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theatlantic.com
Liz Cheney's Kamikaze Campaign
The defiant speech from Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming after her defeat in yesterday’s Republican primary could be reduced to a single message: This is round one.Cheney didn’t specify how, or where, she intends to continue her struggle against former President Donald Trump, after Harriet Hageman, the candidate Trump endorsed, routed her by more than two to one in the primary for Wyoming’s lone congressional seat.But Cheney dropped a big hint when she noted that the GOP’s Founding Father, Abraham Lincoln, lost elections for the House and Senate “before he won the most important election of all” by capturing the presidency. This morning, she went a step further, telling the Today show that she was “thinking about” joining the 2024 Republican presidential race.The magnitude of Cheney’s defeat yesterday underscores how strong Trump remains within the party, and how little chance a presidential candidacy based explicitly on repudiating him would have of capturing the nomination.Yet many of Trump’s remaining Republican critics believe that a Cheney candidacy in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries could help prevent him from capturing the next nomination—or stop him from winning the general election if he does. “Of course she doesn’t win,” Bill Kristol, the longtime strategist who has become one of Trump’s fiercest conservative critics, told me. But, he added, if Cheney “makes the point over and over again” that Trump represents a unique threat to American democracy and “forces the other candidates to come to grips” with that argument, she “could have a pretty significant effect” on Trump’s chances.In some ways, a Cheney 2024 presidential campaign would be unprecedented: There aren’t any clear examples of a candidate running a true kamikaze campaign.Cheney would have no trouble assembling the building blocks of a traditional presidential campaign. Her name identification is extremely high, for both her familial ties and her prominence as a Trump critic. Her potential fundraising base is strong: Through late July, she had already raised more than $15 million in her House race, and in a presidential run, she could tap into a huge pool of small-dollar donors (many of them Democrats) determined to block Trump. And with her unflinching attacks on the former president, she would be assured bottomless media coverage.Cheney could face other logistical hurdles. She reduced her in-person campaign appearances in Wyoming because of security threats, and that problem would undoubtedly persist in any presidential campaign. Dave Kochel, a longtime Republican consultant with extensive experience in Iowa, told me that Cheney could likely find ways to deliver her message even amid such threats. “You would need a lot of security, no doubt about that,” he said. “But remember, these days you can do a lot of this stuff from the green room. You don’t have to be going to the diner or the Hy-Vee or the state fair. It’s essentially a media strategy.”More difficult to overcome would be obstacles erected by the national and state Republican parties. The laws governing which candidates can appear on a presidential primary ballot vary enormously across the states. For instance, in New Hampshire, anyone who meets the legal requirements for the presidency, fills out a one-page form, and pays $1,000 can appear on the venerable first-in-the-nation ballot. But in other states—including Iowa and South Carolina—the state party controls whose name can be included on the primary ballot. And in at least some of those places, either the state party or the Republican National Committee, which has subordinated itself to Trump under Chair Ronna McDaniel, would likely move to keep Cheney off the ballot as a means of protecting him.Debates could be another challenge for Cheney. The general feeling among Republicans I spoke with this week is that the RNC would go to almost absurd lengths to avoid allowing Cheney to appear on the same debate stage as Trump. Kristol predicted that the party might try to exclude her by requiring any candidate participating in a RNC-sanctioned debate to commit to supporting the party’s eventual nominee in the general election—something Cheney’s determination to stop Trump would not allow her to do. (In 2016, the RNC imposed such a loyalty oath primarily out of fear that Trump wouldn’t endorse the nominee if he lost. Trump signed it but characteristically renounced it in the race’s latter stage.)[Read: The Mar-a-Lago ‘raid’ put Ron DeSantis in a box]Even so, it would be difficult for any media organization that sponsors an RNC debate to agree to keep her off the stage. And if Cheney is registering reasonable support in the polls—say 5 percent or more—even state parties might think twice about barring her. “Every other candidate not named Trump is going to want Liz Cheney on the debate stage,” the GOP consultant Alex Conant, the communications director for Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me.No one I talked with thinks Cheney could come anywhere close to winning the GOP nomination behind an anti-Trump message. The widespread success of Trump-endorsed candidates, almost all of whom overtly echo his lies about the 2020 election, in this year’s GOP primaries has made clear that the former president remains the party’s dominant figure (despite occasional losses for his picks). With Cheney’s defeat yesterday, four of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 attack on the Capitol have now been ousted in primaries, and four others have retired; only two have survived to face voters in November. “Trump continues to own a majority share of the Republican Party and the GOP has remade itself in his image,” Sarah Longwell, founder of the Republican Accountability Project, a group critical of Trump, told me in an email.But many Republicans resistant to Trump believe that Cheney could rally the minority of party voters who continue to express reservations about the former president. In public polls, as many as one-fourth of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents reject Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen, or criticize his efforts to overturn the result and his role in the January 6 insurrection. The share of Trump critics is usually slightly higher among Republicans holding at least a four-year college degree—a group that was notably cooler toward him during his first run to the nomination in 2016 and that sharply moved away from the GOP in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Some of those voters have since soured on President Joe Biden and the Democrats, but Cheney could spend months reminding them why they rejected Trump in the first place. “Especially among college-educated and donor-class Republicans, I think she continues to just chip away at Trump,” Kristol said.Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, believes that the core of Republican-leaning voters hostile to Trump is smaller—only about one in 10, rather than the roughly one in five suggested by some poll questions. But he believes a Cheney candidacy could reach beyond that circle to raise doubts among a much bigger group: Republicans who are neither hard-core Trump supporters or opponents, but are focused mostly on winning in 2024. While Cheney might appeal solely to the thin sliver of die-hard Trump opponents “with a prophetic-moral case ... about the importance of devotion to our democratic institutions and the US constitution,” Ayres said, that larger group might respond to “a very practical utilitarian case” that Trump has too much baggage to win a general election.The best-case scenario for the Trump critics if Cheney runs is that her battering-ram attacks weaken him to the point that someone else can capture the nomination. As Longwell told me, even if “Liz likely cannot win a Republican primary (though anything can happen!) … she can play a significant role in helping someone else beat Trump in a Republican primary.”The worst-case scenario raised by some Trump critics is that a sustained attack on him will encourage GOP voters, and even other candidates, to rally to his defense more than they would otherwise.But even those sympathetic to Cheney recognize that the 2024 primaries may offer only so much opportunity to change the party’s direction. Many of them view Trump’s strongest competitor in early polls, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, as little improvement over Trump in his commitment to a pluralistic democracy; Cheney recently told The New York Times that DeSantis has aligned himself so closely with Trump that she would find it “very difficult” to support him in 2024 either.These dynamics explain why many Cheney supporters believe that the real leverage for her—and other Trump critics—would come from working to defeat the former president, or a like-minded alternative, in the 2024 general election. The only plausible way to break Trump’s hold on the GOP, these critics believe, is to show that Trump, or Trumpism, cannot win national elections. Even if Cheney cannot deny Trump the nomination, she could still ultimately loosen his hold on the party, this thinking goes, if she persuades enough centrist and white-collar voters to reject him and ensure his defeat in a general election. To save the party, in other words, Cheney might first have to be willing to destroy it.[Read: Liz Cheney, the Republican from the state of reality]Cheney signaled her willingness to accept such a mission yesterday, when her remarks condemned not only Trump but Republicans who have enabled him, especially those echoing his noxious discredited claims of fraud in 2020. But it remains unclear how she may pursue her goals. While most Republicans sympathetic to Cheney think she should run in the 2024 GOP primaries, some believe she might have more influence leading an outside movement against Trump. Cheney’s GOP supporters are even more divided over a possible general-election strategy; some sympathizers believe she would hurt Trump most by running as an independent third-party presidential candidate in the general election, and others worry that such a bid would help Trump by splitting voters resistant to him.Cheney has many months to resolve those choices. What she indicated yesterday is that when she talks about a long battle, she is looking not only past the Wyoming House GOP primary but even past the struggle for the next GOP presidential nomination. The real prize she’s keeping her eyes on is preventing Trump from ever occupying the White House again, whatever that takes.
theatlantic.com
The Court’s Liberal Bloc Needs to Learn the Art of the Dissent
To become law, a Supreme Court opinion needs the backing of five justices. That reality has forced progressive justices for almost 50 years to compromise with center-right justices, resulting in legal doctrine rife with contradictions and loopholes, which conservatives have ruthlessly exploited to pare back the rights of women, racial minorities, and the gay community. Progressive justices had to make these bargains in order to get the five votes needed to be in the majority. That’s how things work.But now that the progressive bench has been whittled down to three, these justices’ job has changed. Now they will be writing dissents, and in a dissent, there is nothing to lose. The Court’s three liberal justices—Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ketanji Brown Jackson—should take advantage of this new freedom and leave behind their old role as salvagers of compromise and embrace their new one as prophets of doctrinal revolution.Writing visionary dissents is a long game—and a long game is indeed what progressives are now in. A visionary dissent plants a flag that activists, jurists, law students, and politicians can rally around. Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis’s dissents in early-20th-century free-speech cases are widely celebrated classics. These dissents began a process that overturned the original understanding of the First Amendment as offering a few scant and narrow protections to our modern conception of it as celebrating self-expression, robust debate, and even criticism of the government.[Linda Greenhouse: The Court Ketanji Brown Jackson knew]In more recent memory, conservatives have been the ones to wield the power of a strong dissent effectively. For example, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a solo dissent arguing that because the president has total control over the executive branch, Congress cannot create an “independent counsel” who is not fireable by the president. This dissent has been so influential that it is widely understood as governing law, even though the majority opinion in the case has never been formally overturned or scaled back. Indeed, the dissent recently plagued Congress’s attempts to pass a new law to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump, and its premises were the foundation for Court opinions that hampered attempts to protect the independence of the civil service. This year’s Dobbs decision is perhaps the clearest example of why dissents matter: In the foundational Roe and Casey abortion cases, Justices William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas wrote dissents that became blueprints for the majority opinion in Dobbs.Today’s dissenters—minus Jackson, who was not yet on the Court when the Dobbs decision came down—missed their first major opportunity in Dobbs. Rather than look to the future, the three progressive justices (then including Stephen Breyer instead of Jackson) writing together focused on the norm of precedent and pined for past decisions that embraced “compromise” and “balance.” This is as weak an approach as they come. The price of that “moderation” for years has been rulings that put a woman’s right to choose on death’s doorstep by permitting bad-faith regulations in the first trimester under the guise of ensuring that “a woman apprehend the full consequences of her decision.” Even more disturbing, if progressives ever manage to retake the Court, the progressive dissenters’ endorsement of precedent will by then pose an obstacle to a restoration of a woman’s right to choose because such a decision would inherently overturn Dobbs.The Dobbs dissenters should have recognized that this was a moment to begin developing the next generation of progressive jurisprudence. That long-range vision would have required tossing the reigning doctrinal tests based on the always-suspect idea of substantive due process and instead rooting the right to an abortion in our Constitution’s protection of sex equality under the equal-protection clause. On that basis, a future Court—imagine the progressive Court of 2040—might be able to strike down regulations whose true purpose is to make it impossible for women to procure an abortion in the first trimester.[Alan Z. Rozenshtein: The great liberal reckoning has begun]Next term, which starts in October, the Court is going to take up the question of affirmative action, and the conservatives are almost certain to jettison the entire thing. Progressives in response should abandon what’s long been the stated rationale for such programs: diversity. All understand that colleges do not pursue intellectual, religious, or other forms of diversity but rather try to ensure the inclusion of marginalized racial groups. Moreover, the concept of diversity turns minority students into a means, “a classroom accessory” to enhance the education of their white peers. Rather than cater to the diversity rationale, progressives, as they too infrequently have, should reground affirmative action as reparations for a long history of racism, especially against Black people.Lastly, gay rights remain vulnerable. Under the equal-protection clause, the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race and sex because those categories have been and continue to be the basis of systemic oppression. Despite also enduring such oppression, gay people do not receive similar protection because of a decision written by swing Justice Anthony Kennedy, which recognized the right to marry for gay people under substantive due process, the same clause that formerly protected the right to an abortion. Under this reasoning, gay people have a right to marry because marriage is, as Kennedy put it, “an individual choice central to individual dignity,” but other rights of gay people—such as protection against discrimination in the workplace—fall outside its bounds. For this reason, substantive due process is and will always be a weak protection for gay people. The progressive dissenters should instead make the case that gay people are protected against discrimination in all spheres by the equal-protection clause—and no amount of free-speech or free-exercise rights can completely outweigh a person’s equal-protection rights.Progressives need a new constitutional vision, and dissents can help lay its foundation. A single dissent can stimulate the arguments of lawyers, set the research agenda for professors, and frame the politics of social movements for generations to come. The progressive justices should invoke off-the-wall theories. They should be wild and bold. They should write legal decisions that lay out that vision so progressives across the field can begin fighting for it to become law.
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theatlantic.com
When Galaxies Collide, the Views Are Spectacular
Gravity can do some pretty astonishing things out there in the universe. When it’s not ensuring the downward trajectory of your spilled coffee directly onto your shirt here on Earth, the invisible force is playing arts and crafts with cosmic matter: crushing gas and dust into radiant new stars, smoothing clumpy rock into spherical planets, and, my personal favorite, smushing entire galaxies together. Gravity nudges galaxies toward one another—sometimes two, sometimes more—until they meet, their contents whooshing and mixing, and the slow-moving chaos molds them all into one big galactic ball.Astronomers have observed such events, known as mergers, in nearly every stage of the process. Early on, when the galaxies are clustered together, as if they’re convened for a very important space conference. In the thick of it, when gravity has begun to stretch them out of their original shapes. And at the end, when what remains is a messy sphere. By then, the only sign that a merger once occurred is a faint shimmer of stellar material around the orb.The latest image in the catalog, shown at the top of this article and taken by the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, captures the beginning of a merger in sparkling detail. The two galaxies involved—NGC 4567 at top, and NGC 4568 at bottom—will swing around each other, jostling existing stars and sparking new ones, until everything coalesces in about 500 million years. For now, they almost look like a little paper heart.Galaxy mergers are some of the most imagination-sparking events in the universe. Sure, supernovas are cool, and so are collisions of black holes. But galaxy mergers have all of that and more. (Zoom into this shot from Gemini North and you’ll spot the afterglow of an exploding star.) Galactic collisions also provide great material for daydreams about extraterrestrial life far beyond Earth. Consider that NGC 4568 and NGC 4567 are full of stars, and most stars, as we’ve learned from observations of our own galaxy, have planets. That means—if we could fantasize for just a bit—the NGC galaxies could be, to someone else, home. What might it be like to exist in the midst of a galactic merger?The nighttime view “would be quite spectacular,” Vicente Rodriguez-Gomez, an astronomer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told me. “The sky would be filled with newly formed stars, and we would be able to see warped streams of stars, gas, and dust stretching across the sky.” The view would be especially stunning if you lived along the outer edges of the galaxy, where the night sky would be less crowded with stars than at the busy galactic center. Here, at the outskirts, the other galaxy merging with your own would gleam in the darkness, bigger and brighter than any star. The big ol’ galaxy hanging in the darkened sky would simply be a fact of your existence, just like there’s a cratered moon in ours.[Read: The coziest spot on the moon]Even more exciting, you could take in that view mostly unperturbed, because, despite the galactic jumble, the possibility of your sun smashing into another would be extremely unlikely, Moiya McTier, an astrophysicist and the author of The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, told me. “Have you ever watched a really good marching band, a performance where two groups walk through each other?” she asked me. That’s how stars move in galaxy mergers, passing one another as seamlessly as uniformed musicians gliding across the grass. There will be more stars around, but space is still, well, spacious, and “most of these stars are not in danger of colliding with something else,” McTier said. (If your planet was too far out in the boondocks, however, you might be in trouble: The hustle can untether stars from the very edges of a galaxy and fling them out into the depths of intergalactic space.)Even as the stars file neatly past one another, the space between them can get a bit chaotic. “Galaxies have huge clouds of gas and dust in them, and then when galaxies interact, those huge clouds of gas and dust will collide,” Jeyhan Kartaltepe, an astrophysicist at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies galaxy formation, told me. The process would create hazy pockets of gas and dust in the night sky that eventually collapse under their own weight and ignite into brand-new stars. Astronomers on Earth can detect these starburst regions in their snapshots of galaxy mergers, such as this one, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. These are the Antennae Galaxies; they began to collide about 600 million years ago, and their spiral structures have already been smudged away, yielding to clusters of new stars, seen here as light-blue shimmers. (ESA / Hubble & NASA) As the stellar stuff of colliding galaxies migrates in, so will the gigantic black holes that scientists believe sit at the centers of most large galaxies. The dense, invisible objects will plow through like invisible meteors, dragging stars along with them (and perhaps swallowing some) as they go. “When two galaxies start to merge, their central supermassive black holes sink to the center of this newly formed galaxy and eventually merge” into a single, bigger black hole, Chiara Mingarelli, an astrophysicist at the University of Connecticut who studies the fates of supermassive black holes in galaxy mergers, told me. In the case of three colliding galaxies, “the likeliest scenario is that two of them will find each other and form a binary system,” she said, and when the third arrives and starts interacting with the others, “the least massive one gets kicked out, and could actually be completely kicked out of the galaxy.” “You could, in the end, have a rogue supermassive black hole that’s just wandering around the universe,” Mingarelli said.[Read: Behold, the bottomless pit holding everything together]All of this action—the flash of new stars, roving black holes—would unfold over millions, even billions, of years. A hypothetical inhabitant of the NGC galaxies wouldn’t notice any changes in her already brilliant night sky in her lifetime, but she could very well be aware that she’s living within a merger. Hypothetical astronomers in her world could sort through archival observations from earlier generations and collect data for future scientists. They would be able to understand their galaxy’s past, just as astronomers here on Earth have figured out that the Milky Way has previously experienced tiny mergers and absorbed smaller galaxies. And those astronomers could outline the future of their galaxy, too, just as astronomers on Earth have discovered that our own is headed toward a dramatic merger that will reshape everything.Our Milky Way is on a collision course with another spiral galaxy called Andromeda. Today Andromeda is visible as a speck of light in the night sky, but about 5 billion years from now, it will be tangled up with us. Our galaxy’s spiral arms will disappear, and so will our supermassive black hole. Andromeda’s central black hole has the mass of 100 million suns, and it will quickly swallow up our own, which has a comparatively tiny mass of 4 million suns. “It’s going to be like, bloop, done,” Mingarelli said. An artist’s conception of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies colliding (NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger) Although mergers won’t result in perceptible changes in one person’s lifetime, they could still offer intriguing opportunities for any astronomers living within them. Being in a lonely, unentangled galaxy can be a disadvantage. For example, Earth’s position in the Milky Way doesn’t present the best views for studying our galactic home; there’s just too much gas and dust in the way, McTier said. “We have to study other spiral galaxies to learn about the behavior and evolution of spiral galaxies like the one we live in,” she said. But “if there was another spiral galaxy that much closer to you, and it was angled in such a way that you could see most of it, then you’d be able to study that a lot easier than you can study your own galaxy,” she said.[Read: There is a planet with clouds made of sand]In other ways, being an astronomer in the middle of a galaxy merger would be frustrating; the night sky would simply be too crowded to observe very distant targets. “In such an environment, it would be difficult to find lines of sight that are uncontaminated by the luminous merging system that would be our home,” Rodriguez-Gomez said. Perhaps someone else has observed the Milky Way from his perch in the thick of a radiant, cosmic collision and exhaled a deep sigh, wondering, in a quiet moment of daydreaming, what it might be like here.
