Mother Jones Magazine

Watch Barack Obama’s Online Address to 2020’s Black Graduates

As the pandemic cancels in-person graduation ceremonies at high schools and colleges around the country, institutions have turned to virtual commencements to honor the class of 2020. On a two hour live-streamed event hosted by actor and comedian Kevin Hart, former president Barack Obama addressed 27,000 graduates from historically black colleges and universities—and took a rare swipe at the Trump administration.

“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Obama said in the address. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”

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The nation’s first Black president highlighted the disease’s “disproportionate impact” on the African American graduates’ communities. “Let’s be honest. A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that Black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.”

The criticism, while unusual for the former president, is notable in its restraint. In just two months, approximately 88,000 people have died from the coronavirus, 1.4 million have been infected, and 36 million people have lost their jobs, the economy is in free fall. Donald Trump spent weeks downplaying the severity of the crisis and has largely left the response up to individual states who cannot marshal the nation’s full resources and, leaving them to develop large parts of the testing, tracing, and isolating strategies needed to safely resume normal activities.

For the last three years, President Trump has blamed his predecessor for problems taking place on his watch, and this pandemic has been no exception, as he has tried to pass the buck on poor planning, testing failures, and supply shortages. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell falsely claimed in a live streamed conversation hosted by the Trump campaign that the Obama administration did not leave a pandemic playbook. Later in the week, McConnell walked back his comments in an interview on Fox News (“I was wrong. They did leave behind a plan. So, I clearly made a mistake in that regard.”)

Obama has rarely publicly criticized the current administration since Trump took office in January 2017. But in a leaked private call earlier this month, the former president was less measured. “It would have been bad even with the best of governments,” he said. “It has been an absolute chaotic disaster.”

Two Updates

Update #1: Responding to my post about the quantum wave function, the consensus among commenters and the twitterati is that Ψ is usually pronounced sigh, though occasionally with a very soft, almost inaudible P sound at the beginning. Please note—as so many of you didn’t!—that we are talking solely about Ψ as it refers to the wave function in quantum mechanics. It is immaterial how it’s pronounced in Greek or in various mathematical contexts. This is for the wave function only, and the sighs have it.

Update #2: Responding to my post about the upcoming COVID-19 boom, several people have reasonably pointed out that it all depends on how people actually respond to reopening orders. It’s possible, for example, that despite our president’s best efforts to kill everyone, people will mostly remain voluntarily locked down and very careful about their interactions with others. If that’s the case, then deaths will probably flatten out, or even decline modestly, rather than spiking upward.

There’s evidence to suggest that this isn’t happening, though. The reopenings are driven both by Trump and by public pressure to end the lockdowns. What’s more, GPS surveys show that people are traveling more. There’s also anecdotal evidence of bigger crowds—though as long as they stay outside this might not be a big problem.

Overall, I still think we’re in for a COVID-19 boom. But it’s possible that the public is smarter than our politicians and will remain cautious. Only time will tell.

Rep. Justin Amash Announces He Won’t Be Running for President

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a former Republican, just announced on Twitter that he’s will not be running for president this year. The move comes just weeks after he officially become a Libertarian and launched an exploratory committee, setting up a White House bid as his new party’snominee.

In a Twitter thread, Rep. Amash cited social distancing measures, the turmoil of the pandemic, a lack of access to the media, and polarization among the two major parties for his decision.

Polarization is near an all-time high. Electoral success requires an audience willing to consider alternatives, but both social media and traditional media are dominated by voices strongly averse to the political risks posed by a viable third candidate.

— Justin Amash (@justinamash) May 16, 2020

Though the election is six months away, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, has held a steady lead over President Donald Trump in the national polls. A serious bid by Amash would have added another factor to the November election, and provided a home to voters unwilling to cast ballots in favor of either major candidate. Some political strategists doubted the impact of his potential candidacy would have, even in his home state of Michigan. “The big question to ask is, ‘Does Amash make any difference if Democratic motivation is as high as it appears to be in Michigan?'” Richard Czuba, a nonpartisan state pollster, told the New York Times last month. “I don’t think it does.”

Amash says he plans on continuing to work within the Libertarian Party and is hoping for some successes in the future. His supporters on Twitter are already urging him to run in 2024.

A COVID-19 Boom Is Coming Our Way

Suppose you are a demographer and you note that there was a baby boom this year:

Demographicus: Births were up 10 percent! In a few years we’re going to need more kindergarten classes.

Skeptico: Pshaw. Kindergarten attendance is down compared to last year.

One year later:

Demographicus: The clock is ticking. We’re still going to need those kindergarten classes.

Skeptico: I don’t see any uptick. In fact, kindergarten attendance is still declining a bit.

Two years later:

Demographicus: Time is getting short. What are we going to do about those kindergarten classes?

Skeptico: There’s still no increase. Stop being a chicken little.

Four years later:

Demographicus: Have you seen the enrollment figures for next year? We need those classes! There’s still time to build them if we act fast.

Skeptico: Um.

Five years later:

Demographicus: Where are we going to put all these kids?

Skeptico: No worries. We’ll just throw up some tents or something.

