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Kelly Marie Tran's journey to becoming a fighting Disney princess: 'It feels like an absolute miracle'
By Michael Cavna
Kelly Marie Tran's journey to becoming a fighting Disney princess: 'It feels like an absolute miracle'
(c) 2021, The Washington Post · Mar 05, 2021 - 3:25 PM
If the remarkable life and times of Kelly Marie Tran were a Disney movie, the opening scene would not spotlight the young, hungry unknown hustling to yet another post-college audition in her Honda Civic, or the multi-hyphenate talent being plucked from relative obscurity to become the most prominent actress of color in a "Star Wars" film. It would not show the swirl of red-carpet events for "The Last Jedi" she posted on social media, or the vile online abuse that followed.
Instead, the opening shot would zoom in on Tran as a bright-faced kindergarten singer, performing in her church choir and getting struck by something more life-altering than any radioactive Disney/Marvel spider. This was when and where she was first bitten by the performance bug.
Tran, 32, is best known globally for playing mechanic Rose Tico in the most recent "Star Wars" trilogy. And with this weekend's release of Disney's animated "Raya and the Last Dragon" (in theaters and streaming), the talents of Tran will be on full display in a title role, as she deploys her trained voice in an emotionally resonant and rounded performance.
Several years ago, internet harassment surrounding "Star Wars" left her recalling the social messages she had internalized for years: that she "existed only in the background" of other's stories. Now, "Raya" marks Tran's first major feature film as the lead - in which she is proud to be "honoring this part of the world" by playing the first Disney princess of Southeast Asian descent.
In "Raya," Tran's character - more Disney warrior than throwback Disney princess, the filmmakers emphasize - is entrusted by her father to become guardian of a supernatural gem. After a cataclysmic event,she spends much of the movie trying to reunite with Dad in a fantastical land (Kumandra) inspired by countries and cultures in Southeast Asia.
In real life, Tran's father and mother, as refugees from Vietnam, landed in Southern California prepared to sacrifice so that their children might bloom in America.
Tran's family took root in a San Diego bedroom community running through a gently sloping valley. More than two decades ago, when Tran slept in "Little Mermaid" sheets, the freeway running fast to the beach did not yet go through. Even her high school had not been built. Theirs was a life under construction from the ground up.
"My parents gave up everything just to make sure that I was in a place where we had food on the table and a roof over my head," Tran says from Los Angeles during a Zoom interview last week. Her folks struggled to assimilate as they found service work - as immigrants who got the job done.
Looking back, Tran realizes her parents lacked the luxury to dream about other things, so that their children might follow professionally fulfilling lives. Even Tran didn't think the performance career she wanted to pursue was quite possible. In some ways, she says, it felt impossible.
Yet her ambition grew as her community did. She studied voice and drama and piano in high school when not serving frozen yogurt in a local shop. And an older singer from the area, Adam Lambert, soon found his way to fame.
When asked about Tran's teenage years, her Westview High educators unfurl a string of superlatives: Energetic. Positive. Likable. Humorous. Hard-working. Tran performed in all-state honor choir competitions - her concert standouts included the '50s hit "Orange Colored Sky" - and musical director Doreen McCarty recounts Tran's turn as Miss Adelaide in a production of "Guys and Dolls": "Her sense of character and comedic timing were spot-on."
Tran made her way to Palomar College and then UCLA, singing in a cappella groups. She created videos for CollegeHumor, studied improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade and joined the all-Asian American female improv troupe Number One Son. She also took a nonperformance job in creative recruiting.
"I wasn't thinking about what my career would potentially be," Tran says - everything was about the next step, the next day, the next gig. She was working up to 45 hours a week, keeping a bag of versatile clothes in her Honda as she shoehorned in the auditions.
For all her talent, she wasn't dreaming too big: "My best-case scenario: I thought I would play the quirky friend on a sitcom."
Yet also in Tran's mental makeup: She had adored tough Disney princesses for years, especially the animated Mulan: "She was the first (Disney) warrior who looked like me. Seeing myself represented for the first time - at age 9 - I couldn't put into words what it meant to me."
When at 26 she got the shot to play a Disney space warrior, the Rebel mechanic in "The Last Jedi," the casting felt like a once-distant wish fulfilled. "That whole experience playing Rose for the first time felt like falling in love for the first time," she says. "You have no idea what you're doing - like this beautiful experience that sweeps you off your feet."
By the time the film was released at the end of 2017, though, she had endured an online barrage of racist and misogynistic remarks. By the following summer, she quit Instagram, writing in her account's bio, "Afraid, but doing it anyway." Later that summer, she wrote a poignant New York Times essay headlined, "I Won't Be Marginalized by Online Harassment," disclosing that the comments led her down "a spiral of self-hate."
Through that crucible, many members of her "Star Wars" family - including director Rian Johnson and co-stars John Boyega and Mark Hamill - vocalized their support, as did many other celebrities and members of her inner circle.
"To have the support of your community is the only way you get (through) this," she says - the very thing that helped her endure years of leaner times professionally.
"Community is still the most important thing now," she says, smiling in stylish black against a clean pale background. "When I'm in a position of being able to celebrate successes, the one thing I want to do the most is share those with my community. It meant the world to me - and it still means the world to me - that I can call these incredibly talented people my friends."
Tran says she wasn't sure exactly why Johnson chose her for Rose, but the filmmaker tells The Washington Post via email that he "felt lucky" to cast her for the same reasons he considers himself fortunate to be her friend: "She has an inner strength and confidence that shines through. It isn't a tough front or facade - she's not afraid to be herself with all her fears and vulnerabilities - but it takes true strength to own those things and still face the world and say, 'This is me, I can do this.' "
And Hamill tells The Post via email: "Not only is she a genuinely nice person, she's a deeply gifted actress. Since she's only getting started, I can't wait to see what comes next."
Tran's newer supporters include the "Raya" filmmakers, including directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada. The actress says she cherishes that they "cultivated this space of openness" to let her improvise. On the page, Raya was originally written to be more nonverbally stoic, then her character became quippy, bristling with swagger. The film needed Tran to find the appealing balance between those extremes.
Tran and Hall both point to their first "Raya" recording session as a pivotal moment that uplifted the rest of the production. Raya has spent six years trying to find a mythical dragon named Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), and the scene turns confessional as Raya is reduced to her last hope, chanting a tuneful prayer.
Tran suddenly said to her directors: Mind if I try something? "She improvised a lot of what is still in that scene - someone questioning their faith," says Hall, recounting how Tran infused these new lines with awkwardness and vulnerability, "letting this hardened warrior crack a little bit. We were in tears."