2 h
theatlantic.com
Gen Z Has Found Its Guitar Hero
This has been a strange year for popular music. In the winter, a chaotically catchy cha-cha medley from a Disney movie took the title of No. 1 song in the world. Then a 37-year-old anthem from one of music’s great oddballs, Kate Bush, did the same.Right now, another singular tune is making a surprising climb up the charts, though this time the hit also represents a familiar occurrence: the breakout moment for a promising talent. The artist is Steve Lacy, a 24-year-old guitarist and singer from Compton, California. The song is “Bad Habit,” which simultaneously sounds like something the Beach Boys might have demoed in the ’60s, Prince might have covered in the ’80s, and college rock radio might have played in the ’90s—yet it probably could have blown up only today.Lacy has had buzz in the music industry for a while now. After becoming a music nerd in childhood thanks to the video game Guitar Hero, he joined the soon-to-be-Grammy-nominated R&B group The Internet when he was only 16. Soon after, he collaborated with Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Vampire Weekend. But his sound distinguishes him more than his CV. Lacy makes soulful, smart stoner rock with relaxed rhythms and subtle melodies. This is vibes music, excellent for playing in the background—until listeners realize how deeply Lacy’s craftsmanship has sunk into them.[Read: A generation of stars working out queerness in their songs]“Bad Habit,” a single from Lacy’s second album, Gemini Rights, is clearly hitting people on multiple levels. Released at the end of June, the track has reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the same publication’s streaming chart. Hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos use the song (or sped-up remixes of it), but no one meme dominates. Some users set “Bad Habit” to mundane arts and crafts. Others film themselves displaying the emotions Lacy sings about. In one video skit, a guy nods along to the song, and then finds another version of himself crying to it.Given this popularity, a first-time listener might be surprised at how scruffy the song sounds. Drums clunk lackadaisically while Lacy’s guitar riff lurches up and down, evoking a car engine struggling to turn over. Lacy sings a bit like a nervous kid at a school pageant, both pining and flat. Yet intriguing sound effects and rich vocal harmonies (some provided by the singer Fousheé) add texture throughout. The instruments eventually cut out for 10 seconds of unaccompanied crooning—before a new groove, built on a peppy electronic rhythm, marches the song out the door.The back-and-forth-and-somewhere-else music suits Lacy’s words. The chorus, “I wish I knew you wanted me,” is a bit of genius: a seven-word tragedy in the subjunctive, a double entendre of regret and hope, a knot of desire about desire. The verses tell of yearning for someone unattainable, and then attaining them—yet this is no fairy tale. At times Lacy sounds shy (“Thought you were too good for me, my dear”) and sweet (of two lovers, “It’s biscuits, it’s gravy”). At others, he’s kinky (“Can I bite your tongue?”) and cruel (“Now that you’re back, I can’t decide … if you’re invited”).The album title Gemini Rights hints that Lacy’s mercurial sensibility is set by the stars—and celebrates how central that sensibility is to him. Hardly the show-off that Guitar Hero might have trained him to be, Lacy uses his instrumental expertise to smudge the lines between warm and sad, comforting and strange. The lineage of Black soul music, threading through doo-wop and D’Angelo, is omnipresent in his work, but so is fuzzed-out, emotionally slippery indie rock such as that of Pixies. In many cases, his songs’ best passages are outros, in which tossed-off riffs and refrains coalesce for a slow-cresting high.Perhaps his brand of ambivalent prettiness suits our era. In the past few years, Lacy and some contemporaries—Omar Apollo, Cuco, Rex Orange County—have given the impression of a hazy-headed, rock-and-R&B subgenre coming to maturity following Frank Ocean’s breakthroughs of the early and mid-2010s. This sound is, among other things, useful: ready-made wistfulness to soundtrack last weekend’s montages on social media. Lacy’s blend of lyrical earnestness and crassness also feels rather young and online, the expression of someone with a lot of feelings and a lot of attitude. “Gave you a chance and some dopamine,” he sings on “Sunshine,” a highlight from Gemini Rights. “Safe to say, after me you peaked.”Lacy is also, like many members of his generation, queer, with songs serenading both men and women. A case can be made that sexuality informs the category-blending sound that is making him a star, but identity labels aren’t really the point of his appeal. “Bad Habit,” certainly, doesn’t need to mention any particular gender to show the way that a new cohort can rewrite old scripts. The bad habit Lacy sings about is biting his tongue, closeting his feelings—a behavior that, with each passing year, seems less fashionable.
4 h
theatlantic.com
Monkeypox Is Bad. Monkeypox Is Fine.
Joseph Osmundson, a microbiologist at NYU, was walking home recently in New York City when a stranger abruptly shouted “Monkeypox!” at him. He wasn’t infected with the virus, which has been spreading largely through intimate contact between men, nor did he have the characteristic skin lesions. So he must have been targeted for this catcall, he told me, on account of his being “visibly gay.” From his perspective, the name of the disease has made a painful outbreak worse. “Not only is this virus horrible, and people are suffering,” he said, “but it’s also fucking called monkeypox. Are you kidding?”Since the global crisis started in the spring, efforts to contain the spread of monkeypox have developed in parallel with efforts to change its formal identity. In June, more than two dozen virologists and public-health experts put out a call for a “neutral, non-discriminatory and non-stigmitizing” nomenclature for the virus and its subtypes; World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus responded by announcing a formal process to create one. A month later, with monkeypox still mired in linguistic purgatory, the health commissioner of New York City issued an open letter to Ghebreyesus warning that a “public health failure of words with potentially catastrophic consequences” was imminent. “Words can save lives or put them at further risk,” the letter said. “The WHO must act in this moment before it is too late.”[Read: Asking gay men to be careful isn’t homophobia]As a practicing physician—and a gay one at that—I've felt devastated by the clumsy public-health response to monkeypox. The delays in rolling out tests, treatments, vaccines, and contact tracing have been a months-long source of frustration. But the name of the disease has never bothered me, let alone engendered premonitions of catastrophe. Sure, monkeypox sounded odd when I first started hearing it in conversation. But that feeling quickly went away as doctors had to deal with the scourge itself, and with a public-health failure of actions. After seeing lives literally put at risk by our government, I have a hard time believing that the word monkeypox can really do the same.I’ve been told I’m wrong about this point, many times and by many different people. Some say the term is silly, and that it makes a dreadful ailment seem unimportant. Others claim that it’s too scary, and causes panic we don’t need. I’ve also heard that monkeypox is racist, that it’s homophobic, and that, actually, it’s causing harm to monkeys. A single name for a disease is said to be, somehow, the source of all this evil. But medicine is full of terms that sound funny or disgusting or obscene. One can find “hairy cell leukemia” and “fish scale disease” and “cat cry syndrome” on the books. A common viral illness related to monkeypox is termed “molluscum contagiosum,” which seems like a Harry Potter curse; and then there’s “maple syrup urine disease”—much too sweet of a label for a debilitating condition. All these names are weird, but they hardly seem offensive. Why should monkeypox be different?The name for the current outbreak is, at the very least, inapt. It “genuinely bothers me every time I use it,” Neil Stone, an infectious-disease physician in the United Kingdom, told me. In addition to finding the name unserious and possibly racist, he’s hung up on the fact that monkeypox doesn’t actually have much to do with monkeys. Although the disease was first identified in primates, in 1958, small mammals like squirrels and rats are now thought to be more important viral reservoirs.The subtypes of the monkeypox virus, called clades, could be even more misleading. These were originally named after the regions in Africa where they’d first been identified, but the present crisis did not emerge from any of those places, Christian Happi, the director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in Nigeria, told me. If we were being less hypocritical, he suggested, the 2022 epidemic would be attributed not to the West African clade of monkeypox but to the “European” clade—in reference to the continent where cases were first identified this year. Happi, who was the lead author on the demand for a less stigmatizing nomenclature, also takes issue with some media outlets’ use of archival photos of Africans to illustrate a disease that now is occuring in white men.Since I spoke with Happi, a group of virologists and public-health experts convened by the WHO reached an agreement to rename the clades. A statement issued Friday said the monkeypox subvariant behind this year’s global outbreak would henceforth fall within “Clade IIb.” That shift will be most significant within the scientific community, but the more pressing question, of what to do about the term on all of our lips, is unresolved. What will monkeypox become?Surely any change would have to be in line with the “Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases,” put out by the WHO in 2015. Those guidelines are designed to minimize word-based harm to “trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare,” as well as to “cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” To that end, they say, names should exclude all stigmatizing references to specific people (e.g., “Creutzfeld-Jakob disease”), occupations (“Legionnaires’ disease”), or places (“Lyme disease”). Animal-based names, such as “swine flu” and “paralytic shellfish poisoning,” are also verboten.When I talked with Stone, he tossed out “human orthopoxvirus syndrome,” or “HOPS” for short, as a possible alternative for monkeypox. Happi said that “mundopox,” from the Spanish for world, was another. But if the WHO is to follow its own rules to the letter, it should stay away from any implication that the virus is a product of the Hispanophonic world (or, I guess, that hopping rabbits are to blame). Surely global-health officials will be more inclined to fumigate the discourse with another odorless, colorless gas of pseudowords and digits—something in the lifeless spirit of COVID-19. Along these lines, the emergency-medicine physician Jeremy Faust has suggested “OPOXID-22,” short for “orthopoxvirus disease 2022.” Even a bland name, however, might not immunize the WHO against blowback. Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, an infectious-disease doctor, has already criticized Faust’s proposal as incorrectly implying that monkeypox is new to 2022. Call it “IgnoredPox (IPOX)” instead, she suggested, in light of the fact that outbreaks have been neglected for decades.[Read: We’re testing for monkeypox the wrong way]Granted, monkeypox is not a great name for a disease that spreads between humans, and nothing good can come of potentially racist associations or implications of bestiality. But the WHO’s “Best Practices,” if deployed across the board, would exclude many—maybe most—of the medical terms in use today. Taken in broader perspective, monkeypox isn’t even unusually off-base. Chickenpox has little to do with chickens, for instance, and, unlike monkeypox, it’s not a poxvirus but a herpesvirus. Maybe in a more perfect world, we’d refer to chickenpox as “chicken herpes”; but then again, the herpesviruses—named for the creeping spread of lesions they may produce—are already stigmatizing given their association with sexually transmitted infections. Nearly all of us contract a herpesvirus during our lives, via nonsexual spread. Just the same, I remember telling one patient that he had a disseminated herpesvirus infection only to watch him jump to the erroneous conclusion that his wife must have committed adultery.Even though monkeypox is being used to harass people right now, bad actors who truly wish to deepen victims’ shame will always find a way to do so. Earlier this month, two gay men in Washington, D.C., are alleged to have been berated, then beaten, by teenagers who included monkeypox among a string of homophobic slurs. If that particular word had been unavailable, I’ll bet the others would have sufficed. Tone of voice and body language can, by themselves, turn a good word bad; and there’s little reason to think that any term for a disease, no matter how generic it might seem, cannot be wielded for ill purposes. “The name per se is not a major issue,” Mike Ryan, the executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said last month. “It’s the weaponization of these names. It’s the use of these names in the pejorative.” Indeed, HIV is no longer called “gay-related immune deficiency,” but gay men are still frequently ostracized over the condition. Connotation outlives denotation. Even COVID-19—a disease name that was designed from the very start to be as inoffensive as possible—can easily be turned into a slur. “Covidians” and “Covidiots” abound.Perhaps episodes of hate would occur less often if the WHO naming guidelines were universally adopted. Maybe the name monkeypox, which already sounds something like an insult, has a way of loosening the bigot’s tongue. Social scientists have struggled to assess the size of this effect. A number of preliminary studies suggested that the initial, China-centric framing of the new coronavirus in 2020 worsened bias against Asians and Asian Americans. But other research found no effect on anti-Asian sentiment; and one study concluded that the Trump administration’s effort to “scapegoat outgroups” actually backfired. Meanwhile, an increased level of anti–Asian American discrimination seems to have persisted for years. Any incremental consequences of the name monkeypox for anti-gay and anti-Black sentiment seem equally hard to predict.In any case, cruelty is nothing if not creative. Last month, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson ran a segment on the monkeypox-naming controversy in which he proposed a slew of other offensive names, including “Schlong COVID”—a term that manages to insult the victims of two diseases at once. The problem, as always, is people. The illness is new and mysterious to most of us, visibly apparent, and comes on the heels of the divisive coronavirus pandemic. It’s not the name; it’s the vibes. And the vibes are bad. Strangers are publicly accusing one another of having monkeypox. Medical influencers are playing up the possibility that monkeypox easily spreads through the air or will become common in children. Old political arguments over COVID have been rehashed.Bad vibes don’t wash off easily in medicine. In 2011, a rare form of blood-vessel inflammation called “Wegener’s granulomatosis” was renamed because it turned out that the condition’s namesake was a Nazi. Unfortunately, the disorder’s new name (“granulomatosis with polyangiitis”) is a mouthful. Doctors still prefer the shorter Wegener’s more than a decade later. Medical textbooks must awkwardly refer—Prince style—to the disease “formerly known as Wegener’s.” Will monkeypox also hang around?Consider the illness with the worst vibes of all: cancer. The name for these cellular growths brings to mind suffering and inevitable death. Yet many cancers diagnosed today are so small as to be practically harmless. Some doctors have been campaigning to remove the “cancer” label from such tumors, hoping to reduce fear and unnecessary treatment. But studies find that calling some mild breast and prostate tumors “lesions” or “abnormal cells” instead of “cancer” seems to have only a small impact on patient anxiety and overtreatment. A monkeypox rebrand may not do much more.Of course proponents of the name-change argue that getting rid of monkeypox wouldn’t have to save the world to be worth doing. “Nobody thinks changing the name is going to instantly end all stigma of people with the disease,” Gavin Yamey, a global-health professor at Duke, told me. It might still lower the social temperature, he said, and represent a proactive and important step to protect marginalized communities. For Osmundson, to assume that nothing whatsoever can be done to combat prejudice is giving in to nihilism.But a campaign to change the language of disease, based on the urge to do something, could be counterproductive. At worst, it could make semantics seem like the most important tool for addressing social wrongs. The American Medical Association, for example, recently declared that “a consideration of our language” is central to the work of improving health equity. “Pursuing equity requires disavowing words that are rooted in systems of power that reinforce discrimination and exclusion.” I don’t think that I’ve ever avowed allegiance to a word. Regardless, disavowing a particular word does nothing by itself to uproot injustice.Whatever we decide to call this Clade IIb virus, society has made plain which lives it values less: In the U.S., monkeypox is already spreading along the same racial, sexual, and economic fault lines as other sexually transmitted infections. An August 8 presentation from the Georgia Department of Public Health noted that most monkeypox patients in the state were young gay men; 82 percent were Black; and 67 percent were also HIV positive. Our actions, not our nouns, determine who will get sick.In 1993, Harvard scientists discovered a crucial gene for the growth of embryos. They decided that it would be fun to name it after the video-game character Sonic the Hedgehog. Other researchers at the time derided this choice as unserious. But today, the scientific literature is full of dry sentences like “Sonic Hedgehog plays a role in cell growth, cell specialization, and the normal shaping (patterning) of the body.” Words, like viruses, evolve as they move from host to host; and words, like viruses, may become more or less noxious over time. If the name monkeypox strikes listeners as funny or offensive right now, that could change in the future—irrespective of any committee.
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theatlantic.com
Desus & Mero Brought the Block to Late-Night TV
In the series premiere of Desus & Mero, the co-hosts, Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker and Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez, enter a New York City classroom ready to be clowned. “Late night for the people!” Desus announces to a room of unimpressed elementary schoolers. The children immediately fire off both questions and roasts: “Do you have kids?” “What did you do before TV?” “Aren’t you the guys who got dragged by DJ Envy on The Breakfast Club?” The skit ends with one girl saying, “You guys seem a little too ghetto to be on TV.”The (scripted, I’m sure) comment noted the obvious: Neither Desus nor Mero looked, sounded, or behaved like other mainstream late-night hosts, many of whom are wealthy white men in suits. Desus and Mero—of Jamaican and Dominican descent, respectively—had heavy New York accents, wore casual attire, and cursed openly and often. But more important, they openly embraced their connection to a version of the city that the elementary-school classroom represented: a New York populated primarily by working-class families and immigrants, where more than two-thirds of inhabitants are people of color, mostly Black or Latino.When Desus and Mero’s show debuted on Showtime in 2019, the Bronx-bred duo seemed primed to launch a new era of late-night TV. By the Season 2 premiere a year later, David Letterman was calling them “the future” of the industry. The show continued a strong run, featuring guests as varied as Eddie Murphy, Sandra Bullock, and Chris Smalls, who organized the Amazon labor union on Staten Island. But then, last month, Showtime announced that the series wouldn’t return for a fifth season. The hosts were ending their creative partnership, including, to the heartbreak of thousands of viewers and listeners, their popular, long-running podcast, Bodega Boys.The reason for the show’s cancellation is unclear. In a recent interview, Mero said that he and Desus had been discussing the split for more than a year. Yet in June’s Season 4 finale, Mero said that the show would only be taking a summer break, and shortly before Showtime’s announcement, fans were speculating about tension between the duo. Whatever the exact cause, the end of Desus & Mero is a loss not only for their fan base—nicknamed the Bodega Hive—but also for the broader television landscape. The show spoke to New Yorkers who grew up or live in the hood, provided a space for Black celebrities to show up as their full selves, and created a space where Black men in particular could tune in to conversations that sounded like ones they might have with friends.[Read: 20 perfect TV shows for short attention spans]The Desus & Mero set, a departure from typical late-night studios, captured the show’s ethos. The co-hosts sat side-by-side on a low stage, with no desk separating them from the audience or their guests. The interviews were held first at a table crowded with graffiti (drawn by Mero) and most recently on a set modeled after a bodega, stocked with candy, beer, Jesus candles, toilet paper, and a sneaker display. Most of the props bore either the Desus & Mero logo or one of their catchphrases. (The brand was, as they always said, strong.) The flags of both of their islands were ever present, as were liquor bottles made to mimic Brugal, a Dominican rum. Desus and Mero wore Timbs, puffer jackets, and fitted caps—a uniform familiar to Bronx natives and many of the city’s Black and Latino residents. Mero in particular often repped Dominican paraphernalia, whether an Águilas sweatshirt (for one of the country’s baseball teams) or attire from local Latino-owned brands.The duo’s path to fame didn’t resemble the one taken by many other late-night hosts: Go to a prestigious improv school, get hired at Saturday Night Live, and then wait your turn for a solo break. Desus had been a strip-club manager, a mechanic, and a bartender before working in media; Mero held jobs in IT and as a special-education paraprofessional. Their backgrounds featured prominently on the show and allowed them to wade into comedic territory that other late-night hosts wouldn’t or simply couldn’t touch.Take, for instance, Desus’s mocking defense of the basketball player Tristan Thompson, which referenced the stereotype that Caribbean men cheat on their partners. “You know about us Jamaicans. We’re loyal,” he said in one episode. And then, after a pause: “to all our families.” They made frequent mention of Dominicans bringing spaghetti to the beach (if you know, you know) and of the regular fights that break out in City Island restaurants. Sometimes, the co-hosts bantered about drug addiction in Black neighborhoods, stop-and-frisk, and their parents’ threats to send them back to the islands when they disobeyed them. Though ostensibly dark, these moments reflected the humor that people who face these daily indignities use to cope. The cultural specificity kept them close to their New York City roots and their goal of creating a late-night show “for the people.” Late-night shows also depend on celebrity access and memorable conversations, and Desus & Mero gave Black stars a space in late night where they didn’t have to code switch. In a Season 1 interview with the Black Panther actors Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o, the hosts pulled up a picture of Duke wearing leather slides—the “official footwear of every African or West Indian father,” Desus observed. Duke had been called out by his Instagram followers for wearing the open-toed sandals while doing construction work around the house. “And then you see all the Caribbeans coming on like, ‘What’s the problem?’” Duke recalled. “That’s regular footwear.” They talked about immigrant parents’ expectations, and Duke mimicked his family members’ accents. In the Season 4 premiere, the hosts spoke with Denzel Washington (who was promoting The Tragedy of Macbeth) about having an overprotective mom and growing up in Mount Vernon, close to the Bronx. Mero dubbed the actor “Hollyhood.” (In contrast, Washington spent most of his appearance on another show quoting Shakespeare with the white host.) Desus and Mero also featured people who may not otherwise have been welcome in late night, including bodega owners; strippers; the rapper Bobby Shmurda, who was in prison for more than six years; and local internet celebrities such as the Long Islanders Bigtime Tommie and DJ Vinny Dice.The pair didn’t have much regard for respectability politics or political correctness. The N-word was used regularly, as was the term crackheads to refer to people addicted to drugs. Desus and Mero’s refusal to self-censor was part of their appeal and a reflection of conversations you might hear on East Fordham Road in the Bronx or on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. Still, they could be quick to correct themselves if they said something uncouth. During a bit on a Pride Month tweet by the CIA, in which the agency posted a supportive message of its gay service members along with a photo of a combat helmet with rainbow-colored ammo, Desus made fun of the “gay bullets.” But he immediately stopped himself: “Why are we calling them gay bullets?” These moments showed the co-hosts’ openness to growth and respect for shifting public sentiment about social issues.As the seasons went on, the pair’s stature grew. They became friends with celebrities, and their newfound fame appeared to fuel their disagreements over what was or wasn’t appropriate to say on air. Desus in particular seemed more concerned with maintaining professional relationships. (In a segment on Mariah Carey’s 2021 holiday campaign with McDonald’s, Desus cringed at Mero’s suggestion that the singer was wearing shapewear. “When we eventually interview her, she’s going to ask about that comment,” he said.) Although both maintained their irreverent, raunchy, off-the cuff humor, Mero seemed to stay away from the glossy world opening up to them as a result of the show—in large part because he was a family man with four children—and Desus would often side-eye or distance himself from Mero’s potentially offensive comments. “Hollywood Desus” became a running joke between them and the Bodega Hive, although these jokes seemed less lighthearted by Season 4. At times, this tension made the show less fun to watch.But no matter the growing pains, that Desus and Mero made it to television at all was a seismic achievement. Since the series premiered in 2019, other shows filling a similar void have cropped up. In HBO’s Pause With Sam Jay, for instance, the comedian Sam Jay gathers friends—including formerly incarcerated people, government workers, and fellow entertainers—for broad-ranging conversations about issues such as capitalism, conspiracy theories, and LGBTQ education in schools. But no series offers the authenticity and local perspective of Desus & Mero. The show’s loss means one less space for people who grew up in the hood to feel seen and welcome and, most important, not judged—as Desus always said, “God’s working on all of us.”
