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The police shooting of Marcellis Stinnette and Tafara Williams, an unarmed Black couple, explained
Trevor Williams, the father of Tafara Williams, marches with demonstrators in Waukegan, Illinois, on October 22, to protest the police shooting of his daughter and her boyfriend. | Scott Olson/Getty Images Stinnette died from his wounds and Williams is recovering in the hospital. The FBI is investigating. On the evening of Tuesday, October 20, a police officer opened fire on an unarmed Black couple who wereinside their car in Waukegan, Illinois, a city just north of Chicago. The officer killed 19-year old Marcellis Stinnette and badly injured his girlfriend, Tafara Williams, who remains in the hospital. The officer who shot Williams and Stinnette — a Hispanic, five-year veteran of the Waukegan police department who remains unidentified — was fired late Friday, according to Waukegan Chief of Police Wayne Walles. The shooting is being investigated by the Illinois State Police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is also reviewing it, according to a statement from the local prosecutor, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim. The federal investigations were called for by demonstrators led by the Stinnette and Williams families, who have also demandedthat local authorities release footage of the incident to the public. “The police cannot police the police. They cannot investigate. And they cannot give us fair justice if it’s one of their own. And yes, we are seeking justice for Marcellis Stinnette,” Satrese Stallworth, a relative of Stinnette, said at a rally in front of the Waukegan city hall Thursday afternoon. The shooting of Stinnette and Williams took place just 16 miles south of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where local protests reignited national unrest in late August, after 29-year-old Black man Jacob Blake was left partly paralyzed when a white police officer shot him seven times in the back. Multiple members of Blake’s family attended Thursday’s rally in Waukegan. And the Waukegan shooting comes just days after the third-degree murder charges for Derek Chauvin, the police officer whose killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked this summer’s national wave of protests, were dismissed. “All of our families are standing together — we are one family and we are united,” Letetra Widman, Blake’s sister, said at the rally Thursday. “We will not allow you all to just treat them like they’re nothing, just because they didn’t have a viral video, just because their name isn’t in lights. We’re going to share this spotlight.” What we know about the shooting While the Waukegan Police Department has confirmed that body and squad car camera footage of the shooting does exist, they say it will not be released to the public until after a full investigation takes place — a process that could take weeks or months to complete. Most of the information available about the shooting comes from the police department, the surviving victim, and a handful of witnesses. According to the Waukegan police, the encounter began at 11:55 pm CTon October 20, when authorities received a report of a suspicious vehicle (according to the victims’ families, the couple was sitting inside their car outside Williams’s mother’s home). Williams was behind the wheel, and Stinnette was in the passenger’s seat.Police say an officer attempted to investigate the car when the vehicle unexpectedly fled the scene. Shortly afterward, a different police officer spotted the car about half a mile away. The officer exited their patrol vehicle, and began walking toward the car. At that point, the police say the couple’s car reversed toward the officer, who, “in fear for his safety,” opened fire into the car with his semiautomatic pistol. The police did not describe how far the officer was from the car, how fast it was moving, or any other details of the shooting, except the fact that no weapons were found inside the car. Stinnette and Williams were both shot and rushed to a local hospital, where police say Stinnette died shortly thereafter. Williams, who was shot in the stomach and hand, did not sustain life-threatening injuries and continues to receive treatment for her wounds. Darrell Mosier, a witness to the shooting, recounted a somewhat different version of events, suggesting that Williams had no intention of harming the officer, and that she was merely panicked. “The police officer got out of the car,” Mosier recalled. “When he told them to stop, he told her to stop, she was scared. She put up her hands, she started yelling, ‘Why you got a gun?’ She started screaming. He just started shooting.” Mosier continued, “I heard the girl. Her hands went up. She said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t try to run you over. We got no guns or nothing.’” The families of Stinnette and Williams, and Williams herself, have also challenged the police department’s account of the shooting. “Why did you shoot?” Williams, asked in a video taken from her hospital bed. “I didn’t do nothing wrong. I have a license. You didn’t tell me I was under arrest. Why did you just flame up my car like that? Why did you shoot?” Civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci — the same lawyers who are representing the families of George Floyd and Daniel Prude,a Black man who died after a police encounter in Rochester, New York — have agreed to represent Tafara Williams. In a statement released Saturday, the lawyers said the quick action of the Waukegan Police Department in firing the officer was a result of the nationwide movement for police reform, calling it a “first step in police accountability.” They also promised their own investigation into the shooting. Crump tweeted on Friday that his team would share its findings when the investigation is complete. “We have seen over and over that the ‘official’ report when police kill Black people is often missing or misrepresenting details,” he wrote. Tafara Williams has retained @BenCrumpLaw regarding this encounter w/ police. We have seen that the ‘official’ report when police kill Black people is often missing or misrepresenting details. We will share our findings when we have uncovered the truth.— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) October 24, 2020 The shooting of Williams and Stinnette is under investigation Waukegan police said Friday that the unidentified officer who shot Williams and Stinnette has been fired for “multiple policy and procedure violations.” The police officer who initially approached the vehicle, identified only as a white man with five years at the department, has been placed on administrative leave pending the results of theIllinois State Police (ISP) investigation. Michael Nerheim — the state attorney for Lake County, where Waukegan is located — announced late Friday that the US Department of Justice will assist the state of Illinois in the investigation of the shooting of Williams and Stinnette. The Justice Department oversees the FBI, which Nerheim said will review the shooting. “I am confident in the work being done by the Illinois State Police and welcome the assistance of the FBI,” he said. “As I have said before, once the investigation is concluded, all the evidence will be reviewed and a final decision will be made with respect to any potential charges.” Immediately following the shooting, Nerheim had called on the ISP to conduct an independent investigation, and said that the investigation’s findings would be turned over to him to determine whether the officers broke any laws. Nerheim also said that upon the investigation’s completion, he would release the entire case file, including any video of the shooting. But on Thursday, demonstrators organized by the Lake County chapter of Black Lives Matter and led by the families of Stinnette and Williams, criticized the decision to leave the investigation solely up to the ISP, arguing that federal oversight was necessary.A 2018 investigation by Chicago public radio station WBEZ and the Better Government Association into 113 suburban police-involved shootings found that the ISP’s investigations took an average of 17 months and almost never found the officer to be at fault. Stallworth, Stinnette’s relative, told reporters on Friday the family is hopeful about the Department of Justice’s involvement. “They were grateful, because we didn’t want the police handling this,” she said. At the same time, Stallworth said the family also wants the Illinois attorney general’s office to handle the case, not Nerheim’s office, to ensure the case proceeds fairly and independently. Clyde McLemore, the president of the Lake County Black Lives Matter chapter which organized Thursday’s rally in Waukegan, says the organization is planning a second, much larger, demonstration on Saturday, October 24, to demand that a different prosecutor be brought in and that the officer’s body camera and squad car footage be released to the public. McLemore said he hopes that this case can provide the sort of accountability so often lacking when police officers kill Black citizens. At the same time, the victims’ families have acknowledged that the shooting of Williams and Stinnette — and the response to it — is about a lot more than one incident. “We would like justice,” said Zhanellis Banks, Stinnette’s sister. “But we also would like police reform.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The US just broke its record for the highest number of new coronavirus cases in a day
A nurse in Pennsylvania administers a Covid-19 test at a drive-through facility. | Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images There were about 10,000 more new cases Friday than the previous same-day high on July 16. The United States broke its record for the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases reported in a single day on Friday, an alarming sign that what some epidemiologists are calling a “third wave” of infections is spreading at breakneck speed as winter approaches. According to the New York Times, by the end of the day on Friday, at least 85,085 cases were reported across the country — about 10,000 cases more than the previous same-day high on July 16. Public health experts have long warned that uneven compliance with social distancing guidelines, inadequate contact tracing programs, and premature reopenings of indoor venues were creating conditions for a resurgence of virus transmission after its summer peak, and that is what appears to be happening now. The Covid Tracking Project The new case numbers also show that the geographic spread is wider than during past spikes. According to an internal report produced on Thursday for officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, and obtained by the Washington Post, more than 170 counties across 36 states have been designated rapidly rising hot spots. And 24 states have broken single-day records of new cases in the past two weeks, the Post reports. Also concerning is that in the past month there has been a 40 percent rise in the number of people hospitalized for Covid-19 infections. Deaths have not surged so far, but epidemiologists have pointed out that there can be a significant time lag between a surge in cases and deaths tied to that surge. “Today’s cases represent infections that probably happened a week or two ago,” Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray told Vox’s Dylan Scott in July. “Today’s deaths represent cases that were diagnosed possibly up to a month ago, so infections that were up to six weeks ago or more.” Saturday, President Donald Trump downplayed the record number of new reported cases on Twitter, and incorrectly claimed that cases were up only because testing ability is up. But public health experts have pointed to state-level policies on distancing and contact tracing as a key driver of the current uptick. Moreover, the high rates at which coronavirus tests are coming back positive in many states — a key data point for estimating the true spread of the virus — and the surge in hospitalizations are signs that the new wave is not just a result of testing capacity. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, a high positivity rate actually suggests that not enough tests are being done to track and contain spread in a given area. Murray, the epidemiologist at Boston University, told the Washington Post that the wide geographic range of the new wave will make it difficult to move health care workers to hot spots. Previous spikes were concentrated in certain communities, allowing medical professionals from less affected areas to be moved to deal with outbreaks. But the breadth of the current outbreak could tax US health care capacity in a manner that has not been seen before. And Murray also pointed out that this wave is more dangerous that the two that preceded it, because it started from a higher point of infections. “We are starting this wave much higher than either of the previous waves,” she told the Post. “And it will simply keep going up until people and officials decide to do something about it.” Experts have warned about a third wave for a while Medical professionals, epidemiologists and many public health officials have long pointed out the risk of a third wave. As Vox’s German Lopez wrote in early October, experts warned that a third wave looked likely in light of the fact that the virus was never really suppressed nationally, and that premature reopening, encouraged most aggressively by Trump and Republican governors, would simply accelerate its spread: Consider Florida. Last month, the state reopened bars and, more recently, restaurants, despite the high risk of these indoor spaces. After Florida previously opened bars, in June, experts said the establishments were largely to blame for the state’s massive Covid-19 outbreak in the summer. As Florida reopens now, it has roughly two to three times the number of Covid-19 cases that it had in early June, and its high test positivity rate suggests it’s still likely missing a lot of cases. The state is fanning its flames while its most recent fire is nowhere near extinguished. This is, in effect, what much of the country is doing now as it rushes to reopens schools, particularly colleges and universities, and risky indoor spaces. Coupled with recent Labor Day celebrations, experts worry that’s already leading to a new increase in Covid-19 cases. Experts have pointed out that Trump’s persistent agenda to downplay the dangers of the virus — and his suggestions that the news of a third wave is a media conspiracy designed to throw the election in Democrats’ favor — could intensify the problem as the virus is made into an increasingly partisan issue. The president has repeatedly failed to take responsibility for the troubled US pandemic response, including at the second presidential debate. He has instead blamed China and Democrats for the country’s problems, while leaving it to individual states to create plans to lower the rate of infection. Some states have had more success in reducing infection than others, but none have managed to eliminate spread altogether. And more worrying still is that cold weather and flu season have yet to fully settle in many states as winter approaches. The good news is that we know how to counteract further spread. “None of the ideas to prevent all of this are shocking or new,” Lopez recently wrote. “They’re all things people have heard before: More testing and contact tracing to isolate people who are infected, get their close contacts to quarantine, and deploy broader restrictions as necessary. More masking, including mandates in the 17 states that don’t have one. More careful, phased reopenings. More social distancing.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules mail-in ballots can’t be rejected over mismatched signatures
A voter in Philadelphia returns their mail-in ballot. | Mark Makela/Getty Images It’s a blow for Republicans who challenged the state’s guidance that different-looking signatures shouldn’t be disqualifying. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Friday that mail-in ballots cannot be rejected if a voter’s signature looks different than the one on their registration form. The ruling came after Pennsylvania’s Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, the state’s top election official, turned to the court for clarity on the legality of her signature-matching policy. She introduced guidance in September that said ballots shouldn’t be thrown out due to mismatched signatures, and has since been mired in a legal battle with President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and other Republicans. The court decision — backed by five Democrat and two Republican justices — marks a victory for Democrats and voting-rights advocates in a critical battleground state Trump won by roughly 44,000 votes in 2016. It comes on the heels of another loss for Republicans in the state: the October 19 order by the US Supreme Court, which let stand a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that mailed-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day must be counted. “County boards of elections are prohibited from rejecting absentee or mail-in ballots based on signature comparison conducted by county election officials or employees, or as the result of third-party challenges based on signature analysis and comparisons,” the court wrote, upholding Boockvar’s guidance. “If the Voter’s Declaration on the return envelope is signed and the county board is satisfied that the declaration is sufficient, the mail-in or absentee ballot should be approved for canvassing unless challenged in accordance with the Pennsylvania Election Code,” Boockvar wrote in September. “The Pennsylvania Election Code does not authorize the county board of elections to set aside returned absentee or mail-in ballots based solely on signature analysis by the county board of elections.” Over 1.4 million Pennsylvanians have already submitted mail ballots, according to the US Elections Project, the overwhelming majority of which have been sent by registered Democrats. Pennsylvania and other states across the US are expecting an unprecedented surge in mail ballots as voters attempt to find ways to avoid in-person voting due to the coronavirus pandemic. Signature-matching processes are a contentious issue because, as political scientists and voting rights advocates point out, election officials who are likely to reject far more authentic signatures than false ones in an electoral system in which fraud is exceedingly rare. As The Atlantic reported, a Carroll College political scientist working on behalf of plaintiffs challenging a signature-matching law in Ohio calculated that there was a 97 percent chance that a given ballot in Ohio rejected on the basis of a signature mismatch was wrongly rejected. And in 2016, perceived signature mismatches constituted the biggest reason mail ballots were disqualified. Voting rights advocates have also pointed out that signature matching processes are likely to disproportionately exclude authentic signatures from very young voters, very old voters, disabled voters, and voters of color. In battleground states — like Pennsylvania — with potentially razor thin margins between candidates, policies surrounding matching signatures could play a decisive role in the outcome of the election. With a significant 20 electoral votes at stake, and an ideologically heterogeneous population, Pennsylvania’s laws on including ballots are particularly pivotal. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Democratic nominee Joe Biden holds a 6 point lead in the polls over Trump in Pennsylvania — but both candidates have made the state a focus in the final days ahead of the election, hoping to win over new supporters. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
What the next GDP figure will — and won’t — mean
A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on March 18, 2020. The economy is still recovering from a catastrophic spring. | Xinhua via Getty Images Economic data will likely show record-breaking growth. But the economy hasn’t recovered. Five days before Election Day, new data will be released providing the first look at how fast the economy grew in the third quarter of 2020. It’s a safe bet that third-quarter growth will clock in at the fastest pace ever recorded. It’s also a safe bet that the number will be ballyhooed as a great accomplishment. Maybe the greatest ever. But in reality, the job of rebuilding the economy will be far from done. Most economic forecasters expect the GDP growth figure announced on October 29 to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 percent at an annual rate; some think it could even come in a few percentage points higher than that. If the number is somewhere in that range, it will indeed earn the title of the fastest GDP growth figure ever posted. And it will signify that the country has made some progress on the road to recovery. But it will not mean the economy is booming, or even that it has fully recovered. In fact, the third-quarter increase will represent only a partial rebound from another record-setter: the sharpest collapse ever recorded during the second quarter. The truth is that the recovery is far from complete; momentum has slowed in the past few months; and risks to further progress abound. Even record-breaking growth won’t be enough to undo what happened this spring During the spring quarter, there was a colossal drop in real GDP—more than 31 percent at an annual rate. That drop resulted from the imperative to put the economy into a temporary deep-freeze, in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus. The shape of this recession differed dramatically from any other in living memory. In the typical post-World-War-II recession, manufacturing and construction have been hit especially hard. This time, it was service industries that took it on the chin—especially ones that depend on lots of people being close together. Think bars, restaurants, air travel, hotels, conventions, and the like. The second-quarter decline was triple the size of the previous worst-ever quarterly drop since the current method of score-keeping began in 1947. A couple of quarters during the Great Depression and during the decommissioning from World War II were probably worse, but when you need to reach back to the ‘30s and ‘40s for comparisons, you begin to get the idea for how bad the second quarter of this year was. In fact, the decline was so bad that even the record-breaking growth we’re likely to see announced for the third quarter won’t be enough to reverse it. As shown in the chart, even if the late-October announcement comes in at 33 percent—toward the more optimistic end of the range, and in line with the expectation of the economic forecasting firm IHS Markit—real GDP will remain 3½ percent below its previous peak, reached at the end of last year. And it will remain a little more than 5 percent below where it would have been if growth had continued steadily, uninterrupted by the pandemic, at the average pace of 2018 and 2019. Real GDP would have to have increased a whopping 53 percent at an annual rate in the third quarter to return to its previous level. (Why not 36.4 percent, if GDP declined at a 5 percent annual rate in the first quarter, and a further 31.4 percent rate in the second quarter? Because that’s not how it works. Suppose GDP was at 100, and then it fell to 50 — a drop of 50 percent. If it then rose by 50 percent, it would only move back to 75. A similar calculation is required here.) The recovery has slowed Most of the rebound reflected in the GDP growth figure that will be published at the end of October actually occurred in May and June — before the third quarter even began. IHS Markit constructs estimates of monthly GDP using methodology that mimics as closely as possible the procedures underlying the official quarterly numbers published by the Commerce Department. According to their estimates, real GDP rebounded about 5 percent in May and 6 percent in June. After that, though, monthly growth slowed sharply, to 1½ percent in July and ½ percent in August. If their estimates prove accurate, a 33 percent GDP growth rate for the third quarter would be consistent with essentially no growth in the month of September. Sound crazy? Plenty of other indicators suggest that momentum has slowed. In May and June, the pace of household spending rebounded quickly following a breathtaking collapse in the preceding two months. But in July and August, the improvement slowed to a crawl. Job growth has slowed as well. By September, employment had recovered only about half the losses sustained in March and April. Even if the September pace of job recovery is maintained, the previous peak level of employment will not have been reattained until January 2022. The unemployment rate in September—the latest figure currently available—was 7.9 percent. That was down from a peak of 14.7 percent in April, but still more than twice the 3.5 percent rate in February, just before the roof fell in. Why has the momentum of recovery slowed? One likely contributing factor is that the easy part has already been done. Once the initial lockdown was lifted, many employers were still financially viable, and their lines of business didn’t depend on bringing together large numbers of people, so they could bring more workers back on board. But others were not so fortunate. For them, the current situation has begun to look more like a classic recession. A second likely contributing factor is that with each passing day, more and more families have run out of spending power: The $600 supplement to weekly unemployment insurance benefits provided under the CARES Act expired at the end of July; the relief payments of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child have not been not renewed; and the aid provided to small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program has in many cases run dry. Unfortunately, there’s ample cause for concern that the recovery may continue to stall. The virus remains out of control. No one knows for sure when a safe and effective vaccine will be widely available, but everyone agrees that it will be difficult to build a durable and complete economic recovery until one is. Somehow, not all hope for a near-term fiscal agreement has been snuffed out, and one may yet be struck before November 3. But another possibility is that Congressional action will have to await a lame-duck session late this year, or even be postponed until the new Congress is seated in 2021. Amid all the conflicting interpretations that you will hear over the next few weeks, what we know is this: The economy has taken a step toward recovery since the bottom fell out in April. But the job is nowhere near complete; if you need convincing on that point, just ask the millions of people who remain jobless or the millions who report being food-insecure. The big number for GDP growth during the July-September period will represent a step back toward normal, but it will be no cause for unfurling another “Mission Accomplished Banner.” Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go yet in putting back together any semblance of a robust economy. Congress can help in that process by passing another fiscal support bill. David Wilcox is a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the former director of the Division of Research and Statistics at the Federal Reserve Board.
The FDA approved remdesivir to treat Covid-19. Scientists are questioning the evidence.
The Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to remdesivir for Covid-19 treatment. It’s the first drug to receive this designation. | Fadel Dawood/Picture Alliance via Getty Images Researchers are concerned the FDA’s first full approval of a Covid-19 drug doesn’t have enough research behind it. The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday gave itsfirst full approval for a drug to treat Covid-19 to the antiviral remdesivir. But some researchers say the FDA is once again promoting a Covid-19 therapy based on shaky evidence. Developed by Gilead Sciences and marketed under the brand name Veklury, remdesivir previously received emergency use authorization from the FDA in May, which allowed it to be used to treat patients with severe Covid-19. In August, the FDA relaxed its guidelines to allow the drug to be used in less serious cases. President Donald Trump also took the drug as part of his treatment when he was diagnosed with Covid-19 earlier in October. Full FDA approval promotes remdesivir to the standard of care for hospitalized patients, and other potential treatments for Covid-19 will now have to be compared to it during clinical research. “Today’s approval is supported by data from multiple clinical trials that the agency has rigorously assessed and represents an important scientific milestone in the Covid-19 pandemic,” FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn in a statement Thursday. The FDA based its decision on three randomized controlled trials. (The largest of those looked at 1,062 hospitalized patients.) The trials’ results showed that remdesivir reduced the length of hospital stays in some Covid-19 patients. However, shortly before the approval was granted, a study from the World Health Organization announced preliminary results that found the drug had no effect on mortality and — unlike the FDA’s findings — negligible effects on how long patients were in hospitals. The study, known as the Solidarity Trial, recruited almost 12,000 patients, making it the largest Covid-19 treatment study in the world thus far. Researchers say the findings should have given the FDA pause. “I think it’s really inappropriate to give this a full approval because the data don’t support it,” said Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “What [the FDA] should have done instead of issuing the approval was put on the brakes.” Absent a vaccine, doctors are desperate for an effective treatment for Covid-19, and the FDA’s approval of remdesivir finally gives them an option. In the United States, Covid-19 case counts are rising again, with states like Wisconsin opening field hospitals to deal with a looming surge. But the approval of remdesivir has raised concerns, not only because of the results of the WHO’s trial but also because it follows a number of questionable FDA authorizations for other Covid-19 therapies that appear to have been influenced by political pressure from the White House. Now some researchers and doctors are concerned that remdesivir could not only be less effective than promised, but that its approval could also undermine other efforts to develop better Covid-19 therapies. How remdesivir works against Covid-19 — and why its effects are limited Remdesivir seems to be most effective relatively early on for hospitalized patients with severe Covid-19. To help beat back the illness, it interferes with how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, makes copies of itself. The virus uses genetic instructions in the form of RNA, written in a code made of molecules represented by the letters A, U, G, and C. The drug mimics the molecule represented by A, adenosine. The fake adenosine blocks the virus from copying itself but doesn’t fool human cells. The result is the virus can’t reproduce as much within a patient’s body. The antiviral drug was originally developed to treat the Ebola virus, and it hasreceived a hefty investment from the US government over almost two decades, as Ekaterina Cleary, lead data analyst and research associate at the Center for Integration of Science and Industry, wrote in a piece for Stat News: Research from the Center for Integration of Science and Industry, with which I am affiliated, determined that between gathering knowledge behind remdesivir’s chemical structure and molecular target, the NIH invested as much as $6.5 billion between 2000 and 2019. Remdesivir treatment is not without risks. It has been shown to cause some side effects in some people, such as elevated liver enzymes, which could indicate liver damage. The drug can also trigger allergic reactions, resulting in fever, shortness of breath, wheezing, swelling, low blood oxygen, and changes in blood pressure. For a patient with private insurance, the intravenous drug can cost $3,120 for a five-day course of treatment. Antivirals like remdesivir are most effective early on during the progression of Covid-19, when most of the damage is being done by the virus itself. It’s less effective in later stages, when the problem isn’t just the virus. “The severe manifestations of the disease are caused by an out-of-control immune response to the infection,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images Gilead Sciences initially developed the antiviral drug remdesivir to treat the Ebola virus. If the immune system gets riled up, it can cause a lot more destruction than SARS-CoV-2 and require more drastic interventions like intubation, at which point another approach is needed. That’s a big reason why corticosteroids like dexamethasone, which tamp down on the immune system, are the only drugs so far reliably demonstrated to actually reduce mortality from Covid-19. But giving a patient steroids too early in an infection could prevent the immune system from mounting an effective response against SARS-CoV-2. Coming up with an effective treatment regimen for Covid-19 requires delicately balancing where a patient is in the course of their infection and how severe their illness has become. But given how murky it is to identify a Covid-19 infection to begin with, let alone confirming the diagnosis and starting the correct treatment during the appropriate window, researchers have a hard time teasing out what interventions work best. That’s why carefully controlled large-scale clinical trials are so important. And with mixed results coming from the studies conducted to date, some scientists don’t think the evidence produced for remdesivir’s effectiveness is enough for the FDA to grant approval. “I was really surprised when I saw that news,” Rasmussen said. The approval of remdesivir may actually complicate research and treatment of Covid-19 The FDA has already made some controversial decisions around drugs to treat Covid-19. In March, the agency granted an emergency use authorization for the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine after President Trump called it a “game changer.” Then in June, FDA revoked the EUA, saying hydroxychloroquine was “unlikely to be effective” and could cause lead to heart problems. Then in August, the agency granted an EUA for convalescent plasma to treat Covid-19. But the National Institutes of Health said that the evidence the FDA used was “insufficient.” There is more evidence that remdesivir works, but that’s not saying much. “It’s not as weak as the case for plasma, but that’s no standard. The case for plasma is nonexistent,” said Jeremy Faust, an attending physician in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “There is actually randomized controlled trial data that suggests for a subset of patients remdesivir can decrease hospital length of stay.” The strongest results in favor of remdesivir show that the patients who received it had a median recovery time of 10 days compared to 15 days for those who took the placebo. It’s a significant effect, but it’s not huge, and it’s certainly not a cure for Covid-19 — or a way to guarantee fewer deaths. Faust said that one of his concerns with this new FDA approval is a phenomenon known as indication creep, where a treatment that is shown to work in only a limited set of circumstances gets prescribed to more and more people. In this case, the worry is remdesivir, which is approved only for Covid-19 patients over 12 years old who needed to be hospitalized, could start being used in patients with milder courses of the illness, or used in more severe cases of the disease past the point where it could be effective. “What will happen, I guarantee, is people will start to use the medication more than they need it,” Faust said. And since the course of treatment is five days, it could extend the length of hospital stays in patients who would otherwise have remained for a shorter duration, while saddling them with unnecessary costs. Another concern is that the approval of remdesivir, especially with such mixed evidence for its effectiveness, could undermine further research. Topol noted that with remdesivir now as the only fully approved standard of care, it becomes much more difficult to conduct studies on other therapies, since they now have to be compared to remdesivir, the new standard of care, as well as a placebo. That raises the cost and complexity of trials, delaying results. Such comparisons are worthwhile if the standard of care is effective, but it adds unnecessary complications if it’s not. It also makes it harder to recruit people for subsequent clinical trials of the drug to better validate its effectiveness. People may be more reluctant to sign up for a trial where they could get a placebo when they know they could get the actual drug. “The biggest, most serious problem is that we won’t get to the truth,” Topol said. It’s worth noting that remdesivir could still be a viable treatment for Covid-19, but the evidence presented so far is contradictory, and more investigation is needed to clarify its effectiveness. So then why did FDA go ahead with its approval? It’s hard to say, but Herschel Nachlis, a research assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, suggested that the FDA approval might be a strategic move by the agency to deflect political pressure away from the all-important Covid-19 vaccination campaign. There is no evidence that the White House is interfering with the vaccine approval process directly, but President Trump has linked a vaccine to his election prospects and blamed the FDA for holding it back. The appearance that a Covid-19 vaccine was rushed to meet political needs could make people reluctant to get vaccinated, so regulators are keen to distance themselves from the 2020 election campaign. “If, in the short term, approving remdesivir gives the President a win and alleviates some pressure on the agency from the President about vaccines, that helps buy the FDA important time,” Nachlis said in an email. “It might be another case, like convalescent plasma, of giving up some ground in a battle to put yourself in the position to be able to win the broader war.” Whether Nachlis’s hypothesis is correct isn’t yet known. But what is clear is that the evidence on remdesivir’s effectiveness appears to be mixed, which is why it would have been helpful for the FDA to have held a public advisory committee meeting to discuss the evidence, a step it typically takes for full pharmaceutical approvals. Since it may be months before a vaccine for Covid-19 is available, treatments are still urgently needed — and other approaches are being studied. Trump, for example, also underwent a course of an experimental monoclonal antibody therapy from the company Regeneron when he was treated for Covid-19. There are now multiple clinical trials of these drugs underway, but now they have competition. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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Are we living in a computer simulation? I don’t know. Probably.
Javier Zarracina/Vox Why this computer scientist thinks reality might be a video game. Are we living in a computer simulation? The question seems absurd. Yet there are plenty of smart people who are convinced that this is not only possible but perhaps likely. In an influential paper that laid out the theory, the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom showed that at least one of three possibilities is true: 1) All human-like civilizations in the universe go extinct before they develop the technological capacity to create simulated realities; 2) if any civilizations do reach this phase of technological maturity, none of them will bother to run simulations; or 3) advanced civilizations would have the ability to create many, many simulations, and that means there are far more simulated worlds than non-simulated ones. We can’t know for sure which of these is the case, Bostrom concludes, but they’re all possible — and the third option might even be the most probable outcome. It’s a difficult argument to wrap your head around, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Rizwan Virk, a computer scientist and video game designer, published a 2019 book, The Simulation Hypothesis, that explores Bostrom’s argument in much greater detail and traces the path from today’s technology to what he calls the “Simulation Point,” the moment at which we could realistically build a Matrix-like simulation. I know nothing about computer science, but this idea that we’re all characters in an advanced civilization’s video game is, well, kind of awesome. So I reached out to Virk and asked him to break it down for me. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. Sean Illing Pretend I know absolutely nothing about the “simulation hypothesis.” What the hell is the simulation hypothesis? Rizwan Virk The simulation hypothesis is the modern equivalent of an idea that’s been around for a while, and it is the idea that the physical world that we live in, including the Earth and the rest of the physical universe, is actually part of a computer simulation. You can think of it like a high resolution or high-fidelity video game in which we are all characters, and the best way to understand it within Western culture is the movie The Matrix, which many people have seen, or even if they haven’t seen [it], it’s become a cultural phenomenon now beyond the film industry. In that movie, Keanu Reeves plays the character Neo, who meets a guy names Morpheus, who is aptly named after the Greek god of dreams, and Morpheus gives him a choice of taking the red pill or the blue pill. And if he takes the red pill, he wakes up and realizes that his entire life, including his job, the building he lived in, and everything else, was part of this elaborate video game, and he wakes up in a world outside of the game. That is the basic version of the simulation hypothesis. Sean Illing Are we living in a simulated universe right now? Rizwan Virk There are lots of mysteries in physics that are better explained by the simulation hypothesis than by what would be a material hypothesis. The truth is that there’s much we simply don’t understand about our reality, and I think it’s more likely than not that we are in some kind of a simulated universe. Now, it’s a much more sophisticated video game than the games we produce, just like today World of Warcraft and Fortnite are way more sophisticated than Pac-Man or Space Invaders. They took a couple of decades of figuring out how to model physical objects using 3D models and then how to render them with limited computing power, which eventually led to this spate of shared online video games. I think there’s a very good chance we are, in fact, living in a simulation, though we can’t say that with 100 percent confidence. But there is plenty of evidence that points in that direction. Sean Illing When you say there are aspects of our world that would make more sense if they were part of a simulation, what do you mean exactly? Rizwan Virk Well, there are a few different aspects, one of which is this mystery they call quantum indeterminacy, which is the idea that a particle is in one of multiple states and you don’t know that unless you observe the particle. Probably a better way to understand it is the now-infamous example of Schrödinger’s cat, which is a cat that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger theorized would be in a box with some radioactive material and there was a 50 percent chance the cat is dead and a 50 percent chance the cat is alive. Now, common sense would tell us that the cat is already either alive or it’s dead. We just don’t know because we haven’t looked in the box. We open the box and it’ll be revealed to us whether the cat is alive or dead. But quantum physics tells us that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time until somebody opens up the box to observe it. The cardinal rule is the universe renders only that which needs to be observed. Sean Illing How does Schrödinger’s cat relate to a video game or a computer simulation? Rizwan Virk The history of video game development is all about optimizing limited resources. If you asked somebody in the 1980s if you could you render a game like World of Warcraft, which is a full three-dimensional or a virtual reality game, they would say, “No, It would take all the computing power in the world. We couldn’t render all those pixels in real time.” But what happened over time was that there were optimization techniques. The core of all these optimizations is “only render that which is being observed.” The first big game to successfully do this was called Doom, which was very popular in the 1990s. It was a first-person shooter game, and it could render only the light rays and objects which are clearly visible from the point of view of the virtual camera. This is an optimization technique, and it’s one of the things that reminds me of a video game in the physical world. Sean Illing I’m going to do the thing that non-scientists always do when they want to sound scientific and invoke Occam’s razor. Isn’t the hypothesis that we’re living in a flesh-and-blood physical world the simpler — and therefore more likely — explanation? Rizwan Virk I’ll bring up a very famous physicist, John Wheeler. He was one of the last physicists who worked with Albert Einstein and many of the great physicists of the 20th century. He said that physics was initially thought to be about the study of physical objects, that everything was reducible to particles. This is what’s often called the Newtonian model. But then we discovered quantum physics and we realized that everything was a field of probabilities and it wasn’t actually physical objects. That was the second wave in Wheeler’s career. The third wave in his career was the discovery that at the core level, everything is information, everything is based on bits. So Wheeler came up with a famous phrase called “it from bit,” which is the idea that anything we see as physical is really the result of bits of information. He didn’t live to see quantum computers come into reality, but it’s looking more like that. So I would say that if the world isn’t really physical, if it’s based on information, then a simpler explanation might in fact be that we are in a simulation that is generated based on computer science and information. “The truth is that there’s much we simply don’t understand about our reality” Sean Illing Is there any way, in principle, for us to prove definitively that we’re living in a simulation? Rizwan Virk Well, there’s an argument the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has made that’s worth repeating. He says that if even one civilization got to the point of creating one of these high-fidelity simulations, then they can create literally billions of civilizations that are simulated, each with trillions of beings, because all you need is more computing power. So he’s making a statistical argument that there are more likely to be more simulated beings than there are biological ones, just because it’s so quick and easy to create them. Therefore, if we are conscious beings, we are more likely to be a simulated being than a biological one. That’s more of a philosophical argument. Sean Illing If we were living in a computer program, I assume that program would consist of rules and that those rules could be broken or suspended by the people or beings who programmed the simulation. But the laws of our physical world seem to be pretty constant, so isn’t that a sign that this might not be a simulation? Rizwan Virk Computers do follow rules, but the fact that the rules always apply doesn’t rule in or rule out that we could be part of a computer simulation. One of the concepts that ties into this is a concept called computational irreducibility, and it’s the idea that in order to figure something out, you can’t just calculate it in an equation; you have to actually go through the steps to figure out what the end result would be. And this is part of a branch of mathematics called chaos theory. There’s the old idea that the butterfly flaps its wings in China and it results in a hurricane somewhere else in the world. To figure that out, you have to actually go through and model every step of the way. Just because the rules seem to apply doesn’t mean that we’re not in a simulation. In fact, it could be more evidence that we’re in a simulation. Sean Illing If we were living in a simulation as convincing as The Matrix, would there be any discernible difference between the simulation and reality? Why would it matter ultimately whether our world was real or illusory? Rizwan Virk There are a lot of debates around this topic. Some of us wouldn’t want to know, and would rather take the metaphorical “blue pill” like in The Matrix. Probably the most important question related to this is whether we are NPCs (non-player characters) or PCs (player characters) in the video game. If we are PCs, then that means we are just playing a character inside the video game of life, which I call the Great Simulation. I think many of us would like to know this. We would want to know the parameters of the game we’re playing so that we could better understand it, better navigate it. If we are NPCs, or simulated characters, then I think it’s a more complicated answer and more frightening. The question is, are all of us NPCs in a simulation, and what is the purpose of that simulation? A knowledge of the fact that we’re in a simulation, and the goals of the simulation and the goals of our character, I think, would still be interesting to many people — and now we’re back to the case of the holodeck character from Star Trek that discovers that there is a world “out there” (outside the holodeck) that he can’t go to, and perhaps some of us would rather not know in that case. Sean Illing How close are we to having the technological capacity to build an artificial world that’s as realistic and plausible as The Matrix? Rizwan Virk I lay out 10 stages of technology development that a civilization would have to go through to get to what I call the simulation point, which is the point at which we can create a hyperrealistic simulation like this. We’re at about stage five, which is around virtual reality and augmented reality. Stage six is about learning to render these things without us having to put on glasses, and the fact that 3D printers now can print 3D pixels of objects shows us that most objects can be broken down as information. But the really difficult part — and this is something not a lot of technologists have talked about — is in The Matrix, the reason they thought they were fully immersed was they had this cord going into the cerebral cortex, and that’s where the signal was beamed. This brain-computer interface is the area that we haven’t yet made that much progress in, but we are making progress in it. It’s in the early stages. So my guess is within a few decades to 100 years from now, we will reach the simulation point. This article was originally published on April 18, 2019. 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Lobbyists tried to ban labeling veggie burgers “veggie burgers.” The EU said no.
