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Michael Lewis’s New Book About the Pandemic (and Who Should Have Been in Charge)

posted by Jason Kottke   May 03, 2021

book cover for The Premonition by Michael Lewis

When large, seemingly sudden systemic failures occur, Michael Lewis is one of those writers who’s just waiting to pounce on it and tell us all about it. So it’s not a surprise to see that his new book comes out tomorrow: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story (ebook). From a Time interview with Lewis:

The Premonition makes sense of the COVID-19 pandemic through three people, each of whom knows a great deal about how to stop it-and none of whom is ever approached by the U.S. government: A “redneck epidemiologist” named Carter Mercher who had written the closest thing the government had to a pandemic strategy; Joe DeRisi, a McArthur Fellow who once built a chip containing all the world’s viruses; and Dr. Chastity Dean, an obscure local health official in California.

And from a mainly positive review by the NY Times’ Jennifer Szalai:

True to form, Lewis makes few grand claims for what he finds, preferring instead to let the curated details speak for themselves. “I like to think that my job is mainly to find the story in the material,” he writes in the prologue. “I think this particular story is about the curious talents of a society, and how those talents are wasted if not led. It’s also about how gaps open between a society’s reputation and its performance.”

The main question running through “The Premonition” is how, when it came to the initial Covid response, a very rich country that was ranked first globally in pandemic readiness in 2019 managed to incentivize almost all the wrong things.

Of course, this is the reality that all of us have been living for the past year, so the failures of the system don’t come as much of a surprise. Still, Lewis finds ways not just to showcase the brokenness of the system writ large but to zoom in on the sand in the gears.

But Szalai also notes the drawback of most of Lewis’s books:

This method of hewing so tightly to his characters’ perspectives gives Lewis’s narrative its undeniable propulsion, but it also comes at a cost. He doesn’t supply any endnotes, or even a sense of how many people he talked to. His main characters are presented to us as they would undoubtedly like to appear: charmingly obsessive, unwaveringly principled and unfailingly right.

You can listen to a brief interview with Lewis on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The 1619 Project Book

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2021

1619 Project Book

The excellent 1619 Project, developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones at the NY Times, is being released in book form this fall: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (ebook). The book “substantially expands” on the original project, and will include new & expanded essays and works by Hannah-Jones and contributors.

The essays show how the inheritance of 1619 reaches into every part of contemporary American society, from politics, music, diet, traffic, and citizenship to capitalism, religion, and our democracy itself. This legacy can be seen in the way we tell stories, the way we teach our children, and the way we remember. Together, the elements of the book reveal a new origin story for the United States, one that helps explain not only the persistence of anti-Black racism and inequality in American life today, but also the roots of what makes the country unique.

They’re doing a children’s book too: The 1619 Project: Born on the Water (ebook).

1619 Project Book

Labor Shortage or Terrible Jobs?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2021

Anne Helen Peterson noticed a bunch of reports about fast food & retail businesses around the US having trouble finding employees, which difficulty the business owners are blaming on lazy American workers whose unemployment benefits have been extended/expanded during the pandemic. But what if, she writes, those benefits are actually providing a safety net to American workers so that they do not need to take terrible jobs for low wages at terrible companies under terrible management? The ‘Capitalism is Broken’ Economy:

Stick with me here, but what if people weren’t lazy — and instead, for the first time in a long time, were able to say no to exploitative working conditions and poverty-level wages? And what if business owners are scandalized, dismayed, frustrated, or bewildered by this scenario because their pre-pandemic business models were predicated on a steady stream of non-unionized labor with no other options? It’s not the labor force that’s breaking. It’s the economic model.

Unemployment benefits have offered a steady paycheck while you figure out your options. Put differently: a version of the safety net that’s been missing from most American employment, and, by extension, the ability to say no. No, I don’t have to work for a restaurant that only gives me my hours three days ahead of time, thus making it nearly impossible to find reliable childcare. No, I don’t have to work clopen shifts. No, I don’t have to expect a job without sick leave or paid time off. No, I don’t have to deal with asshole customers or managers who degrade me without consequence. No, I don’t have to work in a job with significant, accumulating health risks.

Her question near the end of the piece is worth considering: “If a business can’t pay a living wage, should it be a business?”

The United States of Guns

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2021

Like many of you, I read the news of a single person killing at least 8 people in Indianapolis, Indiana yesterday, which comes on the heels of several other mass shootings in 2021. While these are outrageous and horrifying events, they aren’t surprising or shocking in any way in a country where more than 33,000 people die from gun violence each year.

America is a stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of gun violence. We’ll keep waking up, stuck in the same reality of oppression, carnage, and ruined lives until we can figure out how to effect meaningful change. I’ve collected some articles here about America’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, most of which I’ve shared before. Change is possible — there are good reasons to control the ownership of guns and control has a high likelihood of success — but how will our country find the political will to make it happen?

An armed society is not a free society:

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

We’re sacrificing America’s children to “our great god Gun”:

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains — “besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily — sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Roger Ebert on the media’s coverage of mass shootings:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Jill Lepore on the United States of Guns:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths:

The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it’s not easy to do. The process is detailed in David Kopel’s landmark study on Japanese gun control, published in the 1993 Asia Pacific Law Review, still cited as current. (Kopel, no left-wing loony, is a member of the National Rifle Association and once wrote in National Review that looser gun control laws could have stopped Adolf Hitler.)

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Australia’s gun laws stopped mass shootings and reduced homicides, study finds:

From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.

The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.

In the 18 years to 1996, Australia experienced 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time, with the study defining a mass shooting as having at least five victims.

From The Onion, ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens:

At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

But America is not Australia or Japan. Dan Hodges said on Twitter a few years ago:

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

This can’t be the last word on guns in America. We have to do better than this for our children and everyone else whose lives are torn apart by guns. But right now, we are failing them miserably, and Hodges’ words ring with the awful truth that all those lives and our diminished freedom & equality are somehow worth it to the United States as a society.

‘The Last Time a Vaccine Saved America’

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2021

In 1955, epidemiologist Thomas Francis Jr. announced the results of a field trial of the polio vaccine that Jonas Salk had developed. America erupted in joy.

Now a phalanx of bulky television cameras focussed on Francis as he prepared to report on the efficacy of the vaccine. He had good news to share: to cheers from the audience, he explained that the Salk vaccine was sixty to seventy per cent effective against the most prevalent strain of poliovirus, and ninety per cent effective against the other, less common strains. All this had been shown through what was, at that time, the largest vaccine trial ever conducted.