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theatlantic.com
The Immortal Salman Rushdie
His friends, his readers, and Salman Rushdie himself eventually stopped thinking about the fatwa. He was living an almost normal life in New York. For decades, he had had no more than a very discreet, nearly invisible security detail.I recall the day, shortly after the French presidential election in 2017, that Emmanuel Macron invited Salman and me for coffee at the Élysée Palace in Paris. He was astonished that Salman had so little protection. “I’m not the martyr type,” Salman joked. “I’m just a writer. Why would anyone hold such a big grudge against a writer?”Well, he was wrong. This kind of killer never lets up. You can despise them, you can push them out of your mind—the bounty hunters and lunatics that history sets on your tracks—but the pack never forgets about you.[Read: All because Salman Rushdie wrote a book]And that is what my friend Salman may have grasped, in the bewildering seconds of Friday’s attack when a man invaded the stage at the Chautauqua Institution and started stabbing him. I was reminded of the fate of those other victims of fanaticism, Samuel Paty, Father Jacques Hamel, and Daniel Pearl, when I learned that Salman’s would-be assassin had slashed at his neck. He was left fighting for his life, gravely injured, though at least now off a ventilator.A wave of terror and horror is breaking over us all. I don’t have the heart to do much besides wait for news to trickle out from the hospital in Pennsylvania where Salman was taken by helicopter and let the memories come back to me—my memories of Salman Rushdie over the 33 years that have passed since Ayatollah Khomeini publicly sentenced him to death.I recall a meeting of the Nordic Council in Helsinki, three years after the fatwa, when I decided to share my speaking time with Salman. We gave no advance notice, and only my friend the Swedish author Gabi Gleichmann was party to our plan. When Salman took the stage with me, the audience held its breath—as though before it was a ghost, or a man condemned to death reprieved at the 11th hour, another “man in the iron mask” on the loose from his planetary Bastille. Then he began to speak, smiling and with a twinkle in those strange, half-moon eyes of his, with their prominent pupils that eclipse the whites. He improvised a dazzling monologue on art and the power of the novel, saying that between his work and his life, he would always choose his work. He received a standing ovation.Then there was a private trip to Nice, in the mid-1990s. Air Inter blocked off the first row. As I recall, he boarded at the last minute with his security detail, just before the doors closed, after we had witnessed a mysterious ballet of police, service vehicles, and flashing lights on the runway. On this occasion, too, when he appeared on the plane, there was generalized shock. One woman claimed that she was ill. Another woman demanded to be let off the plane. The rest of the passengers, once the initial surprise wore off, broke into sustained applause.Another cowardly soul comes to mind. This one was once France’s foreign minister, Roland Dumas. La Règle du jeu, a literary magazine that Salman and I and some others founded in 1990, invited Salman to come to France to meet up with some of his Parisian friends. As I remember, the minister behaved shamefully, decreeing that Salman, a citizen of Europe, needed a visa to enter France. Then he denied the visa on the grounds that he couldn’t guarantee Salman’s security. Dumas’s own colleague, Minister of Culture Jack Lang, protested. My friend the businessman François Pinault offered to lend us a plane and to provide the necessary protection. President François Mitterrand himself had to settle the matter. And lo, the France that was hoping for trade deals and arms sales yielded to the spirit of Voltaire. Bienvenue, Monsieur Salman. [From the March 2005 issue: In hindsight, the war on terror began with Salman Rushdie ]Yet another spineless individual: Prince Charles. In 1993, I met him at a lunch hosted by the British embassy in Paris. “Salman is not a good writer,” growled the prince when I asked him what he thought of the whole affair, adding that “protecting him costs England’s crown dearly.” On this, Martin Amis, another of Salman’s friends, later remarked: “It costs a lot more to protect the Prince of Wales, who has not, as far as I know, produced anything of interest.” The press and public opinion, for once, took the side of the persecuted writer.Le Monde sent me to London in 1998 to report on the daily life of the world’s most reclusive writer. After lunch at Scott’s, we strolled through Mayfair. We passed Kensington Palace, to which Salman had rushed, as many Londoners did in the days after Princess Diana died, the previous year. We visited the National Portrait Gallery to see an exhibition of portraits by the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. People approached my companion: “Are you Salman Rushdie?” (“I hope so; I do my best,” he said.) He made it a point of honor, on that day, to act as if he did not have the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. He exercised his freedom, his normal life, the way others exercise to stay in shape. Upon my departure, alas, he returned to his prison without walls.I remember the trip to Sarajevo we planned in 1993. Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović, welcomed the visit in principle. Salman wanted to go. Far from being the Islamophobe the lowest of his critics make him out to be, he is a friend and ally of moderate Islam. Was he not the defender of a Quran that fights on the side of enlightenment, as were those defending Sarajevo? But a certain Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then the secretary-general of the United Nations (before falling, deservedly, into the dustbin of history), opposed the trip on spurious pretexts. We had to abandon the plan.I remember a conversation we had in front of an audience in London, where Salman said how much he missed the Islam of his childhood in India. “The greatest of Muslim thought has been broad-minded,” he explained. “When I think back to my grandparents’ time, my parents’ time, Islam strove to be cosmopolitan. It raised questions and engaged in argument. It was alive.” Salman is the son of that form of Islam. He obviously has nothing against blasphemy, because blasphemy, in his eyes, is inseparable from freedom of expression and thought; but neither do I believe that he has ever blasphemed against the creed of his parents.I remember a conversation between us, in Paris, on the Jewish radio station RCJ, when he speculated on what the fatwa would have entailed if it had been issued in the era not of the fax machine but of social media. “A tweet is all it takes,” he said, as I recall, “to stir up the planet. Five minutes on YouTube is enough to trigger simultaneous demonstrations throughout the world. If my fatwa had occurred in the internet age, would it have been fatal? I don’t know.” Now he knows. Alas.I remember his wedding to Padma Lakshmi, in 2004: the shower of rose petals, the Indian orchestra, sitars and drums, the act of slipping an amulet onto the ankle of his beloved, his friends and son in attendance. He was happy.I remember the night of Barack Obama’s first presidential election. We were at a party in a paneled New York apartment with a mix of literary types, actors, journalists, campaign donors, and philanthropists. A cellphone rang. It was the president-elect calling to thank Salman personally for his support.I remember the day the French historian Pierre Nora; Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah; and I came to interview Salman for a 1994 documentary for the European cultural TV channel Arte. We filmed the conversation, if I remember correctly, in the library of a club in an upscale London neighborhood. Lanzmann was annoyed by Salman’s air of authority. Nora was annoyed by the annoyance of his old-school friend. He wanted to protect Lanzmann from himself and his well-known tendency to rehash old quarrels. Salman enjoyed the show they put on. He liked the idea that these old timers, whom he admired, seemed to fall back into an unresolved adolescent conversation. I remember a day on the beach in Antibes, the pleasure of being alive, the noon sun, heat waves rippling as far as you could see, sharing a love of movies and actresses, especially Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, the real owner of the Casa Malaparte in Capri (which Godard used as his film’s main setting). That day, Salman wanted nothing so much as to be able one day to do a remake of Dr. No or From Russia With Love. The good life. An appetite for living and for multiplying the ways of living. The opposite of a condemned man. I mull over our dinners together in New York in recent years. He didn’t want to hear any more about the fatwa. We talked about François Rabelais, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Laurence Sterne, George Eliot (a writer he could never get into), and V. S. Naipaul, whose death had devastated him. Literature before and above all else! The wish, faced with the fracas of the world, to say, “Please, turn down the sound!” Which obviously did not prevent him, a few months ago, at the very beginning of the war in Ukraine, from deciding that it was urgent for us to pen an appeal for sanctions against Russia and to help persuade Sting and Sean Penn to join the campaign.What has struck me, over all these years, is the quiet heroism of my friend. He understood very well that, from time to time, a Western government would expel a fake Iranian diplomat and that this might be out of concern for his safety because of the fatwa. He knew that self-styled friends of the Muslim people were still insisting, despite the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other slaughters, that no one had the right to offend others’ faith and that, if harm should befall the offender, he had only himself to blame. And never did a speaking engagement go by without his being asked the eternal question: Knowing everything he knew today, did he ever regret having written The Satanic Verses, a work that has followed him like a curse?But was he afraid? No, he was not. At most, he would confess to having a radar that sometimes warned him of possible danger.[Graeme Wood: Salman Rushdie and the cult of offense]And once—just once, a long time ago—I heard him make an odd remark about the knack master killers have for ruminating on their vengeance and carrying it out coldly when least expected. Think Mussolini and the Rosselli brothers; Stalin and Ignace Reiss; Putin and the poisoned oligarchs. And one day, a Shiite Ramón Mercader whom no one would see coming.I believe that is where things stood, last Friday at the Chautauqua Institution, when Salman Rushdie saw the man who meant to execute him leap onto the stage.Will this still be where things stand when he emerges from the hell of pain in which I imagine him? The artist in him will continue to believe that life is a tragedy, a tale full of sound and fury, told by an idiot. And he will not be surprised to hear friends tell him that if one can be Dickens, Balzac, and Tagore in a single life, one could well be considered immortal.But he will read the article in Iran, the semi-official newspaper of the regime, which, while he was fighting death, rejoiced that “the devil’s neck” was “struck with a razor.” He will see the ultraconservative newspaper Kayhan pronouncing a blessing, while he was recovering, on “the hand of the man who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife.”And Salman will have to get used to the idea, one that always petrified him, of being a human symbol, a hostage in a war of the worlds in which, like it or not, his own life and death have become everybody’s business. That is why those of us who could not protect him—all of us—now have a duty to perform.This act of terror against his body and his books is an absolute act of terror against all the world’s books. Such an outrage against freedom of expression calls for a ringing response.Individual nations will have their say. The international community, too, must signal to the sponsors of this crime that this Salman Rushdie affair has created a new division, a time before and a time after.As for his friends, his peers, media, and others for whom public opinion counts for something, we all have a commitment to make. And that is to ensure that the author of The Satanic Verses receives the highest of literary honors. To see that, in the name of all his fellow authors and in his own name, Salman Rushdie receives the Nobel Prize in Literature that is due to be awarded in a few weeks.I cannot imagine any other writer today would wish to win it in his stead. The campaign begins now.
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theatlantic.com
Paul Manafort Is Back
The title of Paul Manafort’s memoir, Political Prisoner, is ridiculous, but at least he’s writing what he knows. For much of his professional life, Manafort served as a lobbyist and an image consultant for the world’s most prolific torturers. One of his clients, the Angolan revolutionary Jonas Savimbi, led an army that incinerated its enemies alive. Another of his clients, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, dumped hundreds of mutilated corpses in the streets to show the price of opposing him.After spending 23 months in prison on charges of bank fraud, witness tampering, conspiracy, and tax evasion—the longest stretch in a low-security facility in Pennsylvania—Manafort now places himself in the same category as the victims of rape and beatings whose suffering he was once handsomely paid to minimize. This grotesque conflation feels like the fitting capstone to his career.After decades of working to soften the reputations of dictators, corporations, and Republican senatorial candidates, he’s now applying his craft to himself. His book is an attempt at redeeming a career wrecked by Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, who portrayed him as one of the most corrupt characters to ever bestride Washington. With little prospect of ever representing fancy clients again, or perhaps even finding himself a new slate of scoundrels, he has discovered that his best hope is to rebrand himself as a right-wing martyr, a victim of the same forces that Donald Trump says conspired to end his presidency. In one memorable scene, he recounts the van ride to a correctional facility in Virginia. A prisoner named B.B. strikes up a conversation with him, asking him why he was arrested.“For something I didn’t do,” Manafort replies. “I was set up. ‘Business crimes.’”“We all set up by the man!” B.B. tells him.As Manafort mulls the moment, he writes, “He was 100 percent right. I had been set up by ‘the man’—the Office of Special Counsel, Weissman, Mueller, Hillary, Obama, the MSM. The list went on.” Will the nation ever reckon with its history of persecuting lobbyists with shady bank accounts in Cyprus?[Read: What Paul Manafort knows]Manafort writes that his list of tormentors “went on.” He isn’t kidding. Naturally, he notes that George Soros set him up, through organizations that called attention to his corrupt work in Ukraine on behalf of its kleptocratic, Russian-backed former president. The judge in one of his cases, Amy Berman Jackson, is “a Harvard-educated, Obama-appointed, Trump-hating liberal.”But his greatest enemy is Andrew Weissmann, the prosecutor that Mueller assigned to his case. He depicts Weissmann as a wicked grand inquisitor bent on pressuring Manafort into submission. (Out of either spite or sloppiness, Manafort consistently misspells his tormentor’s name.) The central thesis of the book is that Weissmann wanted to inflict so much pain on Manafort that he would turn state’s witness and feel no choice but to parrot the special prosecutor’s lies about Trump.In reality, if Weissmann dealt harshly with Manafort, it’s because he tampered with witnesses, apparently lied to the prosecutors, and paid such little respect to a gag order that he was reprimanded by a judge. When Manafort briefly agreed to cooperate with Mueller as part of a plea bargain, the prosecutors revoked the deal because Manafort kept feeding them mistruths. But Manafort can’t admit to any of this. That’s what ultimately makes this book such a dud, even for obsessive students of the man like me. Over nearly 400 tedious pages, he rarely deviates from his talking points and absurdly presents himself as a faultless pillar of rectitude. (“My life up to that point [the moment when Mueller descended on him] had largely been the product of the American Dream.”) His only mistake was trusting the management of his finances to his unscrupulous deputy Rick Gates.In the conventional prison memoir—and that’s what constitutes a large portion of this book—the narrative usually culminates in a moment of epiphany, often in the form of religious conversion. But there’s nothing like that here.For a man who cares so much about surface images—witness the $1.3 million he spent on bespoke suits and an ostrich-skin jacket—his interior life is the foreign country that he’ll never be able to represent.In search of kinship with right-wing readers, the only plausible audience for this book, Manafort reveals that he spent so much time in prison listening to Rush Limbaugh that he can recite every word of the MyPillow advertisement from memory—the company’s founder, Mike Lindell, was a famous Trump stalwart. In a rare moment of poignance, he writes, “Mike Lindell became my surrogate family. In fact, each night as I fell asleep using a rolled-up wool blanket covered by a cotton T-shirt as my pillow, I dreamt of getting my four-pillow special.”Still, even in prison, observed constantly by guards, Manafort can’t stop being himself. “I didn’t want to have a menial job,” he writes. So he hatched a scheme. To avoid showing up for work in the prison warehouse, he paid a guy to sign in and out for him everyday. Freed from the task that the state required of him, he treated prison like a stint at the Yaddo writers’ retreat, using his time away from home to write his memoir in the facility’s computer library. In his bland, unrevealing account of his time behind bars, it was the only touch of the authentic Manafort I could find.But for all his self-exculpation, he offers limp explanations for the behavior patterns that so troubled Mueller’s lawyers. The government has repeatedly alleged that Manafort’s aide, Konstanin Kilimnik was an active Russian agent. All Manafort can muster in response: “He was a U.S. asset,” a claim he asserts without any hard evidence. Did Kilimnik pass along the Trump campaign’s polling data to a Russian oligarch to whom Manafort owed millions? Well, Manafort says, they were just “talking points” about public polling data. That might be a technically accurate description of a document exchanged in one meeting in a cigar bar. But Manafort had allegedly sent Kilimnik private data via encrypted texts over the course of months, according to the bipartisan findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.[Read: The astonishing tale of the man Mueller indicted]Manafort was the loose end in Mueller’s investigation. And it clearly bothered Mueller. In his final report, the special counsel accused Trump of potentially obstructing justice by floating the possibility of a pardon for Manafort.That’s why the most interesting moment in the book is the last. On December 23, 2020, in his last month in office, Trump finally granted Manafort that pardon. On Christmas Eve, Manafort received a phone call from the president, their first conversation in years.In Manafort’s account, Trump is overcome with gratitude that Manafort never turned against him. The president can’t stop praising him: “You are a man … you are a real man.” Trump tells him that a lot of people would have caved under the pressure, but he always knew that Manafort had character. He wasn’t a rat.Of course, it’s possible this call could have gone in a far different direction. It was Manafort’s shameful work in Ukraine that caused one of the biggest scandals of the 2016 campaign—and forced Trump to fire him from the organization. It was Manafort’s dealings that stoked suspicions that Trump might somehow be in cahoots with the Russians. All of this should have been cause for Trump to angrily lash out when they finally connected. The fact that he didn’t speaks far louder than Manafort’s silence.
