Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: False dilemmas and pretenses

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Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight has a reminder that given the hyper-focus of the 2022 midterm elections on federal offices, we should not forget the importance of the 2022 gubernatorial elections.

Though governors have always been important for their influence on health care, education, tax policy and more, the 2022 gubernatorial elections feel particularly urgent. Governors have the ability to block — or sign off on — election law changes and election-subversion efforts ahead of the 2024 presidential election, and they are also usually the ones making life-or-death decisions about COVID-19 policy in their states. […]

Partisanship may not be the be-all-and-end-all of governor’s races, but it has been growing more and more important in recent gubernatorial elections. It’s no surprise, then, that the other gubernatorial toss-up states are the usual suspects: the same six states that have topped the list of swing states in past presidential elections, too. In two recent polls of Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer led her likely Republican opponent, former Detroit police chief James Craig, by margins of 5-10 percentage points, but she didn’t crack 50 percent in either poll, suggesting that the race will tighten as voters get to know Craig.

And in Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers must contend with not only President Biden’s unpopularity in the state, but also his own mediocre approval ratings (45 percent last October). Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is the Republican front-runner here, but businessman Kevin Nicholson and former Gov. Tommy Thompson may yet still decide to run. Ominously for Democrats, Michigan and Wisconsin’s gubernatorial races have both historically gone with the midterm flow: Republicans won them in 2010 and 2014, Democrats in 2006 and 2018.

Peter Hotez writes for the Boston Globe that we need organizations to defend biomedical scientists against a variety of threats.

Dog whistles from highly visible elected officials are unnerving, especially when followed by a barrage of hate e-mail and online threats. For biomedical scientists laboring to shape new approaches or therapeutics to combat COVID-19 there is really no roadmap for how to respond or seek protections. In my case, since this also includes antisemitic attacks, I have been able to get help and advice from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, but often there is nowhere obvious to seek help.

Fifty years ago, American scientists founded the Committee of Concerned Scientists to defend their colleagues abroad — many from authoritarian states such as Turkey or China where they experienced human rights violations. However, political scientists such as Harvard’s Steven Levitsky have since sounded the alarm for increasing authoritarianism in the United States. How can society address a far-right US authoritarian movement seeking to undermine scientists?

We need an organization that is prepared to defend biomedical scientists. Thus far, the major professional and academic societies, including the National Academies, find themselves in the difficult position of balancing their historical neutrality in American politics with the need to preserve the integrity and productivity of American science. The reality is that political neutrality is often impossible when defending scientists — it favors the oppressor (to paraphrase Elie Wiesel). Ideally, an organization defending scientists would provide legal advice or practical instructions for managing media and social media communications. It could advise on how to engage law enforcement when public attacks incite serious threats from adherents. It might resemble the renowned Southern Poverty Law Center, established to promote social justice and combat racism, but be focused on helping US scientists, or a biomedical equivalent to the more recently created Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

David Graham of The Atlantic writes about the sheer phoniness of some elite-educated Republican office holders.

In 2013, Bobby Jindal, then the governor of Louisiana and a presidential hopeful, delivered some tough love to the Republican National Committee: “We must stop being the stupid party.” Specifically, he continued, “we must stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people. We have to stop dumbing down our ideas and stop reducing everything to mindless slogans and taglines for 30-second ads.”

Even in the pre-Trump GOP, this was a bracing message, but Jindal was the person to make it: Known for his wonkish mien, Jindal had graduated from Brown at 20, scored a Rhodes Scholarship, become the youngest president of the University of Louisiana system, and then won the governorship. […]

The prime offenders include Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Yale College, magna cum laude; Harvard Law, cum laude), U.S. Senate hopeful Eric Greitens of Missouri (Duke, full scholarship; Rhodes Scholar), and U.S. Senate candidate J. D. Vance of Ohio (Ohio State, summa cum laude; Yale Law). Of course attending fancy schools does not necessarily make someone smart, nor do the well educated have a monopoly on intelligence. Smart people make bad calls all the time, moreover, as David Halberstam indelibly noted, and stupid ones stumble into good decisions. What these politicians have in common is that though they’ve given every indication they’re smart in the past, now—in their best attempt to succeed in the Trump-era Republican Party—they are masquerading as what they imagine voters want, with results that ring almost comically false.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen writes for The New York Times on the dangers of banning and burning books.

