Quick hits (part II)

1) Dahlia Lithwick on Mary Trump’s book:

The book is thus actually styled as an indictment not of Donald Trump but of Trump’s enablers. The epigraph is from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and it’s emphatically not about Donald John Trump at all: “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.” Mary Trump blames Fred Trump for Donald Trump’s pathology, although she doesn’t claim that her uncle is a tragic victim of abuse. She blames his family that propped him up (also her family, it should be noted), and then in concentric and expanding circles, the media that failed to scrutinize him, the banks that pretended he was the financial genius he was not, the Republican Party, and the “claque of loyalists” in the White House who continue to lie for him and to him in order to feed his insatiable ego and self-delusion. Even the phrase “too much and never enough” is perhaps deliberately borrowed from the language of addiction, and what Mary Trump describes here is not just her uncle’s addiction to adulation, fame, money, and success, but a nation’s—or some part of a nation’s—unfathomable addiction to him…

The bulk of the book focuses on the tale of Mary and her brother Fritz’s abandonment by the rest of the Trump clan. Her father, Freddy, the scion and namesake, failed to be the storybook heir to her grandfather’s real estate empire, instead collapsing into a tragic black hole of alcoholism, illness, and despair. Donald Trump, Freddy’s younger brother, not only helped push Freddy down but also stepped on his sinking shoulders on his way into the empty, Freddy-shaped space to become his father’s successor. And as Freddy’s parents and three other siblings altered their lives and priorities in order to orbit around Donald, Mary and her brother were eventually written out of the wills, the empire, and the family story, as payback for their father’s perceived weakness and failures. This is all tragic in its own right, but it also makes Mary, who has been let down by the so-called adults in the room almost since her infancy, perfectly positioned to explain and translate what happens to otherwise high-functioning adults—her aunt Maryanne, a competent federal judge; the lawyers and accountants tasked with fulfilling Donald’s whims and hiding his failings; the sycophants and Republicans and evangelical Christians who support his campaign unquestioningly; and the officials who now populate the Senate, the Cabinet, and the Oval Office. All of them appear to be reasonably mentally sound. Yet they all cover for Donald, at the expense of real suffering and genuine human loss, just as the Trump clan ignored Freddy’s disintegration and death. Mary Trump’s childhood trauma has become America’s trauma, and she really wants to know how that came to be. Again…

Mary Trump’s words there could just as easily be true for John Kelly, Kellyanne Conway, John Bolton, Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, or Melania Trump. And as Mary Trump is quick to observe, the sheer stuck-ness of his enablers means that Trump never, ever learns his lesson. Being cosseted, lied to, defended, and puffed up means that Donald Trump knows that, “no matter what happens, no matter how much damage he leaves in his wake, he will be OK.” He fails up, in other words, because everyone around him, psychologically normal beings all, ends up so enmeshed with his delusions that they must do anything necessary to protect them. Trump’s superpower isn’t great vision or great leadership but rather that he is so tiny. Taking him on for transactional purposes may seem like not that big a deal at first, but the moment you put him in your pocket, you become his slave. It is impossible to escape his orbit without having to admit a spectacular failure in moral and strategic judgment, which almost no one can stomach. Donald Trump’s emptiness is simply a mirror of the emptiness of everyone who propped him up. It’s that reflection that becomes unendurable. This pattern, as Mary writes, “guaranteed a cascade of increasingly consequential failures that would ultimately render all of us collateral damage.” Nobody, not even Mary, who signed on briefly to ghostwrite one of his books, ends up just a little bit beholden to Donald Trump and that includes his rapturous supporters who still queue up, maskless, to look upon his greatness. As she concludes, his sociopathy “reminds me that Donald isn’t really the problem at all.” That makes hers something other than the 15th book about the fathoms-deep pathologies of Donald Trump: It is the first real reckoning with all those who “caused the darkness.”

2) Reason on Steven Pinker and cancel culture.

3) Still think cancel culture isn’t real?  Read the sad story about how Glenn Greenwald has been thwarted in trying to make a Martina Navratilova movie because Navratilova had the awfulness and bigotry to suggest that, just maybe, it should take more than saying “I identify as a woman now” for a person to compete in female athletics.

4) German study on low Covid transmission in schools.

5) South Korean study finds that kids under 10 really do transmit at very low rates, but kids over 10 are as bad as adults (seems to me to be a real mistake, though, to leave a single 10-19 category).

6) I’m not a poker guy at all, but Maria Konnikova’s new book sounds pretty good.  Wired, “Poker and the Psychology of Uncertainty: The game has plenty to teach about making decisions with the cards we’ve been dealt—on and off the table.”