The actress says that whether they are religious or not, many viewers can relate to feeling so lost that they pray to someone or something for help. She says that scene was important to her because of knowing how it felt to be desperate: "I imbued my own personal experience into that moment."
And in the tale of Kelly Tran, that's how the Disney version of her life might close this act. What began in a church choir as a kindergartner now finds a cinematic bookend in Tran's 30s, with a role and a prayer.
"It feels like an absolute miracle to get to do what I'm doing," Tran says of her career. "There is lots of dream fulfillment happening."
Google's approach to historically Black schools helps explain why there are few Black engineers in Big Tech
By Nitasha Tiku
Google's approach to historically Black schools helps explain why there are few Black engineers in Big Tech
(c) 2021, The Washington Post · Mar 04, 2021 - 1:50 PM
For years, Google's recruiting department used a college ranking system to set budgets and priorities for hiring new engineers. Some schools such as Stanford University and MIT were predictably in the "elite" category, while state schools or institutions that churn out thousands of engineering grads annually, such as Georgia Tech, were assigned to "tier 1" or "tier 2."
But one category of higher education was missing from Google's ranking system, according to several current and former Google employees involved in recruitment, despite the company's pledges to promote racial diversity - historically Black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs. That framework meant that those schools were at a lower priority for hiring, even though Google had said in 2014 that it wanted to partner with HBCUsas a way to recruit more minority talent.
In lieu of a tier, Google's University Programs recruiting division, responsible for forging partnerships with universities, labeled these colleges "long tail" schools, in reference to the fact that it could take a long time before these universities would produce a large number of graduates qualified to work at Google, according to the Google employees.
"Google allocated resources so disparagingly because of how they tiered - and thought of - our schools," said former recruiter April Christina Curley, who helped lead Google's outreach to HBCUs for six years. Curley, who is Black, said she was fired in September largely as a result of continually raising concerns about bias against HBCU students in the interview and hiring process.
Google for years has been celebrated as trying to fix Silicon Valley's race gap, with praise highlighting the company's efforts to build relationships with HBCUs. But while Google had a head start, it also undervalued and underinvested in Black engineering students at HBCUs, according to interviews with Curley and seven current and former Google workers, HBCU graduates, former faculty members, emails, planning documents and performance reviews. Some of the people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.
Now critics are challenging Google to address its treatment of HBCU students - and to reexamine assumptions about the pipeline for Black technical talent that were replicated across the industry as competitors copied Google's approach.
Google spokeswoman Jennifer Rodstrom said in a statement, "We have a large team of recruiters who work incredibly hard to increase the hiring of Black+ and other underrepresented talent at Google, including a dedicated team that partners and strengthens our relationships with HBCUs." Rodstrom noted that Google hired interns and full-time employees from 19 HBCUs in 2019 in both technical and nontechnical roles.
Rodstrom added, "We don't agree with the way April describes her termination, but it's not appropriate for us to provide a commentary about her claims."
Google's outreach to HBCUs, including its high-profile partnership with Washington D.C.'s Howard University, relied on volunteer efforts from Google engineers and smaller budgets compared with those of recruiters for elite institutions, according to Curley and the other current and former employees. Google's 2020 budget for its marquee program of hosting students at its Mountain View, Calif., campus was $1.3 million, spread across 10 HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions.
Last summer, as Black Lives Matters protesters marched in cities throughout the country, Google's recruiting department agreed to stop using the ranking system, after about a dozen of the company's college recruiters, all of whom were Black, argued that the policy perpetuated racial bias, according to a June letter that the recruiters sent to Google's head of human resources and that was viewed by The Washington Post. But Curley said that is unlikely to reverse a pattern that started years ago.
In late January, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai spoke with five HBCU presidents, who requested the meeting after Curley tweeted about the bias she says she faced trying to advocate for HBCU students, Morgan State University President David Wilson told The Post. Since then, Google has announced an initiative to train 100,000 Black women in digital skills and a new initiative to help HBCU students gain skills while pursuing careers in tech. Last June, Pichai committed more than $175 million to promote racial equity, as part of a pledge to increase to Black representation at Google.
In interviews, current and former HBCU administrators, computer science faculty members and engineering students told The Post that Google's efforts had helped modernize their computer science curriculum and better prepare students for working in Silicon Valley. But some school officials said they were not surprised that an uptick in internships had not led to a comparable rise injob offers.
"What I continue to see with Google is showboating," in the form of donations or announcing new programs, rather than reassessing its approach, Nicole Tinson, the chief executive officer of HBCU 20x20, a network for seeking jobs and internships, told The Post. In December, Tinson canceled HBCU 20x20′s partnership with Google, including several planned 2021 mock-interview events, after Curley's tweets.
Tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple began a public push to increase the representation of Black employees in their engineering ranks in 2014, when the industry first disclosed the race and gender demographics of its workforce.
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Silicon Valley long recruited tech talent from Stanford and MIT. But HBCUs also have thriving engineering programs. In 2014, four of the six schools producing the most Black graduates with a bachelor's degree in computer science were HBCUs, according to a report from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).
Tech companies' sales, marketing and public relations departments also lagged behind in race representation, The Post reported in 2015. But public scrutiny has focused on diversity in technical roles, because of the power and wealth afforded to engineers inside company hierarchies and the influence they can have on products, services and policies affecting billions of users around the globe.
From the beginning, Google touted its strategy to hire more Black engineers by forging stronger ties with HBCUs. Curley joined Google's team of University Programs recruiters in 2014 to help shape the HBCU outreach strategy. At the time, the 16-year-old company had not hired a single HBCU computer science graduate into an entry-level software engineer role, according to a 2013 document. The document also showed that Google believed partnering with these schools would provide a return on investment, because HBCUs awarded more than 35% of the bachelor's degrees earned by Black students in computer science in the United States.
That document was a proposal to partner with Howard University - called Project Bison, named after the school's mascot. Google would send an engineer to the campus to teach an introductory computer science class, because the company believed the curriculum at HBCUs was inadequate.
"HBCU CS students struggle with the most basic of coding, algorithms and data structures," the document said.
According to the document, Google planned to revamp Howard's entire computer science curriculum as a way to build a stronger pool of Black applicants and "increase pass-through rates into Google early pipeline programs, internships and new grad opportunities."
Google worried that the HBCU curriculum, which focused on the programming language C++, was too theoretical. The company wanted to prepare students for software engineering roles in Silicon Valley by learning Python, a more widely used programming language, and project-based learning, according to the document and interviews with employees and HBCU faculty members.