All afternoon and evening, church bells rang out across America. People flooded into the streets, kissing and embracing; parents hugged their kids with joy and relief. Salk became an instant national hero, turning down the offer of a ticker-tape parade in New York City; President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited him to the White House and, later, asked Congress to award him a Congressional Gold Medal. That night, from the kitchen of a colleague’s house, Salk — whose name was being touted in newspapers, magazines, radio reports, and television news broadcasts around the world — gave his first network-TV interview to Edward R. Murrow, whose show “See It Now” had exposed the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy a year earlier. Blushing in admiration, Murrow asked the doctor, “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” “The people,” Salk said, nobly. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

In the days that followed, schoolchildren were instructed by their teachers to write thank-you notes to Salk. Universities lined up to offer him honorary degrees. Millions of American doctors, nurses, and parents got down to the serious business of vaccinating their children against polio, using a shot they’d been anticipating for seventeen years.

But the polio vaccine rollout had its challenges, including a manufacturing negligence & oversight failure that resulted in tens of thousands of polio cases in otherwise healthy children.

In May, the polio vaccination drive was temporarily suspended. Leonard Scheele, the U.S. Surgeon General, inspected the facilities of all six vaccine companies and fired the government officials he considered to be culpable; the director of the N.I.H. and the Secretary of Health voluntarily resigned. New safety procedures were developed, including an improved means of filtering the viral mix just before the formaldehyde was added. Better tests were developed to detect live virus, and stricter record-keeping was instituted. The incident could have created a vaccine-hesitancy crisis. But, incredibly, the American public readily accepted the medical establishment’s explanation for the failure, and its pledges to right the situation. The nation’s trust in medical progress and in Dr. Salk was so resolute that, when it was announced that a new, safe polio vaccine was available, parents pushed their children back to the head of the line. It’s hard to imagine such an outcome today.

‘Private Choices Have Public Consequences’

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2021

This is a very good and bracing essay from David Roth for Defector about a certain type of knee-jerk libertarian response to the pandemic in the US.

In place of any actually ennobling liberty or more fundamental freedom, contemporary American life mostly offers choices. But since most of these are not really choices at all in any meaningful way, it might be more accurate to say that we’re offered selection. The choice between paying for health insurance and running up six figures of non-dischargeable debt because you got sick, for instance, is honestly less a choice than a hostage situation. But because the second outcome is still extremely possible even if you choose to pay for health insurance, it’s more correct to say that the choice is already made, and that the decision is more about choosing from an array of variously insufficient and predatory options the one whose name or price or risk you like most. Sometimes there isn’t even that, and the choice is a binary one between something and nothing. None of this is really what anyone would choose, but these ugly individuated choices are what we get.

And then:

The broader complacent and unreasoned acceptance that props up our otherwise untenable status quo is shot through all these facile “it’s a private matter and a personal choice” formulations; if you have accepted that mostly useless choices between dreary outcomes are all you could ever get as a citizen in the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth, then you have also accepted that these choices are actually very important, and that making them is the thing makes you free. None of these personal choices actually make anything better for the person making them. In the case of the vaccine, those choices have devastating downstream impacts for all the people who glance off the choice-maker as they carve their personal hero’s journeys through the world. None of this matters as much as the idea that the choice is theirs to make.

Eyes on the Prize to Re-Air on PBS

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2021

The fantastic civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize will soon be available for viewing on public media and online. WORLD Channel and PBS will begin airing the 14-part series in early April. The first part of the series, covering the civil rights movement from 1954-1965, will also be available to watch online starting in mid-April. Check out the press release for more info.

Eyes on the Prize, created by Executive Producer Henry Hampton, is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed in-depth documentary series on civil rights in America. Hampton set out to share his vision of what he called “the remarkable human drama that was the Civil Rights Movement” through the experiences and challenges of those fighting for justice. Produced by Blackside Inc, Eyes on the Prize tells the definitive story of the civil rights era from the point of view of the ordinary men and women whose extraordinary actions launched a movement that changed the fabric of American life and embodied a struggle whose reverberations continue to be felt today.

With contemporary interviews and historical footage, the Academy Award-nominated documentary traces the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Voting Rights Act; from early acts of individual courage through the flowering of a mass movement and its eventual split into factions. The late Julian Bond, political leader and civil rights activist, narrates.

If you’ve never seen Eyes on the Prize, you should definitely take this opportunity to check it out. (via @jbenton)

One Year Ago Today

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2021

For reasons I do not quite understand, I just spent the better part of an hour reading two oral histories of March 11, 2020, aka the day the United States finally took the Covid-19 pandemic seriously — this one from Wired published back in April 2020 and this one published today by Buzzfeed News. You may not want to relive that day and everything it’s come to signify, but apparently I did. (See also a Twitter search for “year ago today” and Covid One Year Ago.)

Several things happened on 3/11 that made Americans and their government finally realize that our lives were about to significantly change: the stock market plunged, the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive, the WHO called it a “pandemic” for the first time, Trump addressed the nation and announced a ban on travel from Europe, and Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson announced that they had tested positive for the virus.

Claudia Sahm: Frankly, the night before, the 10th, I was in a bit of a panic because I was worried that I was overreacting. It was like gaslighting the way Trump and Republicans and Fox News would talk about the coronavirus. Like, “We’ve got this one, it’s not a big deal. It’s like the common flu.” Listening to that, I was saying, “We need to get going.” Congress needs to do real things. That morning, I stood in front of the House Democrats at the minority whip breakfast and told them what they needed to do with a relief package. I told the House Democrats that the $8.3 billion package that they had passed the week before was an insult.

DANIEL MERTZLUFFT, director of Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, who was then in a Broadway theater audience: In the three hours I was seeing Company, the world had changed. I went to drinks after work with friends, one of whom is a business owner that works in theater marketing, and I remember him arriving at the bar and sort of realizing for the first time what it must have been like on the day the Great Depression started. What he said was, “This is not a month; this is going to be months. My business no longer exists. I have to fire my entire team.”

The Trump, Hanks, and NBA news all hit within a period of 30 minutes — I vividly remember being on Twitter and texting w/ friends as the news rolled in that evening. I’d stocked up on food & such during the last week in February and had been fully convinced the day before by this video on the exponential growth of epidemics that this was going to be a world-changing event, but the pace of events that evening was unprecedentedly dizzying. (via the morning news)

BirdCast: Real-Time Bird Migration Forecasts

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2021

Birdcast

Colorado State University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have developed a system called BirdCast that uses machine learning & two decades of historical bird movement data to develop daily bird migration forecasts for the United States.