In the United States, the battle over books is heating up, with some politicians and parents demanding the removal of certain books from libraries and school curriculums. Just in the last week, we saw reports of a Tennessee school board that voted to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, “Maus,” from classrooms, and a mayor in Mississippi who is withholding $110,000 in funding from his city’s library until it removes books depicting L.G.B.T.Q. people. Those seeking to ban books argue that these stories and ideas can be dangerous to young minds — like mine, I suppose, when I picked up Mr. Heinemann’s novel.

[…]

Here’s the thing: If we oppose banning some books, we should oppose banning any book. If our society isn’t strong enough to withstand the weight of difficult or challenging — and even hateful or problematic — ideas, then something must be fixed in our society. Banning books is a shortcut that sends us to the wrong destination.

As Ray Bradbury depicted in “Fahrenheit 451,” another book often targeted by book banners, book burning is meant to stop people from thinking, which makes them easier to govern, to control and ultimately to lead into war. And once a society acquiesces to burning books, it tends to soon see the need to burn the people who love books.

Michael Cavna of the Washington Post spoke to Art Spiegelman on the banning of his graphic novel, “Maus,” by the McMinn County school board in east Tennessee.

Spiegelman says comics are often challenged in educational settings, partly because of the visceral power of visual imagery. Jerry Craft’s “New Kid,” Raina Telgemeier’s “Drama” and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” are among the acclaimed graphic novels that have appeared on the challenged-book lists spotlighted during Banned Books Week, the annual event that celebrates “the freedom to read.”

“One of the reasons ‘Maus’ is so threatening — and one of the reasons [some] educators were trying to protect the idea of teaching it in a curriculum — was that it’s in comics form,” Spiegelman says. The panel-to-panel narrative “makes it easy to remember — the visual component as well as with the underlying thoughts that need to be communicated — because you can go from the past to the present to the future and back and forth, as your eye flits across the page. Kids do it instinctively.”

So as Spiegelman read the record from the board’s meeting, he focused on their stated issues with stark imagery, as well as strong language.

Spiegelman also laughs in reaction to a board member bringing up the author’s past comics contributions to Playboy magazine when assessing the anthropomorphic nudity in “Maus,” which includes stripped-down concentration camp prisoners.

Jeff Masters of Yale Climate Connections notes that 2021 was the third-costliest year of climate-related disasters on record, with a record number of weather-related events that topped economic losses of $20 billion.

For the first time on record, 2021 had four individual weather events topping the $20 billion economic loss threshold: Hurricane Ida, July flooding in Europe, summer seasonal flooding in China, and a February winter weather disaster in the U.S./Mexico. “This was just the second time on record in which four $20+ billion events had been registered in a calendar year,” Aon reported, “but the first time that four events were weather/climate related. In 2004, there were two hurricanes (Charley and Ivan) and two earthquakes (October 23 Japan Earthquake and the December 26 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami).”

Considering insured losses, 2021 was the most expensive ever for winter weather, at $17 billion, and third-costliest for severe weather (including severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hail)—nearly $27 billion. Only 2020 ($38 billion) and 2011 ($33 billion) had higher severe weather insured losses.

Insured damage from wildfires in 2021 was $5 billion, marking the seventh consecutive year that insured wildfire losses surpassed $2 billion. Prior to 2015, the globe recorded just four years in which aggregated wildfire-related insured losses topped $2 billion.

Thankfully, drought losses in 2021 were below the 2000-2020 average, at $21 billion. The pandemic helped push global food prices to their highest levels in 46 years in 2021, and food prices would have been dangerously high if above-average drought losses had hit the major grain-growing breadbaskets of the world.

Heather Stewart of the Guardian reports that last Tuesday’s surprise announcement of a police investigation into the Downing Street-lockdown parties (thereby delaying the highly anticipated publication of civil servant Sue Gray’s report), might save BoJo the Clown’s job.

Scores of Tory MPs have been awaiting the verdict of Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating alleged lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street, before deciding whether to press for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.

With her report now apparently entangled with a police investigation, Conservative backbenchers have been left to draw their own conclusions, and Johnson’s allies believe many will opt to let him fight on.

“I think there’s a 55% chance that he’ll survive,” said one backer, though they called for a clearout of staff in No 10 so Johnson can start afresh.

That’s not how it looked on Tuesday morning when the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, electrified Westminster during an appearance at the London assembly.

Having repeatedly declined to get her force involved in this most toxic of political scandals, Dick confirmed her force would now launch an investigation into the Downing Street parties.

Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review notes some of the similarities that news coverage of the publication of the (now delayed) Gray Report already has with the publication of the Mueller Report.

