The States That Reopened First

Plus: How Fox News misled its viewers

People working in an office
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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. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

As a reward for sending so many excellent emails on your variety of religious experiences, you’re off this week so that I can finish up a feature I’m hard at work on, and so that I can run a second installment of your responses on religion this Monday.

Conversations of Note

The States That Reopened First

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly every U.S. state shut down parts of its economy. Looking back, Nicole Gelinas argues in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal that states that opened up sooner are still reaping economic benefits:

By February 2022, the United States had finally clawed back its lost Covid jobs. But Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas hadn’t just recovered; they were excelling. First, they beat the country’s recovery by nearly a year, gaining back their pre-Covid job totals by the summer of 2021. This early start enabled these states to gain economic strength, even as much of the country lagged. As of October 2022, the nation had just 1.8 percent more private-sector jobs than in October 2019. Yet Florida had 6.8 percent more jobs, Texas 6.7 percent more, North Carolina 6.1 percent, and Georgia 5.2 percent.

Big states that were slower to reopen are still suffering employment stagnation, even more than a year after ending restrictions. Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are all missing between 0.6 percent and 1.8 percent of their pre-Covid jobs. But New York State, with among the nation’s strictest lockdowns, remains the worst performer. The state is still down 2.8 percent of its 2019 jobs, or 228,400 positions. New York City, particularly, has struggled. Quick to recover after the tech bubble burst and after 9/11 and even after the 2008 financial crisis, the city is missing 2.4 percent, or 100,100, of its pre-Covid positions. This experiment shows that states can’t just pause and restart their economies at will, as Cuomo and his peers tried to do. “Paused” jobs become lost jobs, long after extraordinary government aid for the unemployed has expired.

Elephant Versus Mouse

At New York, Jonathan Chait argues that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s attacks on Disney constitute an abuse of power and a portent of intimidation tactics to come should he ascend to federal office:

DeSantis established the principle that he can and will use the power of the state to punish private firms that exercise their First Amendment right to criticize his positions. Now he is promising to continue exerting state power to pressure the firm to produce content that comports with his own ideological agenda … A few things ought to be clear. First, DeSantis’s treatment of Disney is not a one-off but a centerpiece of his legacy in Florida. He has repeatedly invoked the episode in his speeches, and his allies have held it up as evidence of his strength and dominance. The Murdoch media empire, which is functionally an arm of the DeSantis campaign, highlighted the Disney conquest in a New York Post front page and a Fox & Friends segment and DeSantis touted his move in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Second, DeSantis’s authoritarian methods have met with vanishingly little resistance within his party … And third, DeSantis has been very explicit about his belief that he sees his methods in Florida as a blueprint for a national agenda. So there is every reason to believe that, if elected president, DeSantis would use government power to force both public and private institutions to toe his line.

In The New York Times, Damon Linker grants that DeSantis would do many things, if elected president, that Linker would dislike, but nevertheless argues that the Florida governor would be better than Donald Trump, and cautions his fellow liberals against overreaching when making the case against DeSantis.

We Mislead, You Applaud

Some of the most well-compensated people at Fox News misled their viewers about the winner of the 2020 election––and acted as though doing so was a sign of respect, David French argues:

In the emails and texts highlighted in the Dominion filing, you see Fox News figures, including Sean Hannity and Suzanne Scott and Lachlan Murdoch, referring to the need to “respect” the audience. To be clear, by “respect” they didn’t mean “tell the truth”—an act of genuine respect. Instead they meant “represent.”

Representation can have its place. Fox’s deep connection with its conservative audience means that it can be ahead of the rest of the media on stories that affect red states and red culture.

But there is a difference between coming from a community and speaking for a community. In journalism, the former can be valuable, but the latter can be corrupt. It can result in audience capture (writing to please your audience, not challenge it) and in fear and timidity in reporting facts that contradict popular narratives. And in extreme instances—such as what we witnessed from Fox News after the 2020 presidential election—it can result in almost cartoonish villainy.

There are courageous reporters at Fox. We learned some of their names in the Dominion filing. They were the people who had the courage to tell the truth. But then there are the leaders and the prime-time stars. Tough? Courageous? Hardly. When push comes to shove, they embody the possibly apocryphal remark of the French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” And follow them they did, straight into a morass of lies and conspiracy theories that should undermine Fox’s credibility for years to come.

As I see it, no one shows more disrespect to the Fox audience than its pandering hosts.

The Harm of Victimhood Culture

The feminist writer Jill Filipovic recently argued:

I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life—to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean—are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response. That isn’t to say that people who experience victimization or trauma should just muscle through it, or that any individual can bootstraps their way into wellbeing. It is to say, though, that in some circumstances, it is a choice to process feelings of discomfort or even offense through the language of deep emotional, spiritual, or even physical wound, and choosing to do so may make you worse off. Leaning into the language of “harm” creates and reinforces feelings of harm, and while using that language may give a person some short-term power in progressive spaces, it’s pretty bad for most people’s long-term ability to regulate their emotions, to manage inevitable adversity, and to navigate a complicated world.

Back in 2015 and 2016, I wrote about concept creep around harm and the rise of victimhood culture.

On the Nature of Drummers

Jack Stilgoe deigns to speak on behalf of a tribe to which he belongs:

We drummers tend to be ambivalent about technology. Like most musicians, ours is a craft that is technologically mediated. The affordances of sticks, pedals and things to hit with them enable our sound. We are used to the jokes that suggest we lack the intelligence of our fellow musicians. (What’s the difference between a drummer and a drum machine? You only have to punch the information into a drum machine once.)

We worry that our bandmates, presented with technological alternatives, might look on us as a problem to be solved. We are loud; we take up space; our instruments are heavy and slow to assemble; our sounds are harsh and inconsistent, and sometimes we speed up or slow down when we play. Faced with a drum machine that keeps metronomic time, plays no more or less than is asked of it and, once purchased, costs nothing, we can’t help but feel judged: is that all you think of us? Is that thing all it takes to make a drummer redundant?

That’s his jumping off point for a meditation on AI and music.

Feeling Great and Hating It

Marc Andreessen has been teetotaling and feels great, which he considers terrible. As he explains in his new Substack:

Unfortunately, in recent years, it’s become clear that most or all—probably all—of the scientific studies on the benefits of alcohol are fake, the scientists unwitting or witting victims of selection effects. As Michael Crichton says, “wet streets cause rain”, or rather wet streets don’t cause rain. It turns out that sick people often don’t drink, or subjects just lie to researchers about their consumption outright. There go the studies.

It is now pretty definitively clear that no amount of alcohol is good for you. Andrew Huberman recently summed this conclusion up on his podcast; the topic made me so enraged I never listened to the episode, but I did read the notes. Andrew says “the best amount of alcohol to drink is no alcohol”—imagine someone who both hates and loves humanity that much.

Since I stopped drinking, I feel much better. I don’t need as much sleep, but my sleep is better. I’m more alert … cogent and focused at all times. I have more energy when I exercise, and it’s easier to control my diet. It’s great, and I am super mad about it. I feel like the color has drained out of my evenings. Spending time with people is still fun, but now it’s hard to sit still and watch a movie or read a book and unwind at the end of a hard day. I’m more prone to just work until bedtime. Grump grump grump.

Provocation of the Week

Is The Scarlet Letter incomprehensible to today’s Harvard students? I would not have thought so, but I encountered the claim in a New Yorker article about the national decline in English majors:

“Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

The 19th century was a long time ago––but public shamings carried out by puritanical zealots are so current!