The Google software engineers who taught the classes volunteered to spend 20% to 50% of their time teaching on campus, while still fulfilling their regular job duties.The budget for the pilot test was $40,000 for the instructor's housing, flight, and meals, with $12,000 set aside to fund WiFi in the classroom and Chromebooks so that students could access the material out of the classroom.
"The first step is to help Howard students meet the Google bar - it's also the right thing to do for the future of diversity in technology," the document said. "With this huge percentage of the pool currently not hirable, we need to look at ways to impact change in the HBCU system."
The pilot session of Project Bison, later renamed Google in Residence, was successful, with 10 of the 60 Howard students granted internships, and Google mentioned it in its first blog post announcing its diversity numbers. Curley said Google tasked her and two other Black women in University Programs with building a strategy around the program, which still relies on engineers volunteering their time. Google's Rodstrom said Google in Residence has reached more than 4,000 students to date and is currently available at nine HBCUs and three Hispanic-serving institutions, known as HSIs.
In 2017, Google expanded the program to bring HBCU faculty members and students to Google's headquarters, with a pilot project first called Howard West, later renamed Tech Exchange. The students took courses taught by HBCU faculty members and Google engineers, attended weekly practice interviews and met with mentors on the Google campus.
Maya Nichols, a senior at Howard majoring in computer science who is set to graduate in May, spent the 2018-2019 academic year in Mountain View as part of Google's Tech Exchange, even appearing in a promotional video for the program. She said she gained a lot from the experience and believes the cost was worth it, even though she had to take out a $10,000 loan from Howard to pay for her housing costs.
Nichols has not had contact with the engineer assigned to be her mentor since she left Google. She applied for a research internship in human-computer interaction advertised in a Google newsletter, but Google recently rejected her by email.
In a statement, Howard spokeswoman Alonda Thomas said, "Since 2017, Howard University has worked with Google to build a mutually beneficial pipeline where students from diverse backgrounds can experience the industry first-hand while pursuing their education in computer science." She said Google has hired 119 interns and 30 new college grads from Howard since the program began. Rodstrom said 97% of students in the most recent class rated themselves "a better programmer" after completing the program.
Although Howard West garnered a lot of press for Google - The Post reported on it in 2017 - tuition for the pilot program was paid for by Howard and private donors. Thomas said that after the initial pilot cohort in 2017, students were responsible for covering tuition, housing and incidentals, although a stipend was provided to some students to pay for housing. That contrasts with some of Google's competitors, such as Apple, which began a scholarship program for HBCU students in 2015.
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Although the Project Bison proposal framed the issue as lack of proper training inside HBCUs, Curley and other former employees said aspects of Google's internal hiring processes also prevented Black technical talent from being hired.
Résumé screeners and sourcers "were screening out my kids left and right because they didn't know the [HBCU] school name or what a 'Divine Nine' fraternity and sorority meant," she said. The trio of HBCU recruiters tried to negotiate, pushing teams to at least interview qualified candidates or asking hiring committees to reconsider feedback about how an HBCU student was not a "culture fit" for Google. Rodstrom said Google stopped hiring for "culture fit" in 2017 and now looks for candidates who are a "culture add."
To mitigate some of those issues, documents show, Curley developed an outreach program called PEP Talkafter seeing some interns reject return offers and get bad performance reviews. The sessions involved technical questions, talking about what Google's databases looked like, how to manage the money they were receiving and how to set up one-on-ones with a manager.
But around 2016, Curley said, Google began bristling at this individualized approach, seeing it as giving HBCU students an unfair advantage. Curley pointed out that schools such as Stanford has offered formal classes on preparing for technical interviews and also have a culture in which familiarity with these practices is the norm. She was asked to expand the series to HSIs, which were also labeled "long-tail schools," then women's colleges. In 2020, Google instructed Curley to shut down the program, she said, because her HBCU priorities should focus on increasing applications.
Curley and two other Black female recruiters struggled to get more resources for HBCUs, including being denied requests from schools for updated laptops and technology, Google employees said. And the university partnershipsdepartment, which was dominated by White women, at times seemed to interpret advocacy from three Black women as aggression, Curley said. "The University Programs team budget is not reflective of our HBCU hiring efforts as a whole," Rodstrom said.
Mimi Fox Melton, the acting CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit group working to improve representation of Black and Latino people in tech, said she noticed an abrupt shift away from programs designed to promote equity after the 2016 presidential election. "Tech companies were concerned about not poking the presidential bear or wanting to appease their far-right employees," she said.
In 2017, Google engineer James Damore's 10-page memo criticizing Google's diversity efforts became a national news story after he was fired. The memo pointed to Google internships and programs for Black and HBCU students as examples of "discriminatory practices" that favored minorities.
According to an NBC News report last year, Google began rolling back diversity and inclusion programs in 2018 to avoid appearing anti-conservative.
Rodstrom, the Google spokeswoman, said in a statement: "Any suggestion that we have scaled back or cut our diversity efforts is entirely false. Diversity, equity, and inclusion remains a company wide commitment and our programs are continuing to scale up."
The internal fight for resources remained largely invisible as Google and its competitors accompanied their annual diversity reports with pledges to spend tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars on diversity recruiting.
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The term "long tail" to describe certain schools fell out of favor in 2019, according to Curley. Toward the end of her time at Google, Curley said, the company wanted to pull back from HBCUs and instead focus on hiring more Black candidates from the schools they already recruited from, as well as HSIs, which produce a larger number of computer science graduates each year, according to data from ASEE.
In 2019, for example, after four years of hosting Google in Residence at Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans, Google shut down the program. Curley said she was told by her manager that Google no longer wanted to invest in Dillard.
Dennis Sigur, a Dillard computer science instructor, said the outcome left him confused. But he said he was not disappointed, noting that Dillard alumni had received internship offers and participated in Google's Tech Exchange program. Google did not hire any Dillard graduates into full-time roles after graduation, but some got offers from Google once they had already worked at other tech companies, said Sigur.
"Sometimes the students get discouraged - everybody wants to work for Google," he said. "Many people who are part of [Google's outreach efforts] don't look like the students, so they don't have a thorough understanding of the struggles of HBCU students."
Curley said she felt that Google's decision not to "invest any longer in Dillard because they were not producing hires" was shortsighted. Partnering with HBCUs worked, but it could take time, Curley said. "The kids had grown in other ways that were important."
According to comments from Curley's manager on her performance review last year, 60 people hired for technical roles from HBCUs in 2019 came from the portfolio of schools managed by Curley.
