Mother Jones Magazine

There’s No Better Word to Sum Up This Century So Far Than “Pod”

It’s hard to get through a day without hearing the word “pod.” We have work pods. Friend pods. School pods. Storage pods. Tripods. Espresso pods. Ear pods. Air pods. Podcasts.  

“Pod” is the word of the moment. It’s short, snappy, and packs a lot of meaning in a few letters: from the organic, adorable image of two peas in a pod, to a frisky pod of dolphins. It also flicks at the space-age futurism of the pods in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek. “Podding” is the name of the game during the pandemic. We want to cluster and contain. Stay separate, but be together. Resist infection, but transcend inconveniences. 

But the “pod” phenomenon predates COVID-19. In many ways, pod is the defining word of the millennial era and the millennials who came of age during it. The iPod came out in 2000, disaggregating songs from their albums. In 2004, podcasts quickly followed suit, breaking down the publishing barriers of the radio spectrum. The detergent industry embraced all sorts of pods with Procter and Gamble introducing the Tide pod in 2012. Elon Musk is supposedly designing pods that will liberate people from airplane cabins, shooting us around the world at lightning speed. The word “pod” signals progress, innovation, choice… and the atomization of everything. 

Star Trek-style pod gliding at 700 miles/hr? count me in @elonmusk via @business @danahull

— Marie Mawad (@Marie_a_Paris) January 29, 2016

At the risk of sounding like a “Houllebecquian” critic of modernity, I can’t help but wonder if in the quest for ever more individualized options, we aren’t calculating the human cost. As Douglas Rushkoff explained in an article earlier this week, pods offer those with economic means a cocooned insularity. In today’s virus-riddled world, pods equal freedom, choice, and mobility. A pod is an escape hatch from society. But what if in a rush to avoid one kind of disaster, those who are podding off are courting a different kind of dystopian future–one that looks less like Pandemic and more like The Machine Stops. Don’t we really lose something when we don’t listen to a song in the context of its album? 

Life in 2020 is beginning to resemble one big choose-your-own-adventure game. The very millennial fast-casual restaurant where you can “build-your-own-bowl,” à la Chipotle or Sweetgreen, is extending into all aspects of our strange new existence. There’s a line of ingredients in front of us that can be combined in endless permutations and combinations—PPE, face masks, face shields, COVID tests, contact-tracing, social distancing, virtual learning, microschools, Zoom happy hours, Hinge dates in the park. The parameters are stark and the stakes are high. With the lack of coherent guidance and surrounded by failing systems, we’re splintering off to make our own pods of clarity. Schools are remote? Fine, we’ll pod up and make our own. Offices are closed? Fine, we’ll set up our own work-from-home spaces and carry on. Friends are potential disease vectors? Fine, we’ll elbow bump and dine in clusters with our closest ones, six feet apart from those other breathing petri dishes.

The allure of self-contained, autonomous clusters—a.k.a. “pods”—is powerful. They mirror the promise of decentralized techno-solutionism that many a Silicon Valley type has tried to foist upon us at every possible turn.

The allure of self-contained, autonomous clusters—a.k.a. “pods”—is powerful. They mirror the promise of decentralized techno-solutionism that many a Silicon Valley type has tried to foist upon us at every possible turn. Their COVID-era education efforts are no exception. Spearheaded initially by Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs, the”microschool” train took off with seed funding, parent-teacher matchmaking startups, and cringe-worthy ads for private nannies and tutors that have gone viral.

Top Silicon Valley investor Jason Calacanis epitomized this idea of the pod parent when he sent a tweet in early August saying that he was “looking for the best 4-6th grade teacher in the Bay Area, “to teach “2-7 students in my back yard,” offering to pay that teacher more than their current salary, sweetening the deal with a $2,000 Uber Eats gift card referral fee. His tweet made news because it seemed to embody the caricature of a pod parent: the entitlement that his kids shouldn’t have to suffer through virtual school along with the plebs, the fact that he had the means to pay a teacher more than a school would, and the audacity to poach a great teacher from a school system where they would likely be changing more lives than those of the 2 to 7 students who could fit in Calacanis’ backyard “microschool.” 

Looking for the best 4-6th grade teacher in Bay Area who wants a 1-year contract, that will beat whatever they are getting paid, to teach 2-7 students in my back yard#microschool

If you know this teacher, refer them & we hire them, I will give you a $2k UberEats gift card

— (@Jason) August 2, 2020

Well, I have news for you. There is a name for these school “pods.” It’s called homeschooling. I grew up with three siblings who were homeschooled and parents who were judged as being backward weirdos for making that decision: the language here matters. I can understand why certain parents might prefer to use the word “pod.” It doesn’t carry the same stigma of overprotective, anti-social, anti-science, religious zealots that I suspect one or two eager new pod parents might have projected onto homeschoolers in the past.

But from what I’ve read about pods, they operate almost exactly the same way that homeschooling has for a long time. Pod” parents can make up their own curriculum. They can team up with other parents to participate in activities and classes together. They can hire private educators and tutors for certain specialized subjects. They can preserve the in-person, physical, experiential side of education that students are losing in virtual school. They can personalize school to the interests and learning styles of their children. This is homeschooling. Past studies have shown that homeschooling cuts across socio-economic divides. It remains to be seen whether school pods will do the same. 

Based on the exploding interest in homeschooling in recent weeks, the Executive Director of the National Home School Association, J. Allen Weston, estimates that the four million homeschooled K-12 students will increase to 10 million by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Facebook groups for parents interested in podding up and homeschooling together have expanded rapidly. Alternative schools, like private schools with a focus on outdoor education, have also been seeing record enrollment numbers.

Search interest in Homeschooling is surging this summer in the US. #homeschooling

— GoogleTrends (@GoogleTrends) July 23, 2020

The social dynamics in these somewhat anarchic pods are bound to get interesting. In the age of the coronavirus, asking someone to “join your pod,” be they friends, lovers, family, or neighbors, feels like a vulnerable and intimate question. It connotes that you value their friendship enough to risk disease, and trust them enough not to be promiscuous in their podventures. Extending that trust to fellow parents and running a school together? Should be next-level. Or perhaps it’s where it all begins. Meanwhile, I have single friends who are furiously trying to date (safely) and find a special someone to pod up with before the winter weather descends and we’re all stuck indoors with no more dining al fresco.

I was listening to a podcast the other day (I know). It was an interview with a woman who seemed to embody the entire paradox for me. She was in her mid 30s. She spent most of the podcast talking about her career trajectory, which involved jumping from job to job. She was pursuing her career dreams. The way she told the story, her agility and willingness to take risks led directly to the success and career fulfillment that she has achieved. But then, in the very same conversation, she talked about loneliness. How she feels lonely, how other people feel lonely, about how she’s setting up discussion groups to combat loneliness, and doing research into the severe mental health impacts of loneliness. 

The inherent contradiction slapped me across the earpods. The very mobility that made it possible for this woman to jump between careers is probably the same thing that’s making her feel lonely. It seemed so obvious to me because I can relate. I too have jumped around. In the ten years since graduating college, I’ve lived in eight cities across four countries, held at least eleven different jobs, and generally indulged my desire to forge my own path. At almost every juncture in my life, I’ve chosen change over stability. I’m not saying that this woman’s tradeoff wasn’t worth it—merely that the tradeoff exists. Mobility and rootedness sit at opposite sides of the spectrum. Like a see-saw, when one side goes up, the other must come down.

But anyway, this isn’t about my existential crises, though they are many and occasionally entertaining. We can add “pod” to the growing list of words that mean something a little different today than they did six months ago. And even with all the ways the word has become so ubiquitous as to lose some of its meaning, as an avowed podcast fanatic and the associate producer on the Mother Jones Podcast, I can attest that the age of the pod isn’t all bad. I will hop on a Zoom call with my edit pod on Thursday. I’ll keep calling our podcast team the “pod squad.” I even invited another friend to join my social pod this week (she said yes!). The word “pods” still has utility, even though, at this point, it seems as if it can be applied to absolutely anything. 

