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A NASA asteroid sample just landed on Earth. It holds clues about the origins of life.
A training model of the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule is seen during a drop test on August 30, at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range in preparation for the retrieval of the actual capsule. | Keegan Barber/NASA The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived in Utah Sunday, carrying material from the dawn of the solar system. A capsule bearing soil from an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth landed in Utah at 8:52 am Mountain time Sunday, bringing with it — scientists hope — information about the origin of life. The NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, delivered a sample of material from the asteroid Bennu. The space rock is estimated to be around 4.5 billion years old — meaning it formed around the same time as the solar system and likely holds pre-solar material, as well as amino acids, the building blocks of life. Seven years after its initial launch, OSIRIS-REx deposited the capsule of uncontaminated material from Bennu to the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range, about 80 miles from Salt Lake City, before heading off on another mission, this time to the near-Earth asteroid Apophis. What Bennu can tell us about some of life’s biggest questions After the sample landed, the OSIRIS-REx team connected the sample to a 100-foot cable dangling from a helicopter for transport to a temporary clean room, free from contaminants in the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will be preserved with nitrogen and then transported to Johnson Space Center in Houston. Parts of the sample will then be shipped to other research labs, and some will also be preserved for future generations of scientists to study — similar to how today’s researchers still study samples of material from the moon brought back decades ago on Apollo 11, humanity’s first moon landing. Rick Bowmer/Associated Press A recovery team member examines the capsule containing the Bennu sample before it is taken to a temporary clean room. Researchers believe that material from asteroids like Bennu deposited compounds like amino acids on Earth before life existed on this planet, Philipp Heck, senior director of research and curator of meteoritics and polar studies at Chicago’s Field Museum, told Vox. “We hope the Bennu samples will help us address the question, ‘Which building blocks were delivered by meteorites?’” Even further back, Bennu could tell scientists about how planets, including Earth, formed in the first place. “Asteroids are [leftover] rocky material from the time of the solar system formation. They are the initial bricks that built the planets,” Fred Jourdan, a planetary scientist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, told in July. The asteroid sample — called a regolith — is the first ever brought back to Earth by a US team. Japan’s space agency led a mission that returned a sample from the asteroid Ryugu in 2020, which yielded important scientific information but was fairly small, limiting its utility. The Bennu sample is between 5.26 and 12.34 ounces (149 to 350 grams), scientists estimated from monitoring the collecting mechanism aboard the spacecraft. That will be enough not only for today’s cosmochemists to study the makeup of Bennu, but also for scientists for years and even decades to come, who will be “able to address science questions that we cannot even ask today,” Heck said. “That’s really the power of sample return.” Bennu is made from many of the same materials as meteorites that occasionally slam into Earth — which scientists find important to study, too, because they can help us understand what existed at the dawn of the solar system. But in those natural experiments, it’s difficult to distinguish what was already present in the meteorites’ material from what was deposited after they entered Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere, Heck explained. To avoid this problem, the Bennu sample was gathered directly from the asteroid and carefully sealed to avoid alteration by outside materials, even once it arrived on Earth. Bennu was chosen for the OSIRIS-REx project because of its composition — which scientists could determine from observing the asteroid from a distance, as well as studies of similar space rocks — but also because it’s relatively close to Earth. “Every six years, Earth overtakes Bennu…so it’s a good opportunity to fly to Bennu with a reasonable investment in propulsion,” Heck said. “You don’t want to go to an asteroid that is too far away, then come back — it just costs so much more money to have a spacecraft that can do that.” Because it’s a near-Earth asteroid, there is also “non-zero probability” that Bennu could hit Earth, Heck said, although that wouldn’t happen this century. “That was another motivation, to get to know the properties and the build-up of Bennu in case something like Bennu, [could] at some point be on a collision course with Earth,” he told Vox. “We would have a better way to figure out how to deflect it, if we know what it’s made of.” Heck expects that material from the sample will arrive to his research team in Chicago for study later this year. “Our labs are ready for it,” he said.
The bizarre new frontier for cell-cultivated meat: Lion burgers, tiger steaks, and mammoth meatballs
Jess Hannigan for Vox “Exotic” cultivated meats claim to be harmless, but they could threaten actual endangered animals. What is the strangest meat you’ve eaten? For me, it’s reindeer. This was during a trip to Finland when I was 7. We’d gone to the Arctic Circle, where I hoped to meet Father Christmas. I remember being driven through dark forests on the back of a snowmobile to a firelit clearing where we ate reindeer sausages. Though my baby brain didn’t then realize I was eating one of Rudolph’s cousins and that Santa might disapprove, I enjoyed the meat. It was spiced and tender and warmed me after the freezing journey. Eating reindeer remains one of my core memories, though I now consider eating all animals gross and unethical. But I’ve discovered reindeer is not a veryexotic meat, at least compared with what my Instagram followers have been eating. When I posted the question: “What’s the most exotic meat you’ve eaten?” I discovered my followers had eaten everything, from alligator to minke whale. Which animals we find acceptable to eat vary from person to person, according to our values, palates, and upbringing. Many consider eating cows and chickens okay, but not octopus, dolphin, or tiger. Right now, you’d be hard-pressed to find tiger meat in your local supermarket, but developments in tech are making a future possible in which eating exotic meats, from alligator to zebra, could be commonplace. But, how? Well, factory-farmed tiger, thankfully, isnot about to become a dystopian reality. But we might one day eat “ethical” tiger through innovations in cultured-cell technology. Cultured meat, also known as cell-cultivated meat, is not pork reared on caviar and Italian neorealist cinema — it is meat that has been grown in a lab. It has the potential to liberate animals from exploitation, creating burgers and sausages from meat that has been grown in bioreactors and harvested without the death of a sentient being. The first cell-cultivated chicken in the US came to market this summer. It’s an exciting technology, as it could substantially reduce the number of animals slaughtered yearly (or, at least, limit the expansion of that number). It’s not all chicken and pork, though. Recently, startups such as Primeval Foods and Vow have begun developing meat cultured from the cells of exotic (and even extinct) animals, such as tiger, zebra, or mammoth. A gigantic mammoth meatball produced by Vow earlier this year brought many people’s attention to the potential applications of cultured-cell technology, and advocates argue the novelty of nontraditional meats could help win over an otherwise hard-to-reach group of potential consumers. Mike Corder/Associated Press A meatball made using DNA from a mammoth is seen at the Nemo science museum in Amsterdam in March 2023. Some animal advocates, however, have voiced concerns that popularizing exotic meats could have unforeseen consequences. The tech, if successful (a big if), could create an appetite for real tiger meat, putting additional pressure on already-endangered wild big cat populations. And some vegans, who advocate against the commodification of animals, worry that eating cell-cultivated meat could entrench the belief that animals are something to be exploited and consumed, rather than beings to be protected; they argue the desire to manufacture cultured tiger meat reveals that “clean” meat is a fallacy promoted by meat producers developing new ways to exploit the animal kingdom. How cultured tiger steak could hurt real tigers In April, I spoke with Yilmaz Bora, CEO of Primeval Foods, a company developing cultured tiger meat. I’d imagined Bora to be a meat-lover, but I was surprised to discover that he was the opposite. “I went vegan roughly three, four years ago,” Bora said. “It started with activism, supporting UK [animal rights] groups. After a while, I realized that was not going to work. We had to involve the economy, involve the capitalist system, to have a meaningful impact on animals.” From there, Bora began developing alternative proteins that he hoped would convert diehard meat eaters from factory-farmed animals. According to Bora, exotic meat seemed a viable option because, he believes, the “masculine” group that drives meat consumption would find meat grown from big cats more compelling than meat grown from conventional livestock cells. “If you are making barbecue every weekend in Texas and you have no interest in climate, no interest in animal welfare, there is not any product for you,” he said. “Tigers, or other wild cats such as lions, represent power. ... There is this masculine profile [that is firmly anti-vegan], and they tend to not eat alternative plant-based or alternative protein on the market, but it will appeal to them because it represents something luxury.” Developing meat from the cells of an animal that represents power might be a compelling method of marketing cultured meats. But problems will arise if the appetite for lab-grown tiger causes an upsurge in demand for meat from wild tiger populations. Only 4,500 tigers remain in the wild. John Goodrich, of the big cat conservation charity Panthera, explained the potential complications cultured tiger meat could create for tiger conservation. “One of the biggest threats to big cats, especially tigers, is poaching for their body parts, primarily for use in traditional Chinese medicine,” Goodrich said. “You’d hope that [cultivated meat] would flood the market so that there would no longer be any market for wild tiger parts.” It’s not at all clear that this would happen, even if cultivated tiger meat did become a success. “My concern is that there’s always going to be the contingent that wants the real thing,” Goodrich added. “By mainstreaming it, you are creating this much, much bigger market for tiger parts. ... Let’s say your market is a billion people: If less than 1 percent of that wants the real thing, that’s still enough to put tremendous pressure on the remaining 4,500 tigers in the wild.” “It’s not worth the risk,” he concludes. Michael Sohn/Associated Press Tiger cubs at a zoo in Germany. When I put this to Bora, I was met with a confusing response. He said he was “not aware” of the market for tiger in China, and added that he believed people would not consume wild tiger because sourcing it “is not convenient” and “it will taste really really bad ... because they are very muscular animals, they move a lot ... they have little to no fat.” Cultivated meat technology, Bora added, allows Primeval Foods “to change the fat percentage on the end product. ... We can do whatever we want to have that better mouthfeel, better texture, better taste.” That’s fine, but, as Goodrich explained, what if even a small contingent of Primeval Foods’s future intended consumers decide they want to eat real tiger? With wild tiger populations dwindling, any increase in poaching would be catastrophic, and the fact that real tiger meat “tastes really reallybad” can only be discovered after the animal has been slaughtered. It’s hard to fathom that degree of ignorance from the CEO of a startup with potentially harmful environmental implications — especially since others in the industry have engaged with such concerns more deliberately. When I spoke to George Peppou, founder of Vow, he said that, in the preliminary stages of developing Vow’s cultured cell products, Vow “started to work with the Zoo and Aquarium Association in Australia,” who “scared the crap out of me about ... unintentionally stimulating wildlife crime.” Ultimately, the product that Vow aspires to bring to market is not mammoth or other exotic animals, but what Peppou describes as “the Cheerios of meat” — synthetic, branded meats made from combining different animals’ cell lines in a way that’s comparable to the mixing of oats, wheat, and barley to create breakfast cereals. This would avoid problems like stimulating wildlife crime, as the meat Vow takes to market cannot be traced to a single species. Vow’s cultivated mammoth, according to Peppou, is a stunt intended to “challenge people’s perception of what meat is and get them comfortable with the idea that it can look different to what we have available to us now.” The mammoth meatball was developed, Peppou explained, after the company asked itself the question, “How do we move the window of what’s acceptable in meat?” Right now, synthetic “chimera meats” seem strange, and many consumers would choose chicken over lab-grown hybrids. Making synthetic meats seem conventional — at least compared to mammoth meatballs — is the strategic goal of Vow’s stunt. The philosophical trouble with tiger and all cultivated meat While Vow is embracing exotic cultivated meats with an eye toward preventing knock-on effects like further harming endangered species, there are also broader philosophical questions about cultured meats, whether conventional, exotic, or extinct, that are worth considering. John Sanbonmatsu, an animal rights philosopher and professor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, argues that cultivated meat only entrenches the commodification of animals and the idea that it’s okay to consume their flesh. The development of tiger steaks by Primeval, he said, is “fundamentally disrespectful of their personhood.” “One of the major problems with the way we relate to other animals is we treat them as commodities,” Sanbonmatsu told me. “If you look at the discourse of Primeval Foods or these other companies, the way they describe the rationale for their enterprise is reinforcing the idea that humans are meant to exploit nature and other animals for their purposes without any ethical limits.” To Sanbonmatsu’s thinking, the assumption that animals are available for exploitation is only underscored by the development of exotic cultivated meat. Viewed through that lens, growing tiger meat is just another example of humanity’s disregard for the animal kingdom, demonstrating that the drive to find “ethical” ways to exploit them creates fresh problems that need solving further down the line. For example, Sanbonmatsu and charities such as Food & Water Watch argue that because lab-grown meat doesn’t challenge the idea that animal flesh is edible, it will augment rather than replace factory farming. As the market for meat increases around the world, they predict, there could simply be no reduction in the number of animals currently slaughtered yearly (tens of billions of land animals and hundreds of millions or even trillions of fish). Rather, cultivated meat could merely limit the expansion of this number. While this is arguably a good thing, insofar as one dead cow is better than two, animal slaughter will continue to be a massive, cruel industry with an immense environmental impact. Those ethical concerns bring up an underlying question animal rights advocates will have to confront: What does it take for meat to be “clean?” For vegans such as Sanbonmatsu, who believe in animal personhood and the absolute equality of animals and humans, there is no scenario where that is the case. For others, the cleanest cultivated meat would be a product created without harming animals at all, but even this is proving to be a quixotic goal, as cultivated meat companies struggle to make their products without animal-derived ingredients. Cultivated meat companies are also taking funding from conventional meat companies like Tyson and Cargill, some of the world’s biggest perpetrators of animal suffering. It might still be that the current fastest way to dramatically limit animal suffering is through embracing cultured meat companies while putting the total abolition of animal exploitation on the back burner. Deeper ethical questions aside, it is undeniable that some advocates, such as Bora, are working to develop cultivated meat with the aspiration, however unlikely, of ending factory farming and conventional meat consumption. All I ask is that they confront the potential implications of the tech: Developing cultivated tiger, mammoth, or anything else might be a cool way to draw attention to cultured-meat technology, and it could succeed in drawing new consumers. But if people decide they want to eat “the real thing,” then many wild animals, from tigers to elephants to lions, could go the way of the woolly mammoth.
