Institutional Survival

Will this institution survive the stench this creates in the public perception that the constitution and its reading are just political acts?…If people actually believe it’s all political, how will the court survive?

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

This week’s featured post is “The Roe v Wade Death Watch“.

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court

Most of what I have to say about this is in the featured post, but I feel that I should elaborate on the Sotomayor quote above: The authority of the Supreme Court comes not from armies or police, because it commands none. It also doesn’t come from money, because the Court has none to disperse.

The power of the Court depends on the other branches’ compliance. If a President openly defied the Court (as Nixon did not, and we often wondered whether Trump would), the only possible consequences would have to come from someone else: impeachment by Congress or rejection by the voters at the next election.

Whether those other parties would back the Court up depends on its reputation as a body above politics. The public needs to believe in the analogy John Roberts made at his confirmation: The justices are umpires who call balls and strikes objectively, rather than assert their own preferences. If the Court is seen as just another actor in our partisan drama, someday a president will feel empowered to ignore its rulings, and then constitutional government will be over in America.

The striking thing about the current reconsideration of Roe is that nothing of significance in the legal or scientific environment has changed since Roe was decided in 1973. All that has changed are the particular people who are on the Court. The Mississippi case comes to the Court now because conservatives have maneuvered their way into five or six anti-Roe votes. Justice Ginsberg dies and Justice Barrett replaces her; suddenly the Constitution says the opposite of what it said two years ago.

That dependence on personalities is what threatens the Court’s survival as an institution.

and the Omicron variant

The day after Thanksgiving, the World Health Organization named a new Covid variant-of-interest “Omicron”. The stock market immediately tanked, more out of fear than knowledge, and much panic has ensued.

The worry, of course, is that this is Delta all over again: It looked like we had the pandemic licked in June, but then the rise of the more transmissible Delta variant started another surge.

Every new variant raises questions about how well our previous protections will work: Is it more transmissible than even Delta? More deadly? Can Omicron evade the vaccines and the natural immunity of people who have already recovered from one bout of Covid? How effective are current anti-viral treatments? Will it sneak past our current generation of tests? Do we have to revise our previous ideas about masking and distancing? Will new lockdowns be necessary?

The first headlines about any of these questions should be taken with a grain of salt. As useful as it is to get quick answers, fast research is less accurate than slow research. Bearing that in mind, here’s what I’m seeing:

Omicron is outcompeting Delta in South Africa, where it was first detected, so it’s probably more transmissible. On the positive side, anecdotal evidence from South Africa says the symptoms have been mild, though some experts discount this because South Africa’s population skews young.

On defeating natural immunity:

A study published on Thursday as a pre-print, which is still awaiting peer review, found that Omicron is at least 2.4-times more likely to reinfect someone who’s already had a COVID infection compared to the other variants that have been studied.

I’m not sure about this, but I’m guessing a person without a previous infection would be more than 2.4 times as likely to get infected, implying that natural immunity to Omicron from infection by a previous variant is diminished but not gone.

As for vaccine effectiveness, Moderna’s chief medical officer said on November 28 “we should know in a couple of weeks”, but he sounded pessimistic, based on the number of mutations in Omicron. (As with natural immunity, I’ll guess that antibodies targeted at earlier variants would be less effective, but not ineffective.) He predicted an an Omicron-specific vaccine would be “available in large quantities” in early 2022.

If in fact the current vaccines turn out to be less effective, but not ineffective, against Omicron, the conventional wisdom says that you want your immunity to start out as high as possible. So Omicron is an argument for, not against, vaccination and booster shots.

The chair of the South African Medical Association says that the nation’s hospitals were not overwhelmed by patients infected with the new variant (another indication that symptoms may be mild), and most of those hospitalized were not fully immunized.

Until they can be updated, Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatments are also likely to be less effective on Omicron, according the company’s CEO. Merck and Pfizer are optimistic about their anti-Covid pills, because their attacks on the virus aren’t targeted at the spike protein, where most of the mutations seem to be. For similar reasons, Gilead says its drug Remdesivir should still work against Omicron, though it doesn’t have test results yet.

The current generation of Covid tests appear to detect Omicron.

Speculations about lockdowns seem wildly premature. As with the original Covid outbreak, travel restrictions can only slow the spread, not keep Omicron out. It has already been detected in multiple states.

For a few days it looked like case numbers were going down again, but we always knew that Thanksgiving would give the virus another boost. New cases in the US are averaging 110K per day, up 19% over two weeks. Deaths, which have been staying in the 1000-1200 per day range for several weeks, are at 1178. The current surge continues to be concentrated in the cold-weather states, with New Hampshire and Minnesota having the highest per capita rates.

Despite the recent surge in cases, the highly vaccinated Northeast continues to have lower death rates than less vaccinated regions. Vermont (73% vaccinated) is averaging 69 new cases per 100K per day, but only .15 deaths. For comparison, Wyoming (46% vaccinated) averages 30 new cases per 100K per day, but 2.00 deaths.

As other numbers go up and down, the ratios of vaccinated/unvaccinated cases and deaths remain fairly steady: The unvaccinated have about five times as many cases per capita as fully vaccinated people, and 13 times as many deaths. Those numbers probably understate the effectiveness of vaccination, because higher-risk people have been more eager to get vaccinated.

Marcus Lamb, a religious broadcaster who championed anti-vaccine arguments and other Covid-advancing misinformation, has died of Covid at age 64. His son’s account of his illness is a classic example of epistemic closure, i.e., having a belief system that is impervious to contradictory evidence.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a spiritual attack from the enemy,” Lamb’s son, Jonathan, said about his father’s COVID-19 illness on a Nov. 23 broadcast of the Ministry Now program. “As much as my parents have gone on here to kind of inform everyone about everything going on to the pandemic and some of the ways to treat COVID — there’s no doubt that the enemy is not happy about that. And he’s doing everything he can to take down my Dad.”

Yes, Lamb died because Satan wanted to keep him from spreading the Truth, and not because of his own willful ignorance and misguided ideas.

and recent murders and trials

Tuesday, a public still buzzing about the Rittenhouse and Arbery verdicts got a new act of violence to argue about: the Michigan school shooting. Fifteen-year-old Ethan Crumbley has been arrested and charged as an adult in the murder of four students, plus injuries to seven other people, including a teacher.

In an unusual move, Crumbley’s parents have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, meaning that they participated in the deaths unintentionally. The parents didn’t attend their original arraignment hearing, and were captured hiding in a warehouse.

Oakland County Prosecuter Karen McDonald explained the charges: The parents “could have stopped it. And they had every reason to know [Ethan] was dangerous, and they gave him a weapon and they didn’t secure it. And they allowed him free access to it.”

By canceling last week’s Sift, I missed the chance to make a more timely comment on the guilty verdict against the three men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery.

Shortly after the verdict was announced, I checked how NewsMax was covering it: Their commentators saw the verdict as proof that the justice system is not racist, and as an implicit vindication of the Kyle Rittenhouse not-guilty verdict a few days before.

I, on the other hand, saw the Arbery verdict as the exception that proves the rule of systemic racism in the justice system. (The adage uses proves in the archaic sense of tests.) The murderers very nearly got away with a KKK-style lynching, and would never have stood trial but for some incredibly stupid moves.

  • It’s hard to imagine them being convicted without the video evidence they recorded themselves. Pro tip: If you’re going commit crimes, don’t make videos of yourself in the act. If you discover that you have accidentally videoed yourself participating in a murder, drop your phone in a lake as soon as you can.
  • The local prosecutor saw the video proving their guilt, but didn’t charge them and didn’t release the video. Now that the cover-up of the murder has failed, she’s been indicted for prosecutorial misconduct.
  • The video leaked to the public because a friend of the murderers thought it would clear them. Second tip: If your friends are idiots, don’t let them see the evidence against you, no matter how much it will impress them.
  • Only after the video went viral did the Georgia Bureau of Investigation get involved, which led to the murder charges.

All of this makes me wonder how many similar lynchings have been committed by White racists who weren’t total morons, and who consequently are still walking around free.

So anyway, the Arbery verdict proves that the justice system isn’t totally racist. If you can get video of a white-on-black crime to go viral, public pressure can embarrass the justice system into doing the right thing, as it did (sort of, eventually) in response to George Floyd’s murder. Hurray for America!

It’s been hard to find a good dispassionate analysis of the Rittenhouse verdict. I like this one, written by Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr.

He simultaneously believes that the not-guilty verdict was a reasonable application of the laws of Wisconsin, and that a Black defendant in a similar case would have been convicted.

My view is that the aim of the criminal legal system should be to level up, not level down. We should spend our energies insisting that the system treat black defendants as Rittenhouse was treated, and not advocate for the system to treat Rittenhouse as black defendants are, and have historically been, treated. Leveling down inures to no one’s benefit. The derogation of rights would spiral downward—and quickly—such that all of our rights would be in jeopardy.

The law, Sullivan argues, always embodies our moral sensibilities imperfectly. (Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have reprimanded a newly minted lawyer for his overly idealistic argument: “This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.”) The solution is to change the laws, not misapply them to get a more satisfying outcome in a particular case.

Long-standing self-defense law conspired with absurdly permissive open carry laws to create the set of conditions to make the Rittenhouse affair possible. Perhaps those of us who find the verdict troubling are better served by focusing our attention on state legislatures. I see nothing in the text of the Second Amendment or its doctrinal exegesis that compels states to permit minors to stroll about town with a rifle strapped across their shoulder. It makes no sense, and the unintended consequence of such a legal regime is a Wild Wild West mentality where citizens feel emboldened to engage in private law enforcement.

and you also might be interested in …

Former Senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole died at 98. He represented a bygone era when rivals were not necessarily enemies, senators compromised to get things done, and presidential candidates — even Republicans — conceded after they lost.

Trump’s co-conspirators are changing their stonewalling tactics. They’re starting to drop executive privilege as an excuse not to answer, and starting to invoke the Fifth Amendment. The implication is that they know they’ve been involved in a criminal conspiracy.