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The Stakes in Ukraine Have Not Changed
This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.As we’re fire-hosed by news of Donald Trump’s antics and stories of the GOP’s slide into antidemocratic madness, Americans must remember what’s at stake in an actual military confrontation between freedom and dictatorship in Europe.But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic. Trump is back on the ballot. The pandemic’s soft closing How future generations will remember us The Long HaulThe war against democracy, as I’ve said many times, is being fought on multiple fronts around the world, and nowhere with more ferocity than in Ukraine. The former National Security Council staffer Alex Vindman is in Ukraine today, and as the conflict there drags on, he said this morning that he’s worried about the world developing Ukraine fatigue. Although I understand his concern, I don’t think that’s happening—at least not yet. But it’s time to remind ourselves what the stakes are in Ukraine for the United States and its allies.The Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t merely a “war” in which two sides have something in dispute and are using military force to get their way. The Prussian high priest of military thought, Carl von Clausewitz, described war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” but the Russian attack isn’t one of Clausewitz’s 19th-century conflicts. The attempt to destroy Ukraine is more like the Nazi campaigns of conquest in World War II—or, if you’d like a more futuristic analogy, it is like the war waged against Earth by aliens in the classic 1996 movie Independence Day. When the American president tries to surrender to the invaders and asks them what they want humans to do to secure a truce, they answer with one word: “Die.”It’s not a perfect analogy. Vladimir Putin, in the first weeks of the war, would have accepted a tidy and rapid surrender. Indeed, his initial goals did not include obliterating Ukrainian cities and civilians, because he long ago convinced himself that Ukrainians are indistinguishable from Russians. He may have imagined that after a quick strike against Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would flee—or be killed by his own military—and that Ukrainian children would carpet the streets with flowers to welcome the conquering Russians.Instead, Ukraine, with Western help, fought back and handed the Russian military one humiliating defeat after another. The Russian version of shock and awe turned into shock and dismay in Moscow, and Putin—whose vanity and ego are now deeply invested in this war—changed Russian war aims from quick conquest to a campaign of death and destruction as punishment for Ukrainian insolence.So where do things on the battlefield stand now?There are three things to bear in mind as you read the news from Ukraine: The Russians are not interested in a settlement. The Russians are running out of men and material, and the war is getting closer to the lives of people in Russia who thought it would never touch them. The Ukrainians are taking terrible losses, but they could outlast the Russians with Western help. The first point, that the Russians are not interested in a settlement, is key to understanding why the U.S. and its Western partners have to commit to the war with money and material support for the long haul. Putin is about to turn 70, which is not young, especially by Russian standards, but this war will last as long as he draws breath. His aims, no matter what he says in public, will always remain the maximum goal of subjugating all of Ukraine.Second, Putin thought he could pull off a quick victory while Russians, especially in big cities such as Moscow and Leningrad St. Petersburg, went about their lives. But the Russian military has proved to be far more fragile than Western experts predicted. (Among those getting it wrong: me.) After losing some of his best forces, Putin is now fighting the war with more kids from the glubinka, the Russian boondocks, many of them ethnic non-Russians.There are even reports that Putin is trying to recruit in jails by offering Russian prisoners a commutation in exchange for fighting in Ukraine. The heinous acts–and likely war crimes–we’ve already seen in Ukraine will seem like a warm-up if the Russian high command lets a bunch of convicted criminals in army uniforms loose on the battlefield with rifles and grenades. But this, in a country that once prided itself on the might of its armed forces, is a sign of desperation.Finally, the war is now a slog and will remain one. America and other nations have, for months, been carefully threading a needle, providing aid to Ukraine but resisting moves (such as no-fly zones) that could provoke a direct confrontation between Moscow and the West. This is a wise policy, and Joe Biden, in my view, has done a masterful job of helping Ukraine stay in the fight. We should continue to do so, with more and better weapons as fast as we can deliver them.The long term favors the Ukrainians, 40 million people who are fighting for their existence as a nation. The Russians are heedlessly throwing bodies and weapons into the fight, making it “a foot race between Western patience on the Ukrainian side versus Putin’s terrible burn rate of killed-in-action and equipment,” as Admiral James Stavridis told me in an email earlier today. Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, thinks time is on Kyiv’s side: “I would rather have Zelensky’s hand of cards than Putin’s.”In the near future, however, the Russians can still bring crushing amounts of power to bear on Ukraine: They want to claim Ukrainian territory, even if they have to reduce cities to piles of rubble and corpses before they plant their boots on them.This war is about freedom and democracy. Americans may become weary of the news and the depressing images, but we will never be as weary as the Ukrainians, who will need the West’s support for a long time to come.Related: The other Ukrainian army The rivalry that defines America Today’s News Water shortages along the Colorado River reached a threshold that requires unprecedented cuts in water for other states. The FDA decided to allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter. The federal magistrate judge who approved the Mar-a-Lago search warrant is holding a hearing Thursday about requests to unseal the investigators’ probable-cause affidavit. (The Justice Department argues that this affidavit should stay sealed to protect witnesses and keep proceedings confidential.) Dispatches Brooklyn, Everywhere: Xochitl Gonzalez asks: Would we defend Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses if it were published today? Evening Read (Illustration by Paul Spella. Source: Bettmann / Getty; Heritage Images / Getty.) The Unlovable, Irresistible John DonneBy James ParkerIf you were a gentleman in Elizabethan London, a gentleman of more or less regular means and habits, your typical day went something like this: You rose at 4 a.m., you wrote 14 letters and a 30-page treatise on the nonexistence of purgatory, you fought a duel, you composed a sonnet, you went to watch a Jesuit get publicly disemboweled, you invented a scientific instrument, you composed another sonnet, you attended the premiere of As You Like It, you romanced someone else’s wife, and then you caught the bubonic plague and died.They packed a lot in, the Elizabethans, is my point. Maybe posterity, considering our own age, will judge that we are packing a lot in, with the fascism and the COVID and the melting glaciers. Maybe. But there was a peculiar paradoxical ugly-beautiful density to life as the Elizabethans lived it.Read the full article.More From The Atlantic The man onstage with Salman Rushdie America is going to have a “heat belt.” The bigger this fungus gets, the worse we’re doing. Culture Break Characters from HBO's Industry. (Amanda Searle / HBO) Read. Dark Princess, W. E. B. Du Bois’s forgotten romance novel, is a reminder of how the romance genre can open our mind to fantastic possibilities.Watch. HBO Max’s Industry is the most thrilling show on TV.Play our daily crossword.P.S.The Russian war in Ukraine is not only killing people and destroying cities; it is shattering friendships and tearing apart families in Ukraine and Russia. The Russian director Andrei Loshak has created a documentary you should watch titled Broken Ties, which shows discussions among friends and families about the war. Nothing penetrates the bubble around some Russians, not even the fear in the voices of their own children or the body bags coming back from the war zone.If you think that the inability of millions of people to accept reality about the 2020 presidential election is a terrifying part of the political landscape in the United States, you will be shocked by the level of denial at work among ordinary Russians about a war that their own loved ones are experiencing in real time.— TomIsabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.
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The Mar-a-Lago ‘Raid’ Put Ron DeSantis in a Box
That the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Florida home has become a rallying point for Republicans—ever eager to demonstrate fealty to the former president and rage at government overreach—is not exactly a shock. What is noteworthy is how the news might shift political considerations in MAGA world.In another universe, last week’s FBI search could have provided a perfect opportunity for a wannabe party leader like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to set himself apart. A reckless has-been running off with nuclear secrets? Not my president! But in this universe—and given this particular cult of personality—DeSantis has parked his wagon next to all the others encircling Trump.“These agencies have now been weaponized to be used against people that the government doesn’t like,” DeSantis told a crowd on Sunday at an Arizona political rally alongside the GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and the Senate candidate Blake Masters. If the Florida governor had been gearing up to launch his own presidential bid, the FBI search—and what could come after—might be forcing him to rethink his plans. “Now that Trump is beleaguered and in legal trouble and the current narrative is Rally to the king!, he will rally to the king,” Mac Stipanovich, a Florida Republican strategist, told me.DeSantis has Trump to thank for his political success. The president’s endorsement—and multiple campaign appearances—helped him when he was the underdog candidate in his 2018 Republican primary, and ultimately led to his slim victory in the general election. In the three years since DeSantis got the keys to the governor’s mansion, he has worked diligently to position himself as the natural inheritor of Trumpism. He’s waded dutifully into the culture wars, opposing lockdown orders, blasting critical race theory and banning lessons on sexuality in school. He’s even mastered Trump’s hand gestures.[David Frum: The Republicans have a Trump problem. Again.]If the former president should decide not to run again in 2024, DeSantis has seemed ready and willing to accept the baton. In polls, Republican voters have consistently chosen him as their second-favorite choice for president.Some strategists told me that DeSantis might even try to challenge Trump in a primary by arguing—carefully, respectfully—that the MAGA movement does not belong to just one man. “Before the Mar-a-Lago raid, I was of the mind that it would be a crowded primary” in 2024, David Jolly, a former GOP representative from Florida, told me. “DeSantis has been so strong that he could say, ‘Enough voters are asking me to get in the race; I’m going to stand. But if Trump wins, I’ll support him.’”The FBI search, though, might have sabotaged DeSantis’s diligent plans. The news was read by MAGA world as the opening salvo of a war on Trump, and every Republican with a political survival instinct has proclaimed righteous anger on his behalf. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted an upside-down American flag in apparent support of Trump; “We are seeing the justice system being used as a hammer to batter political opponents,” the Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano told Newsmax. Even former Vice President Mike Pence came to Trump’s defense, despite recent reporting that Trump had expressed support for Pence’s hanging: “I share the deep concern of millions of Americans over the unprecedented search of the personal residence of President Trump,” Pence tweeted.DeSantis, too, was not about to bite the hand that feeds. He issued an angry tweet condemning the Biden “Regime” for its overreach. As DeSantis continues to campaign for MAGA-type candidates ahead of the midterms, including Mastriano in Pennsylvania and the Senate candidate J. D. Vance of Ohio, you can bet that he’ll keep talking about “the raid,” pointing to it as evidence of a leftist takeover of American government. This may be pure pandering. “There is no [advantage] in being seen to betray Donald Trump in his hour of travail,” Stipanovich said. Doing so risks appearing like a traitor to the MAGA cause and losing the base’s admiration. The most that DeSantis or any other presidential hopeful can do is be a loyalist and hope that, eventually, Trump falls or makes room for them to run.[Conor Friedersdorf: Why Never Trumpers should bet on Ron DeSantis now]Still, even in his condemnation of the search, DeSantis appears to be walking a careful line. During his speech in Arizona, he didn’t actually mention Trump by name. Instead, he accused the FBI of “targeting people who go against the regime.” The remarks seemed intended to demonstrate loyalty to the base rather than to Trump himself. Maybe DeSantis assumed that the audience wouldn’t notice? Or maybe he’s making a judgment that MAGA world wants Trump’s rhetoric but no longer requires Trump the man to be its mouthpiece.DeSantis could be leaving himself a small opening: If the various investigations into Trump never amount to anything, DeSantis might still have room to challenge the former president. But if Trump is actually indicted for a crime related to the Capitol attack on January 6, or to whatever classified documents he’s allegedly taken from the White House, last week’s rally-round-the-king moment offered a glimpse of what we can expect. Every Republican politician, including any potential challengers, would be forced to choose between defending Trump and siding with Joe Biden’s corrupt, leftist “deep state.” “The prosecution of Donald Trump would be the most catalyzing moment available to the former president,” Jolly said. “That’s a harder case for DeSantis to get into the race.”Last week, after the Mar-a-Lago search, Trump’s lead over DeSantis in a potential primary matchup widened by 10 points. But beyond gaming out DeSantis’s diminished options, the takeaway from the federal investigation is the simple fact that an angry septuagenarian still holds the Grand Old Party in a vise grip. Whatever succession plans those who dutifully kissed the ring were hatching, their political fortunes and futures remain tied to Trump.
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Does DNA Prove the Mythical Origins of These Wild Horses?
To tell the story of how a purported cow tooth dug up in the Caribbean might corroborate the mythical origin of wild horses off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, let us begin, naturally, with a children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague.If you know, you know—horse girls, I’m looking at you. For everyone else: This beloved 1947 children’s novel tells the story of Misty the pony, born on the beaches of an uninhabited barrier island. The story is fictional, but the setting is real. A band of wild horses still roams that island today, eating seagrass and largely ignoring tourists who come for selfies with a real-life version of Misty.No one knows how the horses first arrived there, but Misty of Chincoteague retells a dramatic bit of local lore. It opens with literal Sturm und Drang. A Spanish galleon carrying Moorish ponies to the gold mines of Peru shipwrecks off the coast of what will later become Maryland and Virginia. The crew perishes, but the ponies swim to a nearby island and survive. “The seasons came and went,” the book goes, “and the ponies adopted the New World as their own.” In their newfound freedom, they became wild—or technically, feral, domesticated but untamed. Today, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which manages the southern half of this horse population for historical reasons, promulgates the shipwreck origin story of the island ponies. The National Park Service, which manages the northern half, tells a decidedly less romantic tale: 17th-century settlers probably brought these horses with them.Enter now the “cow” tooth, actually a horse tooth, mistakenly cataloged decades ago by archaeologists excavating an abandoned 16th-century Spanish settlement. And intriguingly, a recent DNA analysis suggests that the modern breed this Spanish colonial horse is most closely related to is none other than the Chincoteague pony. Given the genetic similarity, could the myth be real after all—were these mysterious ponies also Spanish colonial horses that first arrived by shipwreck?Nicolas Delsol, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, was not thinking about any of this while dealing with the troublesome “cow” tooth for his Ph.D. dissertation. He was interested in cattle domestication in the Americas, and the museum’s collections contained hundreds of cow teeth from Puerto Real, a 16th-century Spanish settlement in modern-day Haiti. Delsol picked 24 to analyze DNA from and—just his luck—one tooth had sequences that looked really, really weird. He put it aside for weeks to finish his cattle project. When he did finally return to the tooth, though, he saw that its DNA sequence was similar to that of a… the Chincoteague pony. Delsol, who is French, had never heard of it. “I was like, Wait, what are they exactly? What are these Chincoteague ponies?”Because this tooth was buried at a well-documented site in a Spanish city that existed only from 1503 to 1578, archeologists are pretty sure the Spanish brought this horse to Puerto Real. And given its similarities in DNA, the Chincoteague pony seems likely, too, to have some Spanish ancestry. But Delsol and his co-authors are careful not to extrapolate much more. DNA alone cannot prove that horses survived a shipwreck. (Other writers have identified a 1750 Spanish shipwreck that they claim is a plausible origin event.) An alternative explanation, Delsol told me, could be that the Spanish brought horses with them while exploring the mid-Atlantic coast in the 16th century. This history is less well known than Spanish incursions farther south and west, but there are still remnants of Spanish forts in the Carolinas. Perhaps the ancestors of the Chincoteague ponies came on a journey to one of these settlements.Wherever the first horses on the island came from, though, the horses that live there today are not exclusively descended from them. They’ve been repeatedly bred and interbred with outside horses. In the 1920s, for example, Shetland ponies were introduced to the island to add pinto coloring to the herd. And in 1975, after large numbers of horses fell ill with swamp fever, the sausage magnate Bob Evans donated mustangs to help the Chincoteague population recover. “They’re of widely mixed ancestry,” says E. Gus Cothran, an emeritus professor at Texas A&M University who studied the island population using older methods back in the 1990s. That work, he says, also “strongly supports that there is some Spanish influence.” But whether that Spanish influence came from shipwrecked horses, other horses brought by the Spanish, or residual Spanish ancestry in horses interbred with the original Chincoteague ponies is difficult to disentangle. This question is especially tricky to answer because Delsol’s analysis of the horse tooth was limited to mitochondrial DNA, which is easier to get out of degraded old samples but is passed only through the maternal line, giving an incomplete snapshot of ancestry. Plus, it’s just always hard to tell a story from any one sample, says Cristina Luis, who has studied horse genetics at the University of Lisbon.This sample does add to a growing body of horse DNA that lays out the larger, more sweeping history of horses. The ancestors of horses today actually evolved in North America and likely crossed the Bering Strait into Eurasia, where they were first domesticated. About 10,000 years ago, however, equines went extinct in the Americas for reasons unknown. It was only after Spanish and then British, French, Dutch, and other European settlers came to the U.S. that horses once again roamed the continent. Today, American breeds are largely a mix of horses from all over—much like Americans themselves. Feral mustangs in the American West, for example, Cothran told me, were originally the descendants of Spanish horses. But as American settlers moved west, they brought with them horses that had more Northern European ancestry. Today’s mustangs are a mix of many lineages. In telling the history of horse breeds, “you are also kind of telling the history of how humans moved around the globe,” Luis told me. Indeed, however the first Chincoteague ponies arrived in America, their story is entwined with events in human history.Still, we humans can’t help but attach more epic stories to horses. Kristen Guest, an English professor at the University of Northern British Columbia who is studying the history of horse breeds, says she’s come across a shipwreck origin story multiple times in her research. One of the ancestors of iconic Clydesdales, for example, was purportedly an Arabian horse that was shipwrecked and swam to Scotland. “I don’t think it’s accidental that you keep getting the same versions of the story all over the place,” she told me. “There’s something about the idea that these ordinary little horses have this romantic history.” We romanticize our own past too. “Human beings, when they imagine their genetic history—nobody imagines their ancestors dug ditches,” Guest said. We’d rather imagine ourselves as descendants of Charlemagne.For Delsol, this has all been a rather fascinating detour through the history of horses. He’s still trying to get the cattle research from his Ph.D. work published. But, he admitted, “I don’t know if it’s going to draw as much attention as Chincoteague ponies.”
