The Party Is Not Over

Updated at 3:20 p.m. ET on July 23, 2024.

The smoke-filled room is back! Praise the Lord—and pray the system works. To be technically accurate, there is no actual room, and if there were, it would not be smoky. Nonetheless, we have witnessed the extraordinary reassertion of a principle whose disappearance has been nothing short of calamitous for American politics. To wit: Nominations belong to parties, not to candidates.

If you have read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, you may recall that his entire record as a federal officeholder before the presidency was a single two-year term representing Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives. What you may not recall is: Why only two years? Did Lincoln lack ambition or talent? Face defeat by a stronger opponent? Retire in disgrace? None of the above. In Illinois, the Whig party machine had set up a rotation scheme in which party loyalists took turns occupying the party’s only safe House seat. When his turn ended, Lincoln went home.

Peculiar as this seems today, for most of U.S. history, it was taken for granted that nominations were party property. From the time of Martin Van Buren, who basically invented the modern U.S. political party, Americans saw the party, not the individual candidate or the particular office, as the locus of political life. The parties identified, trained, and promoted qualified and reliable politicians; built political coalitions and brokered deals across diverse ideologies and constituencies; organized officeholders to work together in government; maintained institutional knowledge and ensured strategic continuity over time. All of those political tasks were, and still are, essential.

[Read: The Harris gamble]

To perform them, the parties used everything from torchlight parades to pork-barrel spending, but their most important tool, the sine qua non of party influence, was control over who would be on their ticket. That power, exercised in formal ways like ballot access and informal ways like jawboning, allowed the parties to act as traffic cops. Party chairs would advise a green candidate to run for county commissioner before aiming for the House. Party donors would open and close the money taps to help reliable players. Party bigwigs would offer and withhold endorsements and steer media attention. The apogee of the party-controlled process was the so-called smoke-filled room, the (somewhat metaphorical) site where party leaders, elected officials, and trusted delegates met at the national convention to choose a presidential ticket.

Contrary to popular belief, the decision makers did not and could not override or ignore public opinion; they wanted to win, after all. What they could and did do was blend public opinion with other considerations, such as who could unify the party, govern after the election, and advance the party’s interests. Although it is true that the parties were dominated by white, mostly Protestant men, that was a reflection of their era. Other institutions were also dominated by white, mostly Protestant men.

And here’s something else they did: choose qualified candidates. By offering careers and perks to loyalists, the parties were able to attract impressive talent. The political scientists Jamie L. Carson and Jason M. Roberts, in their 2013 book, Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform: The Politics of Congressional Elections Across Time, found that the old party system’s congressional candidates were at least as experienced and well qualified as today’s. Although the machines of yore could be insular and corrupt—traits no one wants to go back to—they reliably screened out circus acts, incompetents, rogues, and sociopaths. Party insiders usually knew their candidates personally. They had worked with many of them, or had at least observed them, for years.

Donald Trump is not the first authoritarian-minded tycoon to put himself forward as a national savior. In the 1920s, a groundswell of popular support formed for a presidential run by the car magnate Henry Ford, a vicious anti-Semite who claimed that only a hard-driving businessman could solve the country’s problems. The parties were having none of it. As Collier’s magazine reported in 1923, “Almost without a single exception the men who constitute what is usually known as the ‘organization’ in every state are opposed to Ford.” Senator James Couzens said, “How can a man over sixty years old, who … has no training, no experience, aspire to such an office?,” adding, “It is most ridiculous.” Both parties shut their doors, and Ford’s presidential run was over before it began.

By the 1960s, however, the parties were under pressure to democratize their selection process. After Hubert Humphrey won the nomination in 1968 without entering a single primary, the Democratic Party put primary voters in charge. The new rules’ very first outing was disastrous: Left-leaning primary voters chose George McGovern (an architect of the new rules, as it happened), who lost 49 states in 1972.

What followed was an interim period in which the old system operated alongside the new. Primary voters had the main say, but party hacks clawed back influence in what became known as the invisible primary, a race for the support of party leaders, donors, and key constituencies such as unions and business. The hybrid system seemed to work—until, in 2016, it didn’t.

That year brought two insurgent candidacies. In no meaningful sense was Donald Trump a Republican or Bernie Sanders a Democrat. Trump had been a Republican, then an independent, then a Democrat, then a Republican, then “I do not wish to enroll in a party,” then a Republican; he had donated to both parties; he had shown loyalty to and affinity for neither. Sanders was an independent who had switched to nominal Democratic affiliation on the day he filed for the New Hampshire primary, only three months before that election. Yet both insurgents saw that they could bypass the party gatekeepers by exploiting social media, raising money online, and belittling or skipping endorsements. The Democratic establishment barely fended off Sanders, and, of course, Trump seized the Republican nomination and then the party.

By that point, no Americans under age 65 had working experience of functional political parties. Instead, the public saw the parties as vehicles for candidates at best, and as useless or corrupt intermediaries at worst. When Russian email hacks revealed in 2016 that Democratic National Committee officials favored Hillary Clinton over Sanders, the public and media were scandalized and the party chair quit. In earlier times, the appropriate reaction would have seemed more like: “Of course the Democratic Party favors the candidate who is actually a Democrat. That’s why it exists!”

Today, the Republican Party can still do some minor gatekeeping. It maneuvered former Representative Madison Cawthorn out of his House seat after he accused (unnamed) colleagues of holding orgies and using cocaine. For the most part, however, the GOP is engineered to serve Trump. In 2020 and 2024, it did not even pretend to deliberate over a platform.

The Democratic Party, however, has not gone as far down the road to self-dissolution. It has maintained so-called superdelegates who give elected officials and party elders a voice at the convention, albeit more in theory than in practice. In 2020, the Democratic establishment, by rallying to Joe Biden, again succeeded in heading off Sanders.

And now—the stunner. In a head-on conflict with its incumbent president and nominal leader, the institutional Democratic Party has prevailed. It has reclaimed control over its nomination. The party’s elected leaders and donors fell in line and told Biden that the party could not accept his continued candidacy, effectively cutting off the support he needed to win.

This astonishing turn raises two fascinating questions: Why did it happen, and how much will it matter? The answer to the first is that the party is realistic about its situation and that Biden is, in the end, a party man. Both the man and the party deserve credit for putting the institution ahead of the person. That is how American politics is supposed to work.

The second question depends on the outcome. If Democrats lose in November, the party’s intervention will be judged to have been desperate and pointless. But if the Democrats win, their gamble will vindicate the party as an independent actor. For the first time in two generations, the country will see why parties matter and how they can function independently in the public interest, doing what individual voters and politicians cannot.

Biden’s removal from the ticket also illuminates the single most important fact about American politics today, which is that the two parties are no longer the same kind of thing. As Brian Klaas and Tom Nichols have underscored in The Atlantic, one party is a coalitional party that maintains a sense of its identity and independence; the other is a personality cult projecting the will of one authoritarian-minded man. One party retains institutional guardrails; the other traffics in transgression. Both parties fielded dangerously unfit presidential candidates in 2024, but only one was able to muster the will and desire to correct itself. Until the GOP can be restored to its traditional role as a coalitional party, it will remain a source of hazardous instability.

[Brian Klaas: Calls for Biden’s withdrawal are a sign of a healthy Democratic party]

In his new book, American Covenant: How the Constitution Unified Our Nation—And Could Again, Yuval Levin writes, “It is now painfully obvious that the reforms that disempowered party professionals in both parties were a catastrophic mistake, which has sown bitter division throughout our political system and beyond it in the broader culture and done terrible harm to our country.” As Levin correctly notes, the weakening of the professional party organizations—along with the breakdown of Congress—is at the root of contemporary American political dysfunction. Our two parties cannot do what we need them to do if they are bystanders in their own nomination contests.

In principle, restoring more nominating power to party professionals is one of the easiest reforms out there. Whenever they choose, the parties can change their rules to provide for what Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution calls peer review. Surveys find that voters are open to giving parties and professionals a voice in the process.

In practice, however, Americans have lost their memory of parties that behave like institutions, not just platforms or brands. What’s needed is a reminder that a political party can act independently and wisely to serve the national interest at a crucial juncture. We’ve just seen one.

This article originally misdescribed Abraham Lincoln’s pre-presidential record as officeholder.

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When Democracies Backslide On Women’s Rights

In late December, I sat in an Istanbul criminal-court building and witnessed a scene unfold that has become depressingly familiar throughout Turkey. A man was accused of entering his ex-girlfriend’s home, in violation of a preventative order, on four different dates in May 2023. He had threatened to kill her and destroyed her property. The victim was too scared to attend the proceedings.

