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The Key to Understanding the TV Adaptation of The Underground Railroad
Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios What does freedom sound like? For Barry Jenkins, the answer started with the Earth. While filming The Underground Railroad, the new limited series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, the director was caught off guard by a rumbling beneath his feet. The source was a nearby construction site, but to Jenkins, the vibration felt like a train was passing under him. It reminded him of how, as a boy, he had thought the historical Underground Railroad involved actual locomotives. Whitehead’s book, like Jenkins’s childhood mind, takes a similarly literal approach to depicting the network of secret passageways and safe houses that American abolitionists used to help enslaved Black people reach free states. The protagonist, Cora, discovers a real train system that aids her in her perilous escape from Georgia. Colossal and unpredictable, this Underground Railroad snakes beneath slaveholding states, and is carved directly into the land. By homing in on the ways the earth shapes the characters’ stories, Jenkins’s adaptation adds visual and sonic texture to Whiteheads’s magical-realist vision—anchoring it in the concreteness of place and highlighting overlooked truths about enslaved people’s experiences.If the obvious antagonist in any slavery narrative is the ruthless master, then the land is his most menacing sentinel. In films and TV shows that follow enslaved characters lurching toward freedom (such as Harriet) or being forced into servitude (such as 12 Years a Slave), the plantation is a site of unrelenting pain; the surrounding thickets serve primarily as a roadblock to freedom. (WGN’s Underground opened its first episode with its characters dashing through the hostile woods) Whitehead’s novel complicates that paradigm, and Jenkins’s adaptation brings the environment into even sharper focus. The series, which is streaming today on Amazon, doesn’t cast nature solely as a problem to be solved or a threat to be overcome. Rather, The Underground Railroad weaves all the complexities of the landscape—its terrain, its sounds, its emotional significance—directly into the story.[Read: Who wants to watch black pain?]Though at times wrenching, especially in the first episode, the series avoids gratuitous or heavy-handed visuals of blood, sweat, and tears—the usual signs of life in slavery narratives. Dense and expansive, it draws inspiration from fire, air, and fauna. “I wanted to convey a very beautiful relationship between our ancestors and the land,” Jenkins told me. Part of how The Underground Railroad shows that spiritual communion is via the intimate, light-filled cinematography famously associated with Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton. Aesthetically, the series alternates between tableaus that evoke Romantic-era paintings and Impressionistic references.Take, for example, the whiplash of its first minutes: After viewers witness the agony of childbirth, they see Cora (played by Thuso Mbedu) standing in a dark swamp. The show cuts from this foreboding scene to one of her standing in a luminous field with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), a man enslaved on the same plantation. The golden-hour light frames their faces and the crops around them as he asks her to try and escape with him. In that moment, even as Cora balks, one can almost imagine the shimmering leaves and singing cicadas ushering the pair to safety. (To the show’s composer, Nicholas Britell, the insects’ chorus vitally captured the sound of the air and inspired the music: “There are pieces within the score … where you hear remnants of some of the cicadas,” Britell told me. “One of the pieces actually … is me playing violins and a prepared piano that almost sounds like cicadas.”)In moments such as the opening sequence, The Underground Railroad echoes the ethereal beauty of Kasi Lemmons’s 1997 classic, Eve’s Bayou. And like Lemmons’s story about a Lousiana Creole family’s mythic undoing, The Underground Railroad sometimes revels in the grandeur of nature to more eerie effect. By drawing on elements of fantasy, the series actually deepens the real-life atrocities it depicts. To Jenkins, there’s nothing contradictory about this approach. “Whether that’s representing Tuskegee experiments, eugenics, the sterilization of Black women, or the Oregon exclusionary acts, that had to be truth-based,” he said of the story’s references to other real-life horrors. “And yet it could be housed within this historical fiction or magical realism.”[Read: Eight films to watch right now, according to Barry Jenkins]In Whitehead’s novel, the improbable conceit of the train allows for commentary on the ubiquity of Black people’s exploitation. When Cora and Caesar descend into a subterranean railroad stop early in the book, she marvels at the “tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables.” She asks the station agent who built it. “Who builds anything in this country?” he responds. Whitehead’s descriptions of the labor required to construct this chimeric locomotive are rhythmic, almost imitating the syncopated carving of the land. So when the drilling near the show’s set unexpectedly recreated that feeling, Jenkins quickly sent an audio recording to Britell. “I always had this idea of the sound of this digging, the sound of this drill,” Jenkins said. “I just knew we’re going to film this scene, and then Nick and I are gonna take these pickaxes hitting this rock, and we’re gonna make music out of it.” The pair would come back to the same theme again and again while scoring The Underground Railroad: letting nature, in all its glory and danger, guide the story. “That was the starting point of that idea,” Britell said. “What would it mean to explore this elemental force of going downward into the Earth?”The first state Cora reaches after setting out from Georgia is South Carolina, which seems like a paragon of safety upon her arrival. But she and Caesar soon discover that a sinister experiment is under way, one that parallels some of the bodily horror that Black Americans have suffered throughout history. Jenkins and Britell don’t use cacophonous sounds to simply mirror the dread Cora begins to feel. (“If you’re seeing something that seems strange, then you’re hearing something strange, it’s almost too direct a relationship,” Britell said.) Instead, the duo experimented with the score to create dissonance and subtly distort viewers’ perceptions of South Carolina’s promise. “Those different states require different musical landscapes,” Britell said, explaining that in South Carolina, “there’s this almost fantastically lush orchestra sound there, which, to us, raised that kind of question mark.”The Underground Railroad is set in five states, and the episodes are titled after their respective locales. But the entire show was filmed in Georgia. “There’s a certain mythmaking or a certain lying inherent in that—we’re telling you you’re in Indiana, but we’re also in Georgia,” Jenkins said. The process of finding locations in Georgia to serve as convincing stand-ins for the show’s other settings was arduous; Jenkins joked that he can’t have seen every square mile of the state, but at times it felt as though he had. “We only didn’t touch the southwestern corner of the state,” he said. “Everywhere else, we filmed something in an effort to get this variation in the topography and the landscape.”The series uses that aesthetic meticulousness in service of its larger points about enslaved people’s humanity, including their unique knowledge of the land. Knowing the Earth under one’s feet well enough to map one’s way to safety is no small accomplishment. “So much of this for me was about being the kid hearing the words Underground Railroad and literally seeing Black people on trains underground—not imagining them, like, seeing them,” Jenkins said. “My granddad was a longshoreman. I would see him put his hard hat on, his tool belt, and his boots, and go to work every day. And I thought, Oh, people like him built the Underground Railroad.”At times, the show beautifully emphasizes the ways their bonds with the land persisted—and persist even now—beyond the specter of forced labor. The last episode features a weighty burial scene, one of the moments when Jenkins actually cried during filming. “This actor … at the conclusion of the scene, without my prompting, he got down on his knees, and he puts his forehead to the soil, and he inhales the earth,” Jenkins recalled. “And I thought there was just something so, so deeply spiritual about it. And there was something so visceral, this connection between this person and the Earth; it wasn’t corrupted by the condition of American slavery.”
The CDC’s Free-Your-Face Guidance Is Wonderful, Welcome, and Weird
Yesterday, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated Americans can stop wearing masks in most indoor and outdoor places. The new guidelines still advise the fully vaccinated to mask up when entering certain public areas, such as doctor’s offices.This is a moment to celebrate. It is not quite the pandemic’s equivalent of V-E Day; after all, thousands of people are still dying around the world each day from a virus that, far from surrendering, may be endemic. But it could be the closest we get to a formal announcement from the federal government that, after months of death and sacrifice and ingenuity, something has been won. Call it normalcy.If you’re surprised by the agency’s free-your-face announcement, you’re not alone. State officials had no idea it was coming. Businesses were caught off guard. Even White House officials were reportedly surprised by both the timing and the substance of the new advice, according to CNN. The CDC is notionally in the business of offering public-health guidance. But when a government agency’s recommendations consistently surprise or confuse members of the government, one wonders if it’s serving as a particularly dependable guide.[Read: The CDC is still repeating its mistakes]So while this is an opportunity to cherish a sort of liberation from pandemic restrictions, it’s also a moment to reflect on America’s 16-month public-health communication strategy, which has lurched from overcaution to overpromising and back again, often within the same 24-hour period.Indeed, throughout the health crisis, the CDC has been so slow to issue guidance in line with the research consensus on COVID-19 that it’s brought new meaning to the concept of “follow the science.” The CDC was several months late to the idea that surface transmission of the coronavirus is largely mythical. It was months late to the notion that the disease rarely spreads outdoors. Until this week, it continued to issue byzantine advice for vaccinated individuals even as evidence piled up that inoculated people are at extremely low risk of serious disease or transmission.On vaccines and masks, the agency has been all over the place. In March, the CDC’s initial recommendations for the fully vaccinated encouraged them to wear masks and socially distance around the unvaccinated. In April, the CDC loosened those guidelines but spread confusion by putting out a color-coded matrix of activities and recommendations that was so hard to follow, even scientists admitted they couldn’t understand it. Now it’s declaring “Masks off” in a way that is welcome but weird, and frankly—I can’t believe I’m saying this—potentially too broad.The CDC came into the pandemic as “the gold standard” of public health. But it is emerging from the pandemic as something akin to the actual gold standard: rickety, inflexible, and struggling for coherence in the modern age.What the United States needed, and still needs, is a simple and clear thesis statement about the virus and the vaccines, no more than 20 words long, that’s memorable and contains some nuance that people can use to guide their own behavior. Japan settled on a “Three C’s” rule, advising its citizens to avoid close spaces, crowded places, and close-contact situations. Perhaps the CDC could do even better, numerically speaking, with the “Two Commandments of COVID-19.” They could go something like this: 1. COVID-19 is an indoor aerosol disease. 2. Vaccination protects you; more vaccinations protect everyone. How far do those 13 words get you? They don’t contain every nook and cranny of epidemiological nuance, but they get you awfully close.The first commandment tells you that the virus spreads through aerosols—or verbal spray particles that we especially produce when we talk, sneeze, or breath heavily—that can linger in the air. It suggests that, because of the aerosolized nature of the virus, masks probably work to protect you and others. It tells you that unventilated indoor spaces are especially high-risk and that being outside—or being inside masked, without talking too much, for a brief period of time, when your total exposure to aerosols is low—is low-risk, with or without vaccination.[Derek Thompson: What ‘taking the pandemic seriously’ means now]The second commandment’s seven words get you pretty far too. They tell you that the vaccines probably work to block infection and serious illness. They suggest that your personal risk calculus should adjust after getting a shot. They also tell you that when a place has more vaccinations, everything becomes safer. And they allow you to expect and predict that as vaccinations pass certain thresholds in a city or state, pandemic restrictions will come down and normalcy will return.Finally, the two commandments interact in a way that offers more clarity and reasonableness than the CDC’s announcement yesterday. For example, the U.S. is not being vaccinated in a uniform manner. More than 70 percent of adults in New Hampshire have received at least one dose, compared with less than 45 percent in Idaho. The CDC’s announcement seems to treat both states as equally safe when, in fact, states with more vaccinations are obviously much more protected. Following the CDC announcement, the White House released an Instagram message saying, “Fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks.” But that’s not what the CDC said! The agency carved out exceptions for many places, including doctor’s offices, public transportation, and airports, which collectively employ or receive tens of millions of workers, travelers, customers, and patients. Those exceptions are being steamrolled by a Liberation Day narrative that feels like it came out of nowhere.Am I being unfair to the CDC? Maybe. Regulations ought to loosen as more people become vaccinated and as we learn more about the science of post-vaccine transmission. The agency has a hard job.But the CDC’s approach to loosening its guidelines has always been tardy, timid, and tangled. In lieu of clear guidance, it has routinely delivered confusion and surprise, complicated our ability to grok this virus, and mostly done so in a way that followed the science—with a six-month lag. That’s how you get lurching shutdowns, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on hygiene theater, bans on beach walks, rules against outdoor bars, closed playgrounds, mass confusion about protecting ourselves and our families, and a large number of Americans who have tuned out public-health officials entirely. Guidance is overrated. We needed an actual guide.
Schools Must Fully Reopen in the Fall
Melissa Ann Pinney Schools must open this fall. In person. Five days a week. With the space and and health safeguards to do so. The American Federation of Teachers, which I lead, is committed to making this happen.School is where children learn best, where they play together and form relationships and acquire resilience. It’s where many children who otherwise might go hungry eat breakfast and lunch. Parents rely on schools, not only to educate their kids, but so they can work. Nearly 3 million mothers have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic.[Read: Mothers’ careers are at extraordinary risk right now]Over the past 14 months, teachers have scrambled to redesign lessons and projects, and to create virtual field trips and labs to keep kids engaged and learning from afar. They are exhausted. They’re working longer hours, troubleshooting IT problems, and trying to connect with students despite the barriers—whether a computer screen or a plexiglass shield. School food workers kept meals coming, often feeding anyone in the community who needed it. Many school-bus drivers delivered those meals, along with schoolwork and internet hotspots so students could learn from home.All the while, educators have yearned to be back in school, with their students. They asked only for a safe workplace during this pandemic, and the resources they and their students need to succeed.Yet critics have scapegoated teachers and vilified their unions because of school closures during the pandemic, ignoring the extreme disparities among schools and blaming teachers for problems outside their control.Creating safe conditions in schools during a public-health crisis is not an obstacle to reopening classrooms; it is the pathway to going back, staying back, and building trust throughout school communities.We faced stiff headwinds. Donald Trump tweeted multiple times that schools should reopen but did nothing to help them do so safely. The Trump administration politicized safety and undermined science. As a result, from last April right up to January 19 this year, we were working to reopen schools in a climate of chaos, fear, and misinformation as the pandemic surged in wave after wave.Thankfully, the Biden administration changed course and is fighting the pandemic with science, truth, transparency, and, yes, money. We have experienced some bumps, of course—this is a once-in-a-century pandemic. But today an overwhelming majority of schools across the country are open for in-person learning, either full- or part-time.Vaccines have been a game changer. I hear this sentiment in educators’ voices and see it in our polling results. The fear that they will bring the virus home decreases the moment they get their shot. According to our data, 89 percent of our members are fully vaccinated or want to be. And this week we had more good news: The FDA authorized use of the Pfizer vaccine for 12-to-15-year-olds.Fully reopening is not risk-free. Public-health experts caution that unless many more people get vaccinated, we will not reach herd immunity against the coronavirus. But we can manage the threat by encouraging people to get a shot and following guidance from the CDC to prevent the spread of disease—which currently includes the layered mitigation strategies of masking, distancing, ventilating, sanitizing, hand washing, and regular COVID-19 testing.The fear of the virus isn’t gone. I see that in who is back in school and who is not. Some school staff members need accommodations to protect their health or that of someone in their household. And some families are still keeping their children at home, and considering doing so in the fall.The AFT, with the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and others, recently polled parents of public-school students across the country. Only 73 percent of all parents said they are comfortable with full in-person learning for their child this fall; only 59 percent of Black parents said this. But if the safety measures in the AFT’s reopening plan—layered mitigation, testing, and vaccines—are in place, the comfort level jumps to 94 percent of parents, including 87 percent of Black parents. Parents whose children’s schools are open feel more comfortable with in-person learning. The same is true of educators: The more they are in school with appropriate safeguards, the more they trust in-person learning.[Derek Thompson: The truth about kids, school, and COVID-19]Mitigation measures create trust. So does collaboration. So here’s an idea: Every school should have a committee of school staff, parents, and, where appropriate, students to plan for and respond to safety issues. These committees can conduct health-and-safety walk-throughs this summer, as we just did in Washington, D.C., at McKinley Technology High School and McKinley Middle School.Here’s another idea: Let’s integrate the best practices for both health and learning.One way is to link class size to the CDC’s revised guidance that, with universal masking, students should remain three feet apart in classrooms. For the most part, this will mean fewer students in each class—effectively aligning health and pedagogical best practices. Smaller class size has been shown to have a positive impact on academic achievement, suspension rates, and teacher retention. So why don’t school systems work through the summer to find adequate space in order to set up classes they can keep intact all school year? The constant reconfiguring of classrooms and classes is part of what has created such uncertainty during the pandemic.This change will also help end the untenable practice of simultaneous teaching. This juggling act requires teachers to essentially teach two classes, in two different modalities—one with kids in a classroom, and one with kids online—at the same time. This is not just unsustainable; it’s educationally disastrous.The AFT does a back-to-school campaign every year to engage with members. This year, we are dedicating $5 million to this effort. We’ll still connect with teachers and school staff, but we’ll also reach out to families and communities about the value of children returning to school in-person.From San Francisco to Kanawha, West Virginia; from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, to Minneapolis; from pre-K to higher education—we are developing programs and deploying activists to this campaign like we would for get-out-the-vote efforts.Members of some of our local chapters, such as the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, will go door-to-door, visiting students’ homes to talk about the health-and-safety and education programs in place at schools, and to encourage families to send their children back for in-person learning.In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers is advocating for schools to hold open houses for parents, to show them health safeguards and other resources, to answer questions, and to build trust.United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union are participating in COVID-19 vaccination events for students, families, and communities. The CTU is calling on the mayor and the school district to join its members over the summer in engaging with the majority of families that have opted thus far to stick with remote learning, and encouraging them to return.The AFT will operate “office hours” and clinics—designated times when affiliates and others can call in to discuss ideas and get technical support for returning to school. We hope that parents and superintendents will join us in this effort. And Share My Lesson, the AFT’s free online platform for education resources, will be a clearinghouse for best practices.And finally, we must recognize the opportunity we have to do more than just physically return to schools, as important as that is. We must also put in place supports to help students recover from the pandemic—socially, emotionally, and academically. And we must reimagine teaching and learning to focus on what sparks students’ passion, builds confidence, and nurtures critical thinking—so all children have the opportunity to thrive.The United States will not be fully back to normal until we are fully back in school. And our union is all in.