The politics have become farcical, too. The police getting involved might logically seem bad for Johnson, but as many commentators have pointed out, the threats to his position largely seem to be about narrative momentum, and so any investigation that delays or waters down the Gray report could actually relieve political pressure, at least for now. Reporters seem utterly exasperated by the mess. “We are in a briefing minefield that is extremely difficult for anyone to navigate,” Alex Wickham, who writes the London edition of Politico’s Playbook newsletter, acknowledged on Wednesday. “For days, members of the government and the multiple anti-Johnson campaigns have anonymously speculated about the contents of the report, despite having a toxic mix of huge personal biases coupled with no real intelligence on the matter.” Much media straw-grasping has ensued. Yesterday morning, Wickham’s newsletter included a hand-drawn flowchart of possible outcomes. Yesterday evening, Christopher Hope, a senior Telegraph journalist known as “Chopper,” teased a “surprising twist in #partygate coming tonight.” It turned out to be Burns telling him that, actually, Johnson couldn’t have been ambushed with a cake at his birthday party because Johnson is now saying there was no cake there. (As headline writers pointed out, Johnson has long liked to have his cake and eat it, too.)

The coverage of the situation has reminded me, more than anything, of the run-up to the publication of the Mueller report in 2019—if Mueller had been investigating suitcases of wine, not the subversion of American elections by a hostile foreign power. There’s the constant drip of damaging stories; the misleading media speculation that the report is coming any day now; the inscrutable public official at the heart of the story being cast, in media reports, as an institutionalist stickler in a world gone to hell. Other media dynamics around the scandal strike me as similar, too, and merit a word of warning to the British press corps as it waits for the report to land. Before publishing the Mueller report, Trump’s attorney general William Barr spun a misleading media narrative about its findings, based mostly on legal technicalities; it’s not hard to imagine Johnson doing the same with the Gray report, and journalists should treat anything he says prior to its publication with extreme skepticism. Ditto any redactions.

Andrea Mazzarino of TomDispatch.com writes that in an ideal world, the failures of the Department of Homeland Security to anticipate the Jan. 6 domestic insurrection on The Capitol should lead to questioning why DHS even exists in the first place.

It should be baffling to us all that the organization tasked with protecting our homeland was unable to avert the most threatening violent attack on our democratically elected government since Confederate troops advanced on Washington, late in the Civil War.

A friend and Park Police officer who was stationed at the Capitol on January 6th recalls being more scared than she had ever been in her 20 years of service. She and some 150 colleagues who specialize in crowd control around national infrastructure lacked a memorandum of understanding with the Capitol Police that would have allowed them to help defend Congress. She said that, as far as she could see, January 6th was a failure of leadership more than anything else because capable people had not been given permission to act.

If we and our lawmakers don’t hold the Department of Homeland Security — a creation of this country’s disastrous war on terror — to account for its actions (or lack of them) and question not just what it does but why it even exists, then I fear for our future. After all, what 9/11 really left us with was not just those destroyed towers in New York and a damaged Pentagon, but our own second Pentagon, a “defense” department capable of being aimed in the worst way possible at the American people. The problem is that the enemy of the future for DHS may very well be the American people — and not just the terrorists among us either.

Finally today, Andrew Mitrovica of AlJazeera has a habaneros-infused reminder that many of the same pundits that led us into the Iraq War are now offering their views about the possibilities of war in Ukraine.

Back then (circa 2002), they penned columns and were invited on TV and radio to say that “good” (the West) had to confront “evil” – ie that “thug” in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, who was going to unleash his secret store of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) on London.

They said there had to be war. They said diplomacy meant appeasement. They said the invasion of Iraq was legal. They said it was a war to prevent the end of civilisation. They said the war would be quick, cheap and easy. They said the liberators would be greeted with garlands and kisses. They said: sure, some Iraqis may be killed, but “democracy” is worth the sacrifice. They said democracy would bloom where there was once only desert.

[…]

In the incestuous world of journalism, friendship tends to trump principle. These “top flight” editors and their “award-winning” stable of white, male pundits are friends. They go to parties, weddings and funerals together where they drink, laugh and say how marvellous each other’s work is. They win ephemeral awards – like a Pulitzer or a Peabody – together. They get paid a lot of money to talk on the lucrative speaker-circuit where they, inevitably, cross paths. They go on TV, radio, and, these days, podcasts together where they are still, incredibly, treated with deference and respect.

I don’t have anything like the foreign policy expertise to credibly assess the threat that Russia poses to Ukraine right now.

The pundits Mr. Mitrovica refers to could actually be correct in their assessment. 

Or those pundits could be wrong…or something in between.

That doesn’t negate the credibility of Mr. Mitrovica’s observation, though.

Everyone have a great day!

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