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The Man Onstage With Salman Rushdie
The man who was about to interview Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution last Friday when a would-be murderer ran onstage with a knife is a 73-year-old former telemarketing entrepreneur from Pittsburgh named Henry Reese. He wears bow ties and speaks with a low-key, husky voice and shuns attention. But Reese and his wife, Diane Samuels, are two of the more remarkable ordinary people in America. They’ve transformed a blighted Pittsburgh street into a haven for persecuted writers and artists from around the world. It’s called City of Asylum, and it’s a physical manifestation of the universal value of free expression. This achievement has something to do with what happened on Friday, two and a half hours north of Reese’s home turf.The Chautauqua Institution is an idyllic lakeside community, with an entry gate and streets lined by picturesque Victorians, where paying visitors—a lot of them retirees from the Midwest, more middle class than coastal culture seekers—stay for a summer week or so, attending performances and lectures in art, music, literature, ideas, and religion. The institution was founded in 1874 on a tolerant and self-improving strain of American Protestantism that thrived then and is now scarce. I spoke from that stage six weeks ago, and Chautauqua seemed a world apart, rarefied, a little dreamlike and fragile. Of course, there was almost no security—violence in this setting was unimaginable.Hadi Matar, the man accused of wielding the knife (and who has pleaded not guilty to all charges), may have believed he was enforcing the eternal laws of an ancient book. In fact he came from the contemporary world outside Chautauqua’s gates—a place of irrational hatreds and online threats, where ideas are not so much aired and debated as smothered by self-censorship, stifled by mob pressure, silenced by government decree, or put to death by the gun and the knife.[Read: Salman Rushdie and the cult of offense]Reese and I spoke two days after the attack. What, I wanted to know, was he doing onstage with Salman Rushdie? Their paths first crossed in 1997, when Reese and Samuels—he a businessman and she an artist—happened to attend a lecture in Pittsburgh by Rushdie, who’d been invited by his friend Christopher Hitchens, then on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. The talk was part of Rushdie’s gradual reemergence into public life following the 1989 death sentence issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After the fatwa, still under imminent threat, Rushdie had helped found an organization called the International Parliament of Writers to provide solidarity and protection for writers in danger around the world, especially those in Algeria. The organization inspired cities in Europe to provide asylum for persecuted writers. When Rushdie mentioned these cities of asylum in his Pittsburgh talk, Reese and Samuels were struck by the idea of starting one in their hometown—a local, grassroots project.In 2004 they founded City of Asylum on Pittsburgh’s north side, on a derelict street near a nuisance bar and a porn theater. They bought up adjacent rowhouses, five in all, and began to offer safety, shelter, and support to persecuted writers and artists from Ethiopia, Syria, Venezuela, Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, and Algeria. One by one, the tenants on Sampsonia Way brought the shabby block to full-color life, covering the facades with Chinese calligraphy, Burmese murals, Bengali prose, jazz art, and a mosaic based on a passage by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, making the street itself a kind of library. Later Reese and Samuels added a garden and a bookstore. City of Asylum provided not a temporary refuge but a lasting community. (I spoke there in 2009 and sit on the advisory board.)“The openness of writing is in fact social justice,” Reese told me. “The values of openness and protection are what enable a society to build justice. That is a dialogue, nonuniform, always in negotiation, and that’s really what Rushdie and this whole idea of cities of asylum evolved to.” In 2005 Reese invited Rushdie to address a fundraiser in Pittsburgh, and afterward the novelist and the entrepreneur stayed in touch. Last week they met again in Chautauqua and planned their public conversation the night before over dinner. Rushdie wanted to talk about writers in America from other countries and cultures who were “actually redefining what it meant to write American literature,” Reese told me. The larger theme was to be the origin and purpose of cities of asylum—what freedom of expression means, beyond just “abstract language.” Rereading Rushdie’s work, Reese had noticed the recurring imagery of flight and the weight of gravity: “I was really struck by phrases related to being grounded or not grounded, and what that really meant for someone who was migratory himself.” The epigraph of The Satanic Verses, the novel that inspired the fatwa, comes from Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil and describes Satan’s “vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition … for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste or air, yet this is certainly part of his punishment, that he is … without any fixed abode, place, or space allowed him to rest the sole of his foot upon.” The whole point of cities of asylum is to give the free spirit of art a solid and safe place to land.The attacker struck before Reese or Rushdie had said a word.Reese didn’t want to discuss the attack with me; he preferred to talk about the values that had brought him and Rushdie together in Pittsburgh and then Chautauqua. But it became clear why Rushdie is alive. Reese is home in Pittsburgh recovering from a fairly superficial knife wound to his eyelid, which he sustained while holding down the legs of the man stabbing the novelist. At that same moment, audience members climbed onto the stage and subdued the attacker while the knife was still delivering savage thrusts. Judging from videos, these rescuers were white-haired men in shorts—the kind of people you normally see at Chautauqua. A retired doctor from Pittsburgh who is a supporter of City of Asylum attended to Rushdie onstage. Running toward the mayhem took courage.[Read: All because Salman Rushdie wrote a book]All kinds of people show bravery in a crisis, and perhaps Rushdie would have been saved anywhere. But he was saved last Friday by members of two communities with similar values—one devoted to the open exchange of ideas, the other to freedom from persecution. “This is a very bold attack against the core values of freedom and ways of resolving differences short of violence, with art, literature, journalism,” Reese said. He experienced the assault as an intense embodiment of the kind of persecution that brings writers to City of Asylum. “It’s given a very visceral, momentary connection to me personally, and certainly to Salman, it’s probably never gone away in the back of his mind—but now it’s caught permanently, in a physical way.”Freedom of expression—“the whole thing, the whole ball game,” Rushdie once called it—is a universal value that has to be enshrined in law to have any force. But it can’t survive as an abstraction. It depends on public opinion. “If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it,” Orwell wrote; “if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” Free speech needs some ground to stand on. It needs a community with enough tolerance and trust for people to refrain from killing one another over ideas. It needs a people willing to defend the right—the life—of someone who says things that they don’t want to hear.
theatlantic.com
America Is Going to Have a ‘Heat Belt’
When the heat index—the temperature multiplied by humidity—reaches 80 degrees, the National Weather Service advises Americans to take caution. When it reaches 90, that advisory gets bumped to possibly dangerous; at 100, it’s likely so. At a heat index of 125 or above, the National Weather Service warns of “extreme danger” and describes its effect on the body concisely: “heat stroke highly likely.”Until now, that kind of extreme heat has been limited to relatively small parts of the country. But that might not always be the case. According to a new heat model released yesterday by the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assesses future climate risk, more than 100 million Americans live in counties that are expected to experience at least one day with a heat index of 125 degrees or above in the next 30 years. That’s 13 times more than the 8 million people who are forecasted to experience such world-melting temperatures this year, the group notes. And it helps to illustrate just how much of the country will need to start preparing today for more regular periods of intense heat.The nonprofit, which has previously modeled wildfire and flood risk, predicts that an “Extreme Heat Belt” will form along the Mississippi River, enveloping most of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana—as well as portions of Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.To create the model, the team used historical weather data and satellite imagery to calculate the seven hottest days at every property in the United States. (The satellite pictures helped them understand land-surface temperatures, which can vary based on what covers the ground—concrete holds more heat than grass.) It then used the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s global climate models to analyze 30 years into the future and see how many days an area will hit its current maximum three decades from now. Miami, for example, spends its hottest seven days a year sweltering under a 100-degree heat index. By 2053, the First Street Foundation predicts that the city will hit that temp 34 days of the year—more than a full month’s worth.How can communities nationwide prepare for more regular extreme heat, as well as more really-really-really-hot-but-maybe-not-125-degree-heat-index days?For starters, it’s important to understand the nature of the threat. Experts told me that one-off hot days aren’t necessarily the most dangerous, nor are the hottest periods. When temperatures hit triple digits in the Southeast, people seem to adapt their behavior, and the region sees fewer emergency-department visits for heat-related illness, Maggie Sugg, an associate professor in the geography and planning department at Appalachian State University, told me. In Arizona, more people die from heat-related causes outside of heat waves,, Ladd Keith, an assistant professor of planning and sustainable built environments at the University of Arizona, told me. This is in part because heat waves represent a smaller portion of the year—but it also helps underscore the danger of less attention-grabbing, more regular heat. And the hottest places aren’t necessarily the biggest problem. Last summer’s heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, which is estimated to have killed more than 1,000 people, underscored how communities in areas that don’t traditionally get blasted with heat can be at particular risk because they’re not equipped to handle it.Heat’s effects can also be cumulative, becoming worse over long stretches. Our bodies have to work to keep us cool, by making us sweat. The stress of all that hard work can build up, and our bodies need rest—or else our performance will lag. “When we look at workers performing day-long work in the heat, we see a gradual, progressive deterioration in their ability to lose heat,” Glen Kenny, a professor and the research chair in heat strain monitoring and management at the University of Ottawa, told me. “So Monday, they may have a given capacity to lose heat. So while they’re doing the same work on Tuesday, you see a gradual reduction.”As temperatures rise, people who have flexibility may start to adapt their routine. Sara Meerow grew up in South Florida but now lives in Arizona, where she is an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, and where the heat is drier and can hit higher temperatures. “One of the things I noticed when I first moved to Phoenix was that, in the summer, you would hardly see anyone walking around in the middle of the day,” she told me. “But you go outside at 10:30 at night, and there’s tons of people out jogging, walking their dogs. It was a very strange thing to see that at first.” Sugg likewise said that some occupational workers in the South, such as groundskeepers, have changed their work hours to start at 6 a.m.But not everyone can shift their schedule, and not everyone can afford air-conditioning. Heat tends to prey on society’s most vulnerable. My colleague Vann R. Newkirk II has argued that, globally, heat will be the defining human-rights issue of the 21st century. And older people are particularly at risk: Our body’s ability to lose heat declines by about 5 percent every decade, Kenny explained.Preparing for more extreme heat will require rethinking how cities are planned. Researchers have known for more than 200 years that cities tend to be hotter than their rural counterparts because of the urban-heat-island effect. Essentially, the materials used in cities often trap more heat from the sun than a natural landscape. Additionally, people collectively use more energy in these places while doing things like driving and running AC, which release waste heat. And within cities themselves, all of this extra heat isn’t equally distributed, in part because neither is tree coverage: “We know from research that the hotter areas of the cities tend to be lower-income, marginalized, historically redlined communities. And so there’s a lot of equity implications with urban heat, where those exposed to the hottest temperatures are often those least able to address it through their own kind of personal resources,” Keith explained.To counter, cities can construct more parks, plant vegetation, build with more reflective or lighter-colored materials, and push to be more sustainable overall energy-wise, Keith told me. Meerow pointed out that making cities more walkable or encouraging public transportation can have a bonus heat-mitigation effect because fewer people release energy while driving. Developers can also design with heat in mind, she said, by considering a building’s orientation or adding mechanical shade structures, while city officials can make sure their power grid is resilient in case of an extreme heat event.And when heat inevitably arrives, cities have options for managing it. They can provide cooling centers (with backup sources of power, just in case) and build out their heat-alert communication systems, with a focus on reaching the most vulnerable. They can also educate the public on the dangers ahead of time. At the state level, officials can consider labor laws that protect those who work outside.In the short term, Kenny stresses the importance of using air-conditioning to save lives, despite its environmental impact: “It’s like a seat belt, right? If I’m going to protect [someone] from a crash, I need to have the best protection possible: air-conditioning for the most vulnerable—without any question.” That doesn’t, he said, mean blasting it all summer; he argues that people should save it for heat events. Kenny also believes that experts can start informing people of other home-based heat-mitigation strategies, such as putting temporary shading on their windows, only using rooms that have less exposure to the sun, or creating living spaces in cooler parts of the house, like a basement.Recently, Miami, Phoenix, and Los Angeles each appointed a chief heat officer. And if a heat belt is looming, difficult summers won’t be limited to the Southern half of the U.S.. With large swaths of the country—including cities such as Indianapolis, Chicago, and Kansas City—under threat of extreme heat in the next few decades, more places might want to consider doing the same.
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theatlantic.com
Trump Is Back on the Ballot
Put two things together.The first is the surge of Republican support for Donald Trump since the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago residence.The second is this summer’s flow of good news for the Democrats as the 2022 midterms approach. Democratic candidates are leading in Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. As Politico observes, all-party primaries in Washington State show Democratic candidates running well ahead of their performance in 2010 and 2014, the last big Republican years. Democratic standing is rising in generic polling. Across the nation, indications are gathering that Republicans could pay an immediate political price for the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Above all, the August economic news has turned good: gasoline prices declining, general inflation abating, job growth surging.The first fact—the rallying to Trump—reminds us that his narrative of personal grievance still deeply moves Republican voters.The second fact—the Democrats’ improving congressional prospects—reminds us how little Trump’s grievances resonate with the larger voting public. GOP leaders have made a lot of noise about the Democratic obsession with pronouns. But the Trump Republicans have a pronoun problem of their own: Trump demands, and they agree, to talk about “me, me, me” when the electorate has other, real, bread-and-butter concerns.Big-money Republicans hoped that 2022 would be the year the GOP quietly sidelined Trump. Those hopes have been fading all year, as extreme and unstable pro-Trump candidates have triumphed in primary after primary. Their last best hope was that the reelection of Ron DeSantis as governor of Florida would painlessly shoulder Trump out of contention for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Now that hope, too, is dying.DeSantis ran in 2018 as a craven Trump sycophant. He had four years to become his own man. He battled culture wars—even turning against his former backers at Disney—all to prove himself the snarling alpha-male bully that Republican primary voters reward. But since the Mar-a-Lago search, DeSantis has dropped back into the beta-male role, sidekick and cheering section for Trump.Trump has reasserted dominance. DeSantis has submitted. And if Republican presidential politics in the Trump era has one rule, it’s that there’s no recovery from submission. Roll over once, and you cannot get back on your feet again.Trump specializes in creating dominance-and-submission rituals. His Republican base is both the audience for them and the instrument of them. But to those outside the subculture excited by these rituals, they look demeaning and ridiculous. Everybody else wants jobs, homes, cheaper prescription drugs, and bridges that do not collapse—not public performances in Trump’s theater of humiliation.Midterm elections are usually referendums on the pressing issues of the day. Voters treat them, in effect, as their answer to the implied question: “Got any complaints?” And because voters usually do have complaints, the president’s party tends to take losses. But this time, the loudest complaints of the “out” party are becoming very far removed from most people’s lives.Historically, conservatives spoke the language of stability; progressives, the language of change. This summer, however, the Trump Republicans are speaking the language of confrontation, of threat, of violence. Five days ago, Peter Wehner described here at The Atlantic the angry shouts on right-wing message boards and websites. That language of menace is now being used by the former president himself. Allow me impunity or else face more armed violence from my supporters is the implicit Trump warning.That’s a hell of a message to carry into a midterm election. And it’s a message that is incidentally amending the 2022 ballot question from “Got any complaints?” to “How do you react to bullies making threats?”
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theatlantic.com
The Atlantic Festival Announces Initial Lineup and Performances, September 21–23 at The Wharf in D.C.
The Atlantic is releasing the first slate of interviews and performances as part of The Atlantic Festival, its annual live event gathering the most influential voices on the ideas shaping a changing nation. This year, The Atlantic Festival is taking place from Wednesday, September 21 to Friday, September 23 at venues across The Wharf in Washington, D.C., including outdoors on the District Pier.Starting today, tickets are on sale to the public, available to purchase as All-Access, Three-Day, One-Day, or Three-Evening passes. A number of festival events will also be streamed to subscribers and audiences who are registered for a free virtual ticket.Among the interviews and programming announced today: White House Chief of Staff Ronald A. Klain; a performance by Michael R. Jackson, playwright, composer, and lyricist of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning A Strange Loop; actor, producer, and writer Constance Wu; Senator Christopher Murphy; Dr. Anthony Fauci; president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Alexis McGill Johnson; novelist Tom Perrotta; and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum.The festival is also announcing an evening of debate with Intelligence Squared, which will also include a performance by FLS+, made up of members of the hit Broadway show Freestyle Love Supreme; a session on banned books with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Atlantic contributing writer and founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University; the premiere of Shadowland, a forthcoming documentary series based on The Atlantic’s reporting on conspiracy theories and their influence on truth and our democracy; and a conversation with the creators of the documentary Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be released widely in early 2023, and follows the student organizers who fought for voting rights and Black power in the 1960s.The 14th annual Atlantic Festival is the preeminent live exploration of The Atlantic’s journalism, driving headlines through conversations with the people at the center of the biggest stories. Events will mirror the reporting that has defined The Atlantic over the past year, with sessions focused on misinformation and the future of democracy, health equity, climate change, the criminal-justice-reform movement, and the future of work, among other urgent topics. Leading and joining conversations are many of the magazine’s writers and editors, including editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg; executive editor Adrienne LaFrance; editors Ross Andersen, Gal Beckerman, Ron Brownstein, Kate Julian, and Vann R. Newkirk II; staff writers Tim Alberta, Caitlin Dickerson, Franklin Foer, David Frum, Barton Gellman, Sophie Gilbert, Adam Harris, Shirley Li, Tom Nichols, Jennifer Senior, Derek Thompson, and Ed Yong; and contributing writer Jemele Hill.The 2022 Atlantic Festival is supported by Boston Consulting Group, CTIA, Pfizer, Southern Company, and Walton Family Foundation as Presenting Level Underwriters; KPMG as a Supporting Level Underwriter; and Allstate, Edward Jones, Genentech, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Penguin Random House as Contributing Level Underwriters.Press should request a credential by emailing press@theatlantic.com; in-person seating will be limited and will need to be reserved in advance.The Atlantic FestivalSeptember 21–23, 2022The Wharf, D.C., and VirtuallyTicketing: https://www.theatlantic.com/live/atlantic-festival-2022/Press Questions: Email The Atlantic’s press team at press@theatlantic.com.
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theatlantic.com
The Pandemic’s Soft Closing
A quick skim of the CDC’s latest COVID guidelines might give the impression that this fall could feel a lot like the ones we had in the Before Times. Millions of Americans will be working in person at offices, and schools and universities will be back in full swing. There will be few or no masking, testing, or vaccination mandates in place. Sniffles or viral exposures won’t be reason enough to keep employees or students at home. And requirements for “six feet” will be mostly relegated to the Tinder profiles of those seeking trysts with the tall.Americans have been given the all clear to dispense with most of the pandemic-centric behaviors that have defined the past two-plus years—part and parcel of the narrative the Biden administration is building around the “triumphant return to normalcy,” says Joshua Salomon, a health-policy researcher at Stanford. Where mitigation measures once moved in near lockstep with case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths, they’re now on separate tracks; the focus with COVID is, more explicitly than ever before, on avoiding only severe illness and death. The country seems close to declaring the national public-health emergency done—and short of that proclamation, officials are already “effectively acting as though it’s over,” says Lakshmi Ganapathi, a pediatric-infectious-disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital. If there’s such a thing as a “soft closing” of the COVID crisis, this latest juncture might be it.The shift in guidelines underscores how settled the country is into the current state of affairs. This new relaxation of COVID rules is one of the most substantial to date—but it wasn’t spurred by a change in conditions on the ground. A slew of Omicron subvariants are still burning across most states; COVID deaths have, for months, remained at a stubborn, too-high plateau. The virus won’t budge. Nor will Americans. So the administration is shifting its stance instead. No longer will people be required to quarantine after encountering the infected, even if they haven’t gotten the recommended number of shots; schools and workplaces will no longer need to screen healthy students and employees, and guidance around physical distancing is now a footnote at best.[Read: New COVID vaccines will be ready this fall. America won’t be.]All of this is happening as the Northern Hemisphere barrels toward fall—a time when students cluster in classrooms, families mingle indoors, and respiratory viruses go hog wild—the monkeypox outbreak balloons, and the health-care system remains strained. The main COVID guardrail left is a request for people to stay up to date on their vaccines, which most in the U.S. are not; most kids under 5 who have opted for the Pfizer vaccine won’t even have had enough time to finish their three-dose primary series by the time the school year starts. In an email, Jasmine Reed, a public-affairs specialist for the CDC, suggested the Pfizer timing mismatch wasn’t a concern, because “a very high proportion of children have some level of protection from previous infection or vaccination”—even though infection alone isn’t as powerfully protective as vaccination. “It’s like they're throwing their hands up in the air,” says Rupali Limaye, a public-health researcher and behavioral scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “People aren’t going to follow the guidance, so let’s just loosen them up.”For many, many months now, U.S. policy on the virus has emphasized the importance of individual responsibility for keeping the virus at bay; these latest updates simply reinforce that posture. But given their timing and scope, this, more than any other pandemic inflection point, feels like “a wholesale abandonment” of a community-centric mindset, says Arrianna Marie Planey, a medical geographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—one that firmly codifies the “choose your own adventure” approach. Reed, meanwhile, described the updates as an attempt to “streamline” national recommendations so that people could “better understand their personal risk,” adding that the CDC would “emphasize the minimum actions people need to take to protect communities,” with options to add on. (Ashish Jha, the White House’s top COVID adviser, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)It is true that, as the CDC epidemiologist Greta Massetti said in a press briefing last week, “the current conditions of this pandemic are very different.” The country has cooked up tests, treatments, and vaccines. By some estimates, roughly three-quarters of the country harbors at least some immunity to recent variants. But those tools and others remain disproportionately available to the socioeconomically privileged. Meanwhile, Planey told me, people who are poor, chronically ill, disabled, immunocompromised, uninsured, racially and ethnically marginalized, or working high-risk jobs are still struggling to access resources, a disparity exacerbated by the ongoing dearth of emergency COVID funds. Know your risk, protect yourself, the infographics read—even though that me before we concept is fundamentally incompatible with tempering an infectious disease. If wide gaps in health remain between the fortunate and the less fortunate, the virus will inevitably exploit them.[Read: Of course Biden has COVID]The most recent pivots are not likely to spark a wave of behavioral change: Many people already weren’t quarantining after exposures, or routinely being tested by their schools or workplaces, or keeping six feet apart. But shifting guidance could still portend trouble long-term. One of the CDC’s main impetuses for change appears to have been nudging its guidance closer to what the public has felt the status quo should be—a seemingly backward position to adopt. Policies are what normalize behaviors, says Daniel Goldberg, a public-health ethicist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. If that process begins to operate in reverse—“if you always just permit what people are doing to set your policies, guaranteed, you’re going to preserve the status quo.” Now, as recommendations repeatedly describe rather than influence behavior, the country is locked into a “circular feedback loop we can’t seem to get out of,” Ganapathi told me. The policies weaken; people lose interest in following them, spurring officials to slacken even more. That trend in and of itself is perhaps another form of surrender to individualism, in following the choices of single citizens rather than leading the way to a reality that’s better for us all.No matter how people are acting at this crossroads, this closing won’t work in the way the administration might hope. We can’t, right now, entirely shut the door on the pandemic—certainly not if the overarching goal is to help Americans “move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” as Massetti noted in a press release. Maybe that would be an option “if we were genuinely at a point in this pandemic where cases didn’t matter,” says Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida. Relaxed guidance would be genuinely less “disruptive” if more people, both in this country and others, were up to date on their vaccines, or if SARS-CoV-2 was far less capable of sparking severe disease and long COVID didn’t exist. (Reed, of the CDC, told me that the agency’s “emphasis on preventing severe disease will also help prevent cases of post-COVID conditions,” adding that “vaccines are an important tool in preventing and treating post-COVID conditions”—even though immunization can’t completely block long COVID and seems to relieve its symptoms in only a subset of people.) Guaranteed paid sick leave, universal health care, and equitable resource allocation would also reduce the toll of loosening the nation’s disaster playbook.Layered onto this reality, however, chiller guidelines will only spur further transmission, Planey told me, upending school and workplace schedules, delaying care in medical settings, and seeding more long-term disability. For much of the pandemic, a contingent of people has been working to advance the narrative that “the measures to prevent transmission are the cause of disruption,” Stanford’s Salomon told me; vanishing those mitigations, then, would purport to rid the country of the burdens the past couple years have brought. But unfettered viral spread can wreak widespread havoc as well.[Read: The BA.5 wave is what COVID normal looks like]Right now, the country has been walking down an interminable plateau of coronavirus cases and deaths—the latter stubbornly hovering just under 500, a number that the country has, by virtue of its behaviors or lack thereof, implicitly decided is just fine. “It’s much lower than we’ve been, but it’s not a trivial number,” Salemi told me. Held at this rate, the U.S.’s annual COVID death toll could be about 150,000—three times the mortality burden of the worst influenza season of the past decade. And the country has little guarantee that the current mortality average will even hold. Immunity provides a buffer against severe disease. But that protection may be impermanent, especially as the virus continues to shapeshift, abetted by unchecked international spread. Should the autumn bring with it yet another spike in cases, long COVID, hospitalizations, and deaths, the country will need to be flexible and responsive enough to pivot back to more strictness, which the administration is setting Americans up poorly to do.Acceptance of the present might presage acceptance of a future that’s worse—not just with SARS-CoV-2 but with any other public-health threat. Months on end of weakening guidelines have entrenched “this idea that mitigation can only be dialed in one direction, which is down,” Salomon told me. If and when conditions worsen, the rules may not tighten to accommodate, because the public has not been inured to the idea that they should. “If it’s going to be 600 deaths a day soon,” or perhaps far more, Ganapathi told me, “I won’t be surprised if we find a way to rationalize that too.”