Do consumers really have trouble telling the difference between meat and plant-based products? | Zondag met Lubach The European Parliament voted down a ban on food labels that compare plant-based products to their meat counterparts. Plant-based food makers will still be able to sell products labeled “veggie burgers,” the European Parliamentvoted on Friday after a week of negotiations. Why was this up for debate in the first place? After decades in which veggie burgers and cheese-style vegan spreads have enjoyed their place on the grocery store shelves without controversy, the animal agriculture industry has begun to feel threatened by them in the last few years. Consumption of plant-based foods has increased, especially as the pandemic has damaged supply chains and raised questions about the public health implications of our crowded, disease-ridden factory farms. And across the United States and the U.K., agriculture lobbies have been fighting back in the same way: trying to make it illegal for their competitors to advertise with labels like “burger” or “sausage.” (Try “tofu patty” or “protein tube.”) The EU already, three years ago, banned dairy-specific terms like “soy milk” and “vegan cheese,” but it allowed for comparisons on labels, such as “yogurt-style vegan snack.” The proposal under consideration this week would have banned those comparisons as well as banning the use of terms associated with meat products, like “wurst” and “schnitzel” (think “vegan schnitzel”). Ultimately, lawmakers rendered a split decision, banning “yogurt-style” comparisons of nondairy products to similar dairy products but not extending the ban to meat products. The ostensible justification for such a ban is that consumers are confused. “Marketing is disconnected from the real nature of products, which is just asking for things to spin out of control!” Jean-Pierre Fleury, a spokesman for the EU farmer’s association, claimed. But opponents of the bill have mocked the assertion that consumers can’t tell the difference between a plant-based alternative meat product and a meat product. “One is a beef burger. One is a plant-based burger,” a satirical Dutch commercial criticizing the proposed ban says, showing the very obvious packaging differences between the products. “But which one is which? It’s impossible to tell. Because they both contain the word ‘burger’.” (You can watch the whole commercial below). But there’s a broader context beyond the labeling of these products. For a long time, plant-based meat was a niche product enjoyed only by vegans and vegetarians; it is now a mainstream one. That has the meat industry — both in America and abroad —fighting back. The rise of plant-based meat The EU this weekhas been negotiating the next EU Common Agricultural Policy. One of the most discussed proposals under consideration was the “veggie burger” ban. But on Friday, the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development released a press statement announcing that the members of the European Parliament“rejected all proposals to reserve meat-related names for products containing meat. No change for plant-based products & names they currently use when being sold.” That means the preexisting ban on dairy labels like “soy milk” will remain in place — even expanded to cover descriptions such as “milk-like” — but it won’t be brought to bear against plant-based meat labelled with words like “burger.” It was a defeat for the animal agriculture industry groups that had pushed for the change. Vegetarians make up only about 3 percent of consumers in the US and the EU. They’re not really a threat to the dominance of the factory farming industry. What makes plant-based products a threat is their appeal to a completely different group of consumers: meat-eaters who have found that plant-based products fit into their diet and lifestyle while being much better for animals and the environment. Caroline Bushnell oversees retail research at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works to promote meat alternatives. “Veggie burgers have been around for many decades,” she told me last year. “Plant-based meats are still just getting started. The next generation is really designed for meat eaters, so the stakes are higher for what the products need to deliver on. People really like the taste of meat. Instead of trying to convince them to eat a kale and quinoa bowl, why not try to make meat for them in a better way?” So far, the rise of plant-based meat has not cut into the demand for animal-based meat at all — before the pandemic, the factory farming industry was seeing record demand, driven by overall global economic growth. But there’s some reason to think that in the long run, the slaughtered meat industry might really lose market share to the plant-based meat industry. Polls in India and China find more than 60 percent of consumers say they are “very likely” or “extremely likely” to purchase plant-based meat. As concerns grow worldwide about the impacts of factory farming — on animals, on the environment, and on global public health — the share of consumers open to alternatives might continue to grow. “We have this great moment of innovation in our industry where these products are better than ever,” Jaime Athos, the CEO of Tofurky, told me last year as his company fought a veggie burger ban law in Arkansas. “They’re more widely available, too. And suddenly people are worried consumers might be confused. The reality is that this is a proactive decision on the parts of consumers — they understand that plant-based products are healthier for them and healthier for the environment.” Agriculture keeps pushing veggie burger bans. They keep failing. In several US states, theagriculture industry has responded to the rise of plant-based products with label bans like the one the EU just rejected. Their motivations are often explicitly protectionist: They want to shieldslaughteredmeat products fromplant-based competitors. “This bill will protect our cattle farmers from having to compete with products not harvested from an animal,” said Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation president Mike McCormick in January when Mississippi’s veggie burger ban law passed in the state House. “We must protect our industry in this state: agriculture. It’s the No. 1 industry in the state of Louisiana,” state Rep. Francis Thompson argued during legislative hearings in Louisiana earlier this year. In the US, veggie burger bans largely haven’t held up in court on First Amendment grounds. A judge granted an injunction against Mississippi’s law, concluding it was likely to be unconstitutional. When California tried a ban on “soy milk” and similar labels, the US District Court for the Northern District of California struck it down, writing, “The crux of the claims is that a reasonable consumer might confuse plant-based beverages such as soymilk or almond milk for dairy milk, because of the use of the word ‘milk.’ The claim stretches the bounds of credulity. Under Plaintiffs’ logic, a reasonable consumer might also believe that veggie bacon contains pork, that flourless chocolate cake contains flour, or that e-books are made out of paper.” In the EU, though, there is no First Amendment and no strong judicial tradition protecting non-misleading commercial speech. The ban on labels like “soy milk” went into effect three years ago, forcing producers to transition to labels like “yogurt-like” and “similar to cheese!” — which the EU will now ban as well. This year, the agriculture lobby attempted to follow that ban up with a more comprehensive ban, which would prohibit words like “burger” and “sausage” for products that do not contain slaughtered animals. Theproposalattracted widespread attention — in some cases to the frustration of environmental activists in the EU. They pointed out that the negotiations also covered other critical agricultural guidelines, which also encouraged a transition away from meat toward a healthier global climate, but attracted much less attention than the “veggie burger ban.” Other agricultural issues deserve attention and scrutiny too, but the veggie burger ban shouldn’t be dismissed as a sideshow. It was a calculated power grab by an industry that is cruel to animals and workers alike, devastates the environment, and puts us at risk of another pandemic. It was aimed at stifling the growing new industry that offers an alternative. It is a good thing that the EU voted the veggie burger ban down — and it will be a good thing if they similarly relax their restriction on soy milk, and if legislators in the many US states that have entertained burger bans of their own follow suit. Letting consumers choose other products is one of the most powerful tools available to change factory farming — which is, of course, precisely why the factory farming lobby has thrown so much effort into interfering with it. Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Why the alt-right’s real power is in the narrative it sells
Richard Spencer in White Noise. | The Atlantic “They’re hucksters,” says the director of White Noise, a new doc that focuses on three prominent right-wing figures: Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and Lauren Southern. One among a sea of unfortunate consequences of the last four years is that ordinary people have heard of many political figures who once would have been relegated to the fringe. There’s Mike Cernovich, a self-styled provocateur and meme creator who is an InfoWars regular. There’s Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader who became especially notorious during the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017. And there’s Lauren Southern, a YouTube personality and anti-immigrant activist who famously supported the “Defend Europe” group, which opposes search-and-rescue operations for refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. These three individuals are the focus of White Noise, an excellent new documentary from Daniel Lombroso, a journalist at the Atlantic. The film paints a portrait of the past few years of their lives, but more than that, it subtly exposes how much of the internet-fueled alt-right is driven by a desire to get rich, become well-known, and draw acolytes. Lombroso spent several years tagging along with Cernovich, Spencer, and Southern, attending their events, letting them talk, and quietly allowing them to do the work of unraveling their own arguments. I recently spoke with Lombroso about how he secured this access, what he learned, and how it’s changed him. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. The Atlantic Students For Western Civilisation President George Hutcheson with Lauren Southern in White Noise. Alissa Wilkinson How did you get connected with these subjects? Daniel Lombroso I started covering the alt-right as a reporter at the Atlantic way back in 2016, before the figures in the film were especially well known. It started with a series of short documentaries. I was actually the guy who caught a roomful of people breaking out into Nazi salutes [in 2016], which was a pivotal journalistic moment that solidified the alt-right as fundamentally a white nationalist — and potentially a neo-Nazi — movement. So, I was covering the alt-right in short documentary form. I did a profile on Richard Spencer back before he was, you know, essentially synonymous with David Duke the way he is now. Then I returned to my day job as a video producer at the Atlantic, covering all sorts of issues, but really carving out a niche around fundamentalism. I did a piece on far-right Christian media called Church Militant. I did a piece on Israeli settlers in the West Bank and spent two weeks there. Then Charlottesville happened. It was eight months after the Nazi salute excerpt that went viral, and it was a pivotal moment for a million reasons. In the newsroom, we knew we had to do something deeper. So, I immediately circled up with Jeff Goldberg, the editor-in-chief [at the Atlantic], and Kasia [Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg], who ran Atlantic Studios. All of us had always wanted to do a feature. I think we didn’t know when it would happen or what it would be about, but right away when Charlottesville happened, and when Trump failed to disavow white nationalists, we knew that this had to be the story. Alissa Wilkinson So that was three years ago, and it’s evident in the film that several years elapse from the beginning to the end. What was it like to stick with them for so long? Daniel Lombroso I spent three years reporting out the film, beginning with Richard, then meeting [Mike] Cernovich, and then eventually getting access to Lauren [Southern]. She was the hardest and actually took eight months to negotiate access to. And for me, she’s the most pivotal to the film. She is a female face of racism, and she embodies such blatant contradictions. The Atlantic was really great about giving me space. I basically work alone as a reporter and a filmmaker, so I’m a one-man band. I shot the film and directed it and co-produced it. I started by reporting and filming with maybe 20 or 30 subjects on the right. It became clear to me pretty quickly that I didn’t want to just amplify a fringe voice, someone who wasn’t relevant, and make them relevant by giving them the credibility of the Atlantic. I quickly decided, along with Jeff and Kasia, that it had to be these three figures, because they have followings in the millions and a tremendous amount of influence. Cernovich can start a meme from his laptop in Orange County, and a few days later, it’s coming out of [Sean] Hannity’s mouth on Fox News and then eventually the president’s mouth. It was a slow burn. After Charlottesville, I spent two or three months all over the country. By October or November of [2017], we were planning on those three [subjects]. And it took until May of the following year, eight months later, for Lauren to sign on. From there, I just tracked their stories very closely. For Richard, it’s a little more than three years; with Mike and Lauren it’s more than two. At its core, White Noise is a “follow film.” To do that right, you need time. And thankfully the Atlantic gave me the space to do that. The Atlantic Mike Cernovich in White Noise. Alissa Wilkinson This film struck me as a portrait of what it takes to be a grifter today, or at least it explains the social and financial rewards inherent in taking extreme positions on the internet. Daniel Lombroso They’re opportunists, they’re hucksters, and I would say it’s fair to say they’re grifters, too. It’s tricky, because they do believe what they say — Cernovich a little bit less than the other two, but they definitely believe it enough to say it. But, they’re also in it for the fame and for the money. I think Cernovich is the most extreme example of this. He starts the film very comfortable using the term “alt-right.” When that term becomes a little bit more toxic after Charlottesville, he says, “Fuck the Nazis,” and gets away from them and re-brands. And then at the end of the film, you see he’s selling supplements and lifestyle regimens. Lauren is really interesting. She knows what her package is. She is very articulate, and she can use her looks, and she’s very convincing — and on YouTube, that’s the sort of thing that works. It almost feels Stalin-esque, like old Russian propaganda stuff; if you look down the barrel of the lens and say something that’s convincing, it feels true. And she’s able to back it up with pseudo-science that’s usually not accurate. Their motivations are so mixed, and at its core, that’s what the film seeks to expose. The real power of the alt-right is that they’re selling a narrative, that they understand life, and that if you feel lost or depressed but follow them, you’ll be connected to the great history of white civilization. By allowing you to sit with the subjects for so long, the film lets you see how mixed their motivations really are. They have a vested interest. They want to be famous. They want to get rich. And they are constantly contradicting the things that they believe. Alissa Wilkinson A challenge in this era seems to be figuring out how to write about these folks without aestheticizing them, without talking wonderingly about the “clean-cut” neo-Nazi. The film shows that a lot of what they’re doing is essentially leaning on an appealing aesthetic. They’re presenting a picture to people of who they could be. Are there special challenges in presenting that in film, which is a visual medium? Daniel Lombroso We didn’t want the film to glorify them in any way. That influenced everything from the scene selection to the shot selection. We had very spirited conversations about everything from the way we cover the subjects down to shot-level decisions. We screened for diverse audiences and built a really diverse team around the film. What they’re doing is fundamentally aesthetic. They’re so obsessed with their appearance that it is obviously part of the story. I think it’s our responsibility as journalists to cover that ethically and responsibly, and to be highly critical. I think the film does that. And you are missing the mark if you ignore it, because the appeal of the alt-right is to upper-middle-class, highly educated white kids in New York and LA. It’s hardly about the white nationalism. It’s about the community. It’s about a clique. It’s about the way you look and dress, and the way you say, “Hello” — all of their interesting codes of communication, different kinds of ways they communicate online but also in the physical sphere. That’s pretty fundamental to understanding the movement. The Atlantic Lauren Southern with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes in White Noise. In the film, you see that in various ways. In the conference at the beginning, when Richard says, “Hail Trump!” — we really dwell on the fact that they’re young. He says, “Stand up if you’re under the age of 30,” and the whole room stands. Most of those kids went to college — I interviewed a lot of them — and they are educated. They have a very clear aesthetic. You might call it Hitlerjugend, 20th-century fascism, but it’s like suit and tie, and they all have a haircut that they call “the fashy.” Lauren’s package is all about her image. I have a story on this; she’s very conscious of her image and she uses it. She very consciously uses it. She’s an intelligent person and knows how to be convincing, but she knows the package she’s selling and uses it to maximize her effect and her influence. There are really dangerous ways to cover that. I mean, there was a botched profile early on — I don’t want to call out who wrote it — that really dwelled on Richard being a dapper white nationalist. We’ve seen all sorts of iterations of that. I think it just comes down to being very, very careful, from the shot selection to the way you talk about the subjects. But their aesthetic is really fundamental to the whole project, in the way it always has been for fascist movements. Alissa Wilkinson So much about fascism is about the myths and legends that the look of it calls to mind. Daniel Lombroso Exactly. Alissa Wilkinson Sometimes when I’m watching a documentary, I feel like I’m just reading a magazine article. So one thing I appreciate about White Noise is how skillfully you use the visual medium to reinforce and undercut what people are saying out loud, or to get at elements that you couldn’t easily capture in a piece of writing. I’ll never get over the look on Cernovich’s face when he is hawking skin care products. Daniel Lombroso Or in the car wash. He’s sitting, depressed, going through a car wash. Alissa Wilkinson Are you looking for those images as you shoot? Daniel Lombroso When people watch a movie, they want to see a movie. What I’m really looking for are quiet, telling moments that don’t require dialogue. What destroys most Hollywood films is exposition, or saying something in dialogue that you would never say in real life, just to set up the audience. That’s the bane of everything I wanted to do. In the edit, I was trying to find ways to set up and say things that are very subtle. I’m always looking for ways to let the subjects hang themselves. For instance, in one scene, Richard says very proudly, “I’m bigger than the movement” — which is insane for a million reasons. And then five minutes later in the film, which was the following day in real life, he gives a speech in a school of agriculture, and six people are there, maybe 10. This is my first feature, but I’m always looking for visual ways to tell the story and to stay subtle. I think that’s ultimately a lot more powerful than a talking head or someone telling you, “This is a racist movement. Cernovich is a grifter.” I think it’s much more revealing when you just see him putting on facial serum and talking about how that’s his latest pivot. Alissa Wilkinson There’s a bit where Lauren is watching a video of herself talking, and she’s sitting with another woman who is side-eyeing her the whole time. It felt like that scene encapsulates something else the film shows: the kind of bubble that your subjects built around themselves to elevate their importance. Richard’s statement is a good example of that. They know they’re influential, but they also have surrounded themselves with people who keep saying “You’re influential” to them. Did you get a sense of that while following them around? Were there times where you were, like, “Wow, your sense of reality is so far from reality”? Daniel Lombroso Absolutely. There’s so much disinformation on the far right. People just casually joke about things like Pizzagate, which is just false. There’s not even a basement at Comet Pizza, where [according to the disproven Pizzagate conspiracy theory] there was allegedly a pedophilia ring in the basement. But all of them have a sense of inflated importance. I think that’s because they very intentionally surround themselves with yes men, or with people who play to their ego. Richard is the most obvious example. He’s constantly followed by mostly younger kids in their 20s, college kids or kids right out of college, who have this dated but modernized fascist aesthetic. On a typical day, especially when I’m not filming and just sitting with them, they’re pouring him whiskey and buying him dinner and they’re fulfilling his every command. He has the air of a cult leader. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images Lauren Southern livestreaming a rally in Berkeley, California in April 2017. With Lauren and Mike, it’s to a lesser extent. This might be surprising to people, but Mike is sort of a father figure to people in his sphere. In that alpha-male section of the alt-right, called “the manosphere” or whatever, people really trust Mike and turn to him for advice. So, when Lucian Wintrich — who we ultimately played down a little bit, he’s a far-right provocateur who started the “Twinks4Trump” meme — went through a breakup, Mike was one of his first calls. He wanted Mike’s advice. I think that’s what sets apart Mike from the other two characters: In his world, people really trust him, and that might be surprising. Lauren is going through a transformation in the film, and ultimately, it’s an incomplete one. She’s always doubting herself. She gets her validation online, and I think the moment you mentioned is a really good example. Everything’s mediated through screens. She’s in Moscow, watching herself speaking in London through a screen, and then Brittany, who’s jealous of her, is side-eyeing her watching herself. Lauren derives a lot of her confidence from comments, and she obsesses over negative comments and things that don’t go her way. That’s been hard for her, and continues to be hard for her. I think part of it is just that she was so young when she got into this, and this is all she knows. It’s all she’s ever known. Alissa Wilkinson That attention bubble seems so warping. I had the feeling watching White Noise that I had watching the two documentaries about Steve Bannon that’ve come out in the last few years, or that I have every time I read one of those explosive interviews that Isaac Chotiner does at the New Yorker. I wonder, why on earth would these people talk to a journalist or filmmaker, or let cameras follow them around? What do you think is the character trait or quality that makes a person willing to have a filmmaker follow them around for a few years when they know that person is is not sympathetic to their views? Daniel Lombroso Part of it is narcissism, and that comes across pretty clearly in the film. The other is that I work really small. I shoot alone, I’m a one-man band, and that helps neutralize them. They’re all willing to sit and give a quote here and there. But it’s sort of a misconception that the alt-right wants attention — they’re happy to give you a quote here and there, or sit for an interview, as long as they’re in control. This sort of unvarnished, all-access thing was incredibly difficult to achieve. And I think part of the reason they did it was that I was genuinely curious, and I kept coming back. But part of it was their narcissism. I think they thought that they could outsmart me, that if they only depict a positive part of their life — for instance, Cernovich’s sunny, southern California life — that could help redeem him or rewrite his public image. Part of it, too, especially with Lauren — I’m a little bit older than her, but I’m around her age, and we grew up experiencing a lot of the same things. So there are enough reference points in common that, when you’re spending hundreds of hours off-camera just killing time in an airport or getting lunch, there’s enough to talk about to kind of get them to that place where they’re willing to open up. In the film, you see many of the juiciest moments. But all documentary filmmakers know that you spend hours and hours to get people to that point. The three minutes of Russia in the film was a 10-day trip. It was that way across the board. Alissa Wilkinson You said you covered fundamentalism in the past. Is there an overlap between fundamentalism and this topic? Daniel Lombroso There’s absolutely overlap. Extremism allows you to feel like you’re part of a historical narrative. You feel like you’re living for the past and for the future, that you’re part of something larger than your mundane, day-to-day, even boring experience. I don’t mean to conflate these things because they are different, but you see that with far-right evangelicals. In the Church Militant piece, I interviewed a bunch of interns who were working at this far-right media company, and it was the same narrative. One of them said, “I was lost for years and years and years, wandering in the darkness, until I met Michael Voris,” the person who started Church Militant. It’s the same narrative. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Richard Spencer at CPAC in February 2017. With Israeli settlers — again, I don’t mean to conflate the situation there with white supremacy! — but there’s this feeling that in settling the West Bank they’re writing the next chapter of Jewish history. That’s a lot more fun, in a way, than just being a person who will die and everyone will forget you. So, there is this gravitas to it. At its core, it’s the same appeal — a profoundly emotional or even metaphysical appeal. Alissa Wilkinson So you spent three years in the alt-right’s world. How did the experience change the way you think about American politics? Daniel Lombroso I don’t know that I was ever naïve enough to think that we lived in a post-racial America, but I was probably a little bit more hopeful going into the project, and now I’m a lot more cynical about the whole thing. The film is an unsympathetic eulogy to the alt-right. You see the figures fall off at the end, but their ideas are now so clearly part of our discourse. They’re on Fox News every night. There are newer influencers coming up who are saying things a whole lot worse. Tucker Carlson is now the highest-rated person on broadcast TV and he’s saying things that I heard Richard say three or four years ago. It’s been very depressing to see the scale of white nationalism and conspiracy in both American and especially European politics, and I just don’t see it going away. I think it’s wrong to think that if Trump loses the election, it’s done and it’s over, because even if a section of his base lost, they’re still there. There are still kids who are finding these videos on YouTube and being radicalized by them. In the way we talked about radical Islam, for better or for worse, as being a defining issue of the late ’90s and early ’00s, I think white domestic terrorism and white nationalism are issues we’re going to be dealing with for a long time. White Noise is available to digitally rent on platforms including Apple TV and Google Play; see the website for details. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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One Good Thing: Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit makes chess mesmerizing. Really!