After a brief hearing, I watched the defendant scurry out of the courtroom, clutching a single piece of paper with the judge’s ruling: He had been released without pretrial detention.

“Cases like those end in murder,” Evrim Kepenek, a Turkish journalist who follows domestic-violence cases, told me. “The man comes to court after violating the protective order and learns that nothing will happen, so he continues until he kills her.”

I lived in Istanbul from 2014 to 2016, a relative high point for Turkish organizers intent on bringing global attention to domestic violence and other issues affecting women. When I returned for two weeks this past winter, I was struck by how much the situation has worsened for women facing domestic abuse. The country issues tens of thousands of preventative orders each year, but enforcement is weak. The Women’s Rights Center of the Istanbul Bar Association examined hundreds of cases of preventative orders issued in 2022 and found that women have little recourse when orders are violated.

Turkish women’s rights overall are in a precarious state. As prime minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promoted conservative Muslim traditions, such as the right to wear a headscarf in public institutions. Since being elected president, in 2014, he has been outright demeaning toward secular women, and he’s gotten harsher in the face of new threats to his political power. Indeed, Erdoğan’s attacks on women are an example of a well-established pattern of autocratic leaders diminishing women to enhance their own position.

[Read: How Erdogan made Turkey authoritarian again]

Authoritarian-leaning leaders “have a strategic reason to be sexist,” the Harvard political-science professors Erica Chenowith and Zoe Marks wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2022. “Understanding the relationship between sexism and democratic backsliding is vital for those who wish to fight back against both.”    

Turkey shows that when democracies falter, conditions for women worsen. Still, Turkish women are fighting back, shifting tactics in response to new challenges, and achieving real victories.

The women’s movement in Turkey is arguably the most successful and long-standing civil-society effort in the republic. Long before the Treaty of Lausanne recognized the state of Turkey in 1923, Ottoman-era women fought to end men’s rights to polygamy and unilateral divorce. Alongside the secular agenda of the early republic, women pushed for Sharia law to be replaced by Western civil and penal codes, making Turkey the only country in the region to do this. Influenced by feminism in the United States, in the 1980s, they took their fight to the domestic sphere. Through relentless campaigning, by the early 2000s, they’d won equal decision making in marriage, the criminalization of marital rape, an end to sentence reductions for “honor killings,” and some protections against domestic violence.

[From the May 1909 issue: Women in the young turks movement]

When I first traveled to Turkey, in 2014, women had developed significant organizing power. They took advantage of Western media’s interest in the region after the Arab Spring, and Erdoğan’s ongoing talks with the European Union, to organize massive protests. That year, I walked alongside one of the largest parades for trans rights in the region, one of many large protests that women helped lead. The route was so packed that I worried about a stampede. Although Erdoğan constantly insulted people who did not conform to traditional gender conventions, activists were winning the war of global public perception.

Conservative Muslim women, however, supported Erdoğan. Fifty-five percent of women voters, compared with 48 percent of men, voted for Erdoğan in the 2014 presidential elections. By lifting the headscarf ban, he had expanded some conservative women’s freedom of expression, and households had benefited from a strengthened economy.

Conditions for women across the political spectrum would erode significantly in the following years. On March 20, 2021, Turkey stunned the Council of Europe by withdrawing from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence—also known as the Istanbul Convention, for the city in which it opened for signatures—which Turkey had been the first country to ratify. Erdoğan claimed that the convention undermined family values and had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality,” though the document makes no major statements about gay rights.

Soon after, Erdoğan’s government made another attempt at undermining the women’s movement by charging the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, a volunteer group of lawyers and advocates who represent victims of domestic violence, with “acting against morality.” The prosecution recommended that the group be dismantled. In an unusual victory for a human-rights group, in September 2023, after 18 months and four hearings, the judge went against Erdoğan’s political agenda and dropped the case due to lack of evidence.

Erdoğan’s attacks on women grew as his political support weakened, after criticism about his response to the February 2023 earthquake and amid raging inflation. Two hard-line Islamist parties were ready and willing to fortify him: the New Welfare Party (YRP) and Hüda Par. YRP’s leader has likened Turkey’s domestic-violence law to fascism, and Hüda Par advocates for separate education for men and women and criminalizing sex outside marriage. In the May 2023 elections, both parties campaigned for the repeal of Law 6284, which includes provisions to protect women but stops short of criminalizing domestic violence. As a result, Erdoğan lost considerable support from conservative women voters.

Last month, Erdoğan announced his plans to amend and weaken Law 6284, and on July 3, his party submitted an omnibus bill to the Turkish Parliament that removes an important provision for protection. Currently, a domestic abuser who violates a preventative order is subject to temporary imprisonment. If the proposed reforms pass, the abuser can avoid this preventive confinement. Equally concerning to the women’s movement, the legal reform would require married women to take their husband’s name, emphasizing the family as the basis for society. Parliament is reviewing the bill.

On March 8, Turkish women participated in their annual “Feminist Night” march, despite a government ban on protests in the busy downtown district where they had gathered. Police hit women until the protective shields they carried were broken, and then detained and charged protesters.

“This is actually an expression of how afraid they are of women,” said Özgür Sevinç Şimşek, a film director who was released in 2021 after serving five and a half years in prison on terrorism charges. “The male state knows that no matter how much it intervenes, women will never give up.” Viewed with this lens, Erdoğan is a rational political actor seeking to neutralize threats and consolidate his power.

Despite all the setbacks, there are signs of hope. In the May 2023 elections, Turkish women won 11 out of 81 mayoral seats, including in five urban centers and some conservative areas, more than doubling their representation in Turkey’s government.

[Read: Arab women are tired of talking about just ‘women’s issues’]

“The election took place between two sharp lines,” said 31-year-old Gulistan Sonuk, who won a mayoral race in the eastern province of Batman by a large margin against Hüda Par. “One was the mentality that saw women as second-class, and the other defended women’s freedom. The public chose the latter.”

The Turkish women’s movement continues to fight back against Erdoğan even as he lashes out at civil society. The movement’s judicial and electoral wins in the face of illiberal leadership and brutal censorship are a beacon of hope to defenders of women and democracy everywhere, though their fight is far from over.

Today, women’s rights and liberal democracy are under attack in countries around the world, including the United States. The countries that are the biggest threat to the U.S.—Russia, China and Iran—are autocratic patriarchies in which women often form a last line of defense by fighting for their rights. While the democratic world wrings its hands in the face of seemingly unstoppable forces of illiberalism, women are still organizing.

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Nothing Netanyahu Says Will Matter

“We can’t rely on miracles. We need action to eliminate the threat. Only one action will accomplish this, and that’s to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza.” These fighting words were uttered by Benjamin Netanyahu—in 2009, when he was running to become Israel’s next prime minister. “I want to say here and now: We won’t stop … We’ll complete the task. We’ll topple the regime of Hamas terror.” A few months after making this promise, Netanyahu took office. He did not, in fact, topple Hamas.

Fifteen years later, Netanyahu is about to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He’ll be the first foreign leader to have done so four times, more even than Winston Churchill. And nothing he says will matter.

That’s not just because the speech is happening in the shadow of extraordinary electoral upheaval, days after President Joe Biden dropped his reelection bid and hours before Biden will address the nation from the Oval Office. No, the Israeli premier’s speech will be forgotten for a more fundamental reason: Although Netanyahu is very good at delivering portentous pronouncements, his words tend to have few consequences beyond the immediate attention they attract.

[Read: Netanyahu’s folly]

One would think that onlookers would have figured this out by now. After all, Netanyahu last addressed Congress in 2015, to lobby against Barack Obama’s impending Iran nuclear deal. It was a masterful piece of political performance art. It also did not derail the nuclear deal. The prime minister’s speech generated weeks of political strife and breathless media coverage in the United States, but the deal went into effect in January 2016, after the Republican-controlled Congress failed to muster the necessary votes to obstruct it. Practically speaking, Netanyahu’s dramatic intervention achieved nothing, other than rallying Democrats around their president and his signature diplomatic achievement.

In reality, Netanyahu never had the clout in Congress to seriously challenge the deal—the address was about him and bolstering his standing in Israel’s upcoming election, not about changing the course of U.S. diplomacy. Countless “important” Netanyahu addresses in Israel, America, and the United Nations for more than a decade have followed this pattern: The Israeli leader uses his speeches to burnish his brand as a statesman of stature, but his words are only tenuously connected to any real-world outcomes.

