This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Soon after, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
What worries you most about the direction of the country? And/or what makes you most optimistic about its future?
Email your thoughts to email@example.com. I’ll publish a selection of correspondence in an upcoming newsletter.
Conversations of Note
Shanghai is under severe lockdown, and its residents are suffering from food shortages as China continues to pursue its “zero COVID” policy in the world’s third most populous city. In the Los Angeles Times, Liam Gowing, who teaches English in Shanghai, paints a dire portrait of life there, where fear is palpable amid near-daily mandatory COVID testing. Residents aren’t scared of the virus, but they dread the strategy that is being used to combat its spread, “implemented by placing anyone who tests positive, regardless of their condition, in centralized quarantine facilities.”
Before the government changed the policy that separated COVID-positive children from their negative-testing parents, some families developed a tactic of their household using a single toothbrush to share germs, to prevent being split apart. On social media, locals shared videos of various residents crying out in anguish over the lockdowns, demanding food, calling for “freedom.”
… The majority of us are leading surreal lives, prisoners in our own homes. We awaken at 5:59 and jam our thumbs on the grocery delivery app Meituan trying to place orders before the day’s offerings disappear. Unable to find basic provisions, we spend our mornings awaiting sporadic handouts of frozen meats and vegetables. Or we resort to online buying cooperatives, soliciting essential drinking water or splurging on $26 watermelons from those individuals who somehow manage to acquire passes that allow them out of lockdown. We spend our evenings checking the startlingly accurate COVID Distribution Map app, watching the red dots that indicate positive cases proliferate around us. And yet, as the case numbers continue outpacing the government’s ability to cope, authorities double down on the empty promise of “zero COVID.”
In the Financial Times, Robin Harding argues that the West is at risk of missing the significance of what is happening in the city, and the economic consequences it might hold for us:
One of the biggest inflationary shocks to hit the world economy in the early days of the pandemic was supply chain disruption caused by shipping delays at ports. Shanghai is the biggest port in the world. Although its terminals are working in a “closed loop” bubble—where staff have no contact with the outside world—there are problems with logistics across the region, so vessels have begun to queue up in the waters offshore as they wait to load or unload. Factories across Asia will have to wait for components. Europe and the US will feel the disruption with a time lag of some weeks or months. That will manifest itself as an inflationary shock at a moment when western economies already have too many others to deal with, from the jump in commodity prices caused by the war in Ukraine to their own labour market disruptions after the pandemic.
Explaining teenage depression
The share of American high schoolers who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” has spiked over the past decade, Derek Thompson observes, citing new data from the CDC. Why are Americans witnessing “the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded”?
The more overwhelming the world feels to parents, the more they may try to bubble-wrap their kids with accommodations. Over time, this protective parenting style deprives children of the emotional resilience they need to handle the world’s stresses. Childhood becomes more insular: Time spent with friends, driving, dating, and working summer jobs all decline.
… Outwardly, teens are growing up slower; but online, they’re growing up faster. The Internet exposes teenagers not only to supportive friendships but also to bullying, threats, despairing conversations about mental health, and a slurry of unsolvable global problems—a carnival of negativity. Social media places in every teen’s pocket a quantified battle royal for scarce popularity that can displace hours of sleep and makes many teens, especially girls, feel worse about their body and life. Amplify these existing trends with a global pandemic and an unprecedented period of social isolation, and suddenly, the remarkable rise of teenage sadness doesn’t feel all that mysterious, does it?
Ethan Strauss takes on the perhaps related matter of depression in elite Zoomer athletes, some of whom are rich, famous, and doing what they love for a living, yet are still unhappy. His working hypothesis:
The premise, in not just journalism but all kinds of professional-class settings, is that group sympathy at scale is some magical elixir. Dismissal of grievance is the opposite, a poison that must be viciously opposed … The therapeutic language has been going strong in these spaces, and, to quote one television psychologist, “How’s that working for us?”