"It almost feels like Google doesn't want to believe that they've been wrong," said Hallie Lomax, a software engineer at Lyft who was part of the first class of students at Howard to participate in Google in Residence, "even with all the efforts that people like April make in trying to prove that they have some blind spots in recognizing talent."
How future generations will judge humanity's performance against the coronavirus
By Anthony Faiola
How future generations will judge humanity's performance against the coronavirus
(c) 2021, The Washington Post · Mar 04, 2021 - 1:01 PM
On the wooded site of a former golf course in suburban Washington, archivists are building a global time capsule of the pandemic. The digital repository - to be housed at the National Library of Medicine, a Cold War-era fortress appropriately built for fearful times - holds 30 million documents from 9,000 sources, with links to similar troves from Beijing to Paris.
Reading like a great international scrapbook, the archive also serves as a warning. Its podcasts, photographs, videos, health documents, website captures, news stories and social media posts will reveal to future generations what we did wrong in 2020.
Some things, they'll learn, went surprisingly right, particularly in east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Even in nations still counting their dead, the archive tells us, humanity stepped up. Our descendants will be moved by the selfies of a London nurse, her skin blotchy with fatigue and mask marks after a nine-hour coronavirus shift. They'll cheer the Maryland distillery that halted vodka production to make hand sanitizer. They'll muse about the Italian radio station that consoled a town as its nonni died alone. They'll hear the praises sung for our Usain Bolt of vaccine science.
But the graduate students of the 22nd century - like some of the archive's researchers today - might be most struck by our colossal failures.
They'll know we had our Cassandras. The infectious-disease experts. Bill Gates. The CIA. A global pandemic is inevitable, they warned. Take what we've learned from H1N1, SARS, Ebola and Zika. Draft strategies, and don't stick them in drawers. Be prepared to halt movement. Share, don't shield, information. Use consistent messaging. If you must, shut down daily life - even if it's unpopular - to save lives.
Yet despite decades of planning, cutting-edge centers for disease control and years of experience battling smaller outbreaks in "poorer" countries, the world's wealthiest peoples, the future will learn, were unable or unwilling to halt what might mostly be remembered as a rich nation's virus without suffering massive casualties. In piercing prose, they'll see the lack of leadership. The failure to coordinate. The on-again, off-again lockdowns. The no lockdowns at all. The misinformation and politicization of a health crisis. The virus deniers and never-maskers from Missouri to Medellín who confused personal freedom with a criminal disregard for everyone else.
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"That is the tragedy of this whole last year," said Susan Speaker, an archive historian at the National Library of Medicine. "We knew how to do this stuff! All the public health people are shaking their heads and saying, 'It didn't have to be this bad.' "
The digital memorial to the Great Pandemic of 2020 (and, really, 2021) will give us a three-terabyte epitaph to an outbreak that saw humanity's best instincts often undermined by its worst.
No single country, epidemiologists and health experts say, has suffered as great a failure as the United States.
It will be a cold hard fact, as evidenced by 500,000 tombstones and counting, that a nation President Donald Trump declared "more prepared" than any other has clocked the globe's largest death toll, becoming a symbol of deadly hubris and apathy. A mad scramble for personal protective equipment and ventilators betrayed a lack of preparation, even as a sort of toxic masculinity sickened health policy. It wasn't just the United States. A quarter-million Brazilians died of what President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed as a "little flu." Tanzanian President John Magufuli ridiculed masks and lockdowns, pledging "God will protect us" even as hospitals were being overrun.
Social distancing, they told us, was for sissies. Face masks for pinkos and atheists. Last month in Rio de Janeiro, the maskless masses reveled in its sultry streets despite the cancellation of Carnival. In April in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador - a tropical metropolis initially reluctant to social distance - fly-covered cadavers filled the streets.
Many who defied lockdown guidance had no choice - it was go to work or starve. But others simply failed to muster a basic sense of civil duty. Nationalism as shared sacrifice was for soccer fields, not pandemics.
"As societies, we failed in multiple ways," said Marcelo Castillo, an intensive care unit doctor at the Kennedy Clinic Hospital in Guayaquil. "Here, as in the rest of Latin America, we saw people focused on themselves, people with selfish behavior."
In Britain, they kept calm and carried on - and died for the privilege. Prime Minister Boris Johnson kept bars, schools, museums and restaurants open, even as Paris, Rome and Madrid were shuttering theirs. The Sunday Times would denounce the "38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster." "A senior adviser to Downing Street," the outlet reported, said Johnson "didn't chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn't work weekends . . . There was a real sense that he didn't do urgent crisis planning."
Experts warn it is notoriously tricky to decide when and whether to shut borders, impose lockdowns and enforce social distancing. Still, the numbers will tell posterity who got it right, and who didn't. Johnson's government eventually played catch-up, imposing lockdowns that some argue came too late and were eased too soon. Britain stumbled into 2021 with the highest death toll in Europe.
From within the recesses of the global right wing sprang a horde of aspiring propagandists, spewing misinformation almost daily and often deadly. Inject disinfectant! Take hydroxychloroquine! A half-step up from the misinformants were the deniers - including the 20,000 Germans who marched maskless in Berlin in August chanting slogans against the "Corona False Alarm."
"There have been riots in several European countries over social distancing and requirements to wear masks, and the impression is that it was the political right, or political far right, rather than any other spectrum of society," said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at Britain's University of East Anglia. "That tied into beliefs in weird conspiracy theories on covid."
Meanwhile, those who were supposed to inform us often confused or misled us. When the virus first emerged in Wuhan, China, local officials hid it, until the body bags began to pile up. Back in the United States, Trump offered schizophrenic messaging; more surprisingly, so, too, did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The archive has captured and preserved the weekly images of the CDC's website: The don't-wear-a-mask moment. The one that came later, saying, Oh, wait - better wear one now.
So badly damaged were the images of the world's two most powerful nations that unfavorable views of China surged by double digits in Australia, Britain and Germany, while favorable views of the United States plunged by the same levels in Japan, South Korea and Italy, according Pew Research.
Some countries were much less of a mess.
Australia got it mostly right. On a Thursday in November, when the United States had 52,049 people hospitalized and 10,445 in ICUs for the coronavirus, the Sydney Opera House had reopened and office workers were streaming back to their cubicles. The country had put its faith in science, quickly shutting its borders and severely limiting interstate, even intrastate, movement.
Messaging was king. Political leaders on the right and left sent up a collective cry: Wear masks. Social distance. Stay at home. Save Australian lives.
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South Korea excelled through contact tracing and testing. Japan deployed its sense of the collective and a culture militantly respectful of others. New Zealand's success was written with quarantines and aggressive shutdowns.