Consider Netanyahu’s landmark 2009 address at Bar-Ilan University, where the conservative prime minister—under pressure from a newly elected Obama—claimed to have embraced the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after having spent his career opposing it. “In my vision of peace in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect,” he declared. “Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.”

Spoiler alert: Netanyahu did not advance the two-state solution in the years that followed. Running for reelection in 2015, he promised that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. At a press conference in December 2023, Netanyahu told a reporter that he was “proud” to have thwarted the establishment of such a state “for almost 30 years,” because after the atrocities of October 7, “everybody understands what that Palestinian state could have been, now that we’ve seen the little Palestinian state in Gaza.”

Earlier this month, before the prime minister departed to address Congress, right-wing factions in Israel’s Parliament proposed and successfully passed a resolution rejecting Palestinian statehood, garnering 68 of the Knesset’s 120 votes—including Netanyahu’s. Some supporting lawmakers clarified that they opposed a Palestinian state only for the present moment, lest its creation reward Hamas for terrorism. Netanyahu’s Likud party made no such stipulation.

The prime minister’s parade of empty utterances goes on. In 2014, Netanyahu announced a deal with the United Nations to resolve the status of 34,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, calling the carefully negotiated arrangement a “landmark achievement.” Hours later, he nixed the whole thing after backlash from his base. In 2019, as part of his reelection campaign, the Israeli leader repeatedly pledged to annex part of the occupied West Bank to Israel, only to ditch the plan as a condition for signing the Abraham Accords. Today, however, Netanyahu’s hard-right government is quietly pursuing such annexation in all but name.

“The ability to spot danger in advance and prepare for it is the test of a body’s functioning,” the prime minister told a popular Israeli talk show a decade ago. “The Jewish nation has never excelled at foreseeing danger. We were surprised again and again—and the last time was the most awful one. That won’t happen under my leadership.” (It did.)

[Read: The end of Netanyahu]

Whatever one thinks of his policies—and I’ve been a critic—Netanyahu is undeniably a singular salesman for himself. A polyglot and a peerless orator, he excels at using set-piece speeches to hijack the public’s attention and cast himself domestically and internationally as a senior statesman. But this ruse works only because bystanders—including the press—confuse rhetoric for reality and spectacle for significance.

The truth is the reverse: What matters are not the words Netanyahu speaks but the actions he ultimately takes. The rest is noise, and—like his address today—can be safely tuned out.

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Why I Buy German Toothpaste Now

For as long as I can remember, I have bought into the gospel of fluoride, believing that my teeth would surely rot out of my head without its protection. So it felt a little bit illicit, recently, when I purchased a box of German fluoride-free kids’ toothpaste for my daughter. The toothpaste came in blue, understated packaging—no cartoon characters or candy flavors—which I associated with German practicality. And instead of fluoride, it contained an anticavity ingredient called hydroxyapatite, vouched for by several dental researchers I interviewed for this story. Could it be, I wondered as I clicked “Buy,” that toothpaste doesn’t need to contain fluoride after all?

The scientific case for hydroxyapatite toothpaste is actually quite simple: Composed of calcium and phosphate, hydroxyapatite is the very mineral that primarily makes up our bones and teeth. Tooth enamel, the hard protective outer layer, is naturally about 96 percent hydroxyapatite. NASA researchers first patented an idea for repairing teeth with a hydroxyapatite precursor in the 1970s; nothing came of it then, but a Japanese company acquired the patent and eventually created a popular toothpaste called Apagard. Hydroxyapatite toothpaste has been approved for cavity prevention in Japan since 1993. It is also approved in Canada and endorsed by the Canadian Dental Association. And it’s sold in Europe, where the European Commission has deemed the ingredient safe in toothpaste.

In the United States, however, fluoride still reigns supreme. You likely won’t find toothpaste containing hydroxyapatite at your corner drugstore. A few boutique hydroxyapatite-based brands have popped up, but they cannot market themselves for cavity prevention without FDA approval, a long and expensive process that no hydroxyapatite toothpaste has yet gone through. The American Dental Association (ADA), meanwhile, gives its Seal of Acceptance only to toothpastes that contain fluoride.

Fluoride does work remarkably well: It is incorporated into the enamel structure of the tooth itself, forming a mineral crystal that is significantly more resistant to cavity-causing acid than the tooth’s natural material, according Bernhard Ganss, a scientist at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry. “​​The dogma in dentistry has always been: Fluoride is a good thing.”

The trouble with fluoride is that, at very high levels, it becomes a bad thing. Ingesting too much can lead to a condition called fluorosis, in which teeth become mottled in mild cases or structurally weak in more serious ones. The same can happen to bones. More controversially, high levels of fluoride in drinking water—higher than the level recommended in the U.S., but lower than the current EPA limit—have been linked to lower IQ in children. Toothpaste typically contains more than 1,000 times the fluoride recommended in drinking water. We use much less toothpaste than water, of course, and it’s not meant to be swallowed, but young children do not spit out toothpaste reliably.

Hydroxyapatite is a way to sidestep the fluoride controversy. It offers the anticavity benefits of fluoride, but without the risks. Bennett Amaechi, a dentistry professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, says he now recommends it to parents who have concerns about fluoride. He has collaborated with toothpaste manufacturers to study ​​hydroxyapatite, but Felicitas Bidlack told me the same thing about its utility. Bidlack is not a dentist, but she is a tooth enamel researcher, recommended to me by the American Dental Association, which one could hardly accuse of being anti-fluoride. Yet for kids under 2 still learning not to swallow toothpaste, she would likely choose hydroxyapatite. “That’s what I would do as a mother,” she told me.

Fluoride toothpaste is in a bit of catch-22, Bidlack added. Sweet candy flavors, bright colors, and glitter can make toothpaste enticing enough for kids to want to brush their teeth, but if it’s too enticing, kids might simply eat it. “If you provide fluoride with this good-tasting goo that they put in their mouths, there is definitely a risk of unintentional ingestion,” says Ganss, who has published papers on hydroxyapatite in collaboration with scientists from the Dr. Wolff Group, a German business that manufactures toothpaste. He went even further: For very young kids, “I would actually really stand up and say no fluoride, period.”

I found these conversations clarifying, as they cut through the contradictory advice I’ve been given about fluoride for my 1-year-old. Toothpaste marketed to kids under 2 in the U.S. does not in fact contain fluoride (it usually contains a sugar alcohol called xylitol), and toothpastes that do contain fluoride are labeled as unsuitable for kids younger than 2 unless instructed by a doctor. But the American Academy of Pediatrics, whose guidelines our pediatrician repeated, says to use fluoride toothpaste as soon as the first tooth appears—though only a rice-size smear, which would limit exposure to fluoride. So is fluoride good or not? Is it safe or not? Wouldn’t it be nice not to deal with fluoride at all?

Hydroxyapatite’s track record is not as long as fluoride’s, but the evidence so far looks good: In clinical trials that have followed kids or adults for six months to a year and a half—largely funded by toothpaste manufacturers—hydroxyapatite and fluoride have come out about equally protective against cavities. Hydroxyapatite is chemically not as resistant to cavity-causing acid as the mineral formed by fluoride, but Ganss says that daily brushing might replenish hydroxyapatite often enough that the real-world protection is the same. The mineral may also have some other benefits: In studies, hydroxyapatite has helped reduce tooth sensitivity and the amount of bacteria stuck to teeth. The one thing it cannot do is resolve the controversy over adding fluoride to drinking water, which is done as a public-health measure in most parts of the U.S. to prevent tooth decay. Hydroxyapatite can’t be put into drinking water, because it doesn’t dissolve at a neutral pH. “The tap water would be milky,” Ganss says. “It would probably clog all your pipes within a few days or so.”

The researchers I spoke with thought fluoride still had its uses, particularly in treatments and toothpaste for adults who know not to swallow too much. Amaechi still brushes with the Colgate he’s used all his life, as he sees no reason for him, as an adult, to change his habits. But he does recommend hydroxyapatite in specific situations—for example, patients with dry mouth, he says, may particularly benefit from this formulation.

Age 2 isn’t some magic threshold at which the calculus regarding toothpaste in small children suddenly changes, of course. Canada, in fact, recommends holding off on fluoride for most kids until age 3; fluoride-free options for kids are now expanding in the U.S., even without FDA approval of hydroxyapatite. The German children’s toothpaste came only in boring white mint, but I found a number of brands in the U.S. already selling more tempting flavors, such as orange creamsicle and birthday cake.