7) David Hopkins on how, it really does look like Joe Biden was simply the most electable Democrat competing for the nomination (and why, in retrospect, I’m quite glad he’s the nominee):

From one perspective, the electability argument for Biden has been completely vindicated. Biden has opened up a bigger lead over Trump in the national popular vote than any candidate has enjoyed at this stage since Bill Clinton coasted to re-election in 1996, and he is so well-positioned in the electoral college that the battleground map has expanded into the traditional red territory of Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas. The Trump campaign has proven unable as of yet to land a damaging punch on Biden, and has even struggled to find a promising line of attack.

Biden hasn’t been as invisible a candidate as some critics claim, but his campaign activities during the pandemic have not generated much sustained attention. Because journalists do not find the very familiar Biden to be a particularly fruitful source of interesting stories, the national media has been focusing instead almost entirely on Trump, and Trump’s spiraling political problems, since the Democratic nomination wrapped up after Super Tuesday. The relative novelty of nearly every other major potential nominee—Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg—would have attracted more coverage from the media and pulled the spotlight away from Trump much more frequently…

Because we lack access to the parallel universes in which other nominees were chosen, it’s impossible to completely settle the electability debate. However, enough evidence now exists to shed light on two claims made by some advocates of non-Biden candidates in the 2020 Democratic primaries. One is that there are so few remaining swing voters in our current age of rampant polarization that mobilization of the party base is more productive than trying to achieve a broader appeal, and the other is that a Biden nomination would not excite enough voters on the left to stimulate this necessary mobilization.

Both of these claims have already been contradicted by the polls. Biden wouldn’t have pulled into the strong lead he now holds if he weren’t drawing significant support from previous Republican voters. (According to recent surveys by the New York Times, 14 percent of battleground state residents who supported Trump in 2016 are not supporting him in 2020.) After years of media stories about Trump’s skill in stoking the passionate devotion of his own party, the last few months have forced a widespread journalistic rediscovery of the importance of swing voters and the danger of Trump’s declining popularity among this still-pivotal bloc. And while Biden himself doesn’t inspire as much personal enthusiasm among Democrats as Trump does among many Republicans, overall levels of interest in the election are equal across party lines: Democratic voters are as motivated to vote against the president as Republicans are to vote for him.

8) If you pay attention to policing reform issues, you’ve surely heard a lot of the success of Camden, NJ.  Nice NYT article takes a look at how they’ve gotten it done.

9) Sarah Longwell on women and Joe Biden:

One of the great mysteries of 2016 was why so many women voted for Donald Trump.

Despite being caught on a hot mic talking about grabbing women “by the pu**y,” nearly 20 sexual assault allegations, and well known accounts of treating his multiple wives horribly, Trump still received the votes of 44 percent of white college-educated women and 61 percent of non-college-educated white women.

Many observers were doubly confused because they had expected Hillary Clinton, as the first major party female nominee, to be especially strong with women. And she wasn’t. Trump did poorly with African-American and Hispanic women, because he did poorly with all African-Americans and Hispanics. But he managed to actually win a narrow plurality among white women.

But that mystery has been easy to solve. Over the last three years I conducted dozens of focus groups with both college-educated and non-college-educated female Trump voters. And the answer given most commonly for why they voted for Donald Trump is “I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I voted against Hillary Clinton.”

In 2016, Democrats understood that Hillary Clinton was a deeply polarizing candidate. But even they didn’t grasp the full magnitude of it. Right-leaning and Republican female voters had spent more than a decade hating both Clintons, and they didn’t stop just because Hillary’s opponent was an unrepentant misogynist…

After nearly three years of conducting focus groups with women who held their nose and voted for Trump in 2016, this decline hasn’t surprised me. He was holding on to many of those voters with a wing and a prayer and strong economy. When everything began to fall apart, these female Trump leaners went running for the exits.

From the beginning of his presidency these women gave Trump low marks for his tweeting and divisiveness—but they also gave him credit for the strong economy and relative prosperity of the last few years.

His perceived business acumen was one of the top reasons many of these women were willing to take a flyer on him in the first place. Never forget that for many Americans, their impressions of Trump were formed less by his presidential campaign than by his role on The Apprentice where he was, through the wonders of editing and reality TV storytelling, presented as a decisive, successful businessman.