A handful of anti-public-health Senate Republicans threatened to torpedo the last-minute bill to prevent a government shutdown. Their price was to get a vote on an amendment to defund enforcement of President Biden’s vaccine mandate (which is already on hold pending a court challenge); the vote failed 48-50. The funding bill then passed and was signed by Biden on Friday, so the government will stay open until sometime in February.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah made the unvaccinated sound like a persecuted minority: “All we wanted to do was have a vote to give a chance to the hardworking mom or dad, soldier, sailor, airman or Marine struggling to put food on the table.” Of course, these unvaccinated workers are not just risking their own lives, but (given how contagious diseases spread) everyone else’s as well. And they already have two chances to save their jobs: get vaccinated, or take advantage of the alternative frequent-testing option. Defunding the vaccine mandate serves the interests of Covid, not American workers.

As the nation approaches 800,000 deaths, close to double the number that we lost in combat in World War II, I have lost my patience for unvaccinated Americans’ misguided and self-centered stubbornness.

The Republicans’ next chance to sabotage America is the debt ceiling, which will probably be hit sometime next week. (At the risk of tediously repeating myself every time this comes up: Having a debt ceiling at all is a terrible idea.)

Edward Geist of the Rand Corporation argues in The Atlantic that the more often Congress plays chicken with the debt ceiling, the more likely it becomes that the nation will default someday.

Nuclear-war strategists have long understood how recklessness, or the appearance of recklessness, may help one side get the other to relent during a single game of chicken. But these strategists’ work also offers a warning for Congress: The more times the game is played, the more treacherous it becomes, because when both sides become convinced that catastrophe will always be averted in the end, each behaves more rashly.

CNN fired Chris Cuomo for conflicts of interest related to the sexual harassment charges against his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Reportedly, Chris helped Andrew craft his media strategy, and used his own investigative resources to gather information on his brother’s accusers.

It was always dicey having a news-talk host whose brother was a governor with national ambitions. But for a time the relationship seemed to have more benefits for CNN than costs. Prior to the scandal, when Andrew would be a guest on Chris’ show, the brotherly banter was often entertaining and even informative. Once Andrew got into trouble, though, Chris should have been much more scrupulous. CNN was right to fire him.

A few days after the Michigan school shooting (see above), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) tweeted his family Christmas card photo.

You may recall the outrage generated two weeks ago when Vice President Harris spent $375 on a serving dish “as US families fret over the cost of Thanksgiving dinner”. How much do you think the Massie family arsenal cost? I’m betting each one of those killing machines is more expensive than Harris’ dish.

But Massie is male, White, and Republican — so who cares?

While we’re talking about fake outrage directed at uppity women, right-wing media recently invented a Nancy Pelosi story out of nothing. According to a rumor that apparently was too juicy to check, Pelosi had just bought a $25 million Florida mansion, simultaneously demonstrating how out of touch she is with ordinary Americans (I wonder how much her cookware costs) and abandoning liberal California for Ron DeSantis’ Florida.

The story was tweeted far and wide (as fact) by the likes of Sean Hannity before anyone bothered to see if it was true. Using Ninja investigative reporting skills far beyond the capabilities of anyone at Fox News,’s Claudine Zap called the listing agent, who debunked the rumor. “I have no idea where the rumor started in regards to Nancy Pelosi. I keep saying I can’t disclose who the buyer is, but it’s not Pelosi.” Hannity has not acknowledged the error.

Putin is upping the pressure on Ukraine, increasing military forces on the border, and causing speculation in US intelligence services that he plans an invasion in 2022. Ukraine says it recently foiled a coup attempt, which it blames on Russia.

American conservatives are split on how to respond. Ted Cruz wants a tougher stand on Russia, while Tucker Carlson wonders why we aren’t allied with Putin, who is popular among Tucker’s white-nationalist base.

Who’s got the energy reserves? Who was the major player in world affairs? Who’s the potential counterbalance against China, which is the actual threat? Why would we take Ukraine’s side, why aren’t we on Russia’s side? I’m totally confused!

When schooled by GOP Rep. Mike Turner about democracy vs. authoritarianism and the undesirability of condoning nations expanding by military force, Tucker responded tentatively: “I’m for democracy in other countries, I guess.”

I thought I was just getting old, but apparently movie dialogue is objectively harder to understand these days.

Why choose among solar, wind, and wave power when you can harness all three with one device?

and let’s close with something something imperial

When I first got to Rome, I wasn’t taking the ancient statues seriously as representations of real people. I mean, the Romans also made statues of the gods, and who knows what Jupiter or Minerva look like?

After a day or two in the museums, though, I started recognizing some of the emperors before reading the plaques. (A famous statue of Augustus in the Vatican Museum has tucked-under little toes. There’s no way a sculptor would give the Emperor crooked toes unless he really had them.) By the end of the week, Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were becoming old friends, to the point that I could say, “Oh, this statue is Trajan styling himself as Augustus.”

Now an artist in Switzerland has used modern tech to create photo-realistic images of the masters of the ancient world. This head-shot of Augustus is so real it inspires a whole new level of detail in my imagination of his life. Like: When you grow up with a name like Octavian, what do the other kids call you on the playground?

The Roe v Wade Death Watch

Despite numerous claims during confirmation hearings that they would respect precedent, Republican justices look ready to overturn Roe.

Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, a case that invites the Court to overturn Roe v Wade. Their decision will most likely not be announced until the end of the Court’s term in June, and comments justices make during oral arguments do not always predict what they will decide. But it sure sounded like five of the justices — Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett — were preparing to overturn Roe, while Chief Justice Roberts was looking for a way to uphold Mississippi’s Roe-violating law (that bans abortions after 15 weeks, in open defiance of Roe’s fetal-viability standard) without reversing Roe completely, thereby chipping away at abortion rights rather than instantly ending them. [1]

What is Roe v Wade? When a Supreme Court decision is talked about as much and as often as Roe has been, sometimes the original gets lost in the noise. So I went back and read Roe, which was decided in 1973. If you’ve never read it, or read it so long ago you don’t remember, it’s worth a look.

For one thing, Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion assembles an excellent summary of the history of abortion laws going back to ancient times. Anti-abortion arguments often imply that abortion has traditionally been illegal, and that only modern judicial hocus-pocus has created a pregnant woman’s right to choose that option. But in fact the opposite is true: Abortion-producing potions are as old as history, and laws banning abortions prior to “quickening” (when women start to feel the fetus moving) were rare until the late 1800s.

It is thus apparent that at common law, at the time of the adoption of our Constitution, and throughout the major portion of the 19th century, abortion was viewed with less disfavor than under most American statutes currently in effect. Phrasing it another way, a woman enjoyed a substantially broader right to terminate a pregnancy than she does in most States today. At least with respect to the early stage of pregnancy, and very possibly without such a limitation, the opportunity to make this choice was present in this country well into the 19th century. Even later, the law continued for some time to treat less punitively an abortion procured in early pregnancy.

The second thing worth noting is that Roe is a delicate balancing of rights and interests rather than the sweeping extension of judicial authority it is frequently portrayed as. On one hand, “the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision”, but a state also has legitimate interests that could conflict with an “absolute” right to abortion: “in safeguarding health, in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life.”

That’s where Roe’s trimester breakdown comes from. During the first trimester, Blackmun wrote, abortion is safer than childbirth, so the state’s interest in maternal health can’t justify first-trimester restrictions. The state’s interest in potential life becomes “compelling” at the point of viability.

With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the ‘compelling’ point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

Where does the right to privacy come from? Any anti-abortion critique of Roe is bound to assert that the Constitution never specifically mentions the “right to privacy” that justifies a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. In particular, unlike freedom of speech or the right to bear arms, it’s not in the Bill of Rights.

This is an argument Alexander Hamilton anticipated in The Federalist, and why he thought including a Bill of Rights in the Constitution in the first place was “dangerous”: Oppressive governments might use a list the people’s rights to claim that anything not listed was not a right. As Edmund Pendleton wrote to Richard Henry Lee in 1788:

Again is there not danger in the Enumeration of Rights? may we not in the progress of things, discover some great & important, which we don’t now think of? there the principle may be turned upon Us, & what [government power] is not reserved, said to be granted.

The right to privacy has implications far beyond abortion, and had been recognized long before Roe, which provides a long list of previous cases that applied and developed it. One case in particular should resonate with the anti-abortion faction today: Pierce v. Society of Sisters.

In 1925, the Supreme Court struck down an Oregon law that required children to attend public schools. The law was an anti-Catholic measure targeting parochial schools. But if you search the Bill of Rights for a provision that specifically allows parents to choose a Catholic school for their children, you won’t find it. [2] That freedom to choose depends on recognizing a sphere of personal autonomy that governments can’t invade.

Roe does not argue that a right to privacy exists; that was well established by 1973. Rather, the Court concluded in Roe that

This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment‘s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment‘s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.

What about fetal personhood? Blackmun discussed this at length in Roe. He concluded that no occurrence of “person” in the Constitution could plausibly be claimed to include the unborn. If the Court was going to recognize the fetus as a person with constitutional rights, it would have to do so on its own authority. Blackmun was unwilling to claim such authority.

Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.

It should be sufficient to note briefly the wide divergence of thinking on this most sensitive and difficult question.

He goes on to describe views of the ancient Stoics, most Jews, and (as was true at that time) “a large segment of the Protestant community” that the moment of conception does not establish an ensouled being with the full moral value that it will have after birth.

Elaborating on that point, I will say that no branch of the US government should be making pronouncements that establish one religious position as superior to another, if there is any way to avoid doing so. The Founders had were well aware of how religious conflicts had torn England apart during the 1500s and 1600s, as one sect and then another claimed control of the government and used it to enforce their views. They wanted no such conflicts in their new country, which is why they wrote a secular Constitution.

Blackmun continues:

In view of all this, we do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life, Texas may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake.

Gaslighting. Comments the justices made Wednesday underlined just how dishonest and disingenuous many of them had been during their confirmation hearings. AP summarized:

During his confirmation to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh convinced Sen. Susan Collins that he thought a woman’s right to an abortion was “settled law,” calling the court cases affirming it “precedent on precedent” that could not be casually overturned.

Amy Coney Barrett told senators during her Senate confirmation hearing that laws could not be undone simply by personal beliefs, including her own. “It’s not the law of Amy,” she quipped.

But during this week’s landmark Supreme Court hearing over a Mississippi law that could curtail if not outright end a woman’s right to abortion, the two newest justices struck a markedly different tone, drawing lines of questioning widely viewed as part of the court’s willingness to dismantle decades old decisions on access to abortion services.

Kavanaugh in particular now makes a virtue out of breaking precedent and ignoring the principle of stare decisis.

If you think about some of the most important cases, the most consequential cases in this court’s history, there’s a string of them where the cases overruled precedent.