This is the position we’re in with COVID-19 right now. If you have more babies this year, it’s a guaranteed sure thing that in five years you’ll have more kindergarten students even though you’ll see no sign of it in the intervening years. Likewise, if you lift social distancing restrictions, it’s a sure thing that COVID-19 deaths will increase in three or four weeks even though you’ll see no sign of it in the intervening weeks. And as this map from the New York Times shows, that’s exactly what we’re doing:

We’re now a week or two into the Great Reopening and so far everything looks hunky dory. But that’s exactly what you’d expect. We’re still coasting on the lockdowns we put in place in March, and it will take another couple of weeks for the effect of the reopening to start showing up. In the meantime, the skeptics will keep saying that everything is great because the increased spread of the coronavirus is mostly invisible—until suddenly, one day, it isn’t.

We are being idiots. For better advice on what we should do, read this by Marty Makary and this by Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver. Put them together and the basic advice is familiar: combine universal mask wearing with aggressive test-and-trace once an area gets its disease prevalence below 1 percent. Click the links for more details.

UPDATE: More here.

Are Face Shields Better Than Cloth Masks?

One of my readers heard my plea for something to wear that wouldn’t affect my breathing as much as a cloth mask and sent me a plastic face guard, like the ones dentists use. She says that she and her husband really like them. “We’re both old and have underlying conditions, plus my husband takes 2 immune suppressing drugs, so we don’t mind looking dorky!” You be the judge:

I tried this out yesterday and it’s way better than a cloth mask for purposes of breathing. The question is, is it as effective at protecting other people from my coughs and sneezes? It looks like it might be, though I doubt that an intuitive guess about the fluid dynamics of a face guard is worth much. But here’s a report in JAMA that says face shields are great:

According to Perencevich’s group, “face shields may provide a better option.” To be most effective in stopping viral spread, a face shield should extend to below the chin. It should also cover the ears and “there should be no exposed gap between the forehead and the shield’s headpiece,” the Iowa team members said.

Shields have a number of advantages over masks, they added. First of all, they are endlessly reusable, simply requiring cleaning with soap and water or common disinfectants. Shields are usually more comfortable to wear than masks, and they form a barrier that keeps people from easily touching their own faces. When speaking, people sometimes pull down a mask to make things easier — but that isn’t necessary with a face shield. And “the use of a face shield is also a reminder to maintain social distancing, but allows visibility of facial expressions and lip movements for speech perception,” the authors pointed out.

As it happens, my face shield doesn’t meet all these criteria: it doesn’t cover the ears and there’s a bit of a gap at the forehead. I don’t really get the ear thing, though. Cloth masks don’t cover the ears, after all. So why would a face shield that doesn’t cover the ears be any worse? In any case, Amazon didn’t present any better options, but one possibility is a hat-mask:

That covers everything and it’s stylish as well! Anyone have any better ideas?

Texas Supreme Court Will Take Up Pandemic Mail-In Voting

On Friday, the Republican-dominated Texas Supreme Court put a pause on a lower court’s ruling that would have immediately expanded access to mail-in voting across the state, instead scheduling oral arguments to consider the issue itself for Wednesday.

The legal battle over expanded mail-in voting comes as the coronavirus pandemic is still raging across the country. So far, there have been more than 86,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States. In Texas, more than 45,000 cases have been reported and 1,272 people have died. This spring, as health officials urged people to practice social distancing and avoid large crowds, many states delayed primaries elections and expanded access to mail-in voting to avoid polling place crowding on election day.

At issue in Texas is a lower court’s ruling that vulnerability to contracting the coronavirus qualifies as a disability under Texas voting laws providing access to absentee voting. Republican Attorney General Bill Paxton has argued the opposite, saying that voters deterred from voting are afraid—not disabled. 

The country has already seen what can happen if elections are allowed to proceed as normal. After the April 7 primary in Wisconsin, at least seven cases were linked to voting. But still, Paxton celebrated the ruling with a statement encouraging the high court to leave the state’s restrictive mail-in ballot access alone: “Protecting the integrity of elections is one of my most important and sacred obligations. The Legislature has carefully limited who may and may not vote by mail.”

Texas elects justices to its highest court in statewide partisan elections. All of its current nine members are Republicans. Despite that, Texas Democrats vowed to fight on. “This is a dark day for our democracy. The Republican Texas Supreme Court is wrong to force the people of Texas to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “They would have Texans die, just so they can hold on to power.”

We Need a Mask-Wearing PSA

I have a job for someone with video skills. A recent survey reports that men who don’t wear masks feel that “face masks make them look weak and uncool.” These are ordinary men, not the lunatics with guns outside the Michigan statehouse, and their behavior can be changed. What I’d like to see is a PSA that can blanket the country. It would be simple.

Part 1 would be this video or something similar, which shows how wearing a mask affects the airflow from a cough or sneeze:

Part 2 would explain that you might have coronavirus even if you feel perfectly healthy. Half of all people with COVID-19 have no symptoms, and many of the rest have only mild symptoms. So you might be passing along the virus without even knowing it. If you wear a mask, the life you save might be your neighbor’s, or your pastor’s, or the kids in the 4-H club that you work with. Given the target audience, maybe the PSA should even include a clip of President Trump telling everyone to wear masks:

Needless to say, you’d want to cut off this clip after about five or ten seconds. There’s no need to include Trump’s obvious distaste for the idea.

