About six months after I started my law job at an immigration internment camp for mothers and children in Dilley, Texas, I took a weekend off to see my sister and her kids in New England. My sister, who had already visited me once in Dilley and volunteered with the families there, had explained my job to my niece in somewhat vague terms. There’s a place where the government locks up children from other countries, she told my niece, and Brianna’s job is to save them.
I don’t endorse this lawyer-as-savior narrative—I am a bureaucrat trying to bury rival bureaucrats in documents, and mostly not succeeding at it—but on the other hand, my niece was four years old at the time, so, simplified explanations were needed. And to my niece’s enormous credit, she was not at all impressed with me. Soon after saying hello, she looked me up and down and asked: “Did you save all the children?”
“Not yet,” I told her. “I’m working on it.”
“If you didn’t save the children yet,” she said, ruthlessly, “then why are you here?”
Besides an indignant and sheepish hey! I didn’t really have a great answer to that one. “Out of the mouths of babes” is a saying that’s long been bandied around in praise of the homespun, innocent wisdom of children. But the biblical verse it’s paraphrased from (Psalms 8:2) is a bit more terrifying than that: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.” Children, when not busy watching Paw Patrol and Octonauts, are the mouthpieces of divine imprecation, and we had better not forget it.
Later that night, my niece woke up crying from a nightmare and wandered into the living room where I was asleep on the couch. The sound of wailing penetrated my sleeping brain, and I sat up with a shock. I’m supposed to be at work, I thought confusedly, looking around in the dark, unable to remember where I was. The place where I would normally hear children crying was at my job.
Amongst Cool People, there has long been disdain for popular sentimentality about children. As Oscar Wilde once cuttingly remarked of Charles Dickens’ long-suffering child protagonist in The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” (Admittedly, Wilde himself was pretty sentimental about children, so this was clearly one of those manufactured intra-left conflicts.) It’s very easy to mock parents who post maudlin updates about their offspring on Facebook, and very satisfying to decry the moral shallowness of conservatives who fixate obsessively on the imagined torments of non-sentient proto-children in the womb while blithely ignoring all the unambiguous human suffering in the world. Trying to stir up outrage and sympathy about children has often been thought of manipulative, obvious, and lazy—the assumption being that of course people care about children, who are uncontroversial objects of pity, being both cute and powerless. Surely it’s the less obviously endearing people, those thorny and unlovable adults, who more urgently require our attention and imaginative energy.
And it’s true that sentimentality is an inappropriate attitude to have towards children. It somehow manages to unfairly exaggerate the distance between adults and children, while in no way doing justice to the eldritch weirdness that is childkind’s #1 defining trait. Children, after all, are recent alien arrivals into a universe whose inputs they are hungrily absorbing and continually sorting into odd and unpredictable boxes. This makes them say the strangest shit. (For example, my niece advised my sister to only vote for Bernie Sanders if he changed his name to “Banana Unicorn,” a campaign misstep that has not been properly evaluated in any post-mortems.)At the same time, as compulsive category-sorters operating under a massive informational deficit, children are not really that different from adults. Sure, they’re less static than adults: their dough-brained irrationality writhes and expands, whereas the irrationality of their grownup counterparts has already hardened into its final contortion. For me, at least, the main difference between being a kid and being an adult was that, as a kid, I felt like my body was the wrong size for all the emotions I had. My anger, my distress, my affection always felt impossible to contain, bursting out of me in ways that later ashamed me. I find children a little terrifying now, because I remember how much was going on beneath the surface when I was a kid. I suspect that most children I meet are nursing strange grudges and vivid, secret loves; and so I interact with kids much like I interact with cats, cautiously and awkwardly, usually assuming that they have already judged me and found me deeply inadequate.
However, for all that being sentimental about kids is laughably absurd, it’s also worth pointing out that tenderness for children is actually a much less widespread and deeply-rooted norm than people think. This has been the main insight I’ve derived from my exposure to child asylum-seekers. I used to think that hurting children was an aberrational and somewhat rare human behavior. Now, I think that it’s something that huge numbers of human beings will do with increasing boldness if they believe they can get away with it. I believe this, in part, because I’ve encountered so many children fleeing violence and exploitation within their families and communities; but also because I’ve seen the huge apparatus of state violence turned pitilessly on children, at the behest of U.S. policymakers who don’t even have the excuse of social upheaval and intergenerational trauma to mitigate their culpability. The truth is that children, in their strangeness, their physical helplessness, their unpredictable and uncontrollable potentialities, are the most natural targets for punishing the thwarted desires of adults: thus, many people derive satisfaction from hurting children. Children are also the perfect vehicle for conveying violent ultimatums to adults. The logic is the same whether it’s a gang member pointing a gun at the child of the parent he’s extorting, or the U.S. government arresting and corralling and imprisoning children who come to the border—if I would do this much to a child, hovers the unspoken threat, do you think there’s anything in the world I wouldn’t do to you?
