it, right? Valerie Brown I grew up in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn. And I grew up with a lot of poverty. My mother was a maid in the Hotel Manhattan and my dad was a tailor in the Bowery. We grew up on public assistance. Early on, there was quite a bit of violence. My dad left. And then when I was 16, my mother passed away. I became an independent student at 18, meaning I had no parental supervision and no parental support. But I got really lucky. I got a job at Burger King. So I worked, went to City University, and made my way out, running to undergraduate school and graduate school and the big, important job as a lobbyist and lawyer. In 1995, I attended a public talk given by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. The talk was at the Riverside Church, down the street from my brother’s apartment, so I just walked down. And everything that Thich Nhat Hanh was saying was the opposite of how I was living my life. I was this very type A, aggressive, bunker-mentality, hard-as-nails person, just running from tremendous internalized oppression and internalized racism. And I walked out of the talk thinking: That guy! Who is that guy? That day touched something, a spark in me. And I started to practice meditation. Sigal Samuel So once you got interested in Buddhism, you began going on retreats and training as a meditator and then as a meditation teacher. What was the experience like for you? Valerie Brown Over time, I gradually began to change. I started practicing this particular meditation called metta, or loving-kindness, where you hold a sense of friendship for yourself and then for the people you like. And then for the people you actually don’t know. And then for people maybe you’re not so cool with, maybe even people you hate. And then for everybody, all beings everywhere. So I started practicing this and I decided, Okay, let me actually practice this at work when I’m in the halls of Congress. Now I’m a Black woman, with dark skin, with dreadlocks, talking to a very conservative person who may be white from quite a racially segregated area. What I would do when I’m in that conversation with such a person — who, on one level, my mind perceives to be the opposite of me — is, I turn to my breathing. And I would just notice how I’m breathing and feel my feet on the floor and I’d say these words to myself: Soften. Soften. Soften. My whole body would start softening. And then what I noticed is that instead of trying to persuade the other person — because this is the job of the lobbyist, to be persuasive — I would switch that. I would take sincere and genuine interest in understanding that other person first. Even if I believed that that person was way far out on the opposite end of how I feel. I would ask the person: Tell me more. Help me understand. How are you doing, really? I wouldn’t open my mouth until it could come out sincere. And what happened then was that other person softened up. The dynamic between us became relational rather than adversarial. That was a form of mindfulness that was interpersonal. That was being peace, conveying peace. Sigal Samuel These days you do a lot of racial justice work. And a lot of people might think Black activism and Buddhist mindfulness are two completely separate traditions that have nothing to do with one another. But actually, there was a very special friendship between two of their leaders: your teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. In the 1960s, they had a blossoming friendship that also had political ramifications. Can you tell me a bit about that relationship? Valerie Brown Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh shared a real passion for nonviolent, peaceful liberation of all people. One of the most beautiful things I’ve been reading about Dr. King and the great civil rights leaders of the 1963 Birmingham movement is that they said they were acting for the benefit of all people — even the police who set the dogs on them, who abused them. Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King met at a press conference in 1966. They were united by the civil rights movement and their struggles for liberation. In 1967, Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. They met again [that year] at a conference in Geneva. And then there’s a lovely story. Dr. King was at a hotel. They were set to meet, but Thich Nhat Hanh was late for the appointment. Dr. King had a plate of food for him. And he kept it warm. Thich Nhat Hanh has written about that very tiny moment, which may seem insignificant, but you can just sense the personhood in the connection of the two people, heart to heart. Here you have these great leaders who could not only attend to these massive political movements of their time, but could also focus on the very moment, the very humanness of care for another person. Sigal Samuel It does sound like they connected on a really human intimate level. And I know that this originally started because Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a letter to Dr. King in 1965, asking him to please help advocate for ending the Vietnam War. And Dr. King was getting a lot of pushback from people around him saying not to get involved in this because he was already dealing with a lot and this wasn’t his business. And Dr. King said, “For those who are telling me to keep my mouth shut, I can’t do that. I’m against segregation at lunch counters, and I’m not going to segregate my moral concerns.” He decided to get involved in advocating againstthe Vietnam War. And so there was actually this very political dimension to this spiritual friendship between these two leaders. I think that’s interesting to note, because people sometimes think about Buddhism as quite disconnected from politics. But Thich Nhat Han was anything but. Valerie Brown Thich Nhat Han coined the term “engaged Buddhism.” This goes back to the Vietnam War. As a young monastic with other monks and nuns in Vietnam, there were choices. They could have stayed in the monastery and prayed. Or they could have taken themselves out of the monastery and engaged with the suffering of the people in the streets. In the case of Thich Nhat Hanh and many of the people at that time, they made a conscious decision which cost them dearly — their lives, their own affiliation with the political people in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh was isolated [and exiled]. He was not able to return to Vietnam for decades because of his outspoken activism. So we have in this extraordinary human being the footprint of how to engage in nonviolent, peaceful action for the benefit of all beings. Sigal Samuel Let’s fast forward to today. We’re now facing a global pandemic, and we know it’s disproportionately taking Black lives. At the same time, we’re seeing this massive upswell of support for Black lives. Given what you’ve said about engaged Buddhism, how do you think Buddhist teachings and racial justice work can support each other right now? Valerie Brown What I would say is Black justice is justice for all people. Thich Nhat Hanh has coined the term “interbeing.” Interbeing, meaning that we are interconnected. When a Black person is able to obtain justice and peace, all people are going to benefit. And so it’s an illusion to think that somehow the white suburban person in the Midwest is separate from that Black transgender woman in Brooklyn, New York. That would be a mistake. We are connected. What happens in Wuhan, China, affects people in San Francisco. Sigal Samuel Yes, I think the pandemic has really proven this interbeing concept to be true. I don’t just mean in some abstract spiritual sense, but in a very scientific, epidemiological sense. Interbeing comes up in a new version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings that you recently co-authored. These are words that are often recited in Buddhist circles, and they’re designed to make us more mindful of things like our consumption. But your version reframes all those trainings through the lens of racial justice. Can you give me a little snippet of the trainings that feels meaningful to you? Valerie Brown Here’s a little part. This is the third contemplation. “I am committed to looking tenderly at my suffering, knowing that I am not separate from others, and that the seeds of suffering contain the seeds of joy. I am not afraid of bold love that fosters justice and belonging. And tender love that seeks peace and connection. I cherish myself and my suffering without discrimination. I cherish this body and mind as an act of healing for myself and for others. I cherish this breath. I cherish this moment. I cherish the liberation of all beings.” Sigal Samuel Beautiful. Thank you. You mentioned this idea that without suffering you can’t have joy, that suffering contains the seeds of joy. And I know that is something Thich Nhat Hanh says often. He says the phrase, “No mud, no lotus.” If you don’t have the mud, you can’t have the beautiful flower that grows out of it. But I want to talk about this in the context of the pandemic and the protests. On both the Covid-19 front and the racism front, which are interconnected, there is so much suffering. Honestly, how do you find seeds of joy in that? Valerie Brown The best way I can explain this is through my brother Trevor. Trevor died on February 21 in New York City. He was on the ventilator and probably on the beginning wave of Covid-19. I had a lot of suffering to see him die. It was very difficult for me. But one of the things that I realized in his online memorial is that the reason that I was grieving so much and felt so sad was because the love was so deep. If he wasn’t meaningful for me, if I didn’t have that love, if it wasn’t valuable, I probably wouldn’t be suffering. But it was. I lost something valuable, something meaningful. And so we’re fighting, peacefully, nonviolently, for something that is very important. And that is freedom and liberation and justice for a world that everyone can belong to. That’s a good thing. Sigal Samuel First of all, I’m really sorry to hear about your brother. And it’s amazing to me that you are able to, just a few months later, realize that the seed of beauty in this is that if there wasn’t such preciousness here, you wouldn’t have felt such grief. You also just mentioned that you’re fighting nonviolently for this cause that is really important and hopeful. I want to pick up on that thread of nonviolence. Dr. King said, “Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the instruments of love.” I don’t know about you, but as a queer woman of color, I find it hard to do that sometimes. Can you talk a bit more about how we can keep feelings of bitterness and anger from overwhelming us when we see injustice? And I’m also wondering, maybe sometimes anger isn’t a bad thing? Maybe it can sometimes be a useful, galvanizing force to push us to fight for justice? Valerie Brown It’s an important question. Anger can feel quite impulsive and fiery and seductive. It can feed the energy of violence. And so the first thing I’d say is that in the sutras, the Buddha refers to the mind as like a storehouse of seeds. So there’s a seed of anger. A seed of fear. A seed of hope. And depending upon our thoughts or words or actions, these seeds get activated. You get cut off in traffic? Boom. The seed of anger gets watered or activated. You have a lovely conversation with a dear friend? The seed of gratitude gets nourished. Part of taking good care of emotion, of hate in particular, is number one, to recognize when it’s activated. Can’t do much if you’re unaware. After that recognition is to calm ourselves through what we have that’s a constant. That’s our own breathing. With time and with practice, we can use the breath to calm ourselves down. Not suppressing, not denying, not calling it disappointment when it’s actually rage. To be very clear, this is rage. And then breathing with that. Taking very good care of that energy. What I’ve come to understand is that that bitterness is a constriction in the heart. It actually makes me smaller. And so the invitation is to play in a bigger space. And the bigger space is love, is compassion. We are called into that bigger space. And we’re up for it. Sigal Samuel I’ve got to be honest. For me, to move from rage to love, that’s a tall order. But what you’re saying reminds me of this old Buddhist sutra, the Discourse on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger. One thing it says in that sutra is if someone is being unkind they’re probably suffering a lot. Maybe if I can remember that, it could help spark a bit of compassion in me for that person and maybe help me move the needle a bit from rage to love. Another thing that sutra says is that the way we choose to direct our attention is