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The Court Fools Itself

The Trumpist justices on the Supreme Court had a very serious problem: They needed to keep their guy out of prison for trying to overthrow the government. The right-wing justices had to do this while still attempting to maintain at least a pretense of having ruled on the basis of the law and the Constitution rather than mere partisan instincts.

So they settled on what they thought was a very clever solution: They would grant the presidency the near-unlimited immunity Donald Trump was asking for, while writing the decision so as to keep the power to decide which presidential acts would be “official” and immune to criminal prosecution, and which would be “unofficial” and therefore not. The president is immune, but only when the justices say he is. The president might seem like a king, but the justices can withhold the crown.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on presidential immunity combines with its regulatory decisions this term to remake the executive branch into the ideal right-wing combination of impotence and power: Too weak to regulate, restrain, or punish private industry for infractions, but strong enough for the president to order his political opponents murdered or imprisoned. To ordinary people, the president is a king; to titans of industry, he is a pawn. Given the work the Trump justices have done here, the billionaire class’ affection for Trump, often presented as counterintuitive, is not difficult to understand.

Yet when it comes to the justices’ decision on immunity, they were too clever by half. They seem to believe that when a president goes too far for their taste, they can declare he’s not immune and constrain him. But there is danger in a ruling that invites presidents to test the limits of their power. By the time a rogue president goes too far, he is unlikely to care what the Supreme Court says. A president unbound by the law is shackled only by the dictates of his own conscience, and a president without a conscience faces no restraint at all. And because they ruled as they did, when they did, and on behalf of a man lawless enough to try to overturn an election, Americans may pay for the justices’ hubris sooner rather than later.

Rather than leave such momentous decisions in the justices’ hands as they intended, the ruling empowers anyone amoral enough to commit crimes to do so without any fear of the law or the Supreme Court. The decision implies that this immunity would extend to anyone acting on the president’s orders—meaning that a president is free not only to commit crimes, but to turn the federal government itself into a criminal enterprise, one in which officials can act with impunity against the public they are meant to serve. That the executive branch has all the guns was true prior to the Court’s ruling. But until the justices had to find a way to keep Donald Trump out of prison for trying to stay in office after losing an election, few people believed that the presidency was as unbound from the law as the Supreme Court has now made it.

The American government was constructed with one basic idea in mind: that the three branches would prevent tyranny by counteracting one another. As Federalist No. 51 put it, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” But a subsequent clause is just as important: “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

The Framers were decidedly not angels—their acceptance of slavery being an obvious illustration of their fallibility. They understood that, to sustain itself, the structure of the government would have to account for vices as well as virtues. The Roberts Court’s ahistorical ruling reversed the entire purpose of the Constitution, from creating a government that did not need to be led by angels to creating one so imperial that only an angel ought to be allowed to govern it.

[Read: The Supreme Court puts Trump above the law]

We could speculate on how presidents without fear of the law might act, but we already have a historical example in Trump’s favorite president, Andrew Jackson.

In 1831, the Supreme Court decided 5–1 in favor of a pair of missionaries who had been assisting the Cherokee in a dispute with the Georgia state government. The justices ruled that because the Cherokee constituted a sovereign nation, only the federal government had jurisdiction over them. Georgia had passed a series of laws authorizing the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee from any lands claimed by the state, and as a result of the ruling, those laws had become invalid. But Jackson had no intention of upholding the Supreme Court’s decision and preventing Georgia from seizing those lands and displacing the Cherokee.

According to the Jackson biographer John Meacham, the president did not say, “Well, [Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it,” the popular misquote of Jackson’s reaction. Instead he said, “The decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that it cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.” But the effect was the same. Neither Jackson nor the state of Georgia wanted to follow Marshall’s opinion, and so they ignored it. The federal government had already passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, so the decision would not have prevented the ethnic cleansing known as the Trail of Tears even had it been heeded. Nevertheless, the incident showed that the Supreme Court had no power to enforce its decisions; it relied on the good faith of the executive branch.

In the history of presidential crimes, the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans dwarfs anything Trump has done. Jackson acted as he did not because he believed the text of the Constitution granted him immunity, but because in 1831 the United States allowed only white men to vote and there was no constituency large enough to oppose his actions. In other words: He did it because he knew he could get away with it.

[Read: The Roberts Court draws a line]

One could retort that the fact that the republic did not fall after a president ignored a Supreme Court decision should provide some comfort. Except that is not the lesson here. The lesson is that presidents and governments are capable of doing monstrous things to people they consider beneath them or to whom they are unaccountable. The extraconstitutional presidential immunity invented out of whole cloth by the Roberts Court offers to make presidents unaccountable not just to a portion of the people they govern, but to all of them.

Whatever crimes Trump has committed in the past, or chooses to commit in the future, he will, unlike Jackson, have the Supreme Court’s blessing—so long as he can disguise them as official acts. But even if Trump loses in November, this concept of presidential immunity conjured up by the Roberts Court has made the current crisis of American democracy perpetual. Until it is overturned, every president is a potential despot.

The Jackson incident is a well-known cautionary tale of presidential lawlessness. Trump’s entourage however, sees it differently—as inspiration.  

Trump’s newly announced running mate, J. D. Vance, has said so himself. In 2022 , Vanity Fair reported that Vance had appeared on a podcast in which he said, “I think Trump is going to run again in 2024,” and added:

“I think that what Trump should do, if I was giving him one piece of advice: Fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people.”

“And when the courts stop you,” he went on, “stand before the country, and say”—he quoted Andrew Jackson, giving a challenge to the entire constitutional order—“the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.”

This is not a view of executive power that is going to submit to whatever legal technicalities the justices might use to restrain it, if they even wanted to. One likely reason Vance was picked is that, unlike former Vice President Mike Pence, Vance has openly said he would have tried to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election using the vice president’s ceremonial role in electoral-vote certification. In other words, he would be a willing accomplice to a coup. We might view Vance’s lawlessness here as a kind of audition for the next Trump administration, one he apparently aced.

The originalists of the Roberts Court, supposedly so committed to the text of the Constitution, the intent of the Framers, and the nuances of history, conjured out of nothing precisely the sort of executive office the Founders of the United States were trying to avoid. They did so because their primary mode of constitutional interpretation is a form of narcissism: Whatever the contemporary conservative movement wants must be what the Founders wanted, regardless of what the Founders actually said, did, or wrote.

The right-wing justices, in rewriting of the Constitution in Trump’s image, have clearly diverged from the intentions of the founders. In “Federalist No. 69,” Alexander Hamilton wrote that former presidents would “be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.” Expanding on his point, Hamilton wrote, “The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution.” The Roberts Court turned the office of the presidency the Founders made into the kind of monarchical office they rebelled against.

The justices, less independent arbiters than the shock troops of the conservative movement, wanted Trump to be immune to prosecution, and so they conjured a rationale for doing so, with a narrow window of legal accountability that only they have the right to determine. But that window might as well be barred from the inside: What Jackson’s story shows is that the feeble, arbitrary restraints the justices put into their own grant of royal immunity to Trump will not withstand any president with the capacity to violate them. Unfortunately, the day a rogue president shows the Supreme Court just how powerless it really is, it will not be the justices who suffer most for their folly.

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The Harris Gamble

The documentarian Matt Ornstein interviewed two young Latino men in Long Beach, California, at the midpoint of the Trump presidency. They were both strong Donald Trump supporters. Why?

One answered, “Trump’s smart. He knows right from wrong.”

The other one scoffed, “No. No he doesn’t. He’s dumb as shit. But he’s got balls.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost to Trump among male voters by 11 points. In 2020, Joe Biden ran about even with Trump among men. Clinton lost. Biden won.

Now Democrats are preparing again to nominate a woman for president, Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris likes to use the poetic phrase “What can be, unburdened by what has been.” But “what has been” cannot be so easily banished.

In the spring and early summer, polls that asked about a Harris-Trump race suggested that Harris would score somewhat worse or about the same as Biden. One poll conducted after the disastrous Biden-Trump debate showed Harris running slightly stronger than Biden. And recent state-by-state polls indicate that Harris could do better than Biden among women, young people, and Black voters.

But polls of hypothetical political matchups may not really tell us very much. In repeated surveys, only about 70 percent of Americans can even name the current vice president. How substantive are their opinions about that person, pro or con? Building out any kind of independent political identity is challenging for a former vice president: Witness the non-presidencies of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle, and Al Gore—all former veeps who sought and missed the top job. Even canny Richard Nixon lost the race he ran while still serving as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president in 1960.