Lunchtime Photo

This is yet another lovely picture from Slot Canyon X in Arizona. At the top left you can see an outline of . . . Groot? Something else? As usual, put your best guess in comments.

January 27, 2020 — Navajo Nation, Highway 98, Arizona

3 Chefs to Watch, Rewatch, and Celebrate for Recipes to Ease the Pandemic’s Grip

If you haven’t heard, everything is solved: the pandemic, presidential corruption, climate armageddon, systemic injustice, the cratering economy, raging wildfires, and assaults on human rights everywhere. All set. Pack it up. We did it! Well, no. But when you follow a wide range of chefs it can remind you that creativity and generosity are still abundant. Take chef Latif of Latif’s Inspired. His unscripted videos lead us into the kitchens of family-run restaurants (including his own); he shares recipes alongside his mother and sister; and he welcomes friends and family from the UK, Bangladesh, and worldwide.

Huddle around the campfire with Anita Lo, whose Cooking Without Borders is creative beyond category; it’s no less extraordinary than her recent Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One. But no one is solo today. We’re all dining and learning from Lo’s versatility.

And get down with Jack Chaplin of the popular, peerless Daddy Jack’s Cooking With the Blues, running for 12 years. He shares blues history, restaurant secrets, and home cooking tips, with phenomenal camerawork by Lakisha and relentless circling by their dog Axel. “It’s a wonderful thing to see people assist each other” through the pain of the pandemic, he told me when cities locked down as he continued to cook safely at a distance for those in need. He launched a Patreon page to support the effort, and he’s about to release an album of live blues from his years organizing shows—including with the legend Lucky Peterson, his old friend, who’d played with Etta James and Otis Rush.

Latif’s Inspired is here, Lo here, and Chaplin here. If you have pandemic tips and Recharge recipes to share, email us at

GOP Congressman to Black Protesters: “I’d Drop Any 10 of You Where You Stand”

On Tuesday, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), posted a picture of armed Black demonstrators on Facebook and captioned it with a threat: “I’d drop any 10 of you where you stand.” Facebook quickly removed the post for inciting violence, but the point was clear. Louisiana is an open carry state and Higgins is a big proponent of gun rights. Yet he thinks Black people exercising their Second Amendment right in a peaceful protest is a threat to be eliminated. As he assured anyone who was paying attention: “We don’t want to see your worthless ass nor do we want to make your mothers cry.”

Higgins certainly has an appreciation for law enforcement. He’s a former police officer, who, according to his Congressional profile, “worked patrol, primarily night shift, and he was a well-known SWAT operator. Prior to joining Congress in 2017, Higgins is best known for his Crimestopper videos for the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office.”

The third district that he has represented for the last three years has been pounded by several crises. Late last month, after Lafayette, Louisiana, police shot and killed 31-year-old Black man Trayford Pellerin, residents took to the streets in protest. Last week, Hurricane Laura tore through southwest Louisiana killing 14 people, leaving 350,000 without power and more than 150,000 without water, only adding to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic that is being felt acutely in one of the nation’s poorest regions. Many of those who were affected by the hurricane include residents of Higgins’ overwhelmingly white district; according to the 2010 census, 760,000 people lived in the third district, and their median household income was $41,000. 

Instead of worrying about the widespread devastation, the pandemic, and the real needs of his constituents, who include Lake Charles residents who suffer from high rates of poverty, Higgins was focused on Louisville, Kentucky. Black armed demonstrators there were marching for Breonna Taylor, the EMT who was shot and killed in March by Louisville Police while she slept in her bed. “Nothing personal. We just eliminate the threat,” Higgins’ post read according to the Advocate. “We don’t care what color you are. We don’t care if you’re left or right. if you show up like this, if We [sic] recognize threat…you won’t walk away.” It was a brazen display of a double standard. After Facebook removed the post, Higgins posted a follow-up message.

No, I did not remove my post.
America is being manipulated into a new era of government control. Your liberty is…

Posted by Captain Clay Higgins on Tuesday, September 1, 2020

“I suggest you get your mind right,” he continued. “I’ll advise when it’s time gear up, mount up, and roll out.” 

It’s no secret that many white gun owners only support open carry and gun rights for themselves. But in the past, gun rights advocates wouldn’t broadcast that they considered Black people with guns to be a danger, whereas white people packing heat were just freedom-loving patriots. But, thanks to the relentless incitement by President Donald Trump, armed white people are increasingly seeing themselves as above the law and are unapologetic about bragging about it. 

Higgins’ post is yet another instance that proves that many conservatives don’t really want law and order, what they want is impunity to inflict violence. As I explained last week:

The organizing principle seems to be that there are laws and a social order to adhere to, and if you dare violate either by defying a police officer’s orders or some other social rule, you may have to pay with your life. That is, if you’re a person of color. For armed and aggrieved white men and occasionally women, apparently, a different set of rules apply.

After Kyle Rittenhouse, an 17-year-old white vigilante killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was subsequently charged with murder, Donald Trump and the conservative apparatus defended him.  Some even hailed him as a hero and a Christian website raised $237,000 for his defense. To them, Rittenhouse was boldly protecting people and property and helping maintain law and order, thus sending very clear signal to millions of aggrieved racists. As I wrote:

But as this era of pervasive corruption, state-sanctioned violence, and a pandemic that’s killed nearly 180,000 people makes abundantly clear, the harshest punishments for violating “law and order” are only doled out to certain people in certain places. When Trump and other right-wingers say they want “law and order,” they’re really sending a signal—less a dogwhistle than a bullhorn—to the other people guided by white supremacy: Break any law you want to maintain the current order. 

If a 17-year-old committing a deadly crime can be considered a win for law and order, it only makes sense that a sitting member of Congress can openly threaten to kill Black protesters. Apparently, that’s how heroes are made. 

Fact of the Day: COVID-19 Mortality Rates

Among the United States and its peer countries in Europe, deaths from COVID-19 began to decline in April and May as the effects of new social distancing rules started to rein in the spread of the virus. In Europe, that decline continued through July until deaths hit nearly zero.

In the US, however, President Trump urged states to re-open their economies in mid-May, and by mid-June the decline in mortality stopped. Mortality increased in July and August, and then began to decline very slowly in mid-August. Our death rate is currently 2.7 per million, compared to an average of about 0.1 per million throughout Europe. If the US had followed Europe’s lead, our total COVID-19 deaths would be about 30 per day instead of the 1,000 per day we’re currently experiencing.

Disdain for the Less Educated Needs to Stop. Now.

In the New York Times today, Harvard professor Michael Sandel hits on one of my hobby horses: the widespread contempt of the educated for the less-educated.

Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a precondition for dignified work and social esteem has a corrosive effect on democratic life. It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less-educated members of society, effectively excludes most working people from elective government and provokes political backlash.

…It is important to remember that most Americans—nearly two-thirds—do not have a four-year college degree….In the United States and Europe, disdain for the less educated is more pronounced, or at least more readily acknowledged, than prejudice against other disfavored groups. In a series of surveys conducted in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, a team of social psychologists led by Toon Kuppens found that college-educated respondents had more bias against less-educated people than they did against other disfavored groups. The researchers surveyed attitudes toward a range of people who are typically victims of discrimination. In Europe, this list included Muslims and people who are poor, obese, blind and less educated; in the United States, the list also included African-Americans and the working class. Of all these groups, the poorly educated were disliked most of all.

Beyond revealing the disparaging views that college-educated elites have of less-educated people, the study also found that elites are unembarrassed by this prejudice. They may denounce racism and sexism, but they are unapologetic about their negative attitudes toward the less educated.

