Berrien County, Michigan, is not the kind of place you would expect to be losing residents. Perched on the coast of Lake Michigan, “the Hamptons of the Midwest” is widely known for its sandy beaches and vineyards, which draw plenty of tourists from nearby Chicago and Indianapolis. But the county hasn’t yet persuaded those tourists to stay, and its population has been declining since the 1970s. So last year, Rob Cleveland, the leader of a regional economic-development organization, got creative. If you’re a remote worker from another state who wants to buy a house and resettle in Berrien, you can apply with Cleveland’s group, the Cornerstone Alliance, and get $10,000 to $15,000.
Since September, when the program launched, more than 2,500 people from all over the country have reached out to express interest in the incentives, Cleveland told me. He connected me with one of them, Jill Urbanski, a longtime Chicago resident who heard about the offer on the radio in October. By the end of February, she had moved to St. Joseph, Michigan, and collected her $10,000. “It made perfect sense,” Urbanski told me. “Everything lined up for me.”
There’s just one problem. In the 10 months since the program launched, Urbanski is the only person who’s taken the Cornerstone Alliance up on its offer. Cleveland said that two more families are poised to move to the county soon, but he’s still nowhere near his initial goal of giving out 25 incentives by the end of this year. Now he’s hoping he’ll hit five.
Moving incentives like the ones in Berrien are all the rage right now. More than 40 places in the United States are giving people money to relocate, according to the website MakeMyMove. The Shoals, Alabama, will pay you $10,000. Northwest Arkansas will also give you $10,000—plus a free bike. Topeka, Kansas, offers up to $15,000 and $1,000 worth of Jimmy John’s sandwiches. Morgantown, West Virginia, has received a wave of mediaattention by making what may be the most generous offer: a combination of cash grants, free outdoor-gear rentals, complimentary ski tickets, and other perks collectively valued at $20,000.
These initiatives vary depending on the size of the city and how they’re funded (some, including Berrien’s, are financed entirely with private dollars), but the idea behind them all is the same: By dangling rewards, struggling communities hope to attract new residents—especially remote workers—from wealthier parts of the country. These programs predate the pandemic, but they’ve grown in popularity now that a chunk of companies are permanently embracing remote work. “People may be making that decision to step away from the cramped office in downtown Manhattan,” Craig Armstrong, the architect of the incentives program in Newton, Iowa, told me. “We’re probably well positioned to take advantage.” Even The Wall Street Journal has celebrated moving initiatives, saying they open new avenues for “today’s legions of remote workers, who are itching to bounce from their high-price, high-density confines in cities like San Francisco and New York.”
But the way these programs are playing out is nothing like their initial promise. Instead of something that can fundamentally reorient where Americans live, almost all of these initiatives look like what’s happening in Berrien: They’re bringing in some new residents, but not enough to make any notable difference for the cities’ population problems. For all the hype around remote work, it is clearly doing little to nothing for lots of shrinking cities.
Moving incentives have been around for a while, but they went prime time in 2018. That year, a foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, started offering $10,000 to remote workers who moved to the city. The idea—make money by moving!—quickly became a mediasensation that brought Tulsa exactly the attention it was looking for. Over the past three years, roughly 47,000 people have applied to the program, called Tulsa Remote. Between those who were accepted and the families that came with them, more than 1,000 people from all over the country have moved to the city. Tulsa’s success is one of the biggest reasons so many other communities have created their own incentives.
But unlike almost all of the other places offering these programs, Tulsa is a major city, home to hundreds of thousands of residents. (The only bigger city with incentives is Baltimore, which awards just 20 grants a year.) Indeed, given the city’s size, the new residents accounted for only a trivial 0.25 percent increase in population. And because Tulsa kick-started the trend, it got a head start in attracting new residents. “I think Tulsa got a great advantage because it was the first mover, and it made their name,” says Richard Florida, a professor of economic policy and analysis at the University of Toronto.
To try to find out if other programs have replicated the minor success of Tulsa Remote, I reached out to 10 of them, focusing on those with the most generous incentives. I heard back from and interviewed representatives from eight of them. Everyone was excited about what their town had accomplished. But no city came anywhere close to matching Tulsa’s record.
Consider Topeka: The region’s economic-development agency launched an incentives program in December 2019. It has since added just over 65 new residents to a city of more than 125,000 people. The Shoals, home to more than 70,000 people, has settled just 25 new residents through its initiative since June 2019. Cleveland, of Berrien County, is proud of his program, and he attributes the underperformance to the bonkers housing market. But when the Cornerstone Alliance does eventually fill all 25 budgeted spots, the gains will amount to basically nothing. The county is home to 153,000 people, so even if the remaining 24 slots go to four-kid families, the population would increase by just less than 0.1 percent.
“I’m fairly skeptical [that these programs] will make a noticeable blip on the population totals of a city or state,” Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told me. He compared the incentives to an expensive marketing program with limited benefits. “There’s only going to be so many news articles about this phenomenon,” he said.
The problem isn’t just that most of these incentives receive sporadic media attention. Even programs launched before or alongside Tulsa’s have had minimal success. Armstrong estimated that Newton’s initiative has brought somewhere between 125 and 150 new people to town since it launched in 2014—a 1 percent increase in population spread out over more than seven years. Britt, Iowa, has one of the most effective programs, and its results have still been quite modest. It has given away eight plots of land to families since it began offering them in 2018; once construction is complete and the new residents arrive, the town’s population will increase by 1 to 2 percent.
That doesn’t mean the incentives have no benefits. Newton’s program was partially created to get reluctant construction companies to build in the town, Armstrong said, and in this it has succeeded. The plots Britt has given away were intended to both grow the city’s population and help get rid of vacant land. Ryan Arndorfer, Britt’s mayor, told me that the program has certainly helped with the latter. And any new residents provide some benefit to shrinking towns, especially if they’re professionals with high earnings—which remote workers disproportionately are. Such people generally spend more at local businesses and pay more in taxes. Plus, they are known to form clusters. When enough white-collar residents gather in one place, they attract like-minded people, organically growing the population.
But experts told me it’s unlikely that the programs will cause a critical mass of white-collar workers to relocate to these places. Part of the problem is that while the officials behind these programs dream of pulling from big cosmopolitan cities such as Seattle and Austin, Texas, the incentives really are just stealing from communities similar in size and levels of wealth. Of the eight families that moved to Britt, six came from other parts of Iowa. The two that didn’t—one from New York and another from California—still had ties to rural Iowa.
These programs “are a zero-sum competition,” says Cristobal Young, an economic sociologist at Cornell University who studies how states use taxes to attract residents. When the programs are publicly funded, he told me, it’s “bad policy that just takes money from settled residents and gives it to people who are more mobile.” Even when they’re privately funded, the risk is that the programs put pressure on peer communities to hand out their own incentives, spurring a race to the bottom.
The fundamental tragedy of moving incentives is that these communities desperately need more people and more jobs. In 2006, Newton lost a Fortune 500 employer, Maytag, whose headquarters had helped sustain the local economy for more than a century. When Maytag was acquired by Whirlpool, Newton shed well over 1,000 jobs. Now Whirlpool is headquartered in none other than Berrien County. The cash giveaways, the Cornerstone Alliance’s Cleveland said, are ultimately secondary to his pitch. Whirlpool—and the talent it brings—is a far bigger selling point. “People are not going to move for $15,000,” Cleveland said. “There have to be amenities and opportunities.”
I was surprised by the candor, but he’s right. In the battle to attract remote workers, cities can’t simply pay to win. If they don’t have the types of restaurants and walkable neighborhoods that professionals are looking for, $15,000 just isn’t going to cut it. They might even need to offer attractive, in-person jobs: New residents may work remotely when they arrive, but they could eventually want or need to switch careers.
The victors are likely to be places such as Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Nashville, Tennessee—cities that were getting bigger and wealthier before the pandemic. In other words, cities that were already winning. Incentives “could work in a Bozeman[, Montana],” Florida told me. “You could do this maybe in a Traverse City[, Michigan]; a Hudson, New York—all the places where, if you look at the census data, you see that there’s been a migration. But it’s still a small subset of places.”
That moving incentives have had such tepid results doesn’t exactly bode well for the idea that remote work will fundamentally rejigger where Americans live. Sure, some outdoorsy types might move to hip mountain towns. Cost-conscious folks could decamp to cheaper but still cool inland cities. But for all the talk about the hazy future of big cities, remote work doesn’t seem poised to change that much about how those places have pulled away from the rest of the country.
This harsh reality isn’t likely to stop the boom of moving incentives. But cash and gimmicks aren’t a way out of the vicious cycle that struggling communities are stuck in. Urban professionals move to places for high-end opportunities and amenities. And most small cities will struggle to generate those things until they have enough professionals. Ultimately, the only real winners from moving incentives are the literal winners: the recipients. The $10,000 grant was great for Jill Urbanski. But was it a good investment for Berrien County? Urbanski had already been looking to leave Chicago and loved the county from vacationing there. I asked her point-blank if she would have moved even without all the money she got. She didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”
“Something Something Alice Munro” is a new short story by Robert McGill. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, McGill and Oliver Munday, the design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Oliver Munday: Your story “Something Something Alice Munro” brings a Harold Bloom quote to mind: “Influence is influenza.” It’s clear from the opening sentences that the famed author Alice Munro will be a prominent influence on the text, but by the end you manage to take this conceit to unexpected places. The story is a witty look at the anxiety of literary influence, to cite Bloom once more. Did the story always follow from a conceptual premise, or did the characters emerge first?
Robert McGill: I started out wanting to write about Alice Munro: in particular, about the one time I met her, 15 years ago at a literary festival. I’d grown up in a town close to hers, and I’d read all her stories. At the festival, we shared a few minutes of small talk, and I was completely tongue-tied.
Once I started writing the story, I realized that it was going to be less about meeting Munro than about having been a young person in her part of the world and wanting to tell stories of a sort that she hasn’t. From that point, I developed the story’s peculiar sentence-by-sentence constraints (each sentence begins or ends with either Alice Munro or you), which channel a certain contradictory, Bloomian impulse in me: to make the story all about Munro and, at the same time, totally not something she would write.
Munday: In Canada, where you’re from, Alice Munro, the Nobel laureate, presides as one of the country’s foremost literary celebrities. It’s interesting for an American reader to consider this type of fame, because we lack such a singular prose star in our national imagination. How much has Munro shaped Canada’s literature as a result of her status?
McGill: I think of Munro and Margaret Atwood as the big, bright binary system in the Canadian literary firmament. (Together, their initials are “AMMA.” What would Freud say?) Atwood has established one way to gain global fame and influence as a Canadian author: travel the world regularly to speak, tweet prolifically, and appear in hit TV shows based on your novels. Then there’s Munro, just writing story after story while living quietly in the backwoods. It has been good for Canadian writers to have them both as models and know both paths are viable.
There’s also the fact that neither Munro nor Atwood has shied from writing undisguisedly about Canada. That’s still a big deal in a country where generations of writers felt they had to set their stories elsewhere if they wanted to make it.
Munday: Nessa and Hadi, the two characters at the center of “Something Something Alice Munro,” are both writers. Nessa is pursuing a Ph.D. and writing a dissertation on the work of Munro, and Hadi is a poet. You describe them as best friends who sleep together. Would romantic love somehow threaten their respective intellectual pursuits, or are they simply hedging and afraid of commitment?
McGill: I don’t know if they’re afraid of commitment per se. They might just be wary of each other. They’re both still working out some fundamental things—for instance, in their relations to their parents. Maybe it’s an act of care for each other and themselves not to complicate things with one another.