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How to advocate for yourself at the doctor’s office
Getty Images/iStockphoto Speaking up for yourself in a medical setting is a skill. Here’s what to know. In his medical school classes at Washington State University, Joel Bervell was constantly reminded of health care disparities during lectures, like how Black and brown people were more likely to die of Covid-19 and how where you live can impact life expectancy. But he was never taught why these inequities exist in the first place. So Bervell did some research on his own and began creating videos on TikTok explaining race bias in medicine and how race intersects with medical care. “A lot of my followers were saying things like, ‘There’s problems out there, what can I do to actually help myself out?’” Bervell, now a fourth-year medical student, says. His tips, shared in a 2022 video, became a jumping-off point for Bervell to empower his audience. “Even if you don’t have the medical background,” he says, “you know your body better than anyone else.” Discrimination can look like a medical professional making you feel inferior, less-than, or outright unsafe because of your race, weight, sexual orientation, education level, physical disability, or age. Providers may also dismiss your pain by insisting your symptoms are a byproduct of psychological factors or that you’re “dramatic.” Speaking up at the doctor’s office can be difficult for many people because of previous discrimination or dismissal by medical professionals. According to a 2022 Verywell survey, one in three Black Americans said they experienced racism within the health care system. Twenty-nine percent of women ages 18 to 64 reported that their doctor had dismissed their concerns, according to the 2022 KFF Women’s Health Survey. Nearly a quarter of LGBTQ+ Americans said they had been blamed for their health problems, a 19th News/SurveyMonkey poll found last year. Two-thirds of study participants who were treated negatively in the past because of their weight said they experienced weight stigma from doctors, per a 2021 study. Additionally, neurodivergent patients report experiencing lower-quality health care due to poor communication, increased anxiety, and sensory sensitivity, research suggests. “Marginalized people can really start to blame themselves for our mistreatment and think that either we deserve it or we shouldn’t push back,” says board certified patient advocate Ragen Chastain. Regardless of your past medical experiences, patients can take greater control over their interactions with providers, experts say. Here are some ways to advocate for yourself at the doctor’s to ensure you walk out of the exam room with a clear understanding of your health and a concrete path forward. Make a plan before your appointment To prepare for your visit, experts advise making a list, either on your phone or a hard copy, of everything you want to discuss with the provider, in order of importance, so you can ensure the doctor is addressing all of your concerns. You can also write out your goals for the appointment, Chastain suggests. Maybe it’s to get a diagnosis, maybe it’s to get a prescription refilled. You’ll want to be as specific as possible when describing any symptoms, so try keeping a symptom diary in the days leading up to your appointment, says Haley Collins, a nurse practitioner with FOLX Health, a digital health care provider for the LGBTQIA+ community. If you’re looking to get your migraines treated, keep track of what time you had a migraine, on what day, and the context of the migraine. (What did you eat? Were you stressed?) Have a brief overview of your medical history available, including any chronic illnesses, medications you’re taking, when you last had blood work, and any relevant medical issues within your family, especially if it’s your first visit with the provider. “If you have a significant family history of diabetes or stroke,” Collins says, “that’s usually pretty important, particularly in … your immediate family.” It’s also helpful to have access to any data you keep track of at home, like blood sugar or blood pressure. While some medical professionals caution against googling their symptoms, Chastain encourages responsible research. Reading studies or other trusted online medical advice can help inform your questions for the doctor. (Be wary of any content on TikTok or other forms of social media that aren’t created by someone with a medical degree — or will soon have a medical degree. Any content encouraging a self-diagnosis should also be taken with a huge grain of salt.) While you’re making an appointment, whether it’s for a check-up or a colonoscopy, ask for the price of the visit, both with and without insurance, says Cynthia Fisher, the founder and chairman of “All patients have the right to know all prices from hospitals in advance of care and we have the right to compare our prices to other insurance plans if we have insurance,” she says. “Even if we have insurance, we have the right to pay the discounted cash price, which is oftentimes nearly 40 percent lower than insured rates.” Bring a trusted friend or family member with you to the doctor’s Patients are able to bring a relative or friend with them to their medical appointments. HIPAA allows a doctor to talk about a patient’s health, treatment, and payment with the patient’s spouse, family members, friends, or anyone else the patient gives permission to hear about their medical care. “People are entitled to an advocate,” Chastain says. This can be helpful to get an extra set of ears as well as another perspective for questions. Choose someone who makes you feel supported and will effectively communicate on your behalf, Chastain says. “Typically when I work with people, I have a physical signal that they give me when they want me to talk,” she says. “It might be tugging their ear lobe or something like that, so that I know this is where they want me to jump in.” Your doctor may ask your support person to leave the room at some point during the appointment, Collins says, to ensure you can speak freely about sensitive issues. Take a detailed record of the visit Experts stress the importance of keeping track of the content of your appointment. Either keep notes on your phone, in a notebook, or ask your provider if you can record audio of the visit. “Ask for permission before you record,” Bervell says. “By recording a conversation, you can listen to it and say, there’s something I want to ask a question about. You can follow up on MyChart or some other way to reach out to the physician.” MyChart is an online portal for patients to message their providers and view some medical records. Interacting with a medical professional this way can be helpful for patients who are not comfortable talking on the phone, Collins says. At the end of the appointment, you can review your notes with your provider to ensure you fully understand what was discussed, Chastain says. You can say, “This is what I understand you said…” Make sure you’ve asked all of your questions and are clear about next steps. Ask the provider to explain their decisions Bervell says patients should feel empowered to ask medical professionals to show their work. “Ask ‘What is your differential diagnosis?’” he says. A differential diagnosis is a list of potential conditions that fit your symptoms. For a patient with shortness of breath, the cause can range from asthma to cancer, Bervell says. If a provider orders a test to rule out any of these issues, patients should know why. Inquiring about a differential diagnosis lets a provider know you want to hear every potential outcome and options for next steps, Bervell says. Don’t be afraid to ask if there are other options for diagnoses and treatments, too. You can defer to the provider’s expertise when asking for more clarity, Chastain says. Try saying, “I’m not a doctor, so I don’t quite understand this, but I’d really like to understand more. Can you tell me where you got that conclusion from?” or “Can you tell me more about your diagnosis or why you chose that treatment plan?” You can also ask the doctor if they have any research or other materials you can read about your condition or medication. Utilize the time you have with the doctor The average primary care provider visit clocks in at 18 minutes, according to a 2021 study. To make the most of this time, start by giving your nurse a detailed reason for your visit, Collins says. Oftentimes, the information you provide on the phone to the employee who makes the appointment doesn’t get passed along to your providers, she says. But the nurse has a direct line of communication with both you and your doctor. Nurses may be able to answer your questions, too, Collins says, so don’t be afraid to ask them during intake or after your appointment, while you’re checking out. If you sense the doctor is in a rush to end the appointment, or their hand is on the door to leave and you have other topics to discuss, tell the provider you still have more questions and you’d love it if they sat down with you for a few moments more, Chastain says. “Let them know you see that they’re trying to run out of the room and that is not going to work for you,” she says. Next, recap the appointment: “You’re saying my diagnosis was X and your treatment plan is Y and you’ll be calling in this prescription.” Then ask about any next steps. You can also take this time to review the list of questions you prepared before the appointment to ensure you addressed all of your concerns. Before ending the appointment, Bervell suggests asking your provider three questions. When should I see you next? Are there any medications I should pick up? What are the signs that my condition is worsening and what should I do if that happens? There may be questions you forgot to ask or additional concerns that arise after your appointment. Don’t hesitate to follow up with your doctor through your online patient portal or call the office. Push back if you need to In the event your doctor shows any sort of racial or weight bias, misgenders you, or dismisses your pain, you should speak up. Again, this can be difficult for people who have experienced stigmatization or have been brushed off before. However, your self-advocacy may lead to better outcomes for future patients, Collins says. There are a few things you can say to a provider if you are experiencing fatphobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, or other forms of discrimination or if the doctor is minimizing your experience, according to experts. I practice weight-neutral health, so I like to focus on my health and not my body size. Actually, my pronouns are… I’ve read that people of color tend to get less pain management and I just want to make sure that’s not happening here. Can I speak to another doctor about this? What would you do for a thin person in this situation? I feel you’re not taking my concerns seriously. Would you document in my chart that I requested this test and you denied it? I understand you’d like to know about my history, but I’m really concerned about… It may not be easy for those with limited access to health care providers to push back against their doctor, Collins and Chastain note. For example, those in rural areas may only have one or two practitioners or specialists available. Or it may be difficult to get an appointment with another provider. “They may need care from this doctor,” Chastain says, “so they might choose how to push back or not to push back based on that.” If your goal for the appointment is to get a prescription filled and move on, you may want to let the doctor proceed and not speak up in response to insensitive remarks in order to get the result you want. Find another doctor, if necessary However, if the provider is not treating you with respect, is dismissing your discomfort, and is focusing on stereotypes, find another doctor, experts say. You can ask if there is another medical professional within the clinic you can see — perhaps one who shares a background and identity with you, Collins says — if you want to stay within the same practice. To help guide your search for a provider at a new facility, check out reviews on Zocdoc and Healthgrades. You can also ask friends and people in your community if they would recommend their doctor. Before making an appointment, ask the office staff questions about the provider, Chastain says. When you call, you can say something like, “I’m looking for a new practitioner. I need a doctor who is [weight neutral/anti-racist/sex worker positive/trans positive]. Is there a doctor there who meets that criteria?” In some states, such as South Carolina and Mississippi, medical providers can decline to treat patients based on their religious beliefs. If you live in one of these states, ask a new provider about their policy, Chastain says: Say, “I know in this state, doctors are allowed to bring their religious beliefs into consideration when treating transgender and non-binary people. ​​Is that something that you do? And in what way?” You can remain anonymous or even have a loved one make the call for you if you’re nervous. Sometimes it can be easier to advocate for a friend than yourself, Chastain says. So consider your body a friend that deserves your support both in and out of the doctor’s office. “We’re the CEO of our body,” she says. “So we’re going to walk in there to support our body.”