Anyway, that’s it. Have it narrated by Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis or some other right-leaning tough guy. Add another few seconds of intro and outro, along with a nifty slogan, and you’re done. Anyone want to take a rough crack at this?

Trump Fires Yet Another Inspector General

Oh hey, President Trump fired yet another inspector general last night. Was it because he helped out in the impeachment probe, like the other IGs Trump has fired? Yes, but only peripherally (he was looking into Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to get our Ukraine ambassador fired). So what did he do?

State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was fired Friday in a late-night ouster that drew condemnations from Democrats….Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D.-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed the State Inspector General was fired after opening an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and said the timing suggested “an unlawful act of retaliation.”

….A Democratic congressional aide said that Linick was looking into Pompeo’s “misuse of a political appointee at the Department to perform personal tasks for himself and Mrs. Pompeo.”

The Trump message continues to get stronger every day. If you so much as open an investigation against someone in the Trump administration, you’re fired.

Needless to say, this poses a problem. The job of an inspector general is to audit the cabinet department he works for. But since Trump is currently president, everyone in every cabinet department is part of the Trump administration. This basically means that the entire IG corps is on notice not to seriously investigate anyone.

Of course, this only poses a problem for you and me. For Trump, it’s exactly the message he wants to send. And you won’t hear a peep out of Republicans about this. Apparently they’re just fine with it.

The President Says He “Can’t Get Enough” of His Supporters Harassing the Press

On Thursday, Kevin Vesey, a TV reporter for News12 Long Island, visited a local protest against the remaining restrictions put in place by New York to stem the spread of the coronavirus, filing a studiously restrained segment for broadcast.

But on Twitter, he decided to share a small piece of raw footage showing how he was harassed by the demonstrators as he went about his job of capturing their demands and relaying them to a wider audience. The footage circulated widely among journalists on Thursday and Friday, often accompanied by laments about the protesters’ targeting of Vesey. In under a minute, the video captures him being called “traitor,” “hack,” “disgusting,””the enemy of the people,” and, inevitably, “fake news.” All are, of course, phrases President Donald Trump has deployed against journalists who cover his administration.


— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2020

On Friday night, the President himself retweeted the video, mimicking a chant the protestors had shouted: “Fake news is nonessential.” On Saturday morning, he retweeted it again, endorsing his supporters’ harassment by calling them “great people” and claiming that “people can’t get enough of this.” 

Vesey shared the footage with his Twitter followers because it made him alarmed. Trump shared the footage with his Twitter followers because it made him proud. 

Trump Fires State Department Watchdog Who Provided Ukraine Documents to Congress

On Friday night, President Donald Trump fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, replacing him with Ambassador Stephen Akard, an ally of Vice President Mike Pence. The move, which angered Congressional Democrats, is the fourth firing of such an independent watchdog in recent weeks.

The move has been assailed as an “outrageous act of a President trying to protect one of his most loyal supporters.”

“The president’s late-night, weekend firing of the State Department inspector general has accelerated his dangerous pattern of retaliation against the patriotic public servants charged with conducting oversight on behalf of the American people,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

According to Politico, Linick recently launched an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alleged misuse of a political appointee to perform personal tasks for him and his wife. The ousted official also had a minor role in the US House’s impeachment of Trump late last year, when he agreed to provide relevant documents to congressional investigators against the general wishes of the president. 

As Mother Jones reported last month in the wake of the dismissal of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, Trump has come under fire for his repeated removals of federal officials tasked with independent oversight:

In an extraordinary admission during a press conference Saturday, Trump indicated that he fired Atkinson as retaliation for the watchdog’s role informing Congress of a whistleblower report detailing Trump’s effort last year to coerce Ukraine into producing dirt on his political opponents. “He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress,” Trump said, ignoring the reality that the complaint was shown to be accurate by a slew of witnesses who testified before the House of Representatives, and that Atkinson was legally required to inform lawmakers of its existence. 

At least one congressional committee is looking into whether Atkinson’s ouster, in addition to addressing Trump’s craving for revenge, also aimed to thwart ongoing probes by the IG’s office. 

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a late night statement that he believed the firing was an act of retaliation and that he would be demanding more answers. “This firing is the outrageous act of a President trying to protect one of his most loyal supporters, the Secretary of State, from accountability,” he said. “As he systematically removes the official independent watchdogs from the Executive Branch, the work of the Committee on Foreign Affairs becomes that much more critical.” 

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: May 15 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through May 15. I don’t have anything special to say today, so I thought I’d take a look at my April 28 post that lists a dozen things I tentatively believed about COVID-19. How have those held up?

I’ll revise and extend three of them. On #5, I may have been a little pessimistic. A full suite of countermeasures, rigorously enforced and widely complied with, probably reduces deaths by more than half. Maybe 60-65 percent?

On #8 I was completely wrong. Summer is five weeks away, and it’s obvious we’ll have 150-200,000 deaths by then. In my defense, how could I have guessed that our president would urge everyone to go out and party at the first sign of declining death rates?

On #9, I probably shouldn’t have entertained even the idea of the slightest relaxation of countermeasures.

