What explains the strange constellation of symptoms that is “long COVID?” Will it ever go away? And why does vaccination seem to help? Writer F.T. Kola returns to the podcast Social Distance to recount her experience with long COVID with hosts James Hamblin and Maeve Higgins.
They’re also joined by Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist investigating long COVID at her Yale lab. She explains what we know about the condition—and how two theories about its root cause mean the difference between a cure and no clear end in sight.
Listen to their conversation here:
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What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity:
James Hamblin: This term, “long COVID”—or “long-haulers”—is used often. Is there a working definition or way that you describe it? Because it can encapsulate many different things, right?
Akiko Iwasaki: There lies the problem already. There isn’t a universal definition of long COVID. But I think the medical community is coming to some consensus that it’s basically a post-acute viral syndrome that happens after a person has experienced infection with SARS-CoV-2 and has had symptoms for over two months—some people say three months. That definition, again, isn’t universal. [And] for most people to be considered to have long COVID, you need to have prolonged symptoms of certain severity. For instance, many of the long-haulers have fatigue—like, extreme fatigue.
Maeve Higgins: F.T., you’ve mentioned your fatigue before.
F.T. Kola: Yeah; it’s really interesting hearing Professor Iwasaki talk about this, because one of my anxieties this whole time has been that I feel relatively okay, and I know that there are people out there with very distressing and extreme symptoms. And do I qualify as long COVID if I’m basically up and around?
The fatigue, which weirdly emerged later in 2020, meant that I would ration my week. I would have two or three days to get things done—and then two or three days I just had to black out on the calendar, because I won’t get anything done and I’ll probably just be in bed that whole time. That fatigue was surprising to me. It was a type I’d never experienced before. And I thought a lot about how, if I had had to go to a place of work or if most of my work was physical, I would not have been able to do that for over a year post-COVID. And that was mostly due to the fatigue.
Iwasaki: Exactly. That is one of the most common symptoms that people with long COVID have—this very severe fatigue. Others report brain fog: an inability to think clearly and remember things, [along with] other cognitive issues as well.
Higgins: And what about [losing] the sense of smell and taste? Is that a common long-COVID symptom, too?
Iwasaki: That is also extremely common in people who had COVID. Some people only have a loss of taste or smell as the symptom. Others have it in addition to more serious symptoms.
Higgins: What about vaccination helping people who have long COVID? F.T., didn’t [you] experience some alleviation after you got vaccinated?
Kola: Yes, definitely. The long COVID kind of went in stages. It waxed and waned over time. [And it was] surprising to me how much things melted away post-vaccine. I have my fingers crossed as I’m saying this. The fatigue was one of those things. It’s like I got an energy boost. That [fatigue] has gone away, as well as things like particular kinds of chest pain and very bad headaches. I’m curious if Professor Iwasaki knows why some things might have seemingly gone away and some things are yet to resolve—like, for example, hyposmia and hormonal changes?
Iwasaki: That’s exactly why we’re starting a study to investigate what might be underlying the symptom improvement in long COVID after vaccination. As you say, F.T., there are people reporting symptom improvements after the vaccine. And we don’t even have a handle on: What are the common things that people experience that improvement [with] after vaccination?
But I do hear people saying they have energy, and they’re not as fatigued anymore. They can breathe better. The shortness of breath has gone away. They can walk again without shortness of breath. [Before the vaccine] people tend to not be able to even walk across the room, and [then] they can. So there are a lot of different symptoms that are apparently being lifted by the vaccine.
Higgins: How do vaccines help? What is the mechanism that a vaccine would help with the symptoms of long COVID?
Hamblin: It’s kind of counterintuitive.
Iwasaki: Yeah, exactly. So in order to explain that, I think we need to introduce a couple of theories about long COVID. So, long COVID can be mediated by a persistent virus infection, stimulating inflammation in a person for an extended time period.
Higgins: So would you still test positive for COVID if that’s what it is?
Iwasaki: Well, that’s the tricky thing. Such a reservoir of virus is not likely to be in your nose, so the nasopharyngeal swab people used to test for COVID is vastly negative in the long-COVID patients. And so if that reservoir were to exist, it must be deeper in the tissue somewhere.
Higgins: So that could be hiding, and that’s what’s making you still really sick. And then is there another theory you were going to mention?
Iwasaki: Yes. The second theory is that long COVID is created by autoreactive cells, or autoimmune cells, and antibodies. And if that were the case, then the vaccine may provide some temporary relief—but may not be a cure for long COVID, because all autoreactive cells are really difficult to get rid of.
Hamblin: Is this something that you would anticipate might take years to go away, but should eventually—or might be with people indefinitely?
Iwasaki: It’s hard to say how long the long COVID will last. Based on experience with other post-viral long-term symptoms, in some people this could last for a very long time. People with other viral syndromes after acute infection have been suffering for years or decades. Hopefully that’s not the case with long COVID, that it’s a more transient thing. But we just don’t know yet.
And a lot of long-COVID people didn’t have the [COVID-19] diagnosis. Because back in early spring of last year when COVID was spreading, there were not enough tests. And so there are lots of people who are suffering from very similar symptoms as long COVID without the actual diagnosis of COVID. That’s leaving a lot of those people out of studies. And a lot of people like that are out there trying to get into post-COVID clinics and get therapy—but they don’t have the diagnosis and therefore are left out of the system.
Hamblin: F.T., you got COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic. I don’t think long COVID was known to be something to look for then. What were you told? How does that square with what you’re hearing now from physicians?
Kola: It was so early on for me that I remember my doctors coming into my room and saying: “Well, we just got off the WHO call.” Things like that. It was changing day by day. At the very end, when I was out of the ICU and into the newly created COVID ward, I’d say something like: “I think something in my chest is weird” or “I don’t think I’m urinating in the way that I should be.” And the doctors would say what they would say for months and continue to say, really, which is: “We’re going to record everything, and we’ll test everything if you say something’s wrong”—which I greatly appreciate, because I think a lot of long-COVID patients haven’t had people believe them or haven’t had access to responsive health care, which was huge.
So they would say: “We’ll look at it, and we’ll test it, and we’ll monitor it, and we’ll watch it.” And once I got home, it was: “Come back in this many weeks, and we’ll run bloodwork.” “Come back and do a brain MRI.” “Let’s do an echocardiogram.” And this is an extraordinary amount of luck and privilege to have that medical care. But they, understandably, can’t really tell me anything.
I think the only thing that has changed is this understanding that long COVID is real. And, as Professor Iwasaki was saying, all these things are long COVID, but I still don’t know what they mean or what they are. I still don’t know why I’ve had chest pain. A few things were obvious, like having pneumonia. But most of it has been: “We don’t know why this is happening. We don’t know what that is. We believe you. We’re going to look at it, but we just have no way to know.”
And something that has been my great psychological fear is what Professor Iwasaki mentioned—that there may be a reservoir of virus somewhere still in my body. I think that’s medically terrifying, but it’s also psychologically terrifying. Because it feels like you’re living with this thing, like can it reemerge at some time and you’re not free of it. It’s like being possessed or something. So those are the two areas of mystery: What exactly did it do to me? And is it really gone?
Hamblin: Yeah, what about treatments? What’s the first step of treating long COVID?
Iwasaki: We’re hoping that our new study of the immune response in long COVID will highlight some of the pathways that we can interfere [with] to make some of these symptoms go away. For example, if long COVID is driven by persistent infection, the vaccine may actually get rid of the source of the problem altogether—because it will induce a very robust antibody response and T-cell response. And that will be a permanent cure.
But if it is autoimmunity, we need a completely different way of dealing with it—to sort of tamp down the autoreactive cells from becoming more activated. And that would require completely different kinds of therapy. Understanding the disease process itself is really important to coming up with the right therapy.
Hamblin: Yeah; that’s the same tension at the heart of a lot of treatment of acute COVID-19, too. At what point are you trying to tamp down the immune system, and at what point do you just focus on trying to minimize the virus? Because sometimes you need your immune system to eradicate that virus, and sometimes the immune system is causing those symptoms.
Iwasaki: Right—running on the theme that everything we do with COVID is about the timing. The therapy, for example, for late-stage disease is completely different from therapy against the early infection. And getting that timing right for each patient has been a real struggle. It’s something we’re learning on a daily basis.
So I’m interested in whether we should enhance the immune response to get rid of the reservoir virus or tamp it down. And I believe the answer is going to be different for different individuals. If we can come up with some sort of biomarker to diagnose who has what kind of long COVID and what the best treatment is for that person, that would be my dream come true. And to get there, we really need to understand the disease itself.
There are many unknowns in the field of space exploration. What came before the Big Bang? What is dark matter? Will we ever make contact with another civilization, or are we destined to remain alone, floating along on this tiny, insignificant speck in the universe?
The latest unknown to captivate the space community is something a little less grand: Where is that giant rocket going to land when it falls out of the sky?
The rocket in question belongs to China, and it is currently hurtling through the atmosphere, circling the planet about every 90 minutes, toward what is known as an “uncontrolled reentry” sometime this weekend. The expendable hardware was once part of a larger vehicle, the Long March 5B, which launched last month with the first piece of China’s new space station. Once the payload successfully reached space, the rocket, emptied of fuel, slipped away and became space junk.
Launch providers usually try to ensure that their discarded rocket bits descend soon after a flight, and the hardware mostly falls into the ocean, though some pieces, on rare occasions, hit land. But this empty rocket is different. The Long March 5B vehicle was designed in such a way that its expendable rocket ended up in orbit, tumbling around at more than 17,000 miles per hour. Parts of the rocket are expected to survive the fiery reentry through Earth’s atmosphere and reach the surface, and who knows where they might land? The U.S. military is tracking the object, but even the best available data can’t predict its final destination.
Considering the size of this thing—nearly 100 feet tall, more than 15 feet across, weighing 23 tons—the idea of even parts of it hurtling toward us is particularly unnerving, enough that a friend whom I haven’t seen in ages sent me this text message last night: “Are you following this China rocket thing? Are we doomed??”
No one is doomed! Not because of this, at least. While the chances are not zero, the likelihood that debris from the Long March 5B will drop onto a populated area is extremely low. Even without a controlled entry, it is far more likely to smash into the ocean, which our planet thankfully has a lot of. (Honestly, the reentry we should probably be more preoccupied with is the return to social interaction after vaccination.) Stuff falls into the atmosphere every day, burning up as it goes. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than smacked with a piece of falling space debris.
“The chance of someone being hurt is maybe a percent or so,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who is well known in the space community for his expert monitoring of artificial space objects, told me. “The chance of you being hurt is 8 billion times smaller than that, so don’t worry about it.”
Careening, out-of-control space debris is one of those problems that we hear about precisely because it’s so rare. It’s also quite solvable, McDowell said—just don’t build your rocket, as China did, to reach orbital velocity and start zooming around. The few times that very large pieces of space junk have come crashing down to Earth over the years—rockets, satellites, even entire space stations—no one was doomed.
In the 1970s, Skylab, the first American space station, came plummeting through the atmosphere. NASA astronauts had used the floating outpost to conduct science experiments and generally get the feeling of life in microgravity. By the end of the decade, the station, now abandoned, started losing altitude. The station wasn’t designed to maneuver itself into a higher orbit, and the space shuttles that NASA thought could help haul it up weren’t ready yet, so down the station went. NASA did have the power to give it a nudge or two, but mostly Skylab was carving its own path.
In 1979, as the public followed the station’s descent with, according to Time magazine, “varying degrees of fear, anger and fascination, but mostly with a detached kind of bemusement,” NASA controllers worried that some debris could hit North America. The Federal Aviation Administration even closed off airspace over Maine to protect planes. Hours before reentry, engineers commanded Skylab to fire some engines and produce a wobble that would adjust its path just a bit, bringing its descent over the ocean. The last-minute adjustment was partly successful; most of Skylab fell into the Indian Ocean, but some debris was scattered along the coast of western Australia. Suddenly, space litter became a souvenir, and people scoured the coast for remnants of Skylab, eager for a trophy or something to sell. The city council of Kalgoorlie even hauled a piece of the station into its town hall, which the mayor said was “very good for the tourist industry.”
When something is moving as fast as Skylab was—or the Long March 5B is now—even the slightest shift can change its trajectory by thousands of miles, bumping it from one continent toward another. NASA’s decision pushed Skylab “to fly safely over southern Canada and Maine, but may have been responsible for its Australia landing,” The New York Timesreported. President Jimmy Carter even apologized to the Australian people for the mess.
An empty Soviet space station came down in 1991 in a similarly uncontrolled manner over Argentina, appearing as a fireball in the sky. Some debris managed to reach the ground, igniting small fires in a trash dump in a southern coastal city, but there were no injuries. More recently, a Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, fell back to Earth in 2018, burning up over the South Pacific, with remnants landing in the water near Tahiti. Chinese officials had lost contact with the spacecraft two years earlier, sparking anxious speculation about where the out-of-control station would come down. Last spring, a disintegrating Long March 5B rocket sailed directly over Los Angeles and New York City on its final orbit of Earth before entering the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean and raining debris in the Ivory Coast in Africa. Again, no one was injured.