"There wasn't a single path out of this pandemic, but it took being proactive and aggressive and - most of all - taking the virus seriously," said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health. "A bunch of countries did it, and a bunch of countries just didn't."
Asked to grade humanity's response to the global pandemic, Jha offered a fairly decent "B-."
Then he paused.
"OK, maybe a C+."
"The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, others, they just really bungled the response," he said. "You saw more than 2 million deaths, hundreds of millions infected, and we should have all known this was coming. That's why we don't get an A. But I don't think a D or an F is fair. My God! We built vaccines - several vaccines - in less than year!"
Yet even that historic medical breakthrough has run up against humanity's worst instincts. Rich countries - even the nice ones, like Canada- began to horde vaccines and vaccine chits like the guy at the grocery store before the hurricane buying up all the bottled water. From Canada to Peru to Argentina, the wealthy and powerful jumped vaccine lines, apparently viewing the clinic as just another nightclub with a VIP guest list.
Nine months into the pandemic, the world's 1,000 richest people had already regained all the wealth they'd lost to the pandemic. Meanwhile, legions of the working class - particularly the young, female and less educated - remain unemployed.
"We are the people who are below rock bottom," Umm Muhammad, a single mother in Alexandria, Egypt, told The Washington Post in April, after the clothing factory where she worked shut down.
In the darkness, we looked for silver linings. As we stayed indoors - or some of us did - the Earth was healing, we told ourselves. The smog cleared over the Himalayas. In tourist-deserted Venice, ducks - even an octopus - returned to the canals. The upside to those mothballed factories, those lost jobs: a historic 7% drop in carbon emissions.
Those gains are likely to disappear fast. Already China - the birthplace of the virus, and the quickest country back on its feet after imposing a hermetically sealed lockdown - is spewing slightly more carbon than it did in 2019. Use of public transportation plummeted during the pandemic. In Buenos Aires, New York, Cape Town and Rome, commuters might long think twice before stepping back into crowded subway cars, packed city buses.
The mobile office might linger - or it might not. From Warsaw to Miami to São Paulo, Brazil, commercial towers continue to rise. In the meantime, we've spent $15 trillion globally on stimulus to save our economies; only a small fraction has gone to eco-projects that could save the Earth.
"I fear that few if any of the pandemic reductions will be permanent," said Rob Jackson, an energy and climate expert at Stanford University. "In the long run, the effects of all that rapid stimulus might actually leave us worse off."
Our problem with pandemics is that we tend to forget - and therefore never learn. The global influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million to 100 million people. Leaders around the world downplayed the outbreak.
They issued conflicting orders.
They delegated the fight to local officials, with often fatal results.
A "no-mask league" formed.
In Britain, a nation rife with monuments to every conceivable military engagement, there's little to commemorate the pandemic dead of 1918. The best known memorial is a subtle stained glass tryptic in a church-turned-library in Whitechapel, the corner of east London where Jack the Ripper once lurked.
With a mask-wearing, high-wire act, and a rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach's "In deepest need I cry to you," it was inaugurated in 2002.
Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.
Checks and imbalances
By megan mcardle
Checks and imbalances
megan mcardle · Mar 09, 2021 - 12:07 AM
MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN
Advance for release Tuesday, March 9, 2021, and thereafter
(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)
By Megan McArdle
WASHINGTON -- On Saturday, the Senate voted to pass the covid relief package; on Tuesday, the House of Representatives will undoubtedly do the same. Shortly thereafter, we may expect that President Joe Biden will sign it into law, and the $1,400 stimulus checks will start flowing into bank accounts.
To be sure, the stimulus checks will only (only!) cost $420 billion out of the $1.8 trillion in total new spending. But we all know that they're the part most people care about. If you have any doubts, you need only google "covid relief bill" and see what the traffic- optimization wizards at various news sites are putting front and center.
It's a pity that it is also the most indefensible part of this bill.
I don't say, of course, that no one will be helped by getting a $1,400 check. But the same can be said of almost any policy you can imagine, including leaving fully loaded Lamborghinis at randomly selected intersections with the doors unlocked and the keys inside. Giving away sports cars would still be a poor use of government funds; it would cost far more than any conceivable benefit to the car recipients, and the help most likely wouldn't go to those who need it most.
And if you wondered where this metaphor is going, well, exactly the same thing can be said of borrowing more than $400 billion to send checks to many people who haven't suffered any financial harm because of the pandemic.
There is a strong case for the government mailing out checks in the face of covid-19. I've been making that case since March 2020, and it remains as strong as ever: With a deadly disease rampaging, some normal activities are just too dangerous for public health authorities to allow (or for prudent people to engage in even if the government would allow it). Hotels, airlines, restaurants, bars - these businesses employ a lot of people, and hopefully will again, just as soon as we're all vaccinated. The government has a strong interest in making sure they survive in the meantime, not least because in many cases, government rules are what put them out of work.
So we should absolutely be beefing up unemployment checks and offering generous grants and subsidies to the kinds of face-to-face businesses that can't operate right now, or can't make money at reduced capacity. Yet our new stimulus bill does little for struggling businesses, and actually spends more money on sending checks to the majority of people who still have jobs than it does on the unemployed. How is this justifiable?
Defenders of the checks appear to have two answers, neither of them good.
The first is that the checks will provide economic stimulus. But this is a non sequitur, borrowed from an earlier recession by people who don't seem to understand the fix we are in at the moment.
Stimulus is a policy to deal with a demand shock - when a vicious cycle of plunging consumer confidence and rising unemployment leads consumers to hunker down and sit on their money, which translates into a sharp contraction in gross domestic product. The idea of stimulus is for government to borrow some money and provide a bit of artificial demand that can halt that cycle.
But we're not suffering from a demand shock right now - or a crisis of consumer confidence. We're having a supply shock: The people who are out of work are home largely because we want them to be, because they used to provide some good or service, from oil to restaurant dinners, that just isn't needed as much for as long as we have to socially distance.
Giving money to someone who still has their job doesn't make them more likely to go out to dinner if the reason they've stopped going out is that they're afraid of the deadly virus. That's why household savings have never been healthier; no matter how much money you give people, the extra just piles up unspent in their bank accounts.
Nor is there any evidence that this is needed to restart the economy when everyone's vaccinated, since again, we're not suffering a crisis of confidence. We're suffering a public health crisis with a definite end date, after which people are positively eager to go back to normal and spend.
When this is pointed out, the bill's defenders retreat to a second position: Oh, well, no bill is perfect, why quibble about this?
But this is 20 percent of the whole bill, a deliberate decision made apparently for no other reason except that voters like getting checks. It's bad policy now and a dangerous precedent for the future. And it may well do more to seed the next economic crisis than to fix the current one.