The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here. The Public Health Agency of Sweden is here.

How Do You Pronounce Ψ?

Chad Orzel linked yesterday to a post by Sabine Hossenfelder about quantum superposition, and it unsurprisingly degenerated into the usual mush that interpretations of quantum mechanics always do. But then the subject turned to linguistics and it got interesting. As you may know, the quantum wave function is represented by the Greek letter psi (Ψ), with |Ψ²| representing the probability of a particle being found in any particular place.¹ So a reader decided to try on a joke in comments:

How should Psi be pronounced? Is it P-Si, Si, or a superposition of the two? Or is the word not pronounceable until it is spoken, like when Prince changed his name.

But Hossenfelder took the question seriously:

Well, I pronounce it the way that I have heard it most often which in English is “ps-ai” (in German it would be “ps-ee”). The easiest way to find out I guess is to listen to the video? I have no idea which one is the “correct” pronunciation, given that it’s Greek and I don’t speak Greek, but I can tell you that if you pronounce it this way physicists will know what you are talking about.

Huh. I’ve always pronounced it sigh, rhymes with pie. It never occured to me that you’d pronounce the initial P.² So I googled around a bit and got conflicting answers, which I suppose is very on-brand. However, on one particular site the speaker was clearly pronouncing it p-sigh, but with just the barest emphasis on the P. The best I can describe it is that it sounded as if the P was trailing off before it even got started, followed by a normal pronunciation of sigh.

So I guess this is a question for physicists, or anyone who’s taken a quantum physics course. Is Ψ usually pronounced with its initial P? If so, how distinct is it?

¹More or less. Don’t @ me with your eigenvalues and inner products.

²And you don’t pronounce the initial P if you’re using psi as short for psionic. We are talking here solely about the pronunciation of Ψ in its quantum mechanical sense.

Another Private Jet Company Owned by a Trump Donor Got a Bailout—This One for $20 Million

This story was published originally by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica‘s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

An Omaha, Nebraska-based private jet company whose principal owner donated generously to Donald Trump and Republicans ahead of the 2016 election received $20 million in taxpayer aid from the federal bailout package passed in March.

Jet Linx Aviation, which caters to well-to-do CEOs and executives, was the second private plane company founded or owned by Trump donors to receive federal funds designated for the airline industry under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. CNBC reported on Thursday that Clay Lacy Aviation, a Van Nuys, California-based private jet company whose founder has given nearly $50,000 to the Republican National Committee and Trump, got $27 million in federal funds.

Jet Linx Management Company Vice Chairman John Denny Carreker and his wife, Connie, gave $68,100 to Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee and the Trump Victory Committee between October 2015 and November 2016, Federal Election Commission filings show. Connie Carreker gave an additional $1,000 to the Trump campaign in November 2018, according to the FEC.

Most of the CARES Act money for the airline industry has gone to commercial or regional carriers. American, Delta, United and Southwest collectively were allotted almost $19.5 billion, more than three-quarters of the total reserved for the passenger airline industry.

But private charters haven’t been left out.

About 70 such companies received CARES Act funds as of April 27, according to the first round of disclosures to 96 recipients published this week. That represents just a fraction of the roughly 2,000 private jet companies operating in the U.S., as compiled by Private Jet Card Comparisons, an independent buyer’s guide. In total, they received about $157 million in taxpayer aid, less than a percent of the more than $23 billion disbursed so far for the passenger airline industry.

Jet Linx and Clay Lacy are among the most prominent in the industry: Last year, the flight tracking firm Argus Traqpak ranked them fifth and 11th, respectively, in hours logged, according to a list of the top 25 private air charter operations. No other top 10 private jet company received federal grants. The average grant amount for the 70 private jet companies to receive aid was $2.2 million, about a tenth of what Jet Linx and Clay Lacy each received.

A number listed for the Carrekers at their Dallas home wasn’t in service, and a press representative for the company hasn’t responded to emails seeking comment. A Treasury Department spokeswoman said campaign contributions play no role in determining which companies received federal funds, requirements that were set by Congress.

CNBC reported that Clay Lacy did not respond to a request for comment on its reporting.

Lawmakers set aside $25 billion for passenger airlines in the coronavirus relief bill. Companies that earned at least half their revenue last year by flying people from place to place could apply for grants from a special program within the CARES Act designed to cover payroll and benefits for workers. The size of the grants companies received is supposed to be based on how much they paid their employees in salary and benefits between April and September last year. The law restricts how much executives are allowed to take in compensation.

The Treasury Department declined to say how many total companies applied for the payroll grants, how many were private plane companies or how many applicants were deemed ineligible for funds. A spokesman for the Transportation Department said officials verified that applicants held up-to-date “certificates and authorizations” before the Treasury distributed them money.

It wasn’t clear when the other passenger airline companies granted payroll aid would be publicly disclosed.

Jet Linx claims an 112-aircraft fleet that flies out of 18 cities where it operates its own private terminals. The company says it has 450 workers, who serve as flight crew and operations, maintenance and support staff.

Jet Linx offers well-heeled customers membership packages that give them access to luxury plane rides for a fee. On its website, Jet Linx offers members who pay $5,000 up front access to any size jet for pay-as-you-fly costs. Hourly rates can run up to $4,500 per hour.