So, yes, the Long March 5B does not threaten immediate catastrophe. But it’s still not great, and China isn’t doing much to alleviate worries. The country is known for being secretive about its space activities, both at home and abroad. Foreign-ministry officials declined to answer questions about the reentry at a press conference this week, saying only that China is “committed to the peaceful use of outer space and stands for international cooperation in this regard.”
Already the White House press secretary has fielded questions about what the Biden administration would do if the rocket causes damage on Earth. Although one might imagine that fiery events that cross international borders would have inspired some kind of serious regulation, there’s no space law covering objects plunging to Earth. It’s up to nations to supervise their own space objects and where they fall. “In terms of the legal mechanisms governing reentry, there actually aren’t any obligations on this. There isn’t any international treaty,” Chris Newman, a space-law professor at Northumbria University at Newcastle, in the United Kingdom, told me.
But there are some rules about who’s responsible if space litter damages property or injures people. Many countries are party to the 1972 Space Liability Convention, which allows one nation to hold another financially responsible for space litter. In 1978, after a fallen Soviet satellite scattered radioactive debris over northwestern Canada, the Canadian government asked the Soviet Union to fork over $6 million to cover cleanup efforts; the Soviet Union waffled for a few years, but eventually paid $3 million. This rule comes with all sorts of political entanglements, Newman said; if the Long March rocket does cause damage somewhere inhabited, the leaders of that country may decide that seeking recompense isn’t worth the potential diplomatic ripple effects of challenging China. “This is going to be a foreign-policy decision as much as a legal one,” Newman said.
A more pressing concern about space debris involves the type that most people don’t notice or worry much about. The space around Earth is brimming with satellites, rocket parts, and other hunks of metal, and some objects occasionally pass dangerously close to each other and even collide. Space law doesn’t have much to say about space traffic either, but space is getting more congested every day, even without a rogue rocket.
Edward Kennedy published this essay in the August 1948 issue of The Atlantic. His daughter, Julia Kennedy Cochran, has granted permission for us to republish it here. What follows is Kennedy’s original account.
When Edward Kennedy filed the first bulletin to reach American readers with news of the Germans’ final capitulation in May, 1945, he started a controversy that has remained at the boil ever since among newspapermen. Here for the first time is his complete reply to those who complained that he violated SHAEF’s release agreement and took an unfair advantage over his colleagues. Mr. Kennedy was Chief of the Paris Bureau of the Associated Press and is now Managing Editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press.
I’D DO IT AGAIN
EARLY in April, 1945, German resistance was crumbling fast on the Western Front. American troops crossed the Elbe. There was little blocking their way into Berlin, but they were pulled back. In the weeks that followed there was fraternization between the Americans held to one side of the Elbe and German soldiers on the other, who yelled, “Come on over, we’re not fighting you any more.” The halt permitted the Russians to edge into Berlin; that was its purpose.
To our people and troops, the Russians still were our gallant allies. But official relations between Washington and Moscow already were troubled by open Russian distrust and even hostility. In March, Stalin had baselessly accused Roosevelt of attempting to negotiate a virtual separate peace—a deal in which the Germans would fall back before the Western Allies in return for Anglo-American support of easier peace terms.
Our policy, based on a conviction that the winning of World War II would be worthless if it led only to a new contest with Russia, and that almost any price was worth paying to avoid such a development, was one of appeasement and concession toward Moscow. Military commanders were warned to avoid even the appearance of taking advantage of the German preference for us over the Russians. It was against this jittery background that two German officers, Admiral Hans Georg von Friedeburg and Colonel Fritz Poleck, arrived at Field Marshal Montgomery’s Headquarters on May 4, after all reports of fighting on the Western Front had ceased. Montgomery received them expecting only the surrender of more of the German forces facing his armies. But they said they had been sent by the government of Admiral Karl Doenitz, who had succeeded to power on Hitler’s death, to discuss the surrender of all that was left of the Third Reich. That was beyond Monty’s authority. He sent them on to Eisenhower at Forward Headquarters of the Supreme Command at Reims.
Friedeburg told Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, that he was not authorized to sign a surrender, but merely to get the terms on which a surrender might be signed and to learn how the Doenitz government would be expected to put it into effect. The Doenitz cabinet had fled Berlin for Flensburg, on the German-Danish frontier. British troops entered Flensburg and the regime became a captive one, but continued to function. The British Ministry of Information announced that the powerful radio station at Flensburg was being operated by the Germans, under Allied censorship.
Friedeburg was told that the new German government must authorize promptly an unconditional surrender to the Western Allies and Russia, or be held responsible for the continuance of the war. He sent this message to Doenitz. It was delivered to Flensburg by a courier from Second British Army Headquarters.
While awaiting the reply, Smith ruled that the surrender—the great news for which all the Allied world was waiting anxiously—would be held in Army secrecy, with war correspondents barred. It was to be reported only by designated Army personnel, who would supply their eyewitness accounts to the correspondents later. Brigadier General Frank A. Allen, head of the Supreme Command’s Public Relations Division, mapped the press coverage of the event on that basis.
Smith’s plan was upset when Charles C. Wertenbaker, head of the Paris staff of Time, bobbed up in Reims despite a rule against correspondents’ going there and got a glimpse of something that gave the show away—two German uniforms. On the argument that Wertenbaker alone should not have an on-the-scene story, Lieutenant Colonel Burrows Matthews, peacetime editor of the Buffalo Courier-Express and a friend of the correspondents, persuaded Army Public Relations that correspondents be allowed to witness and report the surrender
Smith reluctantly agreed to accept a limited number. He didn’t want too many.
General Allen exhumed from the archives of SHAEF Public Relations a document entitled “Operation Jackplane.” It had been drawn up while Supreme Headquarters was still in London, and had been intended to serve as a list of the first planeload of correspondents to be flown to Berlin on that city’s fall. He decided that this would be the list for the surrender.
On Sunday morning, May 6, one of Allen’s aides told me that the Associated Press staff, which I headed, was entitled to send one correspondent to report an event the nature of which could not be disclosed. I said I’d go myself.
Those selected were taken to a small airfield outside Paris, where we met General Allen. There were seventeen on the Jackplane list. The others were from the United Press, International News Service, Reuters, Exchange Telegraph, and the French and Russian news agencies; all the American, British, Canadian, and Australian radio networks; and two Army newspapers, Stars and Stripes and The Maple Leaf (Canadian). Allen felt that his list was an equitable one, for the correspondents on it represented, indirectly, practically every newspaper and radio station in the Allied world.
As the airplane winged northeastward, Allen told us that the trip concerned the impending surrender of the Germans. Then followed the “pledge on the plane,” so much cited in the controversy which followed. Allen and some of the correspondents later vested this with the solemnity of an initiation in one of the more mystically inclined fraternal orders. In reality it was a rambling talk by the general. He first warned of the possibility that the negotiations might fall through and of the disastrous effects that premature word might have in such event. He cautioned us to disclose the purpose of our voyage to no one—not even to other war correspondents—before the surrender was signed. He added that a time would be set for the release of the news, but that he did not know when it would be. He thereupon exacted of each of us a pledge “not to communicate the results of this conference or the fact of its existence until it has been released by the Supreme Headquarters.”
The pledge on the plane had no special significance. It merely reaffirmed the signed pledge, required of all war correspondents on being accredited, not to evade censorship. The imposition of release time on some of the news originating at Supreme Headquarters was an everyday practice of SHAEF Public Relations. The pledge on the plane was no less binding for this. I naturally and automatically registered my acceptance of the arrangement, as I had in hundreds of other cases. I gave my pledge in good faith, intending to honor it. I did honor it.
The airplane landed at Reims and we were taken to SHAEF Forward. A few moments later, Colonel General Gustav Jodl, the new chief of staff of the German Army, and his aide, Major Wilhelm Oxenius, arrived at the Headquarters. Jodl had been sent by Doenitz with full authority to surrender. SHAEF Forward occupied the red brick building of a technical school, a two-story quadrangle sprawling over a block and enclosing a large court. We correspondents were placed in a classroom on the ground floor while Allen and his aides went upstairs to learn what was happening.
We waited nine hours. Allen paid us several visits, making varying statements as plans were changed upstairs. At one point he said that our sending of the news would be held up until the surrender was announced by the heads of the Allied governments. After further discussions with members of Eisenhower’s staff, he told us that the importance of announcing the surrender immediately after the signing was so urgent that he expected the news to be released at Paris before we could return there.
Several correspondents complained that this would mean that correspondents left behind in Paris would report the news ahead of those especially selected for that purpose.
“But the correspondents in Paris will have only the bare announcement and you’ll have the full eyewitness account,” Allen said. “And you won’t be much behind them. We’ll get you back to Paris in short time.”
Meanwhile several groups of correspondents who had not been invited to the surrender arrived in Reims by jeep. Despite the secrecy imposed, they had learned what was going on and where it was happening—through leaks in Allen’s Public Relations staff. They were loud in their denunciations of the arbitrary selection which had left them out.
General Allen was deaf to their pleas. He ordered military police to bar them from the building. At sundown they were standing on the sidewalk in groups, talking angrily and peering forlornly through our classroom window.
Such notables among the “illegals” as Raymond Daniell of the New York Times and Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News protested that they represented newspapers which maintained complete foreign staffs. It was unthinkable, they said, that such newspapers be barred from reporting one of the great news stories of history. Allen defended his exclusion of individual newspapers on the ground that he had to draw the line somewhere for lack of space.
Then the outcasts discovered a flaw in his Jackplane plan in that one newspaper was represented.
Price Day of the Baltimore Sun had been pressed into service by the British news agency, Exchange Telegraph, which had been assigned one of the seventeen places. Allen met the situation by ruling that Day might write his story for Extel, but might not send the same account to his own paper. (This ruling was later rescinded and Day was permitted to file to the Sun, which in any case could have picked up his story from Extel in London.)
The embittered outsiders appealed to British Lieutenant General Frederick E. Morgan, as he arrived at the Headquarters. He said he’d intercede in their behalf. Morgan told Allen he thought something ought to be done about those correspondents outside. Allen misinterpreted this as a complaint and sent MP’s out to chase them away under threat of arrest. That did not lessen their indignation.
AT 2:41 a.m., Monday, May 7, we Jackplane correspondents saw the signing of the unconditional surrender by the two crestfallen Nazi war lords. Our less fortunate confreres chafed on the sidewalks of Reims in the chill early morning air, although various Headquarters officers managed to slip WAC and Red Cross girl friends into the room to see the historic event. The surrender took place in the L-shaped war room, its walls covered with maps and casualty charts. The correspondents and other witnesses were roped off in one corner, but Army photographers buzzed around the table and mounted a stepladder placed next to it for “angle shots.”
The Allied signers—Bedell Smith for the Supreme Command, General François Sevez for France, General Ivan Susloparov for the Soviet Union, and Admiral Sir Harold Burrough, R.N., for a separate Naval disarmament order—were seated at the table. The Germans entered the room uncertainly and blinking in the glare of lights. Jodl was solemn, Friedeburg shaky. (Friedeburg committed suicide a few days later.)
The Allied signers arose and Smith beckoned the Germans to two vacant chairs on the opposite side of the table, remarking dryly, “There are four copies to be signed.”
After the signatures of all were affixed—the documents and pens were passed from one another around the table—Jodl made a brief plea for such generosity as the Allies might be able to show to the German people and the two walked slowly out of the room.
They were led to Eisenhower’s office. The Supreme Commander, flanked by his deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur W. Tedder, asked them sternly if they understood the terms and if they would be carried out. They said yes. We were allowed to witness this scene through a doorway.
In a delayed-action burst of generosity, Allen permitted the outcast correspondents to enter the Headquarters after the surrender and to look at the room in which it had been signed, so that they might describe it in their stories.
We, the Lucky Seventeen, were led back to our classroom while Allen talked with high SHAEF officers to get a final decision on the time of the release of the news. While waiting, I wrote my dispatch. I handed it to a censor. He read it and stamped it.
At about 4 A.M., Allen appeared and said: “Gentlemen, I had anticipated that the news would be released at once, but it appears that this is not to be the case. General Eisenhower is desirous of having the news announced immediately for its possible effect in saving lives, but his hands are tied at a high political level and we can do nothing about it. The release has been set for 3 P.M., Tuesday, Paris time.”
Exclamations of disgust went up from the correspondents. The bland admission that political censorship was being imposed—contrary to the demands of military security—set off bitter recriminations. General Allen’s seventeen trained seals became almost as unruly as those he had left off his list.