Anya Taylor-Joy is amazing in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. | Phil Bray/Netflix The seven-episode miniseries shows why Anya Taylor-Joy is one of the most exciting actors working today. One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations series. In each edition, we’ll tell you about something from the world of culture that we think you should check out. Chess shouldn’t be all that interesting to watch on screen, for probably obvious reasons. The game involves a lot of people sitting and staring at a board, moving pieces around in quiet contemplation. And unless you’re a major chess fan, the moves the players make won’t immediately make sense in the way a baseball player hitting a home run does. But something that is interesting to watch onscreen is a great actor playing a compelling character who has a lot going on in their mind. A close-up on the actor’s face as the wheels turn in the character’s head can be gripping because attempting to think your way out of a problem is something we all have experienced. So the smartest choice Scott Frank makes in adapting Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit into a seven-episode Netflix miniseries is to focus not on the chess but on his actors’ faces, particularly that of his star. As chess prodigy Beth Harmon, Anya Taylor-Joy gives one of my favorite performances in ages. And Frank shows an understated confidence in relying not on fancy camera tricks but on close-ups that watch the star’s slightly too-wide eyes flicker with recognition as she finds the move to trounce yet another challenger. The central conflict of the miniseries isn’t Beth vs. a world that keeps underestimating her, as it seems to be on its face. The central conflict is the viewer vs. Beth, as you try to find your way inside her rapidly whirring brain, and almost do, before she shuts you out again. Beth is an orphan in 1950s Kentucky, who discovers an abiding love of chess almost by accident, thanks to a gruff old janitor (Bill Camp) who works at the orphanage she is sent to after her mother dies in a car accident. (Isla Johnston plays Beth as an orphaned child before Taylor-Joy takes over the role when Beth turns 15.) But when Beth is adopted by a middle-aged couple in the early 1960s and encouraged by her adoptive mother (Marielle Heller) to pursue her chess hobby further, she rapidly starts climbing the ranks of the world’s best players. That’s kind of it, so far as the story goes. The Queen’s Gambit is an underdog narrative —nobody expects a woman to be good at chess! — meshed with a coming-of-age character study. How much of Beth’s motivation stems from the uncertainty of her childhood, of her adoption, of her bouncing from an orphanage to public school as a teenager? And how badly do the addictions that she develops to pills and alcohol, almost as part of her training, hinder her progress? Her traumas and her addictions must drive her on some level, but at no point does she monologue painfully and at length about how losing her mother pushed her to be better. She just has to be better because she has to be better. If she ever stopped and looked too closely at the reasons she behaves the way she does, she might completely fall apart. Taylor-Joy is one of my favorite performers working today, and she’s exceptional here. The best chess players in the world know when they’ve won or lost dozens of moves ahead of the game’s completion. Thus, chess very much is a game of faces, and Taylor-Joy’s cerebral acting meshes perfectly with Beth’s story. She’s an actor of micro-expressions, of flickers of eyes and twitches of lips, and what makes The Queen Gambit such a good fit for her is the way she keeps both the viewer and Beth’s opponents at arm’s length. Competition stories are often a great way to do character studies, especially when the competitions are one-on-one. Weirdly, the story I thought of most often while watching The Queen’s Gambit was Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. The surface resemblance between the two is faint, but they’re both about self-destructive, preternaturally talented people who wrestle with the gendered expectations of the society they exist in, with top-notch performances from actors at the height of their craft. I spent most of The Queen’s Gambit nervous that the miniseries was going to become a story about Beth having to learn how to be a woman or something because she has turned off so much of herself to focus on being great at chess. But Frank’s scripts focus not on something so clichéd but on Beth stubbornly hammering at her own humanity until it fits the peculiar circumstances of her existence. The series is about how the mere fact of her being a woman causes other players to underestimate her, but only on its margins. By the time she’s credibly competing for the US championship, everybody takes her seriously. The Queen’s Gambit is not a story about a woman overcoming the odds to show the world her girl power; it’s a story about a woman overcoming the odds to understand herself. (And lest I leave the impression the series is all Taylor-Joy, the entire cast of the miniseries is perfect.) It’s also a miniseries about chess, one that slowly but surely teaches you important truths about the game, so that by the time Beth is playing the much-vaunted Soviet chess players, you get the gist of the games, even if you don’t grasp each and every nuance. You’ll understand just why it’s advantageous to play white instead of black, but you’ll also understand how the built-in disadvantage black holds reflects some of the ways Beth sees herself, even if she would never say that. Another movie I thought of while watching The Queen’s Gambit was Mike Leigh’s terrific 2008 comedy Happy-Go-Lucky. What I love about that movie is that its central character — an extraordinarily kind and, well, happy-go-lucky woman — doesn’t undergo some awkward character arc in which she realizes the world is darker and more cynical than she expected. Instead, she forces the world to realize the viability of her point of view. The Queen’s Gambit has flaws. It’s maybe a little too long. Frank is perhaps slightly too enamored of watching his star cavort around in her underwear. And the series’ one major character of color (Beth’s Black best friend Jolene, played wonderfully by Moses Ingram) is a thankless role. But The Queen’s Gambit also has a healthy dose of Happy-Go-Lucky-ness at its core, in a way that almost makes it a mirror image of that film. Beth Harmon forces the world to reckon first with her talent and then with her pain. The world bends around her in turn, without pressuring her to be anything she’s not. Sometimes, that’s enough. The Queen’s Gambit is streaming on Netflix. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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What poll watchers actually do, and Trump’s troubling rhetoric about them, explained
Voters wait in line at the Franconia Governmental Center on October 22, 2020, in Alexandria, Virginia. | Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images Some concerns around poll watching don’t have to do with the people designated to be inside voting sites. “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” President Donald Trump said during the first presidential debate last month. “I am urging them to do it.” To facilitate that, the Trump campaign has launched Army for Trump, an effort to mobilize tens of thousands of volunteers for get-out-the-vote efforts, including poll watching. A Trump campaign spokesperson told Vox that it hopes to fill 40,000 poll-watching shifts, and expects to exceed their goal of recruiting 50,000 volunteer poll watchers. This isn’t unique to the Trump campaign; the Biden campaign is also recruiting tens of thousands of poll observers. Laws governing what, exactly, observers can do at polling stations, and who can serve as one, vary by state. Unlike poll workers, who assist and engage with voters, partisan poll watchers are mostly just that — the eyes and ears of the political parties, looking for or documenting potential irregularities that may affect the outcome for their party, candidate, or ballot initiative. Poll watching is part of the democratic process, but it has gotten even more attention in 2020 because of the rhetoric around the election. The president has repeatedly made unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud. Trump’s ire is mostly directed toward mail-in voting, but his claims that the election may be stolen from him and calls for people to keep an eye on polls (if not exactly new) have whipped up political tensions even more and increased fears of possible voter intimidation at the polls. Designated poll watchers — which, again, both parties have — usually have to be officially selected by aparty or candidate, and often have to be registered voters, or even registered in the voting precinct they’re assigned to watch. In many cases, they are restricted from interacting with voters, but depending on the jurisdiction, they can potentially challenge the eligibility of other voters. Those kinds of objections can slow down the voting process for everyone, when some voters already face long waits at the polls. But Trump’s rhetoric has raised concerns that partisan poll-watching activities will extend beyond these legitimate, designated poll watchers, with private citizens or even armed militia groups taking it upon themselves to police the polls. Voter intimidation is illegal, and states have strict buffer zones around voting sites. But, as Nicolas Riley, senior counsel at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown University Law School, told me, “Simply by virtue of the fact that the more people you put in and around the polls on Election Day, the more likely you are to have chaos and other types of shenanigans that lead to all kinds of problems.” More than 50 million people have already cast their ballots in early voting for the 2020 election. There have been a few incidents of possible voter intimidation, most notably a report in the New York Times that said the Trump campaign was videotaping voters bringing ballots to drop-off boxes. But for the most part, Americans are successfully casting their ballots, and that’s a reassuring sign ahead of Election Day. But there’s still a chance we could see some, well, “shenanigans.” So with that, it’s worth it to understand what poll watchers are — and aren’t — legally allowed to do. Here’s everything you need to know. Why America even has poll watchers Poll watchers, in the best of circumstances, are there to guarantee openness and transparency in the democratic process. In America’s early days, elections were kind of free-for-alls, sometimes literally drunken parties, where people got together and cast their ballots in public. It was all done out in the open, which meant everyone could see or hear who their fellow citizens (then, white men) voted for. Even when paper ballots came into fashion, political parties handed them out — basically, you take the party ballot you want, put it in their box, and that was that. But that began to change in America in the decades after the Civil War, when voting became much more professionalized. A big part of this was the adoption, in the 1880s and 1890s, of what’s known as the “Australian ballot” — or secrecy ballot — which basically scrapped the old system for something similar to what voters are used to today. Instead of political parties running the show, state officials designate polling areas and distribute ballots with all the candidates. And, most importantly, the voter marks it in secret. This is obviously the condensed version, but as experts told me, this is where you start to see all the different kinds of rules governing polling stations, including who can be there and who can’t. So the role of poll watchers evolved from here. Before voter registration systems were adopted, they might ID voters and, after, check their names on a list. There was also a dark side to this: As Riley told me, some of these laws that allow voters to challenge the voting eligibility of fellow citizens came about as a result of Jim Crow-era policies, and were specifically designed to target Black voters. But broadly, when it came to partisan poll watchers, the thinking behind it was largely that parties or candidates wanted a guarantee against any funny business that might disadvantage their candidate. Having representatives for different parties also helped ensure legitimacy — if everyone agrees on the outcome, and any potential disputes are resolved, well, that bolsters faith in electoral outcomes. “Even though we take for granted that our elections are run according to the rules,” Larry Garber, an international elections expert and consultant at the Carter Center, told me, “I think there is still lingering concern that if no one’s watching, someone can stuff ballots or prevent people from voting or whatever. And therefore, you need to have your representatives present to prevent that kind of chicanery.” Beyond possible chicanery, problems do happen at voting sites. Maybe the printed ballots misspell the name of a candidate; if voters are confused, the campaign in question may want to know that. Maybe a polling place runs out of ballots for a few hours; poll watchers can document how long that lasted and how many voters might have been turned away. And they can communicate with party officials and campaign lawyers. For example, maybe the polling station was out of ballots long enough that parties might sue to keep the polling place open a little later. Or, say some votes are discarded because a voting machine can’t read them; poll watchers might be able to note that, actually, you can clearly see what the voter marked and thus the ballots should be counted. Or if a candidate loses in a close race, they can potentially use poll watchers’ testimonies for grounds to challenge the results, and maybe demand a recount. You get the picture. Political campaigns and parties can’t keep track of every voting precinct, so partisan poll watchers are kind of like an on-the-ground liaison for anything that might go awry. Who is allowed to watch the polls, and what they are (and aren’t) allowed to do Poll watchers can be nonpartisan, such as members of civic groups, or partisan. Partisan poll watchers usually represent political parties, candidates, or even ballot initiatives. Some states also allow for private citizens to observe polling places and other election processes such as testing voting equipment and examining absentee ballots. (The US allows for international poll observers, too.) Each state has its own laws governing who can and cannot be at polling stations. When it comes to partisan poll observers, states have rules about who can be appointed. For example, many require poll watchers to be registered voters themselves, sometimes in the jurisdiction where they’re serving, or at least in the state. Some states limit the number of partisan poll watchers, such as restricting them to one observer per party/candidate, per precinct. States usually require that observers clearly identify themselves and whom they’re representing, and no campaign swag is allowed. States also have guidelines for which parts of the election process watchers can observe and exactly what poll watchers can do during voting. Some states may allow poll observers to watch over poll workers’ shoulders as they check IDs; others may designate locations for observers to stand close by but out of the way of the action. Most of the time, poll watchers are not permitted to interact directly with voters, or even election officials, unless they have a specific complaint or challenge — and states all have rules on how any challenge can be made. Poll watchers, of course, can never follow someone into a voting booth. Some states bar observers from taking photos or videos. This year, some states have also added guidelines related to the pandemic, such as asking poll watchers to wear face masks or stand 6 feet away from others. Some states also allow private citizens to observe stages of the voting process, sometimes under similar guidelines as partisan observers, other times with slightly different restrictions. In many states, both designated poll watchers and regular citizens can challenge the eligibility of voters. States have laws governing these types of challenges. For example, sometimes the challenger also has to be a registered voter in the precinct, or submit their request in writing. But you get the gist: different states, different rules. Overzealous poll watchers are a concern, but probably not a huge one There are downsides to this kind of voting transparency. Overzealous poll workers do have the potential to slow down the voting process at precincts if they’re being overly aggressive or, as is allowed in some states, challenging the eligibility of voters. And in an election year where turnout is expected to be much higher than usual, and where polling places are seeing hours-long waits for early voting, this can just jam things up. “You can’t object for bogus reasons, but it’s pretty easy to claim that you’re objecting for a legitimate reason, right?” Garber told me. “And that gums up the process, causes delays, creates lines, creates frustration, makes people feel like the process is somehow not working.” Garber emphasized that polling officials who are running these sites have the power to intervene if a poll watcher is really overstepping their role or mounting frivolous challenges. “State law varies across the country as to what level of proof the poll watcher would have to have in order to challenge the person who’s getting ready to cast their ballot,” Julie Houk, managing counsel of election protection at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told me. “Some states have criminal penalties associated with making invalid or intentionally false challenges to harass or intimidate voters. But, again, that depends on the state law.” Such challenges can potentially disenfranchise individual voters. If, say, a voter waits in line for hours only to find out they’re being challenged, they may not be able to gather the evidence they need to refute the claims, which sometimes involves providing additional identification or witness testimony. The concern is that the voter may just give up, said Houk, though she pointed out that organizations like hers are there to intervene if that happens on Election Day, to protect voters’ rights. Some voting rights groups are also concerned that partisan poll watchers could single out certain voters for additional scrutiny, something that could be intimidating for voters, especially if a poll watcher is singling out minorities or non-English-speaking voters as ineligible. Vincent Hutchings, a political science and Afro-American and African studies professor at the University of Michigan, told me this is especially problematic given the geographic and racial divides between the parties. “In such a world where you can visually identify — typically — someone’s racial or ethnic background, and when there’s such a high correlation between race and ethnicity and partisanship, then that is a recipe for potential disaster,” he said. But the biggest worries over poll watchers in 2020 have less to do with the legitimate ones dispatched to voting places by their party or candidate, and more to do with, well, everyone else. Trump’s calls to watch the polls are what people are really worried about In September, during early voting in Virginia, a group of Trump supporters stood outside a polling place in Fairfax, shouting “four more years” as voters entered the polling station. The laws differ state by state, but all voting sites have buffer zones around them in which people who are not in line to actually vote aren’t allowed to stand. Beyond the buffer zone, however, people can more openly electioneer — wave a Trump flag, hand out pamphlets for a Democratic candidate, etc. In Virginia, that buffer zone is 40 feet, meaning that During the times the polls are open and ballots are being counted, it is unlawful for any person (i) to loiter or congregate within 40 feet of any entrance of any polling place; (ii) within such distance to give, tender, or exhibit any ballot, ticket, or other campaign material to any person or to solicit or in any manner attempt to influence any person in casting his vote; or (iii) to hinder or delay a qualified voter in entering or leaving a polling place. Election officials said the Trump supporters in Fairfax were about 100 feet from the building, so outside the buffer zone. But officials still had to open up another portion of the building so voters could wait inside, just to prevent anyone from feeling as if they were being harassed. To some, this incident looked like a potential first act in a tense and highly polarized election year, with a potential for a wave of private citizens intimidating voters at polling stations under the guise of poll watching. Trump’s general reluctance to condemn white supremacy, as well as his comments that the far-right Proud Boys group should “stand back and stand by” on Election Day, has forced election officials and law enforcement to prepare for possible voter intimidation at the polls. (Trump later said he meant to say “stand down.”) And some militia groups, such as the Oath Keepers, have already said they will patrol polling sites on Election Day. The fear over this “army” of poll watchers Trump is recruiting, then, might be that there will be a blurring of the lines for poll watchers, or that it might attract regular citizens or militia groups who feel called to patrol or police voting precincts for voter fraud, particularly in majority Black or brown or Democratic neighborhoods. “And that’s the concern,” Houk told me, “where they’ve been sort of encouraged to go out and watch the polls but they don’t know what they’re watching for, because they don’t know what the law says.” “There is a role for poll observers to observe what’s going on, and to make sure that elections are proceeding fairly,” Kathleen Roblez, a staff attorney at Forward Justice, a nonpartisan racial, social, and economic organization justice organization in the US South, told me. “But,” she added, “I think that some of the concern of the real intimidation will come from people who are outside of the polling places, who have little bit more power and are less regulated.” When it comes to carrying weapons, some states bar people from bringing firearms into polling stations, but it varies by state. However, it is always illegal for an individual to use a firearm to intimidate a voter. “Even if one leaves aside the inflammatory rhetoric of the president — because, of course, it didn’t begin with him — this process of sending poll watchers, oftentimes to Democratic neighborhoods, which of course are minority neighborhoods, in many instances, is an opportunity to engage in some of the most egregious violations of people’s civil rights,” Hutchings said. “It leaves open the possibility that this could occur because indeed it has occurred before, and it’s occurred before in my lifetime, not 100 years ago.” There are a few egregious examples in recent history, but maybe none more relevant to 2020 than what happened during a New Jersey gubernatorial race in 1981. On Election Day, about 200 armed men, including many off-duty police, patrolled primarily minority and Democratic-voting neighborhoods like Newark and Trenton. They wore armbands and identified themselves as part of the “National Ballot Security Task Force”; some also wore Republican Party branding, according to news reports from the time. And they were the creation of, and very much linked to, the Republican Party. “WARNING,” one of their posters read. “This area is being patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force. It is a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws.” The posters reportedly offered rewards to people who turned in improperly registered voters. In court documents, one of the plaintiffs, a Black woman from Trenton, said she had been asked to show her voter registration card and told by someone from the task force that she could not vote without it. The NBSTF also actively tried to drive voters from the polls, including, in one instance, chasing voters away from the polls in Newark. That election was extraordinarily close. The Republican candidate, Thomas H. Kean, led his Democratic opponent, James Florio, by fewer than about 1,750 votes initially. A recount still put Kean in the lead, by fewer than 1,800 votes, and Florio conceded. But even though Democrats didn’t challenge the final result, they ultimately did take Republicans, specifically the Republican Party in New Jersey and the Republican National Committee,to court for voter intimidation.Plus, before the actual intimidation at the polls, Republicans had been engaged in what’s known as “voter caging,” where they send mail to registered voters, keep track of what mail is undeliverable, and try to purge those voters from the rolls. Ahead of the 1981 election, they did this to thousands of voters in primarily Black and brown neighborhoods in New Jersey. So civil rights activists helped gather testimony and affidavits about the NBSTF’s tactics, and the Democratic National Committee sued the GOP for voter intimidation and illegal harassment under the Voting Rights Act. In 1982, the two sides settled, and the RNC entered into a consent decree that barred the committee from engaging in any ballot security measures that might deter qualified voters from voting. In practice, this prevented the RNC from coordinating ballot security activities nationally; the consent decree could be enforced in court if any groups engaged in any such intimidation or harassment and the RNC was found to be behind it. It was extended in 1987 and again in 2009. But at the start of 2018, the consent decree expired, despite Democrats’ attempts to extend it. Which means that, for the first time in decades, the RNC is not restrained by the limits of consent decree, including getting prior approval for any poll-watching activities. “The expiration of the consent decree looms large in this election,” Angelo J. Genova, chair and managing partner of Genova Burns and one of the attorneys who represented Democrats in the litigation, told me. The expiration of the decree meant that an incredibly powerful check on potential voter suppression was now gone.“For decades, the consent decree effectively checked the RNC and its agents from engaging in purported ballot security measures whose purpose or effect was to suppress minority voters from exercising their right to vote. This consent decree was made for this moment,” Genova said, “a moment one would think was long gone.” For Republicans, though, the expiration meant they were finally back on equal footing with the Democrats, as they didn’t have to follow additional restrictions to their campaign activities and the RNC can coordinate nationally, something the consent decree really hindered. But as election expert Rick Hasen told NPR in 2018, there was a reason for the unequal footing. In recent years, Republicans, not Democrats, have a documented history of trying to make it harder for minority voters to vote. Mark Krasovic, an expert in US and New Jersey history at Rutgers University, told me that beyond the threat of direct voter intimidation, the concern is that partisan election monitoring activities will be usedto just slow down the process — “to gum up the works as much as you can” — and to delegitimize the electoral process. “That was something that people were saying in ’81: It’s not necessarily that they turned people away, but they slowed things down, and people didn’t get to cast their votes,” he said. “And then just to delegitimize the entire process — to raise questions about it, to promote skepticism of the process.” Despite concerns, voters should feel confident about going to the polls Delegitimizing the voting process, as Krasovic said, is not a small thing. That’s partly why Trump’s rhetoric is so dangerous. It’s not just about rallying a few die-hards to the polls; it creates the specter of intimidation. If voters are nervous or fearful about voting, they may be dissuaded from doing so altogether. That, in itself, can suppress the vote. There are very real concerns about what might happen outside polling stations, experts said, but it’s important to recognize that despite a few tense incidents so far in 2020, the worst-case predictions are not actually happening right now. A Trump campaign spokesperson said its “poll watchers provide confidence in an election when they can say that all rules and laws were applied equally,” and added that they’re all trained in the proper conduct of a polling location or other election facility. And though not all states require trainings, the Trump campaign is providing training for everyone. CNN reviewed 17 poll watcher training videos posted by the Trump campaign, and the instructions did not match the rhetoric of the president. “Simply because someone has out-of-state plates or they don’t speak English, those are not reasons for a challenge,” the narrator says in the Colorado video, according to CNN. Another says to be nice to everyone, and makes clear the job isn’t to stop legitimate voters from voting. Although a video of a training in Nevada had a Trump campaign lawyer telling the group that the “the main goal is electing the boss,” he also said watchers shouldn’t interfere with voters, and should kick any issues up to the lawyers. And in any election, there are going to be cadres of lawyers on the lookout for both sides. The Biden team is also recruiting poll watchers, and there will be tens of thousands of poll observers associated with the campaign deployed across the country, both as designated partisan poll watchers inside precincts and as volunteers outside the buffer zone, who can answer voter questions. “We’re making sure that everybody that shows up and wants to cast their vote in person that’s eligible is able to do so, and that vote counts. We do that everywhere and anywhere we can,” Rachana Desai Martin, director of voter protection and senior counsel for the Biden campaign, told me. In that sense, 2020 is just like any other election year. But, of course, it isn’t in a lot of ways — the biggest aberration of course being that one of the two candidates at the top of the ticket (along with many of his allies) is trying anything and everything in his power to undercut the voting process. And, again, that includes rhetoric around poll watchers. In September, unauthorized poll watchers associated with the Trump campaign showed up at satellite offices in Philadelphia, where voters could register or drop off mail-in ballots. Election officials asked them to leave, because the satellite offices were not official polling locations but were just providing voter services. But Trump allies, and the president, tried to gin up suspicions around the Philadelphia election officials asking the unauthorized poll watchers to leave. Wow. Won’t let Poll Watchers & Security into Philadelphia Voting Places. There is only one reason why. Corruption!!! Must have a fair Election.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2020 Trump repeated that claim during his debate with Biden in September, saying “bad things happen in Philadelphia.” The Trump campaign also sued, but a state judge sided with the Philadelphia officials, and just this week, a higher court affirmed that ruling. But the damage was sort of done: Right-wing circles had picked up on this idea that somehow Trump campaign observers were being barred from election sites. The poll watchers aren’t really the problem, then. It’s the misinformation and rhetoric around them. And that, more than anything, may be the most potent force in undermining the vote this year. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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No, Biden did not call Black people “superpredators”