In late 2019 and early 2020 with a roaring economy and a bunch of abstract foreign policy scandals consuming the media and the elites whom these voters generally despise and distrust, even Trump-voting-women who rated the president’s performance as “very bad” weren’t entirely sure what they would do in 2020. There was still a crowded field of Democratic candidates—many of whom were living, breathing representations of the far-left caricature that Republicans paint of Democrats.

But by March of 2020, everything had changed.

First, Joe Biden blew out Bernie Sanders and the rest of the Democratic field.

In my focus groups, Biden had consistently outperformed all other Democrats among the female Trump voters who were souring on the president. In hypothetical head-to-head matchups, almost none of the women would take Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren over Trump, but a handful would typically (if not enthusiastically) pick Biden over Trump.

It cannot be overstated how much better of a candidate Joe Biden is for attracting disaffected Republican voters—especially women—than any of the other Democrats who ran this cycle.

10) Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes on the true awfulness of the Stone commutation:

President Trump’s commutation of the prison sentence of his longtime confidante Roger Stone is wholly unsurprising. Indeed, given Trump’s repeated teasing of the matter over the life of the case against Stone, it would have been something of a surprise had he not intervened so that his felonious friend was spared time behind bars.

But the predictable nature of Trump’s action should not obscure its rank corruption. In fact, the predictability makes the commutation all the more corrupt, the capstone of an all-but-open attempt on the president’s part to obstruct justice in a self-protective fashion over a protracted period of time. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s actually not. Trump publicly encouraged Stone not to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation, he publicly dangled clemency as a reward for silence, and he has now delivered. The act is predictable precisely because the corrupt action is so naked.

In a normal world, this pattern of conduct would constitute an almost prototypical impeachable offense. But this is not a normal world. Congress is unlikely to bestir itself to do anything about what Trump has done—just as it has previously done nothing about the obstruction allegations detailed in the Mueller report. Indeed, in the midst of a presidential campaign, a second impeachment would surely be ill advised. The only remedy for this behavior, at least while Trump remains in office, has to lie in accountability in the context of Trump’s campaign for reelection.

That is why it is so important to understand the history that led to the Stone commutation, just how corrupt it is, and why the predictability of the president’s action actually inflames public outrage—not inures the public to what Trump has done here.

Roger Stone isn’t just Trump’s confidante or friend. According to newly unsealed material in the Mueller report, he’s also a person who had the power to reveal to investigators that Trump likely lied to Mueller—and to whom Trump publicly dangled rewards if Stone refused to provide Mueller with that information. Now, it seems, the president is making good on that promise.

11) Colin Wright on science, sex, evolution and the politics of transgender:

The formula for each of these articles is straightforward. First, they list a multitude of intersex conditions. Second, they detail the genes, hormones, and complex developmental processes leading to these conditions. And, third and finally, they throw their hands up and insist this complexity means scientists have no clue what sex really is. This is all highly misleading and deceiving (self-deceiving?), since the developmental processes involved in creating any organ are enormously complex, yet almost always produce fully functional end products. Making a hand is complicated too, but the vast majority of us end up with the functional, five-fingered variety.

What these articles leave out is the fact that the final result of sex development in humans are unambiguously male or female over 99.98 percent of the time. Thus, the claim that “2 sexes is overly simplistic” is misleading, because intersex conditions correspond to less than 0.02 percent of all births, and intersex people are not a third sex. Intersex is simply a catch-all category for sex ambiguity and/or a mismatch between sex genotype and phenotype, regardless of its etiology. Furthermore, the claim that “sex is a spectrum” is also misleading, as a spectrum implies a continuous distribution, and maybe even an amodal one (one in which no specific outcome is more likely than others). Biological sex in humans, however, is clear-cut over 99.98 percent of the time. Lastly, the claim that classifying people’s sex based on anatomy and genetics “has no basis in science” has itself no basis in reality, as any method exhibiting a predictive accuracy of over 99.98 percent would place it among the most precise methods in all the life sciences. We revise medical care practices and change world economic plans on far lower confidence than that.

Despite the unquestionable reality of biological sex in humans, social justice and trans activists continue to push this belief, and respond with outrage when challenged. Pointing out any of the above facts is now considered synonymous with transphobia. The massive social media website Twitter—the central hub for cultural discourse and debate—is now actively banning users for stating true facts about basic human biology. And biologists like myself often sit quietly, afraid to defend our own field out of fear that our decade of education followed by continued research, job searches, and the quest for tenure might be made obsolete overnight if the mob decides to target one of us for speaking up. Because of this, our objections take place almost entirely between one another in private whisper networks, despite the fact that a majority of biologists are extremely troubled by these attacks to our field by social justice activists. This is an untenable situation.

