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Opinion: The culture war that's killing us

By that measure, many of today’s public officials are failing in the worsening Covid crisis.
Virchow is known for many things: His discoveries about the role of cells in giving rise to disease, his work in developing the science of anthropology, his advocacy of social reform — and the duel that never happened with Otto von Bismarck, later to be chancellor, one that might or might not have involved the use of a poisoned sausage.
But Virchow also popularized the term “kulturkampf” — or culture struggle — an ancestor to today’s “culture wars,” which dominate American politics. The latest example: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ refusal to allow school districts to mandate masks to protect children and teachers from the coronavirus.
“Even as the Covid-19 rates are flaring in his state within the unvaccinated population, DeSantis is doubling down in resisting” policies recommended by scientists and backed by President Joe Biden, wrote Julian Zelizer.
DeSantis, a potential candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, “labeled New York City a ‘bio-medical security state’ for requiring proof of vaccination in many indoor facilities.” Biden is “dealing with large pockets of public health denialism that are deploying this issue — packaged in the rhetoric of individual freedom — to undercut efforts to protect the population, the economy, and our health care system from the ravages of this ongoing pandemic.”
As David Axelrod observed of DeSantis, “since the pandemic first emerged, the uber-ambitious Trump wannabe has clawed his way to the top of the potential Republican presidential field with his showy defiance of public health experts and directives … After the Centers for Disease Control offered new guidance last week recommending that school children be required to mask up this fall, DeSantis stood up again for the sacred right of Americans to expose themselves, their children and others to the deadly virus.” This fight “may profit his ambitions while jeopardizing public health,” Axelrod warned.
“Freedom in America is grounded in self-determination, a fiercely held belief that is at the core of the Covid vaccine- and mask-refusal movement,” wrote Dr. Comilla Sasson, an emergency medicine physician, and Robin Cogan, a school nurse. “Unfortunately, your secondhand SARS-CoV-2 is impacting others, including our most vulnerable populations — resulting in even more Covid deaths. Yes, it is your inalienable right to go unvaccinated, or not wear a mask. But it is not your right to kill others.
Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious disease expert, wrote that he’s worried about the health of children under 12, who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccines. “The next real area for debate is not whether the current vaccines are good enough against the Delta variant (they are, overwhelmingly) or whether we should mask up and spread out (yes, obviously), but rather what should we do about the children who are not yet eligible for vaccination under a US Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) but will be heading back to school in a month, or sooner — during an outbreak of a viral variant that could get much more severe?”

Why mask up

Jade Wu said she keeps getting the same question from friends and family — why are you still wearing a mask?
“I have been called overreactive, too covered up and way too scared,” wrote Wu, who is vaccinated. “At least two of my acquaintances tell me they have experienced similar chiding about masking in public; one of them has become so self-conscious that she is uncomfortable stepping out of her house unless she has to.”
Why must we mask wearers justify ourselves during a pandemic — especially since, while breakthrough infections are incredibly rare (less than 1% of fully vaccinated people have become infected, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of official state data), the vaccine does not provide 100% protection. What’s more, anyone can carry or transmit the virus. Don’t we have the right — and the responsibility — to wear a mask?”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that starting September 13, proof of at least one dose of vaccination will be required for entry into indoor restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues, noted Jill Filipovic. “It’s a necessary and overdue step. But why aren’t more cities and states taking it? And more importantly: Why isn’t President Joe Biden?
Vaccinated people are expressing anger at those who resist getting the shot, wrote Peter Bregman and Howard Jacobson. “You may be furious at what you see as the selfishness and ignorance and lack of civic responsibility in the people in your life who refuse to get the jab,” they noted. But if you lash out at the vaccine-hesitant, “are they thanking you for setting them straight and rushing to make appointments?” Not likely.
There’s a better way: “But when you don’t have actual power over someone, it’s only through a caring and respectful relationship that you can influence them to change. If you want a loved one to get vaccinated, approach them with empathy and curiosity, to communicate your caring and respect.
David R. Holtgrave: How to prevent Covid hot spots