President Donald Trump speaks during the final presidential debate on October 22 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. | Julio Cortez/AP A theory about juvenile criminals has been debunked for years, but it keeps coming up in presidential debates. President Trump has been pushing the lie that his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, called Black people “superpredators”— but there’s no record of him doing so. During the final presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee, Trump repeated this accusation in response to a question about Black Americans having to have “The Talk” with their children about how to safely interact with police. Trump skipped over answering the actual question and went straight to a critique of Biden’s record: “[Biden has] been in government 47 years. He never did a thing. Except in 1994, when he did such harm to the Black community and they were called, and he called them, ‘superpredators’ and he said that, he said it, ‘superpredators,’” Trump said. It’s an accusation Trump has been drumming up in the final weeks of the campaign. Biden made another big mistake. He totally mixed up two Crime Bills. Didn’t have a clue (as usual!). Also, he freely used the term SUPER PREDATOR!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2020 Trump world and conservatives have been circulating 1993 remarks given by Biden on the Senate floor, uncovered by CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski in 2019. In his speech, Biden referred to “predators on our streets that society has in fact, in part because of its neglect, created.” As Kaczynski pointed out last night and this morning, however, the only reported time Biden has used the term “superpredator” is in a 1997 hearing when he said most youth weren’t “the so-called ‘superpredators.’” ...but the instance was Biden arguing *against* putting youth in adult prisons in a 1997 hearing where he said that most youth *weren't* "the so called 'super predators'."— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) October 23, 2020 A confusing part of the story is what “superpredator” even means, or how it’s different from “predator.” The term was deployed in a specific context of the late 20th-century juvenile crime wave. And on some level, resurfacing “superpredator” is just Trump trying to recapture the success of his attacks against his previous opponent, Hillary Clinton, who did use the term. The term “superpredator” and its fraught history, briefly explained Though crime has been at historic lows, excluding the complicated data coming out this year,juvenile violent crime was very high in the 1980s and ’90s. At the time it was considered to be a national emergency. Violent crimes committed by juveniles rose a precipitous 64 percent from 1980 to 1994 according to a March 2002 study by the Urban Institute’s Jeffrey Butts and Jeremy Travis. This figure includes forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, but to underscore the horror of this era, arrests for murder alone “jumped 99 percent during that time.” Betts and Travis write that terms “such as ‘juvenile super predator,’ ‘coming blood bath,’ and ‘crime time bomb’” flooded the airwaves as the media, state and local governments, and every day people feared that the crime wave would continue to rise until there was an “unavoidable collision with a growing generation of violent youth.” But the term “superpredator” is not just the word predator with super- affixed to the front to make it sound worse; it is a now-debunked theory of juvenile violent crime popularized beginning in 1995 by John DiIulio, then a political science professor at Princeton University. DiIulio’s article describes offenders as with inhuman imagery, writing he “foreswore research inside juvenile lock-ups. The buzz of impulsive violence, the vacant stares and smiles, and the remorseless eyes were at once too frightening and too depressing.” He warns America: On the horizon, therefore, are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators. They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons (for example, a perception of slight disrespect or the accident of being in their path). They fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment. They live by the meanest code of the meanest streets, a code that reinforces rather than restrains their violent, hair-trigger mentality. In prison or out, the things that super-predators get by their criminal behavior — sex, drugs, money — are their own immediate rewards. Nothing else matters to them. So for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes “naturally”: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high. He was wrong, of course. As Butts & Travis report, “violent crime in America fell for six straight years from 1994 to 2000. According to the newest crime data ... the rate of juvenile violent crime in 2000 was lower than at any time in the previous two decades.” According to a 2015 article from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange “juvenile arrests for violent crime have dropped to a 30-year low.” But at the time, the superpredator theory resonated powerfully. As Kevin Drum writes for Mother Jones, DiIulio was invited by then-President Bill Clinton “to attend a working dinner on juvenile crime” at the White House. Hillary Clinton’s remarks a few months after that dinner make clear that his ideas had resonated. In her remarks at Keene State College in New Hampshire, she talked about “the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators’ — no conscience, no empathy.” My colleague, German Lopez, has reported on how wrong this theory is, pointing out simply that: “Superpredators didn’t exist. The type of criminal Clinton was describing came from faulty research that’s been repeatedly debunked — and even the biggest proponent of the superpredators myth has since apologized for spreading the idea.” The theory was so harmful because if you accept the premise that the juvenile crime wave was due to dehumanized kids predisposed to the most violent acts without any remorse, you likely wouldn’t turn to rehabilitation for a solution. As Lopez writes, “the myth was used to push tough-on-crime policies that helped lead to a rise in incarceration.” Trump probably doesn’t know — or care — about the social science and is just trying to make Black voters less enthusiastic about turning out for Biden Returning to Trump’s attack on Biden: Biden used the term predator in 1993, two years before DeIulio began pushing the “superpredator” theory. So unless he has a time machine, Biden was not referencing the now-debunked theory. But there’s a reason Trump keeps pushing this attack. During the 2016 campaign, a 1996video of Hillary Clinton using the term “superpredators” circulated widely online. There’s no way to tell if that video had a depressing effect on Black voter turnout, but it was clear that Black voter turnout was worse for Clinton than it was for President Barack Obama. Trump seems to be hoping pinning Biden with the term will have a similar effect; according to FiveThirtyEight, Trump is “gaining ground” somewhat with Black voters, especially younger Black men. This all is not to exonerate Biden for his role in mass incarceration; he has said that he regrets his support for parts of the 1994 crime bill, calling crack sentencing guidelines that disproportionately punished Black Americans a “big mistake.” But to have cogent policy conversations we need to be specific about the criticism that are legitimate and ones that are not. Biden, and almost every politician active in the 1990s, ascribed to a tough-on-crime approach that is now widely-criticized across the political spectrum. It’s a testament to the rapid change in our criminal justice reform politics and likely a testament to the low rates of juvenile violent crime that have defined the last couple of decades. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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A Joe Biden fundraiser offers a new clue into how he might regulate Big Tech
Elizabeth Warren has been a leading proponent of breaking up Big Tech companies. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Elizabeth Warren and some of Big Tech’s most vocal critics are hosting the event for Biden, who has been difficult to pin down on tech issues. Joe Biden’s campaign has signed off on a fundraiser on tech issues being hosted by a series of prominent critics of Big Tech, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The event serves as the latest clue in the challenge to figure out how a Biden administration would govern the tech industry, suggesting that those critics would at least have a line into his White House. Warren and a half-dozen other big names are set to hold an October 27 event on “Advancing Innovation, Competition, and Prosperity in the American Tech Sector,” according to a copy of the invitation obtained by Recode. The event is one of the closest linkages yet between the most pro-regulation voices in the Democratic Party and the Democratic nominee, who has not publicly pinned down his precise positions on tech regulation. Biden Victory Fund The speakers at the event include David Cicilline, the Congress member who just led the congressional investigation into Big Tech companies; Tish James, New York’s state attorney general who is leading the states’ own investigations; and leading proponents of a tech breakup such as early Facebook investor Roger McNamee and influential Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu. And Warren, who made Big Tech issues a cornerstone of her presidential campaign. Biden, who will not be there, does not necessarily endorse every position espoused by speakers at fundraisers held on his behalf. But presidential campaigns vet and debate potential fundraiser hosts — and, in this case, it is not just that one or two hosts have a personal, private opinion about the conversation topic and they happen to be organizing a broader pro-Biden event. Here the Biden campaign is blessing an entire event organized around one point of view — that the tech giants are too menacing and stifling out competition — featuring a lineup of the most high-profile leaders on the issue. The Biden campaign didn’t return requests for comment. One reason it is particularly revealing is that Biden has proven to be elusive on tech issues. Activists on the left hope that he will govern in a less tech-friendly way than Barack Obama did. But while Biden has made scattered critical comments about Facebook in particular, he has not made tech regulation a campaign priority and has left both the activists and the tech companies themselves largely speculating about what a Biden administration would mean for them. Another interpretation of that, though, is that Biden is malleable on the issue — and therefore can be influenced by political assets such as campaign fundraising potential. One objective of the October 27 event hosted by Warren and others may be to raise a large amount and show Biden that there is money to be made — and that there’s political upside more broadly — by allying with the tech-breakup crowd. Tickets range from $250 to $100,000. Because Biden certainly knows that there is big money on the other side of the issue. Some Biden supporters who are critical of Big Tech are concerned about Biden’s ties to tech elites, such as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. And in a sign of just how enigmatic Biden has proven on tech regulation, Biden’s campaign has also hosted technology-focused fundraisers with Schmidt, a leading voice against the breakup of companies like his former employer. So all told, the question these fundraisers pose is: Who will have more influence in Joe Biden’s administration when it comes to Big Tech: Eric Schmidt or Elizabeth Warren? Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Trump might be surprised to learn most Americans want more wind and solar
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters while in flight after attending the final presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22. | Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images Biden wants to transition away from the oil industry. So do a growing number of Americans. During Thursday night’s debate, President Donald Trump seized on Democrat Joe Biden’s comment that he wanted to transition away from the oil industry. “Oh. There’s a big statement,” Trump said. Biden doubled down in response. “It is a big statement,” Biden said. Their exchange revealed a deep divide among the two parties on what America’s energy future looks like. Biden is running on a bold $2 trillion clean energy plan that aims to get the country to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Trump has been an ally to the oil, gas, and coal industry during his administration and pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement as one of his early acts as president. But polling shows that a majority of American’s agree with Biden’s vision that the future of American energy should be renewable energy. Energy polling from Gallup shows a growing number of Americans believe the US should put less emphasis on traditional fossil fuels like oil and coal. The same Gallup poll showed overwhelming enthusiasm for renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The Gallup survey showed that the number of Americans who believe the US should put more emphasis on coal and oil has fallen in recent years. Just 22 percent of Americans said we need more emphasis on coal in March 2019, a dip from 31 percent who said we should put more emphasis on it in 2013. On the other hand, 70 percent of Americans in 2019 said the country should put more emphasis on wind energy (a number largely unchanged from 2013), and 80 percent said we should put more emphasis on solar energy (a slight uptick from 76 percent in 2013). The results were more mixed on natural gas, with 46 percent of Americans saying the country should put more emphasis on that as a form of energy, a dip from the 65 percent who said so in 2013. A2020 Pew Research Centerstudy showed similar numbers. When the poll asked American adults whether the nation’s priority should be oil, gas, and coal or alternative energy sources like wind and solar for the nation’s energy supply, the poll showed 79 percent preferred alternative energy compared to 20 percent who said fossil fuels. These numbers paint a clear picture: More Americans are willing to embrace renewable energy than they are fossil fuels like coal and oil — already flagging in popularity seven years ago. Solar production has boomed since 2010 while coal has fallen, according to Pew Research Center. But natural gas and crude oil production have also increased. As Vox’s David Roberts has explained, the executive branch has a lot of control over US energy policy. The next president could have a very real impact on America’s energy future, as well as on charting the country’s course on climate change. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The US just brokered another peace deal for Israel, this time with Sudan
President Donald Trump speaks about a Sudan-Israel peace agreement in the Oval Office on October 23, 2020, in Washington, DC. He announced that Sudan will start to normalize ties with Israel. | Win McNamee/Getty Images At its core, it looks like the deal is really a trade where the US gives Sudan financial help in exchange for recognizing Israel. President Donald Trump announced Friday that Sudan has become the third country to normalize relations with Israel during the Trump administration, underscoring how the president’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East may prove to be the most significant foreign policy achievement of his first term. Trump, along with the leaders of Israel and Sudan, proclaimed a new agreement during a Friday call. “The state of Israel and the Republic of Sudan have agreed to make peace,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump on the phone for the outcome, saying “We are expanding the circle of peace so rapidly with your leadership.” Trump responded: “There are many, many more coming.” A statement by the nation’s three leaders released by the White House provided more details. “The leaders agreed to the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel and to end the state of belligerence between their nations,” it reads. In return, “The United States will take steps to restore Sudan’s sovereign immunity and to engage its international partners to reduce Sudan’s debt burdens.” Furthermore, “The United States and Israel also committed to working with their partners to support the people of Sudan in strengthening their democracy, improving food security, countering terrorism and extremism, and tapping into their economic potential.” At its core, then, the deal looks like a trade where the US and Israel give Sudan financial support in exchange for diplomatic normalization. The announcement follows Trump administration-brokered deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in August and Bahrain last month. Before that, the last peace deal Israel struck with an Arab country was with Jordan in 1994 (it signed one with Egypt in 1979). But the deal with Sudan is arguably more significant. The UAE and Bahrain weren’t at war with Israel when they signed their agreements; Sudan and Israel were. That means while the first two pacts were normalization deals, this one with Sudan could potentially be described more accurately as a peace deal. From 3 NO’s to 3 YES’s:In 1967, the Arab world infamously declared in Sudan’s capital no recognition, no negotiation, and no peace with Israel. Today, Sudan joins the UAE and Bahrain as the 3rd Arab country to make peace with Israel in 2020.— Amb. Ron Dermer (@AmbDermer) October 23, 2020 It’s yet another win for Trump’s foreign policy, providing him with good news ahead of a bitter reelection fight. How a Sudan-Israel deal came to be possible It took a bit of maneuvering to make this agreement happen. On Wednesday, a joint US-Israeli delegation traveled to Sudan for talks with the government. Two days later, Trump removed the Arab-led North African nation from America’s state sponsors of terrorism list. It’s a move he promised to make once the country paid $335 million to American victims of terror for the country’s harboring of Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. GREAT news! New government of Sudan, which is making great progress, agreed to pay $335 MILLION to U.S. terror victims and families. Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 19, 2020 The UAE also played a role in the negotiations, as Sudan asked the country — and the US — for billions in economic aid as part of signing this deal. That makes sense, as the country is desperately in need of cash. Whether the US and UAE start funneling money into Sudan remains to be seen. A political earthquake in Sudan also made theannouncement possible. A protest movement kicked Sudan’s Islamist leaders out of power last year, ushering in a new military-led government that wants to end its global pariah status. Making amends with the US and saying it is no longer hostile to Israel is one way to do just that. “The US-Israel deal promises them the international recognition they crave without the inconvenience of democracy,” Alex de Waal, an expert on Sudanese politics, wrote for BBC News earlier this month. And, more broadly, regional politics in the greater Middle East have changed dramatically in recent years. Whereas the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once served as a major axis around which Middle East and Arab-government politics rotated, with many countries aligned with the Palestinians against Israel, that’s now changed. What animates the foreign policies of many Middle Eastern countries these days is the Arab-Israel standoff with Iran — which some have dubbed a “cold war.” With less need to bash Israel and back Palestine, Sudan had more freedom to strike the deal. For Israel and for Trump, that works just fine. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The new Borat movie’s best moments mock a Trump-era fixation on a particular female aesthetic
Sacha Baron Cohen is back, in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. | Amazon Studios The true star of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is Borat’s daughter, played by Maria Bakalova. She’s also the source of its most incisive critique. Sacha Baron Cohen is not the star of his new movie, and I suspect he knows it. The true star of Borat 2 — excuse me, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — is Maria Bakalova, who plays the daughter of disgraced Kazakh media personality Borat Sagdiyev (Baron Cohen). Bakalova is actually 24, but in the film, she is 15-year-old Tutar Sagdiyev,the oldest unmarried woman in Kazakstan (according to Borat), playing sidekick to her trickster father on his second trip to America. Having destroyed the reputation of Kazakhstan with his 2006 film (the first Borat, the one that prompted every dude you know to say “mah waiiife” for a good decade when he wanted to be funny), Borat has been doing hard labor as punishment. But he is summoned to the premier’s office and given the task of offering a gift to America’s leadership to restore Kazakhstan’s standing in the eyes of its new president, “McDonald Trump.” He knows just what to present to Trump’s closest colleague, Michael Pence, vice premier of America: a monkey. When he arrives stateside, Borat discovers Tutar has stowed away in the monkey’s crate for the trip and, well, gotten hungry on the way over. That makes him realize something: Maybe she would make a better gift? She is delighted by the idea, lit up by the notion that she might be the next “queen of America,” like Melania Trump — who, after all, is from Slovenia. Slovenia’s not all that not close to Kazakhstan, but it’s closer than America. To tackle that challenge, though, she’s going to need a makeover. And in typical Borat fashion — with unsuspecting hairdressers and dress shop owners and other civilians not quite realizing they’re the object of fun — Tutar is transformed from a ratty-haired gremlin into a woman. Amazon Studios Tutar and Borat in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Long, dyed-blonde hair with barrel curls, bold lipstick and eye makeup, and a form-fitting dress: If Tutar’s makeover looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it on TV before. The look that ruled Hollywood for decades and perhaps reached its apex in Baywatch star Pamela Anderson (the unlucky object of Borat’s affection in the first movie) has migrated to Fox News, where many have noted the clone-like similarities among on-air female talent. Bakalova has a tough job in Subsequent Moviefilm, playing a teenager nearly a decade younger than herself. A teenager who has been living in a stable behind her family’s hovel and fed lies all her life about what women can and cannot do: Women cannot drive. They cannot read. They cannot be educated or choose whom to marry or engage in, uh, sexy times. They cannot touch their “vagines,” because of the teeth. But Bakalova plunges into it with aplomb and steals the show from Baron Cohen, who mostly reprises his old shtick, tricking people into saying things they probably wouldn’t want to be seen onscreen saying. Although, who knows? If the past four (let alone 14) years have shifted anything, it’s our sense of what people will do on camera, whether to get attention or just because they’re a huge honking racist. Amazon Studios Tutar and Borat at a ball. In any case, Bakalova’s total commitment to the role is both impressive and necessary, because this movie requires her to get leered at by older men. A lot. It happens at stores and in public places, at a debutante ball (where a man says $500 would be a “fair price” for her, to the disgust of the man’s daughter), and at a plastic surgeon’s office, where Tutar and Borat are pricing out the cost of giving her huge breasts and maybe evening out her nose a little. And it happens, as you may already know, in a room with Rudy Giuliani. The Giuliani moment is what got the most attention after the reviews started pouring in on Wednesday. In case you were lucky enough to miss the news: There’s a sequence in the movie in which Tutar — who has been rejected by Pence at CPAC, sort of, and has settled on trying to marry Giuliani because he is close to Trump and, unlike several former presidential advisers, isn’t in jail — decides to pose as a journalist to get close to Giuliani. Dressed in nude stilettos and a mint-green, skin-tight sheath dress, she arranges to “interview” Giuliani in a midtown Manhattan hotel suite, and he agrees. He calls her darlin’ a lot and seems mostly just flattered by the attention in the interview. Then he follows her into the bedroom, drink in hand. He says “c’mere, c’mere” several times, moving her closer to him and removing her microphone. She removes his. He says she should give him her number and address. He sits on the edge of the bed. He lays down. He puts his hand down his pants, adjusting something in the crotch region for about 10 seconds, and then Baron Cohen, clad in a bodysuit made to look like lingerie, rushes in and declares that Tutar is 15, “too old for you.” The scene is edited, and Giuliani has denied that he was doing anything untoward, saying he was merely tucking in his shirt. (It does look as if he could plausibly be tucking in his shirt, though I’m not sure why one would do that while lying down, or why a simple task would take that long.) After the past few years, I’m not particularly inclined to believe Rudy Giuliani about much of anything. Here’s a troubling possibility: He was reaching down to fondle his genitals, potentially without consent or prompting, while in the room with a virtual stranger who is obviously far younger than he, but whom he had no reason to think is a teenager. Amazon Studios Giuliani and “Tutar” in that scene in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Anyhow. Perhaps more revealing than the incident itself is what the film points out through Bakalova’s character: A certain womanly aesthetic, appealing to a certain sort of man, is prevalent enough that it can be easily exploited. The Fox News look, after all, is the network’s inheritance from its founder Roger Ailes, whose sexual harassment and decrees that women should wear short skirts on camera are no secret. It’s hardly only conservative men who are inclined to give credence for no real reason to a pretty young woman who flirts with them a little. But it’s equally true that conservative men are certainly susceptible (recall the case of Maria Butina), and that adopting a particular look can go a long way for ladder-climbers or would-be grifters. That’s probably why, watching Tutar’s antics in this film, I found myself thinking of White Noise, a documentary also out this week that’s about three notorious figures on the alt-right: shit-stirrer and Pizzagate conspiracist memelord Mike Cernovich, avowed white nationalist Richard Spencer, and anti-immigrant YouTube personality Lauren Southern. Directed by journalist Daniel Lombroso, who spent years following each of the trio around, the movie follows the trajectory of a certain kind of young, attractive racist American in public life over the past few years, and the role of the internet in their rise to fame. White Noise is a great and illuminating film, far more engaging and smart than most journalistic profiles of each of these people. But here’s the most striking realization, by the end: This is a portrait of loud, proud, opportunistic grifters — less ideologues than people who’ve figured out how to game the system to get the most eyeballs (and, very importantly, money). Gaming that system, all pastiche and depthless intensities, is chiefly a function of figuring out how to project an image your audience finds appealing. The grifting impulse that has taken hold in America, from Fyre Festival to Anna Delvey to whatever Jacob Wohl’s whole deal is, owes no fealty to specific political parties. The con man is an archetype as old as time, and certainly a time-honored element of American culture. The internet has made it very simple to create a persona of your choice — and far more rewarding to loudly proclaim it. The way social media platforms enable grifters to scramble to the top of the heap is something all three of the White Noise subjects know intimately, and something Lombroso captures with skill. But it seems at times like Southern understands it the best. Beautiful, blonde, with an arch smile and a bold, confident exterior, she fits the archetype precisely. As captured in White Noise, she gives off distinct Regina George vibes, and it works for her as long as she’s willing to ignore the sexual harassment directed at her. Living in the boys’ club of white supremacist internet personalities, she makes it clear that she knows her fame comes from both her ability to take extreme positions, which “puts her on the map,” and her visibility as a pretty woman whom men like to watch laugh at their jokes and say outrageous things that confirm their biases. In one sequence, we listen in on her side of a phone conversation with Gavin McInnes, the (married) founder of the Proud Boys, that strongly suggests he attempted to get her to sleep with him. (Onscreen text notes that the filmmakers contacted McInnes and that he denied that he had done such a thing.) The Atlantic Lauren Southern and Gavin McInnes in White Noise. But Southern is clearly proud of her image, and of the spot in the white supremacist landscape she’s cultivated. “There’s a lot of clicks in being contrarian,” she says early on. It’s only later that the cracks her facade start to show up. In a sense, the Borat movies are about a grifter, too, though trying to parse whether Borat or Baron Cohen is the true con artist is the kind of thought experiment that will tie your gray matter in knots. But Bakalova’s performance adds another layer to Baron Cohen’s practical-joking style of comedy. There’s an unselfconsciousness to the men who drool over her, an ego that suggests this woman might actually be into them, coupled with a gleeful cultural mandate to “appreciate” a woman verbally, salaciously, and not cater to a culture that asks them to refrain and treat her with respect. Unless I missed it, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm never tips into baiting men into decrying the Me Too movement outright. But it’s clear what the filmmakers are implying: In America, those who idolize a certain kind of female aesthetic and feel free to ogle are laughably easy to exploit, whether by grifters, or spies, or social climbers, or just screwball comedians. And if Bakalova, playing a teenager with a mediocre dye job and some lopsided lipstick, can lead various men to embarrassing acts even when they know a camera is around — including an adviser to the president of the United States — that’s a pretty damning thing to capture on moviefilm. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is streaming on Amazon Prime. White Noise is available to digitally rent on platforms including Apple TV and Google Play; see the website for details. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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“They’re all Americans”: What Biden gets about the pandemic that Trump doesn’t
