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. Every Monday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
Caitlin Flanagan’s masterful “Chasing Joan Didion” has me thinking about travel.
What have you learned while away from home? Paint a picture of where you went and share your insights.
Conversations of Note
Top of the mind: the mass shooting Saturday in Buffalo, New York, in which a white-supremacist terrorist killed 10 people. My colleague Graeme Wood, an expert on murderous extremists, read the killer’s apparent manifesto and grappled with whether it ought to be shared or suppressed.
The Los Angeles Times editorial board argued that “Americans have ignored the insidious creep of white supremacy into the public discourse to the point that it has become normalized.” As an example it cites the so-called replacement theory, “the lie that Democrats and American Jews are plotting to replace white voters with people of color,” asserting that similar arguments have been aired hundreds of times in recent years by the Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson.
The terrorist mentioned replacement theory in his apparent manifesto. But Glenn Greenwald counters that “there was no indication he knew who Carlson was, that he had ever watched his show, that he was influenced by him in any way, or that he admired or even liked the Fox News host.” The killer professed to having been radicalized online and cited influences that did not include Carlson. Greenwald goes on to argue that there’s an ideological double standard after mass shootings:
It is virtually impossible to find any ideology on any part of the political spectrum that has not spawned senseless violence and mass murder by adherents … In general, it is widely understood that liberal pundits and politicians are not to blame, at all, when murders are carried out in the name of the causes they support or against the enemies they routinely condemn. That is because, in such cases, we apply the rational framework that someone who does not advocate violence is not responsible for the violent acts of one’s followers and fans who kill in the name of that person’s ideas.
In particular, Greenwald recalled the man who opened fire in 2017 on a baseball practice held among Republican members of Congress, asserting that “the writings he left behind permitted little doubt that he was driven to kill by the relentless messaging he heard from his favorite cable host, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, and other virulently anti-Trump pundits, about the evils of the GOP.”
… But when a revolting murder spree is carried out in the name of right-wing ideas (or ideas perceived by the corporate press to be right-wing), everything changes—instantly and completely … there is a coordinated effort to declare that anyone who holds any views in common with the murderer has “blood on their hands” and is essentially a co-conspirator in the massacre.
Absent more evidence, I won’t assign Carlson any personal responsibility for the Buffalo massacre. I question whether all the post-shooting focus on his show makes sense, for reasons Malcolm Gladwell airs, and I think many attacks on him lack rigor. But the most rigorous critiques of his show are devastating, because his commentary is deliberately inflammatory, is poorly reasoned––I pulled apart one example back in 2019––and repeatedly strays into vile bigotry. See, for example, this deeply irresponsible monologue about Roma refugees; his repeated statements that immigrants make America dirtier; and his characterization of Iraqis as “semiliterate primitive monkeys.” Anyone who believes in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonition to judge people by the content of their characters should find all that anathema.
As for demographic change, Gustavo Arellano writes:
I’d feel pity for white people who think that their days are numbered in this country if that thought weren’t so laughably deadly. And wrong. Benjamin Franklin had it wrong in 1751 when he fretted that Germans in Pennsylvania whom he reviled as “Palatine boors … will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs.” The 1911 Dillingham congressional commission got it wrong when it advocated for restricting immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, arguing, “The new immigration as a class is far less intelligent than the old.”
California Republicans had it wrong in the 1990s when they backed a decade’s worth of state propositions that demonized Latinos and whispered about “reconquista,” a supposed plot by Mexico to take back the American Southwest through migration. And Martin, the Anaheim trustee from the not-so-distant past, had it wrong when he insisted the children of undocumented immigrants were destroying Anaheim schools. All these groups became part of the American fabric, whether the haters liked it or not.
Not to lump them in with xenophobic restrictionists, but John Judis and Ruy Teixeira also had it wrong in the early aughts when they saw demographic change bringing about an emerging Democratic majority. A more recent Teixeira analysis: “The Democrats’ Hispanic Voter Problem.”
Hua Hsu wrote his cover story “The End of White America” for The Atlantic in 2009.
On the Baby Formula Shortage
In the present crisis, more government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem, as Jonathan Adler explains:
There are steps the government could take to ease the shortage, such as removing or temporarily suspending FDA rules that bar the importation of infant formula from [other] countries. And, no, this does not mean accepting formula from China. Current FDA rules bar the sale of infant formula from Europe if it does not have FDA-compliant nutritional labels!