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theatlantic.com
What Will Future Generations Think of Us?
The Romans enslaved people, enforced a rigid patriarchy, and delighted in the spectacle of prisoners being tortured at the Colosseum. Top minds of the ancient Western world—luminaries such as Aristotle, whose works are still taught in undergraduate lectures today—defended slavery as an entirely natural and proper practice. Indeed, from the dawn of the agricultural era to the 19th century, slavery was ubiquitous across the world. It’s hard to understand how our predecessors could have been so horrifically wrong.We have made real progress since then. Though still very far from perfect, society is in many respects considerably more humane and just than it once was. But why should anyone think this journey of moral progress is close to complete? Given humanity’s track record, we almost certainly are, like our forebears, committing grave moral mistakes at this very moment. When future generations look back on us, they might see us like we see the Romans. Contemplating our potential moral wrongdoing is a challenging exercise: It requires us to perceive and scrutinize everything that humanity does.Some of our sins are obvious with even a small amount of reflection. Take, for example, how we treat incarcerated people. Unlike the Romans, we mostly no longer stage the suffering of prisoners as public spectacle. Still, we subject them to conditions—such as extended solitary confinement—that enlightened future generations will likely regard with horror. The massive harm we inflict on incarcerated people (and their innocent families) is often greater than the harm inflicted by beating and caning—practices we’ve rightly left behind.Or consider how we treat animals. Every year, humanity slaughters 80 billion land animals to satisfy our culinary preferences. Most of these are chickens, and their lives are miserable: Male chicks of layer hens are gassed, ground up, or thrown into the garbage, where they either die of thirst or suffocate to death; female chicks have their sensitive beaks cut off, and most are confined to cages that are smaller than a letter-size piece of paper. On average, a regular meal containing chicken or eggs costs at least 10 torturous hours of a chicken’s life—and more chickens will be killed within the next two years than the number of all humans who have ever lived. Similarly, pigs are castrated and have their tails amputated, and farmed cattle are castrated, dehorned, and branded with a hot iron—all without anesthetic. If animals matter at all, our treatment of them is a crime of epic proportions.These ethical failures share a pattern. Disenfranchised and marginalized groups—such as the global poor, incarcerated people, migrants wrested from their families by our immigration system, and even humble farm animals—are out of sight and out of mind. Future generations will observe how we hid these groups from society’s gaze, allowing ourselves to ignore their basic interests. This is not a new point. But there’s another dimension that’s less discussed. When future people look back on us, they are bound to notice our disregard for another disenfranchised group: them.Future generations can’t vote in our elections, or speak across time and urge us to act differently. They are voiceless. It’s easy to imagine that in the year 2300, our descendants will look back on us and deplore our failure to take their interests into account. And the stakes of this potential failure are incredibly high. Because of the sheer number of future people, and because their well-being is so utterly neglected, I’ve come to believe that protecting future generations should be a key moral priority of our time. When we consider which groups we’re neglecting, it’s all too easy to forget about most people who will likely ever live.Here’s just one example of our disregard for future people. Despite the devastating wake-up call of COVID-19, most governments remain almost entirely underprepared for future pandemics. For instance, the U.S. still spends only less than $10 billion a year on preparing for pandemics, compared with about $280 billion on counterterrorism. Since 9/11, about 500 people have died on U.S. soil as a result of a terrorist acts. More than a thousand times as many have died from COVID: The excess-death toll from COVID in the U.S. is more than a million people. If we don’t massively ramp up our meager attempts to prevent the next pandemic, it’s highly likely that a pathogen much deadlier than the coronavirus will eventually cause devastation. The risk of accident from experimentation on the very deadliest pandemics will only increase, and soon, as such dangerous research becomes rapidly more accessible.[Read: America is sliding into the long pandemic defeat]If our descendants live in a postapocalyptic dystopia, how will they see our failure to prevent catastrophe? And what will our descendants think of our choice to spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Carbon dioxide will pollute the air they breathe for thousands of years; sea level will continue to rise for 10,000 years. And when it comes to climate change and pandemic preparedness, there are concrete steps we can take today. We can invest in the most promising clean-energy technology, like batteries, solar panels, and enhanced geothermal power, to mitigate climate change. To avoid the next pandemic, we can develop next-generation personal protective equipment and early-warning systems that detect new pathogens in wastewater, and we can get the cost of far-UVC lighting down low enough so that we can easily and safely kill viruses in the air. If we don’t act now to safeguard the future, our descendants will predictably—and fittingly—judge us for our shortsightedness. But climate change and pandemics aren’t the only catastrophes that deserve much more attention. How can we mend a breakdown in international relations and mitigate the risk of spiraling into World War III? Artificial intelligence is rapidly progressing—how can we prevent it from being weaponized by bad actors, and how can we ensure it stays aligned with humanity’s values? And how can we prevent authoritarian and illiberal ideologies from gaining currency, and ensure that moral progress continues long into the future?These are difficult problems. But over the past decade or so, we’ve made real progress on them. Groups such as the Alignment Research Center are working to ensure that AI benefits humanity rather than destroys it. Forecasters at sites such as Metaculus are learning how to make careful, evidence-based predictions about the future, and how to score those predictions impartially. And organizations such as Alvea, the Nucleic Acid Observatory, and the SecureDNA Project are developing concrete solutions to protect people, now and in the future, from biological catastrophe.But there is so much more to be done. Society still devotes an embarrassingly small portion of its time and resources to tackling the most important problems. We need more impact-driven research, forecasting tournaments, prediction markets, and truth-seeking public debate. We need a social movement committed to protecting the future, and public-advocacy campaigns for the interests of our descendants. We need creative experiments to represent future people—and other powerless populations—in our political institutions. We need to continue expanding the circle of moral concern so that it includes the global poor, incarcerated people, immigrants, animals, and all other beings that can flourish or suffer—now and far into the future.We also need to recognize just how much we might be missing. The most important moral causes in previous centuries might be obvious to us now, but they were only dimly apparent at the time. We should expect the same to be true today. So we can’t address just the problems that strike us, today, as most obviously pressing. We must also cultivate our society’s wisdom, foresight, and powers of reflection—so that we, and our children, can make progress in discovering what the most important problems truly are. This process of moral reflection could take considerable time, but it’s one we can’t afford to skip.To truly understand the most important problems we face, and to find the most effective solutions, is no small task, and we’ve barely gotten started. But with hard work and humility, we can steer toward a future that our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will be glad to inherit.What will future generations think of us? Perhaps they will see us as selfish and myopic. Or perhaps they will look back on us with gratitude, for the steps we took to leave them a better world. The choice is ours.
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theatlantic.com
What Makes Industry the Most Thrilling Show on TV
For years, HBO has treated power struggles as delicious entertainment, wringing gasps and jitters from fantasy kingdoms, crime clans, and media families riven by ambition. Now the alpha of prestige TV is undergoing its own drama. Last week, news broke that Warner Bros. Discovery would cut staff and rethink the programming strategy for HBO Max as it planned to merge that service with Discovery+. A presentation for investors asserted that the two streaming platforms are “unique and complementary” because, among other things, HBO Max is the “Home of ‘Fandoms,’” while Discovery+, an ecosystem teeming with reality shows and nature docs, is the “Home of ‘Genredoms.’”The shake-up looks likely to most affect HBO Max’s original content, which is largely separate from the slate of critical-darling shows that HBO is most famous for. But the presentation nevertheless played into one of the key myths surrounding the tag prestige TV: the notion that high-quality shows transcend the confines of genre. Really, in many cases, they are a genre—a fact that HBO’s emergent masterpiece Industry embraces to glorious effect.A British-American series about young financial analysts in London, Industry brims with cinematic confidence and killer acting, offering a bleak outlook on global banking (as well as on the chaos of being in your early 20s). But watching it, one can’t help but be reminded of lots of other well-done and pathbreaking shows about smart people talking fast and swindling one another. The series is, in fact, about the same sleight of hand that effective TV—and the most addictive pursuits in human life, whether gaming or stock trading—always pulls off. It is about the ways that we disguise, so as to indulge, the primal hunt for dopamine.[Read: The powerful, unlikely force shaping modern TV]The first season of Industry arrived in fall of 2020, an appropriately anxious time for a deeply anxious series. Created by the former investment bankers Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, the series follows a cohort of recent university graduates working for the fictional finance giant Pierpoint & Co. The class’s members have six months to prove their worth to the firm before half of them are sacked. This ticking-time-bomb premise straps viewers and characters alike into an accelerating carousel of schemes, schmoozing, bullying, and betrayal, punctuated by happy hours that escalate into cocaine huffing and weird hookups. In the second season, some of the one-time interns have become full-time employees. They hustle for paydays, job security, and, with greater difficulty, morsels of existential contentment in a legendarily soulless profession.Around this humming plot engine, Industry’s aesthetic shell gleams. Whether with production design (cluttered desks encased in glass-walled skyscrapers) or Nathan Micay’s spellbinding soundtrack (percolating bleeps and bloops set to rushing rhythms), the show conveys a slick kind of density, evoking a stock ticker’s information avalanche. The headiest ingredient is the dialogue: a thick, pungent cloud of jargon and slang. “Remember this isn’t an IPO—there won’t be a month-long road show to drum up interest, no batting of eyelashes,” one character deadpanned in last week’s sensational episode. “We have less than 24 hours to build the book and adios the full position out the door.”All of this specificity is, in a way, generic. Speaking on the Macro Hive Conversations podcast in 2020, Down said that HBO’s executives like shows that depict “confident subcultures,” which are “basically worlds that people think they understand, but they don’t.” Once you hear that term, confident subculture, you’ll see it everywhere on prestige TV: Succession’s media class, Mare of Easttown’s Pennsylvania burg, Big Little Lies’s haughty-hippie coastal community. The illegibility of the chitchat in these shows is part of the fun: The viewer comes to feel the thrill of initiation, an intellectual “aha,” as they learn about a strange part of our world.[Read: 20 perfect TV shows for short attention spans]The spectacle of realism also lets Industry get away with the sort of unreality that so much TV relies on—contrivance, coincidence, and plot holes, all working in service of juicy twists. In Season 2, the nervy and gifted analyst Harper Stern (played by Myha’la Herrold) begins to land deals that profit Pierpoint but undermine her hard-ass mentor, Eric (Ken Leung). This subplot has been riveting to watch. The speed and detail with which it has unfolded has made it easy to forget that Harper’s edge stems, in significant part, from right-place-right-time luck: bumping into an investor at a hotel, overhearing a conversation on a train.Indeed, the illusion of the show is that it appears to care about how things happen—the words and methods that move money around—when really, the core appeal is in what happens. Who’s up? Who’s down? What’s next? These are the fundamental concerns of TV shows often dismissed as genre fare, such as police procedurals and reality competitions. Shows such as Industry just foreground cinematic reveries, social commentary, and backstory digressions that are all, in a way, also forms of expectation-fulfilling action. Themes are stated with ritualistic panache, like when a cunning billionaire in a bathrobe talks up Thomas Hobbes. Sex scenes reveal character but also, given their length and vividness, seek to titillate. The head-spinning banter exists in large part for comedy. (I’m glad I rewound to decode one heavily accented character’s diss of another: “Cryptos reek of virginity and building your own bomb, but Kenny’s more fluent than he cares to admit.”)Keeping the viewer’s limbic system engaged is, to be clear, a noble thing when your narrative demands hours of attention—especially in an era of omnipresent distraction. Speaking to The Watch podcast, Down marveled at the way that Mad Men, that prestige-TV classic, told simple stories “in a pretty luscious way”—which is exactly what Industry tries to do. But comparisons with TV’s “golden age,” which flourished more than a decade ago, also reveal how the medium has evolved. Better Call Saul, a faithful spin-off from that era, has treated the small screen as a painter’s canvas, to be filled in leisurely. Its incremental storytelling has made for wonderful payoffs, but it also feels, to be generous, anachronistic. Industry exemplifies a new generation of shows that, like track stars, maintain excellence while setting a more intense pace every year.Life, after all, can often feel like a race loop. Industry’s obsessive workers hustle for money, but really, they chase something more fleeting: validation from temporary wins. The show makes their hunger visceral to viewers while also conveying the emptiness of an existence built on chasing head rushes. The viewer can use the opportunity to reflect on their own Sisyphean pursuits, or they can just distract themselves with what’s on screen—either works. With each episode, the story deepens, the characters grow, and Kay and Down widen their probing lens on the global economy. Yet Industry—and ideally any decision maker, corporate or creative, trying to push this art form forward—never kids itself that higher aspirations can be achieved if lower ones aren’t addressed. “Remember,” the philosophy-reading billionaire says at one point, “it’s all just a cycle of victory and defeat.”
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The Unlovable, Irresistible John Donne
If you were a gentleman in Elizabethan London, a gentleman of more or less regular means and habits, your typical day went something like this: You rose at 4 a.m., you wrote 14 letters and a 30-page treatise on the nonexistence of purgatory, you fought a duel, you composed a sonnet, you went to watch a Jesuit get publicly disemboweled, you invented a scientific instrument, you composed another sonnet, you attended the premiere of As You Like It, you romanced someone else’s wife, and then you caught the bubonic plague and died.They packed a lot in, the Elizabethans, is my point. Maybe posterity, considering our own age, will judge that we are packing a lot in, with the fascism and the COVID and the melting glaciers. Maybe. But there was a peculiar paradoxical ugly-beautiful density to life as the Elizabethans lived it. The Reformation was just behind them; the civil war was coming; Elizabeth, the virgin queen, may have been semi-celestial, but her subjects lived in a police state. They had a passion for virtue and a genius for cruelty. They had wonderful manners and barbaric inclinations, lovely clothes and terrible diseases. They oscillated madly between the abstract and the corporeal. And among his contemporaries, nobody oscillated more madly than John Donne.Donne was made of contradiction, or of transformation. Born an outsider, a Catholic at a time when being Catholic in England was illegal—his uncle and then his brother went to prison for their faith, and his brother would die there—Donne worked his way in, into the inside, shifting and shedding as he went.He was a bookish lover-poet who went to sea with the doomed and dashing Earl of Essex and caught a vision of hell when he watched Spanish sailors being burned alive in the harbor at Cádiz. (His Rutger Hauer–in–Blade Runner moment: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.”) He was a splenetic satirist, all-observing, all-condemning, who was also a world-class flatterer/ingratiator. He had a slicing, dicing, predatory mind that he applied with equal force to sex, to politics, and finally to a religious vocation. Young Donne had an inflamed libido, old Donne an inflamed conscience. The man who wrote “License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below” would become, as the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the grave divine who warned his congregants that “a man may be an adulterer in his wife’s bosom, though he seek not strange women.”As for his poetry, it’s unlovable and it’s irresistible. English verse is not the same after Donne. Harmony and gentility—the music of Spenser—go out the window, and in comes a ferocious, sometimes grating intellectual energy and an intense superiority. You can read pages of Donne and register only the oppressive proximity of his pulsing brain. But then he’ll snag you. “Busy old fool, unruly sun,” grumbles the lover as daylight pushes in at the bedroom window. “Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide / Late school boys.” Encrusted as his vocabulary could be, he had a shocking talent for immediate, everyday speech. One moment his verse is alien, twisted, full of fussy wiring and strange mechanical conceits (Dr. Johnson: “Who but Donne would have thought that a good man is a telescope?”); the next he writes “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,” or “I run to death, and death meets me as fast,” and we hear him speaking to us across four centuries in ringing monosyllables.Super-Infinite is the title of Katherine Rundell’s new biographical study of Donne. It sounds like an album by Monster Magnet. And indeed, Rundell responds to Donne in something of a heavy-metal, hyperbolizing register. Read the first stanza of “Love’s Growth,” she promises us, and “all the oxygen in a five-mile radius rushes to greet you.” Another poem, “The Comparison,” in which Donne contrasts the charms of his mistress with those of another woman, takes the tradition of poets praising female beauty “and knifes it in a dark alley.” And so on.[Read: Passion and paradox in John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’]But overpraise, or praise with reverb, is very Elizabethan and very, very John Donne, as Rundell shows us. “Compliments,” she writes, “were core currency,” and Donne was loaded. He flung out admirations; he strewed encomia. “Your going away,” he assured one Lady Kingsmill in a letter, “hath made London a dead carcass.” Rundell calls this Donne’s “pleasure in extravagance.” When Elizabeth, the young daughter of Sir Robert Drury, died, Drury (the sort of grandee to whom Donne was always sucking up) commissioned an elegy. And although Donne had never met Elizabeth Drury, he went at it with a vengeance: In two long, slightly bonkers poems, “The First Anniversary” and “The Second Anniversary,” he unfurled the full howling panorama of human existence and almost beatified the deceased girl. “She, she is dead; she’s dead; when thou knowest this / Thou knowest how dry a cinder this world is.” It was heavenly hackwork. “If he had written it of the Virgin Mary,” opined Ben Jonson, “it had been something.”Donne’s love poetry is extreme: Bodies melt, souls commingle, genders elide, death is an atom away. For sheer piercing morbidity, what image can match the “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” that he summons in “The Relic,” his fantasy of being exhumed while still wearing the tokens of his love? His religious poetry is equally extreme: “Spit in my face you Jews, and pierce my side,” runs one of his Holy Sonnets (more of those hammering monosyllables), in which he prays to take on the sufferings of Christ. “Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me, / For I have sinned, and sinned.” On a good day, Donne saw the world as an organic biological-spiritual unity, the famous whole where “no man is an island.” On a bad one, it became a slaughterhouse, a Boschian mill: “Th’ earth’s race is but thy table; there are set / Plants, cattle, men, dishes for Death to eat. / In a rude hunger now he millions draws / Into his bloody, or plaguey, or starved jaws” (“Elegy on Mistress Bulstrode”).An extremity of perception, in the end, is where the two Donnes meet: He was a mystic in bed, and a mystic in the pulpit. The almost Tantric lover, seeking an essence beyond the body, was also the yearning-for-eternity preacher: “As soon as my soul enters heaven, I shall be able to say to the angels, I am of the same stuff as you.”He managed his exit like David Bowie, stripping naked in the weeks before he died and wrapping himself in his winding-sheet so that an artist could make sketches for the posthumous carving of a marble monument. As a preacher, Rundell tells us, Donne’s “speciality” was his gift for riffing on infinity. One imagines his congregants at St. Paul’s creaking and shuffling in their pews as he laid the vision upon them: “There shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music.” And there it is, the final resolving power chord: the radiant wave in which all the contradictions—of the age, and of the man—would be consumed.This article appears in the September 2022 print edition with the headline “Heavenly Hackwork.”