Bird migration forecasts show predicted nocturnal migration 3 hours after local sunset and are updated every 6 hours. These forecasts come from models trained on the last 23 years of bird movements in the atmosphere as detected by the US NEXRAD weather surveillance radar network. In these models we use the Global Forecasting System (GFS) to predict suitable conditions for migration occurring three hours after local sunset.

The map above is the migration forecast for tonight — overall, warmer temperatures and increased bird movement are predicted for the next week or two. They also maintain up-to-the hour records of migration activity detected by the US weather surveillance radar network; this was the activity early this morning at 3:10am ET:

Birdcast

If the current & predicted bird radar maps were a part of the weather report on the local news, I might start watching again.

What the End of the Pandemic Looks Like

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2021

Stat’s Andrew Joseph and Helen Branswell on the short-term, middle-term, and long-term future of the coronavirus in the US. The short-term outlook is dominated by vaccination & variants; some parts of the country will continue to be affected by outbreaks:

Conditions may be ripe for a better summer, however. Vaccine supplies should be flowing more freely, at least in the U.S.; the Biden administration now expects enough vaccine doses in hand for all adults by the end of May. With most vulnerable populations protected, there should be fewer hospitalizations and deaths. And with warmer weather, people can return to outdoor life.

Widespread transmission of the virus could be replaced by more sporadic and localized outbreaks. There’s also growing evidence that vaccines don’t just protect people from getting symptomatic Covid-19, but can reduce transmission.

And in the long-term, well, SARS-CoV-2 will be around for years and even decades to come:

Years from now, SARS-CoV-2 could join the ranks of OC43, 229E, NL63, and HKU1 — the four endemic, seasonal coronaviruses that cause a chunk of common colds every year. Essentially, our immune systems — primed by vaccines, boosters, and previous encounters with the coronavirus — will be ready to knock back SARS-2 when we see it again, potentially blocking an infection or leading to one that causes no symptoms or maybe just the sniffles.

It’s good to read stuff like this — it provides a basis to use when calibrating your optimism or pessimism for future activities and desires.

America’s Vaccine Glut and “Vaccine Diplomacy”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2021

After the Biden administration announced they will have enough Covid-19 vaccine supply to cover every single adult in the country by the end of May, I got to wondering about what they were going to do with the tens & hundreds of millions of surplus doses already procured for the remainder of the year. “Oh,” I thought, naively, “We’ll be able to distribute it to countries that can’t easily procure or manufacture vaccines of their own!” And I’m sure some of that will happen, if only for PR purposes. But it’s perhaps more likely that America will practice vaccine diplomacy and use the stockpile to reestablish its global leadership.

The United States has backed away from the world. This isn’t a Clinton thing or a W Bush thing or an Obama thing or a Trump thing or a Biden thing, but instead a United States thing. The American people lost interest in playing a constructive role in the world three decades ago, and America’s political leadership has molded itself around that fact. Trump may have been instinctually and publicly hostile to all things international, but Biden is only different in tone. Biden’s Buy-American program is actually more anti-globalization than Trump’s America-First rhetoric as it is an express violation of most of America’s international trade commitments. TeamBiden says it wants to reestablish America’s global leadership…but it plans to do so without any troops or money. Sorry, but that’s not how it works.

Which makes the possibilities for vaccine diplomacy wildly interesting. The United States has no responsibility to provide COVID vaccines to the world. It can — it will — distribute them, but it will want something in return.

Even if you disagree with some of the analysis here, it will be interesting to watch where America’s stockpile ends up. Given Biden’s rhetoric of “listening to the science” when it comes to the pandemic, I hope that at least some of that supply goes to places that need it most to make certain the pandemic doesn’t sputter on for years, generating potentially dangerous new variants, even if it’s politically disadvantageous.

Update: Countries now scrambling for COVID-19 vaccines may soon have surpluses to donate by Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt for Science magazine:

Like three dozen other countries, the United States contracted with multiple vaccine companies for several times the number of doses needed to cover its population. No one knew at the time which, if any, of the candidate vaccines would work or when they might prove safe and effective. But by now, most of the prepurchased vaccines appear to offer solid protection — which means many countries will receive far more vaccine than they need. The excess doses the United States alone may have by July would vaccinate at least 200 million people.

A chart in the article notes that the US has procured enough vaccine to cover almost 1.5 billion people after fully vaccinating its entire population.

A Concerto Is a Conversation

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 02, 2021

In this lovely short film, composer and pianist Kris Bowers talks to his grandfather, Horace Bowers, about his life in the Jim Crow South and how he found a new life in California as part of the Great Migration. Horace’s move across the country set in motion events that culminated in Kris premiering a concerto he wrote with the LA Philharmonic. You can read more about Horace in this 2019 profile.

Yet, in a sign of the times, Horace encountered discrimination while building his business. At the time, mainstream financial institutions rarely gave loans to Blacks and Bank of America had already denied him. His fortunes changed after he hired a White young man as a presser.

“I gave him a job and after two days, he asked me to tell the bank that he had been working for me for 30 days. He said that he needed a loan because he had just gotten divorced and was broke and wanted to borrow money to go back to Texas,” said Horace.

“Even though I was with Bank of America, they had turned me down for a loan and I did not think he could get one. But, a few days later, his loan was approved. I wondered why, but I immediately thought of the color of my skin.”

Armed with this knowledge, Horace devised another route. He visited a different branch, picked up the loan papers, completed the forms and mailed them in.

“A few days later, my loan was approved and from then on, nobody saw us. I did mostly everything by mail,” he said.

Learning from the Five Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Making

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2021

Zeynep Tufekci has written an important piece for The Atlantic on the mistakes that the media, public health officials, and the public keep making during the pandemic and how we can learn from them. A big one for me is how scientists & other public health officials and agencies communicate their knowledge to the public and how the media interprets and amplifies those messages.

Thus, on January 14, 2020, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It should have said, “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China.” (Cases were already popping up around the world at that point.) Acting as if there was human-to-human transmission during the early weeks of the pandemic would have been wise and preventive.

Later that spring, WHO officials stated that there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” producing many articles laden with panic and despair. Instead, it should have said: “We expect the immune system to function against this virus, and to provide some immunity for some period of time, but it is still hard to know specifics because it is so early.”