I’m hedging here, aren’t I? They’re my characters, so I should know them inside out. But I sometimes feel that I’ve gotten characters down to the best of my abilities when I’ve brought them to the point where they’re intriguing puzzles to me as well as to others.
Munday: The title of the story, along with the regular invocations of Munro, act as a kind of comic diversion from the drama. The characters use Munro as a distraction from life, but also as a lens through which to interpret it. Fiction writ large functions similarly, inflecting on events, suffusing our perceptions of the world, and often providing a form of escape. In what other ways are the characters, and you as their author, using Alice Munro?
McGill: There’s a quotation from Edward Said that might apply to Nessa: “It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.” For all that fiction helps you to see the world in new ways, it risks constraining how you see things too. If Nessa’s outlook begins and ends with Munro’s writing, she’s hamstrung herself. One wonders: What’s she really committing herself to when she commits herself to Munro?
For Hadi, the picture of small-town Canada associated with Munro’s fiction—stultifyingly homogenous, astringently Protestant—carries its own limitations. You can see why he might chafe against requests to discuss his writing alongside hers. But then, her picture isn’t quite so reductive as I’ve just suggested. So writers like Hadi—or me—who use Munro as a foil might be not using so much as misusing her. Failing to see her work clearly.
Munday: You begin “Something Something Alice Munro” in third person, remaining close to Nessa, only to switch to the second person to inhabit Hadi’s voice and limn the emotional core of the story—Hadi’s relationship with his father. How did this form of shifting perspectives develop?
McGill: In some vital ways, I identify with Hadi and Nessa. In other ways, the two of them are much more like people of my acquaintance than like me. So writing the story, I experienced this kaleidoscopic effect: the aspects of the characters emerging from what I know of myself kept blurring into what I know and imagine of others. Shifting the perspective between Nessa and Hadi, between third person and second, was a way of acknowledging this unique experience that fiction produces, in which the writer and readers all end up asking of each other and the characters, “Where, in this story, do you end and I begin?” If you come away from a work of fiction not having been unsettled from the point of view you had going in, then somebody hasn’t done their job.
Munday: There’s a sly, meta aspect to the story, an ambiguity around the narration that causes us to wonder who’s actually writing it. The question of authorial authority arises—whether writers should draw from only their lived experience as opposed to imagining the experiences of others. How do you feel about these demarcations, which seem to be hardening in fiction?
McGill: I back the idea that the label “fiction” should never be taken as a license to write without an obligation to the real-life cultures and identities affected by your writing. I think of fiction as a unique space where authors and readers, however partially and provisionally, shed their skins to imaginatively inhabit the lives of others; to learn about the enormous diversity of life. So as a reader, if I discover that an author’s trading in caricatures and stereotypes, I feel they’ve let down the side.
One of the things I like about Alice Munro’s writing in this regard is that she isn’t precious about the status of fiction. Writers in her work are always being told that they’ve gotten things wrong or that they’re trading in cheap tricks. But she still implicitly recognizes that fiction has a unique role in our lives. Nonfiction alone isn’t enough. Maybe it would be if being a good person required only listening to what other people say publicly about their lives. But all the time, we’re called on to imagine how others are feeling and thinking, to infer what they can’t or won’t say out loud. That’s where fiction gains one of its key roles: as a comparatively safe—because veiled—space of self-articulation and as a model for carefully, sensitively imagining how it is to be someone else.
Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Robert McGill about his writing process.
Nessa was sitting in Hadi’s car, letting the AC run with the engine off, thinking that if the battery died, it served him right for taking so long in the pharmacy, and surveying the main street of Bayfield, which was nearly deserted even on a sunny summer morning, when whom did she see approaching the discount rack outside the clothing boutique but Alice Munro? At least, she was pretty sure it was Alice Munro. The past few years, Nessa had developed a habit, no matter where she found herself, whether on the subway in Toronto or strolling along a Venetian canal on vacation with her mother, of seeing strangers in the distance and mistaking them for Alice Munro. Sometimes they weren’t even women, just smallish men, old-timers with silky white hair and a comportment that recalled the hard-bitten grace she associated with Alice Munro. Whenever she reported these sightings to Hadi, he accused her of being obsessed with Alice Munro.
“Alice Munro, always Alice Munro! How long will it be before a day goes by without you mentioning Alice Munro?”
He spoke at least partly in jest, knowing it was hard for Nessa to avoid the topic when she was writing her Ph.D. dissertation on Alice Munro. Or, rather, on the works of Alice Munro. Nessa usually made a face when other academics used the name of the author—who was a real person, after all—to stand in for the author’s writing, saying, for instance, “I work on Alice Munro,” which made it sound as if they weren’t literary scholars but chiropractors, and ones with a poor sense of chiropractor-client privilege, overeager to share the fact that they got to crack some serious celebrity back, including the Nobel Prize–winning vertebrae of one Alice Munro.
The idea of Nessa coming across the living embodiment of her doctoral dissertation in Venice had been a stretch, but Bayfield wasn’t so implausible as the site of an encounter with Alice Munro. It was a sweet little town on Lake Huron, the kind of place that often furnished the setting for stories by Alice Munro. More to the point, Bayfield was a 15-minute drive to Clinton, the town where Munro lived, and if you really burned rubber, it was a half hour to Wingham, where Munro had grown up, back when she was Alice Laidlaw, back when the world had little inkling that unto it had been born the future Alice Munro. (Nessa didn’t know why she entertained fantasies of traveling back to Wingham in the ’40s and finding Alice Laidlaw as a young woman and getting to know her, but she did, and it bothered her, because time-travel stories didn’t really fit with her area of study, being a long way from the kinds of things written by Alice Munro.) Was it so hard to imagine that sometimes, on days such as this one, Bayfield might be a destination of choice for Nessa’s favorite writer, a chance to see if the lake was still there, or just a congenial stop on a drive through lands that, over the past half century, had been transformed from ordinary farms, woodlots, and villages into a place now recognized the world over as the everlasting territory of Alice Munro?
Hadi didn’t like it when Nessa referred to Bayfield as territory, making it sound as though the town was no more than literary real estate belonging to Alice Munro. He’d grown up in Bayfield, and by his account, the experience hadn’t been easy, so that the only thing he claimed to want from the place at this stage of his life was to feel that it had furnished material for his own writing, because he was a poet, and a very good one, but still, in the few interviews he’d given, most of them conducted by fellow graduate students, whenever the topic of his formative years came up, the interviewer inevitably wanted to know whether he’d been influenced by Alice Munro. Had he read Alice Munro? Had he met Alice Munro? Given this pattern of questioning, it seemed bad luck that he’d ended up housemates, besties, and occasional fuck buddies with someone whose sole scholarly commitment was to the writing of Alice Munro.
“Besties and fuck buddies is fine,” he’d told Nessa, “so long as you don’t expect me to spend the holidays with you and your mother or do anything else that might falsely imply an interest in contracting myself to a secondhand involvement in Alice Munro.”
He was always like this, cool and standoffish, which was strange, because he was a poet, and along with his proclivity for talking about things like boustrophedon and lipograms, Nessa would have expected him to be more forthcoming about matters of the heart, which surely weren’t the exclusive bailiwick of Alice Munro. Instead, he seemed happiest talking shop, even when it involved Nessa’s research, though he expressed nothing but disdain for the short stories of Alice Munro.
“Don’t you feel,” he’d once said, “that all her characters are basically, in the end, versions of Alice Munro?”
“Basically, in the end,” Nessa had replied, “we’re all versions of Alice Munro.”
Despite Hadi’s dislike of Munro, he’d been obliging when it came to giving Nessa rides to Bayfield on weekends, even though his mother and sister had moved away from the town not long after he’d left for university, and even though his sole remaining relative in the place was his father, for whom he betrayed perhaps even less affection than he did for Alice Munro. His father, who owned Bayfield’s only pharmacy, apparently didn’t betray much affection for Hadi, either; at least the way Hadi told it, that was not because the man disapproved of Hadi’s lifestyle, given that he didn’t know about the drugs and alcohol, but because as an undergraduate, Hadi had jumped ship from biochemistry to the slowly leaking dinghy that was English literature, and because he kept company with people who investigated not cures for cancer or compostable plastics but Alice Munro. Nessa had met Hadi’s father only twice, and briefly on each occasion, but now that she thought of it, she was struck that he probably saw her as symbolizing everything distasteful about his son’s life, and she wondered if this might be why Hadi kept bringing her to Bayfield, not just because, as she kept impressing on him, she was jonesing for a meet-cute with Alice Munro.
Over the past two years, various individuals, some of them good friends and some of them people she’d met minutes earlier at parties, had suggested to her that she consider developing an interest in authors other than Alice Munro. The only time she’d taken the suggestion seriously was at a book launch in Toronto the previous fall, when it had been proposed that she take a look at the work of Michael Ondaatje, but the suggestion had been made by Ondaatje, who seemed biased, and also, he was, no matter how many good things one could say about the man and his books, no Alice Munro.
As Nessa stared at the woman checking out dresses that nobody else had wanted to buy all summer, she started to doubt whether it was actually Alice Munro. Exiting the car seemed the way to know for sure, and Nessa needed to move fast if she was going to have a chance, but she hesitated, daunted by the possibility that she was about to meet Alice Munro. What did you say to Alice Munro? Maybe, after all of Nessa’s yearning for this moment, it wasn’t right to meet her, not if Nessa aspired to be a proper literary critic, someone who wouldn’t let her personal feelings about authors impede her assessments of their work, someone who could stay objective and speak the unvarnished truth about literature by anybody, whether some anonymous medieval shepherd or, well, Alice Munro. But what the hell; how often did you sit in a car and see Alice Munro?
She opened the passenger door as quietly as she could, keen not to spook Alice Munro. Jesus, what was she thinking; it wasn’t a deer, it was Alice Munro. And oh my God, it really was Alice Munro. As the woman stood at the discount rack, rubbing the sleeve of a gingham dress between her thumb and forefinger, Nessa could see the piercing blue eyes and cocked eyebrow that she had, some time ago, come to think of as a distinguished combination, because anyone lucky enough to have them thereby looked rather like Alice Munro.
Unsure of what her opening move would be, Nessa decided just to walk up and improvise her first-ever words to Alice Munro. It still seemed unfathomable that Munro could be standing there, bargain-hunting for wardrobe refreshers, living an ordinary life, or at least one as ordinary as life could be if you were Alice Munro.
“Excuse me,” said Nessa, “but are you Alice Munro?”
“Alice Munro?” replied Alice Munro. “Fucksake, do I look like Alice Munro?”
As she said it, she winked, and though her choice of phrasing had been unexpected, her eyes shone exactly like the all-observant eyes of Alice Munro.
“Well yes, a little,” said Nessa, winking back and trying for the same ironic tone that had just been modeled for her by the one true Alice Munro.
“Yeah, I know, I’m fucking with you,” said Alice Munro. “You’re the third tourist this week to tell me I look like Alice Munro.”
“Wait,” said Nessa, “are you saying you aren’t Alice Munro?”
Before there was time for an answer, Hadi called out a greeting that seemed intended less for Nessa than for the woman, who, with each passing second, began to fill out around the middle, and whose hair began ever so slightly to darken, looking less and less like Alice Munro’s.
“Hadi!” said the woman, and suddenly Nessa felt that this person had sure as hell better not be Munro, because Nessa didn’t think that any part of her and Hadi’s relationship—not the friendship, the housemateship, or the fuckbuddyship—could survive the discovery that all this time, he’d been on a first-name basis with Alice Munro.