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Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.
What we lost when
By catherine rampell
What we lost when
catherine rampell · Mar 08, 2021 - 11:03 PM
CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN
Advance for release Tuesday, March 9, 2021, and thereafter
(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)
By Catherine Rampell
A year ago this week, every theater in New York went dark.
I'd just seen what would turn out to be the penultimate performance of "Coal Country," a haunting play about a West Virginia mine explosion; three other productions I held tickets for were suspended, too. The news was disappointing - for fellow fans, actors, and the broader ecosystem of workers and businesses that rely on performing arts to pay their bills. But everyone understood the closure was necessary to protect public health.
Besides, curtains would rise again in just a month, once this silly virus had been vanquished.
Or so we hoped.
Over subsequent weeks and months, Broadway remained silent. Ambulance sirens, with occasional bursts of applause for essential workers, scored the city, instead. Death washed over New York; refrigerated trucks were converted into overflow morgues, and at one point a New Yorker was dying every two minutes.
I mourned this mass tragedy along with my city. But I also sometimes found myself guiltily fantasizing about a more frivolous loss: those plays that shuttered. The shows that hadn't, as it were, gone on.
I missed the diversion of live theater, of course - the opportunity to escape into worlds whose characters faced misfortunes and joys altogether different from those around me. I missed the ability to exalt in the virtuosity of members of my species: the trill of a silver soprano, a brilliant plot twist, a jubilant fan-kick. And I missed having a different lens through which to view questions of class and race and family, enemies and friends, compassion and conflict. Theater can entertain and energize, sure, but at its best it has left me deeply, squirmingly uncomfortable. Great shows have a way of dislodging calcified beliefs and behavior, as only storytelling can.
Those things I missed almost immediately. What it has taken me a year to realize is how much I also miss the community of the audience - the strangers surrounding me, obscured by the dark, who have tacitly agreed to escape and exalt and squirm together.
A year ago, I generally noticed my fellow theatergoers only when they annoyed me - with a crinkly candy wrapper or view-obstructing hat or ringing phone. A friend once joked that if she ever struck it rich, she'd use her funds to buy every seat in the house so she could enjoy a performance solo. The idea had appeal.
But it's only in the extended loss of theater that I've come to appreciate how social the medium is, indeed needs to be to succeed. It is a fundamentally communitarian art.
A punchline seems funnier, and we laugh harder, when we're surrounded by others guffawing. Not because we're trying to fit in, but because we're buoyed by the communal mirth. A character's death or heartbreak likewise feels more painful when the sobs and sniffles of strangers bear witness to it, too.
Theater rests upon these invisible relationships - between performers onstage and their audience, as well as between audience members; we all agree to a collective delusion, to make the storytelling work. That "fourth wall" notwithstanding, the audience is complicit in the performance.
Over the past year, many theaters have presented some of their work online. Bored Americans trapped at home devour content from Netflix and TikTok; why not also streamed theater? Some companies share archived footage of old productions; others convene performers for new concerts or Zoom readings. While I have enjoyed many of these efforts, they're usually poor substitutes for the real thing.
At first I thought the limitation was stage-acting techniques. Those bigger gestures and facial expressions, designed to reach the balcony nosebleeds, don't always translate when magnified on camera. But the real problem, I think, is that the medium of live theater requires that real-time connection between actor and audience members, and audience members with one another. Part of the magic comes from watching actors calibrate their pacing and delivery ever so slightly for this audience, and this audience alone. A performer might start a line a millisecond later so as to not step on a laugh; or accelerate her monologue to feed off audience momentum. Live theater thrives on this feedback-driven shared project. When its community is severed by a screen, the viewing experience can feel isolating.
These lost connections - purely symbolic ones, among strangers - may seem like trivial things to mourn in a year filled with much more material and personal losses. But in a way, they're representative of why the past year has felt so lonely, even as we have the tools to regularly talk and FaceTime with loved ones. Someday, when this scourge is behind us, I look forward to sitting in a dark room, with my phone silenced and candy pre-unwrapped, to once again laugh and cry and connect with New Yorkers I've never met.
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Catherine Rampell's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.
The evangelical threat to herd immunity
By michael gerson
The evangelical threat to herd immunity
michael gerson · Mar 08, 2021 - 9:43 PM
MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN
Advance for release Tuesday, March 9, 2021, and thereafter
(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)
By Michael Gerson
WASHINGTON -- As the United States engages in the monumental task of vaccinating the vast majority of its population against covid-19, there are two main pockets of public resistance. One consists of African Americans, who are overcoming particularly horrible memories of medical exploitation and abuse. The other consists of White, evangelical Christians, who are the most hesitant of any faith group. While 69% of Americans say they will definitely or probably be vaccinated, just 54% of White evangelicals say the same.
From a historical perspective, this is not particularly surprising. In the late 18th and early 19th century, evangelicalism was born as a revolt against elites. The Congregationalist and Anglican establishments required ministers to hold academic degrees, dress in proper garb and preach with controlled gravity. The Baptist and Methodist religious insurgents believed that ministers and exhorters were chosen through a direct, divine calling that could come to anyone. They regarded old-line clerics as arrogant, stuffy and even unsaved.
And the skepticism about elites did not stop with the clergy. In "The Democratization of American Christianity," historian Nathan O. Hatch describes a populist revolt against the legal and medical professions as well. The Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s was accompanied by the rise of natural remedies and botanic medicine as an alternative to the norms of traditional medical education. One popular practitioner, Samuel Thomson, argued that Americans "should in medicine, as in religion and politics, act for themselves."
From the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, evangelicals developed a strained relationship with modern science. Geology revealed ancient fossils and an old Earth. Biology traced the course of human evolution. Cosmology attributed the beginnings of an expanding universe to a Big Bang. For many evangelical believers, the scientific description of reality did not look like the universe of their imagination. The scientific profession became an object of suspicion. And this distrust was only exacerbated by a resurgence of fundamentalism in the late 20th century.
These tensions have occasionally emerged in controversies surrounding vaccination. During a 2011 Republican presidential debate, former representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota attacked the routine administration of the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) as "innocent little 12-year-old girls" who were "forced to have a government injection," which she later claimed might lead to "mental retardation." Her description of this safe, easy, effective way for women to avoid cervical cancer was remarkable for its level of destructive ignorance. But it was also typical of some evangelical opinion.