Similarly, since the vaccines were announced, too many statements have emphasized that we don’t yet know if vaccines prevent transmission. Instead, public-health authorities should have said that we have many reasons to expect, and increasing amounts of data to suggest, that vaccines will blunt infectiousness, but that we’re waiting for additional data to be more precise about it. That’s been unfortunate, because while many, many things have gone wrong during this pandemic, the vaccines are one thing that has gone very, very right.

This pair of statements she highlights — “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” and “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China” — are both factually true but the second statement is so much more helpful, useful, and far less likely to be misinterpreted by people who aren’t scientists that making the first statement is almost negligent.

Why Are Covid-19 Cases Declining So Quickly in the US?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2021

Over the past week or two, I’ve read a number of articles and threads about why Covid-19 cases are falling so rapidly in the US. The explanations have all been somewhat unsatisfying to me. Cases have indeed dropped off quite quickly and it happened pretty uniformly all over the country. Look at the mini state graphs on the NY Times Covid page — they all look about the same. Hospitalizations and positivity rates have dropped too, so while the number of daily tests has fallen too, this appears to be a real drop and not just an artifact of a lack of testing. Which is great news! Imagine a February and March that looked like December — a disaster compounded.

So what’s going on here? For The Atlantic, Derek Thompson lists four reasons for the decline in cases and hospitalizations that mirror the arguments I’ve seen elsewhere: “social distancing, seasonality, seroprevalence, and shots”.

The vaccine explanation is the weakest one for me: not enough people outside of healthcare workers had gotten them early enough to start bending that curve sharply downward in early January. But as Thompson notes, it could be having more of an effect on hospitalizations because the folks getting shots (and therefore immunity against severe infection) are those most likely to end up in hospitals due to infection. And obviously, vaccines are going to become the dominant factor in falling case numbers as more and more people get jabbed.

I’m also skeptical of the seasonality argument, but (again, as Thompson notes) there’s a lot we don’t know about how temperature, sunlight, humidity, and this specific coronavirus interact. Obviously Covid-19 is a seasonal thing and that’s definitely a contributing factor here, but that sharp of a drop in early January? I don’t know if it’s the primary driver here. Also, the seasonal flu typically peaks in February in the US.

The seroprevalence argument is an interesting one. Here’s Johns Hopkins infectious disease epidemiologist David Dowdy in a great Twitter thread about the US case decline:

I think the most logical explanation is one proposed initially by @mgmgomes1 and others — namely that we are seeing the effects of population immunity with heterogeneous mixing + strong behavioral effects. Take a(n overly) simple example. Assume 60% of a population has zero respiratory contacts, while the other 40% lives life as normal. If 75% of that high-mixing group has immunity (e.g., 30% population seroprevalence), you could easily see herd effects.

Basically, a large percentage of the folks at the greatest risk of getting Covid-19 in the US (i.e. folks who aren’t able or willing to keep from seeing other people and/or take proper precautions) have gotten it, resulting in a sort of localized “herd immunity” among those folks. After the massive holiday surge in cases (more on that in a sec), this hypothesis suggests, the virus started running out of people to infect and rates dropped quickly. This is the first explanation I read that really made sense to me.

Thompson leads off his piece with the behavioral explanation: “Maybe Americans finally got the hang of this mask and social-distancing thing.” I do not buy that people who previously weren’t doing so before suddenly started wearing masks (or better masks), keeping distant, spending less time indoors with others, and staying home from work started doing so in numbers large enough to cause such a sharp downturn. But you can’t consider the decline without also looking at how cases got so high in the first place. Here’s Steven Johnson on Twitter, zooming out a few months:

[It’s] not so much that people got the hang of social distancing, but rather that the holiday season compelled people to relax social distancing for in-person family gatherings. So the current decline is mostly reversion to where we were in Oct-Nov.

Yes, this. Without these holidays, we may have seen much more of a winter plateau than a spike. So here’s what seems plausible to me. As the cold weather made the coronavirus more effective at infection, people gathered for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s — each subsequent holiday building on the previous one — and it pushed cases much higher than they would have been without those major gatherings. After two months of massive infection rates, the virus burned itself out among the high-mixing group and everyone else retreated back into their homes and pods to hunker down, resulting in the steep decline we’re seeing.

Obviously, careful scientific study will be necessary to tease out how significant each of these (and other!) causes were to the holiday spike and subsequent decline. But for now, the way forward is continuing to social distance, wear (better) masks, limit close contacts, and get people vaccinated — before B.1.1.7 and the other variants hit.

The American Health Care System Cares Not for Your Health

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2021

So, I got a link to this video from a reader and didn’t know anything about it going in, aside from the title (“Chris Finds Out If He Has HIV”) and the reader’s comment (“American health care system”). Here’s the deal — radiologist Dr. Chris Nicholas was accidentally exposed to HIV at work and this video documents a twin journey: 1) he learns way more about HIV/AIDS than he did in medical school while trying to understand what the exposure means for his health, and b) the absolutely maddening battle that he, an actual doctor and very knowledgable & capable patient, has with the absurd “system” of American health care that works to bury people in circuitous phone calls, gotta-be-perfect paperwork, and pass-the-buck bureaucracy to avoid providing necessary medical care. The phone call with the pharmacist at the 27:05 mark would be the height of absurdist humor if it weren’t so infuriating.

If an actual health care professional had to work this hard to get what he needed, what are the chances that someone without his level of knowledge, time, and resources is going to be able to? This whole extractive, regressive system needs to fucking go. (thx, matt)

How to Turn Your Red State Blue

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2021

portrait of Stacey Abrams

I posted this as a Quick Link earlier today but decided it needed its own post. Stacey Abrams & Lauren Groh-Wargo of Fair Fight have written an opinion piece in the NY Times about how they increased Democratic votes in Georgia over the past decade, leading to flipping both Senate seats in the 2020 election. They are sharing their approach and framework so that others can apply it in their states.

Georgians deserved better, so we devised and began executing a 10-year plan to transform Georgia into a battleground state. As the world knows, President Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in November, and the January runoff elections for two Senate seats secured full congressional control for the Democratic Party. Yet the result wasn’t a miracle or truly a surprise, at least not to us. Years of planning, testing, innovating, sustained investment and organizing yielded the record-breaking results we knew they could and should. The lessons we learned can help other states looking to chart a more competitive future for Democrats and progressives, particularly those in the Sun Belt, where demographic change will precede electoral opportunity.