“I appreciate your point of view, gentlemen,” he said. “I personally think this story ought to be released without delay. I will try my best to get it released before the time set, but I don’t know how effective I shall be. In any case, there is nothing for us to do now but return to Paris.”
I was exasperated by the situation, but confident that the news would be released during the morning. The absurdity of attempting to bottle up news of such magnitude was too apparent. I know from experience that one might as well try to censor the rising of the sun.
We flew back to Paris in the pale gold sunshine of an early May morning. I have never seen the city so beautiful as it was from the air that day, crowned by the white gleaming dome of Sacré Coeur. Already the traffic of workers to their jobs had begun; the streets were full of little black dots. They would not work this day through. What news we had for them, and for workers everywhere! News that would make them throw down their tools and celebrate the peace after years of hardship and worry.
At 10 A.M., General Allen held a press conference at the Hôtel Scribe, Public Relations Headquarters. It was an angry meeting. The correspondents barred from the signing were still complaining. The incomprehensible decision to hold up the news for thirty-six hours strained tempers more. Allen said he was doing his best to get it released that day.
I learned from high SHAEF officers that the delay had been ordered from Washington, at the request of the Russians, who wanted to hold another and “more formal” ceremony in Berlin.
This sounded strange. The Reims surrender was unconditional, it fulfilled the proclaimed objective of the Allies, and Russia was a full partner to it. Any second ceremony would be meaningless, except for Soviet propaganda purposes.
I took a short walk. Everywhere were rumors of the end of the war and puzzlement that no announcement had come.
In the Scribe lobby, correspondents were standing about in bunches, muttering their displeasure and drawing up resolutions against SHAEF Public Relations. I could see little use in joining them, so I went to our AP office on the fourth floor and took stock of the reports coming one upon the other.
De Gaulle’s office said he was writing his V Day address. General Sevez, who signed for France, had sent his eyewitness account to the newspaper Figaro. Paris noon newspapers published dispatches from London saying that loud-speakers were being erected at 10 Downing Street and that Britain awaited only the formal announcement. Official word was sent to Allied soldiers at the front. The British War Ministry made known the details to its personnel, including civilian employees.
I was convinced that if the formal release did not soon come, the news would inevitably break through the barrier some other way. At 2:03 P.M., Paris time, the break came. Count von Krosigk, foreign minister of the Doenitz government at Flensburg, announced the unconditional surrender in a broadcast beamed to the world and addressed to “German Men and Women.”
“After a heroic fight of almost six years of incomparable hardness, Germany has succumbed to the overwhelming power of her enemies,” he said.
The Krosigk broadcast was monitored by the British Ministry of Information and immediately distributed for publication. I heard it in a British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast on our office radio a few moments later. In succeeding minutes urgent telegrams arrived from the AP in New York and London relaying the Krosigk announcement.
I knew that Flensburg was occupied by Allied troops. I knew that the Doenitz government could not have broadcast its announcement without the consent of the Supreme Command. It was clear that SHAEF itself had broken through the gag. German Army communications were so disrupted that a public broadcast was the only means of making sure that isolated units knew the war was over and dropped their arms.
I tried to reach General Allen by telephone to tell him that the news of the surrender had been released, but was told that he was too busy to talk to me. Accompanied by Relman Morin of my staff, I went to the office of Lieutenant Colonel Richard H. Merrick, the chief American censor, and showed him the text of the Flensburg announcement.
“I can’t help it,” he said. “I have orders to follow.”
My pledge—in General Allen’s words—was not to break the news “until it has been released by the Supreme Headquarters.” I told Merrick that since Supreme Headquarters had released the news through the Germans, I felt under no further obligation to observe the gag. “I give you warning now that I am going to send the story,” I said.
“Do as you please,” he said. He could not conceive, of course, of a correspondent getting a dispatch through the iron curtain that the censorship thought it had thrown around the European Theater.
I went to my room and weighed the matter. I knew that sending the story would bring upon me the wrath of Public Relations and of the other correspondents. It was not a desire to make a “scoop” that pushed me inexorably to my decision—I had already scored plenty of those. It was a conviction that my duty was to report the news. If any personal feeling affected my judgment, it was the accumulated vexation over the dishonesties of censorship under which I had worked during five years of war. This topped them all, for here was admittedly political censorship in clear-cut violation of the cardinal point of American censorship—as enunciated from the White House down—that it would be limited to matters of genuine military security. I made up my mind. I have never regretted my decision.
I KNEW that I could reach our London office by military telephone. I had used this telephone many times, with the knowledge of Public Relations officers. I had talked over it to members of our staff in Front areas and to our London bureau on matters concerning our service. In accordance with my obligations, I had never used it to evade censorship. Anyone could call “Paris Military” from the Scribe and be connected with any telephone in London. Any enemy agent in Paris might have done this. The fact that SHAEF had left this loophole in its supposedly airtight security system is something for the military mind to explain.
I started writing a condensed version of my account of the surrender and instructed Mort Gudebrod of our staff to put in a call for London. I accepted full responsibility for his action, but SHAEF Public Relations later imposed a penalty on him as well as me.
I dictated the story until the telephone connection went bad. I got through all the essential details of the event at Reims—enough to make it clear that this was no rumor, but an authentic account by an eyewitness; that this was the real thing, the news for which the world was waiting.
“Well, now let’s see what happens,” I said to members of my staff. “I may not be around here much longer.”
They laughed nervously.
The storm broke quickly. General Allen suspended the operations of the Associated Press in the entire European Theater. Even our room telephones were cut off.
Correspondents dashed madly about the Scribe. Their chagrin and rage knew no bounds. Messages poured in from their home offices—why didn’t they have the story?
General Allen, by this time an expert at rubbing salt into open wounds, ruled that the official release time of 3 P.M. the following day was still in effect. He decided that the other correspondents might quote from my story, since it was already out, but might not send their own dispatches.
The effect of such a ruling on the already shattered nerves of the correspondents may be imagined. While the crowds outside the Scribe were shouting themselves hoarse over the war’s end, correspondents inside the hotel were losing their voices in denunciations of me, Allen, and the general situation.
My dispatch was published and broadcast the world over, and set off a gigantic celebration. Even SHAEF itself spread it through Europe in twenty languages over the Command’s broadcasting station.
As far as I could determine, no action was to be taken against me immediately, but I was not permitted to work. The most practical course seemed to be to go out and join in the celebration. I did.
Allen’s suspension of the Associated Press brought a bombardment of protests in the United States. SHAEF had penalized not only the AP, but every newspaper and radio station receiving AP news and their readers and listeners—at a time when they were vitally interested in news from the European Theater. The War Department, heeding public indignation, sent a strong recommendation to SHAEF to cool down. The ban on the AP was lifted, but the suspension of Gudebrod and myself as correspondents remained in effect.
At noon the following day—the “official” V-E Day, as distinguished from the real one—the embittered correspondents met in the briefing room at the Scribe. They demanded a reimposition of the suspension of the AP to bar that organization from sending the official release. Apparently they fancied the world still waiting breathlessly for the already stale news.
As hysteria mounted, it was touch and go as to whether Allen or I would be their main target. Wertenbaker offered a motion that “Public Relations of SHAEF and its director (General Allen) no longer have the confidence of correspondents.” It was quickly seconded but left hanging as a new keynote was sounded by Drew Middleton of the New York Times, who said: “You realize, gentlemen, that you have taken the worst beating of your lives. The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
In view of the enormity of the beating they had taken and the querulous demands of their home offices for explanations, there was only one way out of their embarrassment. That was to brand me as an unspeakable scoundrel who had broken the confidence which they had so nobly kept.
Several more moderate correspondents advised against a condemnation before SHAEF’s investigation of the incident was completed and the facts determined. They were shouted down. A petition was drafted excoriating me in language worthy of the frenzy of the assembly and demanding that the Associated Press be forbidden to report news for a punitive period. It was signed by fifty-four correspondents and sent to Eisenhower. He promptly rejected it.
Here was an episode in the long struggle for the freedom of the press never likely to be set on canvas: an elite battalion of knights of the press waging a fight to deny a part of the press the right to report news, with a five-star graduate of West Point as the champion of their prey.
The venom loosed at the meeting found its way into the dispatches of some of the correspondents. More of it got into their explanatory messages to their home offices. Most of them probably believed in their righteousness and my wickedness. They were in no mood to examine what justification there might have been for my action, or to realize that they could have done the same thing had they been alert to developments. They were smarting too terribly to think of anything but revenge—and a plausible explanation for their failure.
I was not much concerned over the action of the correspondents or an equally preposterous report of Allen accusing me of endangering lives and all but wrecking the peace. I was disaccredited as a correspondent on the basis of this report, which any investigation of the facts would have exploded.
Then came a statement from Robert McLean, president of the Associated Press, expressing regret for the distribution of the surrender news “in advance of authorization by Supreme Allied Headquarters.” This repudiation was a more serious blow. It was also a disillusionment, for I had believed that the precise difference between the Associated Press and the Nazi press was that the former reported news and the latter “authorized news.” I left for America.
ON arrival I found a national debate still raging over the ethics of my action. Everyone had an opinion; nobody, it seemed, was neutral. Despite the accusations of Army Public Relations, the distorted dispatches of griped correspondents, and McLean’s repudiation, I found—as did the War Department in a survey—that sentiment was overwhelmingly on my side. In scores of newspaper editorials and thousands of letters awaiting me, the proportion was about 80 pro to 20 con.
The mass of Americans took the view that once the war in Europe was over they had a right to know it. They had perception enough to see through the accusations of correspondents beaten on a story, and sense enough to know that lives are not endangered by announcing the end of hostilities; they may be lost by withholding the announcement.
But there was fierce antagonism in certain quarters: in the Army’s Public Relations bureaucracy and among newspaper organizations whose correspondents were involved. Some of the latter, notably the New York Times, were powerful in the Associated Press directorate. These quarters had applied strong pressure on McLean; he had yielded and issued his statement, admittedly without knowing the full facts at the time.
I told Kent Cooper, the operating head of the AP, that in view of McLean’s statement I did not see how I could remain with the organization. He refused to accept my resignation or dismiss me. The membership of the AP was divided; the case was too hot to take a stand on. He suggested that I end the controversy by admitting a breach of confidence and asking forgiveness all around. I naturally refused that false and cowardly way out. He next passed on to me an attractive job offer elsewhere. I refused that convenient way out. I considered my connection with the AP ended, but the AP has never yet ventured a word on its disposition of the case.
I set about obtaining a fair hearing, confident that it could result only in my vindication. I knew that the Flensburg announcement could not have been made without the authorization of the Supreme Command, but obtaining proof was difficult, since it could be had only from the Army itself.
I called on the War Department for an explanation of how the Flensburg broadcast was made. Even when several members of Congress pressed for this information, the Army squirmed and dodged, delayed, and pretended not to know. It took a year, but at length I got what I wanted, a signed admission from Bedell Smith, chief of staff of the Supreme Command, that:—
“Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk did officially announce the unconditional surrender of Germany in a broadcast to the German people and to the world from Flensburg….This announcement was made pursuant to orders from Supreme Headquarters that the German troops were to be informed by every possible means of the surrender and directed to cease resistance….”
SHAEF itself had not merely authorized the breaking of the news before the “official” release time. It had ordered it!
The rest was easy. Senator Sheridan Downey presented the facts and their proof to General Eisenhower. Eisenhower, after reviewing the case, restored my credentials as a war correspondent. It was, of course, a symbolic act since the war was long over, but it lifted any bar which might prevent me from operating with the Army in the future. He did not rescind the original order. Armies don’t do things that way. But the restoration and the announcement in the Senate of the facts which led to the action were all that I needed. The record was cleared at last.
Developments which followed showed the surrender staged by the Russians in its true light. It was Moscow’s first post-war move against the Western powers, a propaganda trick preliminary to the ideological offensive and territorial expansion which started immediately after the surrender was signed. The Russians’ purpose in asking the delay was to give them time to organize their mock ceremony in the ruins of the German capital. That the Berlin surrender might appear to be the real one, they asked that announcement of the event at Reims be suppressed until some hours after the Berlin performance. This was refused, but Truman and Churchill—the latter reluctantly and only on pressure from Washington—agreed to hold up the news, which belonged to the Allied peoples, until the time of the Berlin meeting. It was a political concession which might have cost Allied lives had not SHAEF violated it. It was one of those decisions of President Truman which are hard to understand, an appeasement of the Yalta-Potsdam period.
No word of the real surrender in Reims has ever appeared in the Soviet-controlled press. Behind the iron curtain most people believe that the Red Army obtained the surrender of the Germans, with but slight aid from the armies of the West. This misinformation might well affect the degree of willingness with which they might march in a future war.
The situation which led to my breaking through the barrier was an attempt to falsify history which will always be abhorrent to any true reporter, but it is long past and certainly not an issue in today’s troubled world. The Russian action was quite in line with the Soviet conception of the press for propaganda, and nothing to get excited about; the fault was ours for falling for it.