Do you work for a company that was denied CARES Act funds? If so, or if you were laid off from a company that received the federal aid, email Jake Pearson at

Doris Burke contributed research.

During Crises Urban Residents Fled, and Cities Panicked. Will Things Be Different Post-Pandemic?

This piece was originally published in Slate and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

Trains and buses are running half-empty, abandoned by frightened commuters. Fortune 500 companies are fleeing downtown, saying they don’t want expensive, centrally located office space anymore. And their workers are moving to the suburbs or the Sun Belt, sapping school enrollment, emptying apartments, and leaving huge holes in the tax base.

Excuse me, I’ve been reading up on the American city at midcentury. What have I missed?

American cities are turning back the clock. Today, it’s the ’50s, when a sudden shift from transit to car traffic threatened to make cities unusable. Streets were jammed. Parking was a nightmare.

You know what happened next: American cities demolished neighborhoods in a fit of concrete and racism from which many never recovered. It was a time when urban leadership was defined by desperate groveling to retain the very people who had abandoned cities. Project after project, from downtown renewal to highways, was supposed to appeal to suburbanites. If they wouldn’t live here, could we at least make it easier for them to drive here? To work here? To shop here? To park here?

Another carpocalypse is looming as coronavirus shutdowns ease. Traffic is rebounding but mass transit is not—and won’t for some time, if the experience of cities in Asia and Europe are any guide. Once again, city leaders will be under enormous pressure to accommodate drivers.

We’ve been down this road before: For most of the 20th century, planners were convinced that faster, bigger roads and ample free parking would halt “decentralization” and save the centers where people worked. The results speak for themselves: Cities with overgrown highway networks and plenty of parking are, contrary to theory, now the ones that few people want to come to. Cities cannot beat suburbs at their own game. But they can destroy themselves in the process.

Cities cannot beat suburbs at their own game. But they can destroy themselves in the process.

You don’t need to go to Little Rock, Arkansas, or Newport News, Virginia, to see what cars did to cities. You can also take a deep breath in Chicago, which, because everyone stopped driving for six weeks, has enjoyed the cleanest air in two centuries. Or you can go to the Bronx, where highways created some of the highest concentrations of respiratory health conditions in the country. That may or may not be related to the borough’s status as the epicenter of the pandemic.

This is likely only the first of history’s echoes. Cities are broke, office districts dormant, services cut to the bone. And wealthy white families will, in some number, move to the suburbs, sapping City Hall’s coffers when they go. Metropolises may get the gridlocked ’50s and the bankrupt ’70s all in six months.

You know what happened after that, too: “Law and order” policing exacted incalculable harm on black and Hispanic neighborhoods. School integration was abandoned to appease reactionaries in dwindling white ethnic communities. Housing integration too. Politicians plowed tax dollars into prestige projects like convention centers, stadiums, and corporate retention, while health clinics and libraries starved.

There’s a pattern here: Sacrificing the wellbeing of those who don’t leave the city to cater to those who might—or worse, those who already did.

Will cities repeat this tragedy, now, in the 2020s? They should look further back.

In the early 20th century, when cities were filthy places swerving from one calamity to the next, the working classes traveled to amusement parks to see theatrical fireworks shows called pyrodramas. One particular subset of these was dedicated to firefighting feats, a subject that would have held considerable interest for workers familiar with catastrophes like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 or the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The architect Rem Koolhaas wrote of one production at Coney Island’s Dreamland Park, in which a burning city block was saved in the nick of time by heroic firefighters. It seemed to suggest a permanent condition of the metropolis, he wrote in Delirious New York, where “an astronomical increase in the potential for disaster [is] only just exceeded by an equally astronomical increase in the ability to avert it.”

In reality, the firefighters don’t always arrive on time. But Koolhaas’ description neatly captures the big city’s intoxicating mix of fragility and resilience. Vulnerable to blows of terrorism, hard to get on the ropes. Uniquely susceptible to an epidemic like cholera, but also capable of reversing a river to avoid it or seizing vast tracts for public parks to ameliorate it. Stricken by a viral pandemic, but with the world’s best hospitals to fight it. And right this moment, confronted by a threat that seems to threaten their very reason for being … and with millions of smart people ready to do what it takes to defeat it.

It will have to be something more creative than letting gridlock swallow the metropolis as residents avoid transit or flee for the ‘burbs. “If San Francisco retreats in a fear-based way to private cars, the city dies with that, including the economy,” Jeffrey Tumlin, who directs the city’s transit agency, said in a recent interview published on Streetsblog SF “Why? Because we can’t move more cars. That’s a fundamental geometrical limit. We can’t move more cars in the space we have.”

One of the pandemic’s frightening effects is to expose a distressing lack of imagination about how to reinvent the places we live.

We can do a lot with space: Let restaurants, shops, and storefront churches take over adjacent parking spaces. Give people someplace to wash their hands. Get homeless people into vacant hotels. Open the streets for bicycles, scooters, wheelchairs, runners. Let vulnerable people have a car on the train. Let residents live closer to jobs, and bring services closer to where residents live.