We realize that many people are thinking about Stacey’s political future, but right now we intend to talk about the unglamorous, tedious, sometimes technical, often contentious work that creates a battleground state. When fully embraced, this work delivers wins — whether or not Donald Trump is on the ballot — as the growth Georgia Democrats have seen in cycle after cycle shows. Even in tough election years, we have witnessed the power of civic engagement on policy issues and increases in Democratic performance. This combination of improvements has also resulted in steady gains in local races and state legislative races, along with the continued narrowing of the statewide loss margin in election after election that finally flipped the state in 2020 and 2021.

The task is hard, the progress can feel slow, and winning sometimes means losing better. In 2012, for example, we prevented the Republicans from gaining a supermajority in the Georgia House of Representatives, which would have allowed them to pass virtually any bill they wanted. We won four seats they had drawn for themselves, and in 2014 we maintained those gains — just holding our ground was a victory.

The steps toward victory are straightforward: understand your weaknesses, organize with your allies, shore up your political infrastructure and focus on the long game. Georgia’s transformation is worth celebrating, and how it came to be is a long and complicated story, which required more than simply energizing a new coterie of voters. What Georgia Democrats and progressives accomplished here — and what is happening in Arizona and North Carolina — can be exported to the rest of the Sun Belt and the Midwest, but only if we understand how we got here.

This piece, and the plan it describes, is excellent. You can see how their potent combination of vision, planning, and methodical execution were able to yield big results over time — success is the application of patience to opportunity.

Bic ballpoint portrait of Stacey Abrams above by Claire Salvo. Prints of similar portraits of AOC, RBG, and John Lewis are available.

How Reporters Should Cover Government Going Forward

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 02, 2021

Press Watch’s Dan Froomkin imagines a speech that new editoral leadership at large American newspapers should give to their political reporters.

It’s impossible to look out on the current state of political discourse in this country and think that we are succeeding in our core mission of creating an informed electorate.

It’s impossible to look out at the looming and in some cases existential challenges facing our republic and our globe — among them the pandemic, climate change, income inequality, racial injustice, the rise of disinformation and ethnic nationalism — and think that it’s OK for us to just keep doing what we’ve been doing.

He continues:

First of all, we’re going to rebrand you. Effective today, you are no longer political reporters (and editors); you are government reporters (and editors). That’s an important distinction, because it frees you to cover what is happening in Washington in the context of whether it is serving the people well, rather than which party is winning.

Historically, we have allowed our political journalism to be framed by the two parties. That has always created huge distortions, but never like it does today. Two-party framing limits us to covering what the leaders of those two sides consider in their interests. And, because it is appropriately not our job to take sides in partisan politics, we have felt an obligation to treat them both more or less equally.

Both parties are corrupted by money, which has badly perverted the debate for a long time. But one party, you have certainly noticed, has over the last decade or two descended into a froth of racism, grievance and reality-denial. Asking you to triangulate between today’s Democrats and today’s Republicans is effectively asking you to lobotomize yourself. I’m against that.

Defining our job as “not taking sides between the two parties” has also empowered bad-faith critics to accuse us of bias when we are simply calling out the truth. We will not take sides with one political party or the other, ever. But we will proudly, enthusiastically, take the side of wide-ranging, fact-based debate.

Government reporters. Yes, exactly. Worth reading in its entirety.

USA Downgraded from Democracy to Anocracy (“Part Democracy and Part Dictatorship”)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2021

Using the POLITY data series, The Center for Systemic Peace has downgraded the system of government of the United States of America from a democracy to an anocracy, a “regime that mixes democratic with autocratic features”. From a notice on the front page of the CSP website:

The USA has dropped below the “democracy threshold” (+6) on the POLITY scale in 2020 and and is now considered an anocracy (+5). It has also lost its designation as the world’s oldest, continuous democracy; that designation now belongs to Switzerland (171 years), followed by New Zealand (142) and the United Kingdom (139). Further degradation of democratic authority in the USA will trigger an Adverse Regime Change event.

The downgrade can be tied directly to the Trump administration’s actions over the past four years:

In 2019, CSP changed the USA code for Executive Constraints from 7 to 6 due to the executive’s systematic rejection of congressional oversight; dropping its POLITY score to +7 and resetting its DURABLE score to “0”. In 2020, the coding for Executive Constraints will fall another point or two due to the executive’s systematic purge of “disloyalists” from the administration, forceful response to protest, vilification of the main opposition parties; and undermining public trust in the electoral process, reducing the USA POLITY score in 2020 to +5 (anocracy).

Their analysis also places the US at “high risk of impending political instability (i.e., adverse regime change and/or onset of political violence)” and designates “the ongoing efforts of the USA executive to circumvent electoral outcomes and subvert democratic processes as an ‘attempted (presidential) coup’”.

The Long History of Right-Wing Terrorism in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2021

One of the critical things that Luke Mogelson’s must-read piece about the Jan 6th assault on Congress does is define the attack as the latest in a string of right-wing militant actions in DC and across the country, incited by Republicans (and Trump in particular):

In April, in response to Whitmer’s aggressive public-health measures, Trump had tweeted, “Liberate Michigan!” Two weeks later, heavily armed militia members entered the state capitol, terrifying lawmakers.

In her January 16th dispatch, historian Heather Cox Richardson took a quick dive further back into history, connecting the dots between the undercurrent of right-wing authoritarianism that has long been part of the nation’s political landscape, the right’s reaction to the New Deal, the fight against Black rights, the rise of partisan talk radio after the FCC fairness doctrine ended, Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Bundys, etc. It is a story of American self-interest & whiteness that found a home in the Republican Party.

Convinced that he was a hardworking individualist, Bundy announced he did not recognize federal power over the land on which he grazed his cattle. The government impounded his animals in 2014, but officials backed down when Bundy and his supporters showed up armed. Republican Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) called Bundy and his supporters “patriots”; Democrat Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate Majority Leader at the time, called them “domestic terrorists” and warned, “it’s not over. We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it’s not over.”

There are many threads she doesn’t explore — America’s lax gun laws, the larger racial context, religion — but the piece does pack a lot into its relatively short length. You can read her whole post here. (thx, meg)

Scenes from the Second Civil War

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 15, 2021

In the hours after the January 6th terror attack on Congress, it seemed as though the early understanding was that a bunch of giddy goofballs — oops! — forced their way into the Capitol Building for funsies and photo ops. The stupid coup. As time passes and more photos & videos are released and reporting is done, the picture emerging is of a violent attack on members of Congress, their staff, and Capitol Police & other law enforcement officers by an armed & savage mob who narrowly missed assaulting, kidnapping, or even murdering members of Congress by mere minutes.