The controversy in newspaper circles over the V-E Day story probably will never end, though with the passage of time sentiment has been increasingly in my favor. Many of the correspondents who signed the petition are still my friend; when we meet, the subject never seems to come up. I have always appreciated their good reason for chagrin at the Lime; if I had been in their place I would have been a sore. I can’t believe that I would have joined in such a denunciation without determining the facts, but then I have no way of knowing: I was never that angry.
Sharon Lavigne was teaching a special-education class when her daughter called to tell her about the Sunshine Project. Named for its proximity to Louisiana’s Sunshine Bridge, the operation, helmed by the Taiwanese behemoth Formosa Plastics, was on track to build one of the world’s largest plastic plants. Already the air Lavigne breathed in her native St. James Parish was some of the most toxic in the United States. Now Formosa planned to spend $9.4 billion on facilities that would make polymer and ethylene glycol, polyethylene, and polypropylene—ingredients found in antifreeze, drainage pipes, and a variety of single-use plastics—just two miles down the road from her family home. The concentration of carcinogens in the atmosphere could triple.
“It hurt me like an arrow through my body,” Lavigne told me when I visited her at her home in Welcome, Louisiana, last December. “Everyone else was saying we had to move.” Within a few months of learning about the Sunshine Project in spring 2018, Lavigne, who’s 69, organized a community meeting in her den. “Ain’t gonna happen,” Lavigne said. “We not gonna be moved out and bought out and throwed out the window.” The group went on to found Rise St. James, a faith-based nonprofit with the mission of halting industrial development in the parish. “I was not a person who would speak up,” Lavigne said. “Boy, did that change.” That fall, Lavigne was spending so much time organizing marches and speaking publicly about Formosa that, after 39 years of teaching, she retired. Then two of Rise’s members died—one of cancer, the other of respiratory distress and other medical problems, conditions Lavigne links to pollution from existing plants. Stopping Formosa became her full-time job.
In Louisiana—where more than a 12th of the country’s estimated 4 million enslaved people lived prior to the Civil War—descendants have the right to visit their ancestors’ graveyards. So when Lavigne learned in late 2019 that enslaved people from the Buena Vista Plantation, whom she believes she’s descended from, may have been buried on Formosa’s proposed building site, she tried to visit. Upon arriving, she said authorities told her she was trespassing and that if she returned, she’d be arrested.
Back in July 2018, Coastal Environments, or CEI, an independent archaeological and environmental contractor, had alerted the Louisiana Division of Archaeology about two possible cemeteries on Formosa’s land, based on historic maps of the Buena Vista and Acadia Plantations. Formosa’s archaeological consultants had missed those sites in their initial survey, but after being instructed by the state to look again, they found and fenced off the Buena Vista cemetery. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal-advocacy nonprofit, Formosa made no public announcement of this discovery. Lavigne found out about its existence more than a year later via a public-records request submitted by Rise’s lawyers. The Acadia cemetery, Formosa reported, had still not been located and may have been destroyed by a previous owner, but both CEI and the Center for Constitutional Rights dispute that claim, arguing that Formosa’s surveyors searched in the wrong area. In March 2020, CEI identified five additional anomalies on Formosa’s territory that could also be slave cemeteries and have not yet been excavated. (“Archaeologists conducted thousands of shovel tests … no remains have been found other than at the Buena Vista site,” Janile Parks, Formosa’s director of community and government relations, wrote me via email. “When [Formosa] learned of remains at the Buena Vista site … the company immediately coordinated with the appropriate authorities. [Formosa’s] archaeological investigations of the site have been transparent and are matters of public record.”)
Rise formally requested access to the Buena Vista cemetery last year for Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, found out they were free—more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Formosa denied the Juneteenth request, and Lavigne took them to court. In a statement to the Associated Press, the company’s lawyers questioned the need for the ceremony on the basis that archaeologists couldn’t confirm the ethnicity of the human remains. District Judge Emile St. Pierre sided with Rise, giving the group temporary access to the property. “We need healing,” St. Pierre said at the end of the hearing. “Let’s look at where we are in America.”
The conflict between Rise St. James and Formosa comes at a time when many Americans are insisting the country acknowledge and address the horrors of slavery and its repercussions. Around the country, cities have debated whether to take down Confederate monuments, inciting protests. Down the river from St. James Parish, in New Orleans, several monuments have already been removed, and the city council is preparing to rename schools and streets that honor Confederate officials and segregationists. Yet what’s happening with the Buena Vista grave site is unique. Unlike monuments, which are symbolic, the cemetery contains human remains, which have endowed the land with enough cultural capital to sway a judge, at least temporarily, in favor of the community that claims it. Like a time capsule, the graves link the petrochemical industry to the plantation economy, revealing how Louisiana’s petroleum industry profits from exploiting historic inequalities and showing how one brutal system gave way to another.
Two hundred years ago, nearly every inch of Mississippi River–adjacent land south of Natchez was part of a plantation. Rich soil made for strong harvests, and river access allowed for the easy export of goods. In Louisiana, those plantations grew sugarcane, the “white gold” that propelled the southern economy. Arduous to harvest, grueling to press, and treacherous to boil, sugar had been a rare commodity, a crop barely worth the effort, until the transatlantic slave trade solved the problem of labor. In the half century preceding the Civil War, 1 million people were sold into the Deep South, relocated from Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Along the lower Mississippi River, the population of enslaved people quadrupled despite their being worked so hard that death rates often exceeded birth rates. Nonconsensual laborers produced a quarter of the world’s cane sugar, which became so lucrative as a crop that, for a time, the nation’s highest concentration of millionaires lived between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Back then, Louisiana was the second-richest state per capita, a staggering feat when you consider that almost half of its residents lacked legal ownership of their bodies.
Drive along the lower Mississippi River today in southern Louisiana, and you’ll see vestiges of that history, though the state now has the second-highest poverty rate in the union. Houses are small and trailers abundant, but more than a dozen plantations still exist, offering tours, meals, wedding venues, and overnight stays, their advertising thick with honeyed narratives about an opulent white lifestyle long gone. Until two years ago, a sign at Rosedown, the most visited plantation in the state, described enslaved people as “happy” with a “natural musical instinct.” Ormond Plantation’s website laments the hard times suffered after “the war between the states.” Only one plantation museum in Louisiana, the Whitney, focuses exclusively on the labor and culture of African and African-descended people. There, visitors can pay their respects at memorials for the enslaved, tour slave cabins, and peek in the overseer’s shed, where the tools of chattel—neck braces, balls and chains, leg irons, and paddles—hang from the walls and ceiling.
The land adjacent to the Mississippi River bears the marks of another brutality, unmissable from a car, barge, or plane. Beside the restored plantation houses and acres of sugarcane that still stripe the landscape, a newer economy chugs and chuffs. More than 150 petrochemical plants operate along the 85-mile stretch of land from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Stadium-size holding tanks, miles-long pipes, and flaring smokestacks create skylines reminiscent of cities, though, aside from the occasional security truck, few humans are visible. Names such as Syngas and American Styrenics make it difficult to tell what each plant makes, but whatever it is, you can smell it, cough it out, and sometimes see it falling, a soft yellow rain from a discolored sky. The sheer quantity of plastics, synthetic rubbers, electronic components, and fertilizers manufactured here is enough that experts call the area “the Silicon Valley of the petrochemical industry.”
The Sunshine Project has an unmistakable doomsday quality. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, about two-thirds of Americans believe the federal government should do more to reduce global climate change, yet Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality has written permits for the proposed facilities to emit more than 13 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, the equivalent of three and a half coal plants. In addition, extensive research on the damaging effects of plastics has spawned a global movement to ban single-use items such as bags, straws, and cups. Despite this, Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, defends the Sunshine Project, hailing its proposed facilities as an economic win. In addition to tax revenue, Formosa anticipates that it’ll support an estimated 8,000 temporary ancillary positions in the construction and service industries and create 1,200 on-site jobs with an average yearly salary of $84,500, almost triple the median household income for St. James Parish’s Fifth District, where the plants would be located.
Lavigne thinks those numbers are spin. The state has often equated industry with progress, but petrochemical facilities have a documented history of outsourcing labor. Lavigne is doubtful that Formosa will hire people from her community, besides for low-paying security work—a perspective her parish councilman, Clyde Cooper, shares. “These new companies don’t hire anyone from the community,” Cooper told me over the phone. “People come, even from outside of the state, to work in construction and in the plants.” (In 2018, Cooper voted to back the Sunshine Project, on the condition that the company agree to preferential hiring from within the parish, plus funding for a hurricane evacuation route and free cancer screenings for residents of the Fifth District.)
As for taxes, Louisiana’s notoriety for corporate welfare has long made it a haven for refineries and manufacturers. Since the 1930s, the Industrial Tax Exemption Program has allowed a state-level board to make decisions about parish-level property-tax exemption. According to a study by Together Louisiana, a statewide network of community organizers, from 1997 to 2016 the ITEP board approved all but eight of 16,931 corporate-tax-exemption applications. In 2017 alone, those exemptions cost state parishes about $1.9 billion, money that could’ve been spent on local parks, libraries, and schools. In 2016, Edwards issued an executive order returning decision-making power on property-tax exemptions to the parishes, but he backtracked in 2020 when he gave corporations the option of appealing local decisions to a state board.
And yet, taxes and jobs are the least of Lavigne’s worries. What keeps her up at night are emissions. In the entire U.S., only one plant emits chloroprene, an ingredient in wet suits and Koozies that’s linked to liver and lung cancers. That it’s in southeast Louisiana is no accident. As reported by ProPublica, the state has a reputation for having policy makers sympathetic to industry, and lax environmental regulation. Since the 1980s, residents have been documenting high rates of miscarriages and cancer, earning the parishes along the Mississippi River the nickname “Cancer Alley.” “Ask anyone,” Harry Joseph, the local pastor of the 114-year-old Mount Triumph Baptist Church, said during a bike tour highlighting environmental injustice. “There’s not a household here that hasn’t dealt with cancer.” The region has improved considerably since the 1963 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act created federal pollution limits. But in the past decade, hydro-fracturing—the practice of injecting pressurized liquids into bedrock in order to extract fossil fuels—has produced a glut of natural gas that’s fueled the establishment of new chemical plants, and environmental progress is expected to backslide.
Already under scrutiny for allegedly protecting the industry it’s meant to regulate, Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality has proposed an air-emissions allowance for the Sunshine Project that includes: 7.7 tons of ethylene oxide—a carcinogen linked to breast cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and miscarriages; 36.58 tons of the carcinogen benzene; and 1,243 tons of nitrogen oxides, which cause and exacerbate respiratory illnesses. (Formosa “has relied on sound science in design of the Sunshine Project and is confident it meets all regulatory criteria,” Parks said in her email. “Protecting health, safety and the environment is a priority in project engineering, design and operations.”) In a still-unresolved 2020 lawsuit, a coalition of environmental organizations allege that these quantities surpass federal air standards and that the Louisiana DEQ failed to consider existing air pollution and disproportionate racial impacts in its assessment. (“Our permits were issued in accordance with all applicable state and federal laws,” Gregory Langley, the press secretary for the Louisiana DEQ, told me by email. “Great care is taken in the site selection process to identify a safe location for the plant that is protective of the adjacent communities and their residents.”)
At the heart of the dispute is the Louisiana Tumor Registry, a project from Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health meant to track cancer risk throughout the state. Although the registry reports no elevated cancer risk in St. James Parish, critics point out that its data neither take into account residents’ proximity to plants nor measure the impact of new facilities. This missing information matters. The 824 residents of Welcome aren’t the only ones in the immediate vicinity of the Sunshine Project. Fifth Ward Elementary is a mile away—nearly all of its 123 students are Black.
It’s not by chance that 158 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, rural Black communities bear the environmental consequences of Louisiana’s biggest industry. Overlay a map of southern Louisiana’s petrochemical and petroleum plants with archival maps of the area’s plantations, and you’ll find that in many cases the property lines match up. “One oppressive economy begets another,” Barbara L. Allen, a professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech and the author of Uneasy Alchemy, a book on environmental justice in the region, told me over the phone. “The Great River Road was built on the bodies of enslaved Black people. The chemical corridor is responsible for the body burden of their descendants.”
Allen’s research examines the extractive economy: how sugar monocropping transitioned to petrochemical manufacturing. During Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau gave land grants to Black maroons and the formerly enslaved along the lower Mississippi, parceling out slivers of large plantations to extended-family groups as part of reparations, while returning the bulk of the land to white owners. The result, Allen wrote in a 2006 article, was “a pattern of large, contiguous blocks of open land under single ownership … separated by communities of freed blacks and poorer whites.” Like plantations, petrochemical and petroleum plants benefit from large acreage and easy access to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. When the oil industry moved in during the first half of the 20th century, corporations began buying up the intact plantations. More than a century later, the pattern established during Reconstruction is still visible, only instead of plantations, Louisiana’s historic free towns share fence lines with plants.