The case against Andrew Cuomo

On Tuesday, New York State Attorney General Letitia James revealed the result of her office’s months-long investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a 165-page report finding that he sexually harassed state employees and presided over a “culture of fear and intimidation.”
“I believe these 11 women,” James said.
Legal analyst Jennifer Rodgers called the report “devastating” and wrote, “Cuomo tried on Tuesday to dampen the report’s impact in the way he has since many of these allegations surfaced: by disparaging the investigation as politically motivated, denying the allegations, and claiming — this time with a cringeworthy slideshow of photos of him kissing a lot of people — that being physically affectionate is simply the way he is, and, therefore, no big deal.” Rodgers concluded that “many of the report’s findings seem to clearly fall within the categories of conduct that should support impeachment, particularly the failure to follow internal office procedures in handling the complaints against Cuomo.”
The MeToo movement “shook up the worlds of politics, entertainment, media, corporate America and everywhere in between,” noted SE Cupp. But “what progress has been made for the accusers? Well, barely any if you’ve been following the Cuomo saga. In many cases, it is still just as difficult for women to tell, to bring to light their stories of sexual harassment at work. The 11 who came forward about Cuomo testified about a culture of intimidation and retaliation. They still fear being discredited, as Cuomo and his office allegedly attempted to do to one of his accusers. They still fear losing their jobs and being unhirable.”

The coup next time

We were a single Donald Trump whim away from an actual coup last January, one backed by the weight of the United States Department of Justice,” wrote Elie Honig.
“In a scene that participants have described as resembling the reality show ‘The Apprentice,’ then-President Trump spent hours at the White House on January 3, 2021 considering competing pitches from two top Justice Department officials about which one should get the top spot as acting attorney general. Jeffrey Clark, then the attorney general for the civil division — who reportedly previously had secretly expressed his support for the bogus ‘stolen election’ theory directly to Trump himself — made this straightforward proposition, in essence: choose me and I’ll deploy the Department to help you steal this election.” Trump eventually chose to stick with acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, who warned of mass resignations if he were ousted.
The headline of election law expert Richard L. Hasen‘s piece in Slate said it all: “Trump Is Planning a Much More Respectable Coup Next Time.” Instead of the disorganized “Keystone Cops Coup” centered around the events of January 6, Hasen said GOP lawyers are likely to try to give a more intellectual sheen to anti-democratic arguments if they seek to overturn the results in 2024.
“Come 2024, crass and boorish unsubstantiated claims of stealing are likely to give way to arcane legal arguments about the awesome power of state legislatures to run elections as they see fit,” Hasen wrote. “Forget bonkers accusations about Italy using lasers to manipulate American vote totals and expect white-shoe lawyers with Federalist Society bona fides to argue next time about application of the ‘independent state legislature’ doctrine in an attempt to turn any Republican presidential defeat into victory.”
Where did Fox News host Tucker Carlson take his show this past week? He broadcast from Hungary, the self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” ruled in an authoritarian manner by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As Nicole Hemmer noted, “The virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim leader has built a wall on the country’s border with Serbia, repelled migrants and refugees and created policies to encourage Hungarian families to have more children — policies Carlson has applauded on his show.” Orbán “came to power in 2010 and quickly began to dismantle the framework of democracy in the country,” Hemmer wrote. “If you care about democracy, the blueprint for its destruction is on display there, and right-wing propagandists like Carlson are taking careful notes.

Voting rights in 2021

Friday was the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson, NAACP president Derrick Johnson wrote. “That law — widely considered the most consequential civil rights law ever enacted — had strong bipartisan support,” but “tragically, the Supreme Court has eviscerated enforcement of this law, gutting the heart of the act eight years ago and substantially weakening another key provision just this term.”
While Congress continues to move toward approval of an infrastructure bill to improve roads, bridges and transit, Johnson argued, it should “act immediately to rebuild and expand our election infrastructure so that everyone eligible is able to participate and have their voice heard.”
Theologian Keith Magee called for “every member of every group at risk of having their vote suppressed to voice their anger. Beyond that, we need every American, whatever their age, their economic status, or the color of their skin to proclaim their unwavering support for voting rights. Yet the silence of the majority is deafening.
For more on politics:

Obama at 60

Former president Barack Obama scaled back plans for a big 60th birthday party on Martha’s Vineyard due to concerns about the possibility of spreading Covid. But the milestone birthday remains a moment to reflect on Obama’s lasting impact, wrote historian Peniel E. Joseph. “Obama’s hair has turned grayer, he looks even thinner now than he did as commander in chief and one can see the impact of time — and being president — in the wrinkles and creases that appear visible on a once unlined face,” Joseph wrote.
“Yet time out of office has radicalized the preternaturally cautious Obama into calling for an end to the filibuster, if that’s what’s required to preserve democracy. His characterization of the filibuster as ‘another Jim Crow relic’ offered further proof that Obama 2.0 displays a willingness to confront America’s long history of structural racism with the kind of bracing candor he rarely embraced as president.
Looking over his entire career, Joseph observed, “Barack Obama’s enduring power is his ability to allow us to imagine ourselves as a better country, society and people.”