“Hey, Mrs. Irvine,” said Hadi, going to hug her, and now Nessa didn’t know what she’d been thinking, so little did the woman actually resemble Alice Munro.
“Hadi, you’re so grown up, I barely recognized you,” said the woman who was now very obviously not Alice Munro. “Did you know,” she said, turning to Nessa, “that this young man once wrote the best high-school essay I ever graded—and, the subject, as a matter of fact—”
“Let me guess,” said Nessa with a scowl, “it was Alice Munro.”
“Yes, Alice Munro! Hadi, would you believe that this young woman just mistook me for Alice Munro?”
“Would you believe that she’s writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Alice Munro?” said Hadi, appearing eager to divert attention from what Mrs. Irvine had just revealed about his secret history with Alice Munro.
“A whole dissertation on her,” said Mrs. Irvine in wonder, as if she figured you could get, at most, a chapter from the topic, maybe two if you considered the influence of Shakespeare on Alice Munro. “In my day,” she said, “it wasn’t an option to study Canadian literature, much less Alice Munro.”
“Mrs. Irvine,” said Hadi, “I’d love to chat, and I appreciate, honestly, what you said about my paper on Alice Munro. But, in fact, Nessa here has been keen to meet her, and I’ve just found out from my father that tonight, we’re going to be having drinks at his place with, drumroll please—”
“For Christ’s sake,” said Nessa, “don’t tell me it’s Alice Munro.”
Hadi broke into a grin and nodded, triumphantly mouthing the paired words of confirmation, somehow as startling as they were familiar: Alice Munro.
You’ve been selling drugs to Alice Munro for 40 years. That’s what you say to people when the chance presents itself to you. It’s a violation of the pharmacist’s code for you to tell people she’s a customer, but you say she probably wouldn’t mind, because you don’t identify which drugs have been involved, and anyhow, the joke is one that she herself first made to you.
You were surprised the first time she turned up at the store, because she doesn’t live in Bayfield and there’s a perfectly serviceable pharmacy in Clinton. You aren’t a fan of that place yourself, because its inventory doesn’t match yours, and because the owner always calls you Mr. Nazem, knowing very well that’s your first name, not your last, and knowing well enough, too, that the nickname annoys the hell out of you. In fact, you wonder whether it was the man’s assholery that brought Munro’s business to you. It wasn’t, however, her stated reason, the first time she approached you. Just back from a trip to Australia, voice gravelly from strep throat, she explained that she’d found herself saddled by a certain renown because of writing books, an outcome that was fine and lucky in its way but sometimes inconvenient, and although she knew that pharmacists were supposed to be discreet, she thought it best, to safeguard her privacy, if she were to fill prescriptions outside of Clinton, in Bayfield, with you.
You swore never to betray her.
You must have promised something similar to Mama on your wedding day. You once told me that she and you exchanged no vows, just repeated three times that you accepted each other, but I bet the imam at least wrangled a promise to be faithful out of you. You must have done some thinking on the promise, if not that day, then later. You must have felt like shit about yourself.
How many times did you cheat on Mama before she caught you? You made it seem like you were the virtuous one by agreeing to couples counseling. Mama didn’t want Nabila and me to know that the two of you were going, but you went ahead and told us anyhow, as if expecting us to praise you. I wonder, though: Did anything the counselor say get through to you? I guess there was that one time, after I walked in on Mama in the kitchen, shouting at you. After she’d gone upstairs, you explained to me how, according to the counselor, when you’re fighting with your spouse, they’re liable to fly into a rage if they hear themselves being described by you.
“You should always start your sentences with ‘I,’ not ‘You,’” you told me, in a tone apparently intended to suggest hard-earned wisdom, though to me you just sounded smug. “Explain your feelings and how things seem to you.” You gave me this advice like it was the secret to a happy marriage, like you and Mama weren’t in the process of drafting a separation agreement.
Now there you are, still living in that rinky-dink house, the guardian of a family history that I doubt anybody treasures, except maybe you. It breaks my heart a little, the thought that after everything we went through there, the house and its memories, its trove of knickknacks that never became heirlooms, might mean something to you. Maybe they don’t, though, and you just can’t be bothered to move, because it would inconvenience you. You certainly haven’t done anything to maintain the property. As Nessa and I approach the front door, the paving stones are cracked, the lawn’s grown shaggy, and the shingles are so curled that a decent storm could bring the roof down on you. The one time I commented on the state of the place, you joked about me eyeing my inheritance, and I said that wasn’t very funny of you.
You open the door even before we reach the porch, and I don’t want to think that you’ve been standing there awhile, waiting to greet us, nothing better to do. Your bald head shines in the evening light, the wound on the crown exposed in order to heal. You’re following the doctor’s orders, leaving it uncovered, though it must embarrass you. I try to avoid staring, not just because it hurts to think of you undergoing an operation, but because you’ve told me a few times lately that a susceptibility to melanoma is something I might get from you. You’ve said it out of care, I know, but each time, I’ve heard you laying down a curse. It’s a relief that I’m not expected to ask about the wound or show concern for you. You’ve downplayed it, so I’ve downplayed it. You’ve just called it a growth, so I’ve done the same.
Once Nessa and I are inside, Nessa hugs you, even though she barely knows you.
“You’ve arrived before our guest of honor,” you say. “Let’s sit in the living room, and I’ll get something to drink for you.”
You look surprised when Nessa hands you the box of caramels she insisted on bringing. She seemed so pleased with herself when she told me they were halal that I didn’t have the heart to say it doesn’t matter with you. You take them and thank her. You don’t mention your diabetes. You do say she can keep her shoes on inside the house, which was never once, in 18 years of my living here, an option you presented to me.
In the living room, Nessa and I sit on the sofa across from you. You’ve changed something about the room, but I can’t put my finger on it. Your eyes flit nervously between us and the window, keeping an eye out, I guess, for Alice Munro. You’ve already forgotten about our drinks.
“You want to dig into the caramels?” Nessa says, hinting to you how hospitality is supposed to work. You shake your head and say you’d rather save them for later.
Could the idea of hosting a Nobel laureate be unsettling you? You seemed so happy when I asked you for the favor. I knew agreeing was a big deal for you, since you and Munro aren’t exactly chums, but the request didn’t appear to bother you. You looked pleased to do something for me, as happy as I was to do something for Nessa, easy with the idea of making the call and issuing the invitation, especially when I said it could just be drinks.
You aren’t usually one to be nervous. I used to wish that your self-confidence was something I’d learn from you. You were so impatient with my lack of eye contact, my stuttering speech. You, who were always so sure of yourself, knowing everything and everyone, claiming to possess more local secrets than Bayfield’s three doctors combined, because they each served a mere third of the town, while you served all of it, and plenty of folks clammed up around their physicians, holding them in too high regard to be forthcoming, while you were just a guy from Iran with a charming smile and the good business sense to put on a sympathetic face when people started unburdening themselves. You had the sense, too, to keep things to yourself, letting details slip out only at dinner years later, once the person had died or moved out of town and, as far as you were concerned, released you of your obligation. You never told us anything about Alice Munro.
Your anxiety must be obvious even to Nessa, because when she addresses you, she does so in a soothing way that I wouldn’t expect from her right now, not when her own nerves must be fraying.
“You don’t know how much it means to me that you arranged this,” she says. “I hope it’s not an inconvenience to you.”
“No, not at all,” you reply, “I’m very happy to do it for you.”
“I didn’t realize,” says Nessa, “that Munro was a friend of yours.”
You give a little smile. “You know, I wouldn’t quite say we’re friends. When someone does business with you for a few decades, though, they get to know you. You maybe feel a closeness to them.”
“You feel close to Alice Munro?” I say. There’s an unintended harshness in my voice, and I cringe at how easily the old knee-jerk teen contempt returns, but it has never much fazed you. You seem to accept such moods as the price of having a son.
“You think that’s a strange thing to say?” you ask, still smiling. “I suppose it’s not the closeness of friends—not like the two of you.” You look at me as if you have me all figured out, as if you know about the on-again-off-again mess of my life, not only with Nessa but in all things, and then you turn to her, apparently happy to leave me aside. You have more to say about your closeness to Munro, I can tell, but I don’t want to listen.
“Sorry,” I say, rising, “but I get this uncontrollable need to use the little boys’ room whenever the talk turns to Alice Munro.”
“It’s true,” says Nessa with a laugh, “tonight’s going to be hard on you.”
You laugh, too, as if you find nothing more hilarious than the thought of my manic incontinence.
Upstairs, your bedroom door is closed, which is unlike you. I don’t know what compels me to open it and walk in, but I do, and right away I’m hit by the scent of aftershave, work sweat, the smell of you. I keep on going, inspecting the room for traces of you. Your laundry hamper’s full, the bed’s unmade, and a thin film of dust covers the surfaces. Still sitting atop your dresser, after all these years, are the mortar and pestle I made from clay in grade three for you.
You must be getting sloppy as you near retirement, because you spent years hectoring us not to waste electricity, and now the light in the en suite bathroom has been left on. As I go to turn it off, I glimpse myself in the mirror, and for a second, I can’t help it, I picture my head gone bald and my eyes pinched by crow’s-feet as pronounced as yours. You were 45 when I was born, and I hope I have a long time yet before I turn into you, but already I can see how it will work, like something you orchestrated a long time ago.
Then I spot the second toothbrush in the cup, nestled next to yours.
The anger that swells in me would frighten you. I tell myself to relax, to act like you. You wouldn’t like what I do next, though: I reach down to press my thumb against the bristles of each brush in turn, and I find they’re both wet. Not a usual one and a spare, then, but two people’s—his and yours.
I go to the closet next, where, sure enough, I find clothes that don’t belong to you. You’ve let him, whoever he is, use Mama’s side.
This time, then, it’s not just a fling with a cottager or a bachelor farmer who hit it off with you. It’s been almost six years since we left you here, and I guess the statutory waiting period has ended, so that the house can finally be given over to whoever’s with you.
Downstairs, there’s still no sign of Alice Munro.
“Has she come over here before?” Nessa asks you.
You say she hasn’t, and then, for some reason, you admit to inviting her today only because I asked you. After this confession, I expect Nessa to say that I never should have made such a request, but instead she just frowns at you.
“You think maybe we should call her?” she says. “You know, to make sure she’s all right?”
You reply that you don’t have Munro’s number here at home.
“You have it at the store, though?” Nessa says. “We could go in with you.”
You seem to consider it but shake your head.
“You might wonder how I’ve suddenly gained compunctions,” you say, “but I worry she’d think me too persistent—”
“Oh, yes, of course,” says Nessa, “that’s very right of you.”
“You know she’s not really coming,” I hear myself declare.
You and Nessa turn to me with a shared look of bemusement.
“You never actually invited her, did you?” I go on. “You just said you did so you could get us over here. You’re always complaining that I never come by.”
You look at me like I’m crazy, and it’s true, I don’t have a shred of evidence to back me up, at least not beyond the indisputable absence of Alice Munro.
“She could be sick,” says Nessa, sounding uneasy, “or she might have a flat tire, or she could have forgotten where you—”
“You don’t have to make excuses for him,” I say. “You see what you’ve done, Baba? You think it’s funny, playing with Nessa’s feelings?”
Your eyebrows arch. “What’s gotten into you?”
My breathing comes fast, and it only gets worse when I consider the likelihood that at any second, the doorbell will ring, and standing on the porch with a modestly priced but thoughtfully chosen bottle of wine will be Alice Munro.
“I think I’ll go outside to keep watch,” says Nessa, getting up and heading for the door, “and you two can talk among yourselves.”