The proliferation of petrochemical plants along the lower Mississippi is undoubtedly slavery’s legacy. Before the Civil War, the state relied on the plantation economy. Today it relies on an industrial economy, which continues to disenfranchise residents. In her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild observes that many rural white Louisianans believe they must sacrifice environmental regulation in order to have jobs. For many rural Black Louisianans, that sacrifice is much starker. When industry moves in, descendants of the formerly enslaved get neither environmental security nor well-paying jobs. Like the plantations and land owners who came before them, petrochemical plants and their leadership have emerged as a new kind of “boss,” determining what happens not only to the land but also to the people who live there. The court case about Juneteenth access to the Buena Vista cemetery illustrates just how much this is a struggle about ownership of bodies: who decides which bodies go where, who has access to the bodies of the deceased, and ultimately who determines which chemicals Black people are exposed to.
Politics in Louisiana often revolves around industry. “St. James Parish, on its face, is hunky-dory: fifty-fifty Black and white,” Anne Rolfes, the founder and director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a nonprofit that partners with fence-line communities to advocate for environmental rights, said during the aforementioned bike tour. “However, the African American population is mostly at one end of the parish, in the Fourth and Fifth Districts. And where do you think the land-use plans put all the petrochemical plants?” Lavigne lives in the Fifth District, where nine plants are in operation, two are under construction, and four more, including Formosa’s megaplex—which itself includes 14 unique facilities—are proposed. This concentration of industry is enabled by zoning laws. Typically, land-use plans separate residential areas from industrial ones, but in 2014, the St. James Parish council voted to change river-adjacent sections of the Fourth and Fifth districts from “residential” to “residential/future industrial.” “The council will fight to keep the petrochemical plants out of the white districts, but they roll out the red carpet … when it comes to the Fourth and Fifth” Districts, Rolfes said. “It’s worse than redlining. It’s shocking, really. The council has a written plan to wipe out Black communities.” Councilman Cooper acknowledged “biased consideration” in the council’s zoning, but stopped short of calling it environmental racism. “I don’t think it’s strictly on being racist. They got big plots of unused cane and farmland on the river and there’s a rail there and easier access because it’s not as populated.”
Rolfe’s assessment, however, is backed by the local historical record. In 1987, traces of vinyl chloride were discovered in the blood of children from nearby Reveilletown, a historic free town founded in the 1870s. Following a settlement, Georgia Gulf Corp., the owner of a neighboring plant, bought out the rest of that town for $3 million. Two years later, vinyl chloride had contaminated the groundwater in the historic free town of Morrisonville, and Dow Chemical Company spent $7 million buying out residents. In 2002, yet another free town, Diamond, sandwiched between two Shell Chemicals plants, was bought out decades after two fatal chemical explosions. In each case, Black families had little choice but to leave, giving up not only their houses, which pollution had rendered unsellable, but also their community. This repetition of buyouts has created what environmentalists believe is a dangerous precedent: Instead of remedying safety and environmental concerns, plants that pollute can pay their way out of trouble.
Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the river parishes’ nickname had begun shifting from “Cancer Alley” to “Death Alley.” The kinds of preexisting conditions that make COVID-19 especially deadly thrive here, giving one rallying cry against systemic racism—“I can’t breathe”—haunting significance. Still, the environmental-justice movement, which combines a demand for racial equality with the push for environmental protection, has gained traction in St. James Parish during the pandemic. Shortly before Rise’s Juneteenth ceremony, Formosa announced that it would halt construction on the Sunshine Project until COVID-19 rates dropped in the area. The decision coincided with an increase in negative media attention about its handling of the rediscovered grave sites and an impending environmental lawsuit, which was thrown out when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it was reevaluating Formosa’s wetlands permits. Though the company resumed “preconstruction” activities such as road building and soil testing in October, Formosa said it would defer major construction until a COVID-19 vaccine was widely available. Work on the property is still halted today. (“The significant economic impact of COVID-19 has contributed to difficulty in evaluating construction,” Formosa’s Parks wrote. “Ongoing legal proceedings also contribute to the delay.”) Meanwhile pressure is mounting to shut down the whole project.
Two U.S. representatives, the Democrats Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and A. Donald McEachin of Virginia, are pushing the Biden administration to permanently revoke the Sunshine Project’s permits. (The congressman who had represented St. James Parish, Cedric Richmond, left his post in January to join President Joe Biden’s cabinet. So far he’s made no comment for or against Formosa.) Experts appointed by the UN’s Human Rights Council have weighed in too, calling on “the United States and St. James Parish to recognize and pay reparations for the centuries of harm to Afro-descendants rooted in slavery and colonialism.” Such support is hard-earned, but how much it will matter in the long run is unclear. “Industry [in Louisiana] has just exploded,” Allen, the Virginia Tech professor, said. “In five or 10 years … I wonder if the region will even be livable.”
Oppression runs deep in southern Louisiana, but so does resistance. On January 8, 1811, a group of enslaved people marched from Woodlawn Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish toward New Orleans. With each plantation they passed, more people joined, armed with cane knives, hoes, clubs, and guns, until more than 500 people flowed downriver, bent on founding a new Black nation. Within days, the rebellion was quashed. Dozens of Black men and women were killed by federal troops and plantation militia, and many more were sentenced to death, their severed heads mounted on spikes and displayed along a 60-mile stretch of river.
For a time, knowledge of the revolt was lost, a victim of historical amnesia. Over the past decade, though, tours, book publications, and museum exhibits have restored the event to the popular imagination. In 2019, that history came alive when the artist Dread Scott led hundreds of mostly Black volunteers in period costume on a 24-mile march past plantations and petrochemical plants, ending the reenactment at a destination the original insurgence never reached: New Orleans’s Congo Square. “Their rebellion is a profound ‘what if?’ story,” reads Scott’s website. “It had a small but real chance of succeeding.”
In some ways, Lavigne’s work with Rise isn’t so different. When she and her peers organize, the odds are against them. They’re a small group advocating for change in a region shaped by plantations, in a state where politicians consistently choose industry over environment, against a corporation they believe is determined to make plastics no matter the human cost. “We are here to acknowledge the evil of slavery and its aftermath,” Lavigne announced to her online audience and to the few dozen people gathered in person at Buena Vista cemetery last Juneteenth. She placed a bouquet of roses near eight rediscovered grave shafts. “Those were their very bodies. Their very labor,” one onlooker observed. “We honor our ancestors by thriving.” The crowd swayed, singing, “I said, Lord, help me please / I got up singing—shouting!—victory.”
The stories Louisianans tell about their history matter. The 1811 revolt ended in horrific violence, but today that history is often recounted with a kind of instructional reverence. Here were enslaved people who dreamed and organized and marched so that their children might experience a better life. Here were people who were beaten down and rose up anyway, knowing very well that their greatest hope for survival might end with the loss of their life. They strove—yes, they did—and look at how they nearly succeeded.
Of all the flaws in the perplexing “audit” of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Arizona, the hypocrisy shines through most clearly.
As Donald Trump and his allies grasped at straws to cast doubt on the results of last year’s presidential race, they settled on a few common complaints. They said that the election process was tainted by procedures that had been hastily changed in the lead-up to voting, that it was run by partisan hacks, that outside observers were provided insufficient access to oversee the process, and that the election was corrupted by private money given by philanthropists to boards of elections to help them adapt to the pandemic.
Now, more than six months after the election, the circus in Arizona, ordered by the state Senate, has become the last stand of the denialists. The review has attracted the close attention of Trump himself, who has fired off repeated, blustery statements about the count from his Mar-a-Lago exile. But Arizona is committing all the same sins that Trump’s supporters have been denouncing, using a brazenly partisan process run by apparently unqualified parties, with procedures kept secret and subject to change. Observers are being asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, reporters have been kicked out of the site, and the exercise is being largely funded by interested outside parties—even though the Arizona legislature recently passed a law that prevents local boards from accepting outside funding.
If this is what it takes to conduct the count, the cure is worse than the disease—except that there is no disease, because there’s no evidence of widespread fraud in Maricopa County, and this is no cure. The point of election audits is to make voters feel more secure about the state of elections, but this one is certain to leave people feeling less confident about the process.
“The goalposts keep moving,” Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the Democracy Fund, told me. “There will never be satisfaction, because the answer is not going to change. Joe Biden won Arizona free and fair and he is our legitimate president. There’s a portion of our electorate that will not believe that, because they continue to be told that the election was stolen.”
The Maricopa exercise is a badly flawed process built atop a fatally flawed premise. The premise is that the 2020 election was tainted by fraud, but despite frantic efforts, Trump and his allies have failed to produce evidence of widespread fraud. (In one of the few proven cases of individual fraud, a Pennsylvania man pleaded guilty this week to voting absentee for Trump in the name of his late mother.)
Arizona, and Maricopa County in particular, has already been under close scrutiny, because narrow victories in the state helped Joe Biden secure the presidency and sent Mark Kelly to the Senate. In November, Maricopa conducted a hand count of a sample of ballots under state law and found no discrepancies in the county. Earlier this year, Maricopa County also ordered a forensic audit of votes, which was conducted by three separate firms, including a certified public accountancy and two voting-systems labs accredited by the federal Election Assistance Commission. The audit searched for hacking of machines, vote-switching, and malicious software, and found none. All of this was done under the law as laid out by the Arizona legislature.
In the absence of evidence of fraud, Trump’s allies launched more theoretical attacks on the election’s integrity. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri complained on the Senate floor on January 6 that state governments had not followed their own laws in conducting elections. Trump and others argued that there was no evidence of fraud only because Republican election observers had not been given sufficient access to voting centers, a baseless claim—as campaign lawyers had to admit in court cases. In Arizona and Georgia, legislators passed laws preventing county boards of elections from accepting outside money, claiming that this was necessary to avoid the appearance of fraud.
Yet even though there was no evidence of problems with the 2020 election, even after hand counts, audits, and court cases, Arizona state lawmakers couldn’t simply let the matter go. After they’d repeatedly lied to voters and said there might be fraud, voters demanded more. So the state Senate decided to force a recount of the votes in Maricopa County. The county board of supervisors initially resisted, arguing that it was not legally allowed to hand over ballots to the state legislature, and the state Senate toyed with having board members arrested in February. Eventually, the county relented, and the state Senate ordered a new count of all 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County.
Although the process has been called an “audit” or a “recount,” it doesn’t match the procedures laid out in state law for either of those. To conduct the audit, the state hired a Florida software-security firm called Cyber Ninjas. The company refused to tell me whether it has any experience with election audits, and its website, while featuring an impressive array of ninja stock photos, offers no indications that it is qualified to conduct election-security reviews. The only apparent reason for Cyber Ninjas’ selection is that the company’s founder, Doug Logan, was a noisy proponent of “Stop the Steal” theories of fraud in the election. (Logan has not responded to my requests for comment or an interview.)
The state Senate allocated just $150,000 for the audit, far too little to cover all the costs. So despite recently banning boards of elections from using private money, the Senate has turned to private donors to fill the gap. Cyber Ninjas hasn’t disclosed all of its funding sources, though some have emerged. Unsurprisingly, much of it has come from people invested in the idea of fraud. Patrick Byrne, the eccentric former head of Overstock.com, has donated $1 million and set a goal to raise almost $2 million more. Employees of One America News Network, the conspiracist pro-Trump news outlet, have also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the outlet has been given special access as the official broadcast partner of the audit.
The results of this audit so far have been exactly what one might expect from an ill-defined process led by an apparently unqualified and partisan actor. Cyber Ninjas tried to avoid even explaining its putative procedures for the audit, labeling them a trade secret, until a federal judge ordered the company to release them. Not only is the process bad; it’s also likely to run far longer than anticipated. The state Senate initially planned for the count to finish by May 14, but at the current pace, it could take months more.
“We know from day-to-day observation that even the procedures they set forth that they were going to use, they are not following,” said Patrick, who was previously a longtime elections official in Maricopa County.
One official told a reporter this week that auditors are examining ballots for bamboo fibers, apparently because of a baseless conspiracy theory about China flying in 40,000 fake ballots. Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state working with the state Senate, also told the pro-Trump blog Gateway Pundit that workers were using UV lights to examine ballots for watermarks, apparently a nod to a QAnon theory about watermarked fraudulent ballots. (What sort of fraudster watermarks their own misdeeds?)
Predictably, the process has attracted a range of misfits and oddballs. One of the people counting ballots is Anthony Kern, a former state representative who lost his seat in November and was then present at the January 6 demonstration in Washington, D.C., that turned into an insurrection. (Kern has not been charged with breaking any laws that day.) Kern’s own name is on the ballots he’s reviewing. And when a reporter spotted Kern and tweeted a photo, he was ejected.