Both liberals and conservatives share this prejudice, but there’s a difference. Conservatives can be publicly deferential toward the less-educated (“I love the poorly educated,” Donald Trump said after winning their votes in the 2016 primaries) but behind the scenes they treat them as marks in a long con. Liberals, by contrast, all too often write them off. When they do, their attitude seems to be that if people are stupid enough to vote for Trump, then screw them.

I know from experience that liberals will deny this. I also know that even as they deny it, my comment section will immediately fill up with disdainful comments about the less-educated. This is, obviously, self defeating at a political level, but more than that it’s antithetical to the entire liberal project. We’re supposed to be the ones who look out for the less fortunate, and the less educated certainly fill that bill, more so today than ever.

I wince every time I see this on Twitter or Facebook or in more personal forums. Sometimes it’s explicit, other times it takes subtler forms. Either way, it should stop. It demeans us all.

Anarchist Activists Say Facebook Banned Them to Placate the Right

Last month, Facebook finally made an announcement that it had been teasing for weeks. The company said that it would begin taking more aggressive measures targeting QAnon and US-based militia, two groups that have increasingly posed domestic terror threats, including by banning some accounts and pages from its site. At the same time, the social media company announced it would target groups whose origins’ lie on the left by taking down anarchist or antifascist accounts that “support violent acts amidst protests.”

The plan’s optics offered a surface-level sort of fairness and evenhandedness, implying that groups espousing violence will be banned regardless of politics, no questions asked. But in practice, according to extremism experts and activists, Facebook’s enactment of this ban on antifascist accounts has been convoluted, unclear, and unjustified by the standards Facebook has laid out.

While the looming danger of Antifa to America is a well-worn conservative talking point, it doesn’t bear out.

About a week after the ban was announced, a friend called Kelly C. Wright to let her know that her account had disappeared. With the exception of the removal of a couple of comments she had left on news story posts, Wright says Facebook had never taken action on her account before or given her a warning about breaking their rules. 

“I had read your story earlier in the day, so I whipped out my phone and saw that I had been logged off. And then I popped Facebook up onto my laptop to check, and my account had been banned,” she recalled over the phone, referencing a post I wrote detailing Facebook’s announcement of the ban. 

After reaching out to some friends, Wright guessed that her account might have been banned because she serves as an administrator of the “Leftists for Self Defense and Firearm Freedom” Facebook page, a small page that had barely 1,800 likes. The other moderators of the group also appeared to have been banned, and the page had been suspended.

“We didn’t ever post anything that even supported revolutionary violence or anything like that,” says Jason Lee, another moderator. “The cover picture for the page was Black Panthers at the California statehouse. It wasn’t anything that advocated for violence.”

Other members of the page said that any support of violence found there would only have be voiced on the condition it was defensive, a posture that Facebook says would not violate its rules.

Facebook didn’t just ban Leftists for Self Defense and Firearm Freedom. When announcing the new policy, the company said it took down 980 groups and 520 pages related to militias and antifascists. While the company declined to break out this data, it did tell me that antifascists made up a comparatively small silver of the numbers. (Facebook also took action against 890 Facebook groups and pages it identified as being associated with QAnon.)

Among other pages taken down were two large news sources: It’s Going Down, an anarchist platform that helps track far-right extremism, and Crimethinc, “a decentralized anarchist collective” that has published antifascist articles. Neither appears to have a history of openly advocating for violence.

Facebook spokesperson Sally Aldous declined to comment on the ban’s targeting of Crimethinc, It’s Going Down, or Leftists for Self Defense and Firearm Freedom, or to provide more detailed reasoning for the removals, but she noted that Facebook looks at on and offline factors when making these decisions. 

Facebook’s decision to take down the antifascist pages and groups is “extremely bizarre” according to Megan Squire, a computer science professor who researches online extremism at Elon University. “It’s not in line with the standards they wrote…This is a very dangerous path that they’re going down.”

To Squire, one of the most concerning aspects is Facebook’s seeming willingness to capitulate to the right’s desire for tit for tat moderation, regardless of circumstances. Squire and antifascist activists suspect that the bans are exactly what they look like: a “both-sides” attempt to placate conservatives who might get mad that only their side is getting moderated.

“The idea that they would feel a perverse need to both sides this is ridiculous,” she said on the phone, before recounting a conversation she had with a member of Facebook’s policy team who reached out to learn about her research. “The very first question that they asked me was, ‘Well, do you study both sides?’, which is a ridiculous question,” Squire recalled, explaining that there simply is not an equivalent to far-right extremism.

While a Facebook spokesperson denied that antifascists were included in August’s prominent moderation action in an attempt to appease the right, it is impossible to look at their inclusion in the same announcement as a QAnon and militia crackdown and not be suspicious.

“Leftwing violence has not been a major terrorism threat.”

While the looming danger of antifa to America is a well-worn conservative talking point, it doesn’t bear out under any scrutiny. While right-wing internet users have seized on reports that police are investigating a man who has voiced support for antifa in Saturday’s deadly shooting of a man in Portland, antifascists have practically no contemporary record of harming people in the United States. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist think tank, has cataloged domestic terror attacks since 1994 and found that in that time period, antifascists killed no one. In that same window, right-wing violence had claimed the lives of 329 people, including 117 victims over the past ten years.

“Leftwing violence has not been a major terrorism threat,” Seth Jones, a CSIS researcher who led the project, told The Guardian.

When pressed on its decision to include antifascists alongside far-right groups, a Facebook spokesperson did not have clear answers but stressed that the measures were aimed at addressing groups advocating violence through “veiled language” or promoting “hypothetical violence” that would be a threat to public safety. The company did not give a reason as to why anarchists were targeted before other violent groups that remain on the platform. While Facebook announced at the end of June that it would ban groups associated with the boogaloo movement, an armed right-wing sub-culture which says it is preparing for a civil war, many pages supporting the group remain.

Facebook’s own parameters for what constitutes anarchist and antifascist advocation of violence are extremely vague. In addition to “hypothetical violence,” the spokesperson explained that “aspirationally encouraging violence” against individuals or property could qualify. But the company has said not all types of property would be protected from threat, while declining to specify further. Depicting individuals holding weapons, especially in a “militant” way, could trigger action from Facebook. If all that sounds ambiguous, it’s because it is.

“I actually don’t have problems with starting to question and push back against any individual that supports violence in the U.S.,” says Jones. But even though some antifascists argue that violence is justified in certain instances, says Jones, it’s extremely rare that they ever proactively act on these ideas.

At least some of the antifascist groups Facebook targeted don’t appear to be committed to proactively carrying out violence. Wright and other moderators of Leftists for Self Defense and Firearm Freedom say they are not, leading them to guess that the group’s banner picture depicting armed Black Panthers somehow triggered their takedown.

Mike Andrews, a member of the It’s Going Down editorial collective, explains that violence isn’t a core part of his platform’s ideology. “We don’t want to kill people or hurt people. We’re for people bettering their own conditions. We want to excite people about coming together and doing things,” Andrews said. While he surmises the site’s ban could have been prompted by occasional positive coverage of armed groups—most recently, the Not Fucking Around Coalition, a Black-led group who showed up at Stone Mountain to oppose neo-confederates—Facebook appears to have left the NFAC’s own pages up.

Last spring Crimethinc published a piece titled “Against the Logic of the Guillotine,” which was critical of vengeful violence as a political tool. It has also posted other thoughtful meditations on how society conceptualizes when violence is and isn’t legitimate and how the state has a monopoly on it. Such thinking represents a stark contrast with QAnon’s fantasies about murdering supposed pedophiles or the gruesome fantasies envisioned by many armed militia members.

“Facebook is not being thoughtful or taking expertise on this issue,” Squire says. “They’re just figuring it out as they going along.”