crucial. If someone is acting with unkind words or unkind behaviors, we can choose to focus our attention on what they’re doing that’s unkind. But the sutra says to try to actually redirect your attention to what in this person is kind, is good. Valerie Brown It reminds me of a calligraphy that Thich Nhat Hanh has that says, “Are you sure?” I can walk around with very fixed ideas, very attached to my own views. And so one of my deepest spiritual practices is to ask myself, Am I sure? What are my perceptions, assumptions, beliefs, and what is the lineage of all that? Where did that come from? How am I attached to it? That kind of loosens things up. That mindset — I’ve got this idea, maybe I’m right, maybe I’m not right — that allows for whatever the suffering is, whatever the aversion is, to have some flexibility. Sigal Samuel In addition to this phrase, “Are you sure?”, one of the phrases I hear most often in the Buddhist context is this concept of taking refuge. I want to talk about refuge in the current moment, where we’re all dealing with a lot of stress and suffering. If all one is after is a temporary refuge from suffering, there is a term for that trap: spiritual materialism, where you’re just getting into meditation because you want some temporary material benefit or attainment. I wonder if you could tell us what you think is a better way to understand taking refuge. How can we use these practices in a way that’s not selfish but is engaged with the broader ethical and political issues we’re all seeing right now? Valerie Brown Taking refuge is really important, especially at this time when there’s so much upheaval. And that may feel like a really grand thing to say, to “take refuge.” But that can be as simple as taking refuge in this moment. Recognizing that I can breathe, I am alive, I can make a difference, I can contribute. That’s taking refuge. That’s not a small thing. There’s countless people who cannot do that. The other thing I would say to the spiritual materialism point is that one of the foundations of mindfulness is ethics. There is an ethical component of it. Often, in the United States, you see mindfulness sold in these packages that are all about focus, attention. It’s so that I can do more, so I can get the promotion, so I can buy the car or whatever. Right? I even hear, as I say this, a kind of cynicism in myself. And I want to even question that, my own belief around that. But I would say that I’ve seen a lot of that materialism myself. It’s sad because there is such a critical component of mindfulness that is about the prosocial good. We’re not only generating happiness within ourselves. We want to share that with other people. We are quite good, particularly as Americans, at pursuing materialism, pursuing happiness. Not so good at generating it within ourselves and sharing that with other people. And so the basis for the whole practice is about creating a more peaceful society, a more compassionate society. This is something that we really cannot lose sight of. Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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We got comfortable with Hamilton. The new film reminds us how risky it is.
Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones as Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy Schuyler in Hamilton. | Disney The movie underlines what makes the musical radical. I listened to the Hamilton cast album hundreds of times before I saw the live show. Full-blown Hamilton fever was just starting to hit the internet in early 2016, six months after its Broadway debut. With an assignment in hand to write about Lin-Manuel’s Miranda retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, I bought tickets in seemingly the final week that someone in my income bracket could pull off that feat. I tucked into my cramped perch in the last row of the balcony one March evening, already knowing the show inside and out. Or so I thought. This week, watching the filmed version of the musical being released on Disney+, I was reminded of that night, and of how finally seeing the show made me realize what I’d missed: that the person who “tells the story” of Hamilton is not its namesake, but its villain, Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr.). Yes, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is the protagonist, the title character. The show focuses on Hamilton’s life, and on how and why it ended in an infamous duel. But Burr lived on, and it’s Burr who tells Hamilton’s story, at least on this stage. Burr is our guide. Disney Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of the lives of Hamilton and his cohort necessarily compresses and elides details, but a battery of wild Aaron Burr facts demands a brief detour: The grandson of Princeton founder and archetypal “fire-and-brimstone preacher” Jonathan Edwards, Burr actually killed Hamilton while he was serving as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. He finished his term without further incident. But there is a satisfying literary symmetry to his life: After working as a land speculator, becoming a defendant in a Supreme Court trial in which Jefferson accused him of treason, and spending a self-imposed exile bouncing around Europe, he returned to America and married a woman named Eliza Jumel, who divorced him after four months. Her lawyer? Alexander Hamilton Jr., the second son of Alexander Sr. and Eliza. Burr died the day the divorce was finalized. That Burr is Hamilton’s narrator would have been obvious if I’d paid closer attention to the cast recording. He opens each section of the musical by asking a series of questions about his nemesis — the recurring stanzas that start How did a bastard orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman ... — and then trying to answer them as we watch the events of Hamilton’s life unfold. Hamilton is gone by the end of the show, when Burr, having just killed him in a duel, sings with anguish from some point in the future: He should have known the world was wide enough for both of them. Burr is the one who introduces Hamilton’s political rivals, Jefferson and James Madison, as they ruefully admit in the musical’s final number that Hamilton’s financial system turned out to be a success, at least in their lifetimes. On stage — and thus in the film — this structure even more clear. Odom is commanding, a tall and elegant stage presence, especially compared to the scrappier Miranda. As Burr, he can swing from charming and smooth to tortured to obsequious with just the shape of his smile and the lift of his head. He is trying to please us and then, as time goes on, complaining to us about the unfairness of the universe. He was born to power and wealth and class. He is the one who has a family legacy to protect. He should, by rights, be president. Hamilton insists that Burr and he are the same, because they’re both orphans, but it’s obvious from the jump that there’s nothing similar about them. Burr’s sense of entitlement is what keeps him from believing in anything too firmly (“talk less, smile more / don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for”), and it’s why the combative Hamilton drives him up the wall. You can see it in his eyes. Burr doesn’t get the final word, though. In the final number, after he sings “When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?”, his voice drops out completely. It is Hamilton’s widow Eliza (Pippa Soo) who finishes the show, who inserts herself “back into the narrative” and explains that she spent the last half-century of her life extending her husband’s legacy and creating one of her own. She is the reason, it is strongly suggested, that anyone remembers Alexander at all. Disney Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Schuyler in Hamilton. It’s difficult, from just listening to the album, to fully grasp how moving this final song is. By the end, having reclaimed her voice, published her husband’s work and fought for his legacy, raised funds to build the Washington Monument, and founded a private orphanage for kids like Alexander, Eliza stands in the center of the stage. In the shadows, softly singing, are the people she loved who are “on the other side” — George Washington, her sister Angelica, her son Philip, Alexander himself. In the last moment, she looks up at the light and gasps at her first glimpse of eternity. And it’s clear then that it’s not Burr who controlled Hamilton’s story after all, though he tried. It’s Eliza. Hamilton’s performances add new dimensions to the music Taking a cue from his show, Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to instinctively understand that controlling any narrative requires constant interaction with those who love it. Though he was alreadyknown to Broadway fans from his hit 2008 musical In the Heights, Miranda’s more widespread fame grew in tandem with Hamilton’s explosive popularity, which really got cranking when the cast album was released in 2015, about a year after the show’s Broadway premiere. Hamilton’s music is extremely catchy, and Miranda and his cast did everything they could to connect with fans who wouldn’t get to see the show due to cost and geographic access. They performed web-only exclusives with casts from other Broadway shows, remixed and reimagined their own performances, and actively promoted fan videos, like “Batlexander Manilton” and the full-length, very “early 2016”-era Jeb! So it’s only natural, when listening to the album, to imagine Miranda as the star. Certainly, Miranda richly deserves accolades for having written Hamilton’s zealously intricate lyrics and music, which manage to reference everything from hip-hop to gospel to Gilbert & Sullivan. But seeing the original cast perform, whether on stage or in the film, also reinforces how much this musical isn’t a story about one guy, one star. It doesn’t prop up the “great man” theory of history at all. Instead,Hamilton positions its namesake as a piece in a grander puzzle, to show how his conflicts and congress with others, his failures and successes, combine with others’ strengths and weaknesses to move history along. That approach backed up by the casting. Miranda is a solid and charismatic performer, but he’s physically smaller than a lot of his fellow actors, with less vocal power. Compare Miranda’s stage presence to that of the others: Chris Jackson’s both warm and chill-inducing entrance as George Washington. Jonathan Groff’s literally unhinged, spit-spraying performance as King George. (You may think you know him from the songs, but out of all of Hamilton’s characters, King George may gain the most from viewers seeing Groff’s on-screen performance.) Daveed Diggs’s wiry, electrifying turn as Thomas Jefferson. Okieriete Onaodowan’s bang-on Biggie energy as swaggering revolutionary Hercules Mulligan. Renee Elise Goldsberry’s rapid-fire flow as Angelica Schuyler, mixed with her sideways glances and obvious pain in longing for Alexander — emotions you can see in the film far better than you can from the back row of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, by the way. Watching actors bring the story alive drives home how much this tale belongs to everyone, not just Alexander Hamilton, who frequently recedes into the background. And of course it does: This is Hamilton, in which the Founding Fathers and Mothers, so long passed into legend for so many of us, are incarnated in Black and brown bodies. It’s a choice that (while presenting issues of its own) is still baldly radical. Hamilton both respects history and confronts it. All of these high-minded promises and big plans for freedom and equality, it says, are supposed to be for everyone. So why has the promise failed over and over again? Disney Anthony Ramos, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs, and Okieriete Onaodowan in Hamilton. Can you get all of that audacity from listening to a disembodied recording? You can get some of it, sure. But watching people perform is different from listening to them sing. Even mediated by a screen, the joyous pulse is palpable. You go to a theater to be in the room where it’s happening, and if you don’t feel any discomfort or thrill, you’re probably doing it wrong. The world might have gotten too comfortable with Hamilton That so many people got so comfortable with Hamilton may have been the downside of its worldwide popularity. Launching at the end of the Obama presidency,Hamilton could feel self-congratulatory, in a manner that often shows up in Hollywood, too. Good job, America! We solved racism! In the intervening years, fictional characters who quote Hamilton approvingly have been deployed as shorthand for clueless and complacent white liberalism, as in 2017’s Get Out in or 2019’s Knives Out. And the show’s cultural pervasiveness has only spread. Mike Pence went to see the show soon after the 2016 election, prompting the cast to deliver a message directly to him from the stage and light the internet on fire. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, for goodness’ sake — nobody has ever accused Bolton of being a liberal — named his book The Room Where It Happened. After the Pence incident, a Facebook acquaintance insisted to me that while they didn’t vote for Trump (a preamble that has since become ubiquitous), they thought the cast’s message for Pence was unconscionable, that “everyone should feel safe in the theater.” It’s a silly statement, because nobody should feel (metaphorically) safe in the theater. At its best, the theater has always been a place for audiences to be challenged, confronted in a live setting with stories about humanity performed by real human bodies. You have to give yourself over to it. Disney Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. Despite the admirable efforts made by Miranda and his colleagues to give Hamilton fans a taste of the live performance aspects of the show, getting beyond the cast album remained basically inaccessible to most people in the years after the show debuted. Live theater is inherently exclusive — it’s meant to be experienced in person, so you have to be there — on top of being extremely expensive to produce. Those two factors served (as they have with other productions in the past) to isolate Hamilton largely as an artwork for people who could afford to see it, even once it opened in other cities and went on tour. (One notable exception: audience members who were recipients of some of the production’s outreach initiatives, such as students from underserved communities.) That means the show’s theatrical audiences since 2015 have skewed well-off and urbane. The Disney+ release of the film won’t be available to anyone who can’t subscribe to Disney+, but it will make the show far more readily accessible to those who previously may have only listened to it. Watching Hamilton now, the revolutionary overtones are clear And new Hamilton viewers will be watching in 2020, not 2016. When I saw it in the spring of 2016, the show made me think about the currentpresident and the upcoming election, in which it seemed likea will to power unmoored from commitments to public service was clearly winning out. In mid-2020, watching Hamilton at home in the middle of a pandemic, during nationwide uprisings and protests against police brutality and racism, with the president tweeting that he is “THE LONE WARRIOR!”, I found myself struck by the way Hamilton positions the underdog, impoverished immigrant Alexander — who married up but was always a striver haunted by the memory of his past — against comfortable and well-off guys like Jefferson or Burr. It shoves away the idea that playing nice is better than causing change; it expressly repudiates those who “would have voted for Obama for a third term” and then figured things would sort themselves out. In Hamilton, a handful of young, scrappy dreamers get things started, hoping that tomorrow, there will be more of them, and their story will be told. I wonder if the revolutionary undertones of Hamilton will sing in a new way for those who watch it at home now. You can’t ignore who was left out of “all men are created equal” while watching Hamilton — unless you want to. You can’t forget how often Broadway, and entertainment more broadly, has largely excluded people of color from major roles when confronted by casting like this — unless forgetting it makes you more comfortable. You can’t quite miss the consequences of complacency, unless you choose to be complacent. Art alone doesn’t change the world; it just plows the soil. Hamilton is a show about revolution, and a show about the trouble with revolution: After you’ve turned the world upside-down, you have to figure out what comes next. You have to figure out your laws, your economy, your foreign policy. You also have to figure out who matters, who makes rules, and — maybe most importantly — who tells the story. Every culture war is about who gets to define the terms and control the narrative, and that’s no different now than it was in 2016 or 1812 or 1776. Hamilton begins streaming on Disney+ on July 3. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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How to go out and not spread coronavirus this summer
People lie in social distancing circles at Dolores Park in San Francisco, California, on May 24. | Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images What’s the best — and riskiest — way to see friends, take a trip, or get spiffed up? We talked to experts to find out. As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, many of us are feeling desperate to see friends and family in person, keep kids busy, and get the heck out of town. And with the July Fourth weekend before us, it’s extremely tempting to shed our crusty quarantine skins of spring and seize a glorious, social summer. But should we? It can be difficult to know since the situation across the US varies so much, as this map of county-level risk based on the number of new daily cases, from Harvard’s Global Health Institute and Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, shows: Harvard Public Health Institute Covid-19 risk levels by county, as of June 29. Find the latest interactive map here. Meanwhile, guidance on the safest way to enjoy socializing, playgrounds, and vacations is inconsistent. States, towns, and cities are not uniformly enforcing — or even encouraging — safest practices as they lift (or in some cases, reinstate) coronavirus restrictions. But one pattern is clear: As some placeshave relaxed social distancing measures before getting the virus under control, their case numbers have surged. Which suggests that there are probably many things, like packing together in indoor bars, that we shouldn’t be doing — even if they are technically permitted. “The Covid-19 situation in the US has changed over the past couple of weeks to the extent that no one should be out without a mask, and everyone should be trying to distance as much as feasible, even if retail [and other businesses] are opening up,” Krysia Lindan, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco, wrote in an email to Vox. Public health experts are particularly worried about the upcoming holiday because they say Memorial Day weekend festivities helped seed the current outbreaks in places like Arizona and Texas. “I’m very concerned, especially given this coming weekend, that the same types of spikes and surges could be seen not just in the places that are currently experiencing surges but in places that have already experienced surges, and in ones that haven’t yet,” Josh Barocas, an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University and an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center, saidin a recent Infectious Diseases Society of America briefing. Getting out and about is risky in large part because “people can transmit the virus before they start feeling symptoms,” says Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health. By some estimates, about one in five people who get the virus never develop symptoms. And for those who do end up getting sick, many have the highest level of virus in their bodies before they start feeling ill. So, Murray says, “we can’t just rely on how we’re feeling today.” Or, for that matter, how the people around us are feeling. If you’re in one of the higher-risk orange or red counties in the Harvard map above, sheltering in place is probably the safest move. If you’re in a yellow or green county, you may be ready to venture out, and might be asking: What’s the safest way to have an outdoor get-together with some friends? Is it okay to travel this summer? I lost a tooth filling in April — is it safe to go to the dentist? I checked in with experts about the best and worst ways to do seven common things this summer, and here’s what they told me. (Risk is ranked only for each category, so a “moderate risk” option for one category might not carry the same level of risk as a “moderate risk” option for a different category.) Get out of town The first thing to know is that traveling from a high-risk area to (or through) a low-risk one increases the chances that you will spread the virusto places where more people might be out and about. “I don’t want to encourage anyone to think that gallivanting around during the summer is a good idea,” Lindan says. Safest: Camp Be sure to camp — and hike — at least 6 feet from others. Make plans and reservations ahead of time, and bring disinfecting supplies. To get there, “drive with people in your household and who you know who are either uninfected or have been unexposed and/or safely practicing social distancing for two weeks,” Lindan says. Keep in mind that using public bathrooms, especially those that might not be cleaned super-regularly or those that are very busy, ups the risk for transmitting the virus. “Wash your hands after using the toilet, and always use a mask,” Lindan notes. Next safest: Get a vacation rental “Find out how long since the rental was last occupied and what type of clearing has been done between guests,” Lindan says. If other people were staying there more recently than 72 hours before your arrival, make sure surfaces have been wiped down. (The common booking site VRBO has detailed cleaning guidelines for property owners, and Airbnb has a cleaning commitment hosts can make — or opt for a 72-hour buffer window between guests.) Also, drive there, using the above precautions. Moderate risk: Hotels “Find out what precautions the hotel is taking,” Lindan says. Hotels should be using enhanced cleaning protocols; staff should be wearing masks and being tested regularly, and if anyone has tested positive there, staff who were in close contact should follow local health department instructions. And add one more item to your packing list: “Bring your own disinfectant and use it,” Lindan says. Riskier: Traveling by plane The level of risk likely depends on several things, Lindan says: how crowded the plane is, how long the flight is, where you are traveling from and to, and how busy the airports are. Before you fly, “ask the airline how far apart the passengers will be seated,” she notes (ideally it would be at least 6 feet), as well as what type of cleaning they are doing between flights (an industry group has released aircraft cleaning guidelines, but it is up to individual carriers to implement them and determine if every step is completed for each new group of passengers or just during longer stops). Also, she says to aim for a window seat with no one next to you or behind you. Although that might not be possible on all flights now, as some major airlines have announced that they will once again start booking entirely full flights. Takeaway: Before you leave your area, look to see how much the virus is spreading there, where you are hoping to go, and any places you will pass through along the way. Murray advises that no one should be traveling to or from the hardest-hit areas of Arizona right now, for example (and probably Texas, Florida, and many other Sunbelt states). Traveling from a low-risk area to (or through) a high-risk one means you will be more likely to pick up the virus, sonot only will you be more likely toget sick, but you might also bring it back to your community when you return home. See older folks, like parents and grandparents, or other high-risk people Safest: Virtual visit “Call, email, or communicate through one of the services that allow you to see and hear each other virtually,” Nancy Nielsen, a dean for health policy at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo and former president of the American Medical Association, wrote in an email. If you are wanting to connect with someone who is in an assisted living facility, inpatient facility, or hospital, many of those places can help you get set up with a virtual chat — in part because it also helps them keep risks lower. Next safest: Outdoors Especially if you are visiting someone who lives in an assisted living facility, try to arrange a way to visit outdoors away from others who might be high-risk, such as people 65 and older. But if you must visit near the facility, “You would for sure always want to be wearing a mask and keeping 6 feet of distance as possible,” Murray says. Moderate risk: In-home visit This option depends a lot on how well everyone involved has been keeping up best practices of distancing (and how widely the virus is spreading in the area). “This is the question you need to ask yourself,” Lindan says: “If you are not being safe by not wearing a mask and avoiding crowds, do you