Let that sink in: Infant formula that is perfectly safe and that is produced in accordance with European standards that are at least as stringent as US health and safety requirements, cannot be imported because the FDA has not reviewed and approved what is printed on the package, which is a costly and time-consuming process for producers.
So while you might think formula from Germany or The Netherlands is safe enough for your child (formula available in Europe tends to meet or exceed the FDA’s nutritional requirements, but not the labeling requirements), the FDA will not let you have it because it has not reviewed and approved the label or inspected the production facilities overseas. Reasonable people can debate whether this is a reasonable policy in normal times, but in the current mess this sort of rule undermines the health and development of the infants the FDA purports to protect.
Scott Lincicome piles on:
We even restrict imports of formula from most “free trade” (scare quotes intended!) agreement partners, including major dairy producing nations like Canada. In fact, a key provision of the renegotiated NAFTA—the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)—actually tightened restrictions on Canadian baby formula to ensure that new investments in Ontario production capacity by Chinese company Feihe would never threaten the U.S. market.
If tariffs were the only problem here, then high prices in the United States right now might induce alternative supplies from overseas producers looking for new customers and profits. Unfortunately, however, the United States also imposes significant “non-tariff barriers” on all imports of infant formula. Most notable are strict FDA labeling and nutritional standards … Aspiring manufacturers also must register with the agency at least 90 days in advance and undergo an initial FDA inspection and then annual inspections thereafter. And the FDA maintains a long “Red List” of non-compliant products that are subject to immediate detention upon arriving on our shores.
Bad News About COVID-19
Eric Topol argues that a new pandemic wave is already upon us and that even more infectious variants are likely coming soon:
Obviously, a breakdown of protection from transmission occurred with Omicron with “breakthroughs” in people with vaccination occurring quite commonly. That, and reinfections, were an unusual phenomenon (~1%) before Omicron. Now we are seeing people with 4 shots who are getting breakthrough infections, even at 1-2 weeks from their most recent shot … That’s not a good sign, relative to the 95% vaccine effectiveness we had against symptomatic infections against the ancestral, D614G, Alpha, and Delta (with a booster) strains.
But it’s worse than that. Because we have relied (and taken for granted) on vaccines to protect us from severe disease—to prevent hospitalizations and deaths. Prior to Omicron we could, with a booster, assume there was well over 90-95% vaccine effectiveness vs severe disease. It is clear, however, from multiple reports, including the UK Health Security Agency and Kaiser Permanente that this level of protection has declined to approximately 80%, particularly taking account the more rapid waning than previously seen. That represents a substantial drop-off: instead of a gap or “leak” of 5%, it is about 4-fold at 20%. And we don’t yet know how well vaccines are still holding up with the BA.2.12.2 and BA.4/BA.5 variants. Likely similar to BA.1 and BA.2 because we haven’t seen substantial increases in hospitalizations, but no data are yet available and it’s still early. Certainly those without vaccination, relying on infection-acquired immunity, and at advanced age, are at considerable risk for the Omicron sub-variants because their prior exposure only led to narrow (BA.1) protection.
But it’s overly optimistic to think we’ll be done when Omicron variants run their course. Not only are they providing further seeding grounds for more variants of concern, but that path is further facilitated by tens of millions of immunocompromised people around the world, multiple and massive animal reservoirs, and increased frequency of recombinants—the hybrid versions of the virus that we are seeing from co-infections. As difficult [as] it is to mentally confront, we must plan on something worse than Omicron in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, he says, Congress is capitulating:
We urgently need more safe and effective medications, preferably pills, easily administered shots (subcutaneously, not intravenous or intramuscular), or inhalation treatments. There are so many promising ones in the pipeline, yet little to no support to accelerate their progress. Ignoring all these vital needs surely represents Covid capitulation.
See, too, Tyler Cowen’s “The New Covid Equilibrium.”
What the Richest Person in America Wants
Ross Douthat tries to describe Elon Musk’s ideology:
A term like “conservative” doesn’t fit the Tesla tycoon; even “libertarian,” while closer to the mark, associates Musk with a lot of ideas that I don’t think he particularly cares about. A better label comes from Virginia Postrel, in her 1998 book “The Future and Its Enemies”: Musk is what she calls a “dynamist,” meaning someone whose primary commitments are to exploration and discovery, someone who believes that the best society is one that’s always inventing, transforming, doing something new.