America Is Already on the Vaccine Honor System
If you have been fortunate enough to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, you also possess an essential, high-tech tool for proving your immunity to others.Just kidding, it’s a piece of cardstock. On the flimsy rectangle that all Americans get with their shots, doctors and pharmacists record dates of administration, vaccine type, and lot number. Some scrawl the information by hand with a pen; others apply a preprinted sticker. The cards offer no special marker to prove their authenticity, no scannable code to connect to a digital record. At three by four inches, they’re even too awkwardly sized to fit in a wallet. A mid-century polio-vaccine card doesn’t look too different from today’s COVID-19 vaccination records.Distributed by the CDC to those administering the vaccines, these cards are supposed to help recipients get the correct second dose, if needed, and offer a personal record, Jason Schwartz, a Yale public-health professor, told me. But they’ve taken on a considerably grander importance as pandemic restrictions have eased in the United States—especially now that the CDC has okayed vaccinated people going maskless in most places—because they’re the only thing available to all Americans that shows someone has been vaccinated. When you get a COVID-19 shot, the information goes into a digital record kept by the state where it was administered, and that’s the end of the road. The CDC does not hold records of individual vaccinations, and the White House has indicated that it has no plans for a federal database. (Neither the CDC nor the Department of Defense, which ran the Operation Warp Speed vaccine program, responded to my requests for comment.)This setup has made things complicated for businesses, employers, universities, restaurants, concert halls, airlines, and any other institutions that want to verify people’s vaccination status as the country reopens. It’s easy to say that customers, employees, or students need to be vaccinated, but it’s much more difficult to check that someone really is. A few states have created or promised more technical “vaccine passport” systems—usually smartphone apps connected to state databases—that could confirm people have been vaccinated against COVID-19. But many Republican-led states, including Texas, Florida, and Arizona, have opposed or even banned the implementation of any sort of vaccine verification system, mostly citing government overreach.The verification methods that places choose, if any, will certainly influence people’s behavior. At the same time, what requiring an immunization means is easy to misconstrue. America is simply past the point when any system could reasonably offer a foolproof, fraud-proof, universal method of confirming that someone has gotten a COVID-19 shot—flimsy cards and scattered apps included. Instead, we are bound to rely on the same method Americans have always had when it comes to proving vaccination: an honor system built on mutual trust.In many cases, the imminent future of vaccine verification will probably follow the model of a cashier who asks for ID when you present a credit card. In the same way that the cashier looks to see that it is an ID, or that the photo matches your face, a vaccination gatekeeper might glance at a piece of paper or your phone screen to check that some sort of documentation exists—and not, for instance, scan anything to confirm that the document is legitimate and that antibodies are indeed coursing through your tissue and blood.Especially in verification-shy states, things might not even go that far; citizens will “prove” their status by simple attestation. But for any place that decides to require a vaccine card or passport for entry, the cashier method won’t validate much either. Given the political animus and misinformation surrounding COVID-19 policies of all kinds, it’s no surprise that some opponents of vaccination realized they could abuse that trust by buying or stealing blank vaccination cards. Earlier this month, the owner of a bar in California was charged with selling fraudulent cards. In The Washington Post’s coverage of the arrest, a security expert estimated that forgery “is more widespread than we even think at this point.”Digital vaccine-passport systems overcome vaccine cards’ awkward physicality, but just as hygiene theater turned cleaning into a false sense of pandemic security, vaccine passports risk becoming verification theater, especially if deployed in only a small number of states. In March, New York launched Excelsior Pass, a free app that claims to provide secure vaccine verification for entry into venues such as theaters and stadiums. Hawaii plans to introduce a system backed by the same company, and California has adopted a policy that seems to require a similar app. Excelsior Pass does plug into state databases to produce a screen or printout with a barcode that can be scanned by another app. But this is all limited by the fact that the database records only shots administered in New York State. And the app isn’t magic; not much is stopping someone from sharing their own screenshots or printouts with someone else.[Read: A better solution than laminating your vaccine card]When I asked an Excelsior Pass help-desk agent how a business could confirm that a pass actually belonged to its holder, she said it was the first time anyone had asked that question. “As far as I know, there is no way,” she said. A vaccine-scanning agent could check the pass against a holder’s ID, but only a name and date of birth appear on the Excelsior Pass anyway. The New York governor’s office told me that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are downloading Excelsior Pass each day, and that “passes must be verified against a photo ID.” In a high-traffic environment such as a stadium or even a restaurant, though, it’s hard to believe that everyone will take the time to do so.None of this is to say that lying and forgery will necessarily be as big of a problem as some coverage has suggested. Millions and millions of Americans have received a shot or are eager to get one. And just because faking it is possible doesn’t mean that most people who oppose vaccinations will happily leap into deceit. (In March, the FBI warned that producing or purchasing vaccine cards is illegal.) But any practical consideration of COVID-19 vaccination requirements in the U.S. has to contend with the fact that hopes to require vaccinations in the first place only go so far.Other countries may not be better off. Some have devised a variety of high- and low-tech solutions to provide universal vaccination verification, including a European Union–wide digital pass and printable QR codes in Israel, which have limitations similar to those of the U.S. systems. But America’s scattershot, state-specific approach makes meaningful widespread verification all the more a fantasy.Don’t we confirm vaccination status all the time, and for much less scary diseases? No, we do not. Vaccine mandates can effectively increase immunization rates, but mandate has mostly meant encouragement, not requiring demonstrable evidence. Vaccine verification in America has been janky from the start. Vaccinations have always been recorded primarily on paper, and evidence of immunity has always been based largely on trust.Real verification of any vaccination remains, at the most basic level, pretty difficult. Every state maintains an immunization registry that records new vaccinations, but no matter the state, these systems record only vaccines administered in the state. If you move, your new physician could record your earlier shots on a paper record, but not an electronic one. In this way, digital vaccination records are typically less complete than paper ones. And nearly all states allow citizens to opt out of the vaccine registry anyway.Citizens usually can’t access their own records, and when they can, the process is not fast or easy. In some states, only medical offices can access digital vaccine records; in others, select agencies such as child-care facilities and schools are authorized to access them. Many companies are planning to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, which is perfectly legal under certain conditions, but these mandates can’t amount to much more than asking employees if they’ve gotten a shot. Even then, exemptions would likely be in place for reasons of disability or religion—and medical inquiries of certain kinds might run afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act.The most common reason to need an immunization record is to enroll in school. In Georgia, where I live, new students must file a document, Form 3231, before they can register. A physician is supposed to fill out this form, which amounts to little more than a series of blank fields for various immunization dates. An FAQ from the Georgia Department of Public Health indicates that “only health departments and physicians licensed in Georgia can obtain blank immunization certificates,” presumably to control access to this official record in order to prevent misuse. But when I performed a simple Google search for Form 3231, the third result linked to exactly that, a blank immunization form. If someone wanted to, they could easily falsify the dates and claim inoculations they hadn’t really gotten. (The Georgia Department of Public Health didn’t respond to my request for comment.)[Listen: The crime of refusing vaccination]One big difference between an immunization record and a COVID-19 vaccination card is that the official record is signed by a health-care provider. Forging this signature could amount to committing a felony in all 50 states. This appears easy enough to get around: Some vaccine-record fraud has been perpetrated by complicit doctors. But also, the data on these forms might hardly be verified in the first place. Schwartz, whose research at Yale focuses on the history and public policy of vaccination, suspects that these documents are checked to see if they look like medical records, but not for much else. “If it passes that very low bar of looking plausibly accurate, I suspect that is considered good enough,” he said.Even international verification faces similar limitations. In the case of vaccines recommended or required for travel abroad (such as those for yellow fever, typhoid, and rabies), most countries rely on the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, provided by the World Health Organization. That instrument is—wait for it—a yellow card with written inoculation records accompanied by medical stamps or signatures.America’s resolutely patchwork approach to vaccine verification is not a failure of imagination. Schwartz noted that the technical hurdle is relatively surmountable; given verifiable vaccine billings to Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers, along with the state databases, you could get a pretty comprehensive accounting. Eventually, in theory, some aggregation of state immunization registries could make the fantasy of a countrywide vaccine passport a reality.But the U.S. has already chosen a different path. Introducing a universal vaccine passport would not change the cultural, psychological, and civil-libertarian resistance to a national medical-certification system. When vaccination becomes an amorphous, cosmic battle of national political division, getting people to accept inoculations—which is the goal—becomes even harder. The existing recordkeeping system has worked well enough over the years, and so it will likely persist: Scribbles on sheets of paper, some signed and some not, will corroborate protection. COVID-19 vaccination cards will give way to … more cards or papers, probably. Perhaps signed by a doctor this time. Perhaps with a barcode that systems such as Excelsior Pass might read. The honor system will persist too, like it does with most documents and identification.If you’re a vociferous vaccine advocate, this can easily sound disheartening. But that shouldn’t necessarily be the case. Remember that mandates have mostly meant strong, official encouragements, not verifications. On the one hand, it’s understandable to be wary of going much further: In China, COVID-19 tracking has expanded the nation’s already concerning use of health data for citizen monitoring. On the other hand, the solutions currently on offer in the U.S. overlook the fact that the main hurdles to vaccine mandates are not technological. The whole vaccination apparatus just hasn’t sought this level of verifiable confirmation before.But verifiable confirmation is exactly what vaccine passport implies. That makes it a wrongheaded way to understand vaccine record-keeping. Vaccination records aren’t even trying to be secure, official documents, like driver’s licenses and passports. Instead, they are more like paper contracts—documents whose contents become “true” given a medical professional’s imprimatur or review. A “passport” suggests a universal infrastructure for recording, documenting, retrieving, and analyzing changing vaccination information in real time. That is not our actual situation.For Schwartz, the core challenge for vaccines as a part of public health doesn’t have much to do with verifying inoculations. Rather, it has to do with striking an appropriate balance between carrots and sticks. Without widespread support for vaccination, and the COVID-19 vaccines in particular, the ability to enforce its uptake will fail. “I worry about passports and permission to travel becoming the focal point,” Schwartz said, “when we really need to focus on helping to sell these vaccines.”To do that, it might be better to reframe what a “vaccine mandate” really means. Instead of an impersonal, technical ratification infrastructure, it boils down to asking people if they would please get vaccinated, and trusting that they have if they say they have. To accomplish that goal, Schwartz has a decidedly low-tech suggestion: “Focus on the preexisting communities where we have relationships and bonds.” Workplaces and schools, where people are already bound to others in an organic way, are a good place to start. According to Schwartz, if an organization you trust, such as your office or school, leads the charge from the grass roots in encouraging its community to get shots, more people are likely to do so, even if the documentation is imperfect. Extra incentives, whether in the form of free donuts, cash lotteries, or mask-free living, can also help. From there, the immunity conferred by a commitment to act safely among schoolmates or work colleagues would carry over to restaurants, airplanes, and concert venues. It’s more manageable than a top-down system of compliance, to which Americans respond poorly.No matter the appeal of a universal certification that would give businesses, airlines, theaters, and the public who uses them peace of mind about the vaccination status of those around them, Schwartz considers the cultural barriers to implementing such a system “insurmountable.” Establishing and relying on real mutual trust among citizens shouldn’t feel silly or foolish. That is not the current condition in America, to be sure. But we would be remiss to give up its possibility or dream of replacing it for good with an app.
How FDR Changed Political Communication
The renowned filmmaker Ken Burns has a new project called UNUM, about the sources of connection rather than separation in American life.His latest segment involves “Communication” in all its aspects, and it combines historical footage with current commentary. Some of the modern commenters are Yamiche Alcindor, Jane Mayer, Megan Twohey, Kara Swisher, and Will Sommer. You can see their clips here.One more of these segments covers the revolution in political communication wrought by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio addresses known as “fireside chats.” It was drawn from Burns’s earlier documentary Empire of the Air, which was narrated by Jason Robards. You can see a clip from that documentary here.As part of the UNUM series of contemporary response to historical footage, Burns’s team asked me to respond to the FDR segment. (Why me? In 1977—which was 44 years after FDR’s first fireside chat, and 44 years ago, as of now—the newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter gave his first fireside chat, which I helped write. It’s fascinating to watch, as a historical artifact; you can see the C-Span footage here.)This is what I thought about FDR’s language, and how it connects to the spirit of our moment in political time: For reference, here is the text version of what I said in the Burns video, about those FDR talks: The most important words in Franklin Roosevelt’s initial fireside chat, during the depths of Depression and banking crisis in 1933, were the two very first words after he was introduced. They were: My friends. Of course political leaders had used those words for centuries. But American presidents had been accustomed to formal rhetoric, from a rostrum, to a crowd, stentorian or shouted in the days before amplification. They were addressing the public as a group—not families, or individuals, in their kitchens or living rooms: My friends. A few previous presidents had dared broadcast over the radio—Harding, Coolidge, Hoover. But none of them had dared imagine the intimacy of this tone—of trying to create a national family or neighborhood gathering, on a Sunday evening, to grapple with a shared problem. Roosevelt’s next most important words came in the next sentence, when he said “I want to talk for a few minutes” with his friends across the country about the mechanics of modern banking. Discussing, explaining, describing, talking—those were his goals, not blaming or declaiming or pronouncing. What I find most remarkable in the tone that followed was a president talking up to a whole national audience, confident that even obscure details of finance could be grasped if clearly explained, rather than talking down, to polarize and oversimplify. Consciously or unconsciously, nearly every presidential communication since that time has had FDR’s model in mind. In 1977 the newly inaugurated 39th president Jimmy Carter gave a fireside chat about the nation’s energy crisis, a speech that, as it happens, I helped write. Nearly every president has followed Roosevelt’s example of the basic three part structure of a leader’s speech at time of tragedy or crisis: First, expressing empathy for the pain and fear of the moment; second, expressing confidence about success and recovery in the long run; and third, offering a specific plan, for the necessary next steps. Some of these presentations have been more effective, some less. But all are operating against the background, and toward the standard of connection, set by the 32nd president, Franklin Roosevelt, starting in 1933. “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan,” he said in that first fireside chant. “Let us unite in banishing fear.” The opening words of that talk had been “My friends.” His closing words were, “Together we cannot fail.”
The Books Briefing: What’s Wrong With Following a Recipe?
Naz Deravian, the author of the cookbook Bottom of the Pot, grew up in a family that shunned recipes in favor of spontaneous cooking—an attitude that initially impeded her effort to write a cookbook. However, as she wrote in an article for The Atlantic, the specificity and certainty of following a recipe eventually became a source of comfort for her, especially as she grappled with national and personal stressors.Even for those who are not facing such upheaval, recipes can be reassuring safety nets. Spontaneity has become a glamorous ideal in the food world (see, for example, the editor Sam Sifton’s recent work The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes). But at-home cooks tend to need more guidance before they’re prepared for complete freedom. Recipes can provide that. So can guidebooks, such as Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Nosrat’s work, which my colleague Joe Pinsker called a “metacookbook,” not only teaches readers how to prepare specific dishes but also helps them to develop the culinary intuition needed for successful experimentation in the kitchen. And that knowledge comes with another added benefit: efficiency. Rather than seeking out complex dishes with long prep times, intuitive cookers can follow their instincts to prepare something quick and delicious.Still, when one does have the time, nothing beats the meditative calm of slowly preparing a longer recipe. The experience reminds us that, as Michael Pollan, a chef and the author of Cooked says, “This process we’re being told is pure drudgery is actually interesting and gratifying and satisfying.” ​Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email. What We’re Reading Eric Wolfinger Writing an Iranian cookbook in an age of anxiety “As the world thundered, I paved a new, diplomatic relationship with my measuring cups and timer, finding solace in their certainty. Whereas only months before I’d felt restricted by the written recipe, I now relied on it.”