want to infect and potentially kill your grandmother? If you haven’t been very careful in the previous two weeks, then don’t put your elderly relatives at risk — do a Zoom call.” Riskier: Traveling to stay This one depends on the above factors but also on where people are coming from and going to, as well as how likely you (or they) are to have been exposed to the virus, Murray says. For example, if you are an essential worker or health care professional, she advises a 14-day quarantine (staying at home and avoiding contact with others) first. Or if traveling there involves contact with lots of other people, she suggests planning on a 14-day self-isolation period (no contact with others) nearby before going to their home. Lindan agrees: “If you are visiting them for a long period, be sure to have self-isolated for two weeks beforehand or be very careful about your social distancing.” Riskiest: Indoors at a care facility “The highest risk would be actually visiting a retirement home where there are a lot of elderly people in an enclosed space,” Murray says. Takeaways Be especially cautious if you are seeing older people or others with higher risk for severe Covid-19 complications. And you can do other things to stay connected with these folks that doesn’t involve being in the same room, says Nielsen. “Shop for them, depositing groceries outside their front door.” Or say hi through a closed window. And definitely skip large groups. “This is not a good time for family gatherings,” says Nielsen. And it’s something we will need to accept for many months to come. “Those may not be very safe until a safe and effective vaccine is available,” Nielsen says. We only have to look to the May surprise birthday party with 25 guests (hosted by a presymptomatic carrier) that ended up spreading Covid-19 to 18 people — including two people in their 80s and one person with cancer — and sent many to the hospital, to see how easily the virus can spread at agathering, putting older relatives (and others) at risk. Get routine medical care Safest: Routine medical visits. “If you need a physical exam or Pap smear, get one,” Lindan says. Make sure that the office or facility you visit is cleaning all surfaces, has providers using N95 masks, and screening patients for Covid-19 (and keeping those who might be positive away from other patients), she notes. Safer: Dental procedures. “Dentists have been using masks and eye shields for a long time, so going to a dentist is probably fine,” Lindan says. Especially for the patient. (“The risk is more to the dentist or dental hygienist than to you, because of aerosols and droplets that are inevitable during procedures,” Nielsen says.) Moderate risk: Eye appointments. “It depends on what the ophthalmologist is doing,” Lindan says. If they are taking the best safety precautions, including disinfecting everything (surfaces, instruments, etc.), and wearing gloves and an N95 mask, that makes it safer. (The American Optometric Association has put out guidelines for best practices for the field.) But “given there is a lot of potential eye contact with the instruments, hands, etc., and that Covid-19 can be transmitted to the [mucous membrane of the eye], this might be higher risk,” Lindan says. “Of course, if you have an urgent eye problem, you [will] have to be evaluated.” Takeaways “Go now for those medical and dental services you’ve been putting off,” Nielsen says. “Medical and dental offices are acutely aware of risk,” she says. Everyone should be wearing a mask at all times — except for the time you might need to take one off to have your nose or mouth examined. These visits should be safe and can be essential for maintaining other important areas of health. For her part, Nielsen says, “Go for the elective surgery, Pap smears, physicals, eye exams you’ve postponed.” (There is a chance, though, that as Covid-19 case numbers spike in some areas, elective procedures will be put on hold to maintain hospital capacity.) See friends Safest: Virtual hangouts You might have video chat fatigue by now, but it is still the absolute safest answer for socializing with those outside of your household, Nielsen says. Next safest: Outside gathering “Getting together in person is more soul-satisfying, of course,” Nielsen says. And you don’t need expansive empty parks for this. You can sit on a friend’s porch or patio so long as you can safely stay at least 6 feet apart. If there is food or drink, people should bring their own. And definitely avoid anything shared or in a buffet style. Also: “No hugs or handshakes!” Nielsen says. If you’re considering ducking inside a friend’s home to use the bathroom, the riskiness of that depends on how closely those in the home — and you — have been following physical distancing. If you decide all have been adhering well, it should be okay — just wear a mask, wash your hands well, and thoroughly disinfect surfaces before you leave the room. Should you wear masks when you see friends outdoors? Lindan says that “if you’re outside with a friend who has been cautious and probably not exposed, you probably don’t have to wear a mask” if you keep up physical distancing. But that is something to be mindful of because staying physically far enough apart from someone you know well is difficult — even if you’re both trying your best. “It’s difficult to maintain these social distances,” Lindan says. “It’s not how we live as humans.” But distance and fresh air don’t necessarily prevent the spread of the virus. “Spewing respiratory droplets over a longer distance can occur if someone has a vigorous cough,” Lindan says, or if people are talking loudly or singing — even outdoors. Moderate risk: Inside a home The level of risk here is strongly tied to how careful you and your friend (and whoever else you and they live with or see regularly) are being. If everyone has been extremely careful, you might be able to “wear a mask until all are safely distanced, then don them again if you’ll pass people closely,” Nielsen says. (Lindan goes so far as to suggest that “if they are not maintaining social distancing or wearing a mask when outside, then maybe they are not your friends.”) But still no hugs, handshakes, or shared foods. Riskier: Meal at a restaurant “Sit outside if possible,” Nielsen says. The restaurant should have tables spaced at least 6 feet apart. The staff should be masked, “as should all guests until beginning to eat or drink,” she says. Riskiest: Crowded bar or event As far as bars are concerned, Lindan says, “don’t go into them ... unless you can drink outside at a distance from others.” Even if you enter with a mask on, you and others will take masks off to drink. “Plus, getting intoxicated is likely to result in less ability to continue to be safe,” she says. “It is likely that upticks in cases in some places are the result of parties and bars.” Add to this that “it’s more than the lack of social distancing,” Nielsen says. “It’s that speaking loudly, shouting, cheering, etc., have much more potential for droplet spread” that could spread the virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases echoed these sentiments at his June 30 Senate hearing: “Bars: really not good,” he said. “Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news. We really have got to stop that.” Takeaways The bottom line is that “Nothing has changed about precautions to prevent yourself and others from becoming infected,” Lindansays. “Wear a mask at all times that you are out, except when you are eating or drinking, which ideally would occur at least 6 feet away from others in your ‘safe’ group. Clean/disinfect your hands. Being outside for activities, for seeing friends, and for eating is better than inside.” Keep children busy Safest: Home — or outdoors with household members Everyone might be stir-crazy by now and very tired of one another. But keeping children with members of the household is the safest for not just preventing them from getting sick (which does happen) but also to reduce the chances of their spreading the virus to others (data on this is still evolving). Safer: Playgrounds A quiet playground, especially one that has just been cleaned, could potentially be okay (especially if transmission in your area is low). Adults and children over 2 should wear masks and maintain physical distancing, and everyone should disinfect hands frequently. “You can try to clean off playground equipment before your child uses it, but it’s probably easier to periodically clean your child’s hands while they are at the playground,” Lindan says. Moderate risk: Play dates To keep play dates safest, limit the number of kids and families involved — ideally to just one other family that you trust to be keeping up good distancing practices. Perhaps most important is to “be aware of what the parents are doing,” Lindan says. “Parents pose the most risk. So avoid kibitzing in close proximity with parents whose social distancing practices you are unaware of and who aren’t wearing masks.” Also, ask other parents to wear masks when they are around your children. Riskier: Camps Lindan recommends trying to avoid sleepaway camps for now because it is hard to be sure counselors and other staff have all been distancing and wearing masks outside of their time with the children. “Camp experiences that are based outdoors and with smaller groups of children are better compared to an [indoor] computer camp, for example,” she says. Takeaways Any activity with children is particularly tricky because, especially with very young children, they are unlikely to be able to follow all of the health recommendations (staying away from other people, not touching common surfaces, wearing a mask correctly, etc.). A lot remains to be learned about the rate at which children transmit the virus to one another and to adults. And although children do not seem to experience more typical severe Covid-19 infections as frequently as adults do, they can still get very sick and die as a result of the virus. Get a personal treatment Safest: DIY Want a haircut? Manicure? Back massage? “The safest thing to do would be to do it at home or have a roommate or housemate do it for you,” Murray says. Next safest: Quick haircut Murray suggests this could be fairly safe “if you’re getting a 15-minute haircut, especially if you’re all wearing masks and you’re 6 feet away from other clients,” she says. Moderate risk: Manicure or pedicure These should be done with a plexiglass shield between the client and aesthetician, Murray notes. Also: Everyone should be wearing masks, and clients should be spaced far apart. If you’re deciding between the two nail services, “a pedicure may be somewhat safer than a manicure, since you’re not so close to one another, and you are unlikely to touch your face with your feet,” Lindan says. But it’s not entirely about the extremity you choose. “Think about how long you are going to be there and in close proximity to other clients and staff,” she says. Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Getting manicures and pedicures pose a moderate risk compared to other salon-type treatments; both clients and aestheticians should wear masks and have a plexiglass shield between them. Riskier: Lengthier hair treatments Dyeing, relaxing, and other longer-duration hair treatments up the risk simply because you’re spending longer indoors in a salon. “You might not be in such close contact with [a stylist], but you are going to be in their studio for a long time,” Murray says. Murray also adds to this category of risk: massages and body waxing, like leg waxes (“if you yell when they pull the wax off, it’s more risky for the person doing the procedure,” she says. “And it can take a long time.”) Nielsen also suggests tattoos are in this level of risk “due to proximity and prolonged encounter time, even when masks are worn by all.” Riskiest: Eyebrow and face waxing “I would discourage people from getting their face waxed at all,” Murray says. Really any face-based treatment falls in this category, including other eyebrow services, facials, or a shave. Regardless of the treatment, says Lindan, “make sure that all instruments have been sterilized between clients (which should be done regardless), that you and the staff are wearing masks properly and washing hands.” Get around without a car Safest: Walking or cycling The fresh air and not being in sustained proximity to others helps to minimize risk — especially if most everyone is wearing masks when passing close to others. Next safest: Private ride-hail or taxi “The idea would be that it’s just you and the driver, and you could wipe down surfaces that you would touch and wash your hands afterward — and both be wearing masks,” Murray says. You can also keep the windows open to increase air circulation. Moderate risk: Quiet bus or metro “They may be reasonably safe,” Murray says. “If you’re the only person in the subway car, you’re probably fine.” But follow the same good hygiene practices that you probably should use in public transportation anyway: Don’t touch anything you don’t absolutely have to, clean off your hands as soon as you can — and don’t touch your face before you can do so. And when there are a handful of other people, “sit far apart from other passengers,” Lindan adds. Riskiest: Crowded bus or metro “If it starts to look like commuting hours used to, where people are squishing in, you definitely don’t want to get in,” Murray says. Make the summer safer for everyone Most of these activity evaluations depend on whom you are seeing and where you are. “It’s hard to make gradations of risk,” Lindan says. “It depends on what your friends have been doing, and it depends on the transmission in the community.” Before we see anyone these days, it should be part of the new routine to let them know if we are feeling well and if we have traveled in the past two weeks anywhere where Covid-19 cases are prevalent, Nielsen says. It is easy to find out what case levels are like in your area by going to your local health department’s website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Covid-19 Data Tracker, or checking the rate of positive tests available from Johns Hopkins. “Become informed!” Lindan says. “It’s not difficult.” German Lopez/Vox The lesson is that life is very different this summer. And even though some activities are allowed — and even if we see friends and family members engaging in them — that doesn’t mean we should take part. In fact, says Murray, “The types of things people should be doing are the same things they should have been doing since February or March.” These include keeping distance from others, wearing a mask, washing hands frequently with soap and water, and avoiding touching shared surfaces. This isn’t just to help you avoid getting the virus, which, as Murray notes, “sounds very bad even for mild cases.” It is to help stop the spread of the virus to others and ultimately slow the runaway pandemic. Or, as Lindan puts it: “You cannot drive 100 miles per hour on the highway. Even if you want to risk killing yourself, it’s not acceptable to kill others. The same is true for Covid-19.” So for everyone’s sake, try to summer safely. Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance science journalist and the author of Cultured and Octopus! Find her on Twitter at @KHCourage. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Trump’s surprising resilience with Hispanic voters, explained
President Trump speaks at the Latino Coalition Legislative Summit in Washington, DC, on March 4, 2020. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images The Latino vote offers a roadmap for what a Trump comeback could look like. President Donald Trump’s current general election polling is dismal, putting him down about nine points in general election polling averages, which is far too large a deficit for individual state peculiarities to matter. That slide in the polls includes the evaporation of modest gains with African American voters that were visible last year, and substantial defections from the large bloc of older white voters who were very solidly in Trump’s camp in 2016. But the decline has not been seen across the board. As Domenico Montanaro reported in his writeup of NPR’s polling on the race, “the one group Biden continues to underperform with slightly is Latinos — 59% of Latinos said they’d vote for Biden over Trump, but Clinton won 66% of their votes in 2016.” Trump’s Latino resilience can be easy to overlook because he is objectively losing these voters by a large margin (39 points according to the New York Times). Still, he is losing them by less than he did in 2016, which is strange at a time when his numbers are otherwise falling. Democrats’ baseline assessment is not that this reflects a sudden rightward shift in Hispanic opinion, so much as the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders was by far the Latino community’s choice in the primary, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has not thus far made the kind of major investment in the community that Latino Democrats would like to see. “Familiarity is the best reason,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who represents one of the biggest clutches of Hispanic swing state voters in his Phoenix-area district, tells me. “Most of them will come back but money has to be spent on them.” What’s most interesting about Biden’s relatively soft numbers with this demographic is how closely they parallel the two lingering issues that worry Democrats about the electorate. Despite decades in politics, the former vice president is not that clearly defined in the minds of the public. And despite sky-high unemployment, Trump’s approval on the economy is still in positive terrain. According to a New York Times poll and a Pew poll earlier this week, 50 versus 45 percent of voters, respectively, said they prefer Trump as an economic manager by three points. Biden’s underperformance with Latinos isn’t enough to swing the election as things stand now. The question is whether these economy-focused voters are a canary in the coal mine for what a Trump comeback could look like. Biden’s numbers with Latinos are surprisingly soft Biden’s performance among Latino voters is a controversial question among Democrats. Some, especially those who trust the higher estimates of Clinton’s vote share provided by outfits like Catalist and Latino Decisions, see Biden running clearly behind Clinton. Others who rely on lower estimates from Pew and elsewhere see his current results as probably even with hers. These estimates are always controversial in part because Hispanic identity is somewhat mutable and hard to pin down. And, as one pollster told me, “it’s a small group so you get more noise” in the data. Still, there’s broad agreement across methodologies, however, that Biden’s Latino performance has declined relatively speaking to his rise among the white electorate. And specialists think they know why. “Latinos don’t have a strongly formed opinion about who [Biden] is,” explains Stephanie Valencia, a co-founder of Equis Research. Her group’s polling includes detailed state-by-state breakdowns, so they can examine small but important populations like Latino communities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Their work confirms that Biden’s numbers, while good, do not show the same kind of big increase in support that he’s seeing with white voters. There’s also a substantial gender gap, with Latinas showing considerably more support for the Democratic nominee than their male counterparts. But, Valencia says, “we aren’t seeing any increase even among Hispanic men for Trump” so much as a very large bloc of uncommitted voters that she’d like to see Democrats put major money into contesting. Equis Research The other factor helping Trump among Hispanic male voters is that they are — or at least were, earlier this spring — open to Trump’s pitch that electoral attention should be focused on the economy rather than on the coronavirus. Biden has two big vulnerabilities At the beginning of June, two political scientists, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, published a paper detailing the results of an experiment on messaging around Trump and Biden. They took a sample of 291 messages — some pro-Trump, some anti-Trump, some pro-Biden, and some anti-Biden — and subjected a sample of 131,742 people to a random selection of two messages each out of the 291. They found that “both positive and negative messages about Biden have significantly larger effects on stated vote choice than either positive or negative messages about Trump.” What’s more, even the tiny impact of the Trump messages may be a kind of statistical illusion. There are two other points of particular interest: Specific pro-Biden messages are more effective than vague messages. Anti-Trump messages didn’t shift voting intention even though they often were effective at shifting perceptions of Trump on the specific subject of the ad. For Broockman and Kalla, this research shows that there is a kind of saturation effect going on with voters. It’s not that you can’t tell people anything new about Trump, it’s just that telling them new things doesn’t make a difference at this point about whether or not they support him. By contrast, new information about Biden shifts votes. Unite the Country, a Super PAC originally formed to support Biden in the primary, has embraced this message and recently started airing pro-Biden ads which had heretofore been rare in the Democratic independent expenditure mix. But Priorities USA, which was the main Democratic Super PAC from the 2016 race and which has generally overshadowed Unite the Country since Biden emerged as the clear nominee, disagrees with that assessment. For Priorities, the key fact is that the campaign is a dynamic battleground that is constantly being shaped and reshaped by the advertising landscape. “In the week following the declaration of a national emergency, [Trump’s] approval jumped 10 percentage points,” notes Priorities USA analytics director Nick Ahamed. “So we intervened to shape voters’ perceptions that it was Trump’s fault.” The good news for Biden is that effort has worked. The public’s assessment of Trump’s Covid-19 response is now dismal and with the pandemic front of mind for most voters, the president’s overall polling has plummeted. Their concern is that while the public is not currently very focused on the economy, voters generally do continue to give Trump an edge there. So if the economy becomes an even more salient topic by the fall, Trump could have a real shot at a rebound. Economy-focused voters like Trump In Equis’s polling, a key driver of the Hispanic gender gap is that Latinos were much more likely than Latinas to express worry about the economy relative to worry about getting sick. Trump’s big remaining hope of winning the election is that surveys show the public still has confidence in his economic management. A June 30 Pew poll showed Biden with an edge on handling race relations, criminal justice issues, and the public health impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But Trump had a three point edge on making good decisions about economic policy. In the New York Times poll that was overall disastrous for Trump, “his approval rating is still narrowly positive on the issue of the economy, with 50 percent of voters giving him favorable marks compared with 45 percent saying the opposite.” Trump’s problem is that a clear majority of voters are focused on other things. The exception to that is Latino men, who Trump is ill-positioned to win over due to his positioning of himself as the candidate of white backlash against Latin American immigration. But Trump is currently doing better than expected with this swath of the electorate, pointing to a possible resurgence in the president’s support among older white voters who are a better cultural fit for him but who are currently focused on the threat of the coronavirus. It seems likely that the shift in the outbreak’s epicenter toward Florida and the Southwest will increase concern about Covid-19 among Latino voters and eliminate Trump’s pocket of strength there. But the larger lesson is not so much about Hispanic voters as the extent to which Biden’s strong standing in the polls is potentially a hostage to the news environment. As long as voters don’t explicitly see economic problems as Trump’s fault, he has hopes for a revival of fortunes. Democrats have more to do to close the sale The tedious, commonsense resolution of the dispute between Broockman/Kalla and Priorities USA is that successful campaigns run both positive and negative ads plus “contrast” ads that mix both. In practice, Priorities continues to test all forms of ads while also relying on a division of labor, expecting the Biden campaign to invest in defining Biden while they perhaps focus more on Trump. Biden’s standing with Hispanic voters, meanwhile, would unquestionably benefit from targeted and sustained investment. But what’s most interesting about Biden’s pocket of weakness here is the extent to which it reflects fairly generic strategic vulnerabilities. Biden is well-known but not sharply defined. And precisely because he’s so well-known, he didn’t generate the burst of bio-focused free media coverage that would have been seen for a more fresh-faced choice. That creates the possibility that sustained attacks from Trump will bring Biden’s numbers down, but also an opportunity for a positive introduction to push them up further. From what we can tell, voter attention on the economy helps Trump — and that’s true even in demographic groups that are not predisposed to be favorable to him. If economic issues acquire greater salience with white voters than with Latino voters, Trump could be in a position for a comeback. That’s why recent Democratic advertising has focused on reminders of Biden’s role as a steward of the 2009 Recovery Act, and on connecting the dots between Trump’s coronavirus response failure and the country’s economic crisis. For now, though, that deal has not been sealed and Biden’s lead — though large — rests on the somewhat unstable foundation of a public that isn’t yet very focused on economic issues. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Midsommar has a deeply trans narrative hiding in plain sight