One reason that Maricopa County was reluctant to turn over the ballots is that supervisors wanted to ensure they were following federal laws requiring that all of the documents be kept safe and secure. Now that it has the ballots, Cyber Ninjas doesn’t seem to be bothering to provide adequate physical security. Reporters have witnessed workers moving boxes around without any obvious scheme, and nothing about Cyber Ninjas suggests that the company is capable of maintaining tight control. In addition, reporters have spotted workers with blue pens, which could irreversibly taint ballots—either inadvertently, or by someone looking to raise doubt or cause problems. Outside groups have also raised questions about whether Cyber Ninjas is taking sufficient steps to protect voters’ personal information.
In late April, several voting-rights groups sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department complaining that the state Senate and Cyber Ninjas were “violating their duty under federal law to retain and preserve ballots cast in a federal election, which are and have been in danger of being stolen, defaced, or irretrievably damaged.” They also warned that a canvass of Maricopa County voters could be unconstitutional voter intimidation. In a letter to the president of the state Senate on Wednesday, the head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division echoed these concerns. (Another state senator responded to the letter by apparently threatening to jail DOJ officials.)
Also on Wednesday, the Arizona Democratic Party settled a lawsuit filed about the process, with an agreement requiring better transparency, tighter security protocols, and independent observers. It is tempting to say that the agreement is a good step but too late: The audit has gone on too long without enough protocols and with potential danger to evidence, so there can already be no faith in the result.
But that misses the point. The problem is not that the audit is now not credible, but that it was never credible in the first place. The audit could never have succeeded. If Cyber Ninjas finishes and announces that it has validated the original results in Maricopa County, that result still wouldn’t satisfy angry Trump supporters, for the same reason that the state Senate conducted the audit in the first place: If you lie to some people long enough, they’ll believe you. And if Cyber Ninjas claims it has evidence of widespread fraud, practically no one who didn’t already believe fraud claims is likely to be persuaded, because the company’s qualifications, conduct, and statements give no reason to trust it. (Beyond that, even if the audit were to magically produce evidence of fraud, there’s no process for overturning an election that has already been certified.)
Arizona has long been one of the best states in the country for election administration. If the state Senate had stuck to the principles it had laid out in the law, all of this could have been avoided. Instead, legislators not only threw out their own statutes, but endorsed a process that embodies all of their concerns about the election. As a result, the audit is certain to end badly—even if no one yet knows when or how.
Stay sober for a while, and you stop being shocked by what people did in the grip of addiction. I’ve heard people confess to incest, to snorting carpets like a vacuum cleaner just in case something fell into the pile, to defrauding clients of millions of dollars, and—I admit this one made me gasp—to performing an amputation on himself amid a drug-induced mania.
Once I found the courage to put the ugliest parts of myself out there, my reward was to find that no one really cared. I was relieved but also, to be honest, initially kind of offended—Hey, this is a big deal for me; couldn’t you be just a little impressed? I still had a perverse pride in my addiction—a very sick humblebrag. But when someone checks their watch while you’re baring your soul, believing you’re worse—or better or that different—than the people around you is a little difficult.
Twelve-step critics say that the point of all this intimate sharing is humiliation for the sake of “breaking you down,” but in the best version of the practice, you experience no humiliation, just humility. The exercise strips away what others think of your addiction; you confront who you are without the judgment, or approval, of anyone else.
We eschew last names in “the rooms” not just to keep our outside identity a secret to others—it also helps us shed that outside identity ourselves. I thought a lot about the gift of anonymity and humility while reading Hunter Biden’s new memoir about addiction, Beautiful Things. I wondered if he’d ever been truly anonymous—to himself, if not others—in the rooms.
Coverage of the book has dwelled on what normal folks find shocking: His months-long crack binges, when he consorted with hustlers, exotic dancers, and bouncers. But when I read a celebrity’s memoir on addiction, that stuff doesn’t grab me. What I want to know is whether we share a rehab alma mater (and I feel a weird form of school pride when we do). I also look for the kind of humility I’ve seen in others in recovery, the same kind I have to keep working on myself.
I did find the book interesting, but mostly for what it didn’t say and where it didn’t go: I read almost 300 pages of tawdry confession, but I could count the times I felt close to him on one hand.
Here is where I should note that a couple of years ago, my agent pitched me on ghostwriting what I presume is this book. Was I interested? I was! The big New Yorker piece about Hunter Biden had just come out; it focused mainly on his dealings with Burisma, but also exposed some of the most recent episodes in his addiction. The article raised many questions, none of them about oil and gas. I wanted to know if he had somehow grappled with being “the other son” of Joe Biden. What is it like to be the one whom no one talks about as a potential presidential candidate? Has he been able to figure out who he is without Joe, without Beau?
I didn’t get the ghostwriting job; I also still don’t know the answers to these questions.
Biden’s book is, self-consciously and explicitly, an answer to the Fox News chyron “Where’s Hunter?” The lurid stories he recounts—cooking crack at the Chateau Marmont, getting a gun pointed at him in an urban encampment—seem to have been accepted by many readers as proof of candor, but telling embarrassing stories about yourself is possible without actually letting anyone in.
At one point, before his slide into hard-drug use, Biden meets with King Adbullah of Jordan on behalf of refugees (an opportunity derived, he says, from “nepotism, in the best way possible”) while undergoing alcohol withdrawal. The potentially ignominious event winds up being something of a résumé polisher, as “thoughts of those vodka mini-bottles back at my hotel were quickly subsumed by the gravity of our conversation.” He points out that the king eventually softened his policy.
Later in the book, strung out in a Malibu Airbnb, he muses that his near-failure with King Abdullah could have been his bottom if only he hadn’t taken up crystallized cocaine. These sordid days in Southern California are when his ego is worn to its thinnest. He no longer believes that he’ll ever get sober. “I stopped trying to fool others into thinking I was okay. I stopped trying to fool myself,” he writes. But he still measures his low point against really specific heights: the tête-à-tête with the King of Jordan, campaigning with his dad.
Privileged people exposing the costs of their addiction definitely has value; it illustrates how the disease doesn’t discriminate. That fact can’t be repeated enough. But as a privileged person in recovery, I’ve found something else just as valuable: However outsiders perceive the distance of a fall, your bottom hits you just as hard no matter where you start.
Biden writes ruefully about his bottom, how much money he spent on drugs and how much his fellow addicts stole. He was on the board of Burisma almost the entire time. When he performs the pro-and-con analysis of whether he’d take the job again, he notes that the cushy gig gave him the ability to attend to Beau during his final days, a gift no one should begrudge him. The thing he doesn’t mention explicitly is that his Burisma salary also funded his extended debauch. Forget the political scandal that his board position generated; what I would have given for him to meditate on the fully accounted trade-off he made in his personal life.
Throughout, Biden’s proximity to depravity and desperation—a sort of class tourism—is buffered by whiteness and wealth. He is always just one phone call away from another rehab or someone coming to rescue him. Indeed, his salvation arrives in the form of his now-wife, Melissa, whom he meets by the pool at Los Angeles’s Petit Ermitage, where rates start at $300 a night.
On the strength of one date, Melissa took him in and cut off his contact with his party pals. He slept for three days, and then he proposed. He testifies to sublime contentment. They have a son they’ve named Beau.
I can’t criticize Biden for any of that. I married one of the first people I met in sobriety too. If Biden is sober and happy today, hey, whatever works. But I wonder if he’s figured out who he is without the scrutiny of the press or the aid of his family. Who he is when he’s the only person to get sober for.
I sat with one particular paragraph of his book for a long time. Soon after Beau’s death, Biden sallies to another treatment center, this time under an assumed name. But as “Hunter Smith,” he declares that he feels like he’s playacting: “Yet for me to talk as ‘Hunter Smith’ about the loss of someone as close to me as my brother felt less than authentic, particularly when so many had seen me give his eulogy on TV less than two months before.”
My first reaction was that he was greatly overestimating how much interest, or memory, alcoholics and addicts in rehab have for the news. (I was in treatment during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden; I didn’t find out about it for weeks.) Then I wondered, what exactly was the sticking point here? That other guests wouldn’t be able to know the depths of his grief if they didn’t know Beau Biden was whom he’d lost? Or was it that they wouldn’t be able to understand his mourning if they didn’t know that Hunter Biden was who was grieving?
If I sound unduly judgy of Biden’s story, it’s because I don’t like how familiar it is. I thought I was hot shit too. I worried about people “finding out who I was.” I once tried to leave treatment because I didn’t want to miss the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and I cried when I canceled the rental of my fancy dress.
But early out of that treatment, I decided not to talk about my media job in a way that made it sound different from what an old colleague used to call a “jobby-job.” Media inflates, even as it deflates. Worrying about someone “finding out who I was” was just the flip side of demanding, “Do you know who I am?”
I needed to understand my sobriety separate from what I did for a living. I wanted to be honest, just not specific. I was living in a sober community with a lot of other people fresh out of treatment, many struggling to put their life together in any way possible. I knew an Ivy League–educated scholar of religion who worked in retail. A lawyer who paid rent with a job at a bagel bakery. A former executive making cold calls for an internet-services company. So dropping in references to pitching stories to The New York Times or going on cable news … eh.
One evening, I shared a story about a particularly tough ongoing assignment. I felt like the editor (“my boss”) was picking on me, finding new faults in every draft I turned in (“getting on my case about my work”). It no longer felt like a job; it felt like a punishment. I was thinking of quitting. I may have gotten a little emotional about it.
After the meeting was over, a young man approached. He’d just gotten a job delivering pizza, and he knew they were hiring. Would he like me to put in a good word?
I started to cry. And the kid, immediately uncomfortable, took a step back before I could reel myself in. Then I did, and I said that I was going to give this job a little more time, but that I appreciated his offer more than he could possibly understand. And then he smiled the brightest smile I’d seen months.
I kept thinking of that experience reading Biden’s book. I wish that Biden could acquire that kid’s gift of grace that’s born of humility, of receiving and giving help because we’re all in the exact same place. We all fall the same distance to the bottom.
The clearest I’ve ever been about who I am was when I let go of who I thought I was. Hunter Biden, I fear, is worried too much about letting people know who he is; he might get more out of losing himself. I know I did.
For decades, I have taught courses on nuclear weapons and the Cold War. Conveying what life was like with the everyday fear of immediate destruction, especially to younger students, has become more and more difficult over the years. Students understand, in some general way, that nuclear war was a terrifying possibility. But the “duck and cover” images—black-and-white stock footage of boys with slicked-down hair and girls in saddle shoes all dropping to the floor as if in a clumsy game—are now clichés. The nightmares of my childhood are, to them, just pop-culture kitsch.
In class, I’ve shown students movies from the nuclear age, hoping that Gregory Peck’s stoicism about the death of the world in On the Beach or Charlton Heston’s damnation of all mankind in the final moments of The Planet of the Apes might make them understand some of the smothering fear of living in a world on the edge of instant oblivion. I make them watch The Day After and read Fail-Safe and Warday. To younger people, these films and books now seem like relics from some lost civilization, full of mysterious, apocalyptic texts and angry cinematic gods.
But one medium from the Cold War, more than any other, gets through to my students: MTV, Music Television, which cannonballed into America’s cable systems in August 1981. When I show them videos from the age of glitter and spandex that are filled with images of nuclear destruction, they finally grasp how much the threat of instant and final war was woven into the daily life of young Americans who thought they were turning on the television just to tune out the world.
In fact, messages about nuclear weapons, nuclear war, and the end of humanity, by some counts, appeared almost hourly on MTV, making nuclear destruction second only to sex as the most ubiquitous video theme flooding the eyes of America’s youth in the 1980s.
When MTV landed in that first year of the Reagan administration, artists weren’t sure what to do with the new medium, and neither were their record-company bosses. One of the first VJs, Alan Hunter, told me that the music industry was initially flummoxed by the whole notion of videos. Executives wanted bands that toured and sold tickets; they didn’t want to spend money on cameras and studios to film rock stars lip-synching their own hits.
But the irresistible marriage of vision and sound took hold in American culture immediately, and almost overnight MTV became, as Hunter perfectly described it, “the wallpaper of people’s lives.” Videos soon evolved from disposable band promos full of wiggling butts and pouty strutting (although those would remain staples of the medium) into mini-movies that had a script and high production values.
Yes, some of the videos were about how girls just wanted to have fun, or about how boys wanted to date centerfold models. More than a few of them, as some of the industry pioneers have admitted, didn’t make a lick of sense. But a surprising number were about the Cold War—and the fear that it would turn hot. As Hunter said, artists had a platform that was subversive in its ability to mix entertainment and political messages.
Nuclear anxieties, born at almost the same time as rock, have a long pedigree in popular music. Even the granddaddy of all rock-and-roll hits, Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” was at first only the B-side of a novelty single called “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town),” in which Haley fantasizes about life after the apocalypse, when the only people left … well, you get the idea.