Cori Bush’s protest

Rep. Cori Bush is no stranger to evictions. “I’ve lived out of my car for months with my two babies,” she wrote. “I’ve seen my belongings in trash bags along my backseat. I know what that notice on the door means.”
So it was unacceptable to the Democrat from St. Louis that the House would leave town without finding a way to extend the pandemic-era moratorium on evictions in the US.
She and some of her colleagues camped out on the steps of the Capitol for days — until President Joe Biden got the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a new order against evictions in areas where transmission of Covid-19 is high or substantial.
“Now that we have again demonstrated what grassroots movements are capable of, there is no limit to what we can do,” she said.

She warned about bin Laden

A month from now, the US will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, orchestrated by al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. But it was 33 years ago that a University of Virginia graduate, Gina Bennett, started a job as a State Department clerk-typist. Her boss saw Bennett’s promise and promoted her after a couple of months, wrote Peter Bergen, author of a new book, “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.”
What made Bennett particularly noteworthy was the fact that she issued the first warning about the danger posed by Bin Laden on August 21, 1993, eight years before hijackers in four planes struck the US, killing 2,977 people.
“Bennett’s report was the first time that the US government had produced a warning about the dangers of a global jihadist movement led by the mysterious multimillionaire, Osama bin Laden,” Bergen wrote. “And the warning was not issued by the CIA or the FBI, but by a junior intelligence analyst at the State Department.” Bennett would eventually join the CIA, where she is a senior counterterrorism adviser. “No one in the US government has tracked al Qaeda and all its many branches and offshoots for as long and with as much distinction as Bennett has.

Simone Biles’ 7th Olympic medal

Simone Biles ended her Olympics by winning a bronze medal, to go along with the invaluable support she gave her fellow American gymnasts, wrote Amy Bass. “With her seventh career Olympic medal around her neck, Biles has further emblazoned her name in the history books…. it is conceivable that Tuesday’s beam final was, indeed, her farewell to the Olympic Games. If so, what is left for us to do is be thankful that we got to see her end on a high note, doing it her way.” (For a look at the Olympics through the eyes of a physicist, read Don Lincoln’s account.)
Political drama intruded on the Games when Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya defected “after being forcibly scheduled into a race by her country’s coaches,” wrote Michael Bociurkiw. “Her public protests on social media apparently angered her team’s officials and the athlete was ordered back to Minsk but refused to board the flight home, instead opting to request political asylum in a third country.

Don’t miss

The friendly city and the scary skies

Air travel is back — and that’s good news for Frida Ghitis, who regularly traveled to Amsterdam from the US in pre-pandemic times and is finally back there now. “Amsterdam is coming back to life,” she wrote.
“There’s an unfamiliar seriousness in the air. The city that routinely drew millions of visitors, some looking for high art, many simply wanting to smoke pot, has grown a bit quieter. The people, it appears to me, have become friendlier. The city seems more grounded — and lovelier than ever.
So far this year there have been more than 3,700 reports of unruly air passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. One 22-year-old man had to be duct taped to his seat after he allegedly groped two flight attendants and punched a third, noted Jay Parini.
“Flights can be dangerous and terrifying enough without privileged young bullyboys making a scene and assaulting those charged with keeping order,” wrote Parini, who says he hates flying, even under the best of conditions. “Who likes being trapped in a sardine can with hundreds of other passengers, lifted some 30,000 feet above sea level? When I’m far out over the Atlantic or Pacific, I feel almost frantic: lost in space, with no control over any mechanical aspects of the trajectory — not that this would actually help!”
“Before one trans-Atlantic flight a couple years ago, I was sitting in an aisle seat near the front of the aircraft, praying my rosary before we took off. I was doing this under my breath when a flight attendant touched my elbow and said, ‘I’m sorry, sir. But you’re going to have to stop that. You’re frightening the other passengers.'”
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