Dani, the protagonist of Midsommar, finds herself in a strange world that just makes sense to her on some visceral level. | A24 The 2019 horror movie isn’t overtly about trans identities. But it depicted my journey perfectly. For most of my life, I never quite knew what to do around men. My confusion ended up being a bit of a problem — because for most of my life, people were pretty convinced I was a guy. (Spoiler: I wasn’t.) I spent almost all of junior high and high school avoiding athletic pursuits because I didn’t particularly like the forced camaraderie and lewd locker room talk from guys in the showers afterward. I struggled with typical male social codes, and I never quite felt like I had a firm grasp on being the guy in a romantic relationship. Awkwardness and confusion are basically universal across all adolescent experiences, and struggling to understand unspoken social codes is so often true among kids across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. But my awkwardness went beyond that. I viewed manhood as a unique burden to carry, a boulder to push up a hill each and every day. I figured all men felt this way. We are all wondering, I assumed, if it would be easier and better and lighter to be a woman, but, alas, we were not blessed as such and had to continue trudging along. What I know now is that, no, not every other guy was thinking about how hard it was to be a man. They weren’t thinking about how being a woman would be preferable. Today, I understand those thoughts as expressions of gender dysphoria and my own trans feminine identity, because every trans person I’ve talked to has described some variation on that level of discomfort with their assigned gender at birth. That discomfort was signaling something I didn’t know how to listen to at first — I simply wasn’t a man, and the burden I shouldered wasn’t one I had to bear. But it was hard to find fictional representations of this journey to self-realization despite the ubiquity of stories about girls who find themselves falling down rabbit holes into worlds where nothing makes sense. These stories presented a sojourn in Wonderland or Oz or Narnia as a brief pause in a growing girl’s life, not as an unending puzzle that existed into adulthood. And then I saw Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror dramedy Midsommarwhen it was releaseda year ago. I finally saw myself. And I’ve been thinking about the film ever since. The popular reading of Midsommar says it’s a scary, funny breakup movie A24 Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (left), is just the worst. Midsommar follows a young American woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) who travels to far northern Sweden to attend a midsummer festival with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his grad school dude colleagues. She’s not particularly welcome on the trip — the guys mostly invited her to join them because they felt bad for her after she suffered a family tragedy — and she feels increasingly disconnected from Christian. As members of the group (and a comparable group of Brits) begin to disappear, one by one, under mysterious circumstances, Dani finds herself more and more drawn to the society of the mysterious Harga people. By the end of the film, she has made her choice between the land of her birth and the new family she has found. She has also set her boyfriend on fire. One reason Midsommar works so well is that you can watch it and draw any number of different interpretations. It’s scary, but not particularly so. It’s funny, except when it’s deadly serious. It’s a fairy tale, except it’s also a harrowing depiction of grief and trauma. The film blends all of these tones together in a way that feels straight out of folklore. The cause-and-effect relationships between events in the movie feel suggested more than confirmed. The predominant read of Midsommar — one that Aster himself has more or less advanced — is that it’s a metaphorical depiction of a relationship in crisis entering a tailspin and plummeting to the ground below. Dani and Christian shouldn’t be together, and the story of the film tracks her slow realization of that fact and his slow realization of just how unhappy she is. When Midsommar begins, he’s a passive-aggressive jerk who can’t seem to break up with her but clearly wants to. When it ends, she’s finally free but at great personal cost. For a lot of people, Midsommar plays like a kind of weird romantic comedy — the perfect date night movie for a heterosexual couple longing to test the strength of their bond. The movie’s depiction of a broken relationship between two people who don’t yet realize their relationship is broken is extremely believable. It’s all but certain to provoke conversation about the strength of your own romantic relationship if you’re in one, the bad breakups lurking in your past, and the ways that codependency can curdle into abusive behavior. But none of those reasons are why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Midsommar for the past year. Midsommar captured my trans experience perfectly without trying to capture my trans experience A24 Finally Dani gets to be just one of the gals. The first time I saw Midsommar was an almost emotionally overwhelming experience. I laughed, I cried, I became so overcome by Bobby Krlic’s score in the film’s final moments that recalling it even now makes me mist up a little. Something at the film’s center hit me as hard as any movie ever has. At first, I assumed it was the way in which Aster has my number. His carefully composed, diorama-like shots are perfectly staged to make you wonder what’s lurking just off-screen, and his camera explores the village of the Harga with a detached precision when Dani first arrives. Its movement grows more fluid the longer she’s there, to indicate how much she’s begun to feel at home here at the ends of the Earth. I also tend to love stories that filter a genre idea through interpersonal drama, and the rupture between Dani and Christian was nothing if not interpersonal drama. Add the structure of a folk horror tale — wherein at least one person from modern society finds themselves lost in a bygone world where people still follow the old, pagan ways (usually involving human sacrifice) — and you have something potent and powerful. Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary was another favorite of mine (and another film that can sustain a trans reading, incidentally). But my reaction to Midsommar was deeper, more substantial. Figuring out why I reacted so strongly was figuring out why Midsommar rapidly went from being one of my favorite films of 2019 to one of my favorite films of all time. But reconsider the very premise of the film: Dani travels to Sweden with her boyfriend and his male friend group. She is an outsider, an interloper. They bring her along somewhat grudgingly, seemingly aware that Dani will only get in the way of them having a good time when they want to kick back and get high or ogle hot Harga girls. In other words, Dani is a buzzkill. There are plot reasons for her buzzkill status. Midsommar opens with her losing her entire family in a gruesome murder-suicide — but Aster shoots early scenes where she’s with the group of guys in such a way that she is removed from them, detached. (A notable early shot takes great pains to show her reflection in a mirror but not her physical presence, in the same room as Christian and his friends but not really.) The guys keep assuring Dani she’s fine, she’s part of their group, they’re excited to have her. But she can tell from their tone of voice how little they actually mean that. The filmmaking betrays their true feelings by isolating her. Thus, Midsommar is a movie about a woman who hangs out with a bunch of guys, never quite feeling welcome, or like any of them understand her. She’s always out of place, disconnected from what’s happening, even as they laugh and celebrate jovially around her. Cis women can certainly have this experience when hanging out with their boyfriends’ pals, but male group dynamics typically shift to avoid seeming too bro-y (for good or for ill) when they know a woman is present. For whatever reason, the guys Dani goes to Sweden with don’t shift their behavior in similar ways. What Dani goes through is almost a universal experience for trans women before they come out. They’re in the party but not of it, always feeling like there’s some joke they’re just not getting. What’s more, the moment Dani starts to find acceptance from others is when she finds herself spending time with the Harga women. After an entire movie of trying to make sense of Christian’s moods, she finds herself competing for the title of May Queen with the other women of the village. Her face shines with happiness and abandon, and when one of the other girls starts talking to her in Harga (a language invented for the film), Dani finds she can just naturally speak it. It’s an incredibly cathartic moment. She displays an ease she’s never felt before, and it carries through the rest of the movie, as she finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the Harga’s lifestyle and rituals. But Midsommar has quietly been building to this catharsis all along. Around the film’s midpoint, Dani bears witness to a particularly horrifying ritual, and where others who’ve traveled to visit the Harga object in terror, Dani stares dead ahead at what’s happening right in front of her, seemingly unfazed. On some level, she’s on the Harga’s wavelength. On some level, she belongs there. Folk horror is always about the inevitable clash between modernity and the ancient, pagan ways, but Aster layers atop that idea some gender commentary that feels particularly pointed. Dani can never find a way to connect with all of the men she’s joined on this trip to Sweden, but she can connect to the women she meets in a village on the other side of the planet. They just know each other, and in being known, Dani finally feels the rush of knowing what home is. I don’t mean to suggest that Midsommar is an intentional trans allegory. Aster has said that he views Dani as a bit of a proxy for himself within the film, which is interesting on a “guy tries to imagine what’s going on in a woman’s head” level (Aster is very good at doing this, where many male directors aren’t). But the movie has plenty to say about bad relationships and tribalism and depression and a whole host of other things. As with all truly great films, there’s so much going on inside of Midsommar that you could spend weeks and weeks discussing it with friends and unearth more takes with every new conversation. And yet ... when Dani discovered she could speak to the other women in the village, I felt, deep inside of me, the sensations I had felt the first few times the women I knew saw me and knew me for who I really was. I felt the way I now feel every week when I gather on Zoom with some of my best trans woman friends to talk about what’s going on in our lives. There is an immense power to being seen and to being known, a power that many cis people don’t even realize they have possessed since the moment of their birth. I still have many friends who are men, but now, I feel like I understand better how to relate to them. I no longer feel like there’s a secret language I cannot speak. To feel lost in your country of origin and stagger about looking for a home is to experience a deep emptiness at your very core. And then, one day, somebody speaks your name, and a whole secret world spreads out all around you. That world had been there all along, hiding. All it took were the right words, the right glance, the right knowledge to unlock its secrets. And once you’ve found them, you need never go back. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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The violent end of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, explained