Is America uniquely vulnerable to tyranny?
Trump on the campaign trail in Iowa. | Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images What a brilliant new book gets right — and wrong — about America’s democracy. In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew are forced to navigate a strait bounded by two equally dangerous obstacles: Scylla, a six-headed sea serpent, and Charybdis, an underwater horror that sucks down ships through a massive whirlpool. Judging Charybdis to be a greater danger to the crew as a whole, Odysseus orders his crew to try and pass through on Scylla’s side. They make it, but six sailors are eaten in the crossing. In their new book Tyranny of the Minority, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt — the authors of How Democracies Die — argue America’s founders faced an analogous problem: navigating between two types of dictatorship that threatened to devour the new country. The founders, per Levitsky and Ziblatt, were myopically focused on one of them: the fear of a majority-backed demagogue seizing power. As a result, they made it exceptionally difficult to pass new laws and amend the constitution. But the founders, the pair argues, lost sight of a potentially more dangerous monster on the other side of the strait: a determined minority abusing this system to impose its will on the democratic majority. “By steering the republic so sharply away from the Scylla of majority tyranny, America’s founders left it vulnerable to the Charybdis of minority rule,” they write. This is not a hypothetical fear. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, today’s America is currently being sucked down the anti-democratic whirlpool. The Republican Party, they argue, has become an anti-democratic institution, its traditional leadership cowed by Trump and a racially reactionary base. As such, it is increasingly willing to twist legal tools designed to check oppressive majorities into tools for imposing its policy preferences on an unwilling majority. The best way out of this dilemma, in their view, is radical legal constitutional reform that brings the American system more in line with other advanced democracies. Tyranny of the Minority is an exceptionally persuasive book. I think it is almost inarguably correct about both the nature of the modern Republican Party and the ways in which it exploits America’s rickety Constitution to subvert its democracy. I come to some similar conclusions in my own forthcoming book on democracy, The Reactionary Spirit(which, full disclosure, has benefited significantly from Levitsky’s feedback in drafting). Yet at the same time, I believe he and Ziblatt slightly overweight the significance of America’s institutions in its current democratic crisis. Institutions matter for how authoritarian parties take power, but ultimately they may be less decisive than the social strength of the forces arrayed against democracy. If a reactionary movement is popular or aggressive enough, it’s not clear that any kind of institution can stop it from threatening democracy. Hence why other advanced democracies with distinct institutional arrangements, like Israel, are currently going through democratic crises with root causes strikingly similar to America’s. It’s true that America’s institutions have paved a swift road for the Trumpist right’s attack on democracy. But they may not be quite as central to the story of its rise as Tyranny of the Minority suggests. The American right’s turn against democracy Ziblatt and Levitsky are two of America’s very best comparative political scientists, with expertise that makes them uniquely well-equipped for the subject they’re examining. Ziblatt is the author of an important study of European conservative parties, concluding that their strategic choices played a unique role in determining the health of continental democracy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Conservative parties, by their nature, represent those forces in society — including the wealthy and powerful elite — opposed to radical social change. For this reason, Ziblatt found, they are especially important in determining whether defenders of the status quo attempt to stymie social change from within the democratic system or whether they reject elections and political equality altogether. Levitsky is a Latin America specialist who, along with co-author Lucan Way, wrote a prescient analysis of a new style of autocracy back in 2002 — a system they termed “competitive authoritarianism” that subsequently emerged as the premier institutional means for turning a seemingly stable democracy into an autocracy (see: Hungary). Competitive authoritarian governments masquerade as democracies, even holding elections with real stakes. But these contests are profoundly unfair: The incumbent party ensures that the rules surrounding elections, like who gets to vote and what the media gets to say, are heavily tilted in their favor. The result is that the opposition has little chance to win elections, let alone pass their preferred policies. Tyranny of the Minority analyzes the United States in light of these two broad themes, the importance of conservative parties and the ever-evolving institutional nature of authoritarianism. The first half of the book analyzes how and why the Republican Party went down an anti-democratic path. The second focuses on how the peculiar design of American institutions has created opportunities for the GOP to undermine democracy from within. Around the world, they find two conditions that make political parties more likely to accept electoral defeats: “when they believe they stand a reasonable chance of winning again in the future” and when they believe “that losing power will not bring catastrophe — that a change of government will not threaten the lives, livelihoods, or most cherished principles.” Joe Raedle/Getty Images Then-President Donald Trump walks off stage after speaking during a rally at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. In the 21st century, these conditions no longer held among the GOP’s conservative white base. Democrats were no longer a mere political rival, but avatars of a new and scary social order. “Not only was America no longer overwhelmingly white, but once entrenched racial hierarchies were weakening. Challenges to white Americans’ long-standing social dominance left many of them with feelings of alienation, displacement, and deprivation,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write. “Many of the party’s voters feared losing ... their country — or more accurately, their place in it.” This, they say, is what made the party vulnerable to conquest by someone like Trump. Rather than fight the base in democracy’s name, traditional Republican elites like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) acted as “semi-loyal democrats”: leaders who say the right things about supporting democracy and the rule of law, but value partisan victory over everything else — including basic, non-partisan democratic principles. This enabled the entire party to become a vehicle for an anti-democratic agenda. “Openly authoritarian figures — like coup conspirators or armed insurrectionists — are visible for all to see. By themselves, they often lack the public support or legitimacy to destroy a democracy. But when semi-loyalists — tucked away in the hallways of power — lend a hand, openly authoritarian forces become much more dangerous,” they explain. “Throughout history, cooperation between authoritarians and seemingly respectable semi-loyal democrats has been a recipe for democratic breakdown.” How America’s system makes life easy for would-be autocrats In the US, Levitsky and Ziblatt see a democracy made vulnerable by its own Constitution. The Constitution’s framers were the first to take Enlightenment ideas about freedom and translate them to an actual political system. The only historical democratic experiences they looked at were from antiquity, in places like Athens and Rome. Classical sources repeatedly chronicled threats to democracy, even outright collapse, emanating from mob rule. Though the founders knew that democracy was at heart about majority rule, they took the Greco-Roman experience seriously and designed a system where majorities were severely constrained. The tripartite separation of powers, bicameral legislature, indirect election of the president and senators, lifetime Supreme Court tenure, the laborious process for amending the Constitution: all of these were built, in whole or in part, as limitations on the ability of majorities to impose their will on minorities. Some American counter-majoritarian institutions emerged not from well-intentioned design but political necessity. Leading founders like James Madison bitterly resented the basic structure of the Senate, where each state gets two seats regardless of size; Alexander Hamilton called it “preposterous” during a constitutional convention debate. It was included purely to mollify small states like Delaware and Rhode Island, who were refusing to join the Union absent sufficient protections for their interests. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images/Howard Chandler Christy A painting of the signing of the US Constitution. Over time, the US shed some of these minoritarian trappings — senators are now directly elected, thanks to the 17th Amendment — but deepened others. In 1803’s Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court gave itself expansive power to strike down legislation that was not explicitly granted in the Constitution. More recently, the filibuster emerged as a de facto 60-vote requirement for passing legislation in the Senate — a practice similar to the supermajority vote that the founders explicitly rejected early on. Levitsky and Ziblatt show that almost every other peer democracy went in the opposite direction. The United States is “the only presidential democracy in the world in which the president is elected via an Electoral College,” “one of the few remaining democracies that retains a bicameral legislature with a powerful upper chamber,” and “the only democracy in the world with lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices.” Moreover, they note, “the U.S. Constitution is the hardest in the world to change” — making it extremely difficult for reformers to do anything about America’s minority-empowering institutions. These institutions allow the Republican Party to rule despite being a distinctly minority faction — one that holds extreme positions on issues like taxes and abortion, and has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. So long as the party retains appeal among a hard core of racially resentful supporters, efficiently distributed around the country to take advantage of the Senate and Electoral College’s biases, it can remain nationally competitive. The right’s control over the Supreme Court will likely last decades, thanks to lifetime tenure, allowing it to remake American policy and institutions with impunity. The GOP’s disproportionate national power enables its cadres at the state and local level to pursue explicitly undemocratic policies for holding power, like felon disenfranchisement and extreme gerrymandering, without fear of federal intervention. Hence the titular “tyranny of the minority”: The Republican Party, having broken with its core commitment to democracy, has now embraced a peculiarly American strategy for taking and wielding power undemocratically. “America’s countermajoritarian institutions can manufacture authoritarian minorities into governing majorities,” they write. “Far from checking authoritarian power, our institutions have begun to augment it.” Can good institutions save a rotted society? Levitsky and Ziblatt are, in my mind, clearly correct about both of their two major points: that the GOP has become an anti-democratic faction, and that America’s minoritarian institutions have given them a straightforward pathway to wielding power undemocratically. The evidence for both propositions is overwhelming, and the book’s style — engaging historical case studies accompanied by a precise deployment of data — hammers them home persuasively. Tyranny of the Minority is an exceptional book, one of the very best in its genre. But there are some tensions inside of it: in this case, a subtle conflict between the two halves of the argument. The United States, Ziblatt and Levitsky note, is hardly the only wealthy democracy to have experienced the rise of far-right parties hostile to social change — citing the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and “all of