In the summer of 2014, when children began showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border in somewhat larger numbers than usual—some of them travelling alone, others of them travelling with parents or other relatives—the Obama administration’s immediate desire was to deport them all as fast as possible. The government made this goal clear through numerous public statements. Hillary Clinton, for example, stated that all children “should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are.” In terms of total border apprehensions, 2014 was far from a remarkable year: at 479,371apprehensions, it was only slightly higher than the previous year’s total of 414,397, and considerably below the annual averages for the years 2000-2009, during which border apprehensions of 1 million a year or more were typical. But the government swiftly and disingenuously characterized the 2014 numbers as a “surge,” and it’s not hard to see why. Because children are supposedly “sympathetic,” and because child immigrants enjoy a modicum more due process than the near-zero level afforded to adult immigrants, the government feared that immigrants would start to expect better treatment from the U.S. government if they came with their families instead of crossing alone. And so the Obama administration initiated the first mass detention of families on U.S. soil since Japanese internment. Initially, the administration’s plan was to keep border-crossing families detained indefinitely until they could legally be deported, regardless of how long this process took, in order to deter further family groups from crossing. This “no release” policy was challenged in court, and the government eventually agreed that it could not formally use imprisonment as an immigration deterrent, and that it had to abide by existing legal protections for immigrant children, which—supposedly—places limits on how long they can be detained. (The 20-day hard limit on detention of children, which you may have heard about in the news, is a legal fiction that the government does not and has never followed, although until recently there were some limits on how brazenly the government was willing to flout it.)
The “family detention” policy that emerged from the Obama years created a new system in which mothers and children apprehended at the border were detained en masse, and would be rapidly processed by the asylum office via what is called a “fear interview,” which determines whether 1) the government allows asylum-seekers to remain in the United States to continue fighting their claim, or 2) deems them presumptively ineligible for asylum and deports them immediately. Between 2014 and early 2020, thousands of families a year were cycled through one or two family internment camps near the border. Because U.S. asylum law is extremely complicated, lawyers set up on-site operations to try to prepare families for their interviews as quickly as possible; asylum-seekers have no right to legal representation in these interviews, but do have the right to seek a consultation in advance. The job of lawyers at these camps, therefore, was to train newly-arrived asylum-seekers to beat government officials one-on-one at an extremely intricate game of legal chess. Preparing people for an interview did not simply mean trying to make them emotionally ready to discuss their trauma, because the rules of asylum are as arbitrary as the rules of any game; these rules weren’t conscientiously designed to sort people who are truly afraid for their lives from people who are not truly afraid, but rather to whittle out a haphazard subset of winners from a mass of terrified players. And so, every asylum-seeker needed to be as well-educated in the law as every asylum officer, and be able to outwit them.
The interviews took place in a little trailer in the detention complex. Children and their parents awaited their interviews in a cramped room decorated with crayon drawings of popular cartoon characters—and although these pictures looked like a child’s handiwork, rumor had it that they were drawn by an employee of the private prison company that ran the internment camp. Two of the illustrations were recognizable as Dora the Explorer and Doc McStuffins, but both of them were both depicted with white skin, red hair, and freckles. (The casual whitewashing of cartoon children who resembled my clients was far from the most disturbing thing that happened at that internment camp, but it was definitely super weird and I still think about it all the time???) Most often, it was the adults who answered the Asylum Office’s questions, but sometimes, the children needed to be interviewed too. If the child had unique and compelling individual circumstances, it might make sense to request that the child provide their own testimony; one of my coworkers fondly remembers demanding that the Asylum Office provide an autistic child with toy dinosaurs, since he found it easier to communicate with plastic lizards than words. (In this case the Asylum Office opted to pass the family on the strength of the mother’s testimony, rather than trying to interpret our junior paleontologist’s dramatic reenactments). At other times, if the government intended to deny the parent’s claim, they would attempt to interview the child as a form of due diligence (legal jargon for “ass-covering”), to ensure that the child had no legally relevant information to offer.