Fish Sex Can Get Very, Very Weird
In 1975, scientists tried spaying a few hundred female betta fish. We all know what happens to spayed cats and dogs: They become sterile. Betta fish are different. A third of the surviving bettas regenerated an ovary—which, okay, interesting enough. But the remaining two-thirds did something much, much stranger: They grew testes. They turned brighter and darker in color too—like male bettas. They grew elongated fins—like males. They even started making sperm—like males, obviously. When mated with other female betta fish, these females-turned-males produced offspring that looked perfectly healthy. The only notable oddity was that the resulting broods were usually, but not always, exclusively female.From this, the scientists essentially concluded that we understand nothing about fish sex.How fish become male or female is far weirder and more varied than the XX-female, XY-male chromosome system of humans. (Though even the human story can get complicated.) Clownfish, for example, are all born male, but one male in a group will irreversibly turn into a dominant female. In Atlantic silversides, sex is influenced by water temperature: Warm means male, cold means female. In a family of fish called cichlids, some species have a sex-chromosome system similar to that of humans, while closely related species have a system similar to that of birds. To spice things up, some species have both humanlike XY and birdlike ZW chromosomes. At least 20 sex-determination strategies have been found in the family alone, says Thomas Kocher, a biologist at the University of Maryland at College Park, and he expects that many more are still undiscovered. No one really knows why fish have such a diversity of strategies for sex determination—it’s “one of the biggest questions in evolutionary biology at the moment,” says Manfred Schartl, a developmental biologist at the University of Würzburg, in Germany.Betta fish, it turns out, might be a case study in how a novel sex strategy emerges. Two new studies suggest that pet betta fish evolved a sex-determination gene that does not work the same way in wild bettas of the same or closely related species. “The way that sex is determined changes very, very quickly across the evolutionary tree,” says Hannes Svardal, now a biologist at the University of Antwerp who co-authored one of the new studies. And betta fish, he adds, seem like an “extreme case” of sex determination changing within a species. In our bid to breed more beautiful and fiercer fish, we might have given them a sex gene too.[Read: Sexual attraction is the oldest story on Earth]Svardal was himself once a teenage betta-fish breeder. Domesticated bettas come in a dizzying array of colors and shapes, but Svarda liked the less ostentatious wild ones, and he traveled to their native Southeast Asia to collect them with his father in his youth. A few years ago, his teenage hobby ended up inspiring a new line of research: Bettas were originally bred as fighting fish in Thailand, and Svardal thought they might be an easy-to-keep model organism for studying aggression. (Consider other species bred for aggression: chicken, bulls. Not so easy to keep in a lab.) He got connected with Andrés Bendesky, an evolutionary geneticist now at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, who had the same idea. This, not sex, was their original interest. Together, they sequenced nearly 100 domesticated and wild betta fish. Independently, a second group led by scientists at Nanchang University, in China, and UC Berkeley began its own years-long betta-fish project, sequencing nearly 800 betta fish. Both studies were recently posted as preprints online and are under review at a scientific journal.The two teams independently combed through their fish genomes, looking for any and every mutation that might correlate with a difference in looks or behavior. Both quickly homed in on a gene called dmrt1 whose sequence differed between domesticated male and female betta fish. dmrt1 is linked to sex determination in birds, reptiles, and other species of fish too. In domesticated betta fish, the male version of dmrt1 essentially acts like a Y chromosome; just one copy of the male version is enough to make a fish male. The teams did not see the same close correlation between dmrt1 and sex in wild betta of the same or related species.But—and this is a big but—even in domesticated bettas, dmrt1 was not 100 percent determinative of sex. Both teams noticed that a small proportion, up to 10 percent or so, of fish with the male version of dmrt1 were actually female, and vice versa. In other words, some female fish were XY and some male fish were XX. Clearly, genetics alone does not determine sex in betta fish.This finding actually helps make sense of the offspring from the surgically sex-reversed bettas from 1975. Most of the females whose ovaries were removed must have started as XX females. The surgery, for some reason, triggered a switch to male, but a fish that was still genetically XX mating with another XX female could produce only XX babies—which is likely why the scientists mostly saw all-female broods. But given the imperfect sex-determination scheme, a Y chromosome could have sometimes snuck in with one parent, which would have produced a mix of baby male and female bettas.What, if not genetics, influences sex in betta fish then? Betta-fish breeders—who enter competitions akin to the Westminster Dog Show—have swapped many theories: temperature, pH level, even the age of the mother or father fish. Many have also noticed that when females are kept together, one will turn into a male—without any surgical or hormonal intervention from humans. When Bendeskyhas polled the audience at betta-fish shows, asking if they have personally seen adult females turn into males, he says,“they all raise their hand.”[Read: Females’ eggs may actively select certain sperm]Betta fish aren’t the first fish for which domestication has scrambled sex determination. The zebrafish, an extremely common lab animal, actually lost its sex chromosome through domestication. Without a sex chromosome, sex can become unpredictable, which turns into a problem if scientists want to perpetuate a particular line of zebrafish for experiments. “I know of colleagues who have lost mutant lines because suddenly there was no male or female,” Schartl told me. Betta-fish breeders long ago might have ended up selecting for dmrt1 precisely because they wanted more predictable ratios of male to female bettas. Males tend to fetch higher prices in pet stores because of their more ostentatious color and fins, and they are the ones used in fights in Thailand. For breeding, you need both sexes, though. One breeder told me that he actually prefers more females because he can cross one good male with multiple females.Wild and domesticated betta fish have also regularly exchanged genes over the years: Breeders cross their domesticated lines with wild fish to introduce new traits, and domesticated bettas can escape or be let go into the wild. You can even see it in their DNA. “There is this gene flow [in] both directions,” Svardal says. In particular, the genetic spillover from domesticated to wild suggests that humans can end up changing wild fish without meaning to. In aquaculture where fish are bred for food, tipping the sex ratio has long been an industry obsession in order to increase the number of males or females, whichever are bigger depending on the species. But these domesticated fish can escape and breed with wild populations, thereby changing those fish too. “You're not really returning to the wild the same genetic structure,” says David Conover, a fish biologist at Stony Brook University. What happens in fish tanks doesn’t stay in fish tanks.In recent years, the rise of DNA sequencing has ignited new interest in and methods for studying sex determination. The early days were much lonelier. When Gene Lucas, the founder of the International Betta Congress, was trying to study sex determination in betta fish in the 1960s, the big genetics departments were interested in breeding better chickens or cows for agriculture, he told me. Nobody was interested in a hobbyist animal. How the times have changed: In addition to the two groups who published recent preprints on the betta-fish genome, a third group in Singapore also published a similar paper in April (though that group did not investigate sex determination specifically). “We thought, Ah, now we finally found a niche without anyone else working. We can take our time,” says Rasmus Nielsen, a geneticist at UC Berkeley who co-authored one of the preprints. Instead, he and his co-authors found themselves racing to get their preprint up after the other preprint posted two weeks ago. Genetics has exploded into such a big field that even a relatively obscure animal has multiple groups competing to sequence its DNA.Still, when it comes to the mystery of sex, these betta-fish-genome studies can give only a partial explanation. We know every letter of the betta-fish genome now. We can pinpoint the genes that makes the fish royal blue versus steel blue. But we still cannot explain exactly why some fish end up being the opposite sex than their genes would suggest. To get there, we need to look beyond DNA. Fifty years later, those female-turned-male betta fish still remain a scientific mystery.
We Can’t Hide in Our Bubble of Immunity Forever
The United States is rapidly encasing itself in a bubble of immunity. Heading into a quite possibly wonderful summer, more than half of adults are at least partly vaccinated against COVID-19, and their masks are coming off. Some will be rewarded with a million-dollar prize. The rest can wander into any CVS when they feel so moved. Soon that luxury will extend to tweens.By July 4, according to President Joe Biden, the bubble will be near completion. AsAmericans celebrate their independence, though, all indications suggest that the coronavirus pandemic will be raging. Only about 3 percent of adults are vaccinated in India, where a dangerous variant is spreading and tens of thousands of people are lost every day (based on very rough estimates from overloaded crematoria). In parts of Africa, almost no one is protected. The virus is tearing across South America. The contrast with the U.S. could not be starker. And we are doing very little about it.This has always been a tale of two pandemics: One for the rich people who can work anywhere while others bring provisions to their door; another for the poor who must work in risky conditions if they are to keep food on their own table. But until now, the fates of entire countries didn’t clearly track on the basis of wealth. The U.S., for example, has the most expensive health-care system in the world, and was also the hardest hit in 2020, while many countries with far fewer resources suffered far less. Writing in The New Yorker in February, Siddhartha Mukherjee pondered how India, by contrast, could have spent so little money (and done relatively little locking down), and yet seemed, at that point, to have escaped the worst of COVID-19. Was it something to do with the climate? Genetics, lifestyle, hygiene, immune-system differences?[Read: A simple rule of thumb for knowing when the pandemic is over]The answer turned out to be: no. These factors almost certainly play some role in determining the scope of outbreaks from place to place and community to community. But the biggest variable may have beenwas luck. And that luck was always temporary. Not until many months after New York City became the global epicenter of the pandemic did certain parts of the U.S.—especially in the Midwest—experience a first surge in cases. But ultimately no state was spared. And the virus is more likely to keep coming back to places where people think the pandemic is over without decisive action to drive down the virus everywhere.This is the point we continually fail to grasp. Since the day President Biden took office, and much more frequently of late, he has taken to repeating this sentiment. In January, he promised to lead a global effort to eradicate the virus: “History is going to measure whether we’re up to the task. I believe we are.” But no plan for eradication has been proposed. Instead, we’ve tried to have it both ways: saying that we care about global health and are doing everything we can to protect it, while at the same time hoarding hundreds of millions of vaccine doses, as well as the technologies and information necessary to produce more. We have even struggled to admit that Biden’s vaccine policy so far has largely amounted to a continuation of Donald Trump’s: America first.The amorality of this tack is clearer by the day. In the early pandemic, when little was known about how to prevent or treat the disease, countries with material resources weren’t at quite as much of an advantage. A dearth of ICU beds could be compensated for by conscientious individuals. The countries that got by were those where citizens took basic preventive measures, governments supported people who needed to stay home, and robust, depoliticized lines of communication existed between health officials and the public.Vaccines have changed the equation. Now even the U.S. is doing okay. Soon we will be vaccinating healthy 12-year-olds, while high-risk people in many countries continue to fill hospitals. Yet it’s uncouth to even mention this. After I tweeted this sentiment last week, the newscaster Mehdi Hasan cited my tweet in an interview with Anthony Fauci, who gave the administration’s standard line. He would “look at it another way,” he said, wherein we try to protect ourselves and those in other countries at the same time. “We’ve got to do everything we can to get people in low- and middle-income countries vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can,” Fauci said. That’s unrelated to the need to vaccinate kids in our own country.Vaccinating kids is urgent. We obviously need to pursue vaccination both at home and abroad. But we are not. In April, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would give away 60 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses (which we didn’t need) to other countries. Even that is enough to cover only about 4 percent of India’s population. Giving away surplus doses won’t solve the problem, any more than shipping unsold grocery-store blueberries back around the globe would solve world hunger. Waiting for a few wealthy countries to supply the world with vaccines in future pandemics would doom us to repeat tragedies such as the current horror in India.Meaningful action would focus on building up production capacity and supply chains everywhere, not simply to honor the basic sanctity of human life, but because the emergence of variants and new viruses threatens us all, everywhere, constantly. That threat could be eliminated by ensuring that rapid vaccination is available worldwide. If we don’t establish a better system of production and distribution, every future pandemic will split us in two.In this moment, disparities may seem inevitable. To some degree, they are. We can’t simply ship excess doses of the mRNA vaccines around the world, for example, on account of their cold-storage requirements and relatively short shelf lives. Vaccine doses that Americans opt not to take won’t end up being flown to Africa; they’ll go to waste.It’s also true that vaccines are being produced by dozens of companies around the world, and if these companies could simply ship more doses, they would. Pharmaceutical companies don’t intentionally leave money on the table. The big pharmaceutical companies, as well as Bill Gates, have made exactly this argument: Vaccines are already being produced as quickly as possible.But if we’re maxed out on production, this is by design. It’s the result of decisions that the U.S. has made throughout the pandemic—most notably Trump’s refusal last September to sign on to a global coalition to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines, known as COVAX—that have perpetuated a system of pharmaceutical sales that we have built over decades. Taxpayer money is used to fund basic science research, and then pharmaceutical companies develop products based on this research and sell them back to the government. (Medicare is the largest drug buyer, and it is not allowed to negotiate what it pays.) U.S. taxpayers have already, under Trump, contributed some $14 billion to the development and manufacturing of patented COVID-19 vaccines. That’s in addition to the billions spent over decades on the NIH-funded research these technologies are based on.The drug industry claims that if companies such as Pfizer didn’t stand to profit in the billions, they wouldn’t have invested to advance the technologies involved in developing and producing vaccines. But this same argument also illustrates the danger of such a system: Our emergency-preparedness plan for a global disaster depends on an industry that will not come to the rescue unless it stands to cash in. To rely on a handful of private companies to end the next pandemic, too, amounts to a cosmic roll of the dice—especially when those companies will not make guarantees of equitable distribution, or of production past the point at which a profit can be made.[Read: America’s patchwork pandemic is fraying even further]Adapting this system would bring us much closer to doing “everything we can” to get the world vaccinated, as Fauci suggested is the goal. Biden announced last week that his administration would take measures to waive patents for COVID-19 vaccines. This is an important, if incremental step. As the pharmaceutical industry has pointed out, making vaccines—particularly mRNA vaccines—is technologically difficult and requires investment. On its own, releasing patent rights is sort of like Tesla publishing its design secrets on Reddit. If other car companies wanted to produce exact replicas of Teslas, they could … eventually. But getting started would take a lot of time and money, and these companies wouldn’t make that investment unless they thought they could sell enough Tesla knockoffs to make it worth their while.Vaccines are more like fire trucks than Teslas, though. When your house is on fire isn’t the time to start building a fire truck. If your neighbors see the blaze and hand you plans for how to build an aerial ladder platform, you are not grateful. Global manufacturing and distribution systems for vaccines cannot be built immediately, and the release of IP at this point does not constitute a plan of action. The world stands waiting to see whether Biden will push the World Trade Organization to waive the patents—and do so in a way that encourages countries and governments to invest in long-term production. (Moderna has voluntarily shared its IP only “for the remainder of the pandemic.”) We’ll need to fortify and maintain supply chains, facilitate technology transfers, and build up genomic-sequencing capacities around the world so that new viruses or variants can be identified and boosters or new vaccines adapted accordingly.This is not a small task. But this moment could forever change precedents for how vaccines and even other drugs are produced and sold—who can and can’t afford them. One of the few things on which Trump and Biden ostensibly agree is that drug prices are far too high. The issue has long had broad, bipartisan support among nearly 80 percent of Americans. It’s in everyone’s interest to set up sustainable systems for development and production everywhere—of vaccines, at the very least—that can kick into action as soon as a new virus or variant emerges.The components of this system should function more like fire departments than factories for luxury goods. Vaccine production needs to happen in emergencies regardless of profit or shareholder interests. Vaccines could be seen as public goods that are vital to global security, not as part of a humanitarian cause or charity issue. If the past year has taught us nothing else, it’s that every human has a personal interest in a world where every other human has quick and ready access to vaccines against emerging pandemic viruses.An effective global strategy would allocate vaccines to the places where they would do the most to stop transmission, minimize death, and halt the spread of a dangerous virus before it can turn into a pandemic—let alone two pandemics. Such a system could stand as the enduring legacy of the Biden administration. If he’s willing to stand up to the industry.
What It’s Like to Own a Kentucky Derby Horse With Your Friends
Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.This week she talks with a group of friends who met playing college football and got interested in horse racing after graduation. Now, along with their other friend Reiley, who didn’t participate in the interview, they are part owners of the horse that came in third place at the 2021 Kentucky Derby. They discuss the pact they made to race horses for the experience, not for the money; the “emotional blackout” they feel during a race; and how their Derby contender, Hot Rod Charlie, is a friend too. The Friends: Eric Armagost, 28, a venture capitalist and a managing member of Boat Racing LLC, who lives in Peachtree City, GeorgiaDan Giovacchini, 28, a tech-startup co-founder and a managing member of Boat Racing LLC, who lives in BostonPatrick O’Neill, 28, the vice president of sales at an apparel company and a managing member of Boat Racing LLC, who lives in BostonAlex Quoyeser, 28, an operations manager for Lyft and a managing member of Boat Racing LLC, who lives in Santa Monica, California This interview has been edited for length and clarity.Julie Beck: How did you guys meet and become friends?Alex Quoyeser: All five of us were members of the Brown University football team, class of 2015. We also all majored in business, entrepreneurship, and organizations. And we happened to join the same fraternity with 30 fellow football players. So we had a high degree of exposure to one another.Beck: What was the social environment like on the football team?Eric Armagost: It was a work hard, play hard type of mentality. We were at a rigorous school with rigorous academics, and also working really hard on the football field with workouts, practice, and games. Then on the weekends, we’d just kick back with people on the football team who were our closest friends.Beck: Between the packed football schedule, class, and the fraternity, what percentage of your time would you say you spent together in college?Dan Giovacchini: I’d say 80 to 90 percent. For better and worse.Patrick O’Neill: There are no other individuals whom I saw or hung out with more for four straight years than these guys and the rest of the Brown football class. That includes parents, who we would see for two weeks during winter break and then maybe three weeks during the summer.Eric: The only times we weren’t together were when Pat was sneaking out to go to horse races. Nick Lawley, Dan Giovacchini, Alex Quoyeser, Reiley Higgins, Patrick O'Neill, and Eric Armagost in Scottsdale, Arizona at the Waste Management Open in 2018 (Courtesy of Dan Giovacchini) Beck: Have you always been fans of horse racing?Eric: Patrick, it’s in his blood. His two uncles are some of the most famous horse trainers and agents in the U.S. The other guys are relatively newer to the sport. Pat has always been involved in it, always watching TVG on his phone in the back of class.Beck: Watching what?Eric: TVG, which is the big network that covers a lot of horse racing. Freshman year, in 2012, Patrick said he was going to the Kentucky Derby and we all laughed. He actually got out of a pledging event to be there with his family, which we thought might’ve been made up. Then we saw him several days later in the winner’s circle with his uncles and I’ll Have Another, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2012. [Only then] did we realize it was such a real thing for Pat.Beck: Patrick, how involved were you with racing growing up?Patrick: My grandfather, whom I am named after, was very into the sport, not from a business perspective, but from a gambling perspective. Unfortunately—I love him to death and I’d say this to his face—he might’ve gambled a little bit too much. I think it resulted in him losing a couple of houses.Immediately after high school, my uncles went into horse racing. They saw the good part of horse racing, which was the amazing people and the majestic animals. One started from the very bottom of becoming a thoroughbred horse trainer. Picking up horses’ poop—that’s literally how he started. Slowly but surely, they made their name in the sport. Fast forward to 2012, one uncle ended up winning the Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another, and the other uncle was the person who picked the horse.Beck: When you say “picked a horse,” do you mean he toured stables and was like, “This one’s for us”?Patrick: You’re not too far off. He saw thousands of horses at a sale—how they walk, how they look—reviewed the pedigree, and picked horses that he felt were worth the price.I remember from a very early age going to the bottom feeding tracks all across Southern California. Did I ever think that I would be at the Kentucky Derby? No. It’s certainly been a family passion. The O’Neill family owes a lot to horse racing.