A hallway in the emergency department at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in New York on April 13, 2020, as the coronavirus outbreak was taking hold. Now, it is Wisconsin hospitals that are filling up. | Jeffrey Basinger/Newsday via Getty Images When we treat the coronavirus like a state problem, America loses. The country’s Covid-19 problem wasn’t a New York problem in March, nor was it a Texas problem in July, nor is it a Wisconsin problem right now. It was and is an American problem. Throughout the pandemic, President Donald Trump has sought to cast the virus as a state-by-state issue. (Frankly, a lot of people have.) It’s New York and California that are the real mess, he says. They’re the ones ravaged by the coronavirus, they’re the ones whose leaders are to blame for their health and economic problems. The red states, well, when they need help, he will provide itof course, but he also insists they’re doing much better. During the final presidential debate on Thursday, the president returned to that line of attack. According to him, New York City is now a “ghost town” that’s “dying,” wrapped in plexiglass. And he said the same goes for other places with Democratic leadership, like California, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina: “Democrats, Democrats all, they’re shut down so tight and they’re dying.” Joe Biden offered a contrast to Trump’s approach, one that brings home an obvious but important point: “I don’t look at this in terms of the way he does, blue states and red states, they’re all in the United States.” Right now, many of the states experiencing spikes in cases are in the upper Midwest, such as Wisconsin and South Dakota. Both states were “red states” in 2016, but it doesn’t matter. “They’re all Americans,” Biden said. There’s no denying that the US has failed to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. On Thursday, the country reported a single-day record of confirmed coronavirus cases: 77,640, surpassing the previous high from July. More than 220,000 Americans have died from the disease, and roughly 1,000 people continue to lose their lives to it every day. “We’re learning to live with it,” President Trump, who himself contracted the virus recently and now claims he is immune from it, said during the debate. Biden’s retort: “People are learning to die with it.” In many ways, it feels as though the federal government has given up on trying to combat both the pandemic and saving the economy. As the virus spikes in different states, governors and local officials have largely been left to their own devices to combat it, as the president sends tweets assigning blame or calling for reopening. Currently, the federal government’s strategy seems more like a waiting game for a vaccine, which Trump says is much closer to being available than experts have said. Meanwhile, millions of people are out of a job, and much of the support they received through the CARES Act stimulus has dried up. The deal-making president has been unable to get a deal for more assistance, and many Republicans have cast the economic problems caused by the coronavirus as a blue-state issue — one they have no interest in addressing. You can’t fix the economy without fixing the pandemic — a point Trump often misses, but one Biden has stressed But when Republicans refuse to provide assistance to state and local governments that are in desperate need of help, they are actually denying both red states and blue states aid — and creating a situation where budget shortfalls will weigh on the economy for years. And as much as the president would like to pretend that reopening is the answer, it isn’t: With a deadly virus still spreading, people aren’t exactly eager to get back out there and consume. You can’t fix the economy without fixing the pandemic — a point Trump often misses, but one Biden has stressed. “I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden said on Thursday. New York is America. So is South Dakota. And we should all care about both. During the debate, Trump zeroed in on New York City, his home his entire life until he landed in the White House. He’s been attacking the city and state throughout the pandemic. Earlier this month, he declared New York had “gone to hell.” He has consistently blamed Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for the state and city’s coronavirus woes. Thursday was no different. “Take a look at New York and what’s happened to my wonderful city. For so many years, I loved it. It was vibrant. It’s dying. Everyone’s leaving New York,” he said. New York City was hit hard early on in the pandemic in a way that was painful and heartbreaking. But the city and state have gone to great lengths to get the virus under control and, at least thus far, have been successful. Nobody is perfect — and plenty of New Yorkers have a lot of criticism for their governor and their mayor. But New York has flattened the curve, with leaders now focusing on “hot spots” in the city and state where cases are spiking to try to keep the outbreaks under control. On the economic front, yes, it’s difficult, and there’s no denying businesses are being hit hard. But the city is resilient. As mentioned, plenty of cities and states need help right now — help the president could make happen. During the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of finger-pointing. If only this state had acted faster, this mayor. And early on in the outbreak, New York was deemed the “bad place.” Now, the city’s doing better, but it’s awful to see the disease spread in other places. Back in April, my family in Wisconsin was calling to check in on me as the disease spread here in Brooklyn. Now, it’s me calling worried about them. The core of treating coronavirus like a state problem is a desire to treat it like an “other” problem. Covid-19 is something that happens to other people, people who must have done something bad. Or, in the president’s case, it’s something that is someone else’s fault. There are plenty of reasons America failed on the pandemic, but it’s hard not to wonder if this isn’t one of them. Maybe if the country had treated this like a United States problem and not a New York problem early on, things could have been different. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Why American public transit is so bad
The 2020 elections could be a step toward getting Americans to stop driving so much. In the middle of the 20th century, the US government made a decision that would seal the country’s fate as a car culture: It decided to build the federal highway system. But rather than constructing highways that circumvented city centers, like in Europe, it instead built them right through their downtown areas. We are seeing the result of that infrastructure decision today. Most cities have public transit systems that serve an outdated commute, and it’s impossible to get around except for in a car. And our political discourse often tends to favor building new roads and highways, rather than improving and expanding public transportation. And nearly 80 percent of Americans get to work by driving alone. The result of all that driving is a system that doesn’t serve the people who rely on public transit. That system is also the biggest contributor to the country’s carbon footprint. Getting more Americans to use public transit is both a long game (transforming how we build our communities around transit hubs) and a short game (just investing more in basic services to convert drivers). Watch the video above to learn more about how the outcome of the 2020 elections could have a profound impact on the future of public transit. This video is theseventhin our series on the 2020 election. We aren’t covering the horse race; instead, we want to explain the stakes of the election through the issues that matter most to you. To do that, we want to know what you think the presidential candidates should be talking about. Tell us here: Further reading For Jonathan English’s research comparing Canadian and US public transit: For research on suburban commutes from the Brookings Institution’s Adie Tomer, Joseph Kane, and Jennifer S. Vey: For more of Vox’s coverage on public transportation: Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Why plexiglass alone can’t prevent Covid-19 
A restaurant in Genval, Belgium, erects clear plastic barriers between tables in preparation for its reopening. | Philippe Crochet/Getty Images Trump says plexiglass “is not the answer” to prevent Covid-19. Experts weigh in. During Thursday night’s presidential debate, President Donald Trump countered his Democratic rival Joe Biden’s call for businesses to erect plexiglass barriers and other safety precautions to reduce the spread of Covid-19. “These are restaurants that are dying,” the president said. “These are businesses without money. Putting up plexiglass is unbelievably expensive and is not the answer.” He added, “Are you going to sit there in a cubicle wrapped around in plastic? These are businesses that are dying Joe, you can’t do that to people.” Trump’s comments, however, neglect the separate guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Labor, which encourage the use of plastic partitions in schools, businesses, and workplaces. Grocery stores, salons, restaurants, nursing homes, and even offices across the country have newfound use for plexiglass, erecting transparent barriers between groups of people as a preventative measure against the coronavirus. Most businesses — some of which are struggling to stay afloat — have opted for more basic, makeshift shields. My neighborhood bánh mì joint, for example, has set up a vinyl curtain to separate the cashier from the customer. So has my local grocery store, which installed a thin divider in front of the employee’s checkout monitor. At nail salons, patrons are sticking their hands through a hole cut in a sneeze guard as masked technicians work on their manicures. Restaurants have constructed table barriers between parties — sometimes for both indoor and outdoor operations — that can create a bleak illusion of closed-off safety, in spite of the virus’s potential for airborne transmission. However, Trump may be right in suggesting that plexiglass shields and similar plastic barriers are not the answer for a different reason — not cost, but efficacy. At least, they’re not the answer alone, explained Shelly Miller, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of environmental engineering. “These barriers are designed to prevent large spray-born droplets, which are released when someone talks loudly or coughs at close range,” she told me. “But you also have to account for the smaller particles that can go around the plexiglass barrier and stay airborne for longer periods of time, which someone can still inhale.” These clear dividers can be useful, though, in places like grocery stores, shopping malls, or banks, where customers interact closely with workers but are still masked and distanced from others. “These barriers are designed to prevent large spray-born droplets, which are released when someone talks loudly or coughs at close range.” Public health experts have advocated for a layered approach to protecting oneself from the virus, Miller said. There is no silver bullet in combating the coronavirus’s spread. That means in addition to plastic shields, businesses should still ask customers to social distance and wear masks, while ensuring that there’s proper ventilation so that even if airborne particles are released, they won’t linger for very long. Even face shields, which are popular among wait staff, need an extra layer of protection. “I would never wear a face shield without a mask. It won’t protect you in any way from inhaling an airborne virus,” Miller added. “I would recommend wearing eye protection if you’re sharing air with an infectious person, since we have receptors that can pick up Covid in our eyes, mouth, and nose.” (The president, having had Covid-19, also referred to wearing goggles during Thursday’s presidential debate, to some surprise.) In July, the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson coined the phrase “hygiene theater” to describe the ritualistic devotion to temperature checks and surface sanitizing that, in some instances, complicates this layered approach: “Covid-19 has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk — even as more dangerous activities are still allowed.” In recent months, people have become more attuned to these performative protections (which include plastic) that don’t really do a good job at protecting us in high-risk situations. Aerosol scientists and epidemiologists pointed out how the two transparent barriers between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence — which Pence initially made a fuss over — at the vice presidential debate in early October, won’t effectively block any microscopic aerosols that are released in the air by an infectious person. So the virus is supposed to hit that little plexiglass and give up lmao— Steadman™ (@AsteadWesley) October 7, 2020 Yet the prevalence of plastic and plexiglass has skyrocketed since the reopening of most businesses across the country. Some establishments are even getting creative in the endeavor to mixed results: A French interior designer is selling ceiling-strung dining pods for $173 a pop. A handful of New York City’s most Instagrammable restaurants are offering dine-in bubble tents as the winter approaches. One of the most dystopian images I’ve seen is that of an older couple locked in a passionate embrace, their masked faces pressed tightly against a plastic “hugging curtain” used in some European nursing homes. Some Americans are dining or working out indoors again, assured by the many hygiene precautions advertised by places like restaurants and gyms. People’s willingness to engage in these higher-risk activities highlight the lack of cohesive public health messaging surrounding the virus, which has confused many Americans since March. Without comprehensive guidance from the federal government, things like mask compliance and dining capacity can vary from state by state, or even city by city. As a result, some have found comfort — and a false sense of security — in the sanitation craze championed by businesses eager to welcome back customers. This can be especially dangerous inside restaurants or bars, where patrons have to take their masks off to dine and drink. Booth partitions create an oddly claustrophobic sense of enclosure, which could make customers feel separated from nearby parties, even if they aren’t spaced 6 feet apart. “It’s possible that these shields can create a micro-environment for one group of diners willing to take the risk with each other or if they’re in the same Covid cluster,” said William Bahnfleth, a Pennsylvania State University professor of architectural engineering. “But if there isn’t good air flow in the space, the plastic barriers might not have much effect at all.” Noam Galai/Getty Images A cafe in New York City’s Upper West Side offers socially-distanced bubble tents for patrons eating outdoors. Bahnfleth said restaurants should consider adding air purifiers or other ways to increase the indoor air change rate — the frequency at which air in a space is recycled, which would reduce the likelihood of customers inhaling viral particles. The height and density of these partitions could also impede the natural air flow of an indoor space, Miller said, which could lead to certain areas having a higher concentration of lingering aerosol particles than others. But as winter approaches, some establishments have become inventive with their outdoor set-ups to keep patrons warm, even if it isn’t epidemiologically sound. The plastic bubble tents seen around the streets of New York, for example, appear to reduce air flow, even if it’s technically part of a restaurant’s outdoor dining operation. While these bubbles are keeping diners inside warm, there doesn’t appear to be any ventilation. “If these spaces had a small opening, that would be better,” Miller said. “I think it’s a cool idea, but I can only see eating in one with my family or people I socialize with on a daily basis.” Her biggest concern with the bubbles is if they’re inhabited by an asymptomatic person, the virus particles they exhale can build up in very high concentrations with nowhere to go. The market for these products is booming, although some acrylic suppliers are hesitant to say whether this demand will last beyond the pandemic, Forbes reported. Lucite International, one of the top international suppliers of acrylic-based products, braced for “a very large downturn” when the coronavirus first hit, since the company supplies to a variety of customers in the automotive, construction, retail, and signage industries. (Acrylic is the formal name of the type of polymer used to manufacture plexiglass.) The sudden interest in acrylic barriers for essential workers and businesses helped, although Lucite doesn’t anticipate the demand for them to last beyond 2021. Alan Ledger, Lucite’s US-based national sales manager, said in an email to Vox that while “there will be ongoing demand for replacement [acrylic] panels, the largest surge has already occurred.” Plus, some of the industry’s long-time customers, such as construction and retail, are hurting from the pandemic, reported the business news publication Marker. But if we take hints from the security theater that resulted from the 9/11 attacks, it’s possible that sanitation habits and plastic displays could be here to stay in a post-Covid-19 world. Urbanists are predicting that the pandemic could influence people to socialize and eat outdoors more, which would impact restaurant set-ups. Experts are also anticipating a shift in social behavior: People could possibly become hyper-vigilant about hygiene and share space with strangers, since it’s likely that another pandemic could be in our future. If masks become a normalized post-pandemic accessory, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to predict that plastic sneeze guards and barriers will be, too. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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CNN’s debate fact-check laid out a “bombardment of dishonesty” from Trump
President Donald Trump debates Democratic nominee Joe Biden on October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee. | Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images A CNN fact-check of the second debate found Trump made far more false claims than Biden. The second and final 2020 presidential debate between Joe Biden and President Donald Trump was certainly a lot more civil that the first. But a CNN fact-check after the debate found there was still a lot of untruths — particularly from the president. “President Trump was better behaved tonight, but he lied more,” CNN fact checker Daniel Dale told anchor Wolf Blitzer, later noting that Trump’s first sentence was inaccurate. “This was just a bombardment of dishonesty that we’ve heard before at his campaign rallies, about subjects big and small.” Dale noted that Biden was also “far from perfect,” having “at least a few” statements that were false, misleading, or lacking the necessary context. But Dale added the contrast between the two men was stark. Even though a debate mute button meant far less back and forth between Biden and Trump, it also allowed the president to lie uninterrupted for two minutes at a time. CNN's Daniel Dale fact-checks President Trump's debate performance: "President Trump was better behaved tonight, but he lied more. ... With this President, we just see a constant barrage incessantly of false or misleading stuff" #Debates2020— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) October 23, 2020 In an interview with Blitzer, Dale singled out two big misleading things Trump said about the Covid-19 pandemic, first that “2.2 million people were expected to die” and second that the country is “rounding the corner” on the virus and it is “going away.” Dale pointed out that while the 2.2 million number is a real figure from a study, it was a projection of how many people would die if the American government did nothing and no social distancing measures were taken by US residents. “This was not an expectation, it was not a realistic estimate,” Dale said. “This was a figure put out there to say this is how bad it gets if you just let this virus run its course, which of course the government was not about to do.” Trump’s claim that the virus is now “going away” in the US is also without merit. Cases are rising in what public health experts believe could be a third peak for virus cases in the US, and daily hospitalizations are now at levels not seen since the summer peak of cases — a potentially ominous sign going into winter. Trump saying that the virus is going away is nothing new, according to Dale, who counted 38 times Trump said Covid-19 would go away during the months of February and October 10. “It was wrong eight months ago, and it’s wrong today,” Dale said. Here are some of Dale’s other fact-checks on Biden and Trump, pulled from his CNN appearances: During a segment on immigration, Trump claimed that less than 1 percent of immigrants actually show up for their immigration court hearings in the US after being released pending a hearing. Dale cited a 2018 statistic showing that 75 percent of immigrants show up for their hearings, meaning closer to 25 percent don’t show up. A more recent study found an even higher percentage of immigrants show up for hearings, although the Trump administration has disputed this type of count. Trump claimed that Biden’s proposed health insurance plan would kick 180 million people off of their private insurance. That claim is false; Biden’s plan would expand the Affordable Care Act giving people more choice through existing health insurance exchanges. It would also add a government-run plan, but selecting that public option would be up to Americans; they would not be forced into choosing it. On Trump’s claim that Biden received $3.5 million from Russia, coming from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dale said: “The initial allegation [from Senate Republicans], which is denied by [Biden’s son] Hunter Biden ... is that Hunter Biden received $3.5 million in a business deal, a consulting deal, with the wife of the late mayor of Moscow. That’s not what Trump said, Trump said that Joe Biden got the money and it came through Putin. There is no allegation from Senate Republicans, from anyone ... that Joe Biden received these payments.” Dale also fact-checked Biden’s claim that he has “never said” he opposed fracking. Dale said: “Biden did make anti-fracking comments during the Democratic primary in 2019 and 2020. Biden did not say the words ‘I oppose fracking there,’ but he clearly was at least strongly suggesting that he was an opponent.” Dale also clarified that anti-fracking was never the Biden campaign’s policy position, but Biden himself made “broad anti-fracking comments” during Democratic primary debates. More than once, Dale said the most serious of Trump’s falsehoods was the repeated one that Covid-19 is going away in America. On Friday morning, NBC News reported the US saw a new single-day record of Covid-19 cases, 77,640 new cases compared to the previous 75,723 record from July 29. “We’re in a rapidly worsening pandemic crisis, might be entering the very worst period of it so far, and the president just keeps saying it’s getting better and will vanish,” Dale tweeted. The country is most certainly not “rounding the corner” on the Covid-19 pandemic, and suggesting so runs the risk of lulling people into a false sense of security during a dangerous time for public health. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Early voting in 2020 has already exceeded all of 2016’s early votes