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: September 1 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through August 31. The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.

But before we get to that, something else first. Deaths from COVID-19 are close to zero throughout Europe, but over the past few weeks there’s been a worrisome surge in cases. The biggest surge is in Spain, which is also seeing a rise in mortality, followed by France—which, oddly, isn’t, even after six weeks of rising cases. Italy’s case count is also on the rise, though at a lower pace.

It’s hard not to draw a grim conclusion from this: nearly any loosening of social distancing rules, even in places where the virus has been crushed, will lead to an outbreak of new cases. And if there’s an outbreak of new cases, eventually there will be an outbreak of new deaths too.

They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?

This story was published in partnership with 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.

What a week. Rough for all Californians. Exhausting for the firefighters on the front lines. Heart-shattering for those who lost homes and loved ones. But a special “Truman Show” kind of hell for the cadre of men and women who’ve not just watched California burn, fire ax in hand, for the past two or three or five decades, but who’ve also fully understood the fire policy that created the landscape that is now up in flames.

“What’s it like?” Tim Ingalsbee repeated back to me, wearily, when I asked him what it was like to watch California this past week. In 1980, Ingalsbee started working as a wildland firefighter. In 1995, he earned a doctorate in environmental sociology. And in 2005, frustrated by the huge gap between what he was learning about fire management and seeing on the fire line, he started Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Since then FUSEE has been lobbying Congress, and trying to educate anybody who will listen, about the misguided fire policy that is leading to the megafires we are seeing today.

So what’s it like? “It’s just… well… it’s horrible. Horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years. I suffer from Cassandra syndrome,” Ingalsbee said. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”

The pattern is a form of insanity: We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures. As a result, wildland fuels keep building up. At the same time, the climate grows hotter and drier. Then, boom: the inevitable. The wind blows down a power line, or lightning strikes dry grass, and an inferno ensues. This week we’ve seen both the second- and third-largest fires in California history. “The fire community, the progressives, are almost in a state of panic,” Ingalsbee said. There’s only one solution, the one we know yet still avoid. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week. But we’ve had far too little “good fire,” as the Cassandras call it. Too little purposeful, healthy fire. Too few acres intentionally burned or corralled by certified “burn bosses” (yes, that’s the official term in the California Resources Code) to keep communities safe in weeks like this.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres—an area about the size of Maine—to restabilize in terms of fire.

Mike Beasley, deputy fire chief of Yosemite National Park from 2001 to 2009 and retired interagency fire chief for the Inyo National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management’s Bishop Field Office, was in a better mood than Ingalsbee when I reached him, but only because as a part-time Arkansan, part-time Californian and Oregonian, Beasley seems to find life more absurd. How does California look this week? He let out a throaty laugh. “It looks complicated,” he said. “And I think you know what I mean by that.”

Beasley earned what he called his “red card,” or wildland firefighter qualification, in 1984. To him, California, today, resembles a rookie pyro Armageddon, its scorched battlefields studded with soldiers wielding fancy tools, executing foolhardy strategy. “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Beasley summed up his assessment of the plan of attack by Cal Fire, the state’s behemoth “emergency response and resource protection” agency. Instead, Beasley believes, fire professionals should be considering ecology and picking their fights: letting fires that pose little risk burn through the stockpiles of fuels. Yet that’s not the mission. “They put fires out, full stop, end of story,” Beasley said of Cal Fire. “They like to keep it clean that way.”

(Cal Fire, which admittedly is a little busy this week, did not respond to requests to comment before this story published.)

Carl Skinner
Courtesy of Carl Skinner

So it’s been a week. Carl Skinner, another Cassandra, who started firefighting in Lassen County in 1968 and who retired in 2014 after 42 years managing and researching fire for the U.S. Forest Service, sounded profoundly, existentially tired. “We’ve been talking about how this is where we were headed for decades.”

“It’s painful,” said Craig Thomas, director of the Fire Restoration Group. He, too, has been having the fire Cassandra conversation for 30 years. He’s not that hopeful, unless there’s a power change. “Until different people own the calculator or say how the buttons get pushed, it’s going to stay that way.”

A six-word California fire ecology primer: The state is in the hole.

A seventy-word primer: We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.

Megafires, like the ones that have ripped this week through 1 million acres (so far), will continue to erupt until we’ve flared off our stockpiled fuels. No way around that.

When I reached Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who is based in Mammoth, California, and asked if there was any meaningful scientific dissent to the idea that we need to do more controlled burning, he said, “None that I know of.”

How did we get here? Culture, greed, liability laws and good intentions gone awry. There are just so many reasons not to pick up the drip torch and start a prescribed burn even though it’s the safe, smart thing to do.

The overarching reason is culture. In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created with a military mindset. Not long after, renowned American philosopher William James wrote in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” that Americans should redirect their combative impulses away from their fellow humans and onto “Nature.” The war-on-fire mentality found especially fertile ground in California, a state that had emerged from the genocide and cultural destruction of tribes who understood fire and relied on its benefits to tend their land. That state then repopulated itself in the Gold Rush with extraction enthusiasts, and a little more than half a century later, it suffered a truly devastating fire. Three-thousand people died, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and attendant fires. The overwhelming majority of the destruction came from the flames, not the quake. Small wonder California’s fire ethos has much more in common with a field surgeon wielding a bone saw than a preventive medicine specialist with a tray full of vaccines.

More quantitatively—and related—fire suppression in California is big business, with impressive year-over-year growth. Before 1999, Cal Fire never spent more than $100 million a year. In 2007-08, it spent $524 million. In 2017-18, $773 million. Could this be Cal Fire’s first $1 billion season? Too early to tell, but don’t count it out. On top of all the state money, federal disaster funds flow down from “the big bank in the sky,” said Ingalsbee. Studies have shown that over a quarter of U.S. Forest Service fire suppression spending goes to aviation—planes and helicopters used to put out fire. A lot of the “air show,” as he calls it, happens not on small fires in the morning, when retardant drops from planes are most effective, but on large fires in the afternoon. But nevermind. You can now call in a 747 to drop 19,200 gallons of retardant. Or a purpose-designed Lockheed Martin FireHerc, a cousin of the C-130. How cool is that? Still only 30% of retardant is dropped within 2,000 yards of a neighborhood, meaning that it stands little chance of saving a life or home. Instead the airdrop serves, at great expense, to save trees in the wilderness, where burning, not suppression, might well do more good.

This whole system is exacerbated by the fact that it’s not just contracts for privately owned aircraft. Much of the fire-suppression apparatus—the crews themselves, the infrastructure that supports them—is contracted out to private firms. “The Halliburton model from the Middle East is kind of in effect for all the infrastructure that comes into fire camps,” Beasley said, referencing the Iraq war. “The catering, the trucks that you can sleep in that are air-conditioned…”

Cal Fire pays firefighters well, very well. (And perversely well compared with the thousands of California Department of Corrections inmates who serve on fire crews, which is very much a different story.) As the California Policy Center reported in 2017, “The median compensation package—including base pay, special pay, overtime and benefits—for full time Cal Fire firefighters of all categories is more than $148,000 a year.”

The paydays can turn incentives upside down. “Every five, 10, 15 years, we’ll see an event where a firefighter who wants [to earn] overtime starts a fire,” said Crystal Kolden, a self-described “pyrogeographer” and assistant professor of fire science in the Management of Complex Systems Department at the University of California, Merced. (She first picked up a drip torch in 1999 when working for the U.S. Forest Service and got hooked.) “And it sort of gets painted as, ‘Well, this person is just completely nuts.’ And, you know, they maybe are.” But the financial incentives are real. “It’s very lucrative for a certain population of contractors.”