You stand, too, and start to apologize for me, but Nessa says it’s fine and leaves. My eyes travel over everything in the room but you. You’re starting to say something when I finally realize what’s different about the place: The framed photographs of our family that used to sit on the bookshelves and mantelpiece have disappeared.
“You got rid of our photos?” I exclaim.
Your expression turns sheepish, which makes it worse. I would have preferred a front, a lie, something to let me stay furious with you.
“You shouldn’t take it the wrong way,” you tell me. “Every day, I think about Nabila and you.”
“You don’t think about Mama, though,” I say, pouncing. “Your family doesn’t include her anymore.”
You grimace, and I glance at my watch.
“It’s after eight,” I say, “and no Alice Munro. If you want to stick with your story about inviting her, fine, but you don’t really think she’s coming, do you?”
You shrug. “Why would I lie to you?”
“Baba, I can’t read that mind of yours. You’re an enigma.”
I wait in vain for a protest from you.
“Anyhow, Nessa and I should go,” I say, “so your new boyfriend can come back to you.”
My eyes meet yours. You don’t look surprised by what I’ve said, and I wonder whether you could hear me checking out your room.
“You send him down the street or what?” I say. “Is he waiting for a call from you?”
“You can stop this now,” you say. “I’m not hiding him from you. I just thought that tonight, with the fuss about Alice Munro—”
“You figured you could cover things up like in the good old days.”
You stiffen, and I know I shouldn’t have said it. Those times were hard on you. They weren’t fair to you. You must sometimes speculate, as I do, about how much better your life could have been, how much easier it would have been for you and Mama both, if you’d been born 20 years later, maybe even 10.
“You’re right,” I say, “I’m sorry. It’s not my business; it’s yours.”
If I were a different son and you a different father, this would be the moment when I’d hug you. I have this thought, and then a second later, I’m being wrapped up in those long arms of yours. You feel thinner than I remember, and at least for the time you hold me, you’re not the figure who inhabits half of my mental real estate; you’re just a fragile fellow human creature. You squeeze me, and I swear, I should be living better in this moment, trying to make sense of it, but all I find myself thinking is what would happen if the door were to open and we were to be found in this position by Alice Munro.
Finally, I detach myself from you.
“You think I should see if Nessa’s all right?” I say.
You nod. “Tell her I feel bad about Alice Munro.”
“I’ll tell her, Baba,” I reply, “but honestly, I don’t even know if she really wanted to meet Alice Munro. Don’t they say it’s better to keep your heroes at a distance from you?”
You wave me toward the door.
“You’re a good friend to her,” you say. “You really think she’ll be all right?”
You look relieved when I say I do, and then you lapse into contemplation.
“You’ll be all right too, habibi,” you say at last.
I don’t know how to reply, so I just stare at you. You and Mama always seemed so miserable that for years, I made it a priority to seem fine in your vicinity. I don’t want to know that the fact of me not being fine is, after all this time, so visible to you.
“You’ll be okay,” you repeat. “You’ll write about this.”
You take in my reaction and grin, knowing you’re right.
“You think writing about it will make me okay?” I ask.
As I say it, I begin to realize the implication in that statement of yours. You, who were always so proud of my poems until they started being about our family, are granting me permission to write about you. Or maybe not granting it, exactly, so much as accepting that I can’t help writing about you, if not always wanting to be right there with you, sharing your space, then at least wanting to be one door over, next to you.
The sun had set, and Nessa had mostly given up hope of meeting Alice Munro. Every time a car turned down the street, she still felt a shot of adrenaline, but each one continued on by, its windows changed to mirrors under the yellow streetlights, so that Nessa couldn’t even try to see whether any of the vehicles carried Alice Munro. It would be funny, in a way, if one of them did, and Munro had just written out the wrong address, or maybe she’d gotten cold feet at the last second and driven right past the house, feeling as anxious as Nessa did about the idea of an evening devoted to awkward conversation between one of the world’s great writers and, as Nessa would proudly admit to being on any other occasion, one of the all-time fangirls of Alice Munro.
The truth was, though, that her mind was only half-committed to Alice Munro. Her thoughts kept returning to Hadi and his father, and maybe it wasn’t her beeswax, why Hadi had acted like that, or what the two of them were talking about now, but by coming here with him, she’d become part of it somehow, and if she couldn’t stop thinking about them, well, this could be what people meant when they said you dance with the one who brung ya.
Given that Nessa had never corresponded with Munro, it was pretty much impossible that the woman could have her number, but still, when her phone vibrated as she stood there on the porch, her first reaction was to think it was Alice Munro. Turned out it was her mother, texting to ask how things were going, as if she had her eye on the clock, sitting there alone in her Toronto townhouse, carefully imagining, step by step, how the night might progress for her only child as she rubbed elbows with Alice Munro. Nessa never should have told her about the evening, but she’d been so excited that she’d texted the news without really thinking, and she’d done it with pleasure, delighted, not for the first time, that she had merely to press a single letter for her phone to autofill the words “Alice Munro.” Now, faced with her mother’s text, she decided not to reply, because if she confessed that Munro hadn’t turned up, there’d be a barrage of messages, maybe an offer by her mother to drive to Bayfield, and, quite possibly by the end of the night, an all-points bulletin out for Alice Munro. Nessa slipped her phone into her pocket and returned her eyes to the street, trying to see it as Munro would see it, but she found her mind wandering back to herself and Hadi rather than Alice Munro.
They weren’t a couple, and Nessa always told people that this fact could be blamed on him, but in truth, he wasn’t the only standoffish one, and maybe their casual approach suited her as much as him, in the same way that maybe it suited her to be so obsessed with Alice Munro. If she said as much to Hadi, though, he’d ask why it suited her to be that way, and she didn’t have an answer, except to say that she probably needed therapy, but instead of getting it, she’d likely just go back to looking for answers where she’d been finding them most reliably until that point, which was in the stories of Alice Munro.
Alice Munro wouldn’t take in the houses lining the far side of the street and see just houses. Alice Munro wouldn’t stand there and think only of herself. Alice Munro would look beyond the facades of the gimcrack Tudors and postwar bungalows, beyond the garden sprinklers and the dog walkers. She’d escape the straits of her own tiding ego, and somehow she’d find a way to link everything together, interfolding the objective and the subjective, irradiating the material with the ethereal, until people, places, and happenings that had once seemed separate were revealed as inextricably, inexhaustibly connected, so that joining her in figuring out how you were the same as someone else, how you differed, and how you affected each other could turn out to be a whole life for you.
Nessa had this thought, and then the thought that she needed to stop measuring herself against Alice Munro.
Behind her, the front door opened and Hadi came out to stand beside her, looking toward the street in the way you do when there’s no real hope in it for you. He asked if she’d seen any sign, and when she said she hadn’t, he seemed authentically bummed out, though she knew his disappointment had to be on her behalf, not because he held high expectations of Alice Munro.
“Listen,” he said, leaning against the porch rail, “I’m sorry for accusing him like that, right in front of you. I don’t know why I said it, and I don’t know why she hasn’t turned up, but I hope it’s not too hard on you. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe we should start asking emergency rooms if they’ve admitted any Alice Munros.”
She smiled but didn’t say anything, because for the first time in as long as she could remember, she found herself not wanting to talk about Alice Munro.
“You know, I think your father’s a pretty nice guy,” she said instead. “You’ve been a little hard on him, maybe, the way you talk about him with me.”
“He’s okay,” said Hadi, “but keep in mind that he was putting on his best face for you.”
“Was it for me,” she said, “or was it a warm-up for Alice Munro?”
He laughed in the way you do when you know a friend’s trying to make you laugh and you want to oblige them, to reassure them that things will be all right for the two of you.
“You have any idea what’s going on with that scab on his head?” Nessa asked. She’d been alarmed to see it, because Hadi hadn’t mentioned it before, and it looked serious, bad enough for her to wonder whether the man should be hosting drinks for anybody, never mind Alice Munro.
“Sorry,” said Hadi, “I should have warned you. It’s nothing; he just had a growth removed, but that meant taking off a bunch of skin and what have you.”
Nessa said she hoped he’d be okay, and that if she was being honest, the sight of it had been strangely comforting, giving her something to worry about other than Alice Munro.
As soon as she said it, Hadi glanced at his watch, as if that had become a reflex whenever someone said “Alice Munro.”
“You’ll be thrilled to hear she’s an hour late,” he said, “so it’s pretty safe to say she isn’t coming. You up for finding her house in Clinton and setting it on fire?”
Nessa said that sounded fine, as long as they made sure the place had been vacated by Alice Munro. They were just bantering, but as she spoke, she realized that without her being aware, in the span of the past hour, something had turned for her, something she couldn’t put a finger on, but something that meant the next few years of her life had become a road gone dark, a derelict house with the shutters blown open, because suddenly she doubted her commitment to working on Alice Munro. All at once, her life seemed to have fallen away, like a booster rocket plummeting to Earth, and around her was the weightlessness of space, without sound or atmosphere, only a cold void that cares for no one and makes no acknowledgment of you.
“You okay?” said Hadi, breaking her train of thought.
“Yeah, sure,” she replied, “why wouldn’t I be fine, when I just had the honor of being stood up by Alice Munro?”
She told him she was ready to leave, but she didn’t want to go without saying thank you. As they turned to head back inside, she considered telling him that she was thinking of writing her dissertation on somebody other than Alice Munro. And also, she’d say, I think it’s time we had a conversation about me and you. Besties are forever, and buddy-fucking is fine, but what are we doing here, what do you want from me, and what, all this time, have I been wanting from you? You never knew how such conversations would go, but she thought the two of them might be able to handle it, with the stress of waiting now over and the dark country roads to soothe them on the drive ahead.
She’d just stepped into the house with Hadi behind her, and she was looking ahead to the kitchen where his father stood in a rectangle of light, taking glasses from the cupboard, when a voice called to them from the driveway and she froze, a tingle shooting down her back, though she knew the voice wasn’t Alice Munro’s. It was a man’s, and when she turned to look, it was, in fact, a man who stood there, gray-haired and lavishly love-handled with a sweet smile, the smile of a sensitive stranger who needs to ask something but is reluctant to bother you.
“You must be Hadi,” he said, climbing the porch stairs and reaching out his hand.
Hadi stood there as though unable to process the fact that this wasn’t Alice Munro.
“Did my father text you?” When the man said he had, Hadi smiled and shook his hand, adding, “You really were just around the corner, weren’t you? You’d better come in.”
“You’re Nessa?” the man asked, shaking her hand too. “The one who works on Alice Munro? I’ve heard a lot about both of you.”
“You have?” said Hadi. “Because I haven’t heard so much about you.”
“Well, maybe we can change that,” the man said, “although I worry I’m going to be a letdown after you were expecting Alice Munro.”
As they went into the house together, Nessa held back from saying that she no longer worked on Alice Munro. Later, there’d be time for her to ask Hadi who this guy was, and what the hell she’d write her dissertation on now, so she just went with them into the kitchen, where Hadi’s father had already poured the drinks, and still she felt that someone was missing from the scene, that it was the kind of situation you’d understand better if it was described to you by Alice Munro.
Nessa got out her phone and saw she’d received a dozen texts from her mother, the last one ending “Where are you?” Her mother, who always wrote texts as though they were letters, with capitalization and apostrophes, and who expected you, in turn, to spell out every word when you wrote “I love you.”
“It’s all good,” Nessa texted her, “but there was no Alice Munro. Heading home soon, turning off the phone—telling you now so I don’t worry you.”