The Zoomer athletes appear no more happy for the large-scale sensitivity to their pain. We, the media, might just be enablers of unhealthy behavior, most especially when we’re trying to promote “mental health” through celebrity avatars. We eat up nearly every celebration of their narcissism, and encourage solipsism like it’s the path to enlightenment. So we get what we incentivize: Athletes who talk a lot about their sadness in between LARPing as righteous revolutionaries. And yet I still feel horribly for the athletes, but most of all their non-celebrity generational brethren. They’ve all come of age in a narcissism trap, using devices that were designed to be highly addictive, powerful contraptions that stoke obsessive inward focus. At least old-school television was about other people. The IG scroll is about you, either explicitly or implicitly.
For most people, the self is a road to hell.
A Spanish-language conservative radio station
At UnHerd, Alex Perez writes about Americano, “America’s first Spanish-language conservative radio station,” which launched recently in Miami under CEO Ivan Garcia-Hidalgo, who thinks America’s Republican-trending Hispanics will eagerly tune in to a “Fox News in Spanish.”
It’s tempting for a network, or a Republican politician, based in Miami to focus on the concerns of Cuban-Americans—they, and the Mexican-Americans along the Rio Grande Valley, are the two Hispanic demographics usually cited when pundits speak of the rightward shift. But if the Right strictly focuses its efforts on the interests of these groups—which sometimes, but not always, dovetail—their rhetoric will be far too insular to reach a broad-based Hispanic coalition. In my recent listens to Americano’s programming, it’s clear that the station is in Miami, but not of Miami, which bodes well for its future prospects. Instead of placing too much emphasis on a single Hispanic group, Americano is melding “America first” Trumpian Republicanism with the socially conservative elements that have traditionally appealed to disparate Hispanic demographics.
For instance, on the night I caught the 8pm show “Entre Nosotras”, the three female presenters were joined by a former officer from the Phoenix PD to discuss the border crisis and the attendant drug scourge precipitated by President Biden’s porous border policy … Trump-like takes on immigration—which are very popular with Hispanics—and the machinegun-like, emotionally charged delivery of the presenters will appeal to old-school talk radio veterans.
When the fringes dominate the conversation
In a Jonathan Haidt article positing that the past 10 years of American life have been “uniquely stupid” and trying to explain why, one passage focuses on who it is that dominates polarized social-media conversations:
The “Hidden Tribes” study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviors. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives,” comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.
These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt.
The return of heresy
“One of the most surprising things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime,” Paul Graham writes, “is the rebirth of the concept of heresy,” something that used to sound “amusingly medieval” to his ears.
There are an ever-increasing number of opinions you can be fired for. Those doing the firing don’t use the word “heresy” to describe them, but structurally they’re equivalent … A heresy is an opinion whose expression is treated like a crime—one that makes some people feel not merely that you’re mistaken, but that you should be punished. Indeed, their desire to see you punished is often stronger than it would be if you’d committed an actual crime. There are many on the far left who believe strongly in the reintegration of felons (as I do myself), and yet seem to feel that anyone guilty of certain heresies should never work again. There are always some heresies—some opinions you’d be punished for expressing. But there are a lot more now than there were a few decades ago, and even those who are happy about this would have to agree that it’s so.
Why? Why has this antiquated-sounding religious concept come back in a secular form?
In The Conversation, Kristin Andrews argues against proposals to start large-scale octopus farms by emphasizing the intelligence of the animals and the culture that emerges when they are together.
The proposal to bring thousands of animals together into an octopus megacity would scale octopus culture far beyond anything found in nature or in captivity. It would create hundreds of thousands of Keikos, aquatic cultural animals captured from the wild and brought into captivity. And it would force them to live together and create a new culture in what is sure to be a violent octopus slum. Just now, we are learning that octopuses feel emotions and have culture, and we are starting to rethink current practices of intensive animal farming. It is exactly the wrong moment to propose such a scheme.
Writing in Newsweek, Joel Kotkin argues that, despite the fights that dominate America’s digital media landscape, “our political future will not be shaped by the cultural warfare that defined more prosperous times but by pocketbook issues.” The defining issues will be “wages, the price of buying a house or rent, food costs and the battle for leverage between employers and the fate of smaller businesses against oligopolies,” he predicts, concluding that “the class politics that have long dominated Europe are now here with a vengeance, and they will stick around until they are addressed,” even though “this is not the discussion either liberal oligarchs or Right-wing activists want. They would rather battle over media hot buttons like climate, race, and gender, than meaningfully address working conditions, wages or rapidly rising rents.”
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