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‘I Don’t Think Jesus Himself Would Fit With Today’s Evangelical Base’
How Politics Poisoned the ChurchThe evangelical movement spent 40 years at war with America, Tim Alberta wrote in June. Now it’s at war with itself.I have been in full-time ministry for more than 20 years in churches around the U.S. Now I am winding down even though I am just 44.I am due to preach in a couple of weeks, and I have nothing to say. I have wrestled with why and have concluded that I am so disappointed and frustrated with modern Christianity that all I want to do is rail against it. It has taken a toll on my faith for many years and has left me empty. The Church has fallen prey to propaganda and a lack of critical thinking, resulting in an ever-weakening witness and a nearsighted worldview. We contradict the very essence of the teachings of Jesus.Thank you for your research and article. You give a voice to those who will never be heard by more than a small audience.Michael RhodesBelpre, OhioI appreciated Tim Alberta’s clarity about what is really at stake with the rise of far-right evangelicals. The unholy alliance between radically conservative Christianity and radically conservative politics doesn’t seek the kingdom of God; instead, it wants to impose a theocracy on the United States of America. Such a theocracy would cheapen the foremost requirement of the Christian faith: humbly carrying one’s cross daily.Early Christians believed that following Jesus Christ transforms a person into a well of compassion, humility, kindness, and generosity. They put the needs of others before their own.Theocracy does not require such an inner transformation; the evangelical-right base and its prophets are quick to condemn cherry-picked sins. Jesus, by contrast, said that the important matters of God’s commands are “justice, mercy, and faith.” I don’t think Jesus himself would fit with today’s evangelical base.Reverend Vanessa J. FalgoustNatchitoches, La.The fact that Tim Alberta “didn’t see a single person carrying a Bible” at FloodGate is not at all surprising. Just as a disturbing percentage of evangelical Christians find science, democracy, and journalism inconvenient, so too, it seems, do they find the New Testament inconvenient. That’s because its main message is not freedom, but responsibility. How else would we categorize the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan?Evan BedfordRed Deer, Alberta, CanadaTim Alberta laments “How Politics Poisoned the Church.” Unfortunately, the current predicament of American evangelicalism started long ago, when it opened itself up to various poisons by cutting itself off from the deep spiritual, liturgical, and intellectual roots of the Church. Matters worsened when evangelicals hitched themselves to American capitalist culture and its growing pile of social detritus: celebrity, power, success, and narcissism. Having severely limited their theological diet to a single book, the Bible, they forgot that though it is a rich and powerful book, it is also almost infinitely malleable when atomized into single verses. It’s a recipe for captivity to whatever cause or enthusiasm catches fire at the moment. The result is a bizarre caricature of Christianity.Arland D. JacobsonMoorhead, Minn.Thanks for Tim Alberta’s thoughtful and heartbreaking reporting on politics and American evangelicalism. I grew up attending a small Southern Baptist church in rural Kentucky. I haven’t visited in several years, but I hear it hasn’t escaped the politicization that Alberta writes about. The pastor—a conservative, by any normal standard—has been branded a liberal for bucking right-wing orthodoxy on race, gun violence, and other issues. Relationships have been strained or broken.Politicizing the Gospel has human consequences. My dad, a Focus on the Family conservative in the great tradition of the ’90s, felt alienated by COVID skepticism on the right. The message he heard from anti-maskers and vaccine skeptics was this: Only healthy people matter. Dad was at high risk for several reasons and feared that he would die if he caught the virus. He was right. I watched COVID stop his heart last October.As I grieve my dad, I’m also grieving evangelicalism like another loved one. My faith journey is complicated enough already. It’s even harder having to realize that the tradition I come from is committed to political victory at all costs.Joel SamsFrankfort, Ky.Tim Alberta’s analysis of the current evangelical movement’s struggles seems based, at least in part, on the separation of the spiritual and religious from the earthly and human, as he states in his interpretation of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Yet Paul’s encouragement to set one’s sights on the “unseen” does not indicate that his followers should move “away from the fleeting troubles of humanity.” If politics refers to the power dynamics that shape and influence how a society sees and defines itself, claiming that the earliest Church writings, including the Gospels, were apolitical seems a gross misinterpretation of their content and message.When Christ tells us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, he implies that there’s something inherently wrong with allowing others to starve or freeze to death. Preachers encouraging greater inclusion of the marginalized, generosity to the poor, and welcoming of the outsider are offering messages that have not just spiritual implications, but political and economic ones as well. The churches vilifying those who support science by stressing the importance of wearing masks during a pandemic or those who accept the truth that the 2020 election was not stolen are divisive and toxic, yes, but more important, they’re not preaching the Gospel. Pastors need to be courageous enough to support leaders and government policy that make manifest what it means to live up to Christ’s teaching.Jonathon HuberAtlanta, Ga.From the ArchiveOne striking image in this month’s Viewfinder column (“A Man’s World”) shows a group of astronauts posing in microgravity on the Mir Space Station in 1998. Tucked in a scrum of rugby-shirt-wearing men is Bonnie Dunbar, the seventh American woman to go to space, who was then on her fifth and final space-shuttle mission. Dunbar has appeared in The Atlantic before. In March 2019, what would have been the first-ever all-female spacewalk was stymied by a dearth of spacesuits small enough for the women. Dunbar spoke with our space reporter, Marina Koren, about the limitations NASA’s suits had long imposed on astronauts.[Read: The original sin of NASA spacesuits]As Koren reported, NASA still uses spacesuits designed in the 1970s. These initially came in a range of sizes, but in the ’90s, budget cuts led to sizing cuts: The agency eliminated its smallest spacesuits.On the International Space Station, astronauts conduct regular spacewalks to maintain the facilities. These walks require well-fitting spacesuits. According to Dunbar, the suits’ shortcomings in recent years have influenced not just who went on missions but who became an astronaut. “Applicants had to be bigger to be selected,” she told Koren.Having spent years trying to develop new spacesuits in-house, NASA recently contracted with two companies to finish the job; these next-generation suits will accommodate a broader range of body types. Separately, at Texas A&M University, Dunbar and a team are working to develop custom-fitting suits using body-scanning technology.Stephanie Hayes, Deputy Research ChiefBehind the Art“ ‘We Need to Take Away Children,’ ” an investigation of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, is the longest feature The Atlantic has published in a single issue in decades. The art for this article employs the aesthetics of bureaucracy—photocopied documents, torn renderings of court filings, and black-and-white photography—to evoke the trove of evidence that Caitlin Dickerson uncovered in her reporting. We found that presenting the information in stark terms made clear how administrative banality masked the callousness at the heart of the policy.Oliver Munday, Design DirectorThis article appears in the September 2022 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”
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The New Era of Political Violence Is Here
The danger is not organized civil war but individual Americans with deep resentments and delusions.
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You Aren’t Destined to Give Your Family COVID
By this point, the pandemic saga has introduced us to a cast of recurring characters. Among them are the Chill Friend, who is totally over COVID precautions at this point, and the Unlucky Acquaintance, who has had COVID three times and brings it up whenever someone else falls sick. And then there is the Person Whose Roommate Has COVID. You know the type: They’ll describe, in the hushed tones usually reserved for tragic gossip, how and when their live-in friend, partner, child, or whoever came down with the virus—before interjecting, “But I feel fine! … For now.” Nervous laughter ensues. Whether their house is dealing with a blazing-fever situation or a mild-cough one, Person Whose Roommate Has COVID always has the same underlying worry: Am I next?The answer can feel like a definitive yes. The perfect conditions to catch the coronavirus might look something like a shared home, where families, friends, or near strangers end up spending lots of time together in confined spaces. Even if they’re not sleeping in the same bedroom, roommates in all their various forms are sitting down at the dinner table together or squeezing past one another on the way to the bathroom—potentially misting the virus into the air in the process. And it doesn’t help that the latest variant, BA.5, is the most contagious yet. If Person Whose Roommate Has COVID has been breathing the same air all this time, is there even a point to quarantining? It can be tempting to throw up your hands, assume that a positive test result is coming, and cozy up on the couch for an extended Netflix marathon.But while the attitude of Person Whose Roommate Has COVID is natural, it’s also misplaced. All members of a household will not inevitably get COVID if someone falls sick—not even close. One recent roundup of 135 studies found that the overall spread of disease within a home—an epidemiological phenomenon that is unfortunately named “household secondary attack rate”—was 42.7 percent for the earliest forms of Omicron. The offshoots we’ve seen since then are more transmissible, so the chance of getting the virus from a roommate is now probably closer to 50 percent, Bob Wachter, the chair of UC San Francisco’s department of medicine, told me. “It’s about a coin flip,” he said. “The key thing is that it’s certainly not a sure thing.” That is especially useful to keep in mind now that the CDC has updated its COVID guidelines, no longer suggesting that Americans who have been exposed to the virus need to quarantine for five days. It was already happening, but now even more People Whose Roommate Has COVID won’t be taking precautions. Still, the new policy doesn’t change what we know about COVID in the home. Separating yourself from the sick person is tedious and sometimes impossible, but if you can, it’s worth the hassle.The explanation for why people aren’t destined to get COVID from their roommates “is a complex brew,” Wachter said. He and other experts I spoke with agreed on its main components: the infectiousness of the sick person (the “index case”), the immunity of the other people in the household, the virus itself, and the nature of the home.Unfortunately, there’s no good way of nailing down just how infectious someone is. Infectiousness varies over time, and a positive test isn’t necessarily a sign that an infection is just beginning—especially these days, when people who are symptomatic can still sometimes get a series of negative rapid-test results. If your roommate comes down with symptoms and gets a positive test result soon after, there is little doubt that person is contagious at that moment. But whether they were infectious prior to the test is not a given. “I wouldn’t assume that just because your loved one was sick for a day or two [before testing] that you were exposed to a contagious person during that time. It’s unknown,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Brown University’s School of Public Health, told me. COVID symptoms usually but don’t necessarily equal contagiousness, she explained; confusingly, a vaccinated person may develop symptoms before testing positive on a rapid antigen test because their immune system, primed by the vaccine, is merely reacting to the virus. If you live with that person, “it could give you a glimmer of hope that you could still not get infected, were you to take additional precautions,” Nuzzo said.And like so many other aspects of COVID, an infected person’s ability to spread the virus also greatly depends on their vaccination status. Remember that the coronavirus is not all or nothing; it builds up in the body incrementally until it spills over and out to other people. In other words, contagiousness hinges on viral load, which may vary with the strength of someone’s immune response. Compared with someone who is unvaccinated, an infected person who is up to date on their shots has a better chance at keeping the viral load down, meaning they are poised to shed less virus to other members of the household.The vaccination status of other people in the home is “perhaps even more important” than that of the index case, Jodie Guest, a professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, told me. Even with the newest variants, vaccines still provide some protection against infection (and even better protection against severe illness and death). In the big analysis of studies, the variant with the highest household-secondary-attack rate was Omicron, but the next-highest was not the second-most-transmissible variant, Delta. Instead it was Alpha, the first major coronavirus variant, which emerged at the end of 2020—before vaccines were widely available in the United States. “That’s solid evidence that the vaccines definitely are preventing a skyrocketing [household] secondary-attack rate,” Guest said. Of course, the protection imparted by vaccination fluctuates with numerous factors: the timing of vaccines and boosters, previous infection with old or new variants, and genetic susceptibility, among others. All other factors being equal, a home made up entirely of unvaccinated people would be expected to have a higher household-attack rate than a home of all boosted people.Then there is the virus itself. It’s frustratingly good at infecting us humans—a major reason this pandemic has dragged on and on—but it’s still not contagious enough to infect everyone in a household in every single case. “There is some inefficiency in transmission,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease physician at Johns Hopkins University, told me. “It’s clearly not in the same league as measles,” an airborne pathogen that has a household-secondary-attack rate of more than 90 percent. And although Omicron may have qualities that contribute to its high transmissibility—such as a potentially shorter incubation period and larger viral load—those alone might not be enough to fully explain its higher attack rate, Nuzzo said. It’s possible, even likely, that the more important factor is waning immunity, she explained; just about a third of Americans have gotten their first booster shot. The factor that is perhaps the most challenging to deal with is the nature of the household itself. Unlike getting vaccinated or putting on a mask, most people cannot change their living situation the moment a double bar materializes on a rapid test. If you live in a mansion, well, congrats. It is much easier to stay distanced and avoid getting sick in a big house with several bedrooms and a backyard. Less so for poorer people who might live in a cramped apartment with a single shared bathroom. Research suggests that poor immigrant neighborhoods—the Bronx, in New York, and Pico Union, in Los Angeles—were among the hardest hit in the pandemic because homes in these areas are disproportionately overcrowded. In multigenerational homes with young children or elderly people who need care, fully isolating is almost impossible. “These are all things that are incredibly variable and specific to people’s situations,” Guest said, “and are going to be inequitably distributed.”This complex brew has an invisible, maddeningly uncontrollable secret ingredient: luck. Sometimes, a person who is fully vaccinated and boosted falls sick, while a less diligent person dodges infection over and over again. “This is the hardest piece,” Wachter said. “It’s very hard to predict.” Despite our best efforts to protect ourselves and others, COVID can still break through, seemingly at random. So many factors influence susceptibility that accounting for all of them at once is nearly impossible.Taking all the factors into account, that Person Whose Roommate Has COVID faces baseline 50–50 odds of getting sick is nothing to celebrate. Lots of people in this situation end up falling sick themselves. But it is a reminder that nothing about this virus is preordained. A household can tilt its chances in a favorable direction by doing all the usual, proven things: wearing good masks, opening windows to increase ventilation (and buying a HEPA filter if you can afford one), separating from the sick person when possible, and testing often. If you have no choice but to share a bed with someone who is sick, the CDC recommends sleeping head to toe. Vulnerable people, especially those 65 and over, should have a plan for getting Paxlovid, and everyone should stay up to date on vaccinations and boosters, Nuzzo said. “There’s no point in waiting for a different vaccine in the fall if you get it between now and the fall,” she said. These sorts of measures are really worth the trouble: The problem with not trying is that it can lead to more infections at home, “and then you’ve got a whole other mess,” Adalja said. “Why prolong it?”There is no way around this: Managing COVID in a household is cumbersome, and it will be far easier for people who have more resources. Some will be able to follow every expert recommendation to the letter; others will have to be more selective. Parents of a sick child may choose not to separate—not because they don’t care about getting infected, but because the risk of doing so is outweighed by the need to care for their child. “Those are fair, emotional, familial conversations,” Nuzzo said. “Some people want permission to not try to stay aseptically isolated from their loved one, and I completely understand why they may want to do that.”Now that the latest CDC guidance puts COVID safety into the hands of Americans—well, even more than it already was—Person Whose Roommate Has COVID has yet another reason not to quarantine. The hope is that they aren’t infectious. However, there’s always a risk that they may be, and the best way for them to keep protecting others is to remain as cautious as possible at home. The coronavirus is known to spread more easily in households than anywhere else, so doing one’s best to separate from a sick person at home can go a long way in preventing the virus from making the leap from your house to the world outside. Especially heading into the fall and winter, when case numbers are expected to jump even higher, trying to tamp down on household transmission is a small thing we can all do to attempt to keep this virus under control. No matter what, we will continue to meet People Whose Roommate Has COVID, but we can help them avoid becoming People Who Have COVID Too.