That string included landmark cases like Brown v Board of Education, which overturned the prior standard of “separate but equal” schools. [3]

So the question on stare decisis is why, if … we think that the prior precedents are seriously wrong, if that, why then doesn’t the history of this Court’s practice with respect to those cases tell us that the right answer is actually a return to the position of neutrality and — and not stick with those precedents in the same way that all those other cases didn’t?

Maybe he should have told Susan Collins that during his confirmation interview. Or maybe she shouldn’t have been so gullible about what he did tell her.

Dahlia Lithwick thinks it would be “refreshing” if the conservative justices’ new honesty about their intention to reverse Roe meant that the gaslighting is over

After confirmation hearings in which they promised that stare decisis was a deeply felt value and that Roe v. Wade was a clear “precedent of the court” and “the law of the land.” there’s something sort of soothing about knowing the lying to our faces will soon be over. They were all six of them installed on the Supreme Court to put an end to Roe v. Wade after all, and that is exactly what they intend to do. There will be no more fake solicitude for women making difficult choices, no more pretense that pregnant people really just need better medical advice, and no more phony concerns about “abortion mills” that threaten maternal health. There is truly something to be said for putting an end to decades of false consciousness around the real endgame here, which was to take away a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy—rape, incest, abuse, maternal health no longer being material factors. At least now we might soon be able to call it what it is.

Sadly, though, she goes on to point out that the lying continues. Now they’re gaslighting us about the significance of reversing Roe: Kavanaugh pretended that leaving abortion to the states (i.e., giving Mississippi exactly what it wants) would be a compromise. Alito claimed personhood-at-conception isn’t a religious view, because some secular philosophers agree. (Plato believed in the immortality of the soul. Does that secularize the doctrine?) Barrett opined that forced pregnancy is not such a big deal anymore, because (assuming you survive childbirth) it’s easier now to give the child up for adoption. (Why should it bother a woman to devote nine months of her life to the survival of her rapist’s genes?)

But the most extreme gaslighting concerns the implications of overturning Roe: It won’t stop there. The right to privacy undergirds, for example, same-sex marriage, gay rights in general, and the right to use contraception. All of these rights are targeted by the same theocratic faction that put Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett on the Court.

At their [confirmation] hearings, Roe was settled law, the precedent of the court. But now Roe is Plessy, which is why when the justices whisper softly that Lawrence v. Texas, Obergefell, and Griswold are not under threat today, you might wonder why you should trust them. They are all settled law—until they are not. They told us as much at their confirmation hearings and assured us today they were lying then, but aren’t lying now.

Where will abortion be illegal? You might imagine that the only immediate effect of the Court deciding in Mississippi’s favor is that their ban-at-15-weeks law would take effect. But 12 states have already passed abortion bans that are set to apply automatically as soon as Roe is reversed: Mississippi, Texas, Idaho, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah.

But that’s not all. Josh Marshall connects the dots between abortion and the Republican minority-rule project.

Many purple and even blue states are sufficiently gerrymandered at the state level that we should assume they’ll soon outlaw abortion too. I’m talking about states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio.

Wisconsin as so often is an instructive example. Wisconsin is a very closely divided state politically. It usually goes to the Democrats at the presidential level. But it’s always by a narrow margin whoever wins. The state’s governorship is similarly always close, though at the moment there’s a Democratic governor. The Democrats won the governorship in 2018 by a tiny margin. Then Joe Biden won the presidential race there by another very small margin. And yet Democrats struggled in 2020 to prevent Republicans from getting a supermajority in the state legislature. A supermajority!

Given that Republican majorities in purple-state legislatures have successfully insulated themselves from the people, all it takes is electing a Republican governor one time, and abortion rights will be gone for decades to come.

[1] Appearing to respect a law or precedent while gutting it in practice is a very Robertsy thing to do. For example, he didn’t strike down the Voting Rights Act in 2013, he just eliminated the government’s main tool for enforcing it.

If you look at the broad sweep of Roberts’ career, he wants to achieve partisan objectives without tarring the Court’s non-partisan image.

[2] You also couldn’t claim that the Founders intended to include such a protection. Some of the Founders were virulently anti-Catholic. In a 1774 letter to Parliament, which I believe was written by John Jay, the Continental Congress described Catholicism as “a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.”

[3] It’s worth pointing out that the Court didn’t reverse the Plessy standard of separate-but-equal just because the 1954 justices had different views than the 1896 justices. The intervening half-century had brought a long series of cases to the Court in which states claimed that their segregated schools were “equal”, but they really weren’t. In Brown, the Court concluded from experience that the Plessy standard wasn’t workable; separate schools for Black students were always going to be unequal.

Nothing similar has been happening with respect to Roe. The only difference between 2021 and 1973 is that different people are on the Court.

The Monday Morning Teaser

These last two weeks saw two significant developments: The Omicron variant of Covid was announced, and the Supreme Court heard arguments on a case it might use to overturn Roe v Wade.

The featured post will focus on Roe. In particular, I went back to read Roe, which impressed me more than I expected. Justice Blackmun wrote an excellent discussion of the issue, and anticipated many of the criticisms that people are making today. I’ll also comment on the extensive gaslighting by the conservative justices, which started in their confirmation hearings and continues to the present.

That post “The Roe v Wade Death Watch” should be out a little after 10 EST.

The weekly summary will cover what little we know about Omicron and how uncertainly we know it. I’ll also discuss the Michigan school shooting, and go back to comment on the Arbery and Rittenhouse verdicts. In other news: Bob Dole died. Congress managed to fund the government until February, but there’s still a debt ceiling crisis scheduled for later this month. Chris Cuomo got fired. A Russia/Ukraine crisis is brewing. And a few other things. I’ll try to get that out around noon or so.

Where We’re Headed

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on December 6.

There’s still plenty of reason to fear where we are currently headed, but at the same time, there’s no reason to think that five years from now, at the next major Paris “stocktake,” we’ll still be headed there.

– David Roberts, “Don’t get too bummed out about COP26

This week’s featured post is “Does the Red Pill have an antidote?

This week everybody was talking about the Rittenhouse verdict

The 18-year-old vigilante was found not guilty on all counts.

I worry about the lessons people are learning from this verdict. As for Rittenhouse himself, I can’t guess. It’s possible that he was genuinely horrified to see people die at his own hand. Many stories tell of young men who were excited to go to war, and yet were traumatized to learn up close what it means to kill another human being. We can hope Rittenhouse responds similarly, and that even as he walks free, he is determined to avoid violence in the future.

On the other hand, he may have learned that killing makes you a hero, and has lasting negative consequences only for the people who die. If that’s the case, he will likely kill again.

As for the violent conservative movement that has lionized Rittenhouse, I have little doubt that they have been emboldened. Killing protesters is a widespread and longstanding fantasy on the Right. Until now, hitting them with a car has been the preferred method. But the Rittenhouse case established that you can walk up to protesters with a gun, and if they worry that you might be a mass shooter and try to disarm you, you can kill them in “self defense”. I’m sure we’ll see more of that. No doubt at this very moment, militia groups are holding training sessions on the loopholes in self-defense laws.

David French:

Most of the right-wing leaders voicing their admiration for Rittenhouse are simply adopting a pose. On Twitter, talk radio, and Fox News, hosts and right-wing personalities express admiration for Rittenhouse but know he was being foolish. They would never hand a rifle to their own children and tell them to walk into a riot. They would never do it themselves.

But these public poses still matter. When you turn a foolish young man into a hero, you’ll see more foolish young men try to emulate his example. And although the state should not permit rioters to run rampant in America’s streets, random groups of armed Americans are utterly incapable of imposing order themselves, and any effort to do so can lead to greater death and carnage.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in Rittenhouse’s case. He didn’t impose order. He didn’t stop a riot. He left a trail of bodies on the ground, and two of the people he shot were acting on the belief that Rittenhouse himself was an active shooter. He had, after all, just killed a man.

Farhad Manjoo amplifies that last point, noting that the Rittenhouse shootings “unravel some of the foundational tenets of gun advocacy”.

That guns are effective and necessary weapons of self-defense. That without them, lawlessness and tyranny would prevail. And that in the right hands — in the hands of the “good guys” — guns promote public safety rather than destroy it.

In the Rittenhouse case, none of that was true. At every turn that night, Rittenhouse’s AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle made things worse, ratcheting up danger rather than quelling it. The gun transformed situations that might have ended in black eyes and broken bones into ones that ended with corpses in the street. And Rittenhouse’s gun was not just a danger to rival protesters. According to his own defense, the gun posed a grave threat to Rittenhouse himself — he said he feared being overpowered and then shot with his own weapon.

This is self-defense as circular reasoning: Rittenhouse says he carried a rifle in order to guarantee his safety during a violent protest. He was forced to shoot at four people when his life and the lives of other people were threatened, he says. What was he protecting everyone from? The gun strapped to his own body, the one he’d brought to keep everyone safe.

I am struck by the fact that the only people who died in the Kenosha riots were the ones Rittenhouse killed. He was the primary danger.

The legal wrangling over this case is likely not over. A civil lawsuit for wrongful death is a possibility, though Jonathan Turley warns against it. There’s also a disagreement over the vast sums of money raised for Rittenhouse’s defense. The state will return his $2 million bail, but to whom? Rittenhouse himself? His lawyers? The fund-raisers?

Turley is also skeptical that Rittenhouse can win a defamation lawsuit for all the negative things people have said about him.

and Paul Gosar

who was censured by the House and expelled from his committees on Wednesday.

The vote was close to splitting on party lines: Among Republicans, only established anti-MAGA representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger voted for the censure.

Republicans like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy complained that by taking away Gosar’s committee assignments the censure resolution went too far. But (as so often happens) they offered no counter-proposal. I can find no suggestion that Republicans other than Cheney and Kinzinger were willing to reprimand Gosar in any way. Speaker Pelosi waited ten days for the GOP caucus to discipline its own member, and acted only when it was clear they would not.

I think AOC summed it up pretty well:

What is so hard about saying this is wrong? This is not about me. This is not about Rep. Gosar. This is about what we are willing to accept. … If you believe that this behavior should not be accepted, then vote yes.

As many people have pointed out, no other workplace would tolerate this. If you posted a video depicting yourself killing a colleague you frequently disagreed with, you’d be fired.