By comparison, planning a prescribed burn is cumbersome. A wildfire is categorized as an emergency, meaning firefighters pull down hazard pay and can drive a bulldozer into a protected wilderness area where regulations typically prohibit mountain bikes. Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.” Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke. Reforms after the epic 2017 and 2018 fire seasons led to some loosening of the CARB/prescribed fire rules, but we still have a long way to go.

“One thing to keep in mind is that air-quality impacts from prescribed burning are minuscule compared to what you’re experiencing right now,” said Matthew Hurteau, associate professor of biology at University of New Mexico and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab, which looks at how climate change will impact forest systems. With prescribed burns, people can plan ahead: get out of town, install a HEPA filter in their house, make a rational plan to live with smoke. Historical accounts of California summers describe months of smoky skies, but as a feature of the landscape, not a bug. Beasley and others argue we need to rethink our ideas of what a healthy California looks like. “We’re used to seeing a thick wall of even-aged trees,” he told me, “and those forests are just as much a relic of fire exclusion as our clear skies.”

Courtesy of Mike Beasley

In the Southeast which burns more than twice as many acres as California each year—fire is defined as a public good. Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. “There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,” Beasley said. “So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.” For over a month this spring, the U.S. Forest Service canceled all prescribed burns in California, and training for burn bosses, because of COVID-19.

I asked Beasley why he ignited his burns anyway when he was Yosemite fire chief. “I’m single! I’m not married! I have no kids. Probably a submarine captain is the best person for the job.” Then he stopped joking. “I was a risk taker to some degree. But I also was a believer in science.”

On Aug. 12, 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the U.S. Forest Service chief and others signed a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, that the state needs to burn more. “The health and wellbeing of California communities and ecosystems depend on urgent and effective forest and rangeland stewardship to restore resilient and diverse ecosystems,” the MOU states. The document includes a mea culpa: “California’s forests naturally adapted to low-intensity fire, nature’s preferred management tool, but Gold Rush-era clearcutting followed by a wholesale policy of fire suppression resulted in the overly dense, ailing forests that dominate the landscape today.”

Ingalsbee looks at the MOU and thinks, That’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. Likewise Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Research and Training Center, has seen too little movement for too long to believe anything but utter calamity can get us back on track. In 2014, Goulette participated in a planning exercise known as the Quadrennial Fire Review, or QFR, that asked the grim question: What is the disaster scenario that finally causes us to alter in a meaningful way our relationship and response to fire? The answer: something along the lines of a megafire taking out San Diego. In the wake of it, Goulette and others imagined one scenario in which the U.S. Forest Service morphed into an even more militaristic firefighting agency that “overwhelmingly emphasizes full suppression” and is “extremely risk averse.” But they also envisioned a scenario that spawned a new kind of fire force, one focused on “monitoring firesheds” and dedicated to changing the dominant philosophy away “from the war on fire to living with fire.”

This exercise took place three years before the devastating 2017 Napa and Sonoma fires, and four years before the Camp Fire destroyed Paradise in 2018. Goulette thought those events would have prompted more change. The tragedies did lead to some new legislation and some more productive conversations with Cal Fire. But there’s just so much ground we need to make up.

When asked how we were doing on closing the gap between what we need to burn in California and what we actually light, Goulette fell into the familiar fire Cassandra stutter. “Oh gosh… I don’t know…” The QFR acknowledged there was no way prescribed burns and other kinds of forest thinning could make a dent in the risk imposed by the backlog of fuels in the next 10 or even 20 years. “We’re at 20,000 acres a year. We need to get to a million. What’s the reasonable path toward a million acres?” Maybe we could get to 40,000 acres, in five years. But that number made Goulette stop speaking again. “Forty thousand acres? Is that meaningful?” That answer, obviously, is no.

The only real path toward meaningful change looks politically impossible. Goulette said we need to scrap the system and rethink what we could do with Cal Fire’s annual budget: Is this really the best thing we could do with several billion dollars to be more resistant to wildfire? Goulette knows this suggestion is so laughably distasteful and naive to those in power that uttering it as the director of a nonprofit like the Watershed Research and Training Center gets you kicked out of the room.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson at September Burn in Bear River.
Thomas Stratton

Some fire Cassandras are more optimistic than others. Lenya Quinn-Davidson, area fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, remains hopeful. She knows the history. She understands that the new MOU is nonbinding. Still she’s working on forming burn cooperatives and designing burner certificate programs to bring healthy fire practices back into communities. She’d like to get Californians back closer to the fire culture in the Southeast where, she said, “Your average person goes out back with Grandpa, and they burn 10 acres on the back 40 you know, on a Sunday.” Fire is not just for professionals, not just for government employees and their contractors. Intentional fire, as she sees it, is “a tool and anyone who’s managing land is going to have prescribed fire in their toolbox.” That is not the world we’ve been inhabiting in the West. “That’s been the hard part in California,” Quinn-Davidson said. “In trying to increase the pace and scale of prescribed fire, we’re actually fighting some really, some really deep cultural attitudes around who gets to use it and where it belongs in society.”

All Cassandras believe California’s wildfires will get worse, much worse, before they get better. Right now, said Crystal Kolden, the state’s fuel management plan, such as it is, is for Cal Fire to try to do prescribed burns in shoulder season. But given that the fires are starting earlier in the year and lasting later (we are not even this year’s traditional fire season yet), the shoulder doesn’t really exist. “So where is the end?” she asks. “It’s not in sight, and we don’t know when it will be.” The week before this past round of fires saw the hottest temperatures ever recorded in California, the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on earth: 130 degrees, more than half the boiling point of water, and just 10 degrees below what scientist consider to be the absolute upper limit of what the human body can endure for 10 minutes in humidity.

“Meanwhile, our firefighters are completely at the breaking point,” said Kolden, and there’s little they can do to stop a megafire once one starts. “And after a while you start to see breakdowns and interruptions in other critical pieces, like our food systems, our transportation systems.” It doesn’t need to be this way. We didn’t need to get here. We are not suffering from a lack of knowledge. “We can produce all the science in the world, and we largely understand why fires are the way they are,” said Eric Knapp, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist based in Redding, California. “It’s just that other social political realities get in the way of doing a lot of what we need to do.”

The fire and climate science before us is not comforting. It would be great to call in a 747, dump 19,200 gallons of retardant on reality and make the terrifying facts fade away. But ignoring the tinderbox that is our state and our planet invites more madness, not just for the Cassandras but for us all.

As Ingalsbee said, “You won’t find any climate deniers on the fire line.”

The Trump Files: How Donald Helped Make It Harder to Get Football Tickets

This post was originally published as part of “The Trump Files”—a collection of telling episodes, strange but true stories, and curious scenes from the life of our current President—on July 26, 2016.

Once upon a time, it was pretty simple for a die-hard sports fan to get season tickets for her favorite team. She put her name on the waiting list and forked over the cash for the tickets whenever she got to the top of the list. Now it’s a bit more complicated—and a lot more expensive. Some pro teams, especially football teams, make fans pay for what’s called a Personal Seat License, a multi-thousand-dollar purchase that gives fans the right to buy the actual tickets. Those fees have made season tickets far too pricey for many ordinary fans.

It’s not clear when exactly PSLs were first invented. The best guesses all seem to start around 1986, when Stanford University proposed building a tennis stadium using seat licenses. But two years before that, Donald Trump proposed a “condominium” football stadium for New York City that, seemingly for the first time, would make essentially all fans pay for the rights to their seats.

The proposal came up in late 1984. Trump then owned the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, a spring football league that Trump helped run into the ground by forcing a move to a fall schedule and a head-to-head battle with the NFL. He was also part of the New York State Sportsplex Corporation, a state body exploring the possibility of building a brand-new stadium in New York City that could lure the Jets back from New Jersey or convince another team to relocate to New York.