[Read: The first ‘real friend’ you make after college is special]Beck: How did you all go from just watching races with Patrick to wanting to get into the business yourselves?Dan: We spent those four years at Brown being intensely part of one another’s lives, then went off and graduated and started our lives in different cities. We had our text group, like I think all friend groups have, and we’d go on snowboarding trips, make up reasons to visit each other, and try and hold on to the friendship. On one of those trips, we were visiting Pat in San Diego and got to go to Del Mar, which has this awesome racetrack. We saw a horse win that his uncle Doug had trained.At that point, we’d been out of school for a couple of years and we said, “Hey, what if we tried to become part of this somehow?” We could each put in a few thousand bucks that we’d saved up, go to different tracks, and just compete together and hang out again.Patrick: I certainly understood the financial ramifications of horse racing more than the rest of this group. At Del Mar, everyone saw the fun that horse racing can bring, but no one really understood the financial negatives. You’re paying for an animal that, if he or she doesn’t want to run fast, is worth zero. And you might’ve spent a hundred thousand dollars on a horse. It’s really not the most financially smart decision.So, loving these guys like brothers, I said, “Eh, that’s not how I imagined spending time with my best friends,” because I felt like potentially this could result in a very, very close relationship going sour.To these guys’ credit, they came together and said, “We’re going to promise one another that we’re going to do this for the right reasons. We’re going to focus on making memories together.” That’s how Boat Racing LLC started.Dan: No regrets, if we lose every dollar. We had an amount in mind [that we were willing to spend], and if it didn’t end up going anywhere, then that’s an amazing adventure.Beck: Why is it called Boat Racing if you race horses?Alex: Boat Racing is a reference to a beer-drinking game that we played in college, basically just a beer-chugging relay race. Never in a million years, when we came up with the name of the organization, did we ever think we were going to be explaining it to any publication of any esteem. It was a playful way to pay homage to our shared history together at Brown.Beck: Can you give me the overview of the journey from when you formed the LLC up to Hot Rod Charlie, your horse that ran in the Derby last weekend?Eric: We’ve had three horses. The first one, Tell Me I’m Pretty, was a rather large filly. She had some good races, some not so good races, and ultimately ended up entering what is called a claiming race. That means she’s up for sale at the beginning of the race and whoever purchases her for that predetermined price owns her the second that she crosses the finish line. So we traded ownership for a relatively low [price]. It was not a big winner for Boat Racing LLC.The second horse, Impossible Task, had a little bit better outcome, won some races. Ultimately we traded ownership in a $100,000 claiming race, which was very similar to the amount that we purchased him for. So one bad horse, one break-even horse.Then there was not a lot of money in the bank accounts, and we were either going to [stop] or shoot our shot one more time. Thankfully, we decided, after some debate, to take one more shot and invest in Hot Rod Charlie.Dan: We were partial owners—I think 20 or 25 percent on all those horses. And we split that five ways too. We all own 5 percent of Hot Rod Charlie. Hot Rod Charlie races in the Louisiana Derby. (Jamie Newell/TwinSpires) Eric: Hot Rod Charlie, similarly, had a rocky start. He got fourth and fifth in his first few races. Then we put blinkers on him, which make him only see straight ahead. These younger horses, they get easily distracted; [blinkers tend to be] a game changer for them. All of a sudden we won a race in Santa Anita. Then we got the opportunity to go to the Juvenile Breeders’ Cup, which is this really, really important race. [His odds] were, like, 94 to one, total long shot. We were like okay, we’re here for the experience, obviously screaming our hearts out, even at 94 to one. And he ultimately got second in the race. You can imagine how excited we were. We were jumping up and down and shaking chairs. We might’ve celebrated more than the horse owner who actually won.At that point, we knew we had something special. We had not yet qualified for the Kentucky Derby, and we thought the Louisiana Derby in New Orleans was our best shot. He won that race, which had a million-dollar purse. And at that point we had punched our ticket to the Kentucky Derby.Patrick: Obviously all of 2020, the whole world was impacted by this horrible pandemic. We didn’t have the opportunity to get together—the reason Boat Racing was created. The Breeders’ Cup gave us our first opportunity. All those feelings Eric brought up were magnified by the fact that we hadn’t seen each other in a long time.Dan: The Kentucky Derby was reduced-capacity with some extra precautions in place, but we were able to go in person.Eric: We had a pretty epic showing. About 200 of our friends and family were there, yelling and screaming and rooting on Hot Rod Charlie.[Read: Overcoming American masculinity to build a deep male friendship]Beck: What happened for you guys on Derby Day? Did you go hang out with your horse? Did you just sit in the stands?Alex: We’re probably the only owners of a Kentucky Derby horse who had to take PTO to go watch our horse run in the Derby.Patrick: Horse-racing owners are known for being of a certain demographic—usually elderly, usually pretty WASPy. Usually you’re flying private planes to these events. We’re not the typical kind of horse owners.Alex: Hot Rod Charlie flew in on that Sunday, the same day that we got there. We visited him every morning. Our days looked like: Wake up at 6:30, go to the barn, see Chuck—we call him Chuck—and see him work out. Then we were talking to press, and then other miscellaneous festivities. Most of our friends got in on Friday, but for those who arrived earlier, we got a tent and hosted a dinner Thursday night.Saturday rolls around. We have interview obligations. We hang out with Hot Rod Charlie for about an hour and a half before the race. And then we do the famous walk along the track with the horses, then go to the owners’ seats in the front. Then the race goes off.Beck: The race itself is, what, two minutes?Patrick: Literally two minutes. You’re spot on.Beck: What is your memory of those two minutes?Patrick: We all had a lot of butterflies up into the race. We love this horse. He’s Chuck. He’s not Hot Rod Charlie. He’s the sixth brother of this five-man Boat Racing team. He’d been training his butt off. All the feedback we’re getting from his caretakers, my uncle included, was that he was ready to give his best.It’s different than football. In football, each of us had control of the outcome to some degree. But in horse racing, you’re completely reliant on an animal. You go, you have a good time, you make sure your family is having a good time. But they’re all there to watch your horse run for two minutes in a circle. There is such a buildup. You get into the gate and you can’t even breathe.Fortunately, he broke [out of the gate] really, really well. That was the first sign of an exhale, like, ah, he’s in a decent position. Then about 30 seconds in, he got squeezed by two other horses. But fortunately, Chuck’s a fighter. And a minute fifteen in, he couldn’t be in a better position. You can tell he’s feeling himself again. He’s running like we know he can run.That’s when you just—emotional blackout. You start going nuts. Everything that you can touch, you’re throwing. You have about 20 seconds of absolute exuberation, with the best people in your life. That is the two minutes. It certainly feels like eternity.As soon as Chuck passed the finish line [and came in third], there was an exhale of, Oh my gosh, we almost won. We were only one length, which is one horse, away from winning. But we immediately went to: What an amazing horse. What an amazing friend of ours. He’s not just a horse, he’s certainly a friend. And, most important, he came out of the race extremely healthy, extremely happy.That horse, at the end of the day, doesn’t owe us a thing. He gave us six to eight months of this amazing experience. If he never runs again, each and every one of us would be extremely happy about the entire experience. Alex says this best. He says it all the time. We won that race well before those gates ever opened.It’s a moment I’ll go to my grave with. I’ll be telling my grandchildren this. They’ll be saying, “Why are you continuously talking about that horse you owned in 2021?” But that was maybe the top moment in my life.Beck: Do you know what’s going to happen now that the first-place horse didn’t pass its drug test? What does that mean for Charlie?Patrick: It certainly is not great for the sport. If the second test comes back and it is positive, that horse will be disqualified and we will move up into second. But I don’t think any of us want to get second that way. It’s just extremely sad.Beck: Your friendship has been centered on two different sports now—first football, and now horse racing. What do you think it is about sports that facilitates friendship? Patrick O’Neill and Hot Rod Charlie (Courtesy of Dan Giovacchini) Dan: Sports are amazing for a million reasons, but it’s the in-between moments that make sports so special for friendships. We’ll always remember Brown versus Harvard and winter workouts at 6 a.m., but we’ll also remember getting to the dining hall really late or having to take an ice bath at 8:30 at night. With horse racing, it’s going to the barn, walking on the track after the race, and hanging out with the team and the barn help. Getting to share all those moments, the highs and lows—that’s really special.Eric: I’ll just add, competing is really fun. Everybody cheering and giving their energy toward a common thing. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you get third—which is still really exciting. Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is everything. And we really, really want to win.Patrick: We had a legitimate chance. Each of us had heard from experts that we were going to win that race. But none of us sulked after, none of us were pounding the table saying, “Why didn’t we win the Kentucky Derby? We deserve this.” Life’s a lot about losing. You want to have losing situations with the people who you respect and know will [lose] the right way.Beck: What do you win at the Derby? A trophy, or a wreath of flowers?Patrick: Both. And a lot of money.Beck: I was going to make a joke like, “The real wreath of flowers is the friends we made along the way.”Dan: I’m going to use that one.Beck: What’s next for Charlie and Boat Racing LLC?Alex: Hot Rod Charlie is looking forward to the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, which is the third leg of the Triple Crown, on June 5. Then he’ll continue to run as long as he stays healthy. And we’ll be there to support him every step of the way.For Boat Racing LLC, we actually purchased two new horses at an auction last month. We’re thrilled to see what comes of them, but if they never make it past the maiden claimer races or if they win the Kentucky Derby next year, it doesn’t make much of a difference to us. We’re just excited to be able to share the experiences.Patrick: A big part of our focus for Boat Racing LLC has been philanthropic. My dad passed away of melanoma my senior year in college. Each one of these guys met my dad, had a beer with him; he cheered them on playing football. So we will donate a sixth of all of our earnings, whether it’s the Kentucky Derby or any race that Chuck runs in, to the Melanoma Research Alliance. That means a lot to us.And on a funnier side, Chuck does desire to be a daddy one day.Beck: Is that what he told you?Patrick: Yes. So if he keeps running well, we do plan on having him become an official stallion. Our goal is to hopefully see offspring of Chuck and have them run for Boat Racing LLC in the future—I want to say it’d be the 2025 Kentucky Derby. It’d be awesome to have our kids experience young Hot Rod Charlies in their lives as well.If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.
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Re-openings in Europe, coping with COVID-19 in India, kayak racing in Italy, artistic swimming in Budapest, an elephant seal pup in California, a candlelight commemoration in Prague, a skateboard park in Texas, a Victory Day parade in Russia, protests in Colombia, and much more
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Podcast: Share the Vaccine ‘Recipe’
When the Biden administration announced support for waiving COVID-19 vaccine patents last week, it was met with praise, relief, skepticism, and alarm by different groups—but surprise all around. Pharmaceutical giants have long fought efforts to have their intellectual property released to meet international needs. And they’ve backed it up with immense political muscle. Could this time be different? Would it discourage future research, as critics such as Bill Gates claim? And how much (and how quickly) could it help?To understand the issue, James Hamblin and Maeve Higgins are joined on the podcast Social Distance by Julie Rovner, the chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News. Listen to their conversation here:Subscribe to Social Distance to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity:James Hamblin: What was your reaction to that news last week when the Biden administration indicated that they would be backing patent waivers?Julie Rovner: Well, of course, because I cover politics, my first inclination was political. It was like, Wow, the Biden administration is doing something that the drug industry really doesn’t want them to do. And, of course, the drug industry is flying high right now. Everybody loves them because they brought us these miraculous vaccines. But someone reminded me that [President Joe] Biden did, in fact, promise to do this patent waiver back last summer. So it was a campaign promise.Maeve Higgins: I’m over in Ireland and some of the E.U. leaders have said this isn’t going to make the biggest difference. Do you think they have a point?Rovner: I think it’s not going to make a difference right away. And, in fact, the CEOs of the companies making the vaccines are worried about competition for the raw ingredients that they need to continue to make the vaccines. I was at a meeting with the ambassador of one of the E.U. countries ... [and] he did say that it was really important that less-developed countries not just get vaccines from more-developed countries but that they actually manufacture their own vaccines. I had not heard that before. This was a month ago [and] this was a country that makes its own vaccines.He thought this waiver was really important. He really wanted to get the rest of the world up and running. Obviously, it will take a very long time. It’s not going to help India with its current crisis. India needs vaccines. India has lots of vaccine manufacturing. So I think it may be a long-run thing. The other question is: Is this the first nose under the camel’s tent about intellectual property and waiving patents? Particularly for the very powerful drug industry, which I know is powerful, not just in the U.S. but also in other parts of the world, including the E.U.Hamblin: So, just to clarify the terms, these patent waivers would mean Pfizer would kind of upload its plans ...Higgins: It would put them on TikTok and anybody could screenshot them ...Rovner: It would be a recipe. It would be like Tasty for vaccines.Hamblin: Yeah, but not everyone can just go make a vaccine in their kitchen. It still requires a lot of overhead, and time to ramp up, and technology. And so the question is: Are there actually companies out there that would make that investment if they could get the IP? And hasn’t Moderna already shared theirs, and not a lot of people took them up on it?Rovner: I would think the companies would want to, but these are not easy vaccines to make, particularly the mRNA ones. I don’t think it would be that simple for even some of the countries that have vaccine-manufacturing capabilities to necessarily do these quickly.But it’s definitely an interesting prospect, assuming the World Trade Organization goes ahead and does this. Remember: This is just us supporting it. The W.T.O. actually has to do it. Assuming that they do, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with it.Higgins: Is Biden just potentially really upsetting the pharmaceutical industry, while not necessarily taking a meaningful step to actually help the countries that desperately need vaccines?Rovner: The U.S. is also doing other things to help countries that desperately need vaccines. There’s been a lot of concern about the U.S. [being] slow to help India. And there is this lingering irritation of “Why are we vaccinating 12-to-15-year-olds when there are so many countries in the world that can’t vaccinate anybody yet?”What obligation does the U.S. and all the developed countries that now have these vaccines have to less-developed countries? And [there’s a] continual reminder that people don’t appreciate that: Nobody is safe until everybody is safe. There are countries that are basically on fire and creating new variants that could undermine all of the vaccinating that we’re doing now.Hamblin: Do you have concerns about the argument people like Bill Gates have made, that if we set a precedent now that vaccine patents can just be made public, that there will be even less investment from the industry in vaccines we might need for future pandemics?Rovner: Well, my impression is that most of the investment was made by the government. (Laughs.)Higgins: (Laughs.) Yes!Hamblin: In point of fact, yeah.Rovner: Drug companies are still not investing that much. And drug companies not investing in vaccines is not a new thing. I’ve been writing about it for 20 years. And there is this whole argument—and I’ve been covering drug prices since the 1980s when we first started complaining about them, maybe before that, but that was when I started—and drug companies have always said, “If you don’t let us make big profits, we won’t have money to invest into the next lifesaving medicines. Drug companies have been investing in things that are not vaccines for a really long time, so I’m not sure how much of a precedent this sets for intellectual property on other drugs, but certainly it’s something that the drug industry is not thrilled about. I was amazed at how quickly the reaction started flooding into my inbox when this was announced last week. I mean, within seconds.Hamblin: And the argument is like, “This is going to destroy access to so many medications.” Or, “We won’t be able to do our jobs if we don’t have a billion dollars in profit.”Rovner: Basically, yes. “You take away the incentive for us to sink money into it if you’re just going to give away what we discover.” And this is not a new argument. This has been the argument about drug prices too. “If we can’t earn unlimited profits, then we won’t have money to put into R&D.” That’s effectively what they’ve been saying since the 1980s.Hamblin: Yeah. But it’s an effective argument.Rovner: It’s an extremely effective argument. I always say: The two industries we’re forever haranguing are the drug industry and the tobacco industry. And, unlike the tobacco industry, the drug industry makes things we want and need.Hamblin: Is it a bundling issue? Could we just have companies that just make vaccines? That way they wouldn’t be able to say, “We’re not going to make vaccines because we need the money to invest in cancer research.” It becomes very muddled and complicated.Rovner: It does. I mean, there were not enough companies making childhood vaccines for a while. This is not a new thing. They don’t make as much money off of vaccines, which you give once ... Well, the flu vaccine you give every year, but generally, childhood vaccines you give once, maybe twice, rather than a statin drug that a lot of adults will take every day for 20 or 30 years. Vaccines are sort of the least-profitable piece of the drug industry.Hamblin: Because they work so well.Rovner: That’s right, yeah. We have problems with antibiotics for the same reason. Which is to say: You don’t take them constantly. You just take them when you’re sick.Hamblin: Does the kind of pandemic matter here? This is a global emergency for everyone in the world. Do you think the kind of emergency we’re seeing now incentivizes research for another disease that could pop up?Rovner: We’ve obviously never had this kind of a global pandemic before. And that’s part of the problem. Even when we had Ebola, we could send everything to the one place where it was. This is a true pandemic. And I do think that things are different. Although a lot of scientists are expecting that this will not be the last pandemic, [and] that as we have these diseases that jump from animals to people that people have no resistance to, it could happen again. And it could conceivably happen again with something that’s even more deadly than this one. I mean, it’s definitely uncharted territory, but I think people are kind of looking at it to see [whether] we’re going to have a different feeling for how public health and the medical system work.I was interested at the beginning to see how the nation’s various health systems were able to deal with this. And I realized very quickly that it wasn’t so much a test of health systems as it was a test of public-health systems, and that places that had good, very robust public-health systems were better able to deal with it than places that necessarily had universal health care.Hamblin: If you could take politics out of it, how should we get the global vaccine supply into a more sustainable place where we’re not having to rely on hoping that companies come through for us next time? If companies won’t do so unless they can be guaranteed a large profit, how do we get around that to have a sustainable plan for the future?Rovner: Well, you know, if we had a functioning U.N. and a functioning World Health Organization ... and that’s what COVAX [COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access] is. I mean, that’s the idea that the wealthier countries are going to come together and help fund vaccines for the poorer countries who can’t do it themselves. Because, as I said, no one is safe until everyone is safe. So, there is self-interest in this too. One would hope that self-interest would help this along.Hamblin: We have that in abundance.Rovner: Yes, we definitely have that in abundance. But I think people don’t see it. This is the constant: “Why do we give money to other countries? Our foreign-aid budget must be huge. Why should we give money? Why do we care if the rest of the world is at war?”Well, we get a lot of our stuff from the rest of the world, which I think we’re discovering now. The disrupted supply chains are an eye-opener to a lot of people.Hamblin: How much can you see the influence playing out of the money that Big Pharma donates to politicians? Do you kind of see that happening like clockwork in your work, or is it more subtle?Rovner: With the drug companies, it’s not that subtle. They do give a lot of money to lawmakers, and lawmakers tend to do their bidding. And it’s not just Republicans. They give money to Democrats, and there are Democrats who are kind of loath to cross the drug industry. This is why Congress has been fighting about drug prices for 40 years and still hasn’t really done anything about it.They haven’t even done some of the very low-hanging fruit, like letting drug companies buy off their generic competition temporarily, which helps the generic company because they’re getting paid, and it helps the brand-name company because they don’t have competition. And the only people who aren’t helped are the people actually trying to buy the drugs. That’s been one of these things that just about everybody agrees on. And yet Congress has had great difficulty doing even the easy stuff, much less the hard stuff that might actually do something about the price of prescription drugs.Higgins: I just keep thinking about insulin. I have friends who, immediately, when Biden made his announcement, they were just like, How about insulin?Rovner: Insulin is such a good example because the original patent for insulin was sold for $1. The whole idea was that insulin wasn’t supposed to make money. And yet all of these little variations on insulin now cost hundreds and thousands of dollars. And we’re seeing people in the United States literally dying because they’re diabetics and can’t afford their insulin.Hamblin: And this is coming off of a presidency where Donald Trump said many times that we need to do something about drug prices. He would get cheers at his rallies for it, and Biden has said the same thing. It would seem like there’s bipartisan support for this to happen. And Americans certainly want lower drug prices. And yet here we are.Well, what I would love to hear you say that this is a big, significant move and it’s one you think is really going to change things, waiving these patents. But unfortunately ...Rovner: I will believe it when I see it. Waiving the patents for vaccines is an important step, but I don’t know that it gets followed by anything else. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I have grown cynical about drug prices over almost 40 years of covering them.
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Is This the End?