We can do a lot with time: Work teams that don’t share hours in the office in case someone gets sick. Public exercise hours blocked out for seniors. Staggered hours at schools and government offices to flatten the rush-hour curve, reducing crowding on transit and traffic on roads. Freight dropped off and garbage picked up at night. Temporal distancing to go with the 6-foot rule.

Not all the odds are against the city, after all: Suburbs, too, have offices with elevators. They have crowded school cafeterias. They have mind-numbing traffic, and dying malls that fund their services.

The pandemic will pass. But in the meantime, one of its frightening effects is to expose a distressing lack of imagination about how to reinvent the places we live. (To take an extreme example of thinking creatively, Bogotá had men and women switch off days going outside.) That includes both short-term interventions, like buying pandemic-priced land for future affordable housing, and long-term ones, like forcing suburbs to pay their fair share. The system, we can now see, was broken all along. Why did we design the city to resist terrorism at the expense of public health? Why did we punish debtors by turning off their water, or decide that rich people can leave jail but poor people must remain, or use our public powers to make it so easy for landlords to throw tenants out on the street? We didn’t have to. The pyrodrama is raging, but the firefighters, actually, spend most of their days dealing with homelessness and drug addiction.

There’s only one sure thing: Make the city, even in its muted state, someplace people still want to live. If it’s not for you, someplace else will be. 

Foreshortened COVID-19 Photos Are a Deliberate Deception

For some reason the issue of lens foreshortening has invaded my Twitter stream in the past couple of days. I happen to have a couple of pictures that show this pretty well, so I figured I might as well post them. The first is a picture of the line outside my local Trader Joe’s:

Everyone is waiting patiently and is properly distanced from each other. Now here’s the same picture, but taken from the front with a zoom lens fully extended:

Yikes! What a bunch of idiots? Don’t they know they’re supposed to stay six feet apart?

This is entirely an effect created by using a long focal length lens, which produces foreshortening, and shooting into a crowd instead of across from it. And for what it’s worth, every photographer and every photo editor—without exception—knows this. If they run a picture like the bottom one, they’re deliberately trying to deceive you. It’s one thing to use this technique as an artistic choice at a fair or a crowded street, but it’s quite another if it accompanies a story about social distancing, where it’s assumed to make a concrete photojournalistic statement.

Betsy DeVos Is Already Being Sued Over Her New Campus Sexual Assault Rules

Last week, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released new rules for how schools should handle reports of sexual assault and harassment, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement: “See you in court.”

On Thursday, it made good on its promise, filing a federal lawsuit against DeVos, the Education Department, and its assistant secretary for civil rights. The ACLU argues that Trump administration’s new campus sexual assault rules “dramatically reduce schools’ responsibility to respond to sexual harassment and assault” and “inflict significant harm” on survivors. The complaint is the first of several lawsuits expected to challenge a long-anticipated regulation that dramatically reinterprets Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four groups that advocate for student survivors of sexual assault and harassment, including Know Your IX, Girls For Gender Equity, Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. Additional lawsuits from students, nonprofits, and state attorneys general are anticipated.

Since 2017, when DeVos rescinded the Obama administration’s guidelines on campus sexual assault, she has advocated ensuring “due process” for accused students and fairness in campus sexual misconduct cases, contrasting these changes with the previous administration’s emphasis on survivors’ rights. When the final Title IX regulation was released last week, she told reporters that it “recognizes we can continue to combat sexual misconduct without abandoning our core values of fairness, presumption of innocence, and due process.”

Both the Education Department and the ACLU predict that under the the new rules, fewer reports of sexual misconduct will trigger investigations that could lead to an accused student being disciplined under Title IX. In its own justification for the regulation, the Education Department estimates that colleges on average will conduct one-third fewer sexual misconduct investigations under the new rules. “This is shutting students out of the reporting process before they even have a chance to have their report investigated,” says Ria Tabacco Mar, director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. She says the ACLU supports “fair process for complainants and respondents alike.” But, she adds, “creating barriers and making students jump through hoops to report sexual assault and harassment does nothing to ensure due process for all.” 

The new rules require colleges’ disciplinary hearings to adopt many of the features of criminal trials, including live hearings and the cross-examination of the complainant and the accused by each party’s lawyer or representative. But in addition to overhauling the mechanics of campus disciplinary proceedings, the rules have also “radically reduced” colleges’ legal obligations to respond to sexual assault and harassment, the ACLU’s lawsuit argues.

The ACLU’s lawsuit focuses on the new rules’ “double standard” for harassment on the basis of sex. While schools must address harassment based on race, national origin, or disability if it is “severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive,” DeVos’s new rules define sexual harassment more stringently: If the alleged harassment is not “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” (emphasis added), the school must dismiss the complaint. 

“It may seem like a small change, but it’s quite significant,” Tabacco Mar says. “You could have an instance of harassment that’s severe—something that we all acknowledge is reprehensible—but if it only happens once, then maybe it’s not considered ‘pervasive.’ On the other hand, you could have conduct that’s pervasive—something that’s happening to a student every single day—but because no particular incident is itself severe, schools are free to ignore the sum of the parts.”