The group endorsed building a 78,000-seat stadium, but Trump and others, including New York Mayor Ed Koch, supported building one with a dome. So Trump told the city and state governments that he’d build an even bigger domed stadium in Queens at no cost to them—other than, as the New York Times reported, the minor donations of “the cleared site, new access roads, a refurbished Willets Point IRT subway station, a construction sales tax exemption, and, as is usual for most other stadiums, property tax forgiveness.” The building itself would be financed using entirely private money, meaning mostly the fans’ money.

Trump proposed making fans pay $4,000 to $5,000 for the right to a seat (more than $9,000 per seat in today’s dollars). This had been done before with luxury boxes and suites, but not on the scale Trump wanted, encompassing an entire stadium that was mostly regular plastic seats. The fees, he said, would “substantially pay for the cost of the stadium.” Seat owners could decline tickets but still share in the profits when the stadium “co-op” sold them to outsiders—and, in a Trumpian move, they could supposedly then claim those profits as capital gains for tax purposes. “Many tax experts believe that for the $5,000 investor, these tax benefits would not be a compelling reason to buy,” the Times dryly noted.

“We do not know all the details,” Deputy Mayor Robert Esnard told reporters when news of Trump’s proposal broke in December 1984. “It’s all kind of sketchy.” The city eventually backed Trump’s idea, but the city never found a team willing to move to Queens, and the stadium was never built.

Seat licenses are now a fixture of stadium building, but their supposed advantages often don’t pan out. Fans can theoretically make lots of money on their PSLs by selling them on to other fans at higher prices. But as teams have jacked up the prices, profits have dropped and some fans have even lost large amounts of money. And the money that licenses raise doesn’t even come close to paying for bloated modern stadiums, which often cost more than $1 billion.

For all of that, fans may want to thank Donald Trump.

Fact of the Day: Border Apprehensions

Over the past decade, apprehensions¹ at the Mexican border were fairly steady at about 30,000 per month. After Donald Trump became president, apprehensions went down, then up, and then spiked briefly during the “caravan” surge of 2019. However, by the end of 2019 we had returned to about 30,000 apprehensions per month, roughly the same as we had during the 2011-2016 period. In other words, even after everything Trump did at the border—separating children from their parents, keeping asylum seekers from filing claims, building a wall, etc—all he accomplished was to get border crossings back to where they had been when he took office.

¹Apprehensions are generally considered a pretty good proxy for the number of people trying to cross the border illegally.

Ed Markey Beats Joe Kennedy to Keep His Senate Seat

For the last three years, the left has trained their sights on ousting incumbent Democrats who stand in the way of their liberal agenda. But in the Massachusetts Senate race, they were forced to defend their own, and they won: Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has fended off a primary challenge from Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.), with Kennedy conceding the race as the results were still coming in Tuesday night.

When Kennedy declared his challenge to Markey last September, he framed it as a generational challenge. The four-term member of Congress said in his Facebook announcement that this race would be “the fight of my generation.” The Boston Globe said it was “the starting gun of a generational showdown.”

Not so fast, said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), with whom Markey had co-authored the Green New Deal. “Sen. Markey is the generational change we need,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters last week. “Generational change doesn’t mean ‘elect whoever is younger.’”

It was a quip that drew the battle lines in a Democratic primary that largely defied them. As I wrote last fall, “both have hewed to the bleeding edge of progressive politics”:

In addition to his longstanding role as a leader when it comes to pushing climate change legislation, Markey was at the forefront on issues such as net neutrality and denuclearization during his 13 terms in the House. And Kennedy has spent his scant time in Congress staking out a progressive record. Earlier this month, Kennedy, who backed the Green New Deal in December, wrote about the need to “end the filibuster, eliminate the electoral college and put in term limits for Supreme Court justices” on his Facebook page. Both have cosponsored their chambers’ respective Medicare for All bills and endorsed fellow Bay Stater Elizabeth Warren’s run for president.

But Ocasio-Cortez’s contribution to the fight was more than just her political framing. Her work with Markey on the Green New Deal drew the early endorsement of the Sunrise Movement—and it’s very young, very Online supporters, as I wrote last week:

“If he was alright with AOC, he was alright with them,” Markey campaign manager John Walsh tells me, referring to the New York lawmaker’s influence on progressive voters who might not have known much about the senator. “This is based on who Ed is, and this energy with Sunrise and others was already in the tank. And all we had to do is figure out how to bring it out.”

To “bring it out,” the Markey campaign appealed to the proclivities of Markey’s Gen Z fans, refashioning the 74-year-old as a progressive firebrand and unintentional hipster—not unlike the sort of political branding Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) enjoyed during his two presidential runs. The effort reached its apex in April, when the campaign tweeted a PSA on the merits of mask-wearing, featuring Markey modeling his own in a bomber jacket and Nike high-tops. From there, the Markeyverse was born, an enthusiastic group of dozens of Markey stan accounts that did the heavy lifting of digital organizing in the midst of a campaign now almost entirely online.

But what led to Kennedy’s loss was not Markey’s army of memers, many of whom are too young to vote or don’t live in Massachusetts. It was the coalition of affluent, white, liberal Sanders and Warren sympathizers who joined them, achieving a unity that evaded that group during the presidential primary. Kennedy, meanwhile will now be out of a job come January—and is the first Kennedy to ever lose a race in Massachusetts.

Richard Neal Fends Off Progressive Primary Challenger Alex Morse

In an election cycle full of high-profile Democratic primary challenges, none of them had been as prized to progressives as the one facing House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.). But on Tuesday night, Alex Morse, the 30-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, lost to Neal in the 1st Congressional District.

Morse declared his candidacy last July, just about a year after Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) had unseated their older, long-serving members of Congress and reenergized their party’s left flank in the process. Morse, who was first elected as mayor of Holyoke when he was 21, challenged Neal on a premise that the district would be better served by someone like him: a young, gay millennial who would side with the Squad. “People talk a lot about how the power the congressman has is seniority, but it’s not the members of Congress that have been there 20 or 30 years who are setting the agenda,” he told me last summer. “It’s those members who have been there as short as seven months.”

As chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Neal has jurisdiction over almost all of the domestic policy agenda—a circumstance that, as I wrote last year, has been a thorn in progressives’ sides:

“Richard Neal opposes everything that’s catching fire in the Democratic Party,” [Justice Democrats’ spokesperson Waleed] Shahid says. “Neal’s basically a huge turd,” snaps Sean McElwee, the leftist provocateur and influential co-founder of the think tank Data for Progress. Neal’s committee oversees taxation, Social Security, Medicare, and welfare—nearly every economic issue Democrats hope to tackle. Yet when it comes to the policy ideas that excite the progressive base, he isn’t on board. He’s the only member of the Massachusetts delegation who hasn’t co-sponsored the Green New Deal. He asked his colleagues not to mention Medicare for All by name during a hearing called for the express purpose of discussing the single-payer proposal.

They also accused Neal of slow-walking his request for Trump’s tax returns, which a 1924 law grants the Ways and Means chair the authority to procure. Though Neal eventually did make that move in April 2019, critics say his four-month delay allowed the Trump administration time to run out the clock with court challenges—which they’ve so far succeeded in doing. (Neal also turned down an offer from New York state to request Trump’s state tax returns, arguing that doing so would complicate his federal request.)

But of even greater concern to the left was Neal’s perceived coziness with corporate interests, many of whom rushed to his financial defense when rumors of a primary challenge swirled: By the time Morse entered the race, Neal had already amassed a $4 million war chest. In Morse’s corner was a unified phalanx of influential progressive groups, such as Indivisible and the Working Families Party, whose support of insurgent candidates had been more scattershot in other contests. Last week, Ocasio-Cortez threw her support behind Morse through her political action committee, a vote of confidence that drew both national attention and donations.