The announcement seemed to catch everyone off guard: Early Thursday afternoon, the government told Americans that if they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, they did not need to wear a mask—indoors or outside, in groups small or large.People who have gotten their shots, Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a White House press briefing, “can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.” Coming from an administration that has preached caution to the point of criticism—only six weeks ago a teary-eyed Walensky warned the nation of “impending doom”—the words sounded like a surprisingly abrupt declaration of freedom: Did the CDC just end the pandemic?It had not, of course. There were, as always, plenty of caveats to the CDC’s guidance. Masks should still be worn on public transportation and in high-risk settings such as doctor’s offices, hospitals, and nursing homes. A majority of Americans remain unvaccinated and should continue to mask up. Tens of thousands are testing positive for the coronavirus every day, and hundreds are still dying from it. Cases are surging in India and other parts of the world.So, no, the pandemic isn’t over, but the significance of the CDC’s shift was unmistakable, and the nation’s senior political leaders made sure the public didn’t miss it. Inside the Oval Office, President Joe Biden and the Republican lawmakers with whom he was meeting took off their masks, Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia told reporters outside the White House. On the Senate floor, Senator Susan Collins of Maine—who earlier this week chastised Walensky over the CDC’s “conflicting” mask guidance—triumphantly waved hers in the air. “Free at last,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, previously a fastidious mask-wearer, declared at the Capitol. Conservatives have mocked Biden, who has been fully vaccinated for months, for wearing a mask even when it clearly offered no discernible health benefit, including while walking alone to and from his helicopter. So when Biden spoke later in the afternoon in the White House Rose Garden, it was notable that he wasn’t wearing one. His remarks carried an air of celebration, if not quite finality. “Today,” he said, “is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus.”[Read: The liberals who can’t quit lockdown]The impact of today’s announcement—like that of so many others during the past 15 months—will vary greatly across the country. For the millions of people who have long refused to wear masks, it will make little difference. Plenty of others will ignore it; in New York and other cities, people regularly wear masks as they walk down the street even though the CDC relaxed guidelines for outdoor activities weeks ago. Businesses and local governments could continue to require them. For many, the announcement immediately raised anxiety and a host of new questions, particularly among parents of children who are too young to be vaccinated. Is it safe to bring kids into a grocery store where people aren’t wearing masks? What about the immunocompromised for whom the vaccinations might be less effective? How do you know whether a maskless person is vaccinated? Enforcement is impossible. (“It’s not an enforcement thing,” Biden said. “We’re not going to go out and arrest people.”)The president and the CDC framed the change as one more incentive for people to become vaccinated by presenting the vaccine-hesitant with a choice—get your shot if you don’t like wearing a mask. But the guideline change was also at least a tacit acknowledgment that not everyone is going to become vaccinated and that at some point the country needs to move closer to normalcy anyway. With cases dropping across the country, the CDC was under increasing pressure to loosen its position toward masks.Biden has promised, over and over again, to remove politics from the decision making around the pandemic, to “follow the science.” But the political implications of today’s announcement were inescapable. The president needs the pandemic to end, but he also needs the public to see that his policies and leadership have helped make it end. So far, his success has been measured mostly in numbers—in the falling infection rate and in the hundreds of millions of vaccinations, which have exceeded the administration’s initial stated goals. Liberating the people from their face coverings is a far more visible step—one that Americans will feel, physically as well as symbolically, in their daily lives. It will also ease one of the most polarizing issues of the pandemic. The harsh political reality is that people might be more willing to credit Biden for ending the mask mandates than they are for keeping them healthy.Undoubtedly, a few more twists and turns in the pandemic lie ahead, and the administration’s shift might yet prove to be premature. The ongoing global spread of the virus could spawn new variants that evade the vaccines, and the duration of the protection offered by the shots is still unknown. Masks will be a part of American life in certain settings for months to come, if not longer. For more than a year, however, these flimsy garments have come to symbolize the intrusion, and the isolation, wrought by COVID-19. When the pandemic is finally indeed over, the country might look back at the unexpected announcement of May 13 as a moment of demarcation—even as something of an end.
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The Atlantic Daily: The Beginning of the End of America’s Pandemic?
Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.The United States coronavirus outbreak seemed to enter a new phase today with the CDC’s announcement that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors or socially distance—with a few key exceptions.“Coming from an administration that has preached caution … the words sounded like a surprisingly abrupt declaration of freedom: Did the CDC just end the pandemic?” our staff writer Russell Berman wondered.We caught up with Katherine J. Wu, a staff writer who has been covering the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, to discuss what this not-totally-unexpected-but-still-surprising development means. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.Caroline Mimbs Nyce: What does today’s announcement say, if anything, about where we are in the pandemic?Katherine J. Wu: This does not mean the pandemic is over, or even close to it, especially when we take the global perspective. But it does say we know a lot more about our vaccines and how powerful they are, and I think that means we’re at a point in the pandemic where we’re feeling good about the tools we’re using to combat it.That said, it’s still possible to make a misstep right now, and we’ll need to be careful to avoid that.Caroline: Can you tell me, in ultra-practical terms, what the announcement means? If I’m fully vaccinated, can I walk into a crowded grocery store with my mask off right now?Katie: In theory, yes. The CDC says, pretty much verbatim, that you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic, without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart.The caveat on that is: There will still be exceptions, depending on local laws. If your grocery store has a sign on the door that says, “Please put on a mask,” you’ll still have to follow that. The new recommendation does not apply to health-care settings or public transportation. This is not carte blanche to rip your mask off.Caroline: How are businesses going to be able to tell if someone is vaccinated or not?Katie: This is really tricky. We can’t look at someone and figure out if they’re vaccinated. It does kind of open the door for bad actors to just say, Hey, I’m not gonna wear my mask. I’m not vaccinated, but you can’t tell if I am.Caroline: Does the timing of the announcement feel right to you, considering where we are in the pandemic?Katie: I feel a little bit mixed about this. I do think there is a lot of science to back this idea. But given the sort of sociological, cultural, and health-equity contexts that are the backdrop here, there are a lot of caveats.We have to keep in mind that only a minority of Americans are fully vaccinated. There are places where people still can’t access vaccines, even if they really want them. And there are people who are refusing to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons. And that’s left us in a pretty tricky spot. The rate of daily vaccinations has actually gone down in the past few weeks.In some ways, it feels like a slightly odd time to be unveiling this guidance. But on the flip side of that, I do see an argument for this change possibly being a motivating factor. A lot of public-health officials have been trying to motivate vaccinations as of late, by saying “Here, look at all the things you can do once you’re fully vaccinated.” This may push some people over the edge. That would be wonderful.Caroline: After a year of mask wearing, my gut reaction was: This just feels wrong. How can I and other Americans make sense of which caution is justified—and which is just latent trauma from the past year?Katie: It’s really complicated. This guidance was probably going to happen eventually—or at least some version of it. The key here, and something that I’ve written about before, is that what the CDC is now allowing—or perhaps even encouraging—fully vaccinated people to do, are options, not obligations. If anyone is uncomfortable with this rule, no one is going to take your mask off for you. You control those ear straps.There are certain subgroups of people who have gotten their shots who may still want to be extra careful, including vaccinated parents of really young kids who aren’t yet eligible for vaccinations, or people who are taking immunosuppressive drugs or who are otherwise immunocompromised and for whom vaccines might not work as well, which is something else I’ve written about.Guidance like this can sometimes paint with too broad a brush, because we’re thinking about the average or typical case in which a vaccine works in a person whose immune system is super well-equipped to handle it. But we do need to keep in mind that there are still vulnerable people everywhere around us, even people who have gotten their shots.Caroline: That leads to my next question: Who is getting left behind here?Katie: Not everyone is yet able to get a vaccine, for example, really young kids. There are people who have very legitimate medical exemptions to being vaccinated. Everyone should think about their own situation and act accordingly.And we should keep in mind that this is great for the U.S., but the world is not vaccinated yet. There are countries where the vaccine rollout is really slow, and sputtering. We’re not safe until all of us are safe.The rest of the news in three sentences:(1) Israeli-Palestinian violence continues to escalate. (2) Vaccinations are now open to American kids ages 12 to 15, which should bolster the country’s chances of reaching herd immunity. (3) California Governor Gavin Newsom is fighting off a recall attempt, thanks to a state law that, one writer argues, doesn’t make sense in a partisan political climate.Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:Plan for life after the coronavirus. “During pre-pandemic life you might have said, ‘I like my job,’ and ‘I like my social life,’” our happiness columnist Arthur C. Brooks writes. “Maybe you meant it, and maybe you didn’t.”Write out a list of the things you want to keep in the new normal—and those you want to leave behind.A break from the news:Is Brett Kavanaugh out for revenge?Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.
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In Pursuit of Happiness: A Live Virtual Event
What does it take to be happy?America’s founding document states that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. But this question has preoccupied philosophers, fascinated scientists, inspired artists, launched an enormous self-help industry—and continues to elude many of us.The Atlantic will host a live event that explores the human hold on happiness—and aims to find ways to build a more meaningful life. The event features Arthur C. Brooks, Deepak Chopra, Angela Duckworth, a performance by Jordan Fisher and the global company of Dear Evan Hansen, spiritual leader T.D. Jakes, and much more.Click here to register.The event will consider happiness and relationships, the role of spirituality, how social media and other technology are affecting our happiness, and the ways in which a year of social isolation has reframed our understanding of a lasting sense of joy.The event is underwritten by Equitable.
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California’s Recall Law Is Broken
The recall election coming later this year for California Governor Gavin Newsom doesn’t appear likely to end with his removal from office. Although Newsom’s opponents have gathered enough signatures to require a vote—and conditions in the state could still change—polls show that public support for the effort is far below what Newsom’s critics will need to force his removal.Nevertheless, the drive may trigger another form of recall: It may finally prompt California to examine whether the 110-year-old state law that governs recalls still makes sense in our modern era of unrelenting partisan conflict.The law was instituted during the Progressive era as a tool to tame special interests, but the effort against Newsom suggests that it’s become a weapon of harassment and manipulation by Republicans. The GOP constitutes a minority in the state, where Democrats hold all major statewide offices and supermajorities in both legislative chambers, and where Joe Biden buried Donald Trump by more than 5 million votes last year. Once California’s secretary of state gives final certification to the collected signatures, Newsom will become the second of the state’s past three Democratic governors to face a recall that reached the ballot: Governor Gray Davis was ousted in a 2003 recall election and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. How unusual is that confluence? Across all the states, recalls against only three other governors in American history have qualified for the ballot.This pattern has some California Democrats now talking openly about making fundamental changes to the recall law—an idea rarely discussed since Governor Hiram Johnson, a Progressive icon, pushed it through the legislature in 1911. “This thing is going to be defeated by Newsom pretty handily,” says the Democratic strategist Garry South, who was the chief adviser to Davis in his two gubernatorial races, in 1998 and 2002. “And when this is all over, the legislature has to take a serious look at revamping the processes and procedures for qualifying a recall against the governor of California.”California’s law establishes a two-step process for removing and replacing an executive-branch official. Once proponents collect enough signatures, the state schedules an election that asks voters two questions. First, they are asked to vote up or down on whether to recall the targeted official, in this case Newsom. Then, on the same ballot, they are asked to choose from a list of candidates who have filed to replace the official. (The incumbent’s name can’t be listed as an option.) If a majority votes no on the recall, that’s the end of it; the incumbent remains in office. But if a majority supports the recall, the incumbent is replaced by the alternative candidate who receives the highest vote total, even if that’s less than a majority (which is possible, given how large the candidate field often is).Those rules create one of the first glaring anomalies in the California system: An incumbent could be removed and replaced even though a higher share of Californians vote to keep him in office than vote to support any single alternative. (For example, an incumbent could receive support from 49.9 percent of voters, but be ousted and replaced by someone who received a much smaller share of the vote.)An even bigger anomaly is the threshold a recall effort needs to meet in order to qualify for the ballot. Nineteen states permit voters to recall a governor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among those states, California requires “the lowest [signature] total to recall any state governor in the country,” says Joshua Spivak, an expert on the recall process and a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, in New York. A recall can qualify for the ballot in California by collecting signatures equivalent to 12 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. Most states set a significantly higher bar, typically 25 percent.[Robert M. Wachter: Vigilance had a three-month shelf life]In 2018, just under 12.5 million Californians voted in the gubernatorial election, in which Newsom swamped Republican John Cox by almost exactly 3 million votes. That meant recall proponents had to collect slightly fewer than 1.5 million signatures. In absolute terms, that’s a lot of signatures to obtain. Newsom critics launched four recall attempts before this, and all failed to meet that requirement. Even the current recall, launched by conservatives infuriated by Newsom’s COVID-19 shutdowns last spring, appeared to hit a wall in the fall. Then two important things happened on November 6: First, James Arguelles, a state superior-court judge appointed by Schwarzenegger, gave the proponents an unprecedented four-month extension to gather signatures, citing the difficulties created by the coronavirus. And on the same day, Newsom chose to attend a now-infamous birthday party for a lobbyist at a swanky restaurant in Napa Valley—a choice that became a flashpoint for voter frustration. Newsom’s attendance while much of California remained shut down “became a pop-culture caricature of what everyone hates about politicians,” says the Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who served as Schwarzenegger’s communications director during the Davis recall and when Schwarzenegger was governor. “It had everything: It had elitism, it had hypocrisy, it had a whiff of pay-to-play.”With the extra time and the spark Newsom lit with his restaurant blunder, money poured in from Republican donors, and the signature drive was revived. Funds were now available to hire professional canvassers and send direct mail to voters to collect signatures. The 1.5 million signatures required represents a small fraction of the reliable GOP vote in the nation’s largest state. Cox won just 38 percent of the total vote in his 2018 bid against Newsom, but that amounted to more than 4.7 million votes. Trump, while winning just 34 percent of California’s total vote last year, attracted more than 6 million.All evidence suggests that those same Republican voters are primarily powering the recall effort now. A recent Los Angeles Times analysis found the greatest support for the effort in the state’s residual red regions: the rural northeastern and Central Valley counties “with low coronavirus case counts and where voters heavily favored former President Trump.”Another revealing measure of support for the effort is how many recall signatures each county produced per vote cast in the 2020 presidential election: The 19 counties that ranked highest on that measure all voted for Trump last year. Meanwhile, most of the state’s major urban and suburban population centers—including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Alameda Counties—ranked at the very bottom of that list (with the signatures gathered there equaling 6 percent or less of their total 2020 turnout). In a statewide poll released this week by UC Berkeley and the L.A. Times, 85 percent of Republicans said they support recalling Newsom, compared with 33 percent of independents and only 8 percent of Democrats. That puts overall support for Newsom’s removal at 36 percent—midway between the meager GOP votes for Cox in 2018 and Trump in 2020.All of this raises a key question: whether the recall is measuring a genuine eruption of grassroots discontent against Newsom or merely recording the fact that many of the Republican voters who never wanted him to be governor still don’t. At times last year, the former explanation seemed somewhat plausible, with the virus imposing terrible economic and health losses on the state. But the latter looks much more convincing now, as the state’s infection and hospitalization rates have plummeted, the economy is reopening, vaccination totals are rising, and the state’s budget is recovering. Dan Schnur, a former Republican operative who now teaches at UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, agrees that the recall effort at this point is mostly measuring conservative alienation in a state that has shifted emphatically toward Democrats since the 1990s. “There are a lot of voters who are unhappy with the way Newsom has handled the pandemic, but not nearly enough to remove him from office,” Schnur told me. Indeed, in the new UC Berkeley/L.A. Times poll, only 35 percent of voters gave Newsom poor marks for handling the pandemic—roughly the same minority that backs the recall.[Kori Schake: The U.S. puts its greatest vulnerability on display]It’s useful to compare Newsom’s circumstances with that of another Democrat, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In a state that is much more closely divided between the parties, Whitmer faced an even more ferocious right-wing backlash against her COVID-19 restrictions last year. (That backlash included a protest by armed activists who descended on the state capitol and a plot to kidnap and possibly murder her.) Critics have filed nine separate petitions to recall her from office. But because Michigan requires twice as many signatures than California for a recall to reach the ballot—25 percent versus 12 percent—none of those efforts is likely to qualify.In one sense, this contrast might not have troubled the Progressive-era leaders who created the recall law in California. “They didn’t want it to be hard to use,” Glen Gendzel, the chair of San Jose State University’s history department, who has studied that era in the state, told me. The recall was part of an extraordinary package of 22 state constitutional amendments—including the initiative and referendum processes—that Hiram Johnson persuaded voters to approve in a single election in October 1911. The unifying thread among those measures was Johnson’s determination to create safeguards against the corrupting power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the dominant economic and political force in the state at the time. Progressives thought “they only had one chance to enact laws in a great big hurry that would ensure the capability to resist further corruption of California government once the Progressives were out of power,” Gendzel said. “What are you going to do if corrupt politicians return to power and serve the main special interest in the state again, namely the railroad? Well, make it possible for the people to recall them, to pull them out, if they prove unfaithful to the people’s wishes.”Johnson and his allies tended to see politics in terms of interests, not parties; they sought to unite both Democratic and Republican Progressives against Southern Pacific’s concentrated economic power. Although elected as a Republican, Johnson bolted from the party to run as Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president in his unsuccessful third-party Progressive presidential bid in 1912, and when he returned to California, Johnson passed legislation to transform state elections into nonpartisan contests, Gendzel noted. (Ironically, a referendum sponsored by Republican and Democratic party bosses, using the Progressives’ own direct-democracy tools, overturned that law.) The recall as a deliberately partisan weapon probably would have stunned Johnson.Like many other features of America’s electoral system, including the Electoral College, the California recall is buckling under the pressure of today’s hyper-partisanship. Johnson envisioned the recall as a tool for a majority of “the people” to protect themselves against a minority of “the interests.” But today it’s a minority of disaffected Republicans who are trying to overturn the majority’s vote. No Republican has won any major statewide office in California since 2006. A recall gives them better odds than a conventional election, partly because of the unusual up-down vote on the incumbent, and partly because turnout for special elections is so unpredictable.“I don’t think the Progressives could have anticipated a situation like this,” Gendzel said, “where one party is repeatedly repudiated at the polls … and they simply use their financial advantages to force a redo … in which they hope to prevail because the conditions are different.”[Read: The new swing voters]Critics of the current law are beginning to discuss several options for changing California’s recall process. Among them are requiring proponents to prove some standard of malfeasance before placing a recall on the ballot (as seven of the 19 states with recall laws now require); allowing the incumbent to run on the replacement ballot; or simply raising the threshold of signatures required to qualify. The conventional wisdom in the state is that persuading voters to surrender any of the authority they currently have under the recall law will be extremely difficult, especially because any major changes would require a constitutional amendment. “I don’t think Newsom should be removed from office, but boy would I not want to run the campaign to make a recall harder to achieve,” Schnur said.Yet other political observers believe that a failed recall against Newsom could trigger a reconsideration of the law. Political experts in both parties caution that the drive against Newsom could become a much closer call if conditions turn against him before the vote—if there’s a resurgence of the virus, extensive problems with the power grid or wildfires, or a wide-scale disruption to the reopening of schools in the fall, to name some examples. But if conditions remain steady or improve and the recall is resoundingly rejected, it may be possible to persuade both Democratic legislators and voters to back changes. “You have to tighten up these procedures and processes to make sure this is not some frivolous alternative that Republicans are using to gain power in California because they can’t win fair and square at the ballot box,” South told me.Stutzman says that, after the Newsom experience, even Republicans should support retrenching the recall law. The threat the law poses to incumbents “would manifest itself even more acutely” if and when Republicans next elect a governor in the blue stronghold. “All of a sudden, a nurses’ union or teachers’ union could go out and do this to them,” he said. “Republicans should be in support of reform, because it would ultimately offer them more protection if they ever retake the office.”California Republicans seem unlikely to heed that counsel. California Democrats, meanwhile, face a dynamic similar to the one confronting the national party in the raging battle over ballot access. Facing clear evidence that GOP governors and legislatures are rewriting voting laws in red states to hurt Democratic prospects, congressional Democrats still haven’t used their power to preempt that offensive with federal voting-rights legislation. California Democrats might be equally guilty of political malpractice if they don’t try to change the recall law while they have the power to do so, with clear indication from the GOP that Republicans will wield it as a weapon every chance they get.