Scandinavia” as prominent examples. Yet those democracies, in their view, “remain relatively healthy.” The key difference, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, lies in the institutions. Because those countries are considerably more majoritarian, it is far harder for an authoritarian minority to corrode democracy at a national level. Therefore, they conclude, the best way to safeguard America’s institutions is to make them more like our peers abroad: abolish the Electoral College, eliminate lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices, end the filibuster, switch to proportional representation in Congress, ban partisan gerrymandering, and make the Constitution easier to amend. The obvious objection to these proposals is that they are impractical, that the very nature of the problem — Republican control over minoritarian institutions — makes reforming them infeasible. But there’s a deeper, and more interesting, question raised by Levitsky and Ziblatt’s diagnosis: Is it really the case that our institutions are what make America unique? America’s minoritarian institutions certainly create a particular pathway for our domestic revanchist faction to gain power and wield it against democracy. But there are plenty of other ways for a democracy to eat itself. Israel, for example, has an extraordinarily majoritarian political system. It is a parliamentary democracy, meaning limited separation of executive and legislative power, whose legislature is elected on a purely proportional basis. There is a simple majority requirement for passing legislation and even amending the Basic Law (its constitution-lite). The judiciary is, for all intents and purposes, the only check on unfettered majority rule. Yet Israel is, at the moment, in the midst of a democratic crisis every bit as serious as America’s, perhaps even more so, in which an anti-democratic governing majority seeks to remove the court as a barrier to its radical agenda. The root cause of the crisis is very similar: a far-right faction of the population that wishes to protect existing social hierarchies from the threat of change. But the extremist strategy for cementing their power is the polar opposite: exploiting majoritarian institutions, not minoritarian ones. It’s the founders’ fear come to life, the Scylla to America’s Charybdis. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images Demonstrators wave Israeli flags and stand by smoke flares to block a highway during a protest against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2023. The point here is not that there are only two options for institutional design, America’s vetocracy or Israel’s blunt majoritarianism. Most advanced democracies fall somewhere in the middle, adopting a mix of majoritarian and counter-majoritarian institutions designed to generally permit majority rule while also preventing abuses of power. Rather, the United States and Israel put together illustrate that institutions are an at-best-imperfect check on far-right authoritarian movements. The American far right has built a strategy tailored to American institutions; the Israeli far right has adopted a strategic approach tailored to the Israeli context. In both cases, the root of the problem is that there’s a sufficient social foundation for far-right authoritarian politics: one that provides the raw political muscle for bad actors to attack democracy using its own institutions. Other democracies are not immune to far-right surges, including some that Levitsky and Ziblatt cite as relatively healthy. The AfD, Germany’s far-right party, is surging in popularity, topping recent polls in four German states. A survey in May found that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally, would defeat President Emmanuel Macron in their second rematch by a 55-45 margin. The UK approved Brexit by a majority referendum. Even in Canada, one of the most democratically stable Western democracies, extremist-linked legislator Pierre Poilievre is leading the traditionally center-right Conservative Party, which is currently ahead of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the 2025 polls. Not every far-right victory is a threat to democracy, of course, but it’s hard to be sure until they have power. Some Western far-right parties, like the AfD, are already showing troubling signs. And in the US, where the far right is clearly undemocratic, surveys show a real chance that Trump wins the 2024 US election with an outright majority — not just in the Electoral College, but in the popular vote. At root, Levitsky and Ziblatt appear a little too confident in their argument that the GOP’s extremism dooms the party to minority status. It’s true that their agenda is out of step with the majority of Americans. But many voters, especially swing voters, don’t always vote on policy or ideology. They make ballot box decisions based on things like gas prices, inflation, and whether the party in power has been there for too long — factors that are often out of the president’s hands. Even if they do not agree with Trump that Mexicans are rapists or that the 2020 election was stolen, they’re willing to vote for him if they’re sufficiently frustrated with either the status quo or the other party’s option. The same is true in other countries. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government was briefly dethroned in the 2021 election — only to return to power in 2022 after voters experienced life under a fractious coalition that spanned the right-left continuum. Marine Le Pen’s recent rise seems to be less about a majority of voters agreeing with her on immigration than a sense that she’s the only real alternative to an unpopular Macron. Far-right parties, even potentially anti-democratic ones, can be politically viable under nearly any set of institutions. The key is to establish sufficient support among a large segment of the population that agrees with them, enough for there to be a large ideologically driven backlash. Once that happens, the party can establish itself as a viable alternative to the mainstream. And once that happens, they gain the potential to win over less ideological swing voters who simply have frustrations with the political status quo and look to any port in a storm. This is not to let America’s institutions off the hook. Levitsky and Ziblatt are absolutely right that its outdated constitution makes it easier for the GOP to travel down an authoritarian path. But “easier” doesn’t mean “necessary.” While Levitsky and Ziblatt ultimately take an institutions-first approach, seeing their reform as our way out of America’s crisis, I take a more society-first view: that America’s problems are primarily the result of deep social fissures exacerbated by outdated and poorly designed institutions. Even if the United States had a more authentically democratic institution, we’d still be riven by divides over race and identity that have unerringly produced the worst political conflicts in the country’s history. It follows from this that institutional reforms are not enough: In addition to policies for political reform, we also need to think about ways to reduce the social demand for extreme politics. More bluntly: If widespread hostility to social change enables the GOP’s far-right authoritarian lurch, we need to figure out ways to shift Americans’ beliefs in a more egalitarian direction. But such a proposal should be considered in addition to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s proposals, not in replacement of them — much as my critique of their book more broadly is less a fundamental concern than a difference in emphasis. Tyranny of the Minority is one of the best guides out there to the crisis of American democracy. It just puts a touch too much focus on institutions at the expense of the deeper social forces rotting their foundations.
What India’s parliamentary gender quota can — and can’t — do for women
Members of the BJP celebrate the new reservation bill in Patna, India. | Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times/Getty Images The new law reserves a third of seats in Parliament and state assemblies for women, but could take years to implement. A bill requiring India’s parliament to set aside a third of its seats for women candidates passed the body’s upper house on Thursday, potentially paving the way for greater political participation for India’s women. Women’s representation in both houses is around 14 percent, and women made up only about 8 percent of the candidate field in 2014. Proponents of the bill say that it could foment better policies for women in areas like education, healthcare, and employment while opening pathways for India’s women to pursue higher education and career opportunities. Parliament has been trying to pass the law since 1996; though it’s now passed both houses and is virtually guaranteed to take effect, the new measure still has to be approved by at least 14 of India’s 28 state legislatures to become enshrined in the constitution. The new legislation will affect not just representation in Parliament, but in the state assemblies as well. Despite support for the bill, however, it could be years before it’s passed and even longer before actual social effects are legible. The new law is just one tool to improve the lives of Indian women Local councils in India have had gender quotas since 1993; every five-year election cycle, one-third of villages within each state are randomly selected to have a woman leader of the local council. This policy has effectively increased women’s political participation on the local level — not just by having more women in leadership, but also by encouraging women to come to local councils with their concerns. That, in turn, encourages policies more germane to their needs, according to a study following the first decade of the local council policy. That said, political experts have warned the new law isn’t a panacea for representation. “The first thing to keep in mind is that, obviously, these kinds of quotas are effective only if they do get women into political positions,” Rohini Pande, director of the Economic Growth Center at Yale University, told Vox in an interview. “We don’t fully have clarity right now on exactly how India’s going to implement it.” Whatever arrangement the government decides on, the new policy may not go into effect until elections in 2029, the government has said, although opposition lawmakers in Parliament have pushed for immediate implementation. Two major projects are delaying the implementation: India’s 2021 census, already disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and other logistical issues, still must be conducted; and the delimitation process, which changes the boundaries for India’s parliamentary constituencies and could alter how many seats are in Parliament and in state assemblies based on population. There are no firm dates set to complete either project. “If women get politically strong, we will get to play a role in decision-making,” Sarmistha Kumar Sethi, a member of the Lok Sabha, Parliament’s lower house, told Reuters. Sethi’s political party, Biju Janata Dal, implemented a quota in the 2019 elections ensuring that a third of its candidates were women. When women are in leadership positions, “Women make different policies,” Pande said. “Women tend to emphasize policy issues that are relevant for women. This extends both from the kind of public goods that women may care more about given their responsibilities to thinking more about safety, making it easier for women to report on crime, or investments in women’s health.” And overall, Pande said, having women in respected government positions, where they are both visible and paid, will change women’s aspirations and beliefs about what they are capable of. Beyond improving gender diversity, Pande noted the new policy could increase minority and caste representation in politics as well. Recent research has found ”that, as we move up the caste distribution, we have more conservative social norms of women’s role outside the household,” Pande said. “So reflecting this, the women who are more likely to join politics are actually from lower castes.” As parties wait for the policy to take effect, they could implement new policies internally to shore up Indian women’s power, as Yamini Aiyar, head of the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research told Reuters: “If political parties are genuinely so committed to the idea of female representation, nothing stops them from ensuring that they hand out more tickets to women in general elections.”