There are other double standards in the new rules, according to the ACLU’s complaint. Unlike other types of harassment, sexual harassment is only required to be investigated if it is reported to a specific campus official such as a Title IX coordinator. “Under the prior standard, institutions could be on notice if students reported the conduct to trusted adults such as a campus security officer, professor, or athletic coach, if staff themselves witnessed the harassment, or if the incident was publicized in the media or flyers about the incident widely posted at the college,” the ACLU writes in its complaint. “No longer.” 

As I reported last week, the new rules also allows colleges to use a higher standard of proof when evaluating claims of sexual assault or harassment:

All schools will be permitted to apply the “clear and convincing” standard of proof to determine whether a student is responsible for sexual misconduct. This is a higher standard than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard required by Obama-era guidance. (The “preponderance of the evidence” standard requires evaluating whether the misconduct was “more likely than not” to have occurred—the same standard of proof used by the Supreme Court in evaluating civil rights discrimination cases.)

The ACLU lawsuit notes out that while the new rules appear to allow schools to choose which standard of proof to apply, they also require schools to use the same standard for students and faculty. Because many colleges have collective bargaining agreements with faculty that require them to use the “clear and convincing” standard in faculty misconduct cases, those schools will effectively be forced to hold sexual harassment claims to a higher standard than other violations, Tabacco Mar says. 

According to the ACLU complaint, the new rules also bar school administrators from conducting a formal Title IX investigation into most reports of sexual misconduct that occur off-campus, even if they affect the on-campus lives of students who, for instance, may have to share a class with their attacker. “Taken together,” the complaint says, provisions in DeVos’ regulations “radically undermine Title IX’s mandate that institutions prevent and respond to sexual harassment that interferes with students’ educational opportunities.”

Outside of court, survivor activists are planning ways to resist DeVos’ regulation, such as encouraging schools to voluntarily investigate complaints that the new rules would allow them to ignore. On Thursday, during a webinar hosted by the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism, Alexandra Brodsky, a staff attorney at Public Justice, reminded more than a hundred educators, researchers, students, and activists that the new regulations do not take effect until mid-August, giving them time to lobby school administrators who are deciding how to implement the new rules.

“This rule is not law yet,” Brodsky said. “A great tactic for getting your school to do the right thing is reminding them not to rush to comply with regulations that might be defeated in court.” 

Read the full complaint here:


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ACLU Lawsuit Challenging Title IX Regulations (PDF)

ACLU Lawsuit Challenging Title IX Regulations (Text)

There Is a Way to Bring Back Most Restaurants

Over on Eater, Hillary Dixler Canavan has the scoop on how Noma, the legendary Copenhagen fine-dining temple, plans to adjust to the COVID-19 crisis: by re-opening as an outdoor burger-and-wine bar. For us in the United States, the saddest part isn’t that we’re thousands of miles from that delicious-looking cheeseburger.

Rather, it’s the explanation for why Noma doesn’t necessarily point a way forward for our dining scene. While US restaurateurs are “contemplating reopening without government guidance, in states where the rate of infection is still climbing,” here’s what Noma chef René Redzepi and his Danish peers have going for them, Canavan reports:

• “Denmark’s government covers 75 percent of payroll for businesses impacted by the pandemic, taking that burden off of restaurant owners and preventing mass layoffs without the labyrinthine and ultimately ineffective PPP stipulations.”

The PPP—the Payroll Protection Plan, a program launched in the CARES stimulus act last month—is designed to help small businesses weather the lockdown. It offers low-interest loans to businesses, which are forgiven if the funds are spent within eight weeks and 75 percent of the funds are spent on payroll, with the rest going to rent and other expenses.

These terms don’t jibe well with the needs of most independent restaurants, as Mother Jones’ Kara Voght reported recently, and New York City chef/restaurateur Tom Colicchio teased out on a recent episode of Bite podcast. Colicchio helped organize  the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is calling for a federal $120 billion “Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund“—but President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have ruled out any new stimulus spending for the foreseeable future. 

• “Denmark has free healthcare, meaning that restaurant workers have had access to the care they need in the pandemic regardless of the operational status of their restaurant. It’s also a cost burden not carried by restaurant owners in Denmark (though Noma has offered supplemental private health care as a perk).”

Pre-pandemic, just 31 percent of US restaurant workers had health insurance, an industry survey found last year. Colicchio told me that his restaurant group pays “close to a half million dollars” annually for employee healthcare. 

• “Denmark’s chief epidemiologist says the chance of a “second wave” is low, and the country has a robust testing and contact tracing plan.”

Because of haphazard testing, lack of contact tracing, and hasty reopening at the state level, a second wave is “inevitable” in the United States, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease doctor, recently warned

• “Denmark has reported no coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours.”

Nationwide, Johns Hopkins University’s tally of cases found, the United States suffered 1,462 deaths on May 14.

In other words, Redzepi operates in an advanced, well-run economy; and our chefs operate, well, in the United States. The reservations app OpenTable recently forecasted that 25 percent of US restaurants will perish from the COVID lockdown. Colicchio thinks half of independent restaurants will fail unless the government takes directed action to help them through the crisis—which isn’t going to happen anytime soon. 

Hackers Claim to Have Dirt That Could End Trump’s Campaign. After All We Know, What the Hell Could That Be?

Hackers trying to extort a prominent New York City celebrity law firm doubled the ransom they were seeking on Thursday to $42 million, claiming that they have dirt on President Trump that could doom his reelection chances.