MTV, however, integrated these serious and frightening concepts into visual entertainment. The Australian pop stars Men at Work—for a time one of the most popular groups in the world—had a hit with “It’s a Mistake,” whose video features generals in Soviet and American uniforms playing soldiers like little boys—and starting World War III by accident. “Don’t try to say you’re sorry / Don’t say he drew his gun,” they sing while dressed as army grunts walking through a blasted forest. “They’ve gone and grabbed old Ronnie.” At this mention of President Ronald Reagan, an actor in a cowboy costume walks by and an old lady slugs him with an umbrella, presumably for destroying the planet.
Reagan in those years was everywhere on MTV. “Mr. Reagan says, ‘We will protect you,’” Sting laments in his elegiac 1985 video for “Russians,” but “I don’t subscribe to this point of view.” In a lighter vein, one of the most memorable videos of the time was the 1986 video for “Land of Confusion,” by Genesis, which used the creepy-but-hilarious puppets from the U.K. comedy series Spitting Image to weave a trippy story about Reagan having a nightmare. When Reagan wakes up, he wants a glass of water, but misses the button labeled “Nurse” and hits “Nuke” instead. A mushroom cloud appears outside his window.
Mushroom clouds were even more common on MTV than the 40th president. In David Bowie’s 1984 “Let’s Dance” video, Aboriginal children cavort about as a nuclear blast suddenly appears in the distance. Over the years, Bowie said the video was about cultural oppression and racism, but perhaps, like so many other images of Armageddon in 1980s popular culture, it reflected a nagging fear that “developed” nations were going to destroy themselves and only the innocents in other lands would be witnesses to our immolation.
This was all pretty heavy stuff for a channel that used hair gel and lip gloss by the truckload. In retrospect, the amount of political literacy the directors and bands sometimes assumed on the part of MTV’s viewers is astonishing.
Consider the video “Two Tribes,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The Eurodisco band’s first hit, “Relax,” was released with so much edgy sexual imagery that the BBC banned it almost immediately.
But “Two Tribes” and its late-1984 video were different. The song begins with a mournful orchestral introduction playing over one of the BBC’s actual public-service messages planned in the event of nuclear war. (“When you hear the air attack warning,” the announcer intones, “you and your family must seek cover immediately.”) A driving dance beat kicks in as the camera pulls back from an air-raid siren to show an arena filled with a clearly international crowd, exchanging bets and shouting with bloodlust.
Look-alikes of Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko (a sick old man who ruled the Soviet Union for about 20 minutes in between Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev) walk into a ring, and then proceed to beat the daylights out of each other. Middle fingers turn into punches, crotch kicks, bloody ear bites, a game of Roman knuckles, and strangulation. As the fight erupts into a riot, “Reagan” and “Chernenko” pause with looks of fear on their faces, and the camera zooms out to show us that we are actually at the United Nations in New York. Then, in case anyone is still trying to grasp the point, the whole world itself explodes.
“Two Tribes” entered the British charts at No. 1, was a staple on MTV, and went to No. 3 on the U.S. dance club charts. It struggled on the American pop charts, however; Americans were sometimes unwilling to sing along when nuclear anxieties were stated so bluntly. Even Sting’s “Russians” peaked at 16 on the U.S. charts, which for him was practically a flop. But the video was popular—and got the message across.
Hunter posited that foreign acts were more likely to make obviously political videos about the Cold War, and the MTV record bears him out. Americans in the age of Reagan were feeling good; even as Frankie Goes to Hollywood was showing us the end of humanity, a buff Bruce Springsteen was pulling a young Courteney Cox onstage in the “Dancing in the Dark” video.
But some American artists knew how to make worrying about nuclear war more seductive: sex.
In 1981, Prince’s Controversy album included “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” yet another song mentioning Reagan by name, but it wasn’t released as a single. A year later, however, Prince had a monster MTV hit with “1999” and its 1982 video, which was a romp of costumes, dancing, and sexuality, all lit with bright flashes as Prince and the Revolution sang about a nuclear judgment day. “War is all around us / My mind says prepare to fight,” Prince sang, but instead of fighting, the video made clear what we all should be doing in our last hours on Earth.
Sometimes the images on MTV were right in our faces, and sometimes they were subtler. Sometimes we didn’t get them at all. A misunderstood video of the era was the one for Timbuk3’s 1986 hit, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” in which the singer Pat MacDonald and his wife are living in a trailer in a postapocalyptic desert. American audiences zeroed in on the line that “fifty thou a year will buy a lotta beer” and thought the song was a college student’s ode to capitalism, instead of getting the joke that the world would be gone before graduation day.
Timbuk3’s producer, Dennis Herring, told me that a final verse had made the message clear but was cut for space: “Well I’m well aware of the world out there, getting blown all to pieces, but what do I care?” The video’s director, Carlos Grasso, and MacDonald himself confirmed that the whole thing was a riff on the end of the world. MacDonald told me that he was “kind of shocked” because he thought the point was “blaringly obvious.” He chalked the misunderstanding up to the literal-mindedness of U.S. audiences. Like Hunter, he thinks that foreign audiences were quicker to grasp irony, especially about politics, than Americans in those days.
By 1986, the Cold War was already winding down. “Future’s So Bright” dropped when Reagan and Gorbachev were talking peace, which may have obscured the message. When Morrissey released “Everyday Is Like Sunday”—a 1988 ode to catastrophe inspired by On the Beach, in which he sings, “Come, come, come, nuclear bomb!”—the video showed a bored girl in a small town, and audiences could be forgiven for thinking the song was less about the end of the world and more about Morrissey just being Morrissey.
The Cold War imagery on MTV did not produce some sort of antinuclear revolt in the streets, but it infused an underlying nuclear anxiety into the popular culture across multiple generations. Hunter and his fellow VJs were amazed that MTV’s audience in the early 1980s was, as he said, “everyone from 8 to 84,” and he suggests that the experience of watching together made MTV the “the first social media” through which millions of people experienced the music and the messages together and at the same time. “You couldn’t change the channel,” Hunter said, because MTV was the only source of music videos, and if you wanted to watch Michael Jackson or Van Halen or Sheena Easton or Metallica, you had no choice but to sit there and watch whatever everyone else was watching.
And that meant you were going to watch a Ronald Reagan puppet blow up the world, and so were the millions of other people watching at that moment.
The effect was subtle, but real. Nearly 40 years later, I can remember watching MTV with my arm around a girl and having Men at Work’s “Overkill”—a video about insomnia brought on by fear of an inevitable nuclear war—push its way into my otherwise distracted consciousness. I wasn’t alone; people my age remember those videos, and many of the songs are still with us.
On January 12, Keith Ammon, a Republican member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, introduced a bill that would bar schools as well as organizations that have entered into a contract or subcontract with the state from endorsing “divisive concepts.” Specifically, the measure would forbid “race or sex scapegoating,” questioning the value of meritocracy, and suggesting that New Hampshire—or the United States—is “fundamentally racist.”
Ammon’s bill is one of a dozen that Republicans have recently introduced in state legislatures and the United States Congress that contain similar prohibitions. In Arkansas, lawmakers have approved a measure that would ban state contractors from offering training that promotes “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” groups based on race, gender, or political affiliation. The Idaho legislature just passed a bill that would bar institutions of public education from compelling “students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere” to specific beliefs about race, sex, or religion. The Louisiana legislature is weighing a nearly identical measure.
The language of these bills is anodyne and fuzzy—compel, for instance, is never defined in the Idaho legislation—and that ambiguity appears to be deliberate. According to Ammon, “using taxpayer funds to promote ideas such as ‘one race is inherently superior to another race or sex’ … only exacerbates our differences.” But critics of these efforts warn that the bills would effectively prevent public schools and universities from holding discussions about racism; the New Hampshire measure in particular would ban companies that do business with government entities from conducting diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. “The vagueness of the language is really the point,” Leah Cohen, an organizer with Granite State Progress, a liberal nonprofit based in Concord, told me. “With this really broad brushstroke, we anticipate that that will be used more to censor conversations about race and equity.”
Most legal scholars say that these bills impinge on the right to free speech and will likely be dismissed in court. “Of the legislative language so far, none of the bills are fully constitutional,” Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told me, “and if it isn’t fully constitutional, there’s a word for that: It means it’s unconstitutional.” This does not appear to concern the bills’ sponsors, though. The larger purpose, it seems, is to rally the Republican base—to push back against the recent reexaminations of the role that slavery and segregation have played in American history and the attempts to redress those historical offenses. The shorthand for the Republicans’ bogeyman is an idea that has until now mostly lived in academia: critical race theory.
The late Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell is credited as the father of critical race theory. He began conceptualizing the idea in the 1970s as a way to understand how race and American law interact, and developed a course on the subject. In 1980, Bell resigned his position at Harvard because of what he viewed as the institution’s discriminatory hiring practices, especially its failure to hire an Asian American woman he’d recommended.
Black students—including the future legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who enrolled at Harvard Law in 1981—felt the void created by his departure. Bell had been the only Black law professor among the faculty, and in his absence, the school no longer offered a course explicitly addressing race. When students asked administrators what could be done, Crenshaw says they received a terse response. “What is it that is so special about race and law that you have to have a course that examines it?” Crenshaw has recalled administrators asking. The administration’s inability to see the importance of understanding race and the law, she says, “got us thinking about how do we articulate that this is important and that law schools should include” the subject in their curricula.
Crenshaw and her classmates asked 12 scholars of color to come to campus and lead discussions about Bell’s book Race, Racism, and American Law. With that, critical race theory began in earnest. The approach “is often disruptive because its commitment to anti-racism goes well beyond civil rights, integration, affirmative action, and other liberal measures,” Bell explained in 1995. The theory’s proponents argue that the nation’s sordid history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination is embedded in our laws, and continues to play a central role in preventing Black Americans and other marginalized groups from living lives untouched by racism.
For some, the theory was a revelatory way to understand inequality. Take housing, for example. Researchers have now accumulated ample evidence that racial covenants in property deeds and redlining by the Federal Housing Authority—banned more than 60 years ago—remain a major contributor to the gulf in homeownership, and thus wealth, between Black and white people. Others, perhaps most prominently Randall Kennedy, who joined the Harvard Law faculty a few years after Bell left, questioned how widely the theory could be applied. In a paper titled “Racial Critiques of Legal Academia,” Kennedy argued that white racism was not the only reason so few “minority scholars” were members of law-school faculties. Conservative scholars argued that critical race theory is reductive—that it treats race as the only factor in social identity.
As with other academic frameworks before it, the nuances of critical race theory—and the debate around it—were obscured when it escaped the ivory tower. It first entered public discourse in the early 1990s, when President Bill Clinton nominated the University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Lani Guinier to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Republicans mounted an aggressive and ultimately successful campaign to prevent her appointment, tagging her the “Quota Queen.” Among the many reasons her adversaries said she was wrong for the job was that she had been “championing a radical school of thought called ‘critical race theory.’” The theory soon stood in for anything resembling an examination of America’s history with race. Conservatives would boil it down further: Critical race theory taught Americans to hate America. Today, across the country, school curricula and workplace trainings include materials that defenders and opponents alike insist are inspired by critical race theory but that academic critical race theorists do not characterize as such.
Fox News gave only passing thought to critical race theory until last year. The first mention on the network occurred after Bell died, in 2012. A video of President Barack Obama praising him 21 years earlier began circulating online. “Open up your minds and your hearts to the words of Mr. Derrick Bell,” Obama said. That introduction was followed by a hug between the two men, which Fox cited as further evidence of Obama’s tendency to consort with radicals. A guest on Hannity offhandedly alluded to the theory during a segment on George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2014; network regulars briefly referred to it twice in 2019. Then, in 2020, after Derek Chauvin was captured on video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, and the United States became awash in anti-racist reading lists—some of which included books and articles that discussed critical race theory—Fox suddenly took a great interest in the idea. It became the latest in a long line of racialized topics (affirmative action perhaps being the most prominent) that the network has jumped on. Since June 5, 2020, the phrase has been invoked during 150 broadcasts.
If a single person bears the most responsibility for the surge in conservative interest in critical race theory, it is probably Christopher Rufo. Last summer, Rufo, a 36-year-old senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian think tank, received a tip from a municipal employee in Seattle. (Rufo had lived in the city and, in 2018, ran unsuccessfully for city council.) According to the whistleblower, the city was conducting “internalized racial superiority” training sessions for its employees. Rufo submitted a Freedom of Information Act request and wrote about his findings for the institute’s public-policy magazine.