Gosar defended himself by saying that it’s just a cartoon. But if what Gosar did wasn’t over the line, where is the line? What if he had superimposed his own and AOC’s heads on a rape cartoon? What if the cartoon had been more realistic?

As we saw again and again during the Trump years, Republicans don’t want to answer such questions. Democrats were always “overreacting” to Trump, but Republicans would not react at all, and would never speculate on how far they might let him go in the future. Ultimately, they saw him unleash a mob on Congress itself, and still did nothing.

The same moral cowardice is on display here: Kevin McCarthy knows the MAGA faction will eventually cross any line he might draw, and he won’t want to respond then either. So he says nothing.

For his part, Gosar remained defiant. “I explained to [the Republican House caucus] what was happening. I did not apologize. I said this video didn’t have anything to do with harming anybody.” After the censure, he reposted the offending video and then took it down again.

Gosar also suggests that Kyle Rittenhouse get a Congressional Medal of Honor “for selflessly protecting the lives and property of the people from an armed mob of arsonists and criminals”. [I see the link no longer works, presumably because the tweet has been taken down. I had verified the tweet myself before trying to link to it.]

Bottom line: Like much of the far right, Gosar is pro-violence — as long as people he likes are attacking people he doesn’t like.

One reason McCarthy is such a pushover for the MAGA faction is that he fears he won’t be named speaker if Republicans get the majority back in 2022. Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows appeared Thursday on Rep. Matt Gaetz’ podcast and suggested that a new Republican House majority should bypass McCarthy and name Trump as speaker. (Only tradition says that the Speaker has to be a member of the House.)

Since Trump has no legislative agenda, I can only see two purposes in making him Speaker:

  • As Speaker, he could sabotage the country by blocking bills to fund the government or raise the debt ceiling.
  • Being Speaker would put him in the presidential line of succession, in case his violent followers could somehow get Biden and Harris out of the way. I’m sure Trump himself would never suggest such a thing, unless maybe he were “joking”.

and Build Back Better

A version of the bill passed the House. What happens in the Senate is anybody’s guess. Here’s CNBC’s speculation:

Multiple senators will push for changes to the bill’s provisions including paid leave and taxes along the way. Any tweaks will require another vote in the House, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can afford three defections (only one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, voted against the bill Friday). …

[Senator Joe] Manchin, who has not publicly endorsed the package as he expresses concerns about spending and inflation, will seek at least one overhaul. He has signaled he will push to scrap a House provision offering four weeks of paid leave to most Americans.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is another Democrats who could seek to influence the bill in the Senate. She already shot down her party’s efforts to hike tax rates on the biggest businesses and wealthiest individuals, forcing lawmakers to opt for more complicated policies such as a minimum tax on corporations.

The open question in my mind is whether Manchin’s and Sinema’s votes are really available. If they are, some compromise will pass the Senate and go back to the House. But I can also imagine that at least one of them is just stringing out the process and will never get on board.

Kevin McCarthy delayed the House vote by unleashing a record-breaking eight hour and 32 minute speech. Unsurprisingly, much of what he said wasn’t true.

and the pandemic

The recent surge in cases accelerated this week: the 7-day average of new cases per day is up to 93K from a recent low of 71K November 4. Hospitalizations have turned up as well: +6% in the last two weeks. Deaths are still falling, but not sharply: down 9%.

I speculated last week that vaccines and better treatment might keep the rise in cases from leading to a rise in deaths, but that’s still uncertain. Typically there’s a time lag between when cases start rising and when deaths start rising. The rise in hospitalizations is worrisome.

No, Anthony Fauci had nothing to do with a beagle experiment in Tunisia. Lots of people aren’t even trying to tell the truth any more.

White Coat Waste spokesman Justin Goodman … defended the decision to capitalize on the anti-Fauci fervor that has been brewing for more than a year and a half. “When you have such a high-profile person to point the finger at for funding animal experiments, it would be malpractice for us not to do that,” he said.

and climate change

David Roberts isn’t as bummed about the COP26 meetings in Glasgow as many environmentalists seem to be. First, he says, you need to appreciate what these meetings are and aren’t. They aren’t legislatures.

[A] COP agreement can’t make a country do anything. … The utility of the Paris process is that every few years it provides the equivalent of a giant camera flash, revealing where everyone stands. That is useful. International transparency and peer pressure can sometimes move national governments. But it is a mistake to invest any particular hopes for change in the UNFCCC process — it can’t really do anything. It can only illuminate what is being done.

What is being done currently isn’t enough, but we’re also not at the end of the story.

The good news is, we’re making progress. A decade ago, we were on track for 4° to 6° Celsius average warming by the end of the century, which would have been species-threatening.

As this report from Climate Action Tracker shows, thanks to actions taken by national governments since then, we have “bent the curve” on climate change, as it were, and brought the average expected warming down to 2.7°C.

That would still be devastating. But we’re not going to stop there. Progress is only accelerating. … There’s still plenty of reason to fear where we are currently headed, but at the same time, there’s no reason to think that five years from now, at the next major Paris “stocktake,” we’ll still be headed there.

In parallel with a COP meeting, there’s always “climate festival-cum-trade-show, featuring governments, nonprofits, and private-sector actors announcing all kinds of new campaigns and initiatives alongside the UNFCCC process”. Roberts found this part of the meeting encouraging.

[N]ational governments are often going to be in the caboose of this train — civic groups, the private sector, and subnational governments are leading the way. That’s distributed all over the world, less easy to see and sum up, but it shows that the caution and intransigence of national governments are not the whole story.

A long article in yesterday’s NYT examined how China got control of the vast cobalt supplies of the Congo, giving it a huge advantage in the battery technology needed by the electric cars that are the best hope for cutting CO2 emissions.

During the Cold War, US policy focused on keeping the Soviet Union from controlling Congo’s natural resources. But after the Soviet government collapsed, interest in those resources waned under multiple administrations. In 2016, when a US company, Freeport-McMoRan, made bad investments in fossil fuels and needed to sell assets to pay down debt, only Chinese companies made bids. A second sale to China Molybdenum closed in 2020.

and you also might be interested in …

The Pollo Tropical restaurant chain in Florida came up with an ingenious solution to its labor shortage: It paid workers more.

[Parent company CEO Richard] Stockinger said Pollo Tropical had also offered hiring incentives and improved its benefits package by adding childcare leave, company-paid educational programs, and more affordable medical plans. These measures would help its restaurants “remain competitive in these challenging market conditions,” he said.

The chain will compensate by raising prices.

Adam Smith would have predicted this supply-and-demand result, but it’s funny how such stuff gets discussed in most of the media: When the fluctuations of the labor market go against workers, that’s just how life is. But when they benefit workers, it’s some kind of crisis.

Self-described socialist Fredrik deBoer makes some of the same observations I’ve been making for a while:

What too many young socialists and progressive Democrats don’t seem to realize is that it’s perfectly possible that the Democratic Party is biased against our beliefs and that our beliefs simply aren’t very popular.

Looking at the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primary races, he observes that (whatever else might be said about the fairness of the process) Bernie Sanders didn’t get as many votes as the candidates he lost to.

Whatever else we may want to say about the system, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that the voters of the liberal party in American politics twice had the opportunity to nominate Mr. Sanders as their candidate for president and twice declined to do so. If we don’t allow this to inform our understanding of the popularity of our politics, we’ll never move forward and start winning elections to gain more power in our system.

This may be seen as a betrayal of the socialist principles I stand for, which are at heart an insistence on the absolute moral equality of every person and a fierce commitment to fighting for the worst-off with whatever social and governmental means are necessary. But I am writing this precisely because I believe so deeply in those principles. I want socialism to win, and to do that, socialists must be ruthless with ourselves. … Socialist victory will require taking a long, hard road to spread our message, to convince a skeptical public that socialist policies and values are good for them and the country.

Beau of the Fifth Column addresses a practical problem: how to convince your parents to get vaccinated. He suggests two arguments: First, find out whether they are afraid of some specific ingredient they think the vaccines contain. Probably that chemical isn’t there at all. Second, point out that even if you believe the most exaggerated estimates of people who have vaccine side-effects, taking the vaccine is still safer than getting Covid.

The best-of-2021 lists have started appearing. The WaPo’s best ten books is, as usual, humbling. I haven’t read any of them.

Trump’s mail-slowing postmaster general may finally be on his way out.

Department of I-can’t-believe-somebody-had-to-prove-that-but-I-guess-they-did: The new book Homelessness is a Housing Problem looks at regional variations in the rate of homelessness, and concludes that the problem is high rents. Not drug abuse or mental illness or unemployment or any of the other frequently cited explanations.

If your community has a lot of homeless people, it should build more housing they can afford. It’s really that simple.

Matt Yglesias points out a problem with the focus on social-justice language: A group like the AMA might adopt language changes and leave its inequality-producing policies in place.

[B]ecause doctors are perennially in such short supply in the United States, they can afford to be extremely choosy about their assignments. You never have a down-on-his-luck doctor looking for work and realizing that there’s demand for medical care in poor neighborhoods or rural communities. Even more subtly, because doctors are scarce, they can afford to treat their patients relatively poorly. …

There are lots of ways to increase medical abundance, but unfortunately, the AMA is normally standing in the way — blocking increased scope of practice for nurses, making it hard for foreign-trained doctors to practice in the United States, and historically pushing to train too few doctors here at home.

I took this screenshot while browsing the NYT on Tuesday. In the view of the NYT opinion-page editors, four articles prophesying doom for the Democrats constitutes a “debate”.

Speaking of the Democrats, they face two separate problems in 2022:

  • Getting people to vote for them.
  • Overcoming gerrymandering that could give Republicans a majority even if most voters choose Democrats.

Gerrymandering is getting worse, but recent Supreme Court decisions have closed off most avenues for challenging gerrymandered maps in court.

The Staples Center in LA is about to become the Arena. I am nostalgic for the era when the Lakers played in the Forum, the 76ers in the Spectrum, and the Celtics in the Boston Garden. As far as I know, Madison Square Garden in New York is the NBA’s lone survivor of those simpler times. Now the New Orleans Pelicans play in the Smoothy King Center.

In his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace parodied the naming-rights-for-money trend with the notion of subsidized time. Events take place during the Year of Glad and the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.