VICE News reported Friday morning that the hackers—who the prominent law firm of Grubman, Shire, Meiselas, & Sacks confirmed had targeted them with ransomware, claiming to have several hundred gigabytes of sensitive material involving Drake, Lady Gaga, and other celebrities—are now threatening to release material on Trump. The hackers have posted screenshots of a what they say is a Madonna tour contract to prove the trove’s legitimacy. The law firm confirmed to Page Six they’d been targeted and are working to address the situation. 

“The next person we’ll be publishing is Donald Trump,” the hackers wrote on their website, according to VICE. “To you voters, we can let you know that after such a publication, you certainly don’t want to see him as president.” 

That last claim is a bit odd, though: What could the hackers have that is worse than what’s already on the record? Before the last election voters heard Trump admit, on tape, to sexually assaulting women. Although he vehemently denies it, he’s been accused by dozens of women of sexual harassment and assault dating back to the 1970s. He’s been filmed asking Russia to hack his 2016 opponents’ emails. One of his lawyers and longtime fixers is in prison after admitting to lying to Congress about a Trump real estate deal and to campaign finance violations as part of Trump’s scheme to pay off two women who’d claimed prior affairs with the president. His onetime campaign chairman was imprisoned for tax fraud and other financial crimes. He was impeached in December after extorting a foreign government for dirt on a political opponent in exchange for already-approved military aid. According to the Washington Post, he’s told more than 18,000 lies or misleading claims during his presidency.

And, perhaps most viscerally these days, he’s vacillated between downplaying the coronavirus and taking it seriously, portrayed himself as the pandemic’s victim, and encouraged protests against his own administration’s guidelines on how localities should address public health concerns. Nearly 86,000 Americans have died and more than 36 million Americans have lost jobs.

So maybe the hackers have something truly novel and explosive. But given what we already know, that’s hard to imagine.

36 Million People Are Unemployed and the Trump Administration Is Still Trying to Cut Food Stamps

In just two months, the coronavirus has cost more than 86,000 people their lives and 36 million people have lost their jobs, but the Trump administration is still trying to cut food stamps. Last December, the US Department of Agriculture proposed a federal rule that would remove 700,000 people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program slated to go into effect in April. The new rule tied even more stringent work requirements to receiving food assistance. Citing the pandemic, a federal judge halted the rule change, but this week Trump administration filed an appeal in federal court.

America’s hunger crisis has become more urgent as the number of people seeking food assistance has skyrocketed. Food banks and other charities have reported incredibly long lines and crowded facilities as they try to meet the growing need across the country, since the shutdown of businesses during the coronavirus pandemic has led to record unemployment. But still, the administration is pushing forward with the new rule that makes the work requirements for aid recipients who have no dependents described as “able bodied” even more stringent. In 2019, 38 million people received food aid through the SNAP program, which is administered by the US Department of Agriculture, but advocates have long urged for expanded eligibility. Nonetheless, it remains a lifeline in poor communities and an economic engine as it creates jobs in the food and grocery sector.

As I reported last December, anti-hunger advocates say the proposed measure is draconian:

There are already tough restrictions in place covering who can receive federal food assistance. In 1996, as part of President Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reform, then-Reps. John Kasich and Bob Ney, both Ohio Republicans, added a provision to the legislation limiting benefits for “able-bodied adults” between the ages of 18 and 49 with no dependents. After three months of assistance, these SNAP recipients must prove they are working at least 20 hours a week to continue receiving benefits. The measure, however, allowed the governors of states with high unemployment rates to request waivers from the three-month cutoff.

But the new Trump rule makes the criteria for requesting those waivers much stricter by, among other things, changing the type of data states can use to justify the waivers. 

In March, when the novel coronavirus began spreading rapidly around the country, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue implied at a congressional hearing that the administration still expected people to look for work during a pandemic. “If they can’t find work in an economy of 3.5 percent unemployment,” Perdue said, “I’m not sure when they can.” The unemployment rate is now 14.7 percent. There is no indication that economic recovery will come swiftly.

A few days after the hearing, a federal judge blocked the rule. “As a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential,” Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the US District Court in Washington, DC wrote.

The obvious answer to the critical need for food access would be to expand food stamps, as the US has done during other economic recessions. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a bill that would expand SNAP access during the pandemic and make the changes permanent. The bill is still pending. 

But it appears that Trump’s USDA is committed to cutting services for the poor—despite the mass deaths and widespread economic calamity. “While we’re currently in a very challenging environment, we do not expect this to last forever,” the USDA said in a statement to Reuters. “We must prepare our workforce to rejoin the economy when our nation reopens.”

Friday Cat Blogging – 15 May 2020

Every morning I open the door to the backyard patio and Hopper cannonballs out as if she’s been held prisoner all night. Hilbert, however, takes his time. He usually walks over to the door, settles down on the mat, and just watches things for about ten minutes. Eventually, having decided that everything looks safe, he saunters out.

The funny thing is that if I go out, he’ll follow me immediately. Apparently he doesn’t trust Hopper’s judgment, but he does trust mine. Or perhaps he just trusts me to protect him from whatever monsters might be out there.