A Better Conversation Than Social Media

Join a thoughtful new dialogue on controversies around COVID, incarceration, and more

An image of two laptops, with images of speaking mouths on the screens
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs, and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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I once hoped that Facebook and Twitter would enable better conversations among strangers trying to think through our complicated world together. And I’ve learned a lot and interacted with wonderful people on social media. But many of the most thoughtful people I know no longer engage there. It is too hostile, too time-consuming, and too influenced by outrage and bad actors.

Let’s converse here instead.

In this newsletter, I’ll highlight especially timely and interesting conversations, so keeping up with smart entries in our sprawling public discourse is less of a time suck. Then I’ll pose questions or suggest topics to readers, pore over the ensuing responses, and publish the best of the correspondence a few days later. Feel encouraged to email me whenever you have anything to say.

My address is Conor@theatlantic.com, or you can reply to any newsletter you receive via email.

The hope is to create a growing community of curious readers who are wildly diverse but united by a belief in the value of free, constructive discourse. We’ll seek truth, laugh in the process, better understand one another’s perspectives, and try to add more light than heat to the day’s controversies.

Now, let’s jump right in.

Conversations of Note

Going Viral

This week, the coronavirus pandemic is top of mind, due to South Africa flagging a new variant of concern. Omicron appears to be highly transmissible and has the potential to outcompete Delta. And due to the nature of its mutations, we don’t yet know how well our vaccines will hold up against it or whether morbidity and mortality will be higher, lower, or the same. But experts who have been right before are worried. And Israel and Japan are closing their borders to all foreigners.

How should the U.S. react?

  • For big-picture analysis, I recommend reading Zeynep Tufekci, Katherine J. Wu, and Noah Smith.
  • Joe Biden has joined leaders of other countries in banning travel from South Africa and its neighbors. This might or might not buy time and save American lives. But we only know about Omicron because South Africa tracked mutations and announced its findings. Banning travel from the country creates a perverse incentive, “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
  • Matt Yglesias tweets, “What you want out of a global surveillance system for infectious disease is to deliver very large financial prizes to governments that identify and publicize new pathogens (or variants) because otherwise countries will cover them up to avoid travel bans.”
  • Megan McArdle argues that our strategy can’t be “everyone go back home again and stay there,” because “the costs of further lockdowns would be heavy, from eating disorders and opioid overdoses to small-business failures and school kids falling behind.” And who would listen? Even blue states are suffering from pandemic fatigue. Home COVID-19 tests would help, McArdle says, but they’re too costly and scarce in the U.S.: “We need home testing kits so cheap and plentiful that everyone has piles of them ... Heck, give them away in boxes of cereal … the FDA should approve tests even if they’re a little less accurate. If that’s not enough … stand up something like an Operation Warp Speed for testing.”
  • The World Socialist Web Site couldn’t disagree more. Its editorials have been in favor of lockdowns from the beginning of the pandemic. “Whatever their differences with the far right, Biden and other proponents of inadequate mitigation measures agree on the most essential question: that no measures can be taken that impinge on the wealth of the corporate and financial elite,” they argue. “Their criminal and unscientific claim that the pandemic could be stopped through vaccination alone has been exposed with the emergence of the Omicron variant. The major US newspapers, speaking for the financial oligarchy that dominates American society, have responded to the emergence of the Omicron variant with a campaign against public health measures.”
  • For a fascinating left-versus-left contrast, see Toby Green and Thomas Fazi, who write that the left has been overzealous on mitigation: “Ultimately, the Left’s blatant disregard and mockery of people’s legitimate concerns (over lockdowns, vaccines or Covid passports) is shameful. Not only are these concerns rooted in actual hardship but they also stem from an understandable distrust of governments and institutions that have been undeniably captured by corporate interests. Anyone who favours a truly progressive-interventionist state, as we do, needs to address these concerns—not dismiss them.”
Important and Under-discussed

Radley Balko unpacks Lara Bazelon’s work on prosecutorial misconduct and explains why it so often goes unpunished. “The federal courts have virtually eliminated all civil liability for prosecutors, even for egregious misconduct that puts innocent people in prison,” he writes. For example: “That includes even illegal conduct, such as locking up alibi witnesses on fake charges so they can’t testify at trial.”

The Rittenhouse Divide

The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse only fueled the polarizing debate about his decision to arm himself and walk the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests against the police shooting of a Black man, claiming that he wanted to help protect businesses amid riots, looting, and arson. For a legal analysis of the case, see the Harvard Law School professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., who also attempts to explain the moral intuitions of Rittenhouse defenders and detractors.

Glenn Greenwald continues to focus on media coverage of the case with an indictment of various outlets that labeled Rittenhouse a white supremacist without any evidence for that conclusion.