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The Strange Language of Our Home Lives
I celebrated my second pandemic birthday recently. Many things were weird about it: opening presents on Zoom, my phone’s insistent photo reminders from “one year ago today” that could be mistaken for last month, my partner brightly wishing me “iki domuz,” a Turkish phrase that literally means “two pigs.”Well, that last one is actually quite normal in our house. Long ago, I took my first steps into adult language lessons and tried to impress my Turkish American boyfriend on his special day. My younger self nervously bungled through new vocabulary—The numbers! The animals! The months!—to wish him “iki domuz” instead of “happy birthday” (İyi ki doğdun) while we drank like pigs in his tiny apartment outside of UCLA. Now, more than a decade later, that slipup is immortalized as our own peculiar greeting to each other twice a year.Many of us have a secret language, the private lexicon of our home life. Perhaps you have a nickname from a parent that followed you into adulthood. Maybe you have an old joke or a shared reference to a song. Sometimes known as familects, these invented words, pet names, in-jokes, and personal memes swirl and emerge from the mess of lives spent in close quarters. During the pandemic, we’ve spent dramatically more time in those quarters, and our in-group slang has changed accordingly.Cynthia Gordon, an associate linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of Making Meanings, Creating Family, has spent much of her working life in the strange land of family discourse. “Any group of people that has extended contact over time and sees itself as distinctive is going to have some specialized uses of language,” Gordon told me. “Listening to recordings of other families is like being immersed in a different world.”[Read: The randomness of language evolution]We speak differently in different settings—this is no surprise—depending on whom we’re talking to and what the purpose is. Whether the formalities of a work presentation for colleagues or awkward small talk on a first date, our language shifts as the context and audience change.Familects are a part of the intimate register of language, the way we talk “backstage” with the people we are closest to. They’re our home slang, if you will, where we can be our nonpublic selves in all their weird glory. Familects can emerge from any type of family: big, small, chosen, or your “quaranteam,” as a friend calls it. Over time, these terms may become sticky in your inner circle.What inspires this family-language invention? In general, sufficient time logged together and shared experiences as a unit. Children are frequently the architects of new words, especially while they’re learning to speak. As kids fumble and play with sounds and meaning, their cutesy word experiments can be picked up by the whole family, sometimes to be passed on between generations as verbal heirlooms of sorts. Many new familect terms are also forged in the building stage of close relationships, when couples or friends are creating private ways to show affection or navigate tricky conversations as they cross the fuzzy boundary from acquaintance to intimacy.Mignon Fogarty, host of the Grammar Girl podcast, has been collecting these family words for years. Listeners call the podcast to offer their own family lingo and the stories behind it, giving the audience a glimpse into their relationship dynamics. “Families have their own famous people,” Fogarty told me, before sharing a recent example. “This family went to the dog park and there was a woman who looked just like her dog, named Stanley. Now whenever someone looks a lot like their pet, well, they have a Stanley situation on their hands.”Familects help us feel like family. Private in-group language fosters intimacy and establishes identity. In a study on the use of idiosyncratic terms among couples, researchers found that personal language nurtures a feeling of closeness and often appears in attempts for connection or reconciliation. When people use familect terms, they reinforce the stories, rituals, and memories that hold them together as a group. “Every time they use that phrase, they are pointing to all the previous uses of it,” Gordon said. “It reaffirms their ‘familyness’ in a way. It re-creates their relationship.”Of course, our home lives have been altered during the pandemic. Because language is our messy, human interface for grappling with the world, it changes when we change. COVID-19 is a collective major life event that has already made us unfortunately fluent in new terminology: lockdowns, covidiots, pandejos, flattening the curve, and other epidemiological jargon.[Read: A year at home showed people new sides of their loved ones]Gordon noted that, for remote workers, office culture has bled into family life, and wondered how language from each realm might mix. For others I spoke with, the pandemic may have provided an environment where familects thrive: increased isolation with your intimates. Still, it’s too soon to know definitively how the way we talk has changed; Fogarty didn’t report a marked uptick in the number of terms listeners sent to her over the year.I put a call out to friends to catalog familect stories of the pandemic. Amie Ferrier, a 38-year-old fiddle teacher who lives in Grass Valley, California, gave me quarantum, a “joyful word about our new round bellies,” which she shares with her husband. They also developed Trumping out, a euphemism for the ramping anxiety from news overload. “I can ask my husband if he’s Trumping out as a gentle way to check in and see if he’s ready to put the phone down for the night,” she told me.Alex Roberts, a 31-year-old graduate student living on Vancouver Island, in Canada, shared hog, a new word among her housemates that means “a small amount of coffee; less than a full cup.” She explained that this comes from “a smaller-than-the-others coffee mug with a little hedgehog on it that my roommates and I found one day.” Hog has become an established unit of measurement in her house: “I’ve now also asked for and been offered half a hog.”Many people told me that the increased time spent with immediate family was the biggest influence on their home language. “We have had more time to do banal things together, and thus greater opportunities to develop the shorthand that forms and enlivens ... our lives,” Lizzie Stark, a 39-year-old nonfiction author and game designer in the Boston area, told me by email. Her family’s mornings start off with a party, a term she and her husband use to spice up their quotidian routine of drinking Metamucil, and end with the Cuteness Report, a nightly check in on their sleeping toddler.While living under the weight of what can feel like constant, history-shaping upheaval, we might be tempted to dismiss these words as frivolous, at-times-embarrassing artifacts of everyday life. But everyone I spoke with valued their familect. They delighted in sharing it. They saw it as an intimate extension of their home. As we talked, I could feel the energy between us shift, a mixture of pride and vulnerability, as they trusted me with the family dictionary. Gordon told me that sharing one’s familect is also the act of welcoming outsiders into one’s clan. “The truth is,” she said, “moment by moment, in everyday language use, we create our families.”
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A Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Start Over
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for In Pursuit of Happiness here.Many years ago, I met a woman who had had the kind of experience you ordinarily only find in fiction. As a young adult, she was in a serious car accident, resulting in a head injury. She suffered a period of total amnesia, followed by months of convalescence. When she recovered, she was never the same: Her family relationships weakened; she cut out former friends and found new ones; she moved halfway across the world; her interests and tastes changed; she became more outgoing and less self-conscious; she no longer cared much what other people thought about her.Her parents always attributed these major character changes to her “bump on the head.” But she told me no—the injury had nothing to do with it. Rather, it was the recovery time, away from ordinary routines, that created a punctuation mark in the long sentence of her life. She had a unique opportunity to assess her priorities. She vowed to take nothing in her former life as given. She tore her beliefs and values down to the studs, and rebuilt them. And in so doing, she said, she became happy for the first time in her life.Today, many of us have an opportunity to do something similar. Americans might be entering the waning days of the year-plus coronavirus pandemic, during which life’s ordinary patterns have paused for millions of people. In these last weeks and months before something resembling normality returns, we might ask ourselves, “What do I want ‘normal’ to look like?” Then, we can start preparing for a new and better normal than what we took for granted until a year ago.When people talk about life before the virus, their recollections are often sentimental: about the “good old days”; about what we miss. In one recent survey, the specific things people said they yearned for most were traveling (24 percent), visiting family (19 percent), and hanging out with friends (16 percent).I haven’t been able to find any surveys of what we most don’t miss from pre-pandemic times. But there is research that gives us clues. Studies have shown that spending time on people or activities that bring us down depresses our sense of meaning in life; unpleasant exchanges with bosses, customers, and co-workers lower our sense of well-being.[Read: The hidden toll of remote work]During pre-pandemic life you might have said, “I like my job,” and “I like my social life.” Maybe you meant it, and maybe you didn’t: Social scientists have long shown that most people are inveterate liars, and might be even more adept at lying to themselves. Either way, it was certainly convenient to say your life made you happy, wasn’t it? Researchers find that people who hold unpopular views usually keep them private or “live lies” to avoid conflict. I am willing to bet that in some areas of your pre-pandemic life, you were also deceiving yourself to avoid rocking your own boat. But then your boat was capsized by the coronavirus.We all yearn for the end of the human suffering brought about by the pandemic. And many, if not most, of us look forward to the end of the constraints and inconveniences it has imposed. But deep inside, there are probably a few things you dread about going back to normal life. Each of us, if we are brutally honest, could make a list of the activities and relationships that we didn’t like in pre-pandemic times, but that we accepted through self-deception, sheer inertia, and the pressure to go along and get along.If your relationships, work, and life have been disrupted by the pandemic, the weeks and months before you fully reenter the world should not be wasted. They are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come clean with yourself—to admit that all was not perfectly well before. Here’s how you can make a plan not to return to normal.1. Collect your data.On a piece of paper, draw a two-by-two matrix, where the columns are what you like and dislike, and the rows are pre-pandemic and pandemic times. Many of us have taken to asking each other, over the past year or so, what we miss from before the pandemic and hate about living through it. But for your happiness, the more germane questions are “What did I dislike from before the pandemic and don’t miss?” and “What do I like from the pandemic times that I will miss?”[Read: You’re gonna miss Zoom when it’s gone]Give some serious reflection to these off-quadrants, and commit to complete honesty—especially in the one about what you don’t miss from pre-pandemic times. Be specific about any of your daily interactions that were toxic, relationships that were unproductive, and the life patterns that made you unhappy. Don’t settle for the easy stuff, like being stuck in traffic. Go deeper, like the friends you always went for drinks with who were relentlessly snarky and negative.2. Make a list of things to leave behind.Some of the things you disliked before the pandemic might be unchangeable, such as having to commute in the winter in Syracuse. Start a list of these things, and think carefully about whether you might have more agency than you assumed. While not possible for everyone, for some it might make sense to start looking for a new job somewhere you would prefer to live—maybe even moving to your hometown, if you love it—instead of the place where you found yourself before the lockdowns.[Read: The case for moving back to your hometown]Leaving people behind can be trickier. But in truth, we all have relationships that are simply not mutually beneficial. At work and elsewhere, there are people who bring out the worst in us, belittle us, or just bring us down. If the pandemic has been a welcome furlough from these relationships, you should ask yourself whether you can make that break permanent. This moment is the best chance you might ever have to do so.3. Make a list of what to keep.This exercise shouldn’t be all negative. Remember that second off-quadrant: things you like about your pandemic life, and will miss when they stop. Consider how you might work them into your life after case numbers drop for good. Perhaps you stopped traveling for work and found life at home sweet. If so, start thinking now about how to re-engineer your job to include fewer trips, setting up a mix of in-person and virtual meetings for the future that’s more to your liking. Maybe you developed your spiritual life, read a lot, or started cooking, and wish these practices could continue. They can—but only if you do the work. Join a house of worship; organize a book club; put dates on the calendar to host people for dinner.In his “Poetry of Departures,” the English poet Philip Larkin wrote about a man who walked away from a life he disliked.Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,As epitaph:He chucked up everythingAnd just cleared off,And always the voice will soundCertain you approveThis audacious, purifying,Elemental move.This fearless adventurer doesn’t have to be someone you hear about fifth-hand—or even secondhand, as in the case of my friend. You have a choice: to be the subject of this poem, who makes the “audacious, purifying / Elemental move,” or the narrator, slightly awestruck but too nervous to make these changes. If you’ve ever wanted to chuck up everything and just clear off, now is your chance. Take it.
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How We Got So Spiteful
The purest eruption of spite I have ever witnessed took place at a former friend’s birthday party some years ago. We were all in our early 20s, and alcohol had been flowing freely. I slipped into the kitchen to refill my drink; when I returned, the birthday girl, her cheeks flushed from the wine, had become incensed at her boyfriend for some unaccountable transgression.On the coffee table was an enormous cake, brought by her now-disgraced beloved. The birthday girl seized the platter and, with a terrific crash, hurled the cake to the floor. “Now none of us can have any,” she seethed, raising an accusatory frosting-covered finger as guests began edging toward the door.Spite defies logic. We act spitefully—lashing out to harm someone else, even at a cost to ourselves—when the desire to punish overrides other considerations. People in the throes of spite’s poisonous pleasures do not care if they injure themselves, or make the whole world worse off, so long as they satisfy their rancor. Yet because spite involves a self-inflicted cost, this petty and ultimately antisocial emotion bears a family resemblance to altruism. Many spiteful actors believe they are behaving nobly: meting out justice where it is due.That we live in a particularly spiteful age is the very plausible premise of Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side. According to Simon McCarthy-Jones, the book’s author and a psychologist at Trinity College Dublin, spite “may be the last weapon of the downtrodden.” Disadvantaged people acting out of spite can pull their oppressors down a few pegs. As a form of costly punishment aimed at the rich and powerful, spite can weaken dominance hierarchies and promote fairness. The book suggests that spite can be soothed, though never banished, by more just political arrangements. Yet the extent to which spite can serve as a mechanism for establishing egalitarian politics—rather than merely a registration of our discontent—is less than clear.McCarthy-Jones provides a few real-world examples of “counterdominant spite,” in which spiteful actors take down the powerful. He cites research on contemporary hunter-gatherer societies showing that swaggering group members who attempt to bully and dominate others are frequently killed. He applauds the spitefulness of consumer boycotts, in which we refrain from buying products we like in order to punish a corporation for its actions. His argument that spite promotes fairness, however, relies mainly on a famous economics experiment known as the “ultimatum game.” In the game, one player is given a sum of money—say, $10—and is tasked with splitting it with a second player, who can either accept or reject the proposal. If the offer is accepted, both players get to keep the money (even if it is split unevenly); if it’s rejected, both players receive nothing. Researchers have found that many people turn down free money if the offer is too low. One explanation for the “spiteful rejection” of low offers is that people are willing to suffer to punish someone who has violated a norm of fairness. Spite, then, can promote social cooperation and sustain positive social norms—at least in the laboratory.Unfortunately, as McCarthy-Jones proceeds through his survey of the psychological literature, his category of spite broadens into incoherence. Actions he describes as spiteful include: making someone wait for a parking space; suicide bombings; bacteria releasing toxins; Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale; and the Holocaust. Through a zoomed-out lens, every action that includes a self-inflicted cost starts to look spiteful, but the category ceases to be meaningful. Distinct phenomena—envy, sadism, schadenfreude, reckless idealism, world-historical malice—get flattened. Lost in all this is spite’s peculiar emotional texture, its blend of childish vindictiveness and rashness. Recall the toppled birthday cake. Spite is fundamentally petty. [Read: Does honor matter?]The blunt reductiveness of the book’s schema leads McCarthy-Jones to back away from potentially powerful claims about why we injure others. For instance, examining what he calls “existential spite,” he aptly analyzes its appearance in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground—in which the protagonist behaves irrationally to test whether he is truly free—but quickly veers to simplify the concept into the business-school notion of “stretch goals” (unrealistic goals meant to provoke an “I’ll prove you wrong” response). Elsewhere, he approvingly quotes such authorities on human motivation as a former managing director at Goldman Sachs and the butler Alfred Pennyworth in the superhero film The Dark Knight (“Some men just want to watch the world burn”).These conceptual confusions and truisms mar an otherwise promising exploration. In turning our attention to spite, McCarthy-Jones has identified an important element in the emotional climate of the present. It’s no coincidence that the book’s most spirited sections include a lengthy replay of Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election (examples of “spite voting”), and a consideration of why the torrents of bile that circulate on social media result in reputational rewards for the most vicious posters (social-media platforms encourage and normalize spite by making the cost of “punishing” others infinitesimal). During the lead-up to Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, warned voters: “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” Some voters thought Britain would be economically worse off if it left the European Union—yet they voted to leave anyway to thumb their noses at the elites in London and the bureaucrats in Brussels.The spitefulness of our politics can be plausibly traced to a number of causes: fear and hatred of racial minorities; shocks due to technological change; disinformation campaigns by corporations and political actors; the collapse of local communities and institutions; fantasies about a now-irretrievable national past. What leads political communities to reject the common good and instead choose to fight over a shrinking pie (or toppled cake)?What emerges from the evidence assembled in the book is a picture of spite as part of the corrosive effects of economic inequality. That spite wells up in response to inequality is suggested by the ultimatum game: Low offers provoke spiteful rejections. But the relationship between spite and social stratification is more intricate. Feelings of spite, it turns out, are intimately tied to judgments about status. People often act spitefully, McCarthy-Jones argues, to gain an advantage over a rival. In competitive contexts in which resources are limited, damaging someone else’s status can rebound to our benefit. Evidence from laboratory games shows that players will often destroy each other’s chance at monetary gain not to restore equality, but to get ahead.Spite defends such motivated behavior as having equalizing effects—tearing down the rich to make room for the poor—though it does so only half-heartedly. (The book’s focus on the “upside” of spite may be chalked up to the fact that popular social-science publishing all but requires a counterintuitive frame.) Spite is a symptom of social breakdown. But it is not a trustworthy guide to fair action. This ugly feeling is self-multiplying: It tends to lead not toward justice but toward more spite.That’s because the poor and the marginalized do not have a monopoly on spite—far from it. Posing as a victim is easy, as is claiming that one’s efforts to humiliate others are serving the greater good. Today, nearly anyone can reframe petty sadism as “punching up” and find a receptive audience. (In a recent poll, 75 percent of Republicans said that conservatives face real discrimination in America; 49 percent said the same of Black people.) Researchers have shown that Americans on average dramatically underestimate how unequal American society is. (In wealth distribution, we are more unequal than China.) Thus, our judgments about who needs to be “put in their place” are frequently defective. A spiteful politics is one in which the immiserated majority fights for scraps while the rich carry on as usual. We cannot “punish” our way to a less punitive society.If spite has positive uses, those uses lie, in the main, not in politics but in art. Jane Austen, the great artist of spiteful snobbery and petty vengeance, knew this well. One of her achievements in depicting a radically unequal society was to reclaim spite as a literary weapon. In Austen, spite sharpens language and is alchemized into glittering insult. With astringency—a pen dipped in venom—her novels catalog the endless slights of social life, the petty warfare over status.[Read: What ‘Pride and Prejudice’ taught readers to do]In Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley, a spiteful character if there ever was one, edges Elizabeth Bennett off a garden path so that she, Miss Bingley, can walk alongside Mr. Darcy. Later, Miss Bingley, feigning shock at a cheeky remark from Darcy, asks Elizabeth how they ought to “punish” him. “We can all plague and punish one another,” Elizabeth replies. “Tease him—laugh at him.” What fun spite is!But the novel does not allow prideful Darcy and prejudicial Elizabeth to dwell in spite alone. With time, their caustic raillery transforms into sincere attachment. Pride and Prejudice pays tribute to the pleasures of artful spite—but affirms the need to move past the pettiness of the Miss Bingleys of the world. Spite is for people who want to shove you off the garden walk. A more humane politics would ask how to make the path wider.