Now the Trump campaign will be defining Harris’s identity too—and no prizes for guessing how they will do that: by casting Harris as a threat to sexual decency and racial order. Earlier this month, Trump posted on Truth Social an advance warning of the campaign he’ll run against Harris:

Also, respects to our potentially new Democrat Challenger, Laffin’ Kamala Harris. She did poorly in the Democrat Nominating process, starting out at Number Two, and ending up defeated and dropping out, even before getting to Iowa, but that doesn’t mean she’s not a “highly talented” politician! Just ask her Mentor, the Great Willie Brown of San Francisco.

In case you missed Trump’s hint, he’s referencing an old internet smear that Harris slept her way to political success.

The attacks on Harris will operate in a dual universe. In the more obscure and disreputable parts of the right-wing media system, the sexual and racial fantasies will be elaborated. The former Fox News star Megyn Kelly declared Harris’s intimate history “fair game” in a social-media post today. In the more public and more careful parts of the right-wing media system, the fantasies will be referenced and exploited without ever being quite explicitly stated.

In 2012, the Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld quipped: “Obama is now out of the closet … He’s officially gay for class warfare.” The joke was carefully constructed, using the phrase gay for to mean “enthusiastic about.” But the joke worked, as I wrote at the time, because:

A large part of his audience ardently believes that Obama is in fact gay, that his marriage is a sham, and that Mrs. Obama leads a life of Marie Antoinette like extravagance to compensate her for her husband’s neglect while he disports himself with his personal aides.

So it will go with Harris. Her midlife marriage, her mixed-race origins, her manner and appearance, her vocal intonations, her career in the Bay Area with all of its association in the right-wing mind with dirt and depravity—those will be resources to construct a frightening psychosexual profile of the Black, Asian, and female Democratic candidate.

Never in U.S. history has there been a candidate for president who more flagrantly violated Christian ideals of marriage and family than Trump, the thrice-married sexual predator who has boasted on recorded audio of sexually assaulting women and reportedly made lewd remarks about his own daughter. Trump’s supporters can and will block all that out on their way to imagining Harris as sexually debauched.

Images and stereotypes overwhelm reality.

Trump often looked disengaged at his convention last week, including during the speech of his eldest son. However, he clapped and smiled delightedly through the speech by Hulk Hogan, who ripped off his shirt to demonstrate to the audience his fighting zeal for Trump. Hogan is a 70-year-old man who gained fame as an actor in pretend fights that every fan knew to be staged. Yet he’s also an icon of male strength and virility, considered no less awe-inspiring for being fake—maybe more awe-inspiring for being fake.

All working politicians appreciate that the human mind is not fully rational, that voting behavior is impelled by stereotypes, fears, and hatreds. Liberal politics hopes and trusts that the irrationality can be offset by policies and programs: They may hate me, but they will love my $35 insulin. Trump has built his campaigns on the assumption that irrationality rules supreme: They love me, so they will believe me when I falsely claim that it was I who delivered the $35 insulin they love. So far, Trump’s bet has paid off.

To have any hope of countering it, the irrational must be faced and acknowledged. A lot of contemporary progressive politics is based on a faith, or a fantasy, that policing words can reshape reality. For example, call the justice system “the carceral state,” and voters may be persuaded not to mind that elected officials are sending fewer dangerous criminals in prison. Rename residents of urban encampments “the unhoused,” and voters may be led to shrug off tent cities of drug addicts and mentally ill people on streets and in parks. Cordon off measurable political facts with ominous “How dare you say that?” warnings, and the facts will somehow go away.

But facts don’t go away because they go undiscussed. In other competitive endeavors, professionals candidly balance advantages and disadvantages. Other things being equal, success is more likely to follow if a baseball pitcher is taller or if a jockey is lighter. But because other things are rarely equal, some pitchers and some jockeys defy the odds and still win.

Democrats are taking a risk with Harris—and it’s not only their risk. If she does secure the Democratic presidential nomination, then she becomes the only hope to keep Trump out of the White House for a second term. She becomes the only hope for Ukraine, for NATO, for open international trade, for American democracy, for a society founded on the equal worth and dignity of all its people. Anyone committed to those principles and ideals, whatever his or her past or future political affiliation, now has everything riding on the chances of the nominee chosen by some 4,700 Democratic delegates in Chicago next month.

If it is to be Harris, what are her ways to fight the odds and prevail against the irrational urges of tribe and sex so powerfully exploited by Trump?

Three ideas, for now.

The first is to remember that two can play at the game of the irrational. Trump also exists within a vortex of stereotypes and animosities. In March 2019, a Gallup poll found that 56 percent of Americans approved of then-President Trump’s handling of the economy. Yet economic satisfaction did not pay off in a high approval rating; his languished in the low 40s. The CNN polling analyst Harry Enten put his finger on the reason: In a 2019 survey by Quinnipiac, only 39 percent of those polled believed that Trump cared about ordinary Americans, as opposed to 58 percent who thought he did not.

A second idea is to remember that the irrational can be harnessed and redeployed. According to a large body of research, sex stereotypes can help women candidates. The trick, the research suggests, is to persuade voters that the job—say, a seat on the school board—is gender-congruent: for example, that it’s best done by someone who cares a lot about children. This conclusion may be unwelcome to those who want to challenge gender stereotypes rather than benefit from them—but if it works, it works.  

A third idea is to trust that reality matters more than Trump wishes it did. The Trump presidency really did end in disaster. His partisans deploy a battery of excuses for why the disaster was not Trump’s fault: the coronavirus pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and so on. But he was the man in charge. The Trump of The Apprentice never accepted excuses. Confronted with candidates who each pinned the blame for failure on others, Apprentice Trump fired them all: “We’ve never had a team lose so badly.” President Trump wants an out for his term that Apprentice Trump would never have accepted from a contestant.

Great presidents have summoned Americans to heed the better angels of their nature, in Lincoln’s famous phrase. But before they became great, those presidents first had to become president—and that meant taking Americans as they are, not as the angels they might be. That same Lincoln again and again deferred to prejudices that he could not in the moment defeat. He even made use of impulses he did not share. As his law partner William Herndon said of him, “He was not impulsive, fanciful, or imaginative; but cold, calm, and precise.” Lincoln took the fewest possible risks; he habitually expressed his boldest ideas in the most conservative language. He had a democracy to save. So do we.

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Eight Books That Will Inspire You to Move Your Body

This summer, in Paris, the Olympics will once again invite billions of people from around the world to watch some of the best athletes alive compete. Viewers tune in not necessarily out of love for the 20-kilometer race walk or the canoe slalom, but because of how sports are perfect metaphors for human drama. In the euphoria or devastation of the Games, our own struggles, both ordinary and existential, are made concrete: We see the possibility of transcendence, the basest instincts for treachery or cheating, the heartbreak of unrealized dreams, and the limits of human endurance. The athletes—and the spectators—belong to something larger than themselves.

Clearly, athleticism, exercise, and sports all lend themselves to heightened narrative stakes, and writers know this well. The thrills of competition, or of pushing one’s limits, don’t need to be Olympic-level to be compelling, however: In literature, amateurish endeavors and personal fitness can take on the same epic sweep as the events of the biggest games and leagues in the world. Authors frequently use the pursuit of athletic goals to reveal the complex, nuanced relationship that exists between the mind and the body.

These eight books—stories of swimmers, baseball players, and avid basketball fans—ask questions about what it means to approach and sometimes surpass limitations, and may inspire readers to pursue athletic goals of their own.

The Art of Fielding
Little, Brown

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

In American fiction, sports usually show up in one of two ways: Either they’re a figurative lens for understanding a main character, or the protagonist’s fortune depends on his success on the field. In Harbach’s novel, baseball does both. It serves as a symbol for a kind of sepia-toned American hopefulness and as a metaphor for the connection between a boy and his father. But the games in The Art of Fielding have very literal consequences. When Henry Skrimshander is recruited to play baseball for Westish College, a fictional liberal-arts school with a tenuous claim to Herman Melville, the sport becomes a path to a life outside his rural North Dakota town. As readers come to know the other players and coaches, the game turns into a microcosm of hope, ambition, and disappointment. In a narrative anchored by allusions to Melville’s work and a fictional classic baseball book, also titled The Art of Fielding, the players, coaches, and professors at Westish weather injuries, romantic entanglements, and questions that transcend baseball. One character muses, “He’d never found anything inside himself that was really good and pure, that wasn’t double-edged, that couldn’t just as easily become its opposite.”