This is an account of the rioters’ siege of the Capitol Building from the perspective of the DC police. The terrorists likened their actions to those in 1776; it certainly was a war-like atmosphere:

“We weren’t battling 50 or 60 rioters in this tunnel,” he said in the first public account from D.C. police officers who fought to protect the Capitol during last week’s siege. “We were battling 15,000 people. It looked like a medieval battle scene.”

Someone in the crowd grabbed Fanone’s helmet, pulled him to the ground and dragged him on his stomach down a set of steps. At around the same time, police said, the crowd pulled a second officer down the stairs. Police said that chaotic and violent scene was captured in a video that would later spread widely on the Internet.

Rioters swarmed, battering the officers with metal pipes peeled from scaffolding and a pole with an American flag attached, police said. Both were struck with stun guns. Fanone suffered a mild heart attack and drifted in and out of consciousness.

All the while, the mob was chanting “U.S.A.” over and over and over again.

“We got one! We got one!” Fanone said he heard rioters shout. “Kill him with his own gun!”

This was a “coordinated assault”:

Looking over the chaotic scene in front of him from the Capitol steps, Glover grew concerned as the battle raged. There were people caught up in the moment, he said, doing things they would not ordinarily do. But many appeared to be on a mission, and they launched what he and the police chief described as a coordinated assault.

“Everything they did was in a military fashion,” Glover said, saying he witnessed rioters apparently using hand signs and waving flags to signal positions, and using what he described as “military formations.” They took high positions and talked over wireless communications.

Authorities would later learn that some former members of the military and off-duty police officers from across the country were in the pro-Trump crowd. Glover called it disturbing that off-duty police “would knowingly and intentionally come to the United States Capitol and engage in this riotous and criminal behavior against their brothers and sisters in uniform, who are upholding their oaths of office.”

Blue Lives Matter…until they have the gall to get in the way of what you feel entitled to:

“The zealotry of these people is absolutely unreal,” said Hodges, who suffered from a severe headache but otherwise emerged unhurt. “There were points where I thought it was possible I could either die or become seriously disfigured.”

Still, Hodges said, he did not want to turn to his gun.

“I didn’t want to be the guy who starts shooting, because I knew they had guns — we had been seizing guns all day,” he said. “And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost.”

Two of the officers interviewed for this story spoke to CNN for this report:

Officer Michael Fanone found himself in the midst of the insurrectionists and then briefly shielded from harm by some of the rioters after shouting “I have kids”. He had this to say to those who protected him: “Thank you. But fuck you for being there.”

The Storm Is Here

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 15, 2021

From Luke Mogelson in The New Yorker, Among the Insurrectionists is an amazing and surreal account of how the January 6th domestic terror assault on Congress1 unfolded. (Note: This piece contains accounts of violence and lots of racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic language.)

The America Firsters and other invaders fanned out in search of lawmakers, breaking into offices and revelling in their own astounding impunity. “Nancy, I’m ho-ome! ” a man taunted, mimicking Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining.” Someone else yelled, “1776 — it’s now or never.” Around this time, Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country. … USA demands the truth!” Twenty minutes later, Ashli Babbitt, a thirty-five-year-old woman from California, was fatally shot while climbing through a barricaded door that led to the Speaker’s lobby in the House chamber, where representatives were sheltering. The congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, later said that she’d had a “close encounter” with rioters during which she thought she “was going to die.” Earlier that morning, another representative, Lauren Boebert — a newly elected Republican, from Colorado, who has praised QAnon and promised to wear her Glock in the Capitol — had tweeted, “Today is 1776.”

When Babbitt was shot, I was on the opposite side of the Capitol, where people were growing frustrated by the empty halls and offices.

“Where the fuck are they?”

“Where the fuck is Nancy?”

No one seemed quite sure how to proceed. “While we’re here, we might as well set up a government,” somebody suggested.

Notably, the piece places the insurrection in the proper context alongside Trump’s campaign of misinformation (which began even before his Presidency and has focused heavily on election fraud) and as part of an escalating series of actions by militant fascist groups in DC and around the country.

In the days before January 6th, calls for a “real solution” became progressively louder. Trump, by both amplifying these voices and consolidating his control over the Republican Party, conferred extraordinary influence on the most deranged and hateful elements of the American right. On December 20th, he retweeted a QAnon supporter who used the handle @cjtruth: “It was a rigged election but they were busted. Sting of the Century! Justice is coming!” A few weeks later, a barbarian with a spear was sitting in the Vice-President’s chair.

Cause, effect. Here are more instances, from various times during the past few months:

It was clear that the men outside Harry’s on December 12th had travelled to D.C. to engage in violence, and that they believed the President endorsed their doing so. Trump had made an appearance at the previous rally, waving through the window of his limousine; now I overheard a Proud Boy tell his comrade, “I wanna see Trump drive by and give us one of these.” He flashed an “O.K.” hand sign, which has become a gesture of allegiance among white supremacists. There would be no motorcade this time, but while Fuentes addressed the groypers Trump circled Freedom Plaza in Marine One, the Presidential helicopter.

During the Presidential campaign, Trump’s histrionic exaggerations of the threat posed by Antifa fuelled conservative support for the Proud Boys, allowing them to vastly expand their operations and recruitment. The day after a Presidential debate in which Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” Lauren Witzke, a Republican Senate candidate in Delaware, publicly thanked the group for having provided her with “free security.”

Early returns showed Trump ahead in Michigan, but many absentee ballots had yet to be processed. Because Trump had relentlessly denigrated absentee voting throughout the campaign, in-person votes had been expected to skew his way. It was similarly unsurprising when his lead diminished after results arrived from Wayne County and other heavily Democratic jurisdictions. Nonetheless, shortly after midnight, Trump launched his post-election misinformation campaign: “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election.”

The next day, I found an angry mob outside the T.C.F. Center. Police officers guarded the doors. Most of the protesters had driven down from Macomb County, which is eighty per cent white and went for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. “We know what’s going on here,” one man told me. “They’re stuffing the ballot box.”

In April, in response to Whitmer’s aggressive public-health measures, Trump had tweeted, “Liberate Michigan!” Two weeks later, heavily armed militia members entered the state capitol, terrifying lawmakers.