Scandal haunted the final month of the campaign after the Massachusetts College Democrats made vague accusations that Morse hade made inappropriate sexual advances Morse on students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he served as a guest lecturer. The accusations nearly derailed Morse’s challenge, but subsequent reporting from The Intercept determined that the claims were both unfounded and politically motivated by supporters of Neal, who denied knowledge or involvement. In the end, the episode boosted Morse: He raised nearly half a million dollars and drew more than 400 new volunteers to his campaign as additional details cleared his name.

But ultimately, no amount of national support nor political foul play could persuade Western Massachusetts voters to choose Morse. Many still like the fact that their representative, who will almost certainly win his 17th term in November, is one of Congress’ most powerful members.

Why Are Children of Color Getting COVID-19 at Huge Rates?

From the New York Times:

People of color have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and new research is heightening concern about the susceptibility of children in these communities. They are infected at higher rates than white children and hospitalized at rates five to eight times that of white children, the data shows. Children of color also make up an overwhelming majority of those who develop a life-threatening complication called multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C.

Black adults die of COVID-19 at about twice the rate of white adults. Black children—if my arithmetic is correct—die at about 5x the rate of white children. This matches their hospitalization rate, which is also about 5x higher than white children. Hispanic children are even worse off: they’re hospitalized at about 8x the rate of white children.

It’s mind boggling that we still don’t know what’s behind this. I’ve read endless studies of racial disparities caused by various kinds of systemic racism: Maternal mortality is 50 percent higher among Black mothers. Black drivers are pulled over 100 percent more often than white drivers. Etc. But what accounts for gaps that are so much larger? Like 200 percent worse? Or 400 percent worse? Or, in the case of Hispanic children hospitalized for COVID-19, a stunning 700 percent worse? Why?

“Children don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Dr. Monika K. Goyal, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington….“They live in homes where their parent or caregiver doesn’t have the luxury of telecommuting, so they are at increased risk of exposure,” she added. “They are also more likely to live in multigenerational households. It’s all connected.”

…Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford, agreed: “I know exactly what’s happening to those kids. Their parents are frontline, blue-collar or essential workers.

This is probably true, but does it account for the size of the gap? As Goyal says in a newly published study, “these observed racial/ethnic disparities in infection rates only slightly attenuated after adjustment for socioeconomic status.” In other words, even when you do comparisons with poor white families who also work in essential jobs, use more public transportation, and so forth, Black and Hispanic families still contract COVID-19 at much higher rates. We need far more concrete research about what could account for such huge disparities than we’ve gotten so far, and we need it now.

Detainees Describe Dire Conditions After Hurricane Leaves ICE Jails Without Water or Power

Hurricane Laura’s trail of destruction left several immigration detention centers in Louisiana without power or water, creating such dire conditions at one facility that detainees reported relieving themselves on their dishes, covering up their waste with torn-up pieces of plastic bags to control odors, and sleeping near toilets filled with feces and menstrual blood.

After the Jackson Parish Correctional Center lost power and water last Thursday, temperatures soared without air conditioning and people spent days without working bathrooms, according to six people detained there by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The detainees said on Monday that the toilets still weren’t working and that guards let them sleep outside on Friday because the heat inside was unbearable.

On Saturday, the detainees protested, leading to a disturbance that prompted officers to use force against detainees, according to Jackson Parish Sheriff Andy Brown. “The show of force and the less lethal tools we used squashed this event,” Brown wrote on Facebook. He said water and power had been restored to the facility. 

Starting last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement started sending asylum seekers to eight additional for-profit jails and prisons in the Deep South. Even before Laura struck, detention was hard to endure for the immigrants and asylum seekers being held there. ICE denied nearly all of their applications to be released on parole. Then COVID-19 began to spread through the facilities, but again ICE declined most requests for release. Now people at several of those detention centers are dealing with the fallout from a Category 4 hurricane.

Despite Brown’s Facebook post and reporting from the Associated Press and New Orleans Public Radio on the protest, Scott Sutterfield, an executive with LaSalle Corrections, which runs the Jackson Parish facility, said “there was no use of force reported at the facility.” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox did not provide details about the use of force. Brown did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Cox did say on Monday that power was back on at Jackson Parish and that water was being pumped in via a tanker. He added that “due to extensive planning and preparation, backup systems were promptly put into use and precluded any extended absence of power or potable water at ICE facilities.” Sutterfield’s response included the same wording. But four detainees said Monday that they still couldn’t use the toilets in their units. (Cox did not respond to a follow-up question about reports that the bathrooms remained out of service.)

A Cameroonian asylum seeker who asked to remain anonymous told me that feces and blood from women’s menstrual cycles had accumulated in the toilets. “We cannot sleep because the whole dorm is smelly,” she said. “We eat in this smell.”

The Cameroonian detainee added that another woman in the unit went to the infirmary over the weekend with a fever. “They took her back to the dorm,” said another Cameroonian woman in the unit. “She stayed with us for the whole day.” The two Cameroonian women said their unit is now being quarantined from the rest of the jail. They reported that guards only sometimes wear masks. (LaSalle Corrections previously barred some employees from wearing masks to prevent detainees from panicking about COVID-19.)

A Cameroonian said feces and blood from women’s menstrual cycles accumulated in the toilets. “We cannot sleep because the whole dorm is smelly.”

A Cuban man at Jackson said detainees were relieving themselves on the disposable dishes food is delivered on. To keep the odor at bay, he and other men in the unit described covering their waste with torn up pieces of plastic bags before putting it in a trash can. Immigration lawyer Dario Elizondo said a Honduran client of his in a third unit told him that feces was overflowing from a toilet.

Elizondo’s client said he was being quarantined with dozens of people who, like the client, had recently tested positive for COVID-19. ICE lists only nine active coronavirus cases at Jackson on its website, although the agency’s public data is often several days out of date. (Cox did not respond to a question about whether there had recently been a spike in cases at the facility.)

Three women detained about an hour away at an immigration detention center in Jena, Louisiana, run by the private prison company GEO Group, said Monday that they had running water but not light or air conditioning. Kerlys, a Colombian woman who was part of a group that got pepper-sprayed by guards in April during a confrontation over COVID protections, said the heat was suffocating. María García, a 63-year-old from Mexico whose age makes her more vulnerable to COVID at the jail, described similar conditions. 

Jorge Sarat, a Guatemalan man detained at another LaSalle detention center in Louisiana, said on Tuesday that his facility didn’t have electricity or running water for three nights. It was so hot that the detainees couldn’t sleep, he added. “It was horrible,” Sarat said. “I thought we were going to die.” 

Congressional Dems Call On the IRS to Investigate the NRA

Last month, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against the National Rifle Association, charging the nation’s oldest gun rights group with decades of illegal financial dealings and misconduct and seeking to dissolve the organization. But that might not be the end of the NRA’s legal woes. Now, a coalition of Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee and Oversight Committee are calling on the Internal Revenue Service to open an investigation into the NRA’s federal tax-exempt status. 

On Tuesday, Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) and Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) sent the IRS a letter signed by 33 House Democrats outlining the findings of the James’ investigation into the NRA. The letter also discusses the DC attorney general’s concurrent probe into the group, as well as Schneider’s own investigation. The letter outlines an alleged “pattern of egregious self-dealing” by high-ranking NRA officials.

James’ lawsuit takes aim at four current and former members of the NRA’s leadership team, including the group’s longtime executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, and details dozens of examples of LaPierre and other executives allegedly using millions of dollars of NRA funds for exorbitant personal purposes, like family vacations, expensive clothes, and private jet travel for personal trips. Schneider’s investigation, which was released in February, outlines the NRA’s extensive self-dealing and various conflicts of interest. It notes that the salary of the NRA’s former board president, Oliver North, was paid by the group’s top vendor, Ackerman McQueen, apparently in order to skirt the group’s own nonprofit bylaws that prohibit it from paying its board president. 