Now a substantial minority of White evangelicals are hesitant about the vaccine for the coronavirus. I suspect that some of this is the result of believing absurd conspiracy theories (which I won't repeat for fear of coughing this informational virus on the public). But this hesitancy is also the symptom of a much broader alienation between evangelicals and the scientific enterprise. Vaccine skepticism remains part of a populist revolt against elites whom evangelicals regard as hostile to their values.
In a highly technological society, however, there is often no alternative to social trust. None of us can master the highly specialized fields that help assure our well-being, including medicine and epidemiology. And it can be highly destructive - to ourselves and others - if we prefer our intuitions to the experts.
Building trust in coronavirus vaccines will require outreach from both scientists and evangelical leaders. And it is happening. Francis S. Collins - director of the National Institutes of Health and himself an evangelical - has been making an effective Christian case for coronavirus vaccination. Recently interviewed on the Christian Broadcasting Network, he said: "This is a 'love your neighbor' moment, where we all have a chance to do something not just for ourselves but for everybody around us." From the side of the religious community, seminary professor Curtis Chang has created a video series that deals carefully and sympathetically with evangelical questions about the vaccines.
The problem is time. The current challenge of the campaign against covid is an insufficient supply of vaccines. But at a pace close to 2 million vaccinations a day, the difficulty will eventually be finding enough willing arms to get the United States to herd immunity, which translates to approximately 70% vaccination coverage. If only 54% of White evangelicals were to be vaccinated, achieving herd immunity would be made far more difficult.
Collins' perspective is the proper one. Evangelicals are in the process of determining not just their scientific views, but also their social role. Will they undermine the common good by giving in to (unjustified) fear? Or will they assume some inconvenience and a very small risk for the sake of their neighbors? A choice this stark - with a quantified outcome - will display the quality of their moral beliefs. One way or the other.
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Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.
Waiting for the GOP to come to its senses is a mistake
By eugene robinson
Waiting for the GOP to come to its senses is a mistake
eugene robinson · Mar 08, 2021 - 9:02 PM
EUGENE ROBINSON COLUMN
Advance for release Tuesday, March 2021, and thereafter
(For Robinson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)
By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON -- Here is the lesson Democrats should learn from the passage of President Joe Biden's massive covid-19 relief bill in the Senate: Don't hold your breath waiting for Republicans to come to their senses. Just do the right thing.
That not a single Republican in the House or Senate was willing to vote for the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package is astonishing, given the overwhelming popularity of the legislation and the magnitude of the crisis it seeks to address. Yes, that's an awful lot of money. But the GOP has long since forfeited any claim to stand for fiscal restraint, simply preferring to add to the national debt through tax cuts for the rich rather than through spending for the poor.
All the howling and moaning about how Biden supposedly went back on his pledge of bipartisanship is nothing but cynical blather. The president made a good-faith attempt to engage with Republicans, and the best they could come up with was an unserious offer worth barely a third of what the administration believes is needed. Even with GOP state and local officials, such as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, imploring Congress to "go big," Republican senators refused to budge.
I recognize that our present political culture is more tribal than ideological. But the covid-19 relief legislation was an instance in which tribal GOP opposition made no political sense, even for Republicans eager to score a symbolic win. Polls showed that while Republicans in the House and Senate were voting no, their constituents were saying yes.
A Morning Consult poll released last week, for example, found that the bill, which includes $1,400 direct payments to most citizens, was supported by 77% of voters nationwide - including an incredible 59% of Republican voters. And even when the pollster explicitly told GOP respondents that the legislation was being proposed by Democrats, 53% of Republicans still said they were in favor.
The economic devastation from the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged Americans and their state governments irrespective of party affiliation. But Republicans in Congress are following the playbook that worked for them in the very different moment of 2010, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., set out to make Barack Obama "a one-term president" by implacably opposing everything Obama tried to do. Obama did win his second term, but the GOP seized control of both houses of Congress by employing McConnell's strategy of massive resistance. With the Senate now tied 50-50 and Democrats holding just a 10-seat edge in the House, Republicans dream of capturing one or even both chambers in 2022.
I think the GOP is misreading the moment and the country. But even Republicans who know how to read poll numbers have to deal with the fact that the party's base is still in thrall to former president Donald Trump, which pretty much takes subtlety and nuance off the table. "Trump good, Biden bad" is what passes for a GOP platform these days.
There may come a day when Trump's influence over his party has waned to the point where it would make sense for Biden and the Democrats to attempt to boost the GOP's small anti-Trump wing. Such efforts would be futile now, however. If Biden can't get Republicans to vote for a bill that three-quarters of the public supports, he probably can't get them to vote for anything. He should keep reaching across the aisle but shouldn't expect anyone to reach back - and he shouldn't let that stop him from acting once he's made the effort.
That means the next big spending measure on the administration's agenda - an infrastructure bill - may also have to be passed via the Senate's no-filibuster reconciliation process, however West Virginia's Joe Manchin III, D, may balk at the prospect. Infrastructure used to be the one thing both parties could always agree on, because there are roads and bridges in every congressional district. Now, once again, even an infrastructure bill might be legislation that is highly popular across the country, but that Republicans are too frightened to vote for.
Republicans are genuinely united against another issue of vital importance to Democrats: expanding and guaranteeing the right to vote. The GOP fears, with good reason, that unless they can suppress the votes of major Democratic constituencies, especially people of color, the Republican Party will be reduced to long-term minority status. If the ambitious For the People Act is to make it through the Senate, Democrats are going to have to get around the filibuster. Suspending it for one piece of legislation isn't the same as abolishing it for all time.
Do Biden and the Democrats risk overplaying their hand if they plow ahead in this manner? Perhaps, but Republicans are leaving them little choice. And so far in the Biden era, good policy looks like good politics.
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Eugene Robinson is on Twitter: @Eugene_Robinson
The Asinine Comedy
By gene weingarten
The Asinine Comedy
gene weingarten · Mar 08, 2021 - 3:10 PM
BELOW THE BELTWAY COLUMN
Advance for release Sunday, March 14, 2021, and thereafter
(For Weingarten clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)
By Gene Weingarten
WASHINGTON -- Exclusive! I have obtained the minutes of a meeting with Satan and his loyal staff, the Legions of Darkness, following the death of Donald John Trump on April 1, 2031. (I have very good sources.)
Satan: Where shall we place the sinner? To which concentric circle of The Abode of the Damned does he rightly belong?
Theophrastus the Pederast: Surely in mine, the second ring, which is reserved for "carnal malefactors" -- people consumed by lust. Behold his crimes: serial marriages to connubially attractive, vastly younger, generously bosomed women with silky yellow hair. Groping! Porn stars! Uninvited kissy-face. Plus, the sinner has been known to wear mirrors on the tops of his shoes for wanton upskirting.