She switched the phone off, and when she gave her attention back to her companions in the kitchen, she discovered that the man from the driveway was talking about his and Nazem’s attempts at jogging together on a Couch to 5K program, which promised nine weeks to a new you. Nessa wished that someone had told her his name, especially when he knew hers, which meant she couldn’t say, “My name’s Nessa, by the way, what’s yours?”
You could probably spend your entire life trying to figure out a way of being good to both other people and yourself, adding a bit of loyalty here, a touch of betrayal there, never getting the balance right. At least for the next few minutes, she might try just listening and watching, hoping for an acuity of vision that she seldom felt she had, except when sitting alone with a story by Alice Munro. You slipped out of yourself, then, and got partway into the head of someone else. She thought she might try it in real life, listening to the man from the driveway talk, observing how Hadi nodded with his arms crossed, seeing how his father edged almost imperceptibly closer to the man from the driveway as he spoke—and for a time, it seemed to work; she felt herself both there and absent from the scene, but then the man from the driveway turned to her, and she realized that plans never panned out the way you hoped when they depended on others’ actions, not only yours. You never knew what people were going to say or do next. You never knew when they were going to call on you.
“So,” the man from the driveway said, “why don’t you tell us about yourself?”
Americans are freaked out about crime in the United States. As many as eight in 10 say it’s a major problem. They rank it ahead of health care and poverty, perennial priorities. Solid majorities believe that crime is worse today than it was 30 years ago, which is not even close to true, despite record increases in homicides in 2020.
This fear about crime has potentially large implications. President Joe Biden, eager to show that the White House is paying attention, launched a series of crime-fighting initiatives focused on guns last month. Republicans have sought to tie Democratic support for cutting police budgets to the rise in crime, and local and congressional efforts at police reform could all be shaped by the public’s views on crime.
But ask Americans how things look in their own communities, and in survey after survey, they evince much less worry. In a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, 62 percent of Americans believed (correctly) that crime had gotten worse in the United States, but a plurality felt that their own community was no more dangerous, closely paralleling the results of a Navigator poll. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 59 percent saw crime as a serious problem nationally, but only 17 percent felt the same way about their own area. This split is not new, but it may be widening. In November, Gallup recorded the largest difference ever: 78 percent of Americans said crime was rising year over year nationwide, but only 38 percent said it was up in their area.
Americans are onto something. “Violent crime in particular is hugely concentrated,” WesleyG. Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University, wrote to me in an email. “Unlike Lake Wobegone, almost all neighborhoods are below average.”
The divergent views of crime locally and nationally produce two divergent possibilities for fighting the increase in violence. Politicians could take worries about national crime as a cue to pursue blunt and simplistic answers of the past, including stricter sentencing and over-policing. But the nuanced views among the public suggest that policy makers have the flexibility to devise locally appropriate strategies for crime.
Some crime trends do move nationally: From the 1970s to the 1990s, crime surged nationwide, followed by a marked decrease. At the peak, in 1991, there were almost 10 murders per 100,000 people. By 2014, that had dropped to 4.4 per 100,000. In 2020, murders surged in most American cities, producing the largest increase in murder rate on record, at an estimated 6.6 per 100,000. Understanding the broad trends is important, but most crime-fighting is local, and the federal government has little role. Or as Skogan put it, “What the heck is ‘crime in the nation’?”
Opinion polls have long shown that Americans overestimate the level of crime in the country, as the Pew Research Center’s John Gramlich has written. Even amid a historic decline in crime rates, majorities in surveys said they believed that crime was on the rise. Much of the blame for this misperception likely falls on the press. The media tend to follow the maxim “If it bleeds, it leads”—violence tends to earn coverage. Criminologists say that this is especially true of television journalism.
“Citizens have only the mass media to rely on for information about the national crime picture, and that information is often alarmist, sensationalistic, and decontextualized,” Mark Warr, a sociologist who has studied the perception of crime, wrote in an email. “So crime nationally often looks much worse than it is.” But even as Americans fret about national crime rates, they see the situation in their home community as largely stable. Scholars believe that citizens are aware enough to tell what’s really going on around them, despite especially crime-focused local news coverage.
Politicians are happy to appeal to misperceptions about crime nationally. During his 2016 campaign, at a time of remarkable calm, Donald Trump warned of carnage in the streets, calculating that it would resonate with voters. Older, white Americans are both least likely to be victims of crimes and also most likely to believe that they are at risk. The belief that crime is much more prevalent and more dangerous than it is can manifest in demands for “tough-on-crime” policies, many of which aren’t demonstrably effective at reducing crime but do have major drawbacks, including racially disparate enforcement and mass incarceration.
The misperception is “hugely consequential,” says Gary LaFree, the chair of the criminology and criminal-justice department at the University of Maryland. “The political impact is substantial. Going all the way back to when Barry Goldwater first started weaponizing crime as a national issue, it’s been part of the national discussion on a political level.”
Now, however, violent crime really is on the rise nationally, although the increase isn’t as dramatic as many people think: 57 percent of respondents in the USA Today/Ipsos poll believed that the current situation is worse than 30 years ago, which is decidedly not the case. Furthermore, some categories of crime have not grown. Rates for many offenses, such as home break-ins, actually fell in 2020, likely as a result of the pandemic.
The impulse to worry about the picture nationwide is understandable. “Violence matters to people. You don’t have to be very close to it for it to worry you,” says Lisa L. Miller, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “Violence is a first-order political problem. If there’s one thing the state’s supposed to do, it’s protect us from internal and external threats.”
Yet thinking about crime in your own area is probably more useful than contemplating national crime rates. That’s not only because a national crime rate is a fuzzy metric, sweeping in all sorts of offenses and flattening divergent vectors in different communities into one large trend. Besides, the United States has decided that crime is a local issue, overseen by some 18,000 different police departments around the country, rather than a national force, as in some other countries. Biden has few levers to pull to affect crime, because law enforcement isn’t primarily a federal issue.
Fear drives bad policy, especially overblown fear. In the case of crime, it pushes toward harsh punishments and more incarceration, even though the evidence that these tactics deter crime is limited. When crime scares you but isn’t in your neighborhood, supporting drastic measures is much easier. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others in recent memory are a reminder of the need for improved policing in many parts of the country. So far, polling offers some reasons for cautious optimism. Majorities tend to support more funding for police, but they also recognize the need for broader and nonpunitive strategies. Targeted solutions to crime, which require local knowledge, are more likely to work than anything the federal or state government can do.
Nancy Mace was on a mission to find a gun that would fit inside her purse. It was the first Friday in March, and we’d come to a shooting range in North Charleston to try out the Sig Sauer P365. She strode to a shooting lane, her high-heeled leather boots clomping across the concrete, slapped a magazine into the squat black pistol, and fired a few rounds at the human outline on the paper target in front of her. Most of the bullets seemed to hit the chest area. The sound made my teeth rattle. “Whoa,” I said. Mace adjusted the earmuffs resting on her long, perfectly wavy brown hair and smiled. “I came here after my divorce,” she said. “It was like therapy.”
Mace, who is 43, has always liked shooting—the deep concentration it requires, the way it allows her to focus her thoughts. But she hadn’t wanted to carry a firearm until December, when she says she started getting death threats. She’d just been elected to represent South Carolina’s First Congressional District, narrowly defeating Joe Cunningham, a moderate Democrat who’d flipped the district in the blue tsunami of 2018. She had also made clear that she would vote to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. In response, a Republican constituent threatened on social media to shoot her. Right away, she told me, she applied for a concealed-carry permit; having a handgun handy might restore her “peace of mind.”
As we took turns shooting, brass cartridges skittered across the floor. “This is a nice little gun,” she remarked to the range instructor, before asking for advice on how she could more consistently hit the center of the target. “Don’t worry about that,” he told her. “You’re being a perfectionist.” After my visit, Mace bought the Sig Sauer—and a few other guns too.
In the four months since her election and the two months since her swearing in, Mace had been engaged in a series of course corrections as she tried to find her place in what she then assumed would be a post–Donald Trump GOP. In the run-up to November, she’d supported President Trump, but following the January 6 riot at the Capitol, she became that rare thing: a GOP lawmaker willing to publicly oppose him. Networks clamored to have her on TV, and in the days after January 6, she seemed to be everywhere. “[Trump’s] entire legacy was wiped out yesterday,” she told CNN the next morning, calling on her fellow Republicans to “rebuild” the party. When the Fox News host Neil Cavuto asked her whether she still believed that Trump had a future in the GOP, Mace replied: “I do not.”
Here, it seemed, was a Republican with a different kind of story, one who might be able to take the party in a new direction: She was a divorced mother of two, and had survived harassment and misogyny to become the first female cadet to graduate from the Citadel, South Carolina’s revered military college—displaying a grit that some observers were connecting to her political courage. “Mace,” enthused a columnist for Charleston’s The Post and Courier, “isn’t intimidated by a little hazing.”
But sometime between January and my visit in March, Mace appeared to have lost her nerve; she’d stopped criticizing her party and was again sounding all the notes required by a Trump-dominated GOP. Her evolution on the issue has mirrored that of other Republicans, including Trump allies such as Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham, who were sharply critical of the president after the insurrection, only to later back down. To observe Mace these past several months has been to watch in real time as a freshman Republican absorbs a few fundamental truths: Despite what Mace seems to have believed, most Republicans appear to have little appetite for nuance at the moment, let alone dissent. The base loves Trump as much as ever, and his allies are working to unseat anyone who fails to show fealty. There is no post-Trump GOP, not yet.
When our shooting session was up, Mace and I left the range for her next engagement: a fundraising luncheon with the former Trump acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. As we rode south toward downtown Charleston, past rows of palm trees and pastel buildings, she pointed out local sites, including a great spot for a skinny margarita. Then, turning to face me, she explained how excited she was. That afternoon she was going to pick up her Chevy Tahoe from the shop; she’d finally had it fixed, five months after someone had keyed “Fuck You” into one of its doors. The keyer could have been anyone, she said. That sounded about right: She has recently managed to alienate plenty of people across the political spectrum.
I had first met Mace earlier that morning, over breakfast at a Waffle House near the shooting range. When I walked in, she was easy to spot—the only person in the busy restaurant wearing mostly black clothing and a full face of makeup. After I sat down, she explained that she was on a no-carb diet, but would make an exception today. She’d chosen the restaurant for our interview, I assume, because she’d worked at one as a teenager—a fact that she seemed determined to emphasize by ordering very quickly. “Two eggs over medium with hash browns, smothered, capped, and spiced,” she said to the waitress. “What’s ‘spiced’?” the waitress asked. “Oh,” Mace said, “with peppers or jalapeños—I forget what you use.”
Mace enjoys having an audience, and when you’re with her, it’s easy to be captivated. She has a big laugh and a disarming tendency to overshare—not about politics but about more basic aspects of the human condition (bodily functions, say, or her weakness for margaritas). She also tends to drive the conversation toward the threats and traumas she’s endured, presumably to demonstrate her toughness. But why hasn’t that toughness translated into political resolve? In January, Mace had declared that Trump deserved much of the blame for the Capitol riot, so it seemed reasonable to expect her to vote for his impeachment. She didn’t. Instead, she said she preferred to censure the president, a feint that allowed her to pretend that she was holding Trump to account—even though no serious censure effort was under way. In the end, only 10 House Republicans supported impeachment.
By February, Mace was picking high-profile Twitter fights, and over the next few months her team would blast out press releases decrying antifa and Democrats’ efforts to “defund the police.” I wondered: Was she trying to change the subject? Was she hoping to regain some credibility in her party? I brought up a particularly bitter exchange with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that had gone viral, in which Mace accused the New York progressive of exaggerating the danger she’d been in during the Capitol riot. The move earned her a six-minute spot on Hannity, where she attacked Ocasio-Cortez some more, and a segment on Fox News Radio, in which, without apparent irony, she lamented the “Jerry Springer Show” state of American politics. Since then, Mace has appeared on Fox News several times a month to riff on a selection of partisan talking points.