Poverty Creek Journal
Tupelo Press

Poverty Creek Journal, by Thomas Gardner

Gardner’s Poverty Creek Journal might appear, on the surface, to be something many compulsive endurance athletes know well: a straightforward record of a year’s training. But under that guise, this collection of lyric essays is a profound meditation on aging and grief, cut through with beautiful Annie Dillard–like observations of the landscape where the author runs. As the year goes on, the rituals of each morning’s training session reveal Gardner mourning after his brother’s unexpected death (“Cold rain this morning, 45 degrees, crying hard by the time I hit the pond,” he writes of one run). He threads the words of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf through his reflections on the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, where he teaches, and he contemplates the tragedy’s devastating effect on the community. In contrast to the typical runner’s log, Gardner’s specifics of time and distance are only proxies for musings on the companionship of his training partners or, as middle age slows his pace, on the undeniability of his eventual death. Writing well about something as seemingly low-stakes as amateur distance training is hard. But in Gardner’s work, running only happens to be the means through which he observes the world, and his observations are those of a poet.

You Will Know Me
Little, Brown

You Will Know Me, by Megan Abbott

The past decade has forced a public reckoning with the predatory culture of elite gymnastics, and Abbott’s 2016 thriller is deeply familiar with the decades of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that so many athletes endured in top training programs. The immense pressure these institutions put on gymnasts—and their families—is central to the novel’s conceit. Told from the perspective of Katie, the mother of an aspiring Olympic gymnast named Devon, Abbott’s novel plays with the tension in how parental involvement can both protect children and harm them: The gymnasts’ parents, including Katie, live out their competitive fantasies and pursue vendettas through their kids. Then, when an unexplained death shocks the gymnastics world, it becomes clear that Katie—a woman who knows the intricacies of her daughter’s diet and workout routine, and the exact contours of her leotard-clad physique—does not know the secrets Devon has been keeping. That paradox makes plain how even when a child’s schedule is carefully controlled and their body fastidiously monitored, their internal life is ultimately their own.

Fit Nation
University of Chicago Press

Fit Nation: The Pains and Gains of America’s Exercise Obsession, by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Years into her career as a cultural historian, Petrzela, a New School history professor, turned her attention to the history of America’s obsession with fitness—in part because to outsiders, her passion for exercise seemed at odds with her academic life and interests. In chronicling the evolution in America’s attitude toward exercise from skepticism to an equation of fitness with moral superiority, Fit Nation brings the academic and athletic worlds together. The book touches on the history of the sports bra, Title IX’s impact on women’s participation in sports, the first running boom, the mania for aerobics and yoga classes of the past, and how current brands, such as Barry’s and Peloton, have become shorthand for an entire set of ethical, aesthetic, and financial positions. Exercise, Petrzela argues, is no longer just about bodily benefits; it’s also the manifestation of our collective, if fraught, belief that fitness represents virtue.


Endure, by Alex Hutchinson

For the purposes of Hutchinson’s book, endurance is defined by a researcher as “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” For all the technological advances in the study of brain and sports science—the core-temperature-measuring pills used by Nike, the study participants pedaling to exhaustion—a great deal about the way the brain communicates with the rest of the body remains unclear. What’s also unclear is how humans can consistently reach the physical limits of their performance. Why, for instance, can the ultramarathoner Diane Van Deren summon the strength to break into a relative sprint near the end of a multiday trail-record attempt—especially when she must begin each morning by crawling until endorphins have numbed her pain enough that she can get on her feet? The book explores the distinct nature of discomfort and fatigue along with the relationship between anxiety and resilience, and asks if new (and contentious) techniques such as brain training might prepare athletes to persist in the late stages of competition. The questions Hutchinson poses about limitations are frequently specific to extreme endurance sports, but his book is also filled with instances in which ordinary people have managed seemingly impossible feats of endurance. Coupled with his stories of professionals who come up short, these anecdotes make clear that our quest to push onward is both universal and universally complex.

Spirit Run

Spirit Run, by Noé Álvarez

Álvarez’s memoir of his participation in the 2004 Peace and Dignity Journey, a 6,000-mile endurance relay from Alaska to the Panama Canal, begins with a prologue of lyrical vignettes that introduce a handful of his fellow runners: a teenage mother whose baby died at seven weeks old, a Dené elder from Alaska, a young Bay Area man who emigrated from Mexico as a child. “And then,” Álvarez writes, “there’s me.” Álvarez’s own story begins with his childhood in the Yakima Valley of Washington, the son of Mexican agricultural workers, and then segues into a young adulthood marked by his search for spiritual and cultural belonging. Álvarez signs up for the Peace and Dignity Journey in hopes that the arduous work will open possibilities for connecting to Indigenous history, to his Purépecha grandfather’s culture, and to a larger community. He meditates on identity and home, but he also complicates the traditional quest narrative readers might be expecting: His willingness to write honestly about loneliness and doubt, and to acknowledge that a run—no matter how meaningful—cannot eradicate those emotions entirely, is welcome.

Basketball (And Other Things)

Basketball (And Other Things), by Shea Serrano, illustrated by Arturo Torres

Serrano’s illustrated history and reference book about basketball, and sometimes only tenuously related culture, is hilarious. It manages to be both specific enough (with pages of tables on Michael Jordan’s career statistics) and irreverent enough (it features a ranking of fictional characters who hoop  including The Office’s Jim Halpert and Air Bud the dog) to appeal to a wide range of readers. Serrano poses hypothetical NBA death matches, speculates about who ought to be in the NBA-villain hall of fame, and ranks the greatest NBA conspiracy theories alongside the “three most interesting philosophical quandaries tangentially connected to a Carmelo Anthony cameo in a movie or TV show.” In the book’s introduction, written by the former NBA player Reggie Miller, Miller theorizes that basketball, more than football or baseball, has uniquely crossed over into daily American life. The sport is relatively accessible, and you don’t need a lot of gear or space. “Whether you played or just watched, we all grew up with it,” Miller argues. “Basketball is always there.” Even for those among us for whom the game was slightly less there—perhaps limited to 1990s starter jackets, High School Musical, or shouting “Kobe” when throwing trash into a bin—the book is delightful and moving.

The Swimmers

The Swimmers, by Julie Otsuka

Otsuka’s novel opens with brief, elliptical introductions to the dozens of men and women who swim at the subterranean pool on an unnamed university campus. “Most days, at the pool,” Otsuka writes in the first-person plural, “we are able to leave our troubles on land behind. Failed painters become elegant breaststrokers. Untenured professors slice, shark-­like, through the water, with breathtaking speed … And for a brief interlude we are at home in the world.” Later, she moves to a second-person point of view, and readers come to more intimately know Alice, a swimmer with dementia who appears occasionally in the novel’s first section; through the eyes of her unnamed daughter, we grieve Alice’s decline and death, and we also mourn the fact that her child understands only vaguely what the pool meant to her mother. Although the specifics of the water and its swimmers are particular to Otsuka’s world, the notion of a place out of time—one where bodily repetition allows the bereaved, hopeful, disappointed, and imperfect among us to be relieved of the heartbreak of regular life—resonates far beyond the novel.

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Retirement Gets Harder the Longer You Wait

When President Joe Biden announced on Sunday that he was ending his campaign for reelection, he took pains to describe his choice as one meant to serve the greater good. “I believe it is in the best interest of my party and the country,” he wrote in a statement. His decision seemed calculated to prioritize the health of the nation over his own self-interest—and, perhaps, above his own mental and physical well-being.

When people choose to retire, it’s generally a positive experience, without a sizable effect on mental health. But stepping away from a high-powered job, whether toward full retirement or a substantial reduction in work, is fraught for many Americans. And it’s especially difficult for Biden’s demographic: highly educated men who have continued working far past 65, the average retirement age for men. “Particularly for college-educated men in professional positions, there’s this expectation that your work is part of your identity,” Sarah Damaske, who studies gender and labor at Pennsylvania State University, told me. Losing it can have serious consequences. Being president has almost certainly harmed Biden’s health, and he has demonstrated symptoms of significant cognitive and physical decline during his term. But exiting the presidency in January will pose new cognitive challenges.