For decades, fans have been struggling to turn the ever-changing corporate names into something as charming as the traditional ones (like referring to the former Verizon Center in DC — now the Capital One Arena — as “the Phone Booth”). I hear is likely to be nicknamed “The Crypt”, which doesn’t bode well for the teams that will play there. Personally, I’d prefer to pretend it’s named for Krypto the Superdog, and refer to it as the Dog House.

and let’s close with something visual

As even amateur photographers know, it’s hard to get the Moon to pose just the way you want.

from the Wikimedia Commons

Does the red pill have an antidote?

Why do previously reasonable people go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, and what can be done to bring them back?

A handful of problems can plausibly be put forward as obstacles to solving all other problems: climate change and the corruption caused by money in politics are two that pop to mind. Whatever other problem you might be trying to solve, chances are that at least one of those two will get in your way.

But a third problem is joining that group: the explosion of conspiracy theories and the disinformation they spread. Want to control the pandemic? You’ll wind up dealing with people who think Anthony Fauci has been behind the virus all along, or that the vaccines contain microchips that track your movements.

Want to cut greenhouse gas emissions? You must have been duped by the conspiracy that is using the climate change hoax to institute a global socialist dictatorship.

Worried about the state of our democracy? You obviously don’t understand that there’s nothing to save, because all our elections are already rigged. Millions of illegal immigrants are allowed to vote! And dead people. And the servers that count our votes are actually in some other country.

Whatever else you might want to focus on is a waste of time anyway. It’s just a distraction from the blood-drinking child-sex ring that controls the world. That’s the real problem.

David Neiwert’s book. I first heard of David Neiwert when he was writing the Orcinus blog. Already in 2004, he was warning about the right-wing drift towards fascism, but doing so in a responsible way, i.e., actually defining fascism and checking current developments against that definition rather than just throwing around loaded words. (That’s why he called the drift of 2004 American conservatism “pseudo-fascism”. It had the seeds, but they hadn’t fully sprouted yet.)

His 2020 book Red Pill, Blue Pill: how to counteract the conspiracy theories that are killing us is a quick read that is full of insight. It falls into a few separable parts:

  • a history of conspiracy theories from the medieval blood libel to the Yellow Peril to the Red Scare to QAnon. I found this fascinating, but if you don’t, you could skip over it.
  • why conspiracy theories are attractive and who they attract
  • how someone can get drawn in
  • what can be done to pull someone out

The title comes from the red-pill/blue-pill choice Morpheus gives Neo in The Matrix. The red pill represents awakening to the hidden reality that other people fail to see or refuse to see. Conspiracy theorists often talk about the moment they were red-pilled.

How to tell real conspiracies from conspiracy theories. A question I often raise on this blog is whether a term actually means something or is just an insult. Political correctness, cancel culture, critical race theory — do they have any content beyond being pejorative labels?

You might think conspiracy theory is another term with little objective meaning — just “a theory other people believe, but I don’t”. But Neiwert uses the term more precisely than that: A conspiracy theory isn’t just a theory about a conspiracy, it’s a theory that goes against everything we know about actual conspiracies.

People really do conspire sometimes, but actual conspiracies (Watergate, say) are narrow in scope, limited in time, and involve a fairly small number of conspirators. Cross any of those three lines, and odds are excellent that your conspiracy won’t stay secret long enough to achieve its goals.

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, postulate vast conspiracies that control everything and yet operate in the shadows for decades or even centuries. The Illuminati has been manipulating world politics since the 1700s, and the conspiracy of blood-drinking child abusers is so large that QAnoners expect thousands of arrests and executions will be needed to stamp it out. The goal of the reptilian conspiracy is to control the Earth, forever.

Some conspiracy theories start with a plausible hypothesis. It’s not crazy, for example, to wonder if alien civilizations exist, or if alien explorers might have visited this planet. But such speculations become conspiracy theories when countervailing evidence that would at least prune the branches of an ordinary hypothesis gets explained away by expanding the conspiracy to completely implausible proportions.

Conspiracy theory epistemology. Conspiracy theorists are hard to argue with because they literally think differently. A conspiracy theory catches on not because it is well supported by evidence, but because it connects a lot of dots. The wider and wilder a theory is, the more interest it generates.

A person trained in mainstream critical thinking will want to pick out a small part of a theory and nail down whether it is true or false before moving on to other parts. But a community of conspiracy theorists isn’t interested in that kind of analysis. The attraction of the theory is its broad sweep; whether any particular part of it is true is almost irrelevant. For example, the fact that JFK Jr. did not return from his apparent death a few weeks ago probably did not disillusion most of the people who came to Dallas expecting to see him.

Think about the attempts to debunk Trump’s Big Lie of how the election was stolen from him. (Neiwert’s book came out before the election, so the Big Lie is not discussed.) Debunkers are fighting a hydra: There is no single explanation of how the election was supposedly stolen, but rather dozens of independent theories of rigged voting machines, hacked servers, boxes of ballots appearing from nowhere, dead voters, fraudulent mail-in ballots, illegal voters, and so on. Debunk one, and the theory’s proponents shift to another. (And as soon as your back is turned, the theory you debunked will rise again.) The conspiracy constantly grows as even Republican officials — Brad Raffensperger, the Michigan Senate — refuse to validate it.

It is not inherently crazy to believe that elections can be stolen. But by now the Big Lie is clearly recognizable as a conspiracy theory.

Psychology of conspiracy theorists. The experts Neiwert quotes paint the following picture: People who feel a lack of control in their lives are attracted to conspiracy theories for two main reasons:

  • The conspirators become scapegoats. They — not me — are to blame for the way the world (and my life) is going. Rather than falling victim to random events or societal trends, I have an enemy: Illegal aliens have taken my place in the economy, and the Jews helped them do it.
  • The theory inserts the believer into a more hopeful, more powerful narrative. By learning about the conspiracy, the believer has joined a heroic resistance group that will expose and ultimately defeat the evil conspirators.

These underlying motives explain why conspiracy theorists reject debunking evidence: Evidence was not the primary reason they bought into the theory in the first place.

How people get drawn in. If your first contact with a conspiracy theory is full-blown nuttiness, you’ll probably turn away without a second thought. No one hears out of the blue that the British royal family are shape-changing alien reptiles and thinks, “I should look into that.”

But even the wildest conspiracy theories have a plausible-looking public face. Jeffrey Epstein, for example, appears to have really maintained a stable of under-age sex partners he could offer his global-elite-level friends. Understandable concern for the possibility that missing children could have been kidnapped for sex leads many people to read social media posts or watch YouTube videos that slowly introduce them to the QAnon theory that such a child-sex ring has world-dominating power.

And once you start investigating one conspiracy theory, you will run into others that connect even more dots that you had always wondered about. The people you meet in one conspiracy-theory online community will introduce you to other conspiracies, which interlock in weird ways.

Social media algorithms accelerate this process. If you watch a video that raises plausible-sounding doubts about the effectiveness of masks or vaccines, YouTube will then suggest more radical videos suggesting that vaccine side-effects are being covered up, and then others claiming Covid was engineered by the Chinese — maybe with the connivance of the CDC — to attack America.

If you’d run into that last video first, it probably would have made no impression. But YouTube has groomed you to accept it.

A common mistake. Neiwart points out something I had not thought of: The way we typically research new topics increases our vulnerability. Dylann Roof is a case in point: His journey into mass murder began with a simple Google search: “black on white crime”.

The problem is that the phrase “black on white crime” is primarily used by White racists. (The people who do academic research on crime seldom break things down that way. But how would you know that if you hadn’t thought about this topic before?) If you read one of the White-racist articles Google sends you to, you’ll run into other phrases that are part of that worldview (and seldom occur elsewhere). Google them, and you’re on your way down the rabbit hole.

Instead, Neiwert recommends a media-consumption practice that media-literacy expert Michael Caufield calls SIFT: Stop, Investigate, Find, Trace.

Before reacting to something you see on social media, and rather than continually going deeper into a topic, take a moment to stop and investigate the source: Who is making this claim? What other claims have they made? How credible are they?

Then try to find a more reliable source for the same information. And once you have, trace claims back to their origins: If, for example, so-and-so is supposed to have said something outrageous, see if you can find a full transcript or a video. If a new law is supposed to do something horrible, what law is it exactly? And what does it really say?

Where the rabbit hole goes. It’s striking how many parallels there are between conspiracy theories and drug addiction. The drug provides a feeling that life is getting better, while actually making it worse; so the perceived need for the drug grows.

If someone’s underlying problem is a lack of efficacy in life, believing in a conspiracy is not going to fix it. Instead, a conspiracy obsession will pull a person away from their support system, alienating friends and relatives. But each loss in the real world makes the conspiracy a more important part of the life they still have. Believers become ever more attached to other conspiracy theorists, and to the fantasy that someday (after the Storm comes, say) their former friends and loved ones will see the truth and come back to them begging forgiveness.

Eventually, the believer has no human contacts outside the conspiracy-theory community. And since many of the other conspiracy theorists are broken in one way or another, conspiracy-related relationships tend to be brittle. Groups often fracture, or turn against individual members.

When someone has given up everything for a conspiracy-theory obsession, and then feels rejected by the conspiracy-theory community too, the stage is set for violence.

Like drug addiction, not everyone goes all the way. Most casual users of illegal drugs never become street people who will do anything for their next fix. For many, similarly, Trump’s Big Lie is a relatively harmless way to meet people online and channel an otherwise amorphous rage. They have learned not to discuss their conspiracy-theory hobby with normies, and they will never storm the Capitol or beat police with flagpoles.

But the possibility is always there, and it’s hard to say what will send someone into a tragic spiral.

Can you pull a friend out? Independent of the negative effects conspiracy theories have on our democracy and our social cohesion, many of us know and care about individuals whose lives are being sucked down that rabbit hole. Is there anything we can do to help?

The closing chapter of Neiwert’s book is a 15-step plan based on research he gleans from a number of sources. Before explaining the steps, he warns that the plan doesn’t always work, it takes a lot of effort, and if you aren’t really committed to it you can make things worse.

The gist of the program is that people are pulled out of conspiracy theories when they’re ready and through personal relationships with people who care about them. Again, I see addiction parallels: You’re not going to pull a friend out of drug addiction during the early phase when the drug seems to make everything wonderful.

So the underlying idea is to stay in an honest relationship with your friend — not pretending to agree about stuff you think is crazy, because they’ll eventually see through you — until they hit a crisis of their own and are looking for a way out. Don’t try to argue them out of it by assembling counter-evidence, because evidence is not the point. Instead, try to understand the needs the conspiracy fills and how it fills them. Compassionate listening plays a bigger role than passionate explaining. Keep your other shared interests alive and even expand them if you can. And wait.