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‘I Don’t Think Anybody Anticipated How Far the Administration Would Go’
Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, joined staff writer Caitlin Dickerson to discuss her cover story, a years-long investigation into the secret history of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy. Dickerson’s story argues that separating children was not an unintended side effect, as previously claimed, but its core intent. How did officials work to keep families apart longer? Did they obscure the truth to both Congress and the public? What will happen if the Trump administration is restored to power in the 2024 election? This dialogue is an edited and condensed version of a conversation Dickerson and Goldberg had on Friday for The Atlantic’s “Big Story” broadcast. Jeffrey Goldberg: When did you realize that the Trump administration was doing something new?Caitlin Dickerson: There were two things here that really stood out from the norm in my experience as a reporter. The first, with family separations, is just the mere fact that they took place in relative secrecy. In 2017, hundreds of separations took place starting out in El Paso, Texas, in a program that later expanded. But when reporters would ask about it, the administration would tell us, “No, this isn’t happening. You know, we’re not separating families.” There’s some complicated reasons for that which we can get into, but that’s really not normal. As a reporter, you’re used to hearing “no comment” in response to a story that the government doesn’t want you to report. Or you’re used to hearing a public-affairs officer offer some context that at least helps to soften the blow of a story that they know the public is not going to react kindly to. But in this case, we actually got denials.And then, of course, having looked back at immigration policy all the way back to the 19th century in the United States, separating children from their parents as an immigration policy hasn’t happened before. It was the harshest application any of us have seen of this basic concept of prevention by deterrence, which is how we approach immigration enforcement generally. And it was so harsh and painful for parents and for children, and continues to be, that I had to stick with it.Goldberg: So to be clear, no presidential administration going back all the way had ever done anything this dramatic?Dickerson: No. As you know, there are examples of kids being taken from their parents in American history, though not in a border context. We’ve had some pretty cruel and pretty harsh border-enforcement policies. But the forcible separation of children from their parents is just not something that the Border Patrol has ever engaged in in American history.Goldberg: One of the great achievements of your story is that you take us all the way into the bureaucratic decision making that allowed this to happen. But somebody had to think of this first. The assumption, on the part of people who think about this, is that it must have been Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s very hard-line adviser. He worked for Jeff Sessions and brought a lot of his ideas to Donald Trump. But it’s more complicated than that.Dickerson: It took a lot more than Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and Jeff Sessions to forcefully separate thousands of kids from their parents. The idea actually came from within the border-enforcement apparatus: a man named Tom Homan, who started out as a Border Patrol agent in his early 20s, spent a career in enforcement, and ultimately became the head of ICE under President Trump.He first came up with the idea to separate families as an escalation of the concept of prevention by deterrence: this idea of introducing consequences to discourage illegal border crossing, even when it’s for the purposes of seeking asylum. He first proposes separating children from their parents in 2014, during the Obama administration, which is when we saw the first major surge of children and families crossing the border. Border Patrol was totally overwhelmed at the time. Congress didn’t intervene. And so you have, essentially, a police force that’s left to figure this out—this policy, which is really humanitarian policy; it’s economic policy. When you leave this to the Border Patrol, the solution that they come up with time and again is punishment. So Homan proposes it, and Jeh Johnson, who was Homeland Security secretary at the time, rejects the idea. Then the idea resurfaces very soon after Donald Trump takes office.Goldberg: So there was a bureaucratic impetus from below. Take us through that—Donald Trump wins in 2016, comes into office, and this dormant idea is brought to whom?Dickerson: Trump comes into office and is visiting Border Patrol headquarters and Customs and Border Protection headquarters and saying, “Hey, we’ve got to shut this border down, and, really, we’ll stop at nothing to do it. Bring me your best ideas.” Tom Homan, who was the head of ICE, and a man named Kevin McAleenan, who was the head of Customs and Border Protection, very quickly reraise this concept that they had already talked about and already favored. They tell Miller about it, who gets really excited and kind of obsessed with it. And Miller continues to push for the next year and a half until it’s officially implemented. Donald Trump also begins to favor it.I was surprised about this, ultimately, but the story ends up being kind of a case for the bureaucracy. I learned, in reporting this, the way the policies are made. Typically, you have principals, who are the heads of agencies and have great decision-making power but have huge portfolios. Policy ideas should only ever reach the desk of someone like Kirstjen Nielsen—who was the Homeland Security secretary, who ultimately signs off on family separation—if they’ve been thoroughly vetted. Subject-matter experts have determined these policies are logistically feasible, they’re legal, they’re ethical. They make sense politically for the administration in office. All these layers exist to prevent bad policies from ever even reaching somebody who has the authority to sign. And these systems were really either sidelined, disempowered, or just completely cut out of the conversation. Everybody who was raising red flags was really cut out.Goldberg: I want you to talk about child separation in its details. The idea is preventative. Which is to say, if word gets out into Guatemala, Honduras, wherever, that if you try to cross the border with your kid, the U.S. government will take your kid from you—actually kidnap your child in some kind of bureaucratically legal way—then all the people who are trying to come to America, asylum seekers, workers, etc., will not come. Is that the theory of the case?Dickerson: That is the theory of the case. And there’s a lot of reason to believe it’s not a good theory.Goldberg: Why is it not a good theory? It sounds pretty scary if you’re sitting in Guatemala and somebody says you might lose your kid.Dickerson: It does. That’s what’s difficult about it: that it is somewhat intuitive, this idea of prevention by deterrence. Academics have been studying it for a long time and know what ways it works, and what ways it doesn’t work. In the early 2000s, we started prosecuting individual adults who crossed the border illegally.To begin with, there’s this program called Operation Streamline. It completely floods courts along the border, and immediately, prosecutors—assistant U.S. attorneys—are unhappy with it because they’re saying it’s taking away resources from these more important cases that we need to deal with. And not only that, but it doesn’t seem to be influencing long-term trends.If you look at shifts in migration that have taken place over the last 20 years, those can be explained entirely by looking at economic shifts and demographic shifts in the United States and the countries where people are coming from. All of those changes are attributable to the availability of resources here and the availability of jobs here, and then the inverse: what opportunities people have available to them in their home countries, as well as whether people actually feel safe.Even though prevention by deterrence, first in the form of Streamline, wasn’t making a dent in border crossings in any significant way, this idea becomes more and more popular until ultimately we get to the point of separating children from their parents. Anecdotally, Lee Gelernt—the ACLU lawyer who’s heading up the federal case against family separations, the main case that prompted family reunification—talks about asking every parent that he interviewed for that case, “If you had known about family separation, would you have left your country to begin with? Would you have decided to stay home?” And they’d just kind of shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, what was I going to do? You know, we left because our lives were in danger. I couldn’t stay.” That is something that people like Tom Homan, who came up with the idea to separate families, didn’t really take into account.Goldberg: The level of desperation at home is the key determinant of whether somebody is going to start the trek.Dickerson: It’s a very, very high bar to surpass when you’re talking to a parent who not only can’t feed themselves or their child, but on a day-to-day basis fears that their child may be killed.Goldberg: Stay on that for one second so people understand this population. You’re talking about people who are living in very dangerous Central American countries, mainly.Dickerson: You’re talking about a lot of times a combination of deep poverty, daily fear of death, and daily encounters with violence. I can tell you about my experiences reporting in parts of Mexico, where people come to the United States from, and in Central America. When The New York Times sent me to Guatemala to write about a family that was trying to get into the United States, I had security with me the entire time. Many people, just within this family, had been murdered. It’s a domino effect where a gang identifies one person in a family and wants that person to join the gang. If that first individual doesn’t do right by the gang, relatives continue to be murdered.When I would go house to house to visit with people associated with this family, we were hiding. They couldn’t let anybody know where they lived. They couldn’t let anybody know that I was there, because it would have put them in greater danger. The poverty, too, is really something that I don’t know a lot of Americans have really sat down and thought about. Houses that have no roofs, no floors. Families of four that are splitting a tortilla among them. Access to school is almost nonexistent. Kids don’t have shoes. It’s stuff that I think most Americans have a hard time envisioning. Think about how scared you would have to be to decide to go to the United States, knowing that you’re going to have to travel through a hot and dangerous desert and encounter murderous gangs. Nobody signs up to do that unless they feel like they have absolutely no choice.Goldberg: Let’s come back to the narrative of the adoption of this policy. One of the reasons, when we were talking about doing this story over the past year and a half, was to try to understand the mentality of government officials and bureaucrats. Somehow the idea of taking children from their parents becomes socialized within these government structures. Talk about that. Did anybody along the way say, “Hey, I’m all for deterrence. I have these views on immigration. I’m a hard-liner. But this does not seem to comport with my notions”—and I’m using this term advisedly—“my notions of family values”?Dickerson: A lot of people said that. And ultimately, by the time the decision to pursue separating families is made, they had been left out of the room. When family separations are first proposed, they’re described in pretty blatant terms. I interviewed Jeh Johnson—again, who was the Homeland Security secretary under President Obama, and did believe in deterrence—but he said, “That’s too far for me. I’m not comfortable with it.” John Kelly, who was President Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary and considered the idea after it was proposed by Tom Homan, Kevin McAleenan, and others, said the same thing. He wasn’t really a big believer in deterrence, but he’d taken the job for the Trump administration. But this felt too far for him.Goldberg: John Kelly then goes to the White House as chief of staff and is there when all of this is still going on. What role did he play there?Dickerson: Kelly told me that his approach to opposing family separations was to focus purely on the logistics. When the idea is formally proposed to him, he requests a briefing to find out whether it’s possible. And he learns, rightly, that the federal government did not have the resources to impose such a program without total chaos, which we ultimately saw—without losing track of parents and kids, without really inhumane situations where kids are being physically taken out of their parents’ arms. You need training, theoretically, to do this in a way that isn’t chaotic if you’re going to do it at all.He told me that he knew that appealing to the president and to Stephen Miller on some sort of moral basis wasn’t going to be effective. They weren’t going to listen. Instead, he said, you focus purely on the logistics. “It’s not possible. We just can’t do it.” He would say, “Mr. President, if you want to pursue this, you need to go ask Congress for the money,” knowing that Donald Trump wouldn’t be willing to do that. The problem is that when you ask these more hawkish members of the administration what their understanding of John Kelly’s view is, they would say to me, “Well, I didn’t know he had any issue with it. All he said was that we needed more money; we needed more training.” You can see that there’s logic behind Kelly’s approach, but there’s also, as a result of it, repeated meetings where this idea is being discussed. He could have jumped up and down and screamed and said, “I oppose this; I don’t want to do it.” But he didn’t. He just said, “Sir, we don’t have the money.”Goldberg: I mean, to be fair to Kelly, he did have a reasonable understanding that Trump would never respond to the humanitarian argument.Dickerson: There are so many different approaches that people say they took to try to prevent this, and it ultimately didn’t work. The higher the numbers rose, the more obsessed Donald Trump became with finding some way to minimize them.Goldberg: I do want to ask about two people whose names are very intimately associated with this. Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the DHS secretary and signed off on this, and Stephen Miller. I want you to talk about her role, which is more complicated, morally, than we initially thought. And Miller, who obviously is still the ideological driver of a whole set of policies.Dickerson: Kirstjen Nielsen came into the Trump administration a moderate. She was a cybersecurity expert who helped to establish DHS the first time under George W. Bush. No experience in immigration, and no real strong feelings about immigration. She’s one of a lot of people whom I interviewed who joined DHS under Trump and just said, “I didn’t know all that much about immigration. It wasn’t that important to me.” From the very beginning, they seemed a bit misguided in terms of what their expectations for their job might look like, given how much this White House really cared about the issue.Family separations are proposed to her right after she’s confirmed, in December of 2017, and she says, “Absolutely not. John Kelly has said no to this. I’m not doing it. I oppose it. I don’t believe in it.” Over time, this alternative version of achieving the same end is proposed to her via prosecution, and conveyed to her in these terms that are quite bland. You know, “We’re going to pursue a prosecution initiative. There are people who have been committing misdemeanor crimes; we’ve been letting them go simply because they’re parents.” There was a lot of fearmongering around this idea that a lot of the parents might have been smugglers, that families may not have actually been related at all, that these children might all have been victims of trafficking. There’s no evidence to support that a significant number of those false families existed. She’s also told, “It’s been done before,” and that systems and processes exist to prevent chaos from ensuing. And so, based on that information, she ends up approving the policy.Another really important thing to know about her is she came into her role at a disadvantage because she was viewed as a moderate. She was one of a lot of people who were viewed very skeptically in the White House.Goldberg: Are these people who are trying to prove they’re tough so that Donald Trump likes them?Dickerson: Or keeps them in their job.I heard in my reporting that, in fact, “You’re not tough enough” is a quote that Trump repeated to Nielsen all the time. At one point an adviser suggested, “Maybe you should write a memoir and call it Tough Enough because he’s always telling you you’re not tough enough.” Nielsen was always trying to kind of meet these expectations and show that she wasn’t a closeted liberal. She eventually signs off on this policy that she intellectually, at least prior, seemed to totally oppose, but had convinced herself of a lot of illogical realities and decided, Okay, I agree to zero tolerance. She’s a really smart person, but she worked so hard to please her bosses.The other person you were asking about was Stephen Miller. What I understand from people close to him and familiar with his thinking is that he continues to believe that President Trump’s harshest immigration policies were Trump’s most popular and successful accomplishments. I think he still believes in separating families and doing anything to seal the border, stopping at nothing. He’s even made clear to close confidants that the groundwork has been laid so that a future Trump administration, or a future Republican administration that looks like Trump’s, can pursue these policies even more quickly and even more dramatically.He exerted pressure really kind of shamelessly. He would call not only Kirstjen Nielsen, who was Homeland Security secretary, but all of her advisers and even lower people in DHS: people who had no authority to sign off on anything. He was calling people incessantly to press for his policies, trying to get buy-in. I heard about something he would do on a conference call where he would introduce an idea and say, “Hey, I believe X, Y, and Z needs to happen. And this head of this division of DHS agrees with me.” Then that head of the division might say, “Oh, well, I have some questions about that. You know, I’m not exactly sure.” And Stephen would say, “Well, are you saying that this isn’t a priority?” And they would say, “Oh, no, I do agree with you that it’s a priority.” And Stephen would say, “Great; I have your support.” And then he would go into White House meetings and then repeat it and say that he had buy-in from DHS. He was bullying people into accidentally or tacitly or passively agreeing with his ideas. He was not embarrassed to keep people on the phone after midnight, ranting, not even letting the other person speak. It was a singular focus for him.Goldberg: John Kelly would give him the cold shoulder. But not everybody had John Kelly’s power, right?Dickerson: Exactly. And John Kelly is a career military official and general. He believed really strongly in the chain of command. He couldn’t believe that Miller would call people below Kelly and make demands and try to pressure Kelly into making decisions. And so Kelly would call the White House and actually try to get Miller in trouble. He’s one of the few people to do it. But other people much higher in the official chain of command, such as cabinet secretaries, really let themselves be bullied by Miller. Whe I would ask why, they basically just said Miller had this mystique. He was so close to the president and was protected because of this narrative that immigration is the reason why Donald Trump was elected president and was the key to him being able to hold on to power. Because of that, Miller was insulated from any kind of accountability, even as he defied the chain of command over and over again.Goldberg: Do you think that these same people, if they came back to government, would do it better? Do you think that they have learned lessons about how to try to pull this off in a more efficient, effective way that wouldn’t draw so much attention?Dickerson: I do think that a lot of them still believe in this idea, and they’ve taken lessons away from the experience in order to be able to “do it better.” They didn’t have a system for keeping track of parents and kids, so children were sent over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses any kid who’s in federal custody on their own. That agency doesn’t have computer systems that talk to DHS. Something like that could be updated. I do think that these officials would go into such a policy in the future a little bit more eyes open about what would actually happen once the separation occurs. But they still believe in this idea. And a lot of them, Tom Homan and many others, would sort of whisper out of the side of their mouth to me in interviews like, “Nobody really likes to say this, but it really worked. And zero tolerance was effective.” Again, the data that they’re citing is inaccurate. There isn’t evidence that family separations were effective. In fact, after zero tolerance ended was the year when a million people crossed the border under President Trump. It was a record-breaking year for border crossings.Goldberg: Are there any heroes in the story, from your perspective?Dickerson: There are a lot of people within the federal bureaucracy who tried to prevent family separations from taking place. Within the Health and Human Services agency, which cares for children, there was a man named Jonathan White who oversaw, at the beginning of the Trump administration, the program that houses kids in federal custody. He found out about family separation in an early and rare meeting where you actually had HHS invited to meet with the law-enforcement side. Normally those two agencies—which have to work together on immigration—really don’t play well together, because HHS is made up of a lot of people like White, who are social workers and have backgrounds in child welfare, and then are sitting in the room with cops. It’s a fraught relationship that is detrimental for all sides.White finds out in an early meeting about this proposal to separate families. And he starts writing up reports mentioning that the agency did not have enough space to house children who are separated, who tend to be younger than those who crossed the border on their own. They didn’t have the resources to deal with the emotional fallout that was easily anticipated by any expert familiar with child welfare and the state a child is going to be in when they’ve just been separated from their parent. He also pointed out that children who cross the border with their parents don’t necessarily have anywhere to go. A child who chooses to cross the border on their own is typically coming here because they have an aunt or a relative, somebody who can take them in in the United States. A child who comes to the United States with their parent is expecting to remain with their parent. Whether they get asylum status or are ultimately deported, the expectation is that they’re going to stay together. And so White started to point out, along with several of his colleagues, that not only did they believe this was a bad idea, the resources just didn’t exist.You have versions of that same fight, that same argument, being made within DHS, the DOJ, and the U.S. Marshal system. I found examples in all of these places of people within the federal bureaucracy who tried to raise concerns with the White House, with people in their agency leadership, about why this was such a bad idea. There are a lot of people who fought back, and ultimately they didn’t win the argument.Goldberg: What’s your assessment of the success of President Biden’s executive order setting up the task force for family reunification? How many children do we still think are out there floating in the bureaucratic abyss who haven’t been unified with their parents?Dickerson: Almost all of the children who were separated have been released from federal custody. If they haven’t been reunified with their parents, they’re in the care of a sponsor: an extended relative or a family friend who went through an application process and was approved to take that child in. That’s very different from reuniting them with the parent with whom they crossed the border, with whom they were living and planning to continue living more than four years ago. That number is between 700 and 1,000—those who have not been officially reunited with their parents, according to government records. Some of them may have, and are thought to have found, their parents on their own and just not reported it to the U.S. government, kind of understandably—not wanting to deal with the U.S. government anymore and fearing future consequences.The Biden administration had a really tall order in front of it when this task force to reunify separated families was established. So much time had passed, and record keeping was so poor that they had very little to work with. Thus far they’ve been able to track down more than 400 families that have been reunified, and there are several hundred more who are in the process of applying. What I hear from the ACLU and advocacy groups is that the Biden administration is working really hard and doing its best to reunify these families, and they’ve had a significant amount of success in the face of this challenge.But now they’re dealing with really complicated cases. I’ve heard about parents, for example, who were deported without their kids. That happened in over 1,000 cases. They’ve been back at home since then, and they’ve had to perhaps take custody of an extended relative’s child. I heard about one parent whose sister had been killed. And so the sister’s children were now being taken care of by the separated parent. So then the separated parent is applying to come back and rejoin their own child. And are those other children eligible to come to the United States? It’s not totally clear. I mean, this is what happens. It’s very messy logistically when you separate a family for four years and then try to bring them back together. And so the numbers are shrinking, but the challenge is kind of growing in terms of getting these final families reunified.Goldberg: Something that, in the colloquial sense, is completely unbelievable to me is that when family separation actually started, no one—for weeks—thought to even write down, keep a log, an Excel spreadsheet, of where the children were going, who their parents were. You could define that as negligence, but negligence bleeds over into immorality very quickly. That, to me, of all the incredible reporting that you did, struck me as almost too much. What for you is the aspect of this entire multiyear saga that you still can’t get your mind around? What’s the thing that still stays in your mind as, “I can’t believe that actually happened?”Dickerson: The one that I still can’t really believe is the number of people I interviewed who held very significant roles in DHS or in the White House overseeing this issue, to whom I had to explain basic tenets of the immigration-enforcement system. They would say to me, “We never expected to lose track of parents and children. Couldn’t have imagined things would go as poorly as they did.” That just doesn’t make any sense. You can call up any prosecutor in the country and ask them, “Hey, tomorrow I want to start prosecuting hundreds of parents at a time who are traveling with young children who are outside of their communities, with nobody nearby to take those children in. And by the way, they don’t speak the language that most government officials talking to them are going to be using. Is that going to work?” They would tell you it obviously won’t. I was shocked that, to this day, many people involved in this decision making still don’t understand how immigration enforcement works.Watch: Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg in conversation with staff writer Caitlin Dickerson
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Photos: Severe Drought in Europe
Record-setting high temperatures and dry weather has affected nearly half of Europe in recent weeks, drying up bodies of water, damaging crops, prompting water restrictions, sparking wildfires, and more. Reservoir and river levels have dropped to record lows, affecting navigation and exposing long-submerged structures. July was the driest month on record for France, and the hottest month in Spain since 1961. Gathered below, recent images from England, France, Spain, Germany, and other European countries hit by a series of heat waves this summer.
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