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Millennials Aren’t Just Behind. They’re All Over the Place.
A few weeks ago, I met my first Millennial grandparent. I was interviewing a woman in her late 30s about President Joe Biden’s new child-tax-credit proposal, and she mentioned that it would benefit not just her two young kids but her older son’s kid too.The incidental meeting was a reminder both that Millennials are getting older and that they are doing so without growing up, at least not in the way that many of them might wish. The woman I interviewed does not own a home, nor is she anywhere close to affording one. She has nothing in the way of savings. Nevertheless she is a grandmother, catapulting into middle age.Millennials, as just about everyone knows at this point, are a generation delayed. The pandemic recession has led not-so-young adults to put off having kids, buying a house, getting married, or investing in a car—yet again. But today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.[Annie Lowrey: Millennials don’t stand a chance]Marriage is a prime example. Millennials are getting hitched later in life than people in prior generations did. The average age at first marriage has steadily climbed over the past half century, from 23 to 30 for men and from 21 to 28 for women. As a result, Millennials are less likely to be married than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers were when they were the same age; the marriage rate among young adults has fallen 14 percentage points since 1990.But the rising average masks some growing variation in the Millennial experience. Millennials, in particular women, who have completed college are tending to get married older; Millennials who did not attend or complete college are often opting not to marry at all. Three decades ago, the marriage rate was above 60 percent for all adults older than 25. Now, it is roughly 65 percent for those with a college degree and 50 percent for those who finished only high school.The same kind of trend is affecting childbearing. Data compiled by the economist Caitlin Myers and published in The New York Times shows a sharp parenthood bell curve in the 20th century: Women would start becoming mothers in their late teens and stop becoming mothers in their early 30s. Now that curve is flatter and wider, with two spikes: one around 20 and one around 30. Many more women are choosing to become parents in their late 30s and early 40s.Location and educational attainment seem to be factors; many college-educated women in cities such as San Francisco are putting childbearing off, whereas many women who did not go to college and live in rural areas are still having kids in their early 20s. The generational gap will only widen as more Millennials have their first grandkids. Some are already grandparents; others are looking at a half-century wait. Overall, the average age at which people are becoming grandparents continues to rise.In terms of income and, especially, wealth, Millennials as a class have fallen behind, accumulating billions and billions of dollars less in net worth than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers did at the same point in their lives. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggest that older Millennials have roughly 11 percent less wealth than expected, given rates of inflation, and may well be the first generation in modern life to end up poorer than their parents.[Annie Lowrey: The next recession will destroy Millennials]Less recognized is that Millennials are also experiencing great wealth stratification. The very wealthiest Millennials are doing better than people at the same age decades ago; Mark Zuckerberg is far richer than Bill Gates was when he was 36, for instance. The Millennial top 10 percent—who grew up in relatively wealthy families and went to selective colleges—are doing just fine. But poorer Millennials—particularly those without a college degree—remain far, far behind. The St. Louis Fed researchers found that the typical Millennial without a college degree has nearly 20 percent less wealth than would be expected.The skew becomes even larger when comparing white Millennials with Black Millennials: This is a generation committed to racial equality, but not one manifesting it. Younger white families are roughly as wealthy now as young white families were a few decades ago. But Black Millennials are poorer, on average, their collective net worths trailing by half. Student-loan debt is a central reason: Black college attendees are more likely to take out loans than white attendees. They end up borrowing more money. And many struggle to pay it back, even with the earnings premium that comes with a college diploma.In terms of homeownership, the same dynamics apply: Millennials lucky enough to have their Boomer parents’ help to go to college and scrape together a down payment have benefited from the dramatic run-up in housing prices. Millennials without that help, in many cases, remain shut out, pushing down the generation’s overall rate of homeownership.Millennials are not just a generation delayed, but a generation for which the whole idea of a milestone, or a marker of adulthood, has become weirder and less exact. And the pandemic has only made things more tenuous and more stratified.
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America Can’t Wait to Help Vaccinate the World
To be in America now is to witness two jarring realities at once: the quickening pace of the country’s return to normalcy and the worsening march of COVID-19 beyond its borders. U.S. cities are loosening restrictions, travel is picking back up, and Americans are preparing for a bacchanalian summer. At the same time, a surge of infections in countries including Brazil and India is producing death and suffering on a tremendous scale, a reminder that controlling the virus is ultimately a global challenge. Yet the Biden administration still appears to lack a methodical plan to tackle the pandemic around the world.“What we need is a much more coherent foreign policy for vaccine diplomacy from the Biden administration,” Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, told me. He called for “a strategy by which the U.S. says how we’re going to help orchestrate a plan to produce enough vaccine for the world.”Vaccinating the world means producing doses for upwards of 7 billion people, but no one has articulated a means of making that goal achievable. Despite saying in a speech to a joint session of Congress that he wants the United States to become an “arsenal of vaccines for other countries,” President Joe Biden still seems intent on first vaccinating every American—even those who don’t want to be inoculated and those who are least at risk, such as kids and teenagers—before sharing doses abroad. Meanwhile, the world is on track to record even more deaths due to COVID-19 this year than the last.[Thomas Wright: Biden’s misstep in India]Though the State Department’s coordinator of global COVID-19 response has said the Biden administration may outline more steps in the coming week, the U.S. doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive plan for sharing surplus vaccines while still vaccinating its own population or for exporting technology and raw materials. It also lacks an outline for persuading Americans to invest in fighting the pandemic abroad even as it eases at home. But if the moral imperative of combatting the virus isn’t enough to spur the U.S. into action, it also risks slowing the global economic recovery, importing new variants from countries still grappling with outbreaks, and needing to impose renewed shutdowns and travel bans. And the longer the U.S. waits to act, the more those risks compound.The United States, like other wealthy nations, placed a bet on vaccine nationalism. By striking unilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies and gobbling up the world’s supply early on, it wagered it could take an “America First” route to quickly vaccinate its population and only then help the rest of the world.But America’s vaccination rate is now slowing. Despite plentiful supplies, less than half of the country’s population is protected by at least one dose of a vaccine, and just about a third is fully vaccinated. As my colleague Sarah Zhang has reported, the era of mass vaccinations in the U.S. is almost over; persuading the most vaccine-skeptical Americans has become the goal.Yet those numbers still dwarf vaccination rates in most of the developing world, where infections are spiking in the countries least able to protect themselves and most disadvantaged by the West’s self-interest. Washington has made a $4 billion commitment to the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) acquisition and sharing program, and the U.S. did loan vaccines to Mexico and Canada, but it did so only after pleas from those countries’ leaders. Part of that arrangement came with strings attached, and its fruitfulness has already run out, as Canadians travel south to swipe up unused doses and Mexico again pleads for another loan. Withering international pressure—and a shocking spike in infections and deaths—pushed the U.S. to send supplies for millions of AstraZeneca doses and equipment to India, where case records are being set almost every day.But the world needs a Marshall Plan to invest billions in global health infrastructure, technology transfers, and exports of raw materials, the experts I spoke with said, and not just a patchwork of disjointed solutions. Until the Biden administration announced last week that it would support waiving intellectual-property protections on vaccines, the United States hadn’t taken any kind of “big and bold” initiative to change the course of the pandemic abroad, Lawrence Gostin, the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told me.And even that may not be enough. Removing patent restrictions has a limited short-term effect, Hotez told me. “You can lift all of the patents tomorrow, and it wouldn’t have an immediate impact … because it’s not so much intellectual property that’s the barrier, but the capacity, the human capital, to make these vaccines,” he said. Though patent protections have limited the ability of some countries to make vaccines, the list of nations that can actually manufacture them now is already short, and the kinds of investments, training, and negotiations needed to establish facilities and scale up production can be provided only by a unified, U.S.-led global response, Hotez said.Getting such an effort off the ground might be particularly challenging, however, as the pandemic eases in the United States. As Americans race to relax, socialize, and travel, they may assume that because life feels normal within the U.S., the virus isn’t a problem elsewhere either—sapping the domestic pressure that American leaders need to feel to act now.[Read: Why the world should worry about India]Building that sort of domestic support is a key focus of a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report that itself offers a four-plank strategy for the U.S. to ensure vaccine equity. Among the suggestions: a presidential address to explain to Americans how U.S. efforts could reduce the threat of variants, reopen international travel, jump-start the global economy, and inject American influence in a diplomatic field currently dominated by Russia and China (thereby restoring the idea of America as an “indispensable” nation). The report’s co-author, Katherine Bliss of the Global Health Policy Center, told me that American leaders need to make the case to the public now of the need to vaccinate vulnerable people abroad. “It’s absolutely important to ensure a high level of coverage and access to the vaccines here, but that shouldn’t prohibit efforts to support the international dimension, because that international dimension reinforces the protection here at home,” Bliss said.As my colleague Yasmeen Serhan has written, outbreaks in India and Brazil are a glimpse at the future of coronavirus variants, declining vaccine efficacy, and the virus’s ability to wreck supply chains. Getting across the message that international investments now will save lives, economies, and the vaccine power later “needs to be happening almost simultaneously” with our own vaccination drive, Bliss said.Many Americans already struggle to sympathize with their neighbors—convincing them to care about poorer countries, particularly while recovering from what has been a tragic and difficult year, will surely be a tougher pitch. Waiting until every American who wants a vaccine has received one before funneling more aid abroad might be the most politically palatable course. But “what we need to do can’t wait,” Gostin told me. That message is a call to action, but it’s also a warning.
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Whose Side is Kavanaugh On?
This article was published online on May 13, 2021.The suburban gentry of Chevy Chase, Maryland, had some difficulty making sense of Brett Kavanaugh’s descent into villainy that fall. He had always seemed so nice and nonthreatening to his neighbors, so normal—the khaki-clad carpool dad who coached the girls’ basketball team and yammered endlessly about the Nats. It was true that his politics were unusual for the neighborhood, the kind of place where No Justice / No Peace signs stand righteously in front of million-dollar homes. But Brett was not a scary Republican, of the kind who had recently invaded Washington. He was well educated and properly socialized, a friend of the Bushes, a stalwart of the country club. When his nomination to the Supreme Court was first announced, the neighborhood had largely welcomed the news. People gave interviews attesting to his niceness; the owner of the Chevy Chase Lounge said that he would add Brett’s photo to the wall of famous patrons.But then came the first accusation, and the next accusations, and the cable-news pile-on, and the Donald Trump tweets, and the satellite trucks on Thornapple Street, and the regrettable Senate hearings in which their neighbor appeared on national TV, his face twisted into an aggrieved snarl, his voice torqued up to an unnatural shout, ranting through tears about the political enemies who were trying to destroy his life—and, well, suddenly what to think about Brett wasn’t so clear anymore.Stories of his shunning circulated among neighbors, accompanied by a mix of pity and schadenfreude: the woman at La Ferme who heckled him after dinner; the taunting message on the diner marquee that he passed each morning on his commute. Even at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where people were usually so good about setting aside political differences, the Kavanaugh case proved divisive. Poor Father Foley was swamped with letters and emails, while parishioners parsed the details of Brett’s alleged youthful sins—What was a devil’s triangle, anyway?—and grumbled about watching him receive Communion.Brett was confirmed in the end, of course, becoming the 114th justice to serve on the Supreme Court, but his photo never made it onto the wall at the Chevy Chase Lounge. And maybe it was just their imagination, but some of his neighbors swore that Brett was different now—harder, further away. He wore a baseball cap when he left the house, and started dining out more at the country club, where security was tight and access was limited. He canceled a planned trip to the annual Harvard–Yale game and turned down invitations to lectures and conferences, hosting small groups of students in his chambers instead.For months, he seemed to float quietly through the neighborhood like a spectral figure, a ghost of culture wars past, condemned to haunt Chevy Chase. Sightings at the grocery store became moments of morbid fascination disguised as friendly concern: How did he look? What was his mood? Does he seem okay—you know, after everything?Then one day, about six months after he was sworn in, Brett did something strange. It was Easter Sunday, and he had come to Blessed Sacrament for Mass with his family. When the service ended, he made his way outside, positioned himself at Father Foley’s elbow, and proceeded to greet parishioners as they filed out of the church—laughing and glad-handing and thanking them for coming, as though Brett were the priest and they were his flock.This odd little spectacle lent itself to multiple interpretations. Was he reaching out in fellowship to his enemies? Making a show of contrition (or forgiveness)? Or was he perhaps signaling something more ominous? “I read it as a flex,” says one parishioner who huffily steered his family away from the scene. “I read it as I’m right here, in the middle of everything, and I’m not going away. I won.”A strange irony of Brett Kavanaugh’s ruinous 2018 confirmation battle is that for all the attention it commanded—and all the certainty it instilled in both supporters and opponents—Kavanaugh remained more or less a mystery when it was over. What did he believe? Whose interests was he serving? And what exactly happened in that suburban-Maryland bedroom all those years ago? Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that he’d sexually assaulted her in high school—and the judge’s denial—foregrounded debates over predation and privilege, even as Kavanaugh himself seemed to blur into abstraction. Nearly three years later, questions remain, not only about past behavior but about the future. The cold reality is that Kavanaugh is now on the bench. And there is reason to ask whether his bitter path to the Court might influence what he does with a lifetime appointment.Kavanaugh’s confirmation cemented a conservative majority on the Court that got even stronger last year when he was joined by Amy Coney Barrett. Kavanaugh now sits at the Court’s ideological center—illustrating how far to the right the center has shifted. Any judicial victory that liberals hope to achieve in the coming years will likely require winning over the justice whose nomination they fought most ferociously to defeat.As much as the modern Court clings to its image as an apolitical institution—enlightened, black-robed figures dispensing wisdom from on high, guided by love of country and Constitution—the truth is that its members have always been swayed by politics, ego, and grievance. After Clarence Thomas’s confirmation was nearly quashed in 1991 by accusations of sexual harassment, he retreated into a cocoon of allies and ideologues, rarely speaking in public even as he became one of the most right-wing justices in recent history. Some wonder whether Kavanaugh will follow the same trajectory. It was he, after all, who spoke in that infamous Senate hearing about the country reaping “the whirlwind” and suffering “consequences” in a way that led many to believe he was issuing threats. “As we all know,” he told the senators who were questioning him, “in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.”While Kavanaugh’s allies insist that those comments were misinterpreted, they also say that he still privately seethes over the “smear campaign” he believes he endured. “He’s made an effort to say, ‘Look, I’m not bitter about this. I’m moving forward,’ ” one friend told me. “But I assume, when he’s lying in bed at night, it’s hard not to think about it.” Another friend put it more bluntly: “He was really angry at Democrats for what they did to him and his family.” And yet, those same friends also describe a competing impulse in Kavanaugh—a burning desire to gain readmission into polite society and enjoy all the perks associated with one of the world’s most prestigious jobs.The Court is poised to tackle a range of consequential issues in the near future—from the regulatory power of federal agencies to voting rights to the fate of Roe v. Wade. And for all of America’s illustrious constitutional scaffolding and its ideals about the rule of law, a generation of jurisprudence could come down to an unnerving question: Is Justice Kavanaugh out for revenge?Brett Michael Kavanaugh learned the virtues of partisanship long before he discovered politics. As a kid, he rooted fanatically for the teams he inherited, the Redskins and the Bullets; as a teen, he developed a close-knit group of friends at Georgetown Prep and performed his allegiance with try-hard zeal. Although Kavanaugh was not a standout athlete, he relished being part of a team—the nicknames and the inside jokes, the camaraderie born of a common cause, no matter how pointless or juvenile. When his friends set a goal of drinking 100 kegs during the year leading up to graduation, few gave more to the effort than Kavanaugh. Acquaintances prone to armchair psychoanalysis would later speculate that his fixation on the fraternal grew out of his status as an only child. “He’s very good in groups of male friends,” a former classmate told me.If Kavanaugh had grown up somewhere else, he might have joined a cult or a street gang; because he grew up in Bethesda, he pledged a fraternity at Yale. The elite pedigree of Delta Kappa Epsilon—past members include five presidents and a handful of Supreme Court justices—belied its essential frattishness. To join, Kavanaugh reportedly endured a series of ritual humiliations, including an order to hop around campus in a leather football helmet while grabbing his crotch and chanting, “I’m a geek, I’m a geek, I’m a power tool. / When I sing this song, I look like a fool.”While Yale was not known for its robust Greek culture, the “Dekes” had a reputation for debauchery. They boisterously waved flags made of women’s underwear, read aloud from Penthouse in the quad, and threw legendarily boozy parties. Once, with a frat brother, Kavanaugh got into a bar fight after a UB40 concert, and wound up being questioned by the New Haven police. (According to a police report obtained by The New York Times, Kavanaugh was not charged.) Decades later, episodes like these would become fodder during Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle. Democrats discerned a violent, misogynistic streak that supported the allegations against him; Republicans dismissed it all as youthful bravado. But to those who knew Kavanaugh, the stories also revealed the blinkered recklessness of a young man intoxicated by the thrill of belonging.Kavanaugh showed few signs of ideological fervor as an undergraduate. In fact, his former classmate told me, even at Yale Law School most of his fellow students had no sense of his politics until he started conspicuously cultivating relationships with influential conservative professors. This abrupt political coming-out prompted more than a little cynicism among his peers, who suspected careerism (a mode not exactly foreign to the Yale Law School set): In a field clogged with liberals, the path to coveted clerkships and jobs was much more open if you were coming from the right. “The question is, how conservative was he? I don’t think even Brett knew at the time,” the classmate said. Illustration by Oliver Munday; images from Wikimedia; Gabriella Demczuk / Getty After Kavanaugh completed an unremarkable clerkship, one of his professors