The final pages of the book are about the holes conspiracy theories fill in society, and how we can close them. This is largely a work in progress. For example: Conspiracy theories are largely a problem of trust, and who can claim that our current institutions are 100% trustworthy? Long-term, the challenge is to create more trustworthy ways of getting information, and to rebuild our power structures to be more transparent and more responsive to people’s real needs.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It has been an eventful week: Kyle Rittenhouse went free, the House passed Build Back Better, Paul Gosar was censured, and the fall Covid surge continued.

I’ll talk about all that in the weekly summary, but I have little to add to what you’re probably already seeing. (I am deeply disturbed by the implications of the Rittenhouse trial, for example, but for reasons you have probably already thought of.) So this week’s featured post is a book review: David Neiwert’s study of conspiracy theories Red Pill, Blue Pill. That should be out a little after 10 EST.

The summary includes the topics listed above, plus David Roberts’ don’t-panic response to the Glasgow COP meeting on climate change, Beau’s advice on convincing your parents to get vaccinated, a Florida restaurant chain’s ingenious solution to a labor shortage (pay more), and a few other things. I’ll try to get that out a little after noon.

Word and Deed

Since my first day in office, I have promised Justice Department employees that together we would show the American people by word and deed that the department adheres to the rule of law, follows the facts and the law and pursues equal justice under the law. Today’s charges reflect the department’s steadfast commitment to these principles.

– Merrick Garland
Stephen K. Bannon Indicted for Contempt of Congress

This week’s featured posts is “Does America Need an Anti-Cancel Culture University?

This week everybody was talking about Steve Bannon’s indictment

Steve Bannon, a former adviser to a former president, was indicted Friday on two counts of contempt of Congress, each of which could lead to one year in prison. He surrendered today (frustrating my fantasy of a you’ll-never-take-me-alive shootout).

The two counts stem from a subpoena issued by the January 6 Select Committee, and are for (1) failing to produce subpoenaed documents, and (2) failing to appear for a deposition. For the documents, there is at least an argument to make: Trump has claimed executive privilege on other coup-related documents, and while that claim is probably baseless, it is still wending its way through the courts. So Bannon’s refusal is tenuously connected to someone else’s meritless claim.

The failure to appear, though, has no conceivable justification. If he did testify, Bannon might credibly use executive privilege to justify refusing to answer specific questions about his conversations with Trump. But he also has his own behavior to answer for, as well as possible conversations with conspirators other than the defeated president. Simply knowing a former president does not immunize Bannon against any possible questioning by Congress, so his behavior is quite literally contemptuous.

Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has also refused to appear for questioning. His case is somewhat stronger, in that he was at least employed by the president at the time under investigation. But similarly, his proper course of action is to show up and invoke executive privilege on a question-by-question basis. (The model here is the way Mafia bosses invoked the Fifth Amendment at the 1951 Kefauver hearings. Chicago capo Tony Accardo pleaded the Fifth 170 times.) It can’t possibly be true that everything he knows is privileged. Meadows undoubtedly had conversations with coup-friendly members of Congress, and allegedly met with organizers of the January 6 protests. There’s no reason he shouldn’t have to answer questions about those meetings.

The committee has not yet decided whether to recommend an indictment of Meadows, but I predict it will.

A related question is whether the Bannon indictment will make other subpoenaed witnesses more cooperative. We’ll see.

An appeals court has delayed the January 6 Committee’s access to Trump administration documents held in the National Archives, pending a hearing. Last week, a lower-court judge dismissed his executive privilege claim with a forceful statement that “presidents are not kings“. Trump’s lawyers argued his case as a separation-of-powers dispute between the executive and legislative branches of government, but the judge rejected that framing: President Biden represents the executive branch, and he agrees that Congress should get the documents. So the dispute is between the US government and a private citizen who was once president.

The hearing on Trump’s appeal will start November 30.

Today’s fun fact: I already knew NFL stars Nick and Joey Bosa are brothers, but until this week I didn’t know they’re Tony Accardo’s great-grandsons. I’m sure the Big Tuna would be proud.

and race-related murder trials

Closing arguments in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial begin today. The judge dismissed the one charge that Rittenhouse had no defense against: a misdemeanor charge for possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.

I haven’t been watching this trial, largely because following it at a distance is upsetting enough. I find it impossible to imagine anyone taking his defense seriously if he were liberal and Black. Picture, say, a Black liberal taking an AR-15 to the January 6 riot, then shooting a few people when he started to feel threatened. I can’t imagine that anyone would take his self-defense claim seriously.

In the Rittenhouse case, there are two different issues: Whether Rittenhouse is guilty of a major crime, and what it says about the state of the law if he isn’t. Josh Marshall takes on the second question:

the basic argument here is that Rittenhouse wasn’t doing anything wrong by just carrying around an AR-15. Wisconsin’s an open carry state. The inherent aggression and menace of carrying around high caliber weapons, which we’re told is only a problem for squeamish libs, becomes a path for the person carrying the fire arm to themselves feel threatened and decide they need to use the gun.

The aggression carries the seeds of justification within it. You show up looking for trouble on yet another of these right wing murder safaris like Rittenhouse, with his mother chaperoning, was taking part in. You’re looking for trouble and when you find it that’s your justification for taking the next step. That’s not how self-defense is supposed to work. But we can see in this case how the interplay of open carry and permissive self-defense statutes do just that.

Simultaneously, the three White gunmen who killed unarmed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery are on trial in Georgia. They make an even more unbelievable self-defense claim: Believing (for reasons not entirely clear) that Arbery was responsible for a local burglary, the three men chased him down in their trucks to make a citizen’s arrest. When Arbery began to struggle — as I might were I faced with armed strangers coming after me in trucks — they felt threatened and killed him. If upheld, this seems to be a model of how to commit murder and get away with it.

and Glasgow

The Glasgow Climate Conference has ended. The consensus seems to be that the agreements reached are significant but inadequate. The Guardian annotates the text of the joint statement.

and Republicans’ growing acceptance of political violence

Friday, the NYT published “Menace Enters the Republican Mainstream“, an article which summarizes the growing normalization of right-wing violence and fantasies of violence. It quotes Pomona College political scientist Omar Wasow:

What’s different about almost all those other [violent eras in American history] is that now, there’s a partisan divide around the legitimacy of our political system. The elite endorsement of political violence from factions of the Republican Party is distinct for me from what we saw in the 1960s. Then, you didn’t have — from a president on down — politicians calling citizens to engage in violent resistance.

By comparison very few Republican leaders have spoken out against violence and violent rhetoric in their party.

This week, we found out that former President Trump responded to a question about his supporters chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” by criticizing Pence and excusing the people who wanted to hang him.

Well, the people were very angry. … Because it’s common sense, Jon. It’s common sense that you’re supposed to protect. How can you — if you know a vote is fraudulent, right? — how can you pass on a fraudulent vote to Congress?

Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona posted a video (now unavailable) in which his image was photoshopped into an anime video where he killed a photoshopped AOC and threatened Joe Biden with swords. A small portion was played by Anderson Cooper, who raised the question:

What do you suppose would happen if you went into work one day after you posted a video depicting yourself murdering a coworker and brandishing a sword at the company’s CEO? Most of us know the answer: We’d be fired.

Not only is Gosar not being removed from Congress, but Republican House leaders are not even criticizing him. Violent fantasy is just something elected Republicans do these days.

Contrast this incident with when comedian Kathy Griffin — who held no public office and represents only herself — posed with a representation of Donald Trump’s severed head. She was roundly condemned by Democrats as well as Republicans.

Admittedly, the image of Gosar as an anime warrior is so absurd that it’s hard to view the video as a serious threat. But every time people play with ideas like this, they get closer to manifestation. Bullies often “joke” about hurting or raping someone in order to test the waters. If another bully comes back with a more explicit “joke”, eventually it becomes a plan.

The Shriekback song “Every Force Evolves a Form” warns that words can “make tracks that your feet just have to follow”. Thoughts of violence

float above us like a cloud.
And no one knows where the rain will end up falling.

A code word to watch for is rowdy, which the Right is using to make their violent extremists sound like boys who shoot spitwads at the teacher’s back or football fans who get a little too excited after a big win. Tucker Carlson, for example, talked about Trump voters who “got rowdy on January 6”.

Last week I mentioned the right-wing framing in a skewed poll by Mark Penn’s Harris Group. One of the questions asked: “Do you think the attorney general was right or wrong to say the FBI will treat rowdy parents at school board meetings as potential domestic terrorists?” Unsurprisingly, 64% thought it was wrong — because if such a thing had ever happened, it would be wrong. But Merrick Garland’s actual memo said nothing about rowdiness. Instead he talked about

a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools. While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.

Parents who are merely being “rowdy” — refusing to stay seated, say, or speaking out of turn — have nothing to fear from the FBI. It’s only when they try to achieve their political aims through violence or intimidation — the definition of terrorism — that they might run into trouble.

Whenever conservatives describe their allies as “rowdy”, they should be challenged to describe the actual behavior they are talking about.

and the pandemic

The post-Halloween upward trend accelerated this week. Daily new cases are above 80K again for the first time since October 18. Hospitalizations (down 8%) and deaths (down 16%) continue a slow decline. It’s not clear yet whether that’s due to vaccination, improved treatments, or just the time lag since cases turned upward.

The Southeast, which was hit hardest in the late-summer wave, is the only part of the country where conditions are improving.

and you also might be interested in …

For once, a senator Trump has targeted is going to stand up and make a race of it. Lisa Murkowski will run in 2022, despite facing a Trump-supported primary challenge.

When Republicans accepted Trump’s grab-’em-by-the-pussy comment in 2016, and ignored the dozens of women who accused him of abuse, they opened a door that has never closed. Trump is helping candidates for Congress go through that door, despite credible claims of abuse made against them.

The most outrageous example is Max Miller, who is running to replace impeachment-supporting Rep. Anthony Gonzalez in Ohio’s 16th district. His accuser is not some random woman Trump might imagine was recruited by Democrats. It’s his own former communications director Stephanie Grisham, Miller’s former girl friend, who told Jake Tapper “It was like a gut punch when I saw that [Trump] endorsed [Miller], knowing what happened.”

Not all people who vote Republican are sexists, but abuse of women is not a deal-breaker for them.