Voters wait in line at the Franconia Governmental Center on October 22 in Alexandria, Virginia. | Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images More than 51 million have already voted early in 2020, surpassing 2016’s overall early vote total. The US early voting total in 2020 has already exceeded the number of early votes cast in 2016 — and there are still 11 more days to go until Election Day. More than 51 million people have voted early, either in person or by mail, as of Friday morning, according to the US Elections Project, which is run by the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald. That means at least 4 million more people have voted early so far this year, compared to all early voting in 2016. And the early vote totals in Texas (6.4 million votes), North Carolina (2.7 million votes), California (5.8 million votes) already exceed the total number of people who voted for Donald Trump in those same states in 2016. So far in 2020, the country has already cast 37 percent of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election. Rani Molla/Vox The numbers are unprecedented, though maybe not surprising. There has been an expected increase in the number of voters planning to cast their ballots by mail because of the Covid-19 concerns, as well as greater access to both mail and early in-person voting this year. Still, the numbers are a sign — though an early, incomplete one — that voter turnout may be on pace to be the highest in a century. McDonald, of the US Elections Project, has previously predicted turnout to be around 65 percent of the voting-eligible population, or about 150 million voters. (Turnout was about 60 percent in 2016, at about 137 million people.) FiveThirtyEight is predicting a turnout of about 154 million, based on polls of voter enthusiasm and other data. 2020 is seeing record early voting, but there’s still a lot we don’t know Of the more than 51 million American voters who’ve already cast their ballots, about 35 million returned mail ballots, and another 15 million have voted in person. These totals are imperfect, as not all states break out the two separately. About 1 in 5 voters cast mail-ballots in 2016, but given concerns around the Covid-19 pandemic, that number was expected to double, especially as many states adjusted vote-by-mail rules this year to make it easier to send in a ballot. But in the lead-up to the election, President Donald Trump’s false attacks on vote-by-mail helped generate a partisan divide around it, with Democrats being more likely to support it and choose that as a voting option, compared to Republicans. This is borne out in some of the early voting data available, so far. So far, almost twice as many Democrats have voted early compared to Republicans, based on data from the 19 states that make party registration data available, compiled by the US Elections Project. Where state-level data is available, more than 10 million registered Democrats have returned mail ballots, compared to 4.5 million registered Republicans. But the in-person early vote count currently favors registered Republicans, but by the narrowest of margins — which as of Friday, less than 15,000 votes in 10 states were that data was available. Overall, the early vote edge goes to Democrats — though it’s very hard to say what that might mean for the 2020 outcome at this point, as Republicans may be more inclined to wait to vote and to do so in person. Remember, early voting numbers also looked really good for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Party registration is not a totally accurate reflection of how someone votes, anyway, and there’s still a lot more voting to go. Another caveat: These are national numbers, and that includes highly populated states like California, which tend to skew blue. Ultimately, it all comes down to the battleground states for the presidential election. In Florida, 44 percent of total early votes come from registered Democrats compared to 35 percent of registered Republicans. The same trends nationally also played out there: Democrats returned many more mail ballots, so far, but Republicans actually have an edge with in-person early voting in the Sunshine State. In North Carolina, of total early votes cast, 41 percent were registered Democrats, compared to 29 percent of registered Republicans. But these numbers are constantly changing, and, experts caution it’s premature to jump to conclusions about what early vote totals mean for the final 2020 outcome. And when it comes to turnout, one thing experts are watching for is if voting is front-loaded in 2020: Basically, a lot more people may be voting early because of the pandemic, or even just because of high voter enthusiasm, but that could begin to taper off, with turnout on Election Day itself a bit lower than normal. It may also be the case — as forecasters like Silver are predicting — that high early voter turnout will be mirrored by high turnout on November 3. According to a survey by Democracy Fund, about two-thirds of voters said they planned to vote early or by mail in 2020, which is an increase in the number of people who voted by mail (by about 20 percent) or in-person (also about 20 percent) in 2016. Even with that jump in early voting, about 34 percent of voters said in that same survey that they still planned to vote in person, on Election Day. So, America, there’s still a long way to go. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches is incredibly strange and almost offensively bad
Anne Hathaway stars in The Witches. | Warner Bros. The Witches is a weird, unfunny lesson in how not to adapt Roald Dahl’s classic — and problematic — horror tale. Many movies that fail to win critical regard still frequently succeed as entertainment, if only because they turn into delightful excuses for their actors to have fun. One might certainly expect this to be the case for The Witches, Robert Zemeckis’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic, horrifying children’s novel, now streaming on HBO Max. But I must, alas, report that no one — on-screen or off — is having enough fun to save The Witches from being a dull and puzzling thing. While Anne Hathaway as the head witch seems to love swanning around the great coastal Alabama hotel to which Dahl’s witches have bizarrely arrived, no one else seems to be enjoying themselves. Perhaps it’s because the premise of this new version of The Witches inexplicably overlays two separate stories onto one another, and no one else in the cast is quite sure which one they’re in at any given moment. Are they in a story where a young Black boy in the post-Jim Crow South confronts racism and ethnic hatred through the thinly veiled guise of a convention of kid-ocidalwitches? Or are they in a macabre, modern-ish cautionary tale, one where boys can meet monsters and be forever altered at the whimsy of a delightfully unpredictable universe? If you’re not sure these two stories go together, you’re not alone: The Witches isn’t sure either. Despite the film’s quizzical efforts to blend them together, the two halves never cohere into something that makes much sense — or remotely justifies the strange execution. The Witches is an oddly literal adaptation, except when it’s a wild departure The Witches, transplanted from its original Nordic and English settingto 1960s Alabama, recounts the delightfully morbid story of an unnamed Boy (Jahzir Bruno) who moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after the death of his parents. Shortly thereafter, he encounters a witch at the local drug store, and his grandmother, something of a spiritualist herself, initiates him into a world in which child-hating murderous witches are everywhere. These witches, unfortunately, look exactly like the typical woman of the ’60s: They always wear wigs and nice shoes, they have giant expanding nostrils, and they always wear gloves. Not long after this revelation, the Boy comes face to face with not only one witch, but an entire huge coven of witches who’ve all assembled — where else? —at a large hotel convention. And it’s, ironically, held at the very same hotel to which he and his grandmother have traveled to try and escape the witch! Because his grandmother has taught him how to recognize a witch, he immediately realizes what he’s stumbled upon. The results are calamitous (and genuinely creepy) for the Boy. At first, Zemeckis’s version of The Witches appears to be made to order. But Dahl’s novel is really less about a story than it is about a feeling, a sense of things being terribly disordered, unreal, and unfair. This is where everything quickly goes awry. Roald Dahl, the author of childhood classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda, gave us a body of work that feels almost intrinsically British. In the classic tradition of British children’s literature, he represents the world to children as a cold and indifferent place, in which wonders, magic, and human kindness are rare, sought-after treasures. In a Dahl story, children are often abused by their caretakers and other indifferent adults until they discover some form of fantastical escape. His work built on and influenced the youth-oriented fantasy genre, with series like Harry Potter later providing direct echos of Dahl’s work. It’s important to understand this context because, when you watch The Witches, you’re hit with the discrepancy between Dahl’s story world — where the universe is both randomly cruel and full of random mystical delights — and the “real” world in which Zemeckis sets his film. Zemeckis’s The Witches takes place in a post-segregated Southern Alabama, where Black life is still radically unequal to that of white Southerners, and where a Black woman staying at a grand hotel on the Gulf is so extraordinary that the Black bellhops jaw-drop at the sight of her. This dissonance is striking even if you’ve never cracked open a Dahl story. In Dahl’s version, the Boy is originally Norwegian and encounters witches after moving to England with his cigar-smoking granny. In Zemeckis’s version, co-written by Zemeckis, horror icon Guillermo Del Toro, and Girls Trip screenwriter Kenya Barris, the Boy’s grandmother is a tough, determined homemaker who coaxes her grandson out of his grief with helpings of cornbread and plenty of Motown. Spencer, typically a master of comedic timing, has too many elements working against her to pull that off here, starting with a script that can’t quite figure out what her deal is. Is she a sensitive grandmother masking her own grief in order to care for her grandson, a voodoo practitioner with a secret life, or a would-be adventuress? It’s hard to know what the film intends her to be. Then again, it’s equally hard to know what the film itself intends to be. Is it a campy, rollicking farce with a touch of rosy pastel-tinged nostalgia for ... a South that’s barely past segregation? Is it a creepy, sinister children’s tale? Particularly when compared to the classic 1990 film adaptation from horror icon Nicolas Roeg, it’s certainly not very scary — which is probably the worst thing to be said about a movie based on a book whose witches are terrifying. In the original novel, there’s a truly chilling moment when our narrator, the Boy, realizes that all the women in the room he’s trapped in are wearing gloves. We never come close to anything that scary in Zemeckis’s version of The Witches because we’re all assumed to be in on the joke that the witches are in the hotel the whole time. But the joke just isn’t that funny. As the head witch of the coven, Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch is both Catwoman and the Joker, with a hilariously overwrought German accent. While Hathaway has her moments of melodramatic fun, she’s the only actor who does. And then there’s the matter of race.Even though on the surface, Zemeckis is faithfully retelling Dahl’s story of a boy and a coven of witches, he’s also giving us a story of a Black boy facing racial and class prejudice in the South that resonates with the American political climate today, even if the prejudice has been dialed back so far as to be barely more than a hint. Every Dahl story puts the trappings of white British privilege front and center, pitting our maligned waif hero against snooty rich children and their terrible parents. When that story gets transplanted onto the story of Southern life, however, it inevitably feels much different. Dahl’s stories depend upon their hyperbolic caricatures of childhood and adulthood for much of their whimsical appeal and their ability to speak directly to young children. It’s difficult for an American viewer to find this kind of hyperbolic whimsy, however, in a recently desegregated South. It’s even harder when the potential for larger world-building around the theme of racial injustice seems to have been utterly ignored. (What does it mean that a boy would rather be a mouse than a boy in America? There’s a question ripe for exploration — but The Witches doesn’t think to ask it, let alone suggest an answer.) In the Witches novel, what’s striking about the narrator and his grandmother is their aloneness in the world — they really only have each other. But in Zemeckis’s version, Spencer’s character lives in a small town, goes to church, visits her local shopkeepers, and has a whole history of growing up in a Depression-era community where witches were apparently a part of the local lore. But whatever community she’s a part of is only shrugged at, never brought to bear on her actions or the story itself. What’s even more glaring and strange is that in a community of church-going Black women in the 1960s, where most women typically wore nice shoes and gloves, just like witches, the film doesn’t attempt to address the problems that would inevitably arise if you’re a kid trying to decide who is and isn’t a witch. The film could raise this extremely obvious question, and because it’s chosen to take Black characters living in a Black community as its heroes, you’d think it would. That it doesn’t just adds to the level of disconnect between Zemeckis’s impulse to inject modern-day diversity into The Witches and the all-British story he’s telling. But perhaps we should discuss why a modern retelling of The Witches would want to be diverse. Because the other crucial piece of context for The Witches involves its subtext — and to understand it, we have to ruin your childhood a little. (Sorry.) Roald Dahl was an anti-Semitic, misogynistic misanthrope Roald Dahl is one of the most celebrated children’s authors who ever lived. But he was also indisputably one of the most bigoted. He was a profound anti-Semite, perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes and falsehoods — like that of Jewish people controlling the economy and the publishing industry. In 1983, Dahl, then 67, told The New Statesman that Jewish people “provoke animosity” and blamed them for being too “submissive” to fight back during the Holocaust. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere,” he said. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” Unlike, for example, the ongoing debates around H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, we know Dahl was anti-Semitic because he literally said so. “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic,” he reportedly told The Independent in 1990. Still, despite these direct quotes to the media, critics were calling reports of Dahl’s anti-Semitism “unjustified” as late as 2009. And in 2016, Steven Spielberg, director of the Dahlian adaptation BFG, expressed disbelief that someone who could write such a kindhearted book could really be anti-Semitic. Spielberg argued that, as a classic misanthrope, Dahl often said contentious things just to aggravate others. “Everybody in his life, basically, his whole support team, was Jewish,” Spielberg added. Dahl might have surrounded himself with Jewish staff, but that doesn’t mean he treated them well; in fact, Dahl’s increasingly anti-Semitic attitude toward staff members at his longtime publisher, Knopf, ultimately led to Knopf’s extraordinary decision to fire him as a client late in 1980 — though that was also because Dahl was allegedly horrible to the staff in general. Dahl has also been widely read as a misogynistic writer, in large part due to the openly misogynistic theme of The Witches, in which women are literally demonized for dressing up, feminizing their appearances, and framed as monsters lurking inside seemingly sweet and complacent disguises. They’re also coded as anti-Semitic, with large, hooked noses, reptilian features, a ready stash of mysterious cash, and a plot to take over the world and kill children, all tropes derived from longstanding anti-Semitic conspiracies. (As a bonus, while I’m ruining your childhood, Matilda, a sweet telekinetic orphan, was originally meant to be something of the villain of the book, terrorizing her parents instead of the reverse.) Perhaps it’s an awareness of this troubled history and a desire to do better — or perhaps just a desire to engage in diverse casting — that sparked Zemeckis’s attempt to build his version of The Witches around Spencer’s character and her grandson. But if that’s the case, it seems the exercise hasn’t shown us much — except, perhaps, to underscore that a thoughtless kind of diverse representation isn’t much better than no representation at all. The Witches falls apart because of its inability to reconcile its very different stories The recent trend among Dahlian adaptations has been to assign the task of adapting his works to Jewish directors, like Spielberg or Zemeckis. (Taika Waititi, who is Maori and Jewish, is currently adapting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for Netflix.) Yet Zemeckis’s version of The Witches seems to offer nothing whatsoever to attempt to remedy the embedded issues in Dahl’s original writing. The writers have chosen not to substantially re-work the story, not even to think through the ways a bunch of witches might manipulate their Southern gothic environment. (In Alabama, on the Gulf of Mexico, are there really no swamp witches around? No Cajun priestesses doing spells in moss-covered mansions or nearby pirate coves?) Then again, none of the witches really exist at all outside of their single-minded goal to squash children. The anti-Semitism Dahl himself professed doesn’t necessarily play a role in most of his other works, but it’s directly relevant to The Witches, a story that’s explicitly about detecting imposters in the midst of society. This is, to be blunt, the theme of most anti-Semitic conspiracies throughout history, and has led in its most extreme form to the idea that Jewish people “hide” in plain sight while essentially controlling the world. In The Witches, witches hide in plain sight by disguising themselves as ordinary women — but the tells that give them away are also coded as anti-Semitic: they’re bald beneath their wigs, have reptile-like hands and feet, and have noses that expand when they sniff out children. The grand high witch also speaks with a German accent, one that can easily pass for Yiddish. The 1990 film unfortunately perpetuated all of these traits, and I hoped that Zemeckis’s version would take pains to shift its witches far away from this stereotype. But it’s not clear if any attempt was made to remove the story’s discriminatory bits. At least the hooked noses are gone. Even so, there’s a lot of anti-Semitic coding ported over, especially when you’re also trying to signal a commitment to diversity by casting Black actors (and an entirely atonal Chris Rock as narrator) to deliver this story. It seems as though zero forethought or even insight went into the portrayal of the witches; and honestly, perhaps this movie needed to hire a culture critic as a consultant in order to save it from itself. Perhaps that lack of insight about the film’s symbolism and coding is why everything else in The Witches just feels so off-kilter. There are shoehorned CGI mouse adventures that don’t feel remotely fun; the CGI effects feel flattened against the perpetually pastel tones of this movie, and our talking mice are given very little character development outside some cursory backstory (and some obligatory fat-shaming of Boy’s portly friend Bruno, because it wouldn’t be a Roald Dahl adaptation without some fat-shaming). And given Stanley Tucci’s vacillating faint Southern accent, for example, he doesn’t seem to be entirely sure where he is, just like it’s not entirely clear whether racism exists in this universe or not. Y’all, Kristin Chenoweth is in this film, and I was so discombobulated I didn’t even notice her — that’s how weird this film is. The Witches is a children’s film, and perhaps this deep overanalysis proves that children’s films should never be subjected to this much rigorous scrutiny. But children’s films that endure are the ones that remain compelling in adulthood. With The Witches, so little thought has gone into the process of creation that it seems as though it’s destined to be a lesson in how not to adapt a problem-laden story for the 21st century. It’s a cautionary tale, alright — just not the one the director intended to make. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The real danger to birds isn’t windmills — it’s cats and Trump
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump return to the White House after the final presidential debate on October 23. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images If the president were really worried about birds, he’d be talking about cats — and probably wouldn’t be trying to scrap penalties for industries that kill birds. President Donald Trump has a bone to pick with windmills — he says it’s because they kill a lot of birds. But if it’s the bird population he’s really worried about, his true enemy is cats, which are the true enemies of the birds. During the climate change section of Thursday’s final presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the issue of clean energy came up and, eventually, the discussion turned to wind. Biden touted electric, solar, and wind energy as fast-growing industries and pushed back against the president’s past claims that noise from windmills causes cancer (there’s no evidence for this). And then we were off to the races re: windmills. Trump said the United States is energy independent, and then leaned in on windmills. “I know more about wind than you do. It’s extremely expensive. Kills all the birds. It’s very intermittent,” he said. So, to back up to the birds thing. While it is true that wind turbines do kill somebirds, they are not even close to the primary cause of death to the avian population. That’s actually your neighborhood cat. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that cats are responsible for the deaths of 2.4 billion birds each year. After that, collisions with building glass and vehicles are to blame for about another 800 million deaths. By comparison, about 230,000 birds are killed after colliding with a wind turbine every year. i know why, it's because of three things that I like: cats, windows, and wind turbines, two out of the three are dangerous for birds— Costa Samaras (@CostaSamaras) October 23, 2020 If the true concern is saving the birds, then it would be good to focus not on windmills but on advice for keeping one’s cat from killing them: namely, keep your cat inside, and plant a tree or bush or something in your yard. Or put some sort of paint or decals on your window so birds know the glass is there. The declining bird population is bad, but the problem isn’t windmills The silliness of the windmill claims aside, the declining bird population is a real problem. As Vox’s Brian Resnick wrote in 2019, one study estimates that North America has lost 3 billion birds since 1970, though it differs across species. He explained why it matters: Birds play an important role in ecosystems: They eat insects, they disperse seeds, and they’re food for other animals as well. They’re also important for sustainable agriculture by controlling pests (i.e. eating them) and reducing the need for chemical insecticides. The Fish & Wildlife Service notes that millions of acres of habitats for birds are lost each year because of development, agriculture, and forestry practices, and a big part of helping the population would have to entail protecting and restoring bird habitats. It also points out that climate change — which was supposed to be the subject of the final section of the debate — is also contributing to the issue. So what is Trump’s problem with windmills? It’s impossible to get into his head, though he once filed a lawsuit in Scotland to try to block a wind farm from being built, which would have been visible from his golf course. He called the turbines a “horrible idea” and “ugly” and complained, “I want to see the ocean, not windmills.” It’s also worth noting that back in January, the Trump administration scrapped penalties for industries that kill migratory birds — meaning oil and gas companies, electric companies, and other businesses that accidentally kill birds can do so without fear of prosecution or fines. A federal judge overturned the rule this summer, and the issue could eventually wind up in the Supreme Court — one where Trump is about to put in place a 6-3 conservative majority. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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How pandemic fatigue and polarization led to Wisconsin’s massive Covid-19 outbreak
Members of the Wisconsin National Guard test residents for the coronavirus at a temporary test facility set up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 9, 2020. | Scott Olson/Getty Images Wisconsin’s coronavirus cases have skyrocketed. Here’s why. The coronavirus epidemic in Wisconsin is so bad that, earlier this month, the state opened field hospitals to take on a wave of cases and deaths that officials feared would overwhelm the health care system. The US has one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world, and Wisconsin has one of the worst outbreaks within the US. Only the Dakotas and Montana have higher rates of daily new cases. Wisconsin’s outbreak also shows no signs of abating: Since the beginning of October, the seven-day average of daily new coronavirus cases has risen by almost 40 percent. Covid-19 deaths have increased by more than 95 percent over the month. Wisconsin is the most populous state ranked in the top five for Covid-19 cases. And it’s likely the most important politically — Donald Trump’s win in the state helped cement his Electoral College victory in 2016. In some ways, the story of Wisconsin’s recent surge is similar to other surges across the country: Cases gradually rose after restrictions were loosened in May, then skyrocketed as the public eased up — gathering for Labor Day, going back to bars and indoor dining, and returning to college campuses. “It’s a combination of a lot of things that have occurred at the same time,” Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin Madison, told me. “It was a perfect storm.” But what makes Wisconsin unique is the role political polarization has played. It’s not just that its voters are divided enough to make Wisconsin a swing state in presidential elections. The state government is also divided, and that’s had clear consequences: Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has repeatedly tried to enact new restrictions and policies to combat Covid-19, only to have them threatened or overturned by Republican lawmakers. It was a Republican-controlled Supreme Court that forced Wisconsin’s reopening in the first place by striking down Evers’s stay-at-home order. (Some local governments imposed new restrictions, but others didn’t.) It’s the Republican-controlled legislature that’s now threatening to repeal the state’s mask mandate. And President Donald Trump has held rallies in the state — even as its caseload grew — downplaying the pandemic by claiming it’s “rounding the corner” and calling for the state to “open it up.” Experts argue that the state needs a united front to take down the coronavirus — and, in particular, the state’s Republican leaders have to accept what scientists have repeatedly said on Covid-19. But, for now, the public isn’t getting consistent leadership or messaging. Some GOP lawmakers, like Trump, continue to push for the opposite, calling into question the need for social distancing and masking even as the evidence supports both. For Wisconsin, that’s not only helped make its coronavirus epidemic one of the current worst in the US but threatens to keep the outbreak going. Until state lawmakers and the public take action, there’s no reason to think Wisconsin’s coronavirus cases and deaths will subside. It’s yet another lesson in the need for continued vigilance against the coronavirus. “The bottom line is that the vast majority of the population is susceptible to Covid-19,” Amanda Simanek, an epidemiologist, at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, told me. In some ways, Wisconsin reflects the standard Covid-19 story Part of what’s led Wisconsin down this path is the story that’s been repeated again and again in explaining different states’ Covid-19 outbreaks: The state reopened too early and quickly, while the public and its leaders didn’t take precautions like social distancing and masking seriously enough. In Wisconsin, Evers tried to maintain a stay-at-home order. After the state Supreme Court struck it down, he’s tried to institute milder restrictions, such as limits on public gatherings and capacity at restaurants and bars. But courts have blocked those restrictions, too. Republicans in the state have criticized and fought Evers every step of the way, either in the courts or in the legislature. Trump has played into this — telling supporters at a Wisconsin rally, “I wish you had a Republican governor, because, frankly, you’ve got to open your state up. You’ve got to open it up.” With only local restrictions left in place, much of the state has reopened. At the same time, the public has become increasingly fatigued with the pandemic and all the hindrances it’s produced in everyday life. The restrictions also may have seemed less necessary to Wisconsinites, as much of the state avoided the kind of large outbreak seen across the US throughout the summer. That mix of fatigue and complacency, experts said, likely led more people to start moving about and gathering together by Labor Day. So people went out more, with a chance to infect one another during each interaction. The reopening of indoor bars and restaurants poses especially big concerns for experts: In these spaces, people are close together for long periods of time; they can’t wear masks as they eat or drink; the air can’t dilute the virus like it can outdoors; and alcohol can lead them to drop their guards further. Wisconsin’s current surge appeared to first take off in colleges and universities, with the state’s college towns ranking among the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the US in September as students returned to campus, partied, and hit up bars and restaurants. By now, though, the outbreaks have spread much further — nearly statewide. This seemed to start around Labor Day, when friends and family gathered, partied, and spread the virus. Coupled with Wisconsin’s reopening as restrictions have been struck down or eliminated, cases have skyrocketed since then. This, too, was similar to many of the summer outbreaks, as Memorial Day and reopenings led to new surges of Covid-19 in the South, West, and, over time, much of the rest of the US. Similarly, in the summer, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that increases in cases among younger populations eventually led to increases among older groups — as may have happened after universities and colleges reopened in Wisconsin. The problem is these places never got Covid-19 cases down. Indeed, Wisconsin’s cases have never consistently declined — at least to levels that experts consider safe. By Labor Day, Wisconsin had more than double the confirmed coronavirus cases that it had at the start of June. That left a large population of infected people to spread the coronavirus to other people as they went out more. “The virus was already there,” Sethi