“In conceptual terms,” Rufo wrote, “the city frames the discussion around the idea that black Americans are reducible to the essential quality of ‘blackness’ and white Americans are reducible to the essential quality of ‘whiteness’—that is, the new metaphysics of good and evil.” The training was rampant, he wrote, infecting every part of the city’s municipal system. “It is part of a nationwide movement to make this kind of identity politics the foundation of our public discourse. It may be coming soon to a city or town near you.” His article—which did not include the phrase critical race theory—inspired a rush of whistleblowers from school districts and federal agencies, who reached out to him complaining about diversity training they had been invited to attend or had heard about.
A month later, Rufo employed the term for the first time in an article. “Critical race theory—the academic discourse centered on the concepts of ‘whiteness,’ ‘white fragility,’ and ‘white privilege’—is spreading rapidly through the federal government,” he wrote. He related anecdotes about training influenced by critical race theory at the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, and the Treasury Department, among others. In early September, Tucker Carlson invited him on his Fox News show during which Rufo warned viewers that critical race theory had pervaded every institution of the federal government and was being “weaponized” against Americans. He called on President Donald Trump to ban such training in all federal departments.
“Luckily, the president was watching the show and instructed his Chief of Staff to contact me the next morning,” Rufo wrote to me. (He would agree to be interviewed only by email.) Within three weeks, Trump had signed an executive order banning the use of critical race theory by federal departments and contractors in diversity training. “And thus,” he wrote to me, “the real fight against critical race theory began.”
Trump’s executive order was immediately challenged in court. Nonprofit organizations that provide these training sessions argued that the order violated their free-speech rights and hampered their ability to conduct their business. In December, a federal judge agreed; President Joe Biden rescinded the order the day he took office. But by then, critical race theory was already a part of the conservative lexicon. Since Trump’s executive order, Rufo told me, he has provided his analysis “to a half-dozen state legislatures, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate.” One such state legislature was New Hampshire’s; on February 18, the lower chamber held a hearing to discuss Keith Ammon’s bill. Rufo was among those who testified in support of it.
Concerned that the measure might fail on its own, Republicans have now included its language in a must-pass budget bill. In March, Republican Governor Chris Sununu signaled that he would object to “divisive concepts” legislation because he believes it is unconstitutional, but he has since tempered his stand. “The ideas of critical race theory and all of this stuff—I personally don’t think there’s any place for that in schools,” he said in early April. But, he added, “when you start turning down the path of the government banning things, I think that’s a very slippery slope.” Almost everyone I spoke with for this article assumed that Sununu would sign the budget bill, and that the divisive-concepts ban would become law.
Although free-speech advocates are confident that bills like Ammon’s will not survive challenges in court, they believe the real point is to scare off companies, schools, and government agencies from discussing systemic racism. “What these bills are designed to do is prevent conversations about how racism exists at a systemic level in that we all have implicit biases that lead to decisions that, accumulated, lead to significant racial disparities,” Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, told me. “The proponents of this bill want none of those discussions to happen. They want to suppress that type of speech.”
Conservatives are not the only critics of diversity training. For years, some progressives, including critical race theorists, have questioned its value: Is it performative? Is it the most effective way to move toward equity or is it simply an effective way of restating the obvious and stalling meaningful action? But that is not the fight that has materialized over the past nine months. Instead, it is a confrontation with a cartoonish version of critical race theory.
For Republicans, the end goal of all these bills is clear: initiating another battle in the culture wars and holding on to some threadbare mythology of the nation that has been challenged in recent years. What’s less clear is whether average voters care much about the debate. In a recent Atlantic/Leger poll, 52 percent of respondents who identified as Republicans said that states should pass laws banning schools from teaching critical race theory, but just 30 percent of self-identified independents were willing to say the same. Meanwhile, a strong majority of Americans, 78 percent, either had not heard of critical race theory or were unsure whether they had.
Last week, after President Biden’s first joint address to Congress—and as Idaho was preparing to pass its bill—Senator Tim Scott stood in front of United States and South Carolina flags to deliver the Republican response. “From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress,” Scott said. “You know this stuff is wrong. Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.” Rufo immediately knew what he meant. “Senator Tim Scott denounces critical race theory in his response to Biden’s speech tonight,” he tweeted. “We have turned critical race theory into a national issue and conservative political leaders are starting to fight.”
No one has set any clear standard about how badly a politician can break Facebook’s rules before getting kicked off the platform, and yesterday the company’s wannabe court missed a chance to fill the void. In a decision anticipated with the fervor that might attend a high-profile Supreme Court ruling, the Facebook oversight board told the platform that, while it might have been right to ban then-President Donald Trump on January 7 for his role in stoking the Capitol riot and because of the risk of continuing violence, the ongoing “indefinite” nature of the ban is not justified. The board gave Facebook six months to go back to the drawing board and work out what to do with Trump’s account now.
But this is the exact question Facebook had asked the board to settle. The board respectfully declined. In fact, the board’s decision resolved essentially nothing—except that Facebook wasn’t exactly wrong on January 7—and leaves open the possibility that this whole charade will happen again before the year is out.
The oversight board is a weird creature. It has no mandate beyond that which Facebook deigns to give it. Its decisions arguably affect free speech, but not in the legal sense, because they implicate only a single private social-media platform. The board is like a moot court in a state without real courts, or a model United Nations in a world with no United Nations. And yet the oversight board was the only public-facing deliberative body contemplating what Ben Smith of The New York Times described as “one of the most important questions in the world.”
Writing speech rules is hard. Offline justice systems have been struggling with it for centuries. At best, the board can come up with better policies than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg can. At worst, it can still provide a check on Facebook’s power over what you or I—or even the president of the United States—can say in a very important corner of the online world. Zuckerberg alone decides is a terrible way to determine what should be allowed on a communication medium used by 2.8 billion people.
This is where the board comes in. Even if Congress could bridge the cavernous divide between Democrats’ and Republicans’ views on content moderation, the First Amendment would stand in the way of lawmakers coming anywhere near these kinds of decisions. Other countries are not constrained by the U.S. Constitution, but almost all democracies have significant qualms about governments making granular decisions about what people are allowed to say. Even if governments made such rules, the sheer scale and speed at which content moderation happens makes such an idea practically impossible. And so most of Facebook’s speech rules will always be settled by private, not public, power. In this world, even a moot court in which an essentially random group of people play judges is better than no court at all.
The people whom Facebook tapped for its board are precisely the kind you’d imagine on a supreme council of elders: retired judges, a Nobel Prize winner, a former prime minister of Denmark, a former editor in chief of The Guardian, human-rights advocates, and lots of lawyers. They reportedly get paid six-figure salaries, and their press road show this week suggests thattheyareenjoyingthespotlight.
Members are still trying to make sense of their role. Facebook is typically responsive to pressure from only a small slice of Western media. The board is a global body, and in some decisions leaps at the opportunity to criticize Facebook’s failures overseas. Just last week, the board issued a decision about a post in India that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party. It drew attention to Facebook’s mistaken removal of the post and urged Facebook to make changes to stop such mistakes from happening again. Given the current political and public-health crisis in India, protecting political speech criticizing the government is an urgent responsibility. In that case, the board stepped up.
But it was far too modest in the Trump case. Writing the rules is Facebook’s job, the board’s members concluded, and the board will merely call balls and strikes on whether those rules are consistent with Facebook’s own values and the board’s interpretation of international human-rights law. The board made a strategic, perhaps even Solomonic, judgment to uphold Facebook’s initial decision but also not give its stamp of approval to kicking Trump off the platform forever. It dinged Facebook for making a “vague, standardless” decision—but then sent the controversy back to Facebook with a pretty vague and standardless set of instructions.
In doing so, the board passed up an opportunity to lay out specific principles for making decisions that currently are unconstrained. This should be one of the board’s superpowers: Precisely because it is not a government body, it can offer guidance that governments cannot.
The oversight board’s deliberations were convincing enough, apparently, that the conservative commentator Charlie Kirk suggested the U.S. Supreme Court should take up Trump’s case and overturn the board. But to many critics, the Trump decision confirms that the board is just an exercise in kayfabe—the professional-wrestling conceit of people agreeing to take seriously something that is obviously fake. And the media outlets that earnestly cover the charade, the prominent people who wrote submissions to the board about the case, the Trump representatives who submitted a user statement to the board, and the commentators, including me, who waste time analyzing its decisions as if they are more than just blog posts are helping legitimize Facebook’s sham justice system.
Of course Facebook set up the board not out of altruism, but because Zuckerberg thinks it benefits the company. Of course he wants to attract attention to the board. And of course we shouldn’t forget the many ways in which Facebook still needs to expand the board’s remit to make its oversight meaningful. Many of the most important problems with Facebook, such as what kinds of content it chooses to amplify, its ad-targeting practices, and its data collection, are all beyond what the board can review.
But none of this changes the fact that the board exists and is making decisions with real consequences. And while conservative outrage over the board’s decision this week is comical, the idea that Facebook should have clear standards isn’t. No one is suggesting that the board makes other regulatory measures unnecessary. No lawmaker has found or will find such an argument persuasive. By all means, break Facebook up! Fine it! Yell at its executives in the halls of Congress! Still, Facebook will persist, and the board can help constrain it. This is not an either-or proposition.
The oversight board is indeed a PR exercise. And its benefit is precisely that it happens in public, and not inside the black box of Facebook. At this point, democratic institutions aren’t solving the problems that Facebook creates. So the board is the worst option except for all the rest. If only the board’s members really grasped the opportunity they’ve been given.
The theme connecting their presentations is one of the stalwarts in reports over the years at this site: Namely, the role of community colleges as linchpins of education and opportunity in the United States. For more on why community colleges are the institutions of this American moment, please see this dispatch from Michigan, or this from Ohio, or this with responses from Maine to Texas to California and beyond, or this thoughtful reply by Matt Reed for Inside Higher Ed. For now, my goal is to explain why a 93-second video clip, which you’ll find at the end of this post, deserves your attention.
(Here’s a rhetorical note from a one-time political speechwriter: Simpler is always better, when it comes to naming big new projects. Cautionary example: During the Obama era, the U.S. and five other countries reached an agreement with Iran. Nearly everyone, admirer or critic, refers to that agreement as “the Iran nuclear deal”; almost no one outside a bureaucracy calls it by its ungainly formal title, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA. By contrast, the matched set of three titles for this administration’s main programs—American Rescue Plan, American Jobs Plan, American Families Plan—are marvels of concision. Each name is three words long; two of the three words are “American” and “Plan”; and the remaining words are “Families,” “Jobs,” and “Rescue.” Unless they had chosen “Motherhood” and “Apple Pie,” it would be hard to improve on this as a naming strategy. Students of Americana will also note the resonance with the famous three-word titles of many of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, from the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, to the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA.)
The idea and ambition of the new “American (Rescue/Jobs/Families) Plan” programs, as noted in this previous post, involve seizing this moment’s historic opportunity to address long-festering inequalities and failures. Will Americans look back, decades from now, at the sweep of these proposals as something comparable to the New Deal, in brightening prospects for the nation as a whole? Or will they see it as successful in more narrowly defined terms, like the race to space in the 1960s? Or will it be seen as another sad mismatch of intentions and effects? Obviously no one knows the answer now; less obviously but just as certainly, the answer is being determined week by week, through actions of citizens, businesses, and institutions across the country.
Joe Biden’s part of the community college saga came last week, in the Capitol, when as part of his lengthy address he proposed guaranteeing two free years of community college to all students. At Tidewater Community College this week, Dr. Jill Biden appeared in her capacity as a long-time English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, outside Washington—where, she said, she was known as “Dr. B.” She spoke before her husband did, and she made the case for community colleges as today’s expressions of an American ideal: of mobility for individuals, of security for families, of revitalization for towns and regions.
“Our schools accept everyone,” she said, “regardless of age or race or income, or family legacy.” If you watch her presentation (on C-SPAN video here), you’ll see her stressing these points, starting around time 3:00. “They offer classes that are flexible, so students don’t have to choose between work and school. They train for real-world jobs. They tailor to the community they serve.”
Obviously community colleges have their failures and shortcomings and scandals, as any institution does. But both of the Bidens emphasized the theme that has struck Deb and me in our travels: how important the community-college opportunity is, for how many people, at a time when so many other avenues of opportunity have been closed off.
America’s K-12 system is the bedrock of public education; its research universities, liberal arts colleges, and other four-year schools are crown jewels. But everyone already knows about the importance of those institutions—the public schools, the famous universities. Right now, in the political and economic straits of the 2020s, community colleges may most deserve extra attention and help.
You can hear both Bidens making the extended case, in the C-SPAN video from Tidewater. But if you’d like the TL;DR version of this argument, I most enthusiastically recommend spending the next 93 seconds of your life watching Raj Shaunak, of East Mississippi Community College, explain what his institution has meant to the people of his state.
Many of them, he says, are “one flat tire away from losing their job, or not finishing their education.” This is a clip from the HBO documentary “Our Towns,” and I think it will give you an idea of why we have become such proponents of strengthening these engines of American opportunity.