Her clash with AOC was, Mace told me, a result of the fact that she is an independent thinker. Her harsh words for Trump afforded her “the moral authority” to criticize Democrats, she said: “Because I held my party accountable, [I can] hold the left accountable.” But when I asked Mace whether she still believed that the events of January 6 should disqualify Trump from further involvement in the Republican Party, as she’d said so plainly in January, she equivocated. “It was the day, the time, the place, and the message. All that. And the rhetoric—and it was rhetoric from multiple people, multiple entities, organizations, individuals leading up to that moment that led to this horrific event that day on our nation’s Capitol,” she replied.
As we finished our breakfast and got ready to leave, a bearded man in the booth behind us caught Mace’s attention. He was thin and wore a baseball cap. “You’re Nancy Mace?” he asked. Mace, who half an hour before had been describing various threats against her, looked slightly alarmed. “Yes, sir,” she replied. “Is that okay with you?”
“It is with me. I’m a Republican!” the man said with a chuckle. Mace exhaled. “Baby, I love you!” she said.
It would be hard to come up with a tougher test of willpower than the one Mace received at the Citadel. She was not the first woman to attend: Shannon Faulkner, who waged a long legal battle for admission, preceded her in 1995, but left the school after experiencing unrelenting harassment, not only by cadets but by members of the public. (Popular in Charleston at the time were anti-Faulkner T-shirts reading 1,952 bulldogs and 1 bitch.) As Mace recounts in her memoir, In the Company of Men: A Woman at The Citadel, she endured more of the same when she enrolled in the fall of 1996: Students at the school called her a “dyke” and a “whore” and vowed to keep her from graduating; members of the crowd harassed her at football games; someone wrote, “GO HOME, BITCH” on her bedroom door in shaving cream.
Mace had grown up hearing stories of the Citadel from her father, one of the school’s most decorated graduates. His reminiscences were fond but didn’t exactly paint a rosy portrait. As Mace recounts, they included some rather brutal incidents; once, she writes, her dad shut an insufficiently deferential freshman cadet in a room with an alligator. But in spite of these stories—or maybe because of them—she was obsessed with proving that she could make it through. The summer before she started, she trained so hard for the physical fitness exams that she ended up outperforming all but four men in her battalion. More than anything, Mace dreaded failure: “I would have to face that fear,” she writes, “or I would spend the rest of my life running from risks.” When, on May 8, 1999, she became the first female cadet to graduate from the Citadel, she made headlines around the country; an Associated Press photo from that day shows the 21-year-old grinning like a young Julia Roberts.
You can draw a pretty straight line from that person—the Nancy Mace who survived the Citadel—to the Nancy Mace who responded to December’s death threats by growing more stridently anti-Trump. Maybe she believed that her constituents would share her alarm at the president’s behavior in January. Her district, which runs along South Carolina’s coast from Charleston to Hilton Head, is a somewhat swingy place—more socially moderate and environmentally conscious than most GOP districts—and she’d just been elected on a campaign platform that didn’t line up neatly with those of her Republican peers.
To be clear, she hadn’t exactly shied away from Trumpism during her campaign: In ads, she promised to build the wall and condemned “arson, looting, and anarchy” in a reference to the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. To elect her was to guarantee that Trump “will have an ally in Congress,” she assured her constituents. Still, she hasn’t embraced either Trumpism or her party’s policies across the board: While serving in the statehouse and in Congress, she’s supported bipartisan conservation legislation and criminal-justice-reform bills. “You will see me drop cannabis legislation too,” she volunteered in the car after breakfast.
But in trying to establish herself as a born-again Trump critic, Mace had clearly made a miscalculation: State and local party leaders complained about her in local papers. One constituent wrote a letter to the editor saying she felt betrayed by Mace; another person called into Rush Limbaugh’s show to say she was furious at the congresswoman. South Carolinians ranted about Mace on Facebook, and right-wing blogs published takedowns of her. At least one Republican has already promised to challenge her from the right in 2022, and Team Trump is said to be recruiting other primary contenders. Despite her district’s sometimes moderate inclinations, winning reelection will require first winning the Republican primary—and in South Carolina, that’ll be hard to do without embracing Trump. Mace appears to have realized this.
Earlier this summer, Mace posted photos to Twitter showing the sidewalk in front of her home covered in graffiti. The scrawled messages included a fairly straightforward “Fuck you, Nancy” but also the deep-cut anarchist phrase “No gods, no masters.” (Some Twitter users were quick to allege an inside job: One tweeted photos of Mace’s handwriting, while others pointed out that the culprit seemed to have targeted the parts of Mace’s property that would be easiest to powerwash. Mace has denied vandalizing her own home.) It’s not clear who was behind the graffiti; authorities are still investigating. What is clear is that Mace saw an opportunity to score political points and ran with it. Her campaign used the vandalism as an excuse to send out a fundraising email. In an interview with Sean Hannity, she vowed never to back down from her beliefs: “We’re seeing the left burn, loot, and destroy our cities and our property,” she said. She posted to Instagram a video of herself stress-eating a Twinkie, and a photo of herself at a gun shop. “Buying another firearm,” she captioned it. “Feeling safer today than yesterday.”
Two months after we met in Charleston, I caught up with Mace at her office on Capitol Hill. She had a tight schedule that afternoon, with a TV appearance sandwiched between two floor votes, so I hung around in the background while she held a Zoom meeting, then I trailed behind as staffers ushered her down to the parking lot. “You’re going to vote no, then do Fox News, then vote no again,” an aide reminded her while we walked.
I was visiting Mace again because House Republicans had just voted to expel Representative Liz Cheney from her role as conference chair, and I wanted to know how she had voted. Cheney had been one of the most prominent Republicans to criticize Trump’s stolen-election lies, and as the months went on, she’d shown no signs of dropping the matter. And so, in what amounted to a purge of anti-Trump leadership, the caucus had removed Cheney by voice vote and replaced her with Elise Stefanik of New York, a Trump ally.
We piled into a staffer’s SUV and drove Mace to the Capitol building, just in time for Mace to vote against a bill addressing pandemic-related anti-Asian hate crimes, then we hopped back into the car and drove to a TV studio half a mile away. When we arrived, a producer ushered her away, and I settled into a chair next to her communications director to watch from the green room. At the time, Democratic House leadership was still requiring even vaccinated members to wear masks on the chamber floor, and Mace had been invited on Fox to vent her frustration, which she was happy to do. “Everyone says follow the science, but the science obviously isn’t following the politics of Nancy Pelosi,” Mace told the host. Pelosi, she concluded, was “virtue signaling.”
Following the TV segment, and another no vote, Mace and I found a quiet hallway in which to talk. I asked whether she’d supported Cheney. She looked as though she would rather be anywhere else, talking about anything else. “I voted to have a change in leadership that day,” she told me. Constant criticism of the former president, Mace continued, was contributing to “enormous division” in the GOP. “We’re very good at attacking one another and doing it in public,” she said. Mace was ready for the party to turn its ire toward Democrats—and away from Trump. “I just want to be done with that,” she said. “I want to move forward.”
By early July, Cheney had accepted a position on the House select committee investigating the Capitol insurrection. Mace, who’d voted against establishing an inquiry into the riot, was lambasting critical race theory on social media. She just wanted to be done with January 6. She wanted to move forward.
This article contains spoilers for Season 2 of Ted Lasso.
This week, the richest man in the world took a jaunty tour of space, and then thanked the workers who labor in his warehouses for providing him with the opportunity. This week, the coronavirus has continued to surge in states where vaccine uptake is slow—some people echoing the idea, as one man put it this week, that the medical establishment is attempting to “shove” the vaccines “down your throat.” This week, the Olympic Games that were delayed because of that pandemic will begin in Tokyo—a testament to the miraculous capabilities of the human body that might well double as a super-spreader event. This week, too, a TV show that explores what happens when rugged individualism turns toxic begins streaming its second season.
These events should not be so connected. But the coincidence is darkly apt. Ted Lasso began as a fish-out-of-water story about an American football coach brought to the U.K. to lead a British soccer team; it expanded into a nuanced meditation on kindness, masculinity, and responsibility—and on what it means to be a good person. “Fútbol is life,” one of Ted’s players, Dani Rojas, likes to say, and Ted Lasso, over its first season, converted that slogan into its premise. Through a feel-good story about a soccer team, Ted Lasso slyly questions Americans’ abiding mythologies—about talent, about success, about the elemental relationship between the individual interest and the collective good. It is a show with a lot to say about the grim fictions at play when, say, a billionaire, enabled by a culture that treats commercial success as permission, joyrides into space while his workers fear taking bathroom breaks.
Sports, as metaphors, bring to mind notions of competition, but in the process, they bring to mind notions of fairness: In any given game or match, everyone is constrained by the same set of rules. Part of the poignancy of Ted Lasso is that it recognizes how powerful sports are as microcosms—of the world as it is and as it could be. The show’s first season embraced, with humanity and heart and excellent wordplay, the most optimistic elements of sports. Its second season, to its great credit, questions all the optimism.
“There’s a wonderful atmosphere here,” Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, a sports psychologist brought on to help the players of the fictional AFC Richmond, says of the club. “All the employees are thoughtful and kind, and they actually listen to one another.” This is not the end of her assessment, though. AFC Richmond, she also points out, is not winning any games. The team is stalled, beset by losses and draws. One by one, its players—and, finally, Ted himself—seek out the doctor’s counsel. One by one, they tacitly acknowledge that optimism, as an operating principle, can take them only so far.
Dr. Fieldstone is a fitting new foil for Ted, because she is impervious to his aggressive strain of tenderness. She is not charmed by him. She is instead mildly annoyed by him. She forces him, through that simple rejection of his schtick, to question himself. But the introduction of an actual therapist into the mix of characters in Ted’s orbit—she does professionally what Ted prides himself on doing informally—allows the show to explore the nuances of its own convictions. What does kindness look like, actually, when your financial fortunes, and those of your team, depend on you winning matches? Does optimism suggest a faith in oneself against the odds, or a delusion?
“For me,” Ted declares in the first season, “success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.” In the first season of the show, the coach’s aspirations in that regard—aspirations about the ethical dimensions of sports—were simultaneously wholesome and radical. In the second season, the show suggests that Ted’s optimism risks tipping into naïveté. The new season brings back Jamie Tartt, a player who had left Richmond in the first season and now returns to play for the team. The Jamie of the first season was an inflated ego incarnate, swaggering and preening and often buffoonish in his arrogance. He regularly wore a cap with icon printed on it. He once refused to wear a shirt to a fancy fundraising event because he wanted to share with the world the gift of his abs. During one particularly great moment, as the Richmond crowd chanted his name after a goal, Jamie, grinning, pointed to the name on the back of his jersey and said, simply, “Me!”
The conflict between Jamie and Ted in that first season established the show’s preoccupation with aggressive kindness on the one hand and aggressive self-centeredness on the other. The characters, and the ideas they represented, battled each other. Ted benched Jamie during a game—after Jamie had scored the Greyhounds’ two goals—for failing to pass the ball to his teammate. (“Wanker!” the irate crowd chanted at Ted for the decision.) Ted would keep reminding his blithely talented young player that soccer is, fundamentally, a team sport. “I think that you might be so sure that you’re one in a million,” he told Jamie, “that sometimes you forget that out there, you’re just one of 11. And if you just figure out some way to turn that me into us, whew”—he whistled—“sky’s the limit for you.”