City crews dismantle the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” area outside of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct on July 1, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. | David Ryder/Getty Images Seattle’s police-free neighborhood started experiencing violence, but locals still don’t trust the police. Seattle protesters’ experiment with a police-free community and protest space has ended. On Wednesday, dozens of officers from the Seattle Police Department arrested more than 30 peopleandcleared out the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), formerly known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), at Mayor Jenny Durkan’sorder. The mayor’s executiveorder came in response to a wave of nighttime violence in the four-block area, including four shootings and several alleged sexual assaults. Police have cleared #CHOP to Pike @KING5Seattle— Michael Crowe (@MichaelReports) July 1, 2020 Katie, a nonbinary person who protested in the neighborhood before and after CHOP was established, said they sobbed when they saw police clearing it out Wednesday morning. “I’m glad that people were able to see what a space like that could be,” they told Vox. “I had some complaints about it but it was beautiful to see.” Durkan praised the mostly peaceful protest in a statement Monday, yet signaled that it was time for protesters to leave CHOP because of the late-night violence. “[O]ver the last month thousands of people, including families, have visited the area and shown their support for the messages of equity and change,” read the statement. “Unfortunately, that message has been undermined by the violence in the area. The area has increasingly attracted more individuals bent on division and violence, and it is risking the lives of individuals.” Drone footage of the Police clearing Cal Anderson Park this morning.#SeattleProtests #CHOP— Converge Media (@WWConverge) July 1, 2020 The violence at CHOP shows the difficulty in trying to create a police-free neighborhood, especially without investments in community anti-poverty efforts, out of what was primarily a protest space. It also highlights the pervasiveness of certain forms of violence — like violence against women, which some residents told Vox was commonin the neighborhood (a nightlife hot spot in the city) even before CHOP was established. Those previous incidents were not subject to a national media microscope. While Durkan and the Seattle Police Department used the recent violence as justification to move in and retake the area from protesters, some people who live in the area worried about the SPD’s return. “I feel marginally more dread than the early parts of the protests,” local Capitol Hill resident John McCartney told Vox. “People here seem angrier, but there also seem to be fewer protesters.” What we know about the violence during — and before — CHOP’s existence The “autonomous zone” idea for the protest area began as a meme after SPD vacated the nearby East Precinct building on June 8 following eight straight days of police clashes with protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. But protesters very quickly seized on the idea of creating a sustained occupation-style protest in the area, working with city personnel to block off street traffic in a six-block radius around the precinct. In the first week of CHOP’s existence, people who were spending a lot of time at the protest told Vox they felt safe there. “Talking with my friends and talking with a couple of people on the ground, I keep hearing people say, ‘I never felt this safe walking in the city,’” Carla, a woman who had been regularly hanging out in the area, told Vox in mid-June. “The knowledge that the police aren’t there [has created] this feeling that this is a space that belongs to everybody.” Noah Riffe/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images One of the entrances to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, Washington on June 14, 2020. But what initially started as a local curiosity, drawing residents and families from the surrounding area, eventually took a turn for the worse. Over the past nine days, the area saw four shootings, two deaths, arson, and several alleged sexual assaults. According to FBI data, there were 34 homicides reported in 2018 in all of Seattle. “It’s been a terrible week for the area,” said Justin, the publisher of who has been covering the goings-on within CHOP since its inception. “But these kinds of violent spikes do come in waves. And we’ve seen this before in other parts of the city.” Vox spoke with 13 local residents and protesters on background — most of whom have taken part in the protests against racism and police violence that preceded CHOP, and also spent time in and around CHOP — about what’s been happening in the neighborhood over the past week and a half. Locals paint a muddled picture of an area where confusion — and fear of far-right counterprotesters — often reigns. One person who works a block away from CHOP and asked to remain anonymous to protect her privacy, said her car was vandalized while she was at work last week, which she attributed to her left-wing political bumper stickers. Since then, management from her employer have escorted her to her car every night after her shift is over. In speaking with locals, a tale of two CHOPs emerges, daytime CHOP and nighttime CHOP. During the day, there’s more of a community feel, with neighbors out and about inside CHOP while protests are ongoing. But most of the people who spoke with Vox didn’t feel safe walking at night in the area, especially in the past week and a half. But that’s not necessarily a unique feeling in the area, which is a popular bar and entertainment district within the city. The type of violence has changed since CHOP was established, one local explained: In their accounting, it went from drunk white bar patrons (often men)causing havoc on Friday and Saturday nights, along with the occasional police response to a homeless person in the area, to the type of violence that has taken place inside CHOP recently. “Like a lot of nightlife districts, it is not a comfortable place for female-presenting folks to be out at night,” said McCartney, who was the only local willing to be quoted by name for this story. Several women and trans people speaking on background confirmed his statement to Vox. In August 2017, for example, a trans woman was allegedly assaulted by a group of male patrons at a bar in the neighborhood. At the same time, McCartney said, there’s a real riff between people who have lived in the area for a while and the tech workers who have moved in recently. “I feel a lot of the current ‘it’s not safe’ stuff comes from either people who aren’t living in the neighborhood itself or from affluent new arrivals, or from business owners.” CHOP featured a seemingly unstructured organizing format, similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the early 2010s. Protest organizers declined to speak with Vox, as they also did for a previous story from mid-June. It’s also been difficult for journalists and the public to pin down exactly who is in charge at CHOP, and there was no central group issuing public statements. But organizers from Washington Youth for Climate Justice, who have been active on CHOP’s front lines since its establishment denounced the police clearing Wednesday morning. “We feel that the handling of CHOP’s dispersal, such as calling in officers wearing riot gear and using pepper spray on demonstrators, was completely unethical and unnecessary,” a spokesperson for the group said in a statement to Vox. Of particular concern for locals has been the recent spate of gun violence in the area. There have been four shootings in CHOP since its inception, and a shooting Sunday evening left one person dead and another hospitalized. “It’s clear that there is gun violence associated with CHOP,” said Justin. “There are young people with weapons. There are very well-trained volunteers with weapons. There’s just a lot of guns in the area.” But local residents won’t necessarily feel safer with police back in control of the neighborhood Most of the people who spoke with Vox took part in the eight days of intense — and often violent — protests that preceded the abandonment of the East Precinct building and the establishment of CHOP. They largely don’t view the police as protectors of the area and worry about potential retaliation now that police are seemingly back. One local woman who spoke to Vox on condition of anonymity had become frustrated with CHOP violence over the past 10 days, especially the latest shooting. But she also said the police likely aren’t the answer to the neighborhood’s violence problem. “The police aren’t what make me feel safe or unsafe; I certainly didn’t feel safe when they were tear-gassing the neighborhood and shooting rubber bullets at us as we marched,” she said. “But if the police presence can disperse the people that have gathered and made camp here who are perpetuating violence, then yes, I’ll feel safer. But that’s not a guarantee.” Another pointed out that the Seattle Police Department has been under federal oversight since 2012 following several incidences of violence against the community. One example cited in the case was the death of John T. Williams in 2011 when an SPD officer was overheard shouting a racial slur about a Latino man. Mayor Durkan, who was a US attorney at the time, led the investigation. CHOP wasn’t the first organized protest against SPD violence either. In 1965, community leaders in the city’s central district, which borders Capitol Hill, began following police patrols around the neighborhood to observe and record their handling of the local Black population. Called “freedom patrols,” they drew both praise and criticism, though police mistreatment of the city’s Black population extended back decades. In 1938, three Seattle police officers beat a Black man, Barry Lawson, to death. They were subsequently convicted of second-degree manslaughter before being pardoned by the governor in 1939. What can future organizers learn from CHOP? CHOP was not the first organized protest space to experience violence. While the Occupy movement a decade ago didn’t see any killings like CHOP, both saw several allegations of sexual assault associated with the protests. According to the Seattle alt-weekly the Stranger, a CHOP medic intervened to stop a sexual assault in progress inside a tent at Cal Anderson Park, where many protesters had been camping. That all raises questions about how such dedicated protest spaces can maintain safety — without replicating the abusive powers of the police system. “The ‘community center block party’ vibe ended after the first week,” said one local woman. “This reminds me of NYC during Occupy Wall Street almost to a ‘T.’ Except here people are getting killed.” The issue, she said, is that she felt the protests shifted away from police violence and Black Lives Matter into more of an anarchist message. “The people with the loudest voices are all sharing the same ‘fuck capitalism/establishment/burn it all down’ rhetoric. The camp and the early infrastructure is similar,” she said, saying that the lack of clear leadership hurt efforts to make the area safe. “Sure, burn it all down, but have a plan. The lack of a central voice, the lack of a plan, and the elevation of people who don’t even live here, are very similar.” A centralized power structure isn’t necessarily needed — Occupy protesters in New York created a de facto security team of volunteers that would de-escalate conflicts. In CHOP,there were armed and organized security volunteers, according to several people who spoke with Vox. ButJustin pointed out that many businesses in the area ended up hiring armed security guards to patrol property in the area anyway. “When you look at that and you start thinking, maybe in a year from now, we’re going to really wish that we didn’t defund [the police],” he said. “But [instead] we did reform and that we kept these assets and resources within the city instead of having guns for hire communities to guard buildings.” What CHOP (or Occupy) didn’t have was the type of long-term investment in anti-poverty and community-building programs that activists say is the counterbalance to defunding the police. Part of the issue, according to Justin, is that, despite coverage to the contrary, including from Vox, CHOP was never set up to be a true police-free neighborhood. It was, above all else, a protest. “I don’t think it’s fair as a laboratory for [a police-free neighborhood],” said Justin. CHOP “also lacks so many other investments and so many other resources that you’d have to have to make that world work that it’s just not fair to measure it that way.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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How Black Lives Matter fits into the long history of American radicalism