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The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, explained
Photo by Resul Rehimov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images The future of Armenia and Azerbaijan’s feud is uncertain — and could destabilize the region. A decades-long conflict in the Caucasus flared up this week, as Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched an “anti-terror” strike aimed at Nagorno-Karabakh — the semi-autonomous, majority-Armenian region within its internationally recognized borders. For the second time in three years, Azerbaijan’s government made decisive gains: the government of Nagorno-Karabakh has agreed to dissolve its military, and the future of the region’s semi-autonomous status has been put into serious doubt. It’s a result that could echo far beyond Azerbaijan’s borders, as it has escalated an already difficult humanitarian crisis, and is roiling Armenian politics. Though there’s no suggestion of imminent war between the neighbors, regional experts said there is concern that continued crises like last week’s strike could inflame longstanding tensions, resulting in continued conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that could also pull in other regional powers like Iran and Turkey. “This could become a regional war,” Benyamin Poghosyan, Senior Fellow on Foreign Policy at the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia, an independent think tank in Yerevan, told Vox. At the very least, he said, “I am afraid that for years to come […] the South Caucasus and Armenia and Azerbaijan will be volatile.” This week’s crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, explained The trouble in Nagorno-Karabakh didn’t just start this past week. The region has been the locus of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but animosity between the two countries goes back to the turn of the 20th century. After the region was absorbed into the USSR, the Soviet Union designated a majority-Armenian autonomous region within Azerbaijan in 1923 — today known as Nagorno-Karabakh. Conflict between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan started in earnest in 1988, when the region began agitating for independence. Between 1988 and 1990, Azerbaijan carried out multiple pogroms against Armenians within its borders, and interethnic conflict was common. Moscow intervened in 1990, and in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR Nagorno-Karabakh claimed independence, though the international community has never recognized the breakaway republic. That move inflamed tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Backed by Armenian troops, Karabakh Armenians took control not only of their historical region, but also of much of Azerbaijan’s territory up to the border with Armenia. That conflict, which ended with a 1994 ceasefire, was a huge moral victory for Armenia, according to Poghosyan, who said that territorial gain was “one of the primary pillars of independent Armenian identity,” after centuries of oppression. But it was also an unsustainable loss for Azerbaijan — about 20 percent of its territory was now outside of the country’s control. Azerbaijan, aligned with Turkey, recaptured significant territory in a 2020 war. During that conflict, Russia, which has long been Armenia’s military partner, failed to back Armenia and Karabakh Armenians. That conflict ended in a Russia brokered ceasefire, which about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have helped ensure. Cut to this week: On September 19, Azerbaijan launched an “anti-terror” campaign in response to the deaths of six people in two landmine explosions within Azerbaijan. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for an immediate halt to the hostilities, which displaced at least 7,000 and killed around 200, with thousands reportedly still missing. Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijan on Wednesday of violating the ceasefire agreement, though Azerbaijan vehemently denied the claim. There were also reports of heavy gunfire Thursday, but because mobile connectivity and electricity are only sporadically available in the region, verifying claims from either party is nearly impossible. Talks between Azerbaijan’s government and representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, which Armenians call Stepanakert and Azerbaijan refers to as Khankendi, are continuing. “We have an agreement on the cessation of military action but we await a final agreement — talks are going on,” David Babayan, who advises the head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s breakaway government Samvel Shahramanyan, told Reuters Thursday. In addition to dissolving the armed forces, Zaur Shiriyev, the International Crisis Group’s analyst for the South Caucasus told Vox via email that the ceasefire agreement includes, “the dismantling of all existing de facto institutions, [political] positions, and symbols, and discussions about the integration of local Armenians under Azerbaijani authority,” including how to implement some autonomy at the municipal level and protect Armenian language and customs. That would suggest Nagorno-Karabakh’s semi-autonomous government may not be in existence for much longer, and that the way of life the region’s residents have known may be coming to an end. What Azerbaijan decides to do about Nagorno-Karabakh affects the whole region Nagorno-Karabakh, like other potential territorial conflicts, is an issue of great political volatility of the issue within Armenia, because the territory is also an issue of national pride and identity for many Armenians, and because it is a way to gauge Armenia’s power and influence in the region. That influence has waned somewhat as Azerbaijan’s military might has grown, aided by increased oil and gas wealth and a security partnership with Turkey, and as Armenia’s relationship with Russia has diminished. Under current Prime Minister Nikol Pashnyan, the Armenian government has distanced itself both from Russia and from Nagorno-Karabakh, insisting that the Armenian government has had nothing to do with the agreement between Azerbaijan and the de facto government in Stepanekert, and even backing off of previous hard-line guarantees for the region like autonomous rule, Paghosyan told Vox. Armenia was reluctant to get involved in this latest outbreak of fighting; Pashinyan said he wouldn’t let the country be “drag[ged] … into military operations.” Russia, which helped broker peace in 2020, has also seen its role in the region greatly reduced. Russian peacekeepers have been present maintaining the 2020 ceasefire, but their influence has softened over the years, particularly due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And their presence has, at best, only been able to keep an uneasy peace, with low-level hostilities common in the region. “The ongoing war in Ukraine has indeed weakened Russia’s role, and since 2022, coupled with [Azerbaijan’s] checkpoint in Lachin, and the recent brief war that ended with the capitulation of local Armenians, Azerbaijan has gained more control over the region’s affairs than Russia had previously,” Shiriyev said. Russia has also struggled with maintaining the flow of goods and people across the region’s only physical connection to Armenia, the Lachin corridor. That area’s been severely restricted by Azerbaijan since December 2022, Shiriyev said. “Even before last December, when Azerbaijani-backed activists started protests near the road demanding Azerbaijani control, Baku alleged that the road was being used for unchecked transfers of weapons and natural resources from the region to Armenia,” he explained. In April of this year, Azerbaijan established a border checkpoint on the Lachin corridor, over time choking off transport completely. Since that time, the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has become increasingly desperate, and only one humanitarian convoy, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been permitted to enter the region in months. Despite Russia’s reduced status in the region, the country is still playing an administrative role in this conflict, facilitating discussions between the Azerbaijani government and local Armenian authorities. “Nowadays, if disarmament takes place, the Russian forces will play a part in it, and over time, they will coordinate the implementation of other ceasefire terms,” Shiriyev told Vox. “Baku views [Russia’s] role as a stabilizing factor, especially in areas where local Armenians live.” The future looks challenging for Pashinyan as his internal opposition — which is friendlier with Russia than he is — is harnessing protests and frustration with Pashinyan over Nagorno-Karabakh to try and get him to resign. “Protests erupted quite spontaneously and only afterwards political opposition wanted to take them over,” Meliqset Panosian, an independent researcher based in Gyumri, told Vox. What’s all but guaranteed, Poghosyan said, is continued conflict and possible regional destabilization. Many in Armenia “are feeling humiliated,” he told Vox; to restore their dignity “they will be more inclined to have more nationalistic views.” Armenia is courting other security partners in addition to Russia, and could aspire to build up its military over the coming years. While it’s decidedly the weaker of the two states, it’s not above military conflict. The interests of Russia, Turkey, Western countries, and even Iran overlap and conflict in the region, meaning the potential for animosity and outright hostility remains. What happens now? Honestly, it’s hard to say Despite the new agreement between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, there are still a great many unknowns — primarily what Karabakh Armenians’ lives would look like, should they decide to stay in the region. The terms of Wednesday’s ceasefire are still in flux, though Azerbaijan’s Aliyev has promised Karabakh Armenians a “paradise” as part of Azerbaijan. In the immediate term, the first priority is for humanitarian aid to reach the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, since many in the area are already suffering from severe hunger, Poghosyan said. There’s no indication as of yet that those who remain will enjoy autonomy; as Poghosyan said, Pashinyan’s only request, though he is not part of the negotiating process, is that ethnic Armenians have rights under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Aliyev has promised that Armenians will enjoy the right to their own language and culture, but Armenians have expressed concerns about violence and even ethnic cleansing. That’s not unfounded, given the region’s history. And according to a 2022 State Department report, evidence was found of Armenian graves being desecrated by Azeri soldiers, as well as “severe and grave human rights violations” against Armenians ethnic minorities, including “extrajudicial killings, torture and other ill-treatment and arbitrary detention, as well as the destruction of houses, schools and other civilian facilities.” Those concerns make an exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh likely. Poghosyan estimates that 50,000 to 70,000 of the approximately 120,000 Karabakh Armenians will choose to leave their homes, and will look for safe passage either to Armenia or to other locations including Russia where they might settle. “Now most of them want to leave to Armenia, almost nobody believes in peaceful coexistence with Azerbaijanis,” Stepan Adamyan, an Armenian who works with international journalists, told Vox. “Every hour [on Facebook] I read their posts saying “do something, take us out of here.”