The new season of Ted Lasso pushes back on its own protagonist. It suggests that Jamie, louchely egotistical, might have had a point. Jamie, chastened by his dismissal from Manchester City—and by a father who treats him as little more than a business prospect—has come around to Ted’s lessons about the “I” and the “we.” He might have, in fact, overlearned the lessons. He passes the ball, all the time. He supports his teammates. But he has lost his swagger. It takes Roy Kent, the retired Richmond player who knows something about the interplay between ego and sports performance, to make things plain: Jamie is a lesser player, Roy observes, because he has become such a team player.
In a show that has argued so eloquently for the benefits of teamwork, that development is a fascinating plot twist. And the second season of Ted Lasso is full of such subversions. Nate, the kit man who spent much of the first season defined by his meekness, has been promoted to assistant coach—and, making sense of his newfound fame, flirts with power trips and selfishness. Sam, a player with perhaps even more innate kindness than Ted, becomes an activist—one who ends up taking on DubaiAir, the team’s (fictional) corporate sponsor. Ted himself, in what might be the show’s most radical move, battles with his own defining optimism. He resists going to therapy. He sees Dr. Fieldstone as a threat not just because her job overlaps with his, but also because the role gives her unique insight into the limits of his positivity. The panic attacks that Ted had occasionally during Season 1 have become worse. They hint that Ted’s cheerfulness might be a kind of feint.
Ted Lasso, this time around, also weaves its considerations of individualism into its story structure. The show’s first season, though bolstered by an excellent ensemble cast, was squarely focused on Ted: his move, his job, his relationship with his estranged wife and beloved son. But Ted is now more of an ensemble player; the new episodes devote more attention to the people around him. Higgins, the team’s operations director, gets a poignantly rom-comic plot line. So do Rebecca, the team owner, and Sam. The relationship between Roy and Keeley, the model turned team-branding lead, gets challenged, complicated, and deepened. Even the relationship between Roy and his young niece, Phoebe—which served, last season, largely to emphasize the complexity of Roy’s character—gets several arcs devoted to it.
The slight shift in the show’s focus makes sense. Ted Lasso is an ode to collectivism, infused with layered references to facts of pop culture, and a deep knowledge of the real-world contextin which sports operate. Soccer is an elegant metaphor for society because it lives in the collision between rugged individualism and social commitment. The ignorance that seemed to define Ted at the outset of the first season—“Heck, you could fill two internets with what I don’t know about football,” he said during an early press conference—was only a starting point. Ted, yes, truly did not know anything about football, but he knew a lot about the world, and the show’s sly argument is that if you know about one, you already know about the other. Fútbol is life.
Ted Lasso, as it happens, returns on the same day as the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Games. The Olympics have their own answers to the question of the individual good and the collective. For one thing, they rationalize nationalism. This time around, they have also placed many other factors—entertainment, athletic dreams, profit—before public health. But the Olympics go out of their way to humanize the athletes who compete in them—to make audiences care not just about the final tallies of gold and silver and bronze, but also about the people who do the work to win them.
The new docuseries Golden, on the NBC streaming service Peacock, is an outgrowth of that effort. The series follows several elite gymnasts as they vie to represent the United States on the women’s 2021 Olympic team, featuring interviews not just with the handful of athletes it follows, among them eventual team members Sunisa Lee and MyKayla Skinner, but also with the community of people who have made their success possible. “For us to all get there together would mean something incredible,” Lee says of the Olympics in the final episode.
Her use of us and all, after the audience has spent hours watching footage that proves how tenderly Lee’s gifts have been nurtured, reads as an argument: Talent does not emerge fully formed. Talent is conditional; it is vulnerable. And it is, above all, collective. Even an athlete whose abilities are so great that they allow her to defy gravity talks about the “us” that allows for the “me.” And yet a stubborn element of American mythology is that talent—whether athletic or artistic or entrepreneurial or another kind—is, fundamentally, individualistic. American culture, despite all the evidence to the contrary, remains obsessed with going it alone.
Golden challenges that fiction. So does Ted Lasso. The show’s latest episodes find its characters, instead, making peace with the fact that their fates are shared—on the pitch and off. Jamie finds a balance between ego and community. Ted admits that his defining selflessness, to be fully effective, requires him to take care of himself. A soccer team moves, together, down the field, passing the ball, navigating the obstacles. Their mistakes are shared, as are their victories. “Fútbol is life!” Dani Rojas shouts. For better or worse, Ted Lasso admits, he is right.
In the United States, this pandemic could’ve been over by now, and certainly would’ve been by Labor Day. If the pace of vaccination through the summer had been anything like the pace in April and May, the country would be nearing herd immunity. With most adults immunized, new and more infectious coronavirus variants would have nowhere to spread. Life could return nearly to normal.
Experts list many reasons for the vaccine slump, but one big reason stands out: vaccine resistance among conservative, evangelical, and rural Americans. Pro-Trump America has decided that vaccine refusal is a statement of identity and a test of loyalty.
In April, people in counties that Joe Biden won in 2020 were two points more likely to be fully vaccinated than people in counties that Donald Trump won: 22.8 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties; 20.6 percent were fully vaccinated in Trump counties. By early July, the vaccination gap had widened to almost 12 points: 46.7 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties, 35 percent in Trump counties. When pollsters ask about vaccine intentions, they record a 30-point gap: 88 percent of Democrats, but only 54 percent of Republicans, want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. All told, Trump support predicts a state’s vaccine refusal better than average income or education level.
Pro-Trump vaccine resistance exacts a harsh cost from pro-Trump loyalists. We read pitiful story after pitiful story of deluded and deceived people getting sick when they did not have to get sick, infecting their loved ones, being intubated, and dying. And as these loyalists harm themselves and expose all of us to unnecessary and preventable risk, publications—including this one—have run articles sympathetically explaining the recalcitrance of the unvaccinated. These tales are 2021’s version of the Trump safaris of 2017, when journalists traveled through the Midwest to seek enlightenment in diners and gas stations.
Reading about the fates of people who refused the vaccine is sorrowful. But as summer camp and travel plans are disrupted—as local authorities reimpose mask mandates that could have been laid aside forever—many in the vaccinated majority must be thinking: Yes, I’m very sorry that so many of the unvaccinated are suffering the consequences of their bad decisions. I’m also very sorry that the responsible rest of us are suffering the consequences of their bad decisions.
As cases uptick again, as people who have done the right thing face the consequences of other people doing the wrong thing, the question occurs: Does Biden’s America have a breaking point? Biden’s America produces 70 percent of the country’s wealth—and then sees that wealth transferred to support Trump’s America. Which is fine; that’s what citizens of one nation do for one another. Something else they do for one another: take rational health-care precautions during a pandemic. That reciprocal part of the bargain is not being upheld.
Biden’s America is home to vaccine holdouts too. But state and local leaders in Biden’s America have spoken clearly and consistently about the urgency of vaccination. The leaders in Trump’s America have talked a double game: Like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, they urge vaccination one day, then the next they fundraise by attacking public-health officials such as Anthony Fauci. The consequence of DeSantis’s weeks of pandering to COVID-19 denial: More than one-fifth of all new COVID-19 cases in the United States are arising in the state of Florida—24,000 recorded on a single day, July 20.
Can governments lawfully require more public-health cooperation from their populations? They regularly do, for other causes. More than a dozen conservative states have legislated drug testing for people who seek cash welfare. It is bizarre that Florida and other states would put such an onus on the poorest people in society—while allowing other people to impose a much more intimate and immediate harm on everybody else. The federal government could use its regulatory and spending powers to encourage vaccination in the same way that Ron DeSantis has used his executive powers to discourage it. The Biden administration could require proof of vaccination to fly or to travel by interstate train or bus. It could mandate that federal contractors demonstrate that their workforces are vaccinated. It could condition federal student loans on proof of vaccination. Those measures might or might not be wise policy: Inducements are usually more effective at changing individual behavior than penalties are. But they would be feasible and legal—and they would spread the message about what people ought to do, in the same way that sanctions against drunk driving, cheating on taxes, and unjust discrimination in the workplace do.
Compassion should always be the first reaction to vaccine hesitation. Maybe some unvaccinated people have trouble getting time off work to deal with side effects, maybe they are disorganized, maybe they are just irrationally anxious. But there’s no getting around the truth that some considerable number of the unvaccinated are also behaving willfully and spitefully. Yes, they have been deceived and manipulated by garbage TV, toxic Facebook content, and craven or crazy politicians. But these are the same people who keep talking about “personal responsibility.” In the end, the unvaccinated person himself or herself has decided to inflict a preventable and unjustifiable harm upon family, friends, neighbors, community, country, and planet.
Will Blue America ever decide it’s had enoughof being put medically at risk by people and places whose bills it pays? Check yourself: Have you?
No company does progressive politics quite like Ben & Jerry’s. The Vermont-based ice-cream maker has a reputation for corporate activism, owing to its support for a wide array of left-wing causes, including marriage equality, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. But when the company announced this week that it will no longer sell its products in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, it faced an outcome that every ice-cream maker fears most: a meltdown.
The matter of Israel’s settlements, which the international community regards as illegal under international law but which the Trump administration said will need to be resolved through a political and not a judicial process, has long been a thorny issue in Israel. (The Biden administration has yet to articulate its own policy on this.) When it comes to ice cream, though, the country’s notoriously fractious political sphere is virtually unanimous. Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said that Ben & Jerry’s has decided to brand itself as an “anti-Israel ice cream.” His centrist coalition partner, Yair Lapid, called the move a “shameful surrender to anti-Semitism.” Israeli President Isaac Herzog of the center-left, who once committed to removing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, called Ben & Jerry’s decision to shun them “a new kind of terrorism.” The newly minted opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, suggested that Israelis should boycott the brand. One centrist cabinet minister dutifully posted a TikTok of herself chucking a pint of what looked like Dulce de Leche into the trash.
That an ice-cream maker could cause such an uproar at the highest levels of Israeli politics says a lot about how sensitive Israel is to the very notion of boycotts against it—even those that, like Ben & Jerry’s, are limited in scope. More fundamentally, the dustup reveals a growing divergence between how the world sees Israel and how the country sees itself. While the international community, including the United States, continues to distinguish between Israel and the territories it occupies, the reaction to the Ben & Jerry’s decision has shown that, as far as many Israeli politicians are concerned, that distinction no longer exists.
On its face, Ben & Jerry’s move to end its business in the occupied territories, which the company described as being inconsistent with its values, poses an arguably negligible problem for Israel from a practical standpoint—one that would affect, at most, the roughly 6 percent of the population living in one of the country’s sprawling settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both of which have been under Israeli control since 1967. Ben & Jerry’s has said that it will continue to sell its products in Israel itself. Both Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, declined to comment further, but the implications of the move are clear: While Israeli citizens living in settlements such as Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim may no longer be able to buy Chunky Monkey in their local supermarket, they can find it nearby. (The same cannot be said for Palestinians in the West Bank, who are not afforded the same right to freedom of movement.)
In other words, Ben & Jerry’s decision “has no material impact on Israel whatsoever,” Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israel-based pollster and political strategist, told me. But it does have a political one—and, to the Israelis who feel the need to defend their sovereignty, an existential one. By ending its business in the occupied territories, the company has effectively refused to profit from or legitimize the status quo in the region, a status quo that Israel is deeply invested in protecting. It has also made clear that it will recognize Israel only within its democratic borders. “It’s all symbolic,” Scheindlin said, “but symbolism is huge.”