It is undoubtedly true that trans people lead very difficult lives, which are only made more difficult by the bigotry of others. But social justice activists appear completely unwilling or unable to distinguish between people who criticize their ideology and people who criticize their humanity. Their social immune system appears so sensitive that it consumes itself. We need to acknowledge that trans issues and ideology are complex, and concern one of the most marginalized communities in the world. Because of this, we must give these issues the respect they deserve by approaching them with nuance and compassion instead of crudeness and cruelty. But we must not jettison truth in this process. If social justice activists require scientists to reject evolution and the reality of biological sex to be considered good allies, then we can never be good allies.

My short take… treat trans people with all the respect, kindness, and dignity that all humans deserve!  Really!  Please!  But, don’t pretend like we need to distort science to say things that it doesn’t in order to do so.  Or, say people are anti-trans bigots if they believe it is important to stick to these scientific fundamentals.

12) Krugman, “America Drank Away Its Children’s Future”

None of this had to happen. Other countries stuck with their lockdowns long enough to reduce infections to rates much lower than those prevailing here; Covid-19 death rates per capita in the European Union are only a 10th those in the United States — and falling — while ours are rising fast. As a result, they’re in a position to reopen schools fairly safely.

Would a longer lockdown have been economically sustainable? Yes.

It’s true that strong social distancing requirements led to high unemployment and hurt many businesses. But even America, with its ramshackle social safety net, was able to provide enough disaster relief — don’t call it stimulus! — to protect most of its citizens from severe hardship.

Thanks largely to expanded unemployment benefits, poverty didn’t soar during the lockdown. By some measures it may even have gone down.

True, there were holes in that safety net, and many people did suffer. But we could have patched those holes. Yes, emergency relief costs a lot of money, but we can afford it: The federal government has been borrowing huge sums, but interest rates have remained near historical lows.

Put it this way: At its most severe, the lockdown seems to have reduced G.D.P. by a little over 10 percent. During World War II, America spent more than 30 percent of G.D.P. on defense, for more than three years. Why couldn’t we absorb a much smaller cost for a few months?

But that was the road not taken. Instead, many states not only rushed to reopen, they reopened stupidly. Instead of being treated as a cheap, effective way to fight contagion, face masks became a front in the culture war. Activities that posed an obvious risk of feeding the pandemic went unchecked: Large gatherings were permitted, bars reopened.

And the cost of those parties and open bars extends beyond the thousands of Americans who will be killed or suffer permanent health damage as a result of Covid-19’s resurgence. The botched reopening has also endangered something that, unlike drinking in groups, can’t be suspended without doing long-run damage: in-person education.

13) This is so true, “Trump Promotes Caricature of What Conservatives Want”

14) David Graham, “How Trump Closed Down the Schools: The president is demanding that classes resume this fall—but his own failures are forcing districts to shut their doors.”

Few things have captured Donald Trump’s fickle attention for long during the pandemic, but for the past 10 days, the president has been highly focused on one issue. He has insisted on the need for America’s schools to reopen in August with students in classrooms five days a week, hoping that this might revive the economy, and with it his reelection chances in November. It ought to be an easy sell, because polling shows that parents want their children in class and teachers want to be there too. But there’s a catch: They want to know it’s safe, and the federal government’s failure to manage the pandemic means many districts don’t think it is.

After months of mishandling the coronavirus, from initial indifference to hasty declarations of victory, Trump has now tried to bully schools into reopening. He has denounced guidelines established by his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as overly strict, and sought to take funding away from districts. But it isn’t working. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, will reopen classrooms only on a limited basis. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest district, announced together with the San Diego Unified School District that they would not reopen classrooms at the start of the school year.

“There’s a consensus even across political divides: The best place for students to learn is in school,” Austin Beutner, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, told me. But, he said, given the rate of community spread in the L.A. area, “it’s not practical, it’s not safe, and it’s not appropriate for the health of all in the school community to be at school.”

The country’s inability to reopen schools is the yardstick by which to measure all of the accumulated failures of the American response to COVID-19. Instead of uniting Americans behind the project of reopening schools, restoring the most important service that has not returned since the start of the pandemic, the Trump administration has politicized the debate. It is asking districts to solve problems—testing, tracing, community spread—that every other level of government has thus far failed to solve, but not providing funding to do so. In fact, Trump is threatening to cut funding to school districts that do not reopen.

15) Good stuff from the government of Canada on the relative prevalence of Covid symptoms.  Love the idea of my friend BB who suggested that screening people by smell might well be more useful than screening for fever.  Or better yet, use both.

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