“In light of this new information, we respectfully ask that you review whether the recent allegations against the NRA and NRA Foundation warrant reconsideration of the organizations’ federal tax-exempt status,” the letter reads. “No organization that wantonly and repeatedly abuses these rules in order to advance and enrich the financial interests of its leaders should be allowed to enjoy privileged tax-exempt status.”

An IRS investigation of the NRA has long been desired by congressional Democrats. In October 2019, a group of Democratic senators led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) sent a similar letter to the IRS, citing the findings of a Senate investigation into the NRA’s interactions with Russian agent Maria Butina. But the IRS has, so far, remained silent on the accusations against the NRA and whether it would open up an investigation into the group’s tax-exempt status. When I brought the subject up last year with two tax attorneys who specialize in nonprofit tax law, neither seemed too optimistic about an IRS investigation. “Immediate is not a term that the IRS really follows very well,” Matthew Journy, one of the lawyers I spoke to, told me at the time. 

Lunchtime Photo

This is yet another panoramic photo. In order to get the whole thing, I pointed the camera toward my feet and snapped a picture, then pointed it higher, then higher, and finally pointed it up toward the houses in the background. Put all these shots together and you get the full shadow.

But! As you can see, I attracted company, which means the first photo has a cat in it. But where is the cat’s shadow? The answer is that it was there in the first shot, but in the second shot it wasn’t because the cat had moved away. When Photoshop merged all the shots, it chose the second one for the middle part, and the second one had no shadow. So you end up with a person with a gigantic shadow and a cat with no shadow. Weird.

Alternatively, the cat is actually a vampire. They’re the ones that cast no shadows, right?

August 27, 2020 — Garden Grove, California

When the Runway Lights Broke, They Used Their Cars to Land a Medevac

Last Friday in Igiugig, a village on the Kvichak River in Alaska, residents of the town (population 70) drove at least 20 vehicles to the airport to cast light on the runway as a medevac plane circled above.

A child needed to be airlifted to a hospital. But the lights of the state-operated airport weren’t operating properly. The vehicles guided the plane down.

The story was reported by the local station KTOO and by the New York Times. One of the leaders of the group that helped the plane was Ida Nelson. Here’s a bit more about how she gathered people to help. It involves, of all things, a late-night steam bath:

Ida Nelson had just climbed out of a steam bath and was getting dressed when she heard the LifeMed plane fly over her village…

“Anytime there’s any type of planes flying after dark, you always assume it’s going to be something urgent and an emergency,” she said. 

She can see the airport from her steam bath. And when she looked to see what was going on—the runway lights weren’t on.

“Normally if you push the button like 10 or 15 times the lights will just light up,” she said. “But they didn’t and so the medevac plane flew over the village.”

She hopped onto her four-wheeler and sped the few hundred yards to the runway. Her neighbor jumped in to help too.

This is very moving, and concerning (fix those lights!). But it’s also a good example of how civic engineering undergirds our entire lives. (See the fact that the United States has two measurements of feet for no reason, and the havoc it causes.)

There’s one way of thinking of these kinds of events—one-off moments of humanity peeking through. But it’s actually a civic mindset we’re reminded of. This isn’t the first time Nelson has been profiled for what seems to be her regular practice of helping her neighbors. She’s featured in an article in Hakai Magazine that highlights the practice of villagers in coastal communities sharing smoked fish in winter. It’s a bigger deal than that might sound:

In a community where a jug of fresh milk is considered a luxury item, with a $20 price tag, fish shared from the Christensen smokehouse contributes nutritious food to freezers and pantries throughout the long, cold winter months. But each act of sharing involved in bringing salmon to a loved one’s dinner table—from mending nets to delivery, and even child care—serves an additional purpose. It gives a reason to check in with those who can’t fish themselves and to ensure they have everything else they need, like medication, a working furnace, and a shoveled driveway. Together, these interactions keep families and community members connected and thriving…providing support that’s just as essential to human survival as food.

And here is Nelson again:

Ida Nelson of the Bristol Bay village of Igiugig is Yup’ik and a single working mom. Because she doesn’t have the time to fish and hunt, she welcomes gifts of moose and fish each year. “I think we’re a lot richer than the statistics say we are,” she says.

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: August 31 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through August 31. The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.

The line for the United States has suddenly acquired a huge blip at May 18. I don’t know why, but it’s probably because the Johns Hopkins boffins reversed a decision they made a while ago to integrate the New York City “correction” smoothly rather than as one single gigantic daily report. Or something. Whatever it is, it doesn’t affect the total number of deaths or the current mortality rate, so it’s not worth worrying about for the moment.

The Worst Moments From Trump’s Toxic Fox News Interview

President Donald Trump—who spent the weekend unleashing incendiary tweets as deadly violence roiled Portland, Oregon—continued promoting bizarre conspiracy theories Monday night. He launched baseless attacks against his political opponents and suggested that the police officer who shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, may have simply “choked,” like players in a golf tournament.

The explosive remarks came during an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that aired just hours after he refused to condemn the 17-year-old charged with killing two protesters in Kenosha last week. The Fox interview is all but certain to fuel more anger and division as the president prepares to travel to Kenosha on Tuesday, despite pleas from the Democratic governor to cancel the visit. Here are some of the worst moments from his sit-down with Ingraham.

Trump says Biden is being controlled by people in “the dark shadows”

In one of the strangest moments of the interview, as Trump ranted about people “controlling” Joe Biden, Ingraham asked Trump to identify the individuals that he believed to be “pulling Biden’s strings” in order to transform the famously moderate former vice president into a radical, left-wing extremist. It appeared to be a soft-ball question—Ingraham suggested former Obama administration officials as one possibility—but the president swung and missed.

“People that you’ve never heard of,” Trump said instead. “People that are in the dark shadows.”

That proved even too much for Ingraham, who interrupted to say that the remark sounded like a conspiracy theory. But Trump descended further, mysteriously alluding to “thugs” in “black uniforms” that had supposedly attempted to travel from a “certain city” with the intent of inflicting violence at the Republican National Convention. “There were like seven people on this plane like this person, and then a lot of people were on the plane to do big damage,” he said. Trump said the incident was “under investigation” but declined to offer further details, telling Ingraham that he’d tell her more “sometime.” 

Trump praises his supporters as “tremendous” while accusing Democrats and the media of inciting violence

“My supporters are wonderful, hard-working, tremendous people,” Trump told Ingraham. “They turn on their television set and they look at a Portland or they look at a Kenosha…They’re looking at all of this, and they can’t believe it.” 

Ignoring his own record of inflaming tensions and promoting violence, Trump went on to repeatedly blame Democrats and the media for the current unrest. At one point, Fox News showed a montage of Democrats encouraging Americans to stand up to the Trump administration—apparently as evidence that Democrats were guilty of inciting violence. The montage included three Black lawmakers—Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Rep. Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.)—along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Later, when Ingraham asked why Gov. Tony Evers and other Democratic officials in Wisconsin didn’t want Trump to visit, Trump pointed, without evidence, to a cover-up. “They don’t want the media to cover what’s really going on in blue-state America,” he said.

Trump says the police officer who shot Blake may have simply “choked” under pressure

In a moment that appeared to downplay the actions of the police officer who shot Blake, Trump compared the officer to a “choker” struggling under the pressures of a golf tournament.

“Shooting the guy in the back many times, I mean, couldn’t you have done something different?” Trump asked rhetorically. “Couldn’t you have wrestled him?” He then paused to suggest that Blake could have been going for a weapon during the encounter—seemingly to provide an excuse for the officer—before repeating his “choker” comparison.

“You could be a police officer for 15 years and all of sudden you’re confronted,” Trump continued. “You’ve got a quarter of a second to make a decision. If you don’t make the decision and you’re wrong, you’re dead. People choke under those circumstances, and they make a bad decision.”