Why does Israel care about what an American ice-cream brand thinks of its policies? When I put this question to Scheindlin, she told me that for many Israelis, criticism of Israeli policy is often conflated with an existential threat to Israel itself. To hear many Israeli politicians tell it, “criticism from abroad of our policies is anti-Israel, it’s anti-Zionist, and it’s anti-Jewish, or anti-Semitic,” Scheindlin said. “And that’s really the narrative that we’ve been hearing.” There is also the fear that what started with Ben & Jerry’s might not end there; once one company boycotts Israeli settlements, what’s to stop others from joining it?
Not all Israelis subscribe to this view, of course. Those on the left, including members of the Meretz Party, have defended Ben & Jerry’s. But these voices have largely been drowned out by the uproar of the majority.
Not doing business in the settlements isn’t a new concept. Indeed, much of the Zionist left—including Meretz, the left-wing advocacy group Peace Now, and the prominent American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart—have advocated settlement boycotts for years. Activists within the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls on countries and organizations to sever financial ties with Israel as a means of applying economic and political pressure on the country to end its occupation, have been doing so for even longer. (Unlike BDS, which targets Israel writ large, Ben & Jerry’s decision was limited in scope—a distinction that meant little to the Israeli and U.S. officials who erroneously conflated them. Although the BDS movement welcomed the news, it would have preferred that Ben & Jerry’s end its operations in all of Israel, not just the occupied territories.)
Relatively few international corporations have actually followed through with the BDS call, however, which is why when one as high-profile as Ben & Jerry’s finally did, following pressure from pro-Palestinian activists, it led to such an uproar. (A notable exception is McDonald’s Israel, whose chief executive, Omri Paden, an Israeli citizen and a founding member of Peace Now, refused to open any branches in the West Bank.) But Israel’s reaction speaks to more than just its particular sensitivity to outside criticism. Not long ago, Israeli politicians would openly say that the country’s settlement policy threatened its long-term security, as well as its prospects for peace with its neighbors. But under the leadership of the country’s recently deposed prime minister, Netanyahu, those voices became quieter as the Israeli government went to great lengths to normalize the occupation and expand the country’s settlement enterprise.
Netanyahu is no longer in power, but the fact that lawmakers across the political spectrum are united on this issue is a feat in itself, given the fractious nature of Israeli politics. “It really is very much a reflection that the Israeli consensus is that there is no ‘green line,’ there is no occupation, there is no occupied territory,” Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst on Israel and Palestine at the International Crisis Group, told me. “There’s just one big lump of land that is under Israeli sovereignty, and not doing business in any part of it is somehow anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.”
Regardless of whether Ben & Jerry’s sticks with its decision (or whether it succumbs to pressure to reverse course, as has happened with other companies), it has already revealed the extent to which Israeli leaders across the political spectrum support the de facto, if not de jure, annexation of the occupied territories by Israel. Despite Israel’s new government of change, much remains fundamentally the same.
“The right to the left all kind of agree that the facts on the ground are what they are,” Zonszein said, “and they’re not planning on changing.”
A new dichotomy has begun dogging the pandemic discourse. With the rise of the über-transmissible Delta variant, experts are saying you’re either going to get vaccinated, or going to get the coronavirus.
For some people—a decent number of us, actually—it’s going to be both.
Post-vaccination infections, or breakthroughs, might occasionally turn symptomatic, but they aren’t shameful or aberrant. They also aren’t proof that the shots are failing. These cases are, on average, gentler and less symptomatic; faster-resolving, with less virus lingering—and, it appears, less likely to pass the pathogen on. The immunity offered by vaccines works in iterations and gradations, not absolutes. It does not make a person completely impervious to infection. It also does not evaporate when a few microbes breach a body’s barriers. A breakthrough, despite what it might seem, does not cause our defenses to crumble or even break; it does not erase the protection that’s already been built. Rather than setting up fragile and penetrable shields, vaccines reinforce the defenses we already have,so that we can encounter the virus safely and potentially build further upon that protection.
To understand the anatomy of a breakthrough case, it’s helpful to think of the human body as a castle. Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, compares immunization to reinforcing such a stronghold against assault.
Without vaccination, the castle’s defenders have no idea an attack is coming. They might have stationed a few aggressive guard dogs outside, but these mutts aren’t terribly discerning: They’re the system’s innate defenders, fast-acting and brutal, but short-lived and woefully imprecise. They’ll sink their teeth into anything they don’t recognize, and are easily duped by stealthier invaders. If only quarrelsome canines stand between the virus and the castle’s treasures, that’s a pretty flimsy first line of defense. But it’s essentially the situation that many uninoculated people are in. Other fighters, who operate with more precision and punch—the body’s adaptive cells—will eventually be roused. Without prior warning, though, they’ll come out in full force only after a weeks–longdelay, by which time the virus may have run roughshod over everything it can. At that point, the fight may, quite literally, be at a fever pitch, fueling worsening symptoms.
Vaccination completely rewrites the beginning, middle, and end of this story. COVID-19 shots act as confidential informants, who pass around intel on the pathogen within the castle walls. With that info, defensive cells can patrol the building’s borders, keeping an eye out for a now-familiar foe. When the virus attempts to force its way in, it will hit “backup layer after backup layer” of defense, Bhattacharya told me.
Prepped by a vaccine, immune reinforcements will be marshaled to the fore much faster—within days of an invasion, sometimes much less. Adaptive cells called B cells, which produce antibodies, and T cells, which kill virus-infected cells, will have had time to study the pathogen’s features, and sharpen their weapons against it. While the guard dogs are pouncing, archers trained to recognize the virus will be shooting it down; the few microbes that make their way deeper inside will be gutted by sword-wielding assassins lurking in the shadows. “Each stage it has to get past takes a bigger chunk out” of the virus, Bhattacharya said. Even if a couple particles eke past every hurdle, their ranks are fewer, weaker, and less damaging.
In the best-case scenario, the virus might even be instantly sniped by immune cells and antibodies, still amped up from the vaccine’s recent visit, preventing any infection from being established at all. But expecting this of our shots every time isn’t reasonable (and, in fact, wasn’t the goal set for any COVID-19 vaccine). Some people’s immune cells might have slow reflexes and keep their weapons holstered for too long; that will be especially true among the elderly and immunocompromised—their fighters will still rally, just to a lesser extent.
Changes on the virus side could tip the scales as well. Like invaders in disguise, wily variants might evade detection by certain antibodies. Even readily recognizable versions of the coronavirus can overwhelm the immune system’s early cavalcade if they raid the premises in high-enough numbers—via, for instance, an intense and prolonged exposure event.
With so many factors at play, it’s not hard to see how a few viral particles might still hit their mark. But a body under siege isn’t going to throw its hands up in defeat. “People tend to think of this as yes or no—if I got vaccinated, I should not get any symptoms; I should be completely protected,” Laura Su, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “But there’s way more nuance than that.” Even as the virus is raising a ruckus, immune cells and molecules will be attempting to hold their ground, regain their edge, and knock the pathogen back down. Those late-arriving efforts might not halt an infection entirely, but they will still curb the pathogen’s opportunities to move throughout the body, cause symptoms, and spread to someone else. The inhospitality of the vaccinated body to SARS-CoV-2 is what’s given many researchers hope that long COVID, too, will be rarer among the immunized, though that connection is still being explored.
Breakthroughs, especially symptomatic ones, are still uncommon, as a proportion of immunized people. But by sheer number, “the more people get vaccinated, the more you will see these breakthrough infections,” Juliet Morrison, a virologist at UC Riverside, told me. (Don’t forget that a small fraction of millions of people is still a lot of people—and in communities where a majority of people are vaccinated, most of the positive tests could be for shot recipients.) Reports of these cases shouldn’t be alarming, especially when we drill down on what’s happening qualitatively. A castle raid is worse if its inhabitants are slaughtered and all its jewels stolen; with vaccines in place, those cases are rare—many of them are getting replaced with lighter thefts, wherein the virus has time only to land a couple of punches before it’s booted out the door. Sure, vaccines would be “better” if they erected impenetrable force fields around every fortress. They don’t, though. Nothing does. And our shots shouldn’t be faulted for failing to live up to an impossible standard—one that obscures what they are able to accomplish. A breached stronghold is not necessarily a defeated stronghold; any castle that arms itself in advance will be in a better position than it was before.
There’s a potential silver lining to breakthroughs as well. By definition, these infections occur in immune systems that already recognize the virus and can learn from it again. Each subsequent encounter with SARS-CoV-2 might effectively remind the body that the pathogen’s threat still looms, coaxing cells into reinvigorating their defenses and sharpening their coronavirus-detecting skills, and prolonging the duration of protection. Some of that familiarity might ebb with certain variants. But in broad strokes, a post-inoculation infection can be “like a booster for the vaccine,” Su, of the University of Pennsylvania, told me. It’s not unlike keeping veteran fighters on retainer: After the dust has settled, the battle’s survivors will be on a sharper lookout for the next assault. That’s certainly no reason to seek out infection. But should such a mishap occur, there’s a good chance that “continuously training immune cells can be a really good thing,” Nicole Baumgarth, an immunologist at UC Davis, told me. (Vaccination, by the way, might mobilizestrongerprotection than natural infection, and it’s less dangerous to boot.)
We can’t control how SARS-CoV-2 evolves. But how disease manifests depends on both host and pathogen; vaccination hands a lot of the control over that narrative back to us. Understanding breakthroughs requires some intimacy with immunology, but also familiarity with the realities of a virus that will be with us long-term, one that we will probably all encounter at some point. The choice isn’t about getting vaccinated or getting infected. It’s about bolstering our defenses so that we are ready to fight an infection from the best position possible—with our defensive wits about us, and well-armored bodies in tow.
Today, The Atlantic launches America In Person, a new section dedicated to exploring the complexity and multidimensionality of American identity. “The Atlantic has long been preoccupied by pluralism and the American idea, so it’s only natural for us to explore in a dedicated way what it means to be American,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief. “American identity is far more layered, and far more interesting, than straightforward categorization allows.”
Created as part of The Atlantic’s culture vertical, America In Person is led by senior editor Lauren N. Williams with senior editor Mathew Rodriguez. It will build on The Atlantic’s robust tradition of writing about race, class, and gender, and will offer a more expansive and layered view of how people form communities and come to see themselves and one another in the United States.
“There is more than one way to think about American identity, and with these stories, we’re eager to expand on The Atlantic’s work of helping readers explore nonmainstream narratives,” said Williams, who joined The Atlantic as a culture editor in 2018.
America In Person launches with “Why Millions of Americans Took Investing Into Their Own Hands,” a report from Talmon Joseph Smith on the varied internet subcultures borne out of the country’s untamed pandemic investing boom. Through interviews with economic analysts, amateur and professional investors, and former hedge-fund managers, Smith considers what each of these cultures can tell us about society, writing: “They’re diverse if not integrated, some silly, some assiduous—yet all infused with a quiet desperation to reach escape velocity and defeat the gravitational pull of class stagnation that’s lasted decades.”
The launch of America In Person comes as The Atlantic continues to expand its newsroom. In addition to Rodriguez, who joined The Atlantic in May, recent hires include assistant editor Andrew Aoyama; visuals editor Jehan Jillani; designer Shannon Lin, who joined the experimental-storytelling team; copy editor Christina McCausland; crossword-puzzles editor Paolo Pasco; podcast producer Rebecca Rashid; associate photo editor Cédric Von Niederhäusern; and fact-checkers Susan Banta, Isabel Cristo, Sam Fentress, and Yvonne Kim.