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Your AI personal assistant is almost here — assuming you actually want it
Google’s Bard is just one of several generative AI assistants these days. | Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have a vision for generative AI. Will it work? We got a trio of generative AI announcements from three Big Tech companies this week. Google said on Tuesday that it is extending Bard to several of its apps, including Gmail and Docs. The next day, Amazon revealed that it will let you have “near-human-like conversations” with Alexa “soon.” On Thursday, Microsoft held an event to announce that it plans to embed its generative AI assistant, “Copilot,” across many of its products. The products and services are different, but the idea the companies behind them are selling is the same: Generative AI is amazing and our generative AI tools are amazing, so we’re going to embed them in as many of our services as possible to make your life amazing. Or, as Colette Stallbaumer, general manager of Microsoft 365 said at the company’s Thursday event: “Soon, you won’t be able to imagine your life without it.” You just have to imagine your life with it first because it’s not here yet. And then you have to wonder if people will really use these tools when they do roll out. This isn’t the first time tech companies have gone big on intelligent assistants, only for the public to either hate them or be largely indifferent to them. We can go back to the late ’90s with Clippy, Microsoft’s notoriously much-loathed Office assistant. More recently, we’ve gotten smart assistants like Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana. It’s safe to say that those haven’t gotten the kind of adoption their makers hoped for, both in how many people are using them and how many things they’re using them for. Microsoft gave up on Cortana-powered smart speakers long ago and will soon stop supporting it just in time for its generative AI tools to take over. Amazon, on the other hand, is resting its hopes for Alexa on generative AI, which it calls its “north star.” It doesn’t help tech companies’ case that these next-generation assistants we’re supposed to use for everything have already had some high-profile flubs. That makes it hard to trust both what these chatbots tell us and that they’ll be able to do what their developers claim anytime soon. Older digital assistants were far from perfect, but the stakes were a lot lower. There are real consequences when chatbots fall short. Alexa playing “Desperado” when you asked it to play “Despacito” is annoying. ChatGPT inserting a bunch of false information that it insists is correct into an important work document could get you (and potentially many others) in a lot of trouble. Yet Microsoft continues to push especially hard on this vision of a generative AI-fueled personal assistant that knows you and helps you across your digital life (it also appears to be the furthest along in developing it, not to mention that $13 billion partnership with OpenAI, the hottest generative AI company out there right now). The company’s internet search announcement back in February was a big deal, and it likely spurred Google to roll out its internet search “experiment,” Bard, shortly afterward. If Microsoft hadn’t jumped first, Google may well have continued to take its time perfecting Bard before releasing it. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella even took a swipe at Google at Thursday’s event, saying, “We are striving to breathe some innovation and life” into a “market that’s dominated by one player.” He didn’t call out Google by name, but the company is currently on trial over its dominance of the search market. And also: Duh. After all that, most people still aren’t using Bing, which saw only a tiny bump in usage after it got its supposedly revolutionary chatbot. Bard doesn’t seem to have generated much interest either, although Google hasn’t played it up the way Microsoft has for Bing. Neither company releases much data on how many people are using these new products, but the stats we do have suggest it’s not very many. Interest in consumer-facing generative AI seems to have fallen off after the late 2022 and early 2023 burst of excitement when they first released. Some of this is to be expected. Buzz and curiosity tend to be short-lived. But some of it is likely due to people not finding much use for AI chatbot internet search in their daily lives. The fact that ChatGPT usage went down in the summer and is going back up again in the fall indicates that a lot of its use is from students, who may well be using it to do their homework and write essays for them rather than learn information that allows them to do that homework and write those essays themselves. So now companies have turned their attention toward using generative AI to assist us well beyond searching the internet, which was probably their goal all along anyway. Google and Microsoft do a great job of playing up their products’ strengths and how much better their AI tools will work once they’re in and working across everything, rather than siloed within each app or service. In theory, they’ll be able to combine their tremendous libraries of preexisting data and knowledge with the data and knowledge they have about their users, giving us humans a personalized, efficient assistant that vastly improves our work and personal lives. The possibilities are endless, everything works seamlessly, and we’ll all be able to focus our time and energy on more important things. There’s a reason Microsoft calls its assistant Copilot and uses words like “companion” when describing what it will do, and be, for you. The reality is that we aren’t there yet. Some of Microsoft’s AI tools won’t be here until next year, and there is no date for when Microsoft’s ultimate vision, the ability to use Copilot across all of its products, will be realized. As for what we have now, you still have to check (or you really should check) everything chatbots do and tell you for accuracy. That will only be more important if and when people integrate them into really important parts of their lives. Google just rolled out a new tool so users can do just that. That’s helpful, but it’s also an admission — and Google continues to call Bard an “experiment,” further reinforcing the idea that this is something to try out but not fully rely on. You can see the new wave of generative AI assistants as an example of progress, with tech companies making ever-better digital assistants that are sure to catch on once they’re good enough. You might also see it as tech companies trying to push something on people that they just don’t want or need in an effort to capture as many parts of their lives as possible. So far, it’s mostly been the latter. But maybe Copilot will be the Clippy Microsoft always knew we wanted.
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A new Supreme Court case could trigger a second Great Depression
Unemployed men eating soup and bread at Bernarr Macfadden’s Penny Cafeteria, probably in Washington DC, circa 1935. | Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images America’s Trumpiest court handed down a shockingly dangerous decision. The Supreme Court is likely, but not certain, to fix it. The plaintiffs’ arguments in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Community Financial Services Association, which the justices will hear on October 3, are simultaneously some of the silliest and some of the most dangerous ideas ever presented to the Supreme Court of the United States. They claim that an entire federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), is unconstitutional. And they do so based on an interpretation of the Constitution that would invalidate Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and countless other federal programs. As the Justice Department notes in one of its briefs, the 2022 legislation funding the federal government contains more than 400 provisions that are invalid under these plaintiffs’ reading of the Constitution. Perhaps recognizing that the justices are unlikely to declare the majority of all federal spending unconstitutional, the Community Financial plaintiffs then spend much of their brief suggesting arbitrary limits the Court could place on these plaintiffs’ already arbitrary interpretation of the Constitution. Without citing any legal authorities, for example, the Consumer Financial plaintiffs claim that Social Security might be excepted from the new legal regime so long as Congress is careful about how it pays for the Social Security Administration’s staff. But even with these completely fabricated limits to their completely fabricated reading of the Constitution in place, the Consumer Financial plaintiffs — who are represented by former Trump Solicitor General Noel Francisco — would still do unimaginable harm to the United States of America. As a brief filed by the banking industry explains to the justices, if the Supreme Court agrees with Francisco’s claim that the CFPB is unconstitutional, the entire US mortgage market could seize up, as banks will have no idea what rules they need to comply with in order to issue loans. Moreover, because home building, home sales, and other industries that depend on the mortgage market make up about 17 percent of the US economy, a decision invalidating the CFPB could trigger economic devastation unheard of since the Great Depression. Which brings us to the single most outrageous fact about the Consumer Financial case: A three-judge panel of the far-right United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the claim that the entire CFPB must be struck down. Let’s be clear: It is very unlikely that five or more justices will sign onto this nonsense. This isn’t even the first time that a bunch of rogue judges on the Fifth Circuit handed down an opinion that threatened to trigger an economic depression. Seven Fifth Circuit judges did so in a case known as Collins v. Yellen, and, in 2021, the Supreme Court rejected those judges’ arguments in an 8-1 decision. Nevertheless, Consumer Financial reveals just how deeply delusional thinking has penetrated into the post-Trump federal judiciary. The plaintiffs’ arguments in Consumer Financial have no basis in law, in constitutional text, in precedent, or in rational thought. And they risk the sort of economic catastrophe that the United States hasn’t experienced for nearly a century. And yet a federal appeals court bought these arguments. So now it’s up to the Supreme Court to save the United States from calamity. So, what, exactly, are the Consumer Financial plaintiffs’ arguments? This case turns on a provision of the Constitution which provides that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” As the Supreme Court said in Cincinnati Soap Co. v. United States(1937), this provision “means simply that no money can be paid out of the Treasury unless it has been appropriated by an act of Congress.” That is, before the federal government spends any money, Congress must pass a law permitting it to do so. The Consumer Financial plaintiffs claim that the CFPB is invalid because it was not properly funded by an act of Congress. But Congress did pass a law, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, which funds the CFPB — and, again, the only limit that the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause places on federal spending is that it must be done pursuant to a federal law. Significantly, as the DOJ notes in its brief, before the Fifth Circuit’s decision in this very case, “no court has ever held that an Act of Congress violated the Appropriations Clause.” Nevertheless, the Fifth Circuit declared the agency unconstitutional. Much of the Fifth Circuit’s decision rests on the fact that, while Congress did pass a law funding the CFPB, the specific funding mechanism laid out in this law is unusual. Rather than passing a law giving CFPB a lump sum that it can use to fund its operations for a set period of time — as Congress does with some but not all federal agencies — Congress instead provided that the Federal Reserve shall transfer up to 12 percent of its “total operating expenses” to the CFPB each year, upon the CFPB’s request. This amount is also capped. In 2022, Congress capped CFPB’s funding at $734 million (although the CFPB actually took less than it was allowed to under this cap). This $734 million figure amounts to about 0.01 percent of the total federal budget. Again, this funding mechanism, where the CFPB’s operating budget first passes through the Federal Reserve before being allocated to the CFPB, is unusual. But laws do not magically become unconstitutional just because they are atypical. Under the Appropriations Clause, Congress may fund a federal agency however it chooses. Francisco’s brief, meanwhile, asks the justices to impose two new limits on federal spending that are not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. First, Francisco argues that the CFPB is unconstitutional because Congress did not appropriate a “specific sum” of money to the agency. Rather than laying out in a statute exactly how much money the CFPB may spend in 2022, for example, Congress said that the CFPB may spend up to $734 million, but that the agency was also allowed to spend less money if did not believe that it needed this entire sum to fund its operations. Merely describing this argument is enough to refute it. Nothing in the Constitution even suggests that Congress may not permit a federal agency to spend less money than the maximum amount of funds that the legislature has allocated. If taken seriously, moreover, this argument would invalidate most federal spending, and it would make it impossible for benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare to even exist. As the Justice Department tells the Court, “Congress routinely appropriates sums ‘not to exceed’ a particular amount” and “that phrase appears more than 400 times” in the 2022 legislation funding the federal government. Francisco’s novel reading of the Constitution endangers all of these appropriations. Under this interpretation of the Constitution, moreover, many key federal programs simply could not exist. Medicare, for example, is a health insurance program that pays for beneficiaries’ health costs as those costs arise. It is impossible for Congress to determine, in advance, the specific dollar amount that Medicare will spend in any given year. To do so, Congress would need to precisely predict which health services would be provided to every senior in the United States, and how much each one of