recommended him for a prestigious spot with the libertarian Judge Alex Kozinski, on the Ninth Circuit, which then propelled him to a clerkship with Justice Anthony Kennedy. In an arena where Supreme Court clerkships command significant bonuses at big law firms—upwards of $400,000 today—Kavanaugh’s talent for picking the right mentors paid off.Yet even as he climbed the ladder of Washington’s conservative legal establishment, Kavanaugh remained staunchly nonpartisan in his schmoozing. “He was the kind of conservative you could go out to dinner with,” says Ruth Marcus, a liberal columnist at The Washington Post who knew Kavanaugh early in his career and later wrote a book about him called Supreme Ambition. So when he joined the newly formed special prosecutor’s office investigating some possibly shady real-estate deals made by Bill and Hillary Clinton, his friends took little notice. The job was supposed to last six months at most, after which he would move on to the lucrative career that awaited him.The early days of Ken Starr’s investigation were relatively quiet. The office was small, and the scope of the inquiry was narrow. Kimberly Wehle, a member of Starr’s team at that time, recalls Kavanaugh as bright and fair and absurdly hardworking. “I remember thinking to myself, That is the kind of person who belongs on the Supreme Court,” she told me. But as the investigation dragged on, growing and mutating and accumulating new targets—from the suicide of Vince Foster to the accusations against President Clinton by Paula Jones to the curious case of a certain White House intern—the environment in the office changed. Starr himself, once considered a leading prospect for the Supreme Court, came to be seen in Washington as a sanctimonious partisan hell-bent on taking down the Clintons. The lawyers who worked for him were recast as foot soldiers in a “vast right-wing conspiracy”—and some of them started to act like it.Around this time, Kavanaugh went out on a date with Colleen Covell, a young Democratic prosecutor in D.C. When they got to the bar, Covell recalls, Kavanaugh started draining beers at an impressive pace. The more he drank, the more candid he became in his commentary on the Clintons, until eventually he was shouting things like “I can’t believe you voted for him!” and “They’re total crooks!” The intensity of his animus was startling, Covell told me. “I just remember thinking, Whoa, he really hates them.”By the time Starr’s team turned its attention to Monica Lewinsky, the hothouse environment of the office had taken a toll on Kavanaugh, who had now been there well past six months. Once, amid a debate over whether the president should be asked sexually explicit questions under oath, Kavanaugh fired off a memo to his colleagues advocating for an X-rated line of inquiry. Among his proposed questions: “If Monica Lewinsky says that you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?” (Robert Bittman, who also worked on Starr’s team, told me that Kavanaugh had written the memo in a fog of sleep deprivation, and that he later expressed regret for its tone.)The investigation effectively launched Kavanaugh’s career. For all the office’s blunders, the young lawyer was able to forge relationships and bank favors with powerful Republicans, guaranteeing him a plum spot in the next GOP administration. After a stint on the Bush campaign’s legal team during the 2000 Florida recount, Kavanaugh joined the White House counsel’s office. George W. Bush took a liking to him, and eventually nominated him to serve on the prestigious D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.Over the next 12 years, Kavanaugh worked to reinvent himself as a respectable, and thoroughly unbiased, jurist with friends in both parties. He appeared frequently on legal panels and was hired to teach at Harvard Law School by its then-dean, Elena Kagan. He even publicly repented for his role in the Starr investigation, writing it off as a kind of youthful indiscretion. As a judge, he spent most of his time on wonky regulatory cases, which meant his conservative voting record attracted little attention in the culture wars. And when a politically charged case did fall into his lap, in 2017—involving an undocumented 17-year-old immigrant seeking an abortion in Texas—Kavanaugh tried to find a middle course. Rather than rule decisively on whether the abortion could proceed, he argued that the government should be given more time to find the young woman a “sponsor” who could help her make the decision. The ruling pleased no one, but it suggested an instinct for caution that made his brand of conservatism palatable in Washington.Kavanaugh’s rebranding campaign was so successful that, when he was selected for the Supreme Court, an array of bipartisan validators lined up to sing his praises. Amy Chua, the author and legal scholar, wrote an op-ed hailing his mentorship of female clerks. (In fact, her daughter would go on to clerk for Kavanaugh.) Akhil Reed Amar, a liberal law professor at Yale, said Democrats would be hard-pressed to find a conservative nominee better than Kavanaugh.But some who had closely followed Kavanaugh’s career remained suspicious. “He thinks very much as a partisan,” Garrett Epps, a law professor emeritus at the University of Baltimore, told me. “What has Kavanaugh ever been except the guy clutching onto the greasy pole?”The Supreme Court is a notoriously opaque institution. Justices rarely give interviews to the press (Kavanaugh declined my request), and clerks are expected to abide by a code of omertà that prevents them from publicly discussing what goes on behind closed doors. This culture of secrecy is encouraged by the Court’s members, who are invested in maintaining the perception that their work is done beyond the reach of rank politics.But people who have seen the inner workings of the Court say it’s nothing if not political. Tit-for-tat dealmaking is commonplace. Alliances are formed and rivalries fester. In the 1940s, infighting among President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appointees got so bad that Hugo Black and William O. Douglas are said to have threatened to resign if Robert Jackson was made chief justice. In the 1970s, Potter Stewart leaked damaging stories about his colleagues to the journalist Bob Woodward.While the judicial sausage-making may be more discreet on today’s Court, a range of people close to the justices—including friends, confidants, and former clerks—told me that Kavanaugh’s arrival in the fall of 2018 occasioned a round of careful internal maneuvering by his new colleagues.Most of the justices already knew Kavanaugh, and some of them even liked him. He was a regular at holiday parties and the swearing-in ceremonies for new Supreme Court lawyers (often lingering until the last guest left, according to one person). They also knew that he had been nominated at an overheated moment in American politics, by a president whose only inclination was to raise the temperature further. Even before the assault allegations, the regular partisan forces seemed especially girded for war: The day Kavanaugh’s name was put forward, the organizers of the Women’s March accidentally released a fill-in-the-blank statement they had prewritten condemning Trump’s “nomination of XX to the Supreme Court.”In private, Kavanaugh had expressed his own misgivings about the president who nominated him, even as he went through the requisite motions of flattery and fealty. “He was no fan of Donald Trump,” one friend told me. “But he’s not going to say no to the nomination. He had to kiss the ring to get there.” Illustration by Oliver Munday; images from Leah Millis; Tom Williams / Getty Kavanaugh’s future colleagues were primed for sympathy. The justices had long been united in a shared disdain for the confirmation process. The grandstanding senators, the bloodthirsty reporters, the political groups churning out attack ads—to the men and women of the Supreme Court, the whole thing felt like a high-stakes hazing ritual, and they were inclined to give one another the benefit of the doubt. “It’s a highly partisan process, and you have to kind of therefore take the slings and arrows with a grain of salt,” a person close to the Court told me. More to the point, some of the justices recognized an opportunity in Kavanaugh’s uniquely contentious confirmation.Kagan, an Obama appointee known inside the Court as a deft strategic operator, was quick to make a move. Sensing that Kavanaugh, in this vulnerable moment, might welcome allies wherever he could find them, she launched a quiet charm offensive. While he was still moving into his chambers, Kagan stopped by and offered to host a dinner party in his honor at her Washington apartment. They were seen together frequently—whispering and laughing during oral arguments or talking baseball over lunch in the justices’ private dining hall, where she liked to joke that their conversation was a reprieve from the Shakespearean forays favored by Kavanaugh’s predecessor, Anthony Kennedy. “She saw him as up for grabs,” said one person with knowledge of the Court’s internal dynamics.The other liberal women on the bench followed Kagan’s lead. Sonia Sotomayor gave an interview in which she welcomed Kavanaugh’s arrival: “This is our work family, and it’s just as important as our personal family.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised her new colleague at an event in Washington as “very decent and very smart.” These comments upset some on the left, but they had a strategic purpose. The liberal justices knew Kavanaugh wouldn’t vote with them on a regular basis, but they hoped they could pick off his vote occasionally, when it mattered. Having a relationship would help.Clarence Thomas, meanwhile, was running his own game. Though he had refused to watch the hearings on principle, he felt he understood better than most what Kavanaugh had gone through. “He had been there,” Armstrong Williams, a longtime friend of Thomas’s, told me. “It was like déjà vu all over again.” Thomas was eager to impart the lessons he’d taken from his own confirmation experience—most important, in his view, that trying to ingratiate yourself with your character assassins was a fool’s errand. “It took Justice Thomas a few years to figure that out,” Williams said. “But now he lets what he does on the Court speak for him—his rulings, his opinions, his dissenting opinions. He can’t do anything about how people talk about him.” According to Williams, Thomas hoped to be an example to Kavanaugh and would indeed be “a good mentor.”[From the September 2019 issue: Deconstructing Clarence Thomas]But the justice to whom Kavanaugh gravitated, according to people close to him, was John Roberts. The two men had moved in similar social circles for years—they belonged to the same country club, played in the same poker game—and Kavanaugh had long considered him a role model. He made little secret of his fanboy status: In his D.C. Circuit chambers, a blown-up photograph of himself and “the chief” had hung on the wall. “Brett idolizes John Roberts,” a friend of Kavanaugh’s told me. “If you’re looking for soul-mate types, that’s them.”Court watchers varied on whether the feeling was mutual, but Roberts had his own reasons to cultivate Kavanaugh. The chief justice is an ardent believer in the idea that the Court’s credibility rests on its image as an apolitical institution. “It’s my job to call balls and strikes,” he famously testified during his confirmation hearing, “not to pitch or bat.” Roberts’s fixation on staving off political backlash had guided much of his tenure. He favored narrow decisions over sweeping ones, resisted establishing broad new precedents, and was said to cut deals with his colleagues behind the scenes to avoid 5–4 rulings in high-profile cases. In 2012, he surprised Court watchers when he cast the deciding vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act. It was later reported that Roberts had initially planned to strike down a key provision of the law but flipped his vote, avoiding the blowback that would have resulted if conservative justices had overturned President Barack Obama’s signature legislation in an election year.Now Kavanaugh’s crash landing threatened to undo the carefully honed image of the Roberts Court—and maybe even the Court itself. Democrats were openly talking about “packing” the bench with liberal justices if they took back the White House and Congress in 2020, while scholars and commentators tossed around proposals to radically reduce the constitutional power of the judiciary.Roberts worked to ensure that Kavanaugh’s first term was as uneventful as possible. He maneuvered to clear the docket of abortion cases, and successfully punted a controversial case involving a Christian baker and a same-sex-wedding cake back to the lower courts. In the cases the Court heard, Kavanaugh stuck close to Roberts, voting with him 94 percent of the time.Observers were quick to note how different Kavanaugh seemed from his fellow Trump appointee, Neil Gorsuch. Though they had known each other since adolescence, when they were two years apart at Georgetown Prep, they were polar opposites. Kavanaugh was the proto–frat bro who organized boozy beach trips for his friends, Gorsuch the know-it-all prig who spent his free time on the debate team. And though they ended up clerking at the same time for Justice Kennedy, they never seemed to warm up to each other. The tense nature of their relationship became a subject of speculation among the Court’s insiders. Some chalked it up to clashing personalities: “Gorsuch has somewhat sharp elbows and a lot of self-regard,” one person told me. Others pointed to signs of a competitive rivalry: When Gorsuch was nominated first for the Supreme Court, in 2017, a restless Kavanaugh began telling friends that he might retire from the D.C. Circuit and make money practicing law.Whatever the reason, there was no mistaking their divergent styles on the bench. Gorsuch routinely stirred the pot with his purple opinions and grandiose pronouncements, self-consciously positioning himself as the right-wing heir to Antonin Scalia. Kavanaugh, meanwhile, was restrained during oral arguments, quietly siding with the majority most of the time and periodically aligning himself with the liberals. In his first term, he voted with Kagan as often as he did with Gorsuch. When he did come down on the right in a divisive case, he would write a separate opinion explaining himself in almost apologetic terms.“He really cares how he’s perceived across the ideological spectrum,” David Lat, the founding editor of the influential legal-commentary site Above the Law, told me. “I would say Justice Kavanaugh is trying to be the conservative that people don’t hate.”So far, Kavanaugh has had limited success in that mission. As he nears the end of his third term on the bench, his judicial record has proved peskily difficult to caricature—solidly conservative but not radically so, prone to incrementalism, disinclined toward culture war. And yet, he remains a magnet for criticism and controversy. Whatever your view of Kavanaugh, you can find evidence that he’s not on your side.When he cast the deciding vote in a ruling that allowed states to continue practicing partisan gerrymandering, Twitter exploded with calls from the left for his impeachment. Similar outrage met his vote to allow the Trump administration to include a citizenship question on the census, which many regarded as an intimidation tactic designed to undercount immigrants. A number of liberal Court watchers believe that the worst may be yet to come. As a lower-court judge, Kavanaugh showed open antagonism toward what is known as the Chevron doctrine, the legal principle that courts should give great weight to the interpretations adopted by federal agencies as they administer complicated regulations. It may be the one area in which his views are the most hardened. If Kavanaugh leads his conservative colleagues in overturning Chevron, Democrats warn, legal challenges will tie regulators’ hands and hobble the implementation of progressive policies—affecting everything from health care to the environment to corporate oversight.For some people, of course, the nuances of Kavanaugh’s voting record will always matter less than the fact that he was confirmed after facing a credible accusation of sexual assault. A year after Kavanaugh was sworn in, Christine Blasey Ford was still receiving death threats. The veteran judicial reporter Dahlia Lithwick wrote that she’d been unable to return to the Supreme Court because she was still so angry. Irin Carmon, a feminist journalist who covered the Kavanaugh hearings closely, told me the episode was especially painful because it took place at a moment when accusations of sexual misconduct seemed at last to be taken seriously. “People had started to think this time would be different, and it wasn’t, and that’s why it was so crushing.”At the same time, Kavanaugh has disappointed many of the right-wing activists who expected the Hulk-like figure from his confirmation hearings to reemerge on the bench. The grumbling began last year, when he voted to allow the Manhattan district attorney access to Donald Trump’s tax records. But frustration really boiled over in February, when his swing vote prevented the Supreme Court from hearing a slate of lawsuits challenging the election results brought by Trump and his allies. Across the Trumpist media, Kavanaugh was derided as a coward and a traitor. John Cardillo, a host at Newsmax, summarized the sentiment on Twitter: “Shame on Kavanaugh for playing ball after they tried to destroy him and his family.”Even within the more staid precincts of the conservative legal establishment, fears have begun to surface that Kavanaugh might be uniquely vulnerable to “judicial drift”—a phenomenon in which Republican-appointed justices, such as Lewis Powell and Harry Blackmun, grow steadily more liberal the longer they’re on the bench. Even before he was nominated, Kavanaugh had raised concerns at the Federalist Society, which vets the conservative bona fides of judicial candidates. He was added to Trump’s shortlist only after an intense lobbying campaign by Republican friends, most notably Anthony Kennedy, the justice he had clerked for and eventually replaced. Now some Republicans are privately wondering if the scramble to push through his confirmation was worth it. “Might there be some temptation to appease the left? Yeah, there might be,” one Kavanaugh ally told me. “He’s a human, and that’s a very human temptation. But I would be extremely disappointed in him if he were to go south.”Shortly after Kavanaugh was sworn in, his former clerks gave him a gift: a framed print by the artist Tom Lea accompanied by a quote about living “on the sunrise side of the mountain.” The original painting had hung in George W. Bush’s Oval Office, and the quote was a Bush favorite. Kavanaugh displayed it prominently in his chambers, a pledge to himself that he would remain optimistic.Kavanaugh knew the first few months would be bad, friends say. The wounds from the confirmation hearings were still fresh; everybody was still angry. So when he had to withdraw from his teaching position at Harvard Law School amid protests—despite his sterling student evaluations—he was stung, but told everyone he understood the situation. And when Matt Damon turned him into a punch line on Saturday Night Live, he gamely insisted that the impression was hilarious. But Kavanaugh was determined not to remain in exile forever. “He thrives on life in the public square,” a friend told me. “He loves it.”So far, the public square has not been particularly inviting. At the Federalist Society’s 2019 annual dinner, his keynote speech—a rite of passage for new conservative justices—was repeatedly derailed by liberal protesters. At a Georgetown Prep homecoming game, he reportedly had to ask alumni to put down their beers before he would pose for photos with them. Even venturing to Mass or the grocery store meant subjecting himself to a potential confrontation or a nosy neighbor overinterpreting his every move.The drumbeat of negative media coverage has yet to relent. This spring, when Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called on the Justice Department to investigate the FBI’s 2018 background check of Kavanaugh, suggesting that it was “fake,” a round of sensational headlines followed. (“Could Brett Kavanaugh Be Booted From the Supreme Court?” Vanity Fair asked.) His conservative colleagues might let stories like that roll off their backs, but Kavanaugh is hyper-attentive to the press. “I don’t think Thomas or Alito gives a shit what The New York Times says about them,” one friend told me. “But I think Brett does.”The pandemic has only heightened the sense of isolation. Last year, for the first time in its history, the Supreme Court began operating remotely, conducting oral arguments and most other business by conference call. Kavanaugh, who unlike most of his colleagues still has school-age children (plus a noisy dog), found working from home untenable, according to one friend, and continued to commute into Washington, where he spent most of his time alone in his spacious chambers.People close to Kavanaugh say it’s only a matter of time before he attempts some kind of rehabilitation tour—an interview in a mainstream news outlet, perhaps, followed by a handful of public lectures. But he’s been careful not to move too fast. Time is one thing a 56-year-old Supreme Court justice with a lifetime appointment has plenty of.For now, observers are left to speculate about what fundamentally drives Kavanaugh. Most of his friends seem to believe that the partisan revenge fantasy feared by the left and craved by the right is unlikely to materialize. He’s an affable guy, they all insist—he simply wants everyone to like him again. (Some even wonder if he regrets being tapped. “If he had it to do over again, knowing what would happen, would he accept the nomination?” a person close to Kavanaugh asked. “I honestly don’t know.”) But squint again at the story of Kavanaugh’s rise, and a different picture might come into view: a credential-obsessed meritocrat who’s spent his life sweatily striving for power without any grounding in conviction or principle.Which brings us back to the nature of the Supreme Court itself. There may be no greater indictment of America’s democratic system than the fact that Brett Kavanaugh’s feelings are so potentially consequential. But at a moment when the Court is routinely called upon to fill the void left by a dysfunctional political system, a single justice has enormous power to set policy and settle national debates. If Kavanaugh is “dangerous,” as his critics contend, it’s not because he is part of some brazen right-wing conspiracy. It’s because he has managed to ascend to the height of American power while remaining, perhaps even to himself, a living Rorschach test.This article appears in the June 2021 print edition with the headline “Whose Side Is Kavanaugh On?”
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