Kids’ interviews are often wild stuff. Children interact with the interview process in very strange ways, in part because they don’t understand it, but also because they understand it all too well. They interpret questions literally, and have very little instinctive respect for government officials. Due to my aforementioned fear of and awkwardness around children, I have never been skilled at prepping kids for interviews. Once, when I was still a law student, I accompanied a four-year-old child to an interview, and I still remember the exact moment in the interview when the child locked eyes with me, smiled slyly, and then began playing extremely aggressive footsie with me, in plain sight of the asylum officer who was questioning her and her mother. Trying to take notes during the interview, respond to the officer’s queries, and fend off the kid’s tiny, vicious sneakers was one of the more complicated pieces of multitasking I’ve ever done. Kids often treat the interview process like the giant farce that it is, and the transcripts that result from the Asylum Office’s interviews of kids sometimes read like absurdist screenplays:
Can you tell me your name?
Why are you crazy?
I like to have fun.
Can you tell me your birthday?
Can you tell me how old you are?
Can you tell me where you are from?
I’m very crazy, I like to have fun.
Can you please tell me about a time when someone said something that scared you?
[is making farting noises]
How old are you?
I don’t know, I am small.
Can you tell me what you are afraid of?
I’m afraid of zombies.
Why are you afraid of zombies?
Because they eat me.
Have you ever been threatened?
Yes, a zombie threatened us but I slapped the zombie and he died, wham!
It was certainly a bit weird to be doing legal research, writing, and consultation in a meeting-space that was always filled with children, who were sometimes frustrated and crying, sometimes boisterous and disruptive, sometimes unnaturally quiet and patient. I was always amazed by how long some of those kids were able to sit still without anything to entertain them, when my nephews and nieces of the same age would have been clawing at the walls. I don’t know if it’s because they were accustomed to less constant stimulation, or if it was an instinctive response to their parent’s palpable anxiety and discomfort. Seeing children in an internment camp was jarring to people who came to Dilley for the first time—I know it was jarring to me—but I quickly got used to writing emails and last-minute briefs with the cacophony of 60-odd kids in the background. We’ll get them all out of here, no matter what it takes, was what we all told ourselves, and for a time, this goal was largely achievable. The government’s general practice was to release families into the United States for further proceedings if they passed their initial interviews with the asylum office, and until mid-2019, almost all the families did pass—in part because they were migrating from extremely dangerous areas and had past experiences that clearly qualified them for legal protection, but also because they were smart, and had a lot to lose, and so they learned to play the government’s game, delineating their fears for their own safety into the fine-grained legal categories the government demanded. And so the imprisonment and interrogation of most of the families at the Dilley internment camp was a high-stakes hazing, a sadistic initiation ritual rather than a long-term punishment.
But the Trump administration, over time, realized the same thing that the Obama administration did before them. To send a clear message to adult immigrants, it was children they would need to target, both because of the emotional and symbolic weight of hurting children, and because child immigrants’ slightly more robust legal protections would require more concerted effort to erode. The administration sent this message most publicly and dramatically during the brief period of “zero tolerance” family separation, when children were systematically ripped away from their parents. Although that memorable piece of cruelty was relatively short-lived, it was only the beginning of the Trump administration’s efforts to punish families who cross the border with children. First, the government started pushing more asylum-seekers back into Mexico, ensuring that fewer families ever made it past the border. For those families who were still arrested and brought to the family internment camps, the government made it increasingly hard for families to access lawyers in advance of their interviews. Then they replaced asylum officers (who act as interviewers) with Border Patrol agents. Then they invalidated overnight huge swathes of case law that had once offered families protection. Then they banned virtually all Central Americans who travelled through Mexico from seeking asylum.
Suddenly, from one day to the next, massive numbers of families began failing their fear interviews and getting whisked away by ICE. When some families who had not yet been deported brought a lawsuit against the government, challenging the barrage of new policies that seemed specifically designed to make it impossible for families to pass their interviews, the government punished the families by locking them up indefinitely. If we can’t deport you, the government decided, we won’t release you, either. There are now dozens of mothers and children who are coming up on their one-year anniversary in immigration jail, all because the government is determined to make an example out of them, and to discourage other families from fighting their deportations. Even as the pandemic has raged, and ample evidence shows that keeping people confined in prison settings is dangerous, the government still refuses to let many of these families go.