said. These problems stand to get worse in the fall and winter. The much colder temperatures in Wisconsin will push people indoors, where the virus has an easier time spreading. Friends and families will once again gather for the holidays, from Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s Eve. Another flu season could strain hospitals further, hindering their ability to treat a surge of Covid-19 patients. In that sense, Wisconsin’s story really is like much of the country’s: Premature reopenings have led to more cases and deaths, and they’ll potentially lead to even more cases and deaths as the fall and winter likely make things riskier. “It’s not particularly surprising,” Simanek said. “But it’s not necessarily inevitable.” Political polarization has uniquely hurt Wisconsin’s response Political divides now drive different levels of social distancing and mask use between Democrats and Republicans across the country. What makes Wisconsin unique is how pronounced political polarization is in a state so evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans — the state doesn’t register voters by party, but the state legislature is held by Republicans while the governor is a Democrat, and Trump in 2016 won Wisconsin by just 0.7 percent of the vote. This division has made partisan fights about Covid-19 especially fierce and consequential, particularly between Democratic leaders, including Evers, and Republican leaders in charge of the state’s Assembly and Senate. In general, Evers has tried to push for the policies that experts have called for in the face of Covid-19 — social distancing, masking, and so on — and Republican lawmakers have resisted. Most recently, Evers declared a third state of emergency related to Covid-19 and extended his mask mandate. Republicans responded by threatening to repeal the mandate (but so far have shown few signs of actually doing it, with the state Assembly not reconvening so far). On top of hindering the policy response, this has also led to mixed public health messages to the public. By and large, Republicans — particularly Trump — suggest that Covid-19 isn’t a real threat. Democrats, including Evers and presidential candidate Joe Biden, claim that the pandemic has to be taken seriously. That’s led to partisan differences in who takes action against Covid-19. Anecdotally, people in more Republican parts of the state are less likely to wear masks. That’s backed by polling, which has found that Republicans are less likely to wear masks at all and, if they do wear masks, do so less frequently. “There’s a lot of mixed attitudes with how to resolve this issue and even questioning whether the pandemic is a problem at all that needs to be addressed,” Sethi said. “So there’s a critical mass in the state — particularly in the northeast of the state, but really throughout the state — that just aren’t taking the precautions they should be taking.” More broadly, experts worry the political fights have muddled guidance even for people who do want to take Covid-19 more seriously. When state leaders give contradictory advice, and that advice appears to differ based on political party, it may become easier for members of the public to tune out in the face of what seems like another partisan battle in a state that already has a lot of political differences and squabbling. It’s also leading to less clear messaging as to what the public should do. How dangerous is Covid-19, really? Are social distancing and masks really effective? Are treatments already effective enough to not worry about the disease? Is a vaccine around the corner? These are all valid questions with real answers (all of which generally point to continued, sustained action against the coronavirus), but people have to break through political fights, talking points, and misinformation to get those answers. The political back-and-forth, Sethi argued, “subconsciously gives people permission to believe what they want to believe.” In normal times, this kind of response from lawmakers and the public might just block important legislation from passing. But today, it’s fueling a deadly pandemic right as it unfolds. Wisconsin has to get serious on the crisis to turn things around As grim as things are in Wisconsin today, the truth is that Covid-19 isn’t unstoppable. The solutions are the same things experts have now been repeating for months throughout the pandemic: More testing and contact tracing to isolate people who are infected, get their close contacts to quarantine, and deploy broader restrictions as necessary. More masking. More careful, phased reopenings. More social distancing. But Wisconsin, its leaders, and its population have to take these measures seriously. And, crucially, they have to keep at it: Until there’s a vaccine or similarly effective treatment, the coronavirus will remain a constant threat. “There’s only so much you can do to contain this if there isn’t a coherent, uniform response,” Simanek said. The risk now is that Wisconsin’s outbreak could get so bad that a lockdown may become necessary. That’s what’s happened in Israel and European nations, as they’ve seen Covid-19 epidemics spiral out of control. Of course, no one wants a lockdown. That’s exactly why experts emphasize the need for less restrictive measures now: If the public and its leaders take social distancing, testing, tracing, and masking seriously and sustain such measures, coronavirus cases can come down without a harsh lockdown. At least, that’s what seemed to work in other developed countries, like South Korea. As things remain, though, the situation in Wisconsin is pretty bad — with cases still rising and Republican lawmakers still resisting the governor’s actions. If that continues as the fall rolls on and winter arrives, the state’s bad coronavirus outbreak stands to get even worse. “In the current state,” UW Madison epidemiologist Nasia Safdar told me, “there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Manifesting, the latest New Age internet wellness craze, explained
“Manifesting,” or the practice of thinking aspirational thoughts with the purpose of making them real, has never been more popular. | Getty Images The latest internet wellness craze is thinking your way to a better life. Whether it works or not isn’t really the point. When the Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne published The Secret in 2006, book critics responded, for the most part, by laughing at it. This wasn’t necessarily unwarranted; Byrne’s assertion that positive things will happen to you if only you think enough positive thoughts is crammed with unscientific New Ageisms that feel like truth no matter how untrue they actually are. Her central ideas fall apart with the tiniest prodding: People don’t die of cancer because they fail to manifest enough positive thoughts to ward off the disease, for instance. Besides, it was Byrne who had the last laugh: The Secret has sold 30 million copies since then, and is among the most successful self-help books of all time. It doesn’t take much critical thought to understand why The Secret and books like it — The Power of Positive Thinking, The Science of Getting Rich, Think and Grow Rich — are so popular: They offer a portrait of the world that is extraordinarily alluring, one where the only obstacle to achieving every dream we might have is to focus very hard on it, as though pretending like we’re already gorgeous, successful, deliriously happy human beings will make it real. Which is why, more than a decade after The Secret, a new generation is discovering its central thesis, except this time on social media. On TikTok, teenagers share stories about how “scripting,” or repeatedly writing down a wish, caused a crush to finally text them back. On YouTube, vloggers lead tutorials on how to properly manifest your dream future. On Instagram, someone will write that $20,000 will soon land in your hands, and all you have to do is comment “YES.” On Twitter, stans will, ironically or not, attempt to manifest the release of a new Lorde album. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Spiritful Thoughts (@spiritfulthoughts) on Oct 4, 2020 at 6:38pm PDT “Manifesting,” or the practice of thinking aspirational thoughts with the purpose of making them real, has never been more popular: From late March to mid-July, Google searches for the term have skyrocketed 669 percent; “shut up I’m manifesting” is among the defining memes of 2020. Yet even pre-pandemic, interest had been gradually rising since around 2017, alongside burgeoning conversations around wellness and self-care. At the same time as stereotypically woo-woo practices involving crystals, essential oils, tarot, and energy wavelengths were reaching the general consciousness, professionals and influencers touting these methods were making bank (Goop’s Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance). One of them even made it to the presidential primary debate stage. In a moment where all any average citizen can really do, ultimately, is hope for a better future than the one we’re all currently living in, it’s no wonder the practice of manifesting has exploded. Like so many other quarantine trends — homemaking, bread baking, tie-dyeing, or learning TikTok dances — manifesting feels like a way to accomplish something we have control over in a time when we’re mostly powerless to effect any real change. There is also a lower barrier to entry than almost any other activity: All you need are your dreams, and to think about how nice it would be if they all came true. What is manifesting and why do people do it? The act of manifesting either has a ton of complicated rules or is whatever you want it to be, depending on who you ask. One popular TikTok claims that by simply coming across it, you’ve already manifested the video, and that in fact you’ve unconsciously manifested everything that has ever happened in your life (she quickly clarified in the comments that “nobody manifests their trauma”). Some say that there’s no “right” way to manifest while others claim it won’t work if you don’t “connect to the spiritual world” first. “Scripting” can either mean writing down your desire or writing down your desire precisely 33 times for three days, and then finishing it with “all this manifests and better,” just in case the universe decides to send even more than what you asked for. @martoquica i was manifesting a text from someone while i made this video. got the text 30 seconds later. ❌ #lawofattraction#manifestation#loa#manifest#foryou ♬ cArTi I wAnNa Go To PluTo - rach Manifesting can also be surprisingly mathematical. There are special numbers associated with it — 1111 and 444 are “angel numbers” sent from the universe — as well as special sound frequencies for manifesting specific wants (528 hertz is the “love frequency”). There are manifesting-adjacent emoji (the Nazar Amulet, which in many cultures’ folklore is believed to ward off the evil eye, is a favorite) and guides on how to create your own sigils, a personal motif often used in witchcraft. The whole thing can feel vaguely Christian at times (the angels, for one), and at others be deemed demonic (e.g. witchcraft). Like many New Age-y practices, manifesting comes with its fair share of paradoxes, where if you think about it too hard, none of it makes any sense. And yet its ideas have stood the test of time: The law of attraction, the belief that all thoughts eventually become things, and if you think positively, positive things will come to you, has existed since the New Thought spiritual movement of the 19th century. New Thought popularized terms like “creative visualization” and spiritual healing, as well as the controversial (and frankly, dangerous) theory that illness is created in the mind. Roughly six in 10 American adults, regardless of whether they describe themselves as religious or not, believe in at least one belief from the New Age movement of the ’60s and ’70s, such as reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and spiritual energy in objects, according to a 2018 Pew Research study, with women being more likely than men to say they believe. Witchcraft, for example, has also enjoyed a renaissance in the social media age, extending beyond the boundaries of neo-pagan Wicca and becoming more open to individual interpretations and practices. For better or for worse, it’s also become more mainstream — earlier this summer, witches on TikTok circulated a rumor that “baby” or inexperienced witches were casting hexes on the moon — and corporatized: Urban Outfitters and Sephora and other retail chains have received backlash in recent years for attempting to sell one-size-fits-all occult products that appropriate spiritual beliefs from indigenous cultures. @1111_2222_3333_4444 #manifestation #ursign #august27 #1111 #2222 #thisisursign #528hz ♬ 528Hz - Chakra Ray & Flute Shakuhachi The mainstreaming of New Age and pagan beliefs has been a boon for social-media-savvy self-help gurus and spiritual teachers, to whom followers flock for guidance on manifesting, crystals, reiki, or other alternatives to traditional psychotherapy. While many simply enjoy seeing calming or empowering messages in their feeds, others will spend hundreds or more on coaching sessions meant to provide some kind of awakening or inner peace. Taylor Simpson is one such coach, although there is a more specific name for what she does. “Priestess of Light” is the name listed on her Instagram, where she has more than 100,000 followers. Simpson has taught what she calls “divine feminine mystic manifestation” to around 1,800 people through courses ($79/month) and “masterclasses” ($999) that aim to help women attract money, love, and happiness. A quick scroll through her Instagram and website will reveal rather esoteric spiritual terms that I asked her to define. A lightworker, she says, is “someone who is so fiercely aligned with their truth came here on earth to be able to serve.” There are allusions to moving from “3D to 5D,” which could be compared to The Matrix’s concepts of the red and blue pills. “3D is polarity. It’s this or that, right or wrong, up or down, bad, good,” she explained. “4D is where people wake up. We shift into 5D, where there’s just love. There is no right or wrong. It’s neutrality.” Similarly, there’s “awake” versus “asleep”: Asleep people are “doing the nine to five, the white picket fence. They think that their surroundings dictate them. They’re always the victim. They don’t take responsibility.” There is much talk of frequencies (lower frequencies are made of guilt and shame, higher ones of love and peace). Her clients often come for a more material purpose: They want to manifest money, or perhaps a soulmate. Simpson’s process is not dissimilar from therapy, at least superficially: She tries to untangle why, exactly, her clients want what they want, and why they feel unworthy of getting it. The difference, obviously, is that Simpson believes that once her clients are fully aligned within themselves, they will be able to manifest anything they want. To explain to me how manifestation actually works, she used the stereotype of the “crazy ex-girlfriend,” wherein a woman’s neediness for love ends up pushing men away; meanwhile, women who play it cool will unconsciously draw their ex-boyfriends back in. On some level this makes sense, but I wondered whether the same analogy could be used for, say, someone who really wants a fancy car, which has no capacity for emotion and is unmoved by psychological tricks. “It’s the frequency that the car is in that you’re in,” she says. “While it doesn’t have feelings, it is something that your future self that already has the car who’s done the inner work to get there has. If you embody the version of you that has that car, eventually, you’re going to be in a situation where you have the money or the opportunity to meet your future self in that car.” No, manifesting doesn’t actually work It is fine, of course, to believe this. But there are limits. One concern psychologists have with ideas like manifesting is that it doesn’t take into account people whose thoughts can be inherently negative — those with anxiety, depression, or other mental health diagnoses. Overestimating the power of one’s thoughts, which is a symptom of OCD among many other disorders, “could be very dangerous to people who already have anxiety disorders, but potentially, it might even be enough to start those symptoms happening in someone who originally doesn’t,” the cognitive neuroscientist Rhiannon Jones told Vice. Someone with depression who believes that no one truly loves them, for instance, could theoretically think that just because this thought entered their brain, that makes it true. Even if manifesting doesn’t present a serious mental health problem, there’s also the fact that positive thinking alone will not actually change your material circumstances, and may in fact do the opposite. There are decades of scientific research and dozens of studies proving that, often, positive thinking actually makes us more complacent and therefore less likely to muster the effort to achieve our goals. “The more positively people dream about the future, the better they feel at the moment. But you need energy to implement your wishes.” The best record of these is in the work of German academic and NYU psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen, whose 2015 book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation explains why advice espoused in books like The Secret is demonstrably false. Along with her book, Oettingen also launched a website and free app called WOOP, an acronym for “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan,” which is sort of like manifesting, but with a workable strategy to bring your goals to fruition. “The more positively people dream about the future, the better they feel at the moment,” she told me. “People relax and their blood pressure goes down. But you need the energy to implement your wishes, and over time, they actually get more depressed, partly because they’re putting in less effort and have less success.” While optimism can be extremely helpful in situations that are out of a person’s control — living during a pandemic, for instance — those who focus solely on a dream outcome in their own lives, such as a new job or finding a soul mate, are perhaps setting themselves up for failure. Instead, Oettingen makes the case for a technique she calls mental contrasting, where in addition to focusing on a desire, you focus equally on the obstacles in your way. One of her studies cited in the book involved a group of third graders who received a candy prize if they completed a language assignment. Some were told to interrogate their own behaviors that might prevent them from finishing the task, while others were told only to fantasize on the prize. The first group did better. “Once you understand what the obstacle is, you can then find a way to overcome the obstacle,” Oettingen explains. “Or, if the obstacle is insurmountable, then you can adjust your wish, postpone it, or actively let it go. You’ll have a good conscience because you know it’s just not possible and you can better invest your energy in a different, more promising project.” It’s not that our desires don’t matter. “We need to take these positive fantasies and daydreams really seriously because they signal where we have needs,” she adds. “To make our fantasies come true and satisfy our needs, though, we have to garner our energy.” Maybe we’re all just taking this too seriously Perhaps whether manifesting works or not isn’t the point. If there’s one recent cultural trend that most resembles manifesting, it’s astrology, which in the mid-2010s exploded into the mainstream via social media, memes, and broader interpretations of what wellness could be. Yet as much as the discourse reflected a sudden interest in rising signs and natal charts, that didn’t mean that everyone who loved talking about it really believed it all that much. In 2017, near the height of the internet’s astrology fervor, historian Nicholas Campion wrote that the question of who actually “believes” in astrology is impossible to answer, one that’s maybe not even worth asking. “When I asked the astrologers who didn’t ‘believe’ for their reasons, they replied that astrology is no more a matter of belief than television or music: it is real, so has nothing to do with belief,” he writes. “Or to put it another way, people only believe in things which don’t exist. Which is why public surveys on belief can come up with misleading results.” Here’s a recent example: On TikTok a few months ago I came across a viral video of a group of teenagers at a sleepover in a prayer circle, chanting the lyrics to the One Direction song “History” with a doll version of each member around a candle. The caption: “manifesting for some good one direction content.” I asked its creator, 17-year-old Mercades Watt, whether the video was made in earnest, although I was pretty sure I already knew the answer. “Some people took it seriously and I was like, ‘No, guys,’” she laughs. “This is a joke. I’m chanting lyrics to a song.” @mercadeswatt manifesting for some good one direction content @hshq @niallhoran @liampayne #onedirection #harrystyles #niallhoran #liampayne #louistomlinson #zayn ♬ stan 1D and follow me plz - Mercades Mercades says she heard about manifesting about six months ago, on TikTok. “I didn’t know what it meant at first and everyone just kept saying it. Some of them would be manifesting something not as serious, and I’d be like, ‘Okay, that’s a joke.’ For [others], they’re manifesting a better year or something.” As an overthinker, she feels like if she seriously attempted to manifest something it would end up backfiring. But she also doesn’t necessarily see the trend sticking around for all that long. “Some of my friends are like, ‘Oh, I’m on witch TikTok now. I always do these little manifesting things. I wrote down this person’s name in a notebook,’ she says. “I’m like, ‘Okay, good for you.’ I’d say they’re probably just going to do it for the rest of the year and then forget about it.” Who does it really harm, after all, if someone posts a manifesting TikTok of a city skyline, envisioning a glamorous life in New York, and thousands of people comment “claiming this!”? No one, obviously, besides the possibility that all of those people will assume that by commenting on the video, they don’t have to exert any effort to actually move there. I prefer to assume people are smarter than that, though. Humans are inherently skeptical, and even the most naive among us understand that a person who sits alone in their home doing nothing all day will not miraculously become a millionaire. Manifesting is attractive because it is as easy as contemplating one’s zodiac sign, with or without several degrees of irony. It’s what one might consider praying, if praying were a cool thing to do on social media. Fewer Americans consider themselves religious, and like many new-wellness practices, the interest in manifesting likely blossomed out of an absence of needs once filled by organized religion. That psychotherapy may be out of reach for more people than ever is also likely a factor. let us all now manifest and saylorde — elif | ia era (@amoortentia) August 2, 2020 The real danger, I would argue, is our ability to latch onto a belief with no real basis and despite scientific evidence to the contrary. We have seen what happens when people rely on their feelings over factual information. Researchers at Ohio State University found that those who trust their “gut” are more likely to believe in fake news and conspiracy theories, and tend to believe that all facts are politically biased. We have also seen what happens when these beliefs become commercialized: Both QAnon and astrology, for instance, are bona fide industries; retail platforms are littered with Q merch (until they get banned), and the astrology business is worth an estimated $2.1 billion. It’s only a matter of time before we see the next Co-Star but for manifesting: a cool-girl app aimed at Gen Z women with wry advice on how to think your way to a new job. I asked Oettingen, the psychologist, whether even she could understand the argument that if manifesting makes a confused teen girl or a hopeless divorcée feel good in the moment then it’s worth celebrating. “Yes, as long as she clearly understands that by writing it down 100 times, it will not happen and will likely sap her energy and time,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a happy dream.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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In final debate, Trump interrupted twice as much as Biden
President Donald Trump speaks to moderator Kristen Welker in the final presidential debate on October 22. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Trump “only” interrupted 34 times in the final debate. By Vox’s count, there were 96 interruptions and interjections in Thursday’s final presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee. President Donald Trump was responsible for 65 percent of the interruptions — substantive moments where he spoke over another person, stopping the conversational flow — and former Vice President Joe Biden was responsible for 67 percent of the shorter interjections, chiming in with comments like “not true” or “oh, come on.” (More on how we counted below). At one point, after debate moderator Kristen Welker asked Biden about his vote for the 1994 crime bill, Trump repeatedly pushed the former vice president on why he didn’t accomplish his proposed criminal justice reforms during his eight years in the White House. Trump: You had eight years to get it done. Now you’re saying you’re going to get it done because you’re all talk and no action, Joe. Welker [indicating Biden]: Your response. Biden: We got a lot of it done — Trump: You didn’t get anything done. Biden: 38,000 prisoners — Trump: You got nothing done. That was one of Trump’s 34 interruptions. Biden interrupted Trump occasionally as well (17 times by our count), but was much more likely to toss in a sarcastic or incredulous rejoinder, as he did when Trump was discussing climate change: Trump: Solar doesn’t have it yet. It’s not powerful enough yet to really run our big beautiful factories that we need to compete with the world. So — Biden: False. Trump: It’s all a pipe dream ... In the first presidential debate, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp reported, Trump “used interruption as his central strategy, attempting to fluster Biden and prevent him from making actual substantive arguments. Instead of engaging on the merits, Trump deliberately turned the first presidential debate into a carnival.” While we didn’t count the interruptions in the first debate, tonight’s certainly felt more civil (and by Slate’s measure, Trump interrupted 128 times all by himself in the first debate). This could be a win for the Commission on Presidential Debates, which introduced a mute button following the first unwieldy debate, but it’s equally plausible Trump’s relative restraint is due to polling indicating Americans didn’t approve of his first performance. What is an interruption? Interruptions are really hard to define. As Kristin Anderson, professor of psychology at the University of Houston, told FiveThirtyEight in 2016 after another interruption-laden debate, “It’s unimaginable how many definitions of interruptions I’ve seen in the [scientific] literature. These are definitions that have to be operationally defined and submitted to peer review, and you still get a lot.” Vox used the following rules for counting interruptions and interjections: An interjection is when an individual speaks over another for a few words, but does not stop the flow of the original speaker. An interruption is when one individual speaks over another for more than a few words. Whether that individual succeeds in taking over the debate, or simply makes an attempt to while the original speaker continues to speak, does not affect whether we considered it an interruption. Someone who was interrupted and attempts to keep talking over the interrupter is not, himself, interrupting. We did not count laughs, scoffs, etc. as interruptions or interjections. If after reading these rules you think there’s still quite a bit of room for subjectivity, you’re right, and it’s for good reason. Imagine a normal conversation where someone who is listening says “yeah” in agreement with you while you’re speaking. That’s not something we’d usually consider to be an interruption, because in our normal lives we use tone and context to judge these exchanges. As FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth explained four years ago, there’s “something scientists call ‘back-channeling’ — the ‘yeah’ or ‘mm-hmmms’ that we all toss out while listening ... and which are generally meant to encourage the speaker to continue.” However, during a debate it’s difficult for us to judge objectively which of these interjectionsare truly disruptive and which were not intended to be. So we defaulted to counting them. What’s clear from the breakdown of interjections versus interruptions is that Biden is much more likely to stop talking once he interjects and the other person doesn’t cede the floor. He also allowed himself to use verbal tics like “oh god” while Trump was speaking which, while non-disruptive, did spike his tally of interjections significantly. Joe Biden is a master of the incredulous “come on!”— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) October 23, 2020 It’s too soon to tell how Americans will view the final debate. But the chaos of the first debate may have set the bar low enough for Trump to appear reasonable — despite “only” interrupting his rival and the moderator 34 times. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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