Community organizations and activists demanding police accountability gathered for a rally and march at the clock in Grand Central Terminal on August 8, 2019, to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s death by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. | Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images “Any movement that goes to the root of things is radical.” Black Lives Matter was created in 2013 by three Black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. Over the last seven years, it has evolved into something much bigger: a broad multiethnic liberation movement focused on criminal justice reform, racist policing, and adjacent causes. During the course of this shift, the movement has not only expanded but become more radical in its demands for equality across the board. And yet, surprisingly, this has increased, rather than diminished, its appeal. BLM had little support across the country as recently as 2017. But it has become steadily more popular, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, its popularity has surged to the point that it’s now supported by a majority of Americans. By any measure, that suggests BLM is succeeding — culturally and politically. But how should we think of Black Lives Matter as a historical phenomenon? Is it the sort of radical social movement we’ve seen before in this country? Or is it something new, something different, without any precursors? To get some answers, I reached out to Michael Kazin, a professor of history and American social movements at Georgetown University and also the co-editor of Dissent magazine. We discussed how BLM fits into the long tradition of American radicalism, what its proponents can learn from previous eras, and why he thinks BLM is both a political and a cultural struggle. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. Sean Illing As someone who studies the history of social movements in America, how do you view this moment? Michael Kazin It’s a remarkable moment in some ways, because we have a very unpopular right-wing president and a set of popular social movements on the left. Which is surprising, because usually social movements on the left get more popular when you have a liberal or progressive president in office. This is what happened in the ’30s and ’60s, for example. I think we might be witnessing the end of a conservative era. Sean Illing What does the end of a conservative era mean? Michael Kazin Well, we’ve had Democratic presidents in this era, Clinton and Obama, but the guiding ideas of the time have been conservative ideas about government and labor and race. And now that could be changing in a very radical way. If Democrats are able to win the presidency and tip both houses of Congress, then you could see another major vault to the left in American history, the kind of vault we saw during Reconstruction and during the progressive eras in the ’30s and ’60s and early ’70s. But all of this energy doesn’t always translate to big legislative revolutions. For laws to pass, it’ll take a combination of left-wing social movements and politicians who are willing to accommodate those movements in important ways. Sean Illing The Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of this leftward push. Do you consider BLM a radical social movement, or does it just seem that way to those who are more invested in the current order? Michael Kazin Like all large social movements, it has its radical aspects and its more reformist aspects. That was true of the labor movement in the ’30s, which had a lot of communists and socialists in it. It was true of Reconstruction too, in which you had more radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to confiscate the land of anybody who had fought for the Confederacy and give it to African Americans, to freed slaves. We saw it in the ’60s as well, when the Black Freedom Movement had its reformist side pushing for integration of institutions and the Voter Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, and you had the Black Panthers and other Black Power groups who wanted one big revolution. So you see this dynamic in every mass social movement. It’s hard to say what will become of BLM. You’ve got the different aspects to it. People can unite around some moderate demands like passing laws that will handcuff the police in terms of their capacity to use violence. The more radical aspects, like abolishing the police altogether, go much further. And there are conversations about reparations and restructuring the economy to ensure not just equal opportunities but equal outcomes. As the movement gets larger, you’ll see more differences within it. But no single one of those manifestations will define the movement as a whole. Sean Illing What makes a “radical” movement radical? Is it more about the nature of the demands? Or how those demands are perceived by the power structure? Michael Kazin That’s a very good question. The power structure, of course, often perceives any movement that wants to change the fundamentals of how the country operates as radical. Martin Luther King Jr. was perceived to be a radical — and I think he was. But the demands he was making publicly, until the end of his life, really weren’t that radical. He simply wanted the 14th and 15th Amendments to be applied to Black people. Any movement that goes to the root of things is radical. An anti-capitalism movement is radical. A movement which calls for reparations for African Americans is radical. There’s a radical ethics that diagnoses something wrong about the basic organization of society and seeks to undo that wrong, and conservative figures in power have always viewed these efforts as existential threats. The New Deal was perceived as radically socialist by a lot of people in business and in the power structure, but in retrospect it was really just reformist. Sean Illing The shifting perception of these movements is fascinating to me, especially in this moment. In the case of Black Lives Matter, it’s remarkable to see just how popular it has become. In the last two weeks alone, I believe, support for BLM has increased as much as it has in the last two years. What does that signal to you? Michael Kazin It signals that racial attitudes in America, which began to change after World War II and then took a big step forward in the 1960s with the success of the Black Freedom Movement and the Civil Rights Act, have really evolved. This has been a very long and hard road, with moments of backlash along the way, but this is what you’d expect because racism is so deeply woven into that fabric of American history and culture. Obviously, the horrific killing of George Floyd was a catalyst, but I think we’re seeing the results of young people coming of age and being much more open to racial equality than previous generations. Sean Illing And BLM, whatever one thinks of it, strikes me as the continuation of some of the most successful social movements in American history. Michael Kazin I think that’s right, and two of those movements, the Abolitionist movement and the Black Freedom Movement, were also organized around the demands of equality for African-Americans. Of course, you could say this is all part of one long movement, but it had various phases to it. I think what we’re seeing now is very much part of the Black Freedom Movement, which has had its ups and downs throughout its history. But the thread tying all of it together has always been the push for fundamental equality at every level of society and in every major institution. What’s interesting about BLM is that it could be a catalyst to a reform movement in the same way the labor movement in the ’30s was essential to moving the Democratic Party to the left. A lot of people don’t know this, but it was really in the ’30s that the Democrats began to move away from Jim Crow. It took a long time, obviously, but that’s when it started, and it was because labor was interracial and labor was crucial to the success of the Democrats in the ’30s and ’40s. Sean Illing How were these previous movements greeted when they emerged? I ask because the goals seem, in retrospect, so sensible and obvious, but I imagine at the time they were seen as extremist and threatening. Michael Kazin Definitely. The great Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci talked about how social movements can change the common sense of society. What we all take to be normal or moral in society can change pretty quickly, and it changes because of the force and success of social movements. Black Lives Matter has been enormously successful in this respect. Any movement pushing for this level of change will be opposed by people who don’t support those changes — that’s just an axiom of politics. What’s astonishing about this movement is that it’s not provoking more backlash — at least not yet. Sean Illing Well, I wonder about the “not yet” part. I worry about movements like Black Lives Matter or “abolish the police” becoming so sprawling and disjointed that they lose their focus, or get overwhelmed by revolutionary spasms that may undercut the key goals. Are there important lessons from the past on this front? Michael Kazin I was a New Leftist in the late ’60s. I was one of those people who went too far. I think I undermined some of my goals, even though in the end we were successful in winning our main demands, which were to fight for racial equality and an end to the Vietnam War. But along the way I did some stupid things. I think one big lesson is that mass lawbreaking undermines a movement. As MLK used to say, you want the other side to be seen as the violent side, you want the other side reacting to your civil disobedience, to your respect for order. You don’t want to be seen as running amok without leadership, without discipline, because you’re trying to bring about change and people are scared of change. You don’t want people to be scared of you at the same time they’re scared of change. That’s one lesson. Another lesson is the importance of building alliances. One of the reasons why I keep saying that leftists should support Biden and ally with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer this year is that we have to get as many Democrats as possible elected because only then will there be the political space to go further than they would like to go. There are limits to what a movement can create on its own. Eventually, you’ve got to get laws passed, and a movement can’t pass laws by itself. Sean Illing Is it better to view BLM or “abolish the police” less as political projects and more as cultural movements that shift the zeitgeist and therefore pave the way for political changes in the future? Michael Kazin It’s a great question, and I think it’s both for me. As I said before, it’s obviously helped to change the attitudes of a lot of white Americans and that’s a cultural change in consciousness. Without that change in consciousness, we can’t get real political changes because there would be too much resistance to them, and politicians are averse to doing things which are unpopular. So it’s important to demand immediate change but also wise to not expect it to happen that fast. These things take a long time. If activists don’t have a longterm strategy, they’re going to fail. This isn’t easy, of course. On the one hand, you want movements to build on a sense of urgency when outrage happens, the way it did with George Floyd and with other Black Americans killed by the police. But at the same time, you can’t let that sense of urgency impede you from organizing for the long-term. Sean Illing My sense is that we’re still very much in the beginning of whatever this is, and so there’s a lot of symbolic activism and a lot of enthusiasm but not necessarily a clear strategy for seizing power. What do you think a movement like this can do to channel all this energy and goodwill into enduring, concrete changes? Michael Kazin I think it has to find ways to work with other movements on the left. The change these activists seek is one of economic equity as well as an end to racist treatment by the cops. That was true for the Black movement in Fredrick Douglass’s day as well as the freedom movement led, in part, by MLK in the 1960s. The fight to have the power over how the police treat you is necessarily a fight to gain more power and resources on the job, in one’s neighborhood, and in education. But Black people can’t win that fight by themselves. It will take allies from other races and a demand for universal programs in health care, the environment, housing, etc. — and interracial institutions like labor and, yes, the Democratic Party. 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