Why do different people react to this kid so differently?

I have a thought of my own.

One reason for the divide occurred to me while I was rereading a quote from Trevor Noah, the comedian who hosts The Daily Show. Noah said, “No one has ever thought, ‘Oh, it’s my solemn duty to pick up a rifle and protect that TJ Maxx.’ They do it because they’re hoping to shoot someone.” The quote resonated enough to be widely repeated and praised. But is that analysis correct?

No one except Rittenhouse can know his personal motives, good, bad, or neutral. But in general, if not necessarily in this particular situation, I think Noah is wrong. His audience disproportionately resides in the American subcultures where most people believe that policing is an activity for trained professionals (albeit where few want to become one of those professionals).

But in the American subcultures where it is common to own a gun and have friends who are soldiers or cops or security guards, all of whom use guns to protect property, many kids are acculturated to feel a duty to protect their community, including its businesses, from destruction. For some, that ethos sticks, not because they want violent chaos but because they’re averse to it. There are prudent and foolish ways to channel that feeling of duty, but to presume that no one really feels it is to misunderstand the culture and moral intuitions of many humans.

On Land Acknowledgments

Graeme Wood’s critique on this issue is searing. One excerpt: “Some people argue that land acknowledgments are ‘gestures of respect.’ I’m not sure one can show respect while also being indifferent to a people’s existence. The statements are a counterfeit version of respect. Teen Vogue put it well, if unintentionally: ‘Land acknowledgment is an easy way to show honor and respect to the indigenous people.’ A great deal of nonsense about identity politics could be avoided by studying this line, and realizing that respect shown the ‘easy way’ is just as cheap as it sounds. Real respect occurs only when accompanied by time, work, or something else of value.”

Provocation of the Week

On the podcast The Fifth Column, the law professor Jonathan Adler was asked whether we should be concerned about what some see as political prosecutions of Donald Trump’s supporters. He answered that, while he doesn’t worry about prosecuting the people who broke the law on January 6 during the storming of the Capitol, we should always worry about excesses in such moments:

“I like the framing of thinking about how MAGA is being treated and how the Communists were treated. And I like it on multiple levels. Because I am one of those folks who will remind people that the Communist Party of the United States was a Soviet instrument. It was an instrument of Soviet policy. It was controlled and directed by a hostile foreign power. It also happened to attract lots of adherents and followers and fellow travelers who were blissfully ignorant of what the CPUSA’s actual purpose and guiding mission was, and we spent too little time identifying which people were actually doing things that were dangerous and a lot of time stigmatizing people who were in one way or another loosely affiliated with the broader movement.

“I think that’s a real risk. And one of the consequences of having a free liberal society is tolerating people who don’t embrace the premises of that free liberal society. We should have been more tolerant of Communists in the 1950s, not because they were good people, but because a free liberal society demands that of us. And with MAGA it’s the same thing: There are a lot of well-intentioned but, in my view, misguided people who are followers of the movement … and there are some people who are, I think, more malicious figures. The challenge is identifying, containing, and in some cases prosecuting the figures who did seriously wrong things, and not sweeping into that people who found themselves affiliated with the wrong tribe but did not engage themselves in harmful conduct … I’m not convinced we’ve struck that balance. I don’t think that the government is very good at striking that balance.”

Question of the Week: “Petty Crime and Punishment”

Last week in Walnut Creek, California, a Bay Area suburb, roughly 80 people rushed into a Nordstrom department store, grabbed whatever merchandise they could carry, and fled. Police officers in the Los Angeles area were on alert after a rash of robberies on Black Friday. More generally, retailers in California and elsewhere are complaining about upticks in shoplifting that are causing them to rethink the viability of some store locations. The matter is sparking debate between people who regard shoplifting as a minor crime and fear that overreacting to it will add to America’s unusually high incarceration rate, and people who dislike the lawbreaking and disorder or fear that if it isn’t stopped, poor people will suffer as prices rise or shops close down in the areas where they live.

My questions for you: 1) How do you feel when you read news stories or see videos about shoplifting? Why do you react that way? 2) If you were the judge in the case of someone convicted of organizing a shoplifting mob, what sentence would you give? What about a non-organizer convicted of participating? 3) How can we react to these crimes while avoiding undo excesses or overreactions? 4) Do you have any personal stories about stealing or being stolen from?

Email answers to conor@theatlantic.com.

End Notes

Thanks for joining at the start, please bear with me as this newsletter evolves, and, since it’s free, why not urge a thoughtful friend or two to sign up? I look forward to your thoughts on any of the above subjects or suggestions for future newsletters. A roundup of reader emails will go out later this week.

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