During Trump’s speech on January 6th, he said, “The media is the biggest problem we have.” He went on, “It’s become the enemy of the people. … We gotta get them straightened out.” Several journalists were attacked during the siege. Men assaulted a Times photographer inside the Capitol, near the rotunda, as she screamed for help. After National Guard soldiers and federal agents finally arrived and expelled the Trump supporters, some members of the mob shifted their attention to television crews in a park on the east side of the building. Earlier, a man had accosted an Israeli journalist in the middle of a live broadcast, calling him a “lying Israeli” and telling him, “You are cattle today.” Now the Trump supporters surrounded teams from the Associated Press and other outlets, chasing off the reporters and smashing their equipment with bats and sticks.

Mogelson has reported on wars in Afghanistan and Syria — and now in America. You should read the whole thing.

Update: This is an incredible video companion to this article — videos shot by Mogelson during assault on Congress:

  1. I’ve seen many folks and media outlets refer to the events of January 6, 2021 as an attack “on the Capitol”. While that is technically correct, focusing on the venue obscures the true target: Congress. This was an attack on the entire legislative branch of the United States government. Being explicit about that point is important.

This Is Not Who We Are?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2021

comic of This Is Not Who We Are?

A short tour of America’s fascist history from comic artist Keith Knight, who you can also find here. (via ibram kendi)

The Right’s “Respectable” Rioters

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2021

Adam Serwer writing at The Atlantic: The Capitol Rioters Weren’t ‘Low Class’.

They were business owners, CEOs, state legislators, police officers, active and retired service members, real-estate brokers, stay-at-home dads, and, I assume, some Proud Boys.

The mob that breached the Capitol last week at President Donald Trump’s exhortation, hoping to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was full of what you might call “respectable people.” They left dozens of Capitol Police officers injured, screamed “Hang Mike Pence!,” threatened to murder House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and set up a gallows outside the building. Some were extremists using the crowd as cover, but as federal authorities issue indictments, a striking number of those they name appear to be regular Americans.

The Big Lie

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2021

From Timothy Snyder, an incredible piece on Trump, the coup attempt, and this fascist moment in American history. (Snyder, you may remember, wrote about 20 lessons on fighting authoritarianism from the 20th century shortly after the 2016 election that he later turned into a book.)

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.

Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth. These last four years, scholars have discussed the legitimacy and value of invoking fascism in reference to Trumpian propaganda. One comfortable position has been to label any such effort as a direct comparison and then to treat such comparisons as taboo. More productively, the philosopher Jason Stanley has treated fascism as a phenomenon, as a series of patterns that can be observed not only in interwar Europe but beyond it.

My own view is that greater knowledge of the past, fascist or otherwise, allows us to notice and conceptualize elements of the present that we might otherwise disregard and to think more broadly about future possibilities. It was clear to me in October that Trump’s behavior presaged a coup, and I said so in print; this is not because the present repeats the past, but because the past enlightens the present.

Snyder quotes Hannah Arendt in this piece and I’m going share a quote of hers I’ve shared before:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie-a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days-but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

I think about her last line all the time: “And with such a people you can then do what you please.” Like make them assault Congress on behalf of yourself and your political party. This was not Snyder’s closing paragraph, but I’m going to end this post with it:

The lie outlasts the liar. The idea that Germany lost the First World War in 1918 because of a Jewish “stab in the back” was 15 years old when Hitler came to power. How will Trump’s myth of victimhood function in American life 15 years from now? And to whose benefit?

The lie outlasts the liar. Read the whole piece; it’s great.

Congress Is Under Attack

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2021

Details from the 1/6 terrorist attack on Congress continue to trickle out. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not in the Capitol during the event, but said in an hour-long Instagram Live video that she had a “very close encounter” that day and thought she was going to die. Here’s Ocasio-Cortez quoted by Emma Gray:

“Wednesday was an extremely traumatizing event. And it was not an exaggeration to say that many members of the House were nearly assassinated.”

She also felt unsafe around other members of Congress — From Buzzfeed News:

The Democrat said that she worried during the storming of the Capitol about other members of Congress knowing her location and did not feel safe going to the same secure location as her colleagues because of members who believe in the QAnon collective delusion and “frankly, white supremacist members of Congress … who I know and who I have felt would disclose my location,” saying she was concerned there were colleagues “who would create opportunities to allow me to be hurt, kidnapped, etc.” She said that she “didn’t feel safe around other members of Congress.”

Not an unfounded fear — Republican Representative Lauren Boebert, gun nut and QAnon supporter, tweeted about Speaker Pelosi’s location while terrorists were storming the Capitol Building. And several Republicans refused to wear masks while in lockdown in the aftermath of the Capitol incursion and now three Democratic lawmakers have tested positive for Covid-19.

Members of Congress briefed by security and law enforcement agencies (FBI, DoD, DHS, Secret Service) say that more attacks are planned in the coming days and weeks:

“Based on today’s briefing, we have grave concerns about ongoing and violent threats to our democracy,” that group of Democratic chairs said in a cryptic statement after the meeting on Tuesday. The briefing included the chairs and other top members of the House Oversight, Judiciary, Homeland Security, Armed Services and Intelligence panels.

“It is clear that more must be done to preempt, penetrate, and prevent deadly and seditious assaults by domestic violent extremists in the days ahead,” the statement said.

The lawmakers voiced their concerns moments after a public FBI and Justice Department briefing revealed their belief that the Jan. 6 violence could be part of a much graver, well-organized “seditious conspiracy.”

What an remarkable collection of statements & events. This is not going away. Any elected official who supported this coup effort must resign or be removed from office. How can you “secure Congress” when members of Congress are part of the effort to subvert it?

This Is Who We Are

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2021

NPR’s Sam Sanders on The Lies We Tell Ourselves About Race.

There is a lie some Americans tell themselves when America is on its worst behavior: “This isn’t America!” or “This isn’t who we are!” or “We’re better than this!”

You heard versions of this lie again this week after armed insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on urging from President Trump, attempting to undo the results of last November’s election.

Even in the halls of Congress, after the broken glass was cleared and U.S. senators and representatives were allowed back into their chambers from undisclosed locations, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska came back to this refrain: “Our kids need to know that this isn’t what America is.”

We are a country built on fabrication, nostalgia and euphemism. And every time America shows the worst of itself, all the contradictions collapse into the lie I’ve heard nonstop for the last several years: “This isn’t who we are.”