those services would cost. Second, Francisco argues that the CFPB’s funding structure is unconstitutional because it is “perpetual.” That is, Congress passed a law that funds the CFPB until it passes another law eliminating that funding (CFPB spending is still subject to an annual cap, and that cap rises every year with inflation). It’s hard to know where to begin with this argument. For starters, nearly two-thirds of all federal spending is “perpetual,” with the bulk of that money going to programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that are funded by permanent appropriations. Only about 30 percent of all federal spending is “discretionary,” meaning that it is determined every year by an annual appropriations bill. So, under Francisco’s interpretation of the Appropriations Clause, the vast majority of federal spending is unconstitutional. Moreover, Francisco’s argument is refuted by the Constitution’s explicit text. While the Appropriations Clause contains no language whatsoever imposing a time limit on federal appropriations, a separate provision of the Constitution provides that no law providing funding to the army “shall be for a longer Term than two Years.” The authors of the Constitution, in other words, explicitly chose to impose a time limit on army appropriations, and to not impose such a limit on all other appropriations. Francisco’s time limit argument also has a practical problem. Even if you agree with him that the framers secretly intended to place an expiration date on all federal spending, what, exactly, is the specific amount of time that may pass before a federal spending bill must sunset? Could Congress pass a law funding the CFPB for five years? What about for 100 years? Or 12 million years? The Constitution does not answer this question, and Francisco doesn’t answer it either. Even Noel Francisco doesn’t appear to agree with Noel Francisco’s interpretation of the Constitution Having laid out these two unprecedented and atextual proposed limits on federal spending, Francisco then invents a bunch of limits on his own interpretation of the Constitution — which are no less unprecedented and atextual. At one point, for example, Francisco seems to suggest that the CFPB is especially unconstitutional because it is a “law enforcement” agency — the CFPB does not just write rules governing lending, it also brings court cases and other actions enforcing various federal laws. Francisco’s implication appears to be that, if the justices don’t want to create the kind of mass chaos that would result if Social Security and Medicare were invalidated, they could still rule in favor of his client by restricting their decision to federal agencies that do law enforcement. Elsewhere in his brief, Francisco draws a distinction between laws appropriating money for “certain spending programs” and laws that fund a federal agency’s “operating budget.” Under this distinction, Congress could still provide for perpetual funding for Social Security benefits, so long as it does not permanently fund the actual government employees who run the Social Security program. These proposed limits, of course, appear nowhere in the Constitution. There is nothing whatsoever in the Appropriations Clause, or in any other provision of the nation’s founding document, which even suggests that spending on law enforcement is subject to different rules than other spending, or that federal employee salaries are treated differently than federal benefits. In any event, the fact that Francisco proposes two novel limits on federal spending, which would fundamentally alter the United States and its government, and then immediately starts backtracking by coming up with arbitrary ways to draw fences around his proposal, should give the justices an extraordinary amount of pause. Nothing in Francisco’s brief even resembles a legal argument. It’s just a bunch of made-up rules that, until very recently, no court had ever taken seriously. So, where on earth do these awful arguments even come from? The Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Consumer Financial mostly paraphrases Judge Edith Jones’s concurring opinion, in a case called CFPB v. All American Check Cashing(2022), which argues that “for Congress’s power of the purse to meaningfully restrain the executive, appropriations to the executive must be temporally bound.” Francisco’s brief also relies heavily on Jones’s All American opinion. Jones, who President Ronald Reagan appointed to the Fifth Circuit while she was still a thirtysomething former general counsel to the Texas Republican Party, is known for her harsh and often cruel interpretations of federal law. Among other things, she once ruled that a man could be executed after his court-appointed lawyer fell asleep as many as 10 times during his trial for murder. Jones’s views on sexual harassment will make your skin crawl. Her opinion in All American shows a similar level of sensitivity and rigor. Although it is thick with irrelevant quotes from men discussing the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause — at one point, for example, she quotes James Madison’s statement that “the ‘purse is in the hands of the representatives of the people’ who ‘have the appropriation of all moneys’” — Jones does not appear to cite a single government official, at any level of the federal or any state’s government, who even expressed the idea that the Constitution limits Congress’s power to make permanent appropriations. Indeed, Jones’s opinion barely demonstrates that any human read the Constitution in this way prior to the All American litigation. Her best evidence that some person, somewhere on the globe, actually had this idea before this lawsuit was filed is a citation to a 1988 law review article, which argues that “Congress abdicates, rather than exercises, its power of the purse if it creates permanent or other open-ended spending authority that effectively escapes periodic legislative review and limitation.” It is far from clear, in other words, whether Edith Jones’s All American opinion would receive a passing grade if a law student submitted it as their final paper in a law school seminar on congressional appropriations, as it offers no meaningful evidence whatsoever for its central claim. And yet Jones, Francisco, and several other Fifth Circuit judges would endanger the entire nation’s economy over a theory that has no basis in any legal text, and barely any support in all of the scholarship that has ever been produced by the American legal academy since the Constitution took effect in 1789. Again, it is highly unlikely that five justices will sign onto this madness. But the fact that any judge would sign their name to this verkakte legal theory — and a total of seven Fifth Circuit judges joined either Jones’ All American opinion, the court’s Consumer Protection opinion, or both — raises serious questions about whether those judges are fit to serve.
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Why Biden’s latest gun violence initiative has activists optimistic
President Biden delivers remarks on the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, — which left 19 school children and two adults dead — at the White House in May 2023. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images The new White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, Biden said, comes “in the absence of that sorely needed action.” Speaking in front of gun violence survivors, activists, and lawmakers, President Joe Biden on Friday announced a new White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, an effort he promised would “centralize, accelerate, and intensify” the federal government’s efforts to combat gun violence. “After every mass shooting, we hear a very simple message ... do something,” Biden said in the White House Rose Garden. “My administration has been working tirelessly to do something,” Biden added, pointing to executive actions his administration had taken on ghost guns and gun trafficking, as well as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, landmark legislation that became law in 2022. The new office, according to Biden, is one more attempt to answer that call, helping, for example, to “coordinate support for survivors, families, and communities affected by gun violence,” an effort that he said would be similar to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government’s on-the-ground emergency response team. The office will also seek to identify more executive actions the president can take. Biden noted that he would continue to urge Congress to take legislative action on banning assault weapons and implementing universal background checks. Until then, he said the White House and activists will move forward with or without them. There have been more than 500 mass shootings in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and more than 30,000 firearm-related deaths. Gun violence deaths among teens and children also rose an alarming 50 percent between 2019 and 2021 to become the leading cause of death for children in the United States. Stefanie Feldman, an aide to President Biden who’s been working on gun safety policy with him for over a decade, will be the director of the new office. In an interview with Vox, she said that the office is meant to implement the laws and policies passed during Biden’s tenure, including the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the president’s executive actions on gun violence. “The president wants to make sure we get it done right.” She also reiterated the message that the president and vice president would urge but not wait on Congress to pass new laws. Currently, multiple government agencies are involved in efforts to reduce gun violence, including the Department of Justice, which gives grants to communities working to prevent gun violence; the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds research studying gun violence as a health epidemic; the FBI, which runs criminal background checks; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforces national gun laws and regulates firearms sales. The White House, its gun reform allies in Congress, and advocates have been coordinating with one another for years. This office puts all of those efforts under one roof, with a dedicated leadership team inside the executive branch. Leading the effort will be Vice President Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who has worked on gun safety issues during her time in the White House. At the ceremony, Harris drew on her past experiences as a prosecutor in making a case for the office. “I’ve seen with my own eyes what a bullet does to the human body,” she said. “We cannot normalize any of this.” Two prominent activists in the gun violence prevention movement, Greg Jackson, executive director of the Community Access Justice Fund, and Rob Wilcox, former senior director of federal and government affairs at Everytown for Gun Safety, will serve as deputy directors. Both have a personal connection to their work: Wilcox lost a family member to gun violence, and Jackson was shot and seriously injured in Washington, DC, in 2013. Gun violence reformers have been pushing the Biden administration to create a special office since at least the beginning of his tenure. The creation of a task force inside the White House was one of the primary recommendations from the Center for American Progress and Giffords, the gun violence reform group headed by former Congress member and gun violence survivor Gabrielle Giffords. She revealed that she also wrote a letter to the then-president-elect about creating a task force. Giffords acknowledged that the scourge of gun violence wouldn’t be resolved overnight, “but every step forward will save lives — and today’s announcement is a giant step forward,” she wrote. The president’s move was praised by leaders across a wide range of disciplines. “It really speaks to the gravity of the issue,” Chethan Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon who leads Northwell Health’s gun violence prevention center, told Vox. “This is one of our chief public health crises, a main killer of kids in this country. We need folks singularly focused on this issue.” Lucy McBath, a Democratic Georgia Congress member whose son, Jordan Davis, was murdered in 2012, also appeared at the White House press briefing Friday. “Nobody wants to experience what I have, but my story is becoming far too common in the United States,” McBath said. Biden, she said, “is taking decisive action by declaring loudly and clearly: We do not have to live this way.” The White House’s invitation to activists to help coordinate its effort shows that it recognizes that the movement has grown considerably in the last 10 years, becoming more powerful and effective. “The biggest fundamental change is that survivors took over,” Jackson, who is joining the office as deputy director, told Vox earlier this year. “Survivors went from being voices that contribute to some broader campaign to being the leaders of everything. When survivors started to take over ... we saw a huge shift away from simple hardware regulation [of firearms] to an array of solutions that are chipping away at the problem, and a more comprehensive approach.” The creation of the office also reflects that gun-safety proponents represent a real constituency in American politics: According to a Pew Research Center report from earlier this year, six in 10 Americans say gun violence is a serious problem, 61 percent say it’s too easy to legally obtain a gun, and 58 percent support stricter gun laws. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D), the first Gen-Z member of Congress, has made ending gun violence one of his top legislative priorities. He introduced Biden at the event and noted that “this issue, especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival.” For the millions of Americans who want to see an end to the horrific toll that gun violence takes every year, there’s an understandable sense of despair that sets in after news of gun violence — and a healthy amount of skepticism when politicians offer solutions that seem to fall short. In opening the office, though, the White House seems to be acknowledging that it can’t afford to wait for Republicans to get on board. Directing his final comments at the survivors and activists, Biden explicitly aligned himself and his administration with their cause. “You’re right. We’re by your side, and we’re never going to give up dealing with this problem,” he said. “We can do this, we just have to keep going. We just have to keep the faith.”