“When people are at the center of their universe through their job, we don’t have a storyline or a place in our society that is attractive enough to say, ‘Maybe I’ve had enough,’” says Joseph Coughlin, the founder and director of the MIT AgeLab. “You’re showing people the door with no direction.” That has implications for cognitive and emotional health. When a person starts to identify himself by the past tense—that he used to be a doctor, a teacher, or the president—he shifts his focus from his present and future to his past. Research shows that ruminating on the past can correlate with negative mental-health outcomes, including depression and a sense that one’s perspective and experiences are no longer relevant.

Many Americans who stay in high-powered positions into their 70s, 80s, and beyond do so out of a warranted concern over who they would be without the job. S. K. Park, 88, a former psychiatrist and professor at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, never wanted to retire. But at 80, he told me, “I made up my mind to retire when I was still at the height of my cognitive ability. I was very conscious of not being a stubborn, obstinate old person.” At 84, 53 years after he started his job, Park left, figuring that he would turn to other interests: his children and grandson, calligraphy, hiking, and travel. But instead, “all of a sudden, life kind of stopped,” he said. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure how to spend his time or how he provided value to his community.

Stepping away from work—which can provide an identity, a routine, a social network, and a purpose—is linked to several ill effects on health, especially for older adults. It has been linked to declines in verbal memory, the skill that allows you to recall spoken and written information, crucial for tasks like giving a presentation and communicating with clients. A 2020 meta-analysis found that 28 percent of retirees suffer from depression. By comparison, 2019 estimates from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggest that, around the world, only 13.8 percent of adults age 60 or older experience any kind of mental disorder.

[Read: There are exceptionally sharp octogenarians. Biden isn’t one.]

Some doctors—a profession that notably skews older—are loath to retire precisely because they’re familiar with the medical literature. “I’m at least intellectually aware that in old age, people may fall into a state of despair,” Park said. “I’m trying hard not to fall into that hole.” Stephen Derbes, an 83-year-old rheumatologist at the LSU School of Medicine who still sees patients at the hospital, has no plans to retire. “I fear I would be very likely at risk of getting depressed if I just bailed out,” he told me. “As far as feelings of worth, that would be gone or at least diminished, since I wouldn’t have responsibilities.”

The loss of a professional self-identity is particularly acute for men, who often have weaker ties and self-definition outside of the workplace. “For men, traditionally, there’s a total identification with work,” says Jack Maslow, an 82-year-old clinical therapist who runs a men’s group in Corte Madera, California, treating his patients as they adjust to the transition away from work. Beth C. Truesdale, a sociologist who studies retirement and aging at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, told me, “Women have often had to find other ways to create a sense of who they are, beyond what they do.” They are more likely to be caregivers, to maintain social relationships on behalf of their spouse or family, and to volunteer in their communities. And by retirement age, women are more likely to have already taken breaks from paid work.

Gary Givler, a 77-year-old retired Episcopal deacon in Batavia, Ohio, sees the gendered struggle in the men’s group of retirees that he leads. For decades, Givler worked both as the vice president of an insurance company and as a deacon, with stints as a chaplain at a pediatric hospital and as a preacher. When he retired from his corporate job, in 2015, he started the men’s group at his church; he’s kept it up since his diaconal retirement, in 2023. Every Monday morning, the group of 15 men in their 70s and 80s—who retired from careers including engineering, teaching, and corporate leadership—meet at a local Panera Bread to talk about news, politics, and their lives. Yesterday, the conversation focused on Biden’s announcement: how he’d met the particular challenge of being pressured to end his campaign, and the courage it must have taken to publicly admit that he’s no longer the best candidate for the job. “The group thought that Joe did the right thing,” Givler said. But that didn’t change the men’s ambivalence about their own retirement. “A lot of them tell me they’d give anything to have a reason to put a shirt and tie on and go somewhere for an important meeting.”

[Read: Joe Biden made the right choice]

Retirement doesn’t have to be accompanied by decline. Mo Wang, a professor at the University of Florida who studies retirement and older workers, estimates that retirement has a significant positive effect on psychological well-being for 5 to 10 percent of people, largely those who worked very physically demanding jobs. But Wang has also found that retirement is linked to negative psychological effects for 20 to 25 percent of workers, at least temporarily. Other research has shown that people in full retirement tend to fare worse physically than those who keep up some kind of bridge employment or volunteering. The effect can become more dramatic as workers age, because a decades-long routine—the same weekly schedule, the same commute, the same colleagues—might help them perform daily tasks. “Their experience can compensate for cognitive decline, so they’re able to work much longer,” Wang told me. When they transition away from a professional routine, the adjustment can be a rude awakening.

Many working-class Americans are pushed into early retirement because they can no longer manage a physically demanding job, such as construction or waitressing. Truesdale estimates that only 5 percent of Americans over 80 are still working. But that number is almost certain to rise. The oldest Baby Boomers are 78, and they’re generally working longer than their predecessors. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that adults age 65 and older will be 8.6 percent of the labor force in 2032, compared with 6.6 percent in 2022. “The aging population today, let alone those that are coming, have more formal education than at any time in history,” Coughlin told me. They’re also living longer than their forebears. Over the next decade, more Americans than ever will be placed in an unenviable position similar to Biden’s, facing a delayed retirement that’s likely to pose new health challenges.

Whether he likes it or not, Biden has personified the ungainly challenge of reckoning with one’s work performance and stepping back from the job before one would like to. Now he has an opportunity to show millions of Americans navigating their 70s and 80s how to reckon with their limitations and maintain pride beyond the job. The best way to prepare for retirement at an older age, Wang said, is to make the transition gradual. At age 70, start to reduce your work hours and invest time in nonwork interests so that by 80, you have a strong identity beyond your professional work. For those leaving intense, identity-defining jobs, that process can include mentorship or an elder-statesman role. “Because Biden is transitioning from a very powerful role, it would be good for him to channel that energy to help the transition of power,” Wang said.

[From the July 2019 issue: Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think]

Preparation, though, may not be enough to overcome the siren song of employment. Park missed his professional identity so much that this week, the 88-year-old went back to work, where he’ll resume supervising medical students. “I don’t think I should work until I die,” he told me. “I would quit myself if I go through what Biden seems to be going through.” But for now, he’s excited to get back to his career. When his current contract ends, he’ll be 89. “I will probably say that will be enough,” he said. “But never say never.”

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You Know Who Else Is Really Old?

So, about that age issue: It’s now officially a Republican ailment, as of 1:46 p.m. yesterday, the moment President Joe Biden quit his reelection campaign and was supplanted by Donald Trump, 78, as the oldest presidential nominee in American history.

Democrats are ecstatic to be rid of this distinction. Since Biden’s debate debacle on June 27, the preoccupation with Biden’s age, fitness, and, yes, decline had become their crushing, almost incapacitating, burden. As such, Democrats’ prevailing mood since Biden’s exit tweet landed has been one of overwhelming relief, as if the entire party just passed a collective kidney stone. Instantly, they seem decades younger.

For all the uncertainty that still looms for Democrats—starting with who their nominee will be and whether Vice President Kamala Harris, if nominated, is up to challenging Trump—they’ve now flipped what’s arguably been their single biggest disadvantage onto the opposition. Biden has certainly battled some troublesome non-elderly issues (inflation, immigration, the Middle East), all of which Harris would inherit as her own. But his age had been the reelection campaign’s biggest encumbrance by far, a source of consistent doubt and exasperation and, by the end, exhaustion and anger.

[Read: Biden’s greatest strengths proved his undoing]

Now, just like that, all of those paragraphs that began with “Biden will be 82 on Inauguration Day and 86 at the end of a second term” can be tossed over into the noisy neighbor’s yard: Trump will be 78 on Inauguration Day and 82 at the end of a second term. All of those polls in which massive majorities of voters across the political spectrum kept saying—screaming—that Biden was way too old to be running again are no longer operational. All of those surveys showing that most Americans support a mandatory retirement age for elected leaders are no longer germane, at least not for the Democrats, as a reelection issue. (Nearly four in five voters support some kind of age limit for elected officials in Washington.)

Also: Harris’s age begins with a 5. Is that even legal?

Fairly or not—and the media probably deserve some scrutiny for this—Americans have consistently declared themselves more concerned about Biden’s age and fitness than Trump’s. Trump has projected himself as the more robust and vigorous candidate, perhaps benefiting from his relative size, the frenetic crowds and chaos that surround him, and the enduring boom of his voice (compared with Biden’s hoarse whisper). Trump’s ubiquity in the news conveys an indefatigable presence, tiresome as it often is. His supporters have readily advanced his nonstop efforts to mythologize himself as some kind of superhero alpha. Not only did Trump survive an assassination attempt two weekends ago; he had the stage presence to project defiance while doing so, raising a fist and shouting out a command (“Fight!”) that became a rallying cry at last week’s Republican National Convention, in Milwaukee. That is a skill.