Democrats’ and Independents’ assessment of crime in their local area changes slowly. But Republican assessments of crime shift suddenly depending on whether their party controls the White House. Republicans’ fear of crime in their neighborhoods dropped when Bush replaced Clinton in 2001, shot up again when Obama replaced Bush, plummeted when Trump replaced Obama, and skyrocketed again this year.

Crime, like the deficit, is only a problem when a Democrat is president.

A lot of people have been linking to this 26-second clip of Mike Flynn saying that America needs “one religion”. That sounds really bad (and probably is), but it’s a short clip and nobody seemed to know any context, other than he said it as part of the Reawaken America Tour that he’s on with other right-wing yahoos like Mike Lindell and Alex Jones.

I went looking for a longer clip and couldn’t find one until this morning. It seems clear from the longer clip that Flynn envisions all religions coming together voluntarily rather than by force, but his vision should still feel threatening to anyone who isn’t a Christian, or isn’t a type of Christian Flynn would recognize.

While failing to find that context yesterday, I skimmed over this 11-hour video (now gone) of a day’s worth of Reawaken America. Flynn appears for about 20 minutes beginning at the 37-minute mark, but that clip doesn’t include the one-religion bit. It’s also not in Flynn’s segment from the previous day (another 11 hours), which starts around the 9:50 mark. Flynn’s schtick seems to be a Q&A format, and we still don’t know what he was asked that led to the one-religion answer.

While scanning that longer video to find Flynn, I happened across the presentation by anti-vax Dr. Sherri Tenpenny (an osteopath). (It starts around the 6:20 mark.) From her slides I learned that the vaccine contains nanobots, and that the “mNRA breaks the DNA sulfide bonds and inserts AI; this intentionally removes God — YHVH — from your genes.”

That’s the level of indoctrination people are getting on that tour.

Josh Marshall snarks well. An LA Times tweet promoted an article:

Tasha Adams devoted her life to supporting her husband. She was an exotic dancer to pay for his college, took care of him when he accidentally shot himself in the face, and when he was looking for direction in life, she helped him start the Oath Keepers.

And Marshall replied:

who among us has not accidentally shot ourselves in the face during the directionless period before we started a fascist militia group?

Catherine Nichols’ article “The good guy/bad guy myth” is almost four years old, so it’s not directly tied to any current news story. But in some sense it’s tied to all of them: Our popular culture drenches us with stories in which good guys battle bad guys, with the fate of the world in the balance. But if you take a step back, you realize that traditional folk tales didn’t do this.

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them, despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime?

Nor do folktales present a consistent set of values. Some heroes win through honesty, others through trickery. That’s true even in the Bible. Jacob, for example, tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for his brother Esau. The Norse trickster god Loki is ambiguous — villainous when he fools Hodr into slaying Baldur, but heroic when his deceptions help Thor reclaim his hammer from a frost giant. He didn’t change from one to the other; he was always both.

Nichols argues that the good/bad motif in popular narrative doesn’t become dominant until the rise of nation-states, and the corresponding rise of the idea that a nation’s folklore represents or defines some kind of national character with positive national values.

Once the idea of national values entered our storytelling, the peculiar moral physics underlying the phenomenon of good guys versus bad guys has been remarkably consistent. One telling feature is that characters frequently change sides in conflicts: if a character’s identity resides in his values, then when he changes his mind about a moral question, he is essentially swapping sides, or defecting.

Comic book villains often flip to become heroes (and are welcomed). Darth Vader turns against the Emperor and is redeemed in death. But no matter how angry Achilles got with Agamemnon, he never considered defecting to Troy; it just wouldn’t have made any sense.

I have to wonder how different our politics would be today if we still had narrative options other than good against evil.

Back in 1972, Big Bird encouraged kids to get their measles vaccine without incident, but when BB and several other Sesame Street muppets joined CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta to answer kids’ questions in “The ABCs of Covid Vaccination” and Big Bird tweeted about getting vaccinated, it was too much for Senator Ted Cruz and other anti-public-health conservatives.

“Government propaganda … for your 5-year-old,” Cruz tweeted back, as if encouraging children to learn to count and read isn’t government propaganda.

The replies to Cruz have been hilarious. Steven Colbert said his response was “brought to you by the letters F and U”. A Big Bird parody is running for Senate against Cruz, promising not to “fly away to Cancun when Texas is in trouble”. And SNL did a Ted Cruz Street opening, claiming that the senator’s show airs on Newsmax Kids right before “White Power Rangers”.

and let’s close with something in this world

Some Icelanders made a tourism video that parodies Mark Zuckerberg’s promotion of the metaverse.

Does America Need an Anti-Cancel-Culture University?

Will the University of Austin promote “the often uncomfortable search for truth”, or create a new safe space for traditional biases?

Last Monday, the former president of another educational institution announced that he and a collection of intellectuals who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in academia (as it is currently constituted) were forming a new University of Austin in Texas. “We can’t wait for universities to fix themselves,” wrote Pano Kanelos, the former head of St. John’s College in Annapolis, “so we’re starting a new one.”

His essay is dotted with high-minded phrases like “the fearless pursuit of truth”, “freedom of inquiry and civil discourse”, and “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” It includes stirring rhetoric like: “We can no longer wait for the cavalry. And so we must be the cavalry.”

Many of his criticisms of existing universities are hard to argue with: “At our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite.” Four in every ten students who enter a college or university leave without graduating. The soaring cost of higher education has left students with $1.7 trillion of debt — much of it owed by that 40% that didn’t even manage to buy a marketable credential. “[A]n increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction.” Those who do graduate learn “ever-more-inaccessible theories while often just blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living”.

Kanelos’ conclusion that “something fundamental is broken” is not one I’m inclined to dispute. Too many college classes, particularly introductory ones, belong in a credential-producing factory, not a successor to Plato’s Academy. Like Kanelos, I feel the romance of a school “where there is no fundamental distinction between those who teach and those who learn, beyond the extent of their knowledge and wisdom”.

But beyond the educational theory and his nostalgia for Golden Age Greece, Kanelos’ truly motivating concern seems to be the “illiberalism” that “has become a pervasive feature of campus life”. One factor unites the truly impressive list of names Kanelos gives us: original co-founders Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, and Arthur Brooks, later joined by “university presidents: Robert Zimmer, Larry Summers, John Nunes, and Gordon Gee, and leading academics, such as Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt, Glenn Loury, Joshua Katz, Vickie Sullivan, Geoffrey Stone, Bill McClay, and Tyler Cowen” not to mention “journalists, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals, including Lex Fridman, Andrew Sullivan, Rob Henderson, Caitlin Flanagan, David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Ahmari, Stacy Hock, Jonathan Rauch, and Nadine Strossen.” They’ve almost all been critics or self-styled victims of “cancel culture”. [1]

That’s the context through which I read Kanelos stated goal: producing “a resilient (or ‘antifragile’) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively.” Today’s university students, with their trigger warnings and safe spaces and whatnot, Kanelos seems to imply, are snowflakes. Austin U won’t cater to such whimps, but will forge tough-minded students who can take the rough-and-tumble of real debate.

That vision is undercut, though, by one of the surveys Kanelos quotes to bolster his argument about the current campus illiberalism. He summarizes a survey by Heterodox Academy as saying that “62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe”. However, if you dig into that survey, you’ll find the main reason students give for suppressing their opinions is that “other students would criticize my views as offensive”. In other words, I keep quiet because other students might respond to my free expression with their own free expression. [2]

So who’s the snowflake?

Which makes me wonder: Will Austin U really have more “free inquiry and discourse”, or will it just be a safe space for those who like to say things that are racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise offensive to people who didn’t previously complain because they didn’t previously have a voice? Kanelos’ essay may criticize institutions that “prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth”, but looking at his list of participants, I have to ask if the University of Austin will just prioritize the emotional comfort of a different set of people. [3]

The more I think about “free inquiry” the more I’m reminded of “free markets”. We may imagine that such freedom occurs naturally whenever authority gets out of the way. But in reality, neither discussions nor markets can be “free” without a substantial structure of rules and values and habits and institutions. The “natural” freedom idealized by pre-revolutionary philosophers like Locke and Rousseau happens in the wilderness. Bringing freedom into society requires structure.

There are questions a community can’t discuss without undermining the discussion itself. At German universities in the early 1930s, for example, Jewish students and professors (before they were banned completely) had to face discussions of “the Jewish question“, or even “the Jewish problem” — whether or not they should have a place in German society at all. How freely could they discuss that topic, or whatever topics might follow?

Or suppose I freely state my opinion, and the next person uses his freedom to suggest that people who think like me should be killed — and, by the way, here’s Doug’s home address for anybody whose plans might require that information. How long will that discussion stay free?

We need to understand that freedom inside society can never be pure or absolute. We can only be free in certain ways, and only because we accept limitations on certain other aspects of our freedom. My freedom to drive across the country depends on giving up my freedom to drive on the left side of the highway.

In particular, the kind of “free inquiry” Kanelos champions can only happen if all the participants retain their safety and dignity. This is easy to grasp when your own safety or dignity is threatened — as Austin U’s prospective faculty apparently believes theirs has been. But it is more difficult to appreciate how your own freedom may need to be reined in to accommodate others. Maybe an American university should discourage debate over the genetic inferiority of its Black students, or whether its gay and lesbian students are sick and need to be cured. Maybe women on campus can’t be kept safe from harassment and rape without men yielding some of the benefit-of-the-doubt they have historically been granted. Maybe respecting the dignity of trans students requires using their chosen pronouns, rather than insisting that you know more about their gender than they do.

And so on.

An age-old adage says that your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. Until recent decades, though, large classes of people understood that they just needed to keep their noses out of the way, because other people’s fists had to remain free.

That has changed — not everywhere and not completely, but moreso on college campuses than most places — and if you belong to one of the previously dominant classes you may feel disoriented. What a repressive world it suddenly seems to be, when you have to look all around before you start swinging your arms! How can you still be free, when the people you have been offending for years acquire their own freedom to respond?

There actually is intellectual work to be done here: I don’t think anyone perfectly understands yet exactly where the boundaries ought to be. Perfectly free discussion and inquiry is a myth; as long as we live in society, we will have to live within rules. But what rules, values, practices, and institutions do the best job of creating the environment we want for our universities, one where people of all descriptions can come closest to achieving the Socratic ideal?