Evilthorpe the Degenerate: YOU MADE THAT LAST THING UP.
Theophrastus the Pederast: Well, he made up many things, so who cares? My circle includes liars. Also, panderers, seducers, traffickers in flattery, false prophets, braggarts and thieves. He called the porcine baby-faced beast of North Korea, a man who has exploded his political enemies with antiaircraft rockets, "terrific." He once held a meeting in which his fawning Cabinet members called him "great" 32 times. Also Cleopatra and Helen of Troy are residents of my circle. He'll like it there.
Satan: We don't WANT him to like it there, you imbecile.
Evilthorpe the Degenerate: It is moot, o Foul One. The realm of lust is rightly a province of my domain, the fourth circle, that of Greed. This man spent his life accumulating unconscionable material wealth through deceit and double-dealing treachery, his only goal -- his only religion -- being personal enrichment.
Satan: Prove it.
Evilthorpe the Degenerate: I am quoting now from a speech of his from late January 2016: "My whole life I've been greedy, greedy, greedy. I've grabbed all the money I could get."
Hogarth the Wicked and Iniquitous: I control the seventh ring, containing the Violent and Blasphemers. This man encouraged a deadly riot. He once told a crowd to beat up a guy who was heckling him, promising to pay the legal fees for anyone delivering a knuckle sandwich. Also he says "goddamn" regularly.
Satan: That last thing doesn't seem so bad. I mean, by comparison.
Hogarth the Wicked and Iniquitous: Goddamn you, Satan.
(Satan beheads Hogarth with the Diabolical Scimitar of Wrath.)
Satan: Anyone else?
Theophilus the Really Pissed Off: Anger! I rule the fifth circle, the realm of the angry. There has never been an angrier man. There are 2 million Google hits for "Trump" and "lashed out."
Fred the Fat: My ring, number three! Gluttony! The man is shaped like a manatee. He eats like a swine. He probably has bacon-soaked lard for breakfast.
Arnold the Treasonous Miscreant: Treachery, ring nine! Ukraine!
(Crosstalk. Banshee wailing.)
Satan: Gentlemen, I have reached a decision. If there are no objections, the sinner will be sliced up and chunks of him will be distributed among the rings.
Barnabus the Mildly Disappointing: I am afraid that might be considered divisive ... .
(Satan slays Barnabus with a shoulder-mounted bazooka. The motion carries without further objection.)
(BEG ITAL)A special thanks to Dante Alighieri.(END ITAL)
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Gene Weingarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten.
Biden is blunting the GOP's wedge politics
By e.j. dionne jr.
Biden is blunting the GOP's wedge politics
e.j. dionne jr. · Mar 07, 2021 - 1:00 PM
E.J. DIONNE COLUMN
Advance for release Monday, March 8, 2021, and thereafter
(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)
By E.J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- One of President Joe Biden's early achievements does not get enough attention: He is rolling back the politics of culture wars. This is good news for his electoral and governing projects, but also for our country.
This assertion will invite contradictory dissents. On the one side, culture wars were bound to abate during a pandemic and economic downturn. The other response is: Are you kidding? If culture wars are over, why is Dr. Seuss all over Fox News?
To take the second point first: Sure, cultural conflict will forever be part of American life. Our habits, mores and assumptions are always in flux, especially given the United States' exceptional religious, racial and ethnic diversity - along with our long-running feuds between big cities and the countryside. We battle even when there's a surface cultural consensus: Think of the early stirrings of feminism in the 1950s and the furor unleashed by the Beats.
But what matters is how politicized these conflicts become. Republicans and conservatives have used culture wars as a way of encouraging working-class voters to cast their ballots on the basis of social, religious and racial issues rather than on economic questions.
Ever since the 1960s, the GOP has chipped away at the New Deal coalition by insisting that when the word "elitist" is used, it is a reference to cultural trendsetters and professors, not corporate titans.
And when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Princeton, Harvard Law School) claimed that Republicans are now the party of "working class men and women" in an interview on Fox News, he spoke of how their wages were being "pulled down" because they were competing with "people coming illegally." Thus did undocumented immigrants become the class enemy.
A member of the party that has done everything it could for the last four decades to destroy organized labor, Cruz even had the temerity to say that Democrats "don't represent unions anymore."
His words came a day after Biden offered one of the most pro-union speeches ever given by a president. "Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field, they give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment," Biden said. "Unions lift up workers, both union and nonunion, and especially Black and brown workers."
Of particular note here is how Biden linked the inequalities of class and race. Here again, he's fighting against wedge politics aimed at dividing middle- and working-class voters along racial and ethnic lines - and immigration status.
Now, you could argue that Biden's relentless attention to the pandemic, and the work of economic relief and recovery, is simply common sense. And it is. These, more than any others, are the issues by which he will be judged.
But the president and his team have exercised enormous discipline in keeping the national conversation focused on bread-and-butter assistance to the vast majority of Americans - one reason his $1.9 trillion aid package, working its way through Congress with only Democratic support,polls so well. And whenever he could, Biden has tried to shift the conversation about the pandemic away from cultural conflict and toward the practical work of ending the scourge.
Former president Donald Trump, and now his allies, keep trying to turn mask-wearing into a cultural question linked to personal liberty. Biden calmly but pointedly speaks for the roughly three-quarters of the American public that sees mask-wearing not as some esoteric form of compulsory virtue signaling but as part of everyone's responsibility to help prevent the spread of covid-19.
The right wing tried to make a new flash point out of Biden's rebuke to "Neanderthal thinking" after Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi lifted mask-wearing requirements. "You know, this is Mr. Unity,"sniffed Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Stanford, Yale University Law School). "And yet, if you disagree with him, you're a Neanderthal."
But it hasn't stuck, and Biden cares more about getting people to wear masks than in pushing the fight further. In any event, most Americans know how deadly it was to politicize mask-wearing in the first place, and it's excruciatingly hard to turn Biden (D-University of Delaware, Syracuse University College of Law) into an elitist peddler of cultural radicalism. And, yes, since racism and sexism are often blended into culturally divisive appeals, a 78-year-old White guy is harder for the radical right to demonize than, say, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi.
No wonder anti-Biden paraphernalia sold so poorly at the CPAC meeting, as The Washington Post's David Weigel reported. "I can't give the Biden stuff away," mourned merchandizer David Solomon.
As for Dr. Seuss, Republicans might yet help Biden turn that controversy into an economic question, too. After all, their resolute opposition to Biden's proposal to help Americans in economic trouble makes them resemble no one so much as the Grinch - before he found his heart.