Later in the column, Douthat argues that the Democratic Party of Barack Obama valued dynamism more than today’s version:
Liberalism in the Obama era was an essentially dynamist enterprise not because liberals were absolutely committed to capital-S Science but because those years encouraged a confidence that the major technological changes of the 21st century were making the world a more liberal place. Whether it was social media shaking Middle Eastern autocrats, the Obama campaign running circles around its Republican opponents with online organizing or just the general drift leftward on social issues that seemed to accompany the internet revolution, progressives around 2010 felt a general confidence that technological and political progress were conjoined. Ever since Trump bent history’s arc his way, however, that confidence has diminished or collapsed. Now liberals increasingly regard the internet as the zone of monsters and misinformation, awash in illiberalism, easily manipulated by demagogues, a breeding ground for insurrectionists.
And if digital technology has become particularly suspect, via the transitive property so has the larger idea of innovating your way out of social or environmental problems—empowering the part of the environmental movement that wants to tame capitalism to save the planet, for instance, at the expense of the part that imagines taming climate change with fleets of Teslas and nuclear power plants.
Postrel joins the conversation in her newsletter:
One of the striking splits today, which I failed to anticipate in The Future and Its Enemies, is between those concerned with climate change as a problem needing dynamist approaches to find solutions and those like Bill McKibben who use it as an excuse to promote stasis. BTI’s Alex Trembath, who is definitely in the dynamist camp, published an excellent article in March on “cost-disease environmentalism,” his term for what happens when subsidies to promote, say, green infrastructure confront regulations that hamper all infrastructure … A similar phenomenon explains why the liveliest, and most politically effective, cross-partisan dynamist coalitions today are centered on increasing the supply of housing (one of my favorite topics). You don’t have to be a libertarian to see the value in the literal meaning of laissez-faire: allow doing.
She also favorably cites my colleague Derek Thompson’s recent proposal for an abundance agenda.
The Anti-“Choice” Movement
A memo circulated by staff from the House Pro-Choice Caucus advises against using the word choice in advocacy for legal abortion, and suggests decision instead. Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts lays out the rationale for avoiding the C-word:
“Choice” assumes that everyone can get an abortion, and someone just has to choose whether or not they want one. Not everyone can get an abortion when they want one. Black feminists and feminists of color have pointed out that this isn’t the case: the legal right to choose to have an abortion does not always mean someone can actually get an abortion. “Choice” ignores the lived realities of people, especially Black people and people of color, who face barriers that are often compounded by racist and classist policies that keep them from the care they need.
All this comes to me via the journalist Josh Barro, who objects:
This concern about “choice” applies equally to the new recommended term, “decision.” You can just paste it right in: “‘Decision’ assumes that everyone can get an abortion, and someone just has to decide whether or not they want one …” It also inverts the obviously aspirational aspect of arguing for “choice”: being “pro-choice” does not at all involve assuming that everyone can just choose abortion—the reason we are even talking about the issue of choice is because there is concern about whether everyone has the ability to choose.
Finally, this argument about all the Broader Oppression One Must Consider is a variant of the everything-is-everything framing that’s so popular with progressive activists: “We can’t fight climate change without dismantling capitalism,” “student debt cancellation is a racial justice issue,” and so on. x is y and y is z and we can never talk about one particular issue in isolation, it’s all just a huge morass of intersecting oppression, blah blah blah.
… What voters hear is that no individual problems will be fixed, that revolutionary change is the only option—which is not coming because, remember, here on earth, left-wing revolutionary change is unpopular, Democrats have the barest majority in Congress (which they are very likely about to lose) and we need to talk about things that are actually on the menu. This language is dumb when it comes from activist groups that are supposed to be pushing the envelope; it’s malpractice when it comes from an organ of the Democratic majority caucus of an actual legislative body trying to get laws enacted, precisely at the time that abortion is under the greatest legal threat it’s been under in decades.
In conversation with Jay Caspian Kang, the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò suggests that there is a better way to work toward a more just world than what many social-justice advocates today are choosing:
What is the thing that you’re trying to do in any given political interaction? One thing you could try to do is play it in the right kind of moral or aesthetic way. What is the thing that will signal my political radical bona fides in this interaction? That’s a question you could ask.
But there is a different kind of question you could ask: What’s the most useful thing we could build together? How can we change the social landscape in a way that will be usable by us later, and by the people who come after us? That’s constructive politics. And the construction part is something that I mean literally. The thing that we should do might be to plant trees, literally plant trees, or it might be to build a certain kind of school. It might be building a social institution, or building a certain kind of knowledge base or an archive or database or something like that. But it’s about making these kinds of practical changes to the unfair environment that we’re in, instead of making changes to discourse.
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