That seems to me to be exactly the kind of question that universities ought to work on. And if they do that thinking well, they may become models for the rest of society.

So if the founders and supporters of the University of Austin truly have something positive to contribute to that discussion, I wish their experiment success. But if they just want to turn the clock back to a time when they felt more personally comfortable, I doubt they’ll do much good, even for themselves.

[1] I’d say “all” rather than “almost all”, but I’m not willing to do the research necessary to back that up. I recognize many of the names from various controversies and anti-cancel-culture manifestos.

MSNBC’s Katelyn Burns describes the U of A backers as “a group of self-described ‘heterodox’ academics and journalists (who all happen to have the same opinions on the the two topics they collectively discuss most often, trans rights and racism)”.

[2] A question worth asking: How many conservative students’ fears are justified, and how many have been manufactured by Fox News’ anti-cancel-culture propaganda?

[3] The Intelligencer’s Sarah Jones compares U of A to conservative Christian universities like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty U.

Falwell was no outlier. The right has long dreamed of alternatives to traditional higher education. The televangelist Pat Robertson founded Regent University for similar reasons. Michael Farris, the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 to shelter homeschool graduates and funnel them into Republican politics. Hillsdale College has assumed a sharply right-wing political identity over time, and rejects federal funding “as a matter of principle.” (A Hillsdale professor sits on the University of Austin’s board of advisers.) These schools exist as laboratories for right-wing thought; they are committed not to free expression but to indoctrination. The University of Austin will be no different.

I will add that Fox News’ founding rhetoric sometimes sounded as idealistic as University of Austin’s: It would be the “fair and balanced” alternative to the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Steve Bannon got indicted this week. The legal battle over Trump’s ex-presidential executive privilege continued. The Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery murder trials raised questions about white privilege in the legal system. The New York Times finally recognized the Republican Party’s growing acceptance of political violence. The Glasgow climate conference came to a less-than-ringing conclusion. New Covid cases turned up again. And SNL gave us an episode of “Ted Cruz Street”, which appears on NewsMax Kids as a lead-in to “White Power Rangers”.

I’ll cover all that in the weekly summary, which I’ll try to get out between noon and one EST.

I might spin the Republican-violence note out into its own article, but there definitely will be a featured article about a more tangential concern: The announcement of the new University of Austin by a collection of anti-cancel-culture intellectuals. U of A President Pano Kanelos touched a lot of my educational sympathies with the rhetoric in his announcement essay, but I can’t shake my impression that his new institution will wind up being a safe space for traditional biases that the other universities are finally confronting. A lot of things are wrong with currently popular models of higher education, but giving previously oppressed groups the freedom to talk back isn’t one of them.

“Does America Need an Anti-Cancel-Culture University?” should be out before 10.

Autocrats of Trade

If we will not endure a king as a political power we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life. If we would not submit to an emperor we should not submit to an autocrat of trade, with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.

– Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890

This week’s featured post is “How Ominous Were Tuesday’s Elections?“.

This week everybody was talking about last Tuesday’s elections

That’s the topic of the featured post.

and the bipartisan infrastructure bill

which finally passed Friday. The bill passed the Senate back in August, but it had been stuck in the House while negotiations on the parallel Build Back Better bill continued. BBB is still stuck, but Tuesday’s disappointing election results convinced Democrats that they needed to ring up an accomplishment quickly.

The $1.2 trillion bill really is a BFD for Biden, and it’s important that the bill not get overshadowed by what’s not in it. Trump talked endlessly about what a great builder he is, but he couldn’t get this done and Biden did.

We also shouldn’t let the bill fall victim to what Jay Rosen has dubbed the “cult of savviness” in the mainstream media. The important thing is not the play-by-play of the congressional process, it’s what the bill does. The short version: fixing run-down roads and bridges, bringing broadband internet to rural areas, upgrading public transit and cross-country rail, improving ports and airports, modernizing the electrical grid, and upgrading water systems by, for example, getting the lead out of water pipes.

and the pandemic

US case numbers had been going down since mid-September, but that trend has flattened at around 72K cases per day, or 22 per 100K people. Deaths continue to fall, but we’re still losing about 1200 people a day.

Something I find ominous is the way high-case counties are clustered in the far north, like Coos County, NH (125 cases per 100K), Baraga County, MI (122), Blaine County, MT (135), and the whole state of Alaska (82). Even Vermont, which until now has consistently had low case-counts and high vaccination rates, is up to 49. All are low-population areas where it doesn’t take many cases to push the numbers up, but they also all have borders with Canada. Which makes me wonder: Is this a seasonal outbreak that will drift south in the coming weeks?

Pfizer announced a new anti-Covid drug, Paxlovid, that it claims cuts deaths by 89%. Like Merck’s recently announced Molnupiravir, Pfizer’s drug is a pill that can be taken at home.

The partisan gap in Covid deaths continues to grow.

Starting today, US border checkpoints will let fully vaccinated travelers enter.

I have zero sympathy for police who refuse to get vaccinated or police unions that fight against vaccine mandates. The simple reality is that you aren’t allowed to socially distance from the police, if they decide to get in your face. That puts the responsibility on them to minimize the risks they bring to the job.

I completely agree with John Oliver, including the expletives:

This all sums up the American police problem in miniature. The constant refrain we hear from cops every time they kill an unarmed, Black person is, “They should have complied with commands.” Because as long as you comply, things will supposedly go well. But that only seems to work one way. Because when officers are asked to follow simple rules or face consequences, a not insignificant amount of them flip their shit.

So if an officer wants to quit over this, fucking let them. Let the individuals who clearly don’t care about public safety stop being in charge of public safety. It is really that simple.

Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown University draws a parallel:

There is a viral disease where most infections are mild, asymptomatic. With a very low fatality rate. And large age gradient: kids are even lower risk than adults. And less than 1% of kids have any serious complications at all.

Yup. Polio. And we vaccinate against it

but I want to talk about a book

Senator Amy Klobuchar has written a much meatier book than you typically get from a politician: Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age. (That’s where I got the Sherman quote at the top of the page.) It is as engagingly written as a book with this many footnotes can be, and does two things: tells the story of American antitrust law, and advocates for updating the laws to handle the particular problems of monopoly and monopsony in the current era.

Klobuchar turns out to have an antitrust background. Early in her career as a lawyer, she represented MCI as it tried to break into the telephone market then dominated by AT&T. Today, she is on the Senate Commerce Committee.

In addition to her specific proposals — the book has many of them — Klobuchar wants to take the anti-monopoly movement back from the lawyers (even though she is one). Antitrust has become a complex legal specialty that in many ways is far removed from the popular movement that spawned it in the 19th century. Leaving it to the lawyers might be fine if the laws on the books solved the problem and only needed enforcement. But monopolistic practices keep evolving while the law stands still — or even backtracks, as our big-business-friendly Supreme Court interprets antitrust laws in ways that make them ever harder to apply.

That situation will only change if there is political pressure. And since the big money is lined up against such change, the only place it can come from is people.

and you also might be interested in …

I am a former fan of Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has broken NFL Covid protocols and deceived the public about his vaccination status. When asked by reporters weeks ago, Rodgers said he had been “immunized”, which to him meant something different from vaccinated.

The public found out about the deception this week when he tested positive for Covid. The NFL requires unvaccinated players to isolate from their teams for ten days after a positive test, and they finally decided to enforce the rules on the league MVP, causing him to miss Sunday’s loss to Kansas City.

AP summarizes the NFL protocols and who is responsible for enforcing them. The Atlantic’s Jamele Hill provides commentary.

But the stunning news of Rodgers’s COVID-19 diagnosis has been compounded by what else it revealed: Rodgers had lied about his vaccination status, and his team had likely provided cover for his deception. Both the Packers and the league itself have stood idly by as the reigning NFL MVP apparently violated safety protocols and jeopardized the health of others around him.

Throughout the season, Rodgers has been seen maskless many times at indoor press conferences. Per the NFL’s coronavirus protocols, unvaccinated players are required to wear masks at all times inside club facilities, submit to daily PCR testing, and avoid being within six feet of other unvaccinated players while traveling or eating meals. … Rodgers has put the NFL’s credibility in jeopardy. The situation raises the obvious question of whether other teams have been covering for unvaccinated key players.

It got worse from there. Rather than apologize, Rodgers lashed out at the “woke mob” and “cancel culture” in an interview where he

rattled off a Bingo card’s worth of anti-vaxx catchphrases: Ivermectin, “politicized,” “my own research,” a Martin Luther King Jr. quote applied wildly out of context (“You have a moral obligation to object to unjust rules”), “monoclonals,” “sterility,” and more.

“I’m not some sort of anti-vaxx flat-earther. I am somebody who’s a critical thinker. I march to the beat of my own drum. I believe strongly in bodily autonomy, and the ability to make choices for your body, not to have to acquiesce to some woke culture or crazed group of individuals who say you have to do something.”

That “crazed group of individuals” includes his employer, who has paid him $263 million during his 17-year career.

His main sponsor, State Farm Insurance, is standing by him publicly, but has reduced his appearances from 25% of their commercials to under 2%.

I’m glad to hear the Justice Department link the Texas abortion law to what a blue state could do against gun rights.

A state might, for example, ban the sale of firearms for home protection, contra District of Columbia v. Heller, or prohibit independent corporate campaign advertising, contra Citizens United v. FEC, and deputize its citizens to seek large bounties for each sale or advertisement. Those statutes, too, would plainly violate the Constitution as interpreted by this court. But under Texas’ theory, they could be enforced without prior judicial review — and, by creating an enforcement scheme sufficiently lopsided and punitive, the state could deter the exercise of the target right altogether.

To the disappointment of Q-Anon faithful who gathered on Dallas’ famous grassy knoll Tuesday, JFK Jr. did not return from his apparent death (faked 20 years ago, according to the theory) to become the VP of a restored Trump administration. So it’s on to the next crazy prediction.

and let’s close with a love story

Hubert and Kalissa were a bonded pair of lions described as “inseparable” by the Los Angeles Zoo curator of animals. Both 21 years old, they had far outlived a typical lion lifespan of 14-17 years. Suffering from a variety of age-related infirmities that had “diminished their quality of life”, the two were euthanized together so that neither would have to be alone.

The couple met at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, and in 2014 were transferred to Los Angeles where “They quickly became favorites among LA Zoo guests and staff and were known for their frequent cuddles and nuzzles.”