Until America fully reckons with, accepts, and makes amends for the two primary sins of its founding — the colonization and genocide of indigenous people and the system of heredity chattel slavery — the nation cannot truly move forward and be a democracy. From the standpoint of indigenous and Black people — as well as women, LGBTQ+ folx, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups — America has always been a fascist country. The sooner that the white ruling class and those of us who benefit from white supremacist-misogynist identity politics (as Rebecca Solnit put it recently) understand and own up to that fact, the sooner we can actually start coming together as a nation committed to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” of all its inhabitants.

“The Climate Crisis Will Be Steroids for Fascism”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2021

For Gizmodo, Brian Kahn writes about what the 1/6 terrorist action at the Capitol Building means for the climate crisis.

Climate change is chaos by nature. It means more powerful storms, more intense wildfires, more extreme floods and droughts. It is an assault on the weakest among us, and decades of the right-wing mindset of small government have left the country with fewer resources to deal with the fallout. As the summer’s wildfires show, the far-right will be there to try to fill the power void. Those fires occurred in a predominantly white region.

There’s a strong strain of white nationalism and neo-Nazism that ran through Wednesday’s insurrection, and it’s easy to imagine what will happen when flames or storms hit places that are predominantly Black, brown, or Indigenous. In fact, we don’t need to imagine it at all. We’ve seen it in the gunman who showed up at a Walmart to kill immigrants whom he falsely blamed for putting strain on the environment. And we saw it in the white vigilante violence in the vacuum after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. We’ve seen it so frequently, it even has a name: ecofascism.

After Wednesday, the boundaries of permissible violence have now expanded to a distorting degree, at a time of increasing climate instability. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other extremists literally took over the halls of power and got away with it. When climate change upends communities with far fewer defenses — communities that hate groups already scapegoat — the results will be catastrophic.

As we’ve seen with the pandemic, fascists will use climate chaos to assert dominance and snatch for power. Others will make vast sums of money — and inequality will continue to grow. Creating confusion with misinformation makes all of that easier to manage for these opportunists.

Ghosts of Segregation, the Vestigial Architecture of America’s Racism

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 16, 2020

Ghosts of Segregation

Ghosts of Segregation

Ghosts of Segregation is a project by photographer Rich Frishman with the goal of documenting the “the vestiges of America’s racism evident in the built environment, hidden in plain sight: Schools for ‘colored’ children, theatre entrances and restrooms for ‘colored people,’ lynching sites, juke joints, jails, hotels and bus stations.” The top photo above is of a segregation wall in a restaurant in Texas photographed in 2017:

This partition was constructed in the early 20th Century to keep people of different races apart. It is decorated with an original pre-1929 Dr. Pepper logo. At the time of its construction (circa 1906) only Caucasian customers were allowed to sit in the front of the saloon. All Hispanic, Asian and African-American customers had to sit behind the wall. When the saloon was remodeled and re-opened in 2014 the wall, no longer used for its original purpose, was retained as a historical reminder. It has recently been demolished.

The bottom photo shows the “colored entrance” for a movie theater in Texas:

The enigmatic door atop the stairway on the south side of the Texan Theater, long locked and largely overlooked, is the “colored entrance,” a vestige of Jim Crow-era segregation. In Kilgore, Texas, the term “colored” extended to anyone not Caucasian, including Hispanics and the occasional Asian.

Also included in the project are photos of WWII internment camps (where persons of Japanese ancestry were held during WWII, many of them American citizens), the US/Mexico border wall, and the Stonewall Inn in NYC. You can view the photos here as well as a few more in the NY Times.

When We Look Back on This…

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2020

In remarks to the German parliament today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel advocated for tighter Covid-19 restrictions, as cases & deaths in Germany reach new peaks. The restrictions she’s referring to were recommended by “a national academy of scientists and academics” and are intended at reducing the spread of Covid-19 over the December holidays. The impassioned argument that she makes in this short video clip (full report here) is difficult for me to find fault with (even though conservative members of her parliament and Twitter commenters disagree). Here’s a partial transcript:

If the price we pay is 590 deaths per day, then that is unacceptable in my view. And when scientists are practically begging us to reduce our contacts for a week before we see Grandma and Grandpa, grandparents and older people at Christmas, then perhaps we really should think again about whether we can’t find a way to start the school holidays on the 16th instead of the 19th. What will we say when we look back on this once-in-a-century event if we weren’t able to find a solution for these three days? And it may be the case that sending children home is the wrong thing to do, if so then it will have to be digital lessons or something else. I don’t know, this is not my area of expertise and I don’t want to interfere. I only want to say: if we have too many contacts now, in the run-up to Christmas, and it ends up being the last Christmas with our grandparents, then we will have done something wrong. She should not let this happen.

I teared up watching her talk. In the US, we are dealing with many more cases (which will turn into eventual deaths) and deaths than Germany, both in absolute and per capita terms. It’s like 10 fully-loaded passenger planes a day are crashing with no survivors and there are small things that we all can do to keep many of those people alive and … many of us just don’t want to do those things!

Like Merkel says, we are going to look back on this and be completely ashamed that we didn’t do these things and that we elected people that won’t advocate for these things on our behalf and that we let 300-400,000 Americans die and countless others lose loved ones and go bankrupt and get evicted and lose their businesses and be chronically ill and be food insecure and and and. If we aren’t ashamed, if we don’t reckon with all of this someday, then maybe nothing can redeem us and we deserved it all.

Maps of Alternative Histories

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2020

map showing the USA with 124 states

For BBC Future, Sam Arbesman writes about “maps that plot alternative worlds to our own”.

These are the “what if” stories that ask us to imagine our world on a different path: what if a battle, election or assassination had gone the other way, or a pivotal person had never been born? Some of these stories involve time travel to make the change, but many alternate histories are simply imagined differences. What if the Nazis had not been beaten, as in the novel The Man in the High Castle, or what if the Soviets had landed a man on the Moon first, like in For All Mankind?

The map above was created by Andrew Shears and shows what the United States could have looked like if various state partition plans had come to fruition.

One of my favorite alternative history maps not covered by Arbesman is Melissa Gould’s Neu-York, a map of Manhattan after a hypothetical conquest of the United States by the Nazis in World War II (which I blogged about way back in 2003, when kottke.org had comments!)

partial map showing what Manhattan would have looked like if the Nazis had successfully invaded the US

See also Alternate Map of the Americas Features “Long Chile”.