Harris could catch some blame for allowing the recent saga of Biden’s decline to reach the depressing—possibly hazardous—point that it did. She should prepare for questions on what she knew about Biden’s condition over the past three and a half years she spent vouching for him. They are legitimate questions, especially if Democrats want to make age an issue, which they should—because it mostly belongs to the other side now.

[David A. Graham: Has anyone noticed that Trump is really old?]

Trump could come in for more scrutiny about his health now that he has the whole shuffleboard court to himself. Forty-three percent of U.S. voters said in a survey last year that both he and Biden were “too old to effectively serve another four-year term as president.” And within a few hours of Biden’s announcement yesterday, clips began circulating on social media of Trump in recent months appearing confused, losing his train of thought, and mixing up basic facts. He has said, on multiple occasions, “Obama” when discussing Biden; blamed Nikki Haley for not securing the Capitol on January 6 (he meant Nancy Pelosi, presumably); and said that Biden was marching the nation into World War II and that Viktor Orbán was leading Turkey (as opposed to Hungary).

Voters will certainly have questions—or should. Trump has released minimal data about his physical and mental health. He measured 6 foot 3 and weighed 244 pounds at his White House physical in 2020, with a body mass index classified as obese. The “cognitive test” that he is always talking about—the one he supposedly “aced”—lacks credibility. The same could be said for the doctor’s note he released during his 2016 campaign asserting that he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” (The doctor, Trump’s personal physician, Harold Bornstein, later said that Trump dictated the letter to him over the phone.)

Trump’s two closest challengers in the Republican primaries tried to make his age an issue, with limited success. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that this year’s version of Trump has “lost the zip on his fastball” compared with the candidate of eight years ago. “Now, it’s just a different guy,” DeSantis said. “And it’s sad to see.”

Haley said in New Hampshire in January that “the first party to retire its 80-year-old candidate is going to win this election.” Haley’s campaign stump speech also included a call for mandatory mental-competency tests for candidates over 75, though she managed to omit that from her speech endorsing Trump in Milwaukee last week.

Harris might just steal that idea for her own campaign.

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What Shannen Doherty Understood About Brenda Walsh

When Ezra Pound said “Make it new,” he was not talking about teen soaps. So much of their appeal lies in their predictable storytelling and immediately recognizable characters: the beautiful girl group with the just-complicated-enough underbelly, the standoffish and misunderstood boys who’ll fall in love when the right girls come their way. Even Beverly Hills, 90210—which popularized, and arguably remains the apotheosis of, the genre—was bound by the formulaic demands of network television. When Brenda Walsh, played by Shannen Doherty, complains to her mom in the show’s first episode that she has nothing to wear and doesn’t “have the right hair,” what she means is that she’s a brunette in a world of blondes; complexity, variation, the unexpected and wholly new did not appear often on ’90s TV.

Still, Doherty, who died of cancer earlier this month, was able to make something unforgettable out of Brenda. In a fictional world of tried-and-true tropes, she wasn’t a good girl or a bad girl; she was something more human altogether. Her smirk, those bangs, her roiling, earnest intensity: The screen crackled when she appeared. Doherty’s performance garnered plenty of hate—society doesn’t like a girl it can’t neatly categorize—but also fans who loved seeing themselves in her.

90210’s setup was a classic stranger-comes-to-town storyline, except with siblings. “First day of school, strange city, new house, no friends,” Brenda’s twin brother, Brandon (Jason Priestley), laments in the show’s introductory shot. The Walshes have just relocated from Minnesota to Beverly Hills. “I think we’re gonna need a raise in our allowance,” Brenda says as they drive up to campus; “West Beverly High is tough,” the vice principal warns during his welcome speech.

In its early episodes, the show seemed to be trying to make Brandon the star. He was always, Doherty later said on her podcast, Let’s Be Clear, No. 1 on the call sheet. But Brandon was significantly less dynamic, a cookie-cutter nice boy with harmless good looks. From the moment we saw her in scrunched white tube socks, dumping a pile of clothes onto the floor in search of something to wear, Doherty’s Brenda was the person we wanted to spend time with.

The show initially signals Brenda’s innocence. She got near–straight A’s at her old school and wears flouncy dresses and ill-fitting embroidered shirts. She becomes friends with Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth), the cool (blond) girl who decides to take Brenda under her wing. “Well, it’s against the law!” Brenda responds, incredulous, when Kelly makes her a fake ID. But Brenda quickly sheds her sweet status. She becomes less meek. She speaks up for herself. She starts dating Dylan, the brooding rich boy played with perfect moodiness by Luke Perry. She wants and yearns and needs. Her clothes fit better. Her hair stays brown, sure, but who else on Earth had a face to pull off those bangs?

[Read: Luke Perry’s career-long act of generosity]

The good girl, in other words, becomes something much more interesting than simply a bad girl; she starts to feel real, and unpredictable. Brenda shows her desperation—for Dylan, for freedom, for something else ineffable—in every gesture, whether it’s her pout or the way she stands in the school’s hallways. She can be self-righteous: “Kelly, can’t you ever stop thinking about guys for one second? I mean, there is more to life,” she lectures her friend in one episode. She wants, of course, to be an actor. She lies to her (sweet, kind, well-intentioned) parents. She and Dylan run away. She is a lot like most of us at one point or another—yes, teenage, but also anyone who has ever felt fiercely about something and gone after it, even if both what you’re seeking and the avenue you take don’t quite make sense.

I was 7 when the show debuted. But in 1990, if your mom was pregnant with her fourth kid and worked a lot, you could get away with watching almost anything. I was 16 when the show ended. Not cool at all, I watched the finale alone in our family living room with a quart of ice cream and sobbed. The year that I turned 25, my husband bought me a box set of all 10 seasons. For months, then years, I watched them—especially those first four seasons, before Doherty got fired—on loop when I was sad.

So much of what’s pleasing about stories we’ve heard before is that, as opposed to life, they have a clear shape: Boy meets girl; they fall in love, have sex, break up; boy cheats on girl with her best friend. (“Kelly, if you’re trying to lose your bimbo image, I honestly don’t think this will help,” Brenda says, memorably, when she catches Dylan with Kelly.) But the best storytellers also understand that if you imbue familiar stories with fresh humanity, they can feel just as thrilling and high-stakes as real life.

They can also feel threatening to viewers who prefer clearly defined characters—ones that match their expectations. Is it any surprise that an I Hate Brenda zine appeared a couple of years into the show’s run? Sassy magazine ran an ad for it. Some choice headlines included “Who Likes Brenda Anyway?” and “Send Her to Slaughter.”

Viewers loved to shun Brenda, but many also seemed thrilled to shun the actor behind her. Doherty was just 19 when the show started—a deeply complicated, struggling teenager who was shoved mercilessly into the public eye, almost wholly conflated with the girl she’d been cast to play. Tabloid reports, late-night jokes, press about bar fights, and allegations of “diva” behavior abounded. It’s a story that’s almost too old to tell: Woman attains fame and power, and acts out; the fury is unrelenting, almost gleeful in its vitriol. Neither Doherty nor Brenda was meek, sorry, or easy. But Doherty, for her part, was never given the space or time to be something more than good or bad.

Another thing about old stories: One of the reasons we go back to them so regularly is because often they’re true. One of the saddest things for me about being a person who tells stories is realizing how seldom even the best and most surprising storytelling does anything to shift the way other people see the world.

I love Brenda, brunette that I am. Wanting, needy, messy, self-righteous are all things that I’ve been called, and that I can be. My mind went to her character when I heard that Doherty had died. But then I started listening to Doherty’s podcast. On it, her voice is raspy. She’s sharp and brash and funny. She’s so clearly the sort of person you call when you need to say, Okay, but really—when you need to chat with someone who won’t gasp or cover their mouth or squirm when you tell them the awful or ungenerous, maybe lawless, thing you did.

I’ve spent the past week walking around, listening to her. Defiant even in the face of Stage 4 cancer, talking with her mother, whom she obviously adored, Doherty gave me what she once gave me with Brenda—a space for intimacy, humor, complexity, and searching. So few people have the courage to be that even in private. What a rare and lovely gift, that Doherty offered herself so completely. What an old and tragic story, that the world didn’t acknowledge or appreciate the fullness of her until after she was gone.

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