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A climate scientist on how to recognize the new climate change denial
CalFire firefighters combating the Rabbit Fire in Moreno Valley, California, on July 14, 2023. | Jon Putman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Delay, deflect, downplay, and other ways fossil fuel companies block climate action. For the past dozen years or so, every time the United Nations General Assembly holds its annual session in New York City, climate activists hit Manhattan to protest outside. They call it Climate Week. And this week has been a big one, with tens of thousands of protestors demonstrating as part of the New York March to End Fossil Fuels. After a summer of extreme weather, Vox’s daily news podcast Today, Explained is tackling Climate Week with some help from a scientist — one who’s been at the center of climate science since before it was cool, and has some ideas on how we can keep the planet from getting too hot. Michael Mann is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis. Mann is perhaps best known for the “hockey stick curve” in a 1998 paper he co-published about the planet’s rapidly rising temperature after a mostly steady millennium. Mann spoke with Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram about his experience fighting climate denialism, and the new tactics that have emerged from the fossil fuel industry and the groups it supports. Read on for an excerpt of the conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity, and listen to the full conversation wherever you find podcasts. What is the hockey stick curve? It was an estimate that we published 25 years ago now of how temperatures had varied over the past thousand years. We have widespread thermometer measurements that go back about a century and a half that tell us the planet has warmed up over that time period, a better part of 2 degrees Fahrenheit now. But what the short instrumental record doesn’t tell us is how unusual that warming is. The shape resembles a hockey stick because there’s the upturned blade, which is the dramatic warming of the past century and a half, which coincides, of course, with the Industrial Revolution and the burning of carbon and greenhouse gas pollution. But that blade emerges from a fairly flat preceding nine centuries. You might think of that as the handle of this upturned hockey stick. And so it got a name and because it really conveyed just how profound an impact we are having on the climate today, it became an iconic graph in the climate debate, and it led me to the center of that fractious debate. Now, a lot of people don’t see scientific papers in their day-to-day lives. How did people get exposed to your hockey stick graph? How did it become your greatest hit? At the time that the hockey stick study was published, by the mid-1990s, there were a number of studies that really demonstrated quite definitively that we were warming the planet, but they were fairly technical. Whereas when we published the hockey stick curve in 1998, it told a very clear story. And it was widely reproduced. It became a symbol in the climate change debate because it told a simple story. I think in the scientific community, it was recognized as a landmark achievement, if I say so myself. But in the political realm, critics of climate science, [those with] fossil fuel interests, and those promoting an agenda of climate inaction saw the hockey stick as a threat because it did tell a simple story. It was easy to understand from looking at that graph that we were having this profound impact on the planet. Where was the negativity coming from? The usual suspects, and I document this in The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars book that I wrote about my experiences some years ago. It was a virtual constellation of think tanks and front groups, most of which were tied to fossil fuel companies or conservative donors like the Koch brothers or the Scaife Foundations. Any time the finding of science has found itself on a collision course with powerful vested interests, those vested interests have often sought to discredit the science. It sounds like you’re talking about climate denialism here. Can you remind us about an era in which it was easy to say, “Yeah, none of that’s happening. None of this is real.” Yeah. If you go back a couple of decades, as we sometimes say, the signal was still emerging from the noise. The science very clearly established that we were warming the planet and changing the climate in various ways. But in terms of public understanding, the public wasn’t really seeing it yet in the form of the sorts of unprecedented extreme weather events that we’re now seeing and the coastal inundation and droughts and heatwaves and wildfires and floods. It wasn’t yet that apparent. There was still a window of opportunity for climate polluters and those promoting their agenda. There was really an effort to discredit the science, often by discrediting the scientists. And I found myself at the receiving end of personal attacks that were intended to discredit the hockey stick curve because it was perceived as such a threat. What kind of attacks? I received a white powder in the mail. The FBI had to come to my office. There was police tape over my office. They had to send out the sample to the lab to have it tested. It turned out it was cornmeal or something. It was intended to intimidate and scare me. And demands from conservative politicians that I be fired from my job at the University of Pennsylvania. Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, vilifying me to their audiences. It was a full-throttle effort to discredit me because of the threat of the hockey stick curve that I had published. Okay, 25 years later, are you still being bullied? Well, the battle has largely moved on. We’ve really evolved mostly past denialism because the impacts of climate change are staring us in the face. They’ve become so obvious we can see them play out in real time. And there is a resurgence, a superficial resurgence of denial, like on social media, Twitter, for example. But it’s not real in the sense that the actual public survey work that’s been done shows that it remains a fairly small fraction of the American public, roughly 10 percent, who are climate dismissives. So in reality, most people have moved on. The vast majority of the public gets it. They understand because they can see it, they can feel it. It’s not like the fossil fuel industry has given up. They’re still doing everything they can to prevent us from moving on. But they’ve largely moved away from [outright] denialism toward these softer denialist tactics. What do you call it if it’s not climate denialism anymore? What are we facing now? So there are other D-words. There’s delay. There’s division. Get climate advocates fighting with each other about, like, whether they’re vegans or not or whether they drive a car or not. Get climate advocates fighting with each other so you divide and conquer the movement. That’s division. Delay: “Oh, look, we can fix the problem with geoengineering, with carbon capture down the road. Trust us, we’ll be able to fix it.” So “let us continue to burn fossil fuels now. We will fix it later.” Delay. And that’s what they want. They want people disengaged on the sidelines rather than on the front lines. We see these tactics literally playing out today. There’s an article that just recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal detailing how Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, who had been lauded as the next generation of Exxon leadership — he was not a climate denier. He accepted that climate change is real — there was a real effort by Tillerson and ExxonMobil at that time to present this public face of climate acceptance — because it had already become difficult to deny it was happening. People understood it was happening. It wasn’t credible to deny it. And so it was, “Yes, we accept the science,” but the D-word here is downplaying. And in the article, the Wall Street Journal makes it very clear, based on internal documents that show a different side of ExxonMobil and Rex Tillerson, that they were actively campaigning to downplay the detrimental impacts of the climate crisis while playing up techno fixes like geoengineering. In fact, Rex Tillerson was quoted saying that climate change is an engineering problem. The idea here is, look, we can continue to extract and burn and sell and burn fossil fuels because we have all these techno fixes, other things that we can do to the climate system: trying to offset the warming by shooting particles into the stratosphere that reflect sunlight or dumping iron into the ocean to fertilize the algae that will take up the carbon dioxide, take it out of the atmosphere. Or massive carbon capture, we’ll just suck the CO2 back out of the atmosphere. That can’t be very hard, right? Well, actually, no. It’s really expensive and really difficult to do. And so [there are] these very elaborate schemes to try to somehow put the genie back in the bottle rather than the obvious solution, which is to keep the genie in the bottle in the first place. By which you mean what? Not extracting and burning fossil carbon and putting it into the atmosphere. And a lot of that would have to be on the individual because obviously, if individuals want to burn fossil fuels, this is a country where they’re going to find someone willing to help them do so. How much of the climate delayism is being pushed on the individual at this moment? It’s a great point. And actually I would even classify that with a different D-word, what I call deflection, which is to say there’s been an effort by the same bad actors to deflect the conversation away from regulation and the needed policies which will hurt their bottom line — carbon pricing, cap and trade, what have you — to redirect the conversation against those systemic changes and policies that will hurt them financially and turn attention instead to individuals. It’s the same thing, for example, that the beverage industry did to try to prevent the passage of bottle bills. They didn’t want deposits on bottles and cans, even though that was a systemic policy that would help clean up the countryside and get people to recycle. They didn’t want that because it would hurt their bottom line. So instead, they ran a campaign to convince us, and there’s the famous Crying Indian commercial, early 1970s, the tearful Native American. It was an underhanded effort by the beverage industry to convince us that we didn’t need regulation, we didn’t need bottle bills. That same playbook is being used today by carbon polluters. In the early 2000s, the very first widely used and publicized individual carbon footprint calculator, where you could calculate your carbon footprint and figure out how to change your lifestyle to make it smaller, was created and publicized by British Petroleum. British Petroleum wanted you so focused on your individual carbon footprint that you failed to note theirs. That’s why we need policies, because individuals can’t put a price on carbon themselves. They can’t block the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. These are all things that only our politicians can do. And so that’s where we are today. Deflection remains one of the key tactics. And a lot of good people have fallen victim to it. A lot of environmentalists will tell you, yeah, the solution is just us decreasing our carbon footprint. “You need to become a vegan, you can’t have children, you shouldn’t fly.” Ironically, that framing helps the fossil fuel industry even more because it plays to this notion on the right that climate action is about controlling people’s lifestyles. You’re reminding me of one of my favorite Onion headlines from, I don’t know, 2010, I think, which was, “‘How bad for the environment can throwing away one plastic bottle be?’ 30 million people wonder.” This isn’t completely on the individual. But if 300 million Americans woke up tomorrow and said, “I never want to put gas in my car ever again,” that would change the world. That’s absolutely true. One of the things that we understand, though, is that people in general won’t make voluntary decisions to change their lifestyle in a way that would appear to impact their quality of life unless there’s some incentive. And that’s why you need a financial incentive. It needs to be cheaper for people to purchase energy that’s not warming the planet and destroying the environment. Because right now we’ve got our thumb on the wrong end of the scale. And so you need that price signal. You need policies that will collectively move everybody in the right direction without them having to actively think about it. I want to ask you about another D-word that I think is related to the lack of policies that are going to make enough of a difference to save this planet. And that, of course, is doom. Climate doomerism. Yeah. And doomism has actually been weaponized by bad actors to convince even environmentalists that, “Hey, it’s too late to do anything anyway, so you might as well just give up trying to solve the climate crisis.” People who are ostensible climate advocates and environmentalists insist that it’s too late, and we just have to accept our fate. There are events, like mass extinction events in the past, that some of these doomists will point to and say, “Look what happened to the dinosaurs, what happened during the so-called Great Dying 250 million years ago when 90 percent of all species died out because of a massive release of carbon into the atmosphere through an episode of massive volcanism, that’s happening today.” There are prominent actors in the climate space who are literally making this claim. And they’re doing so by misrepresenting what the record of Earth history actually tells us about those events. We are at a fragile moment. We’re not yet past the point of no return. But if we don’t take substantial action and do so immediately, then we are due for some of those potential worst-case scenarios. So it is still up to us. So it sounds like you’re not a doomer. I’m not. If the science indicated that it was too late for us to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, I would have to be truthful as a scientist about that. Fortuitously, that’s not what the science does tell us. So I can in good faith be out there trying to explain that to people. Is there a D-word out there that we haven’t talked about — not denialism, divisionism, delayism, doomism, deflection — that people can attach themselves to in a moment where critical decisions that are made could really shift the outcome? Yes ... We have to be determined now to take the actions that are necessary while we still can. Let’s be clear. We should all do everything we can within the constraints of our own lifestyles to minimize our environmental impact and to minimize our carbon footprint. But the most important thing an individual can do is to use their voice and their vote, because the policies that we need in place to decarbonize our economy, to lower carbon emissions by 50 percent over the next decade, the only way we can accomplish that is with policy. And so we need to vote for politicians who will do what’s right by us and act on climate, rather than the politicians who too often are simply acting as rubber stamps for polluters.
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