Back when I was still working full-time at the family internment camp, and most families were still getting released instead of deported or indefinitely detained, I was often disturbed by the thought that I was complicit in what the government was doing there—that by providing legal services, and therefore allowing the government to claim that the families had access to attorneys, I was giving the government moral cover to keep imprisoning them. The way I made myself feel better, for entangling asylum-seekers in the government’s sick mind-games, was by imagining that all those children would eventually be released into the United States. Even if they couldn’t get status through the notoriously harsh immigration court system, I reasoned, they would inevitably have U.S. citizen siblings, and later, perhaps, their own U.S. citizen children. Ultimately, it would simply become too complicated and time-consuming for the government to locate and remove them all. I told myself that the human will to move and settle was, in fact, more primal and inexorable than the flimsy vagaries of the law; and so I hoped that the little bit of power my colleagues and I could give these families by helping them pass their interviews would become a bigger power later, once they were living and working, organizing and resisting, within the United States. But of course, the families who come through Dilley, and the number of people crossing the border generally, are a tiny trickle compared to the huge population of this country. And now, with the government’s draconian new border policies, which have only become more restrictive during the pandemic, that trickle is getting smaller and smaller by the day.
My niece—the same one who admonished me for having the audacity to take a vacation while children were still locked up in jail—has been very troubled by the existence of the family internment camp. She still regularly tells my sister about various plans she’s been hatching to help the children escape. One such plan involved luring Donald Trump to the camp with a false story of a jailbreak, then overpowering him and locking him up, stealing his keys, and setting all the families free. Having said all this, she then casually asked my sister: “Hey, where can I get a fireball?”
Despite my suspicion that my niece might do pretty well leading a revolutionary cell, I don’t really like when people pin too many of their hopes on children, or the “younger generation,” whether that means the Zoomers or whoever comes after them. It feels like a lot of pressure. Millennials have struggled under the weight of Boomers’ mistakes, and so, I assume, younger people will likewise struggle to recover ground from the devastating setbacks that have resulted from my generation’s political impotence. I don’t have children of my own, so I don’t have any special emotional investment in the next generation liking me very much. But for their own sakes, rather than our own, I think we should respect and encourage the anger, defiance, and skepticism of children. We should want our species’ newest members to be on fire with the uncynical fury of people who are seeing injustice for the first time, and are still fresh enough to recognize it for the perversion it is. And so I hope that the children of the dispossessed will be as entitled in their demand for their rights as the rich are entitled in their demand for their petty desires. And I hope that children who are born into less dire circumstances can somehow intuit that those children in revolt are their real friends and companions, that they are all in league together against the cruel and bitter world made by adults; that their moral and natural loyalty is to their fellow-children, and not to their parents or grandparents. I hope that the children of the world will kick us, mock us, and cajole us out of our slumber. I hope that the mouths of babes breathe fireballs against their enemies.
The cast of the West Wing recently reunited after 14 years for a one-off special called, rather awkwardly, A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote. (“When We All Vote” is an organization.) The special, filmed at the historic Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, combines a reenactment of the Season 3 episode “Hartsfield’s Landing” with a series of PSAs from cast members and celebrity guests (Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samuel L. Jackson) on the importance of voting and the means by which one can register.
The West Wing is one of the most highly acclaimed television series of all time. Set in a fictitious presidential administration, it influenced a generation of Democratic politicos. Over seven seasons, the series provided a kind of liberal “alternate universe” presidency during the Bush years. It’s sometimes called a “fantasy” about an “idealized” Washington, because its White House is populated by educated, witty, well-intentioned technocrats who are both progressive and patriotic. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet is a Nobel Prize-winning economist with an uncommonly good memory, a firm grasp of policy, and a noble soul. He is patriotic and religious while firmly loyal to the Democratic Party. He is also a good dad.
Left critics of the show have noted the shortcomings of the show’s political ideal, which celebrates “governance by the good and intelligent.” Sorkin himself called the show “a Valentine to public service and to American institutions” about people who “all seemed to wake up in the morning and come to work wanting to do good.” Luke Savage, in an excellent analysis of the show printed in this magazine several years ago, said that in the West Wing, “the mundane business of technocratic governance is made to look exciting, intellectually stimulating, and, above all, honorable,” and that by “recreating the look and feel of political processes to the tee, while garnishing them with a romantic veneer, the show gifts the Beltway’s most spiritually-devoted adherents with a vision of how many would probably like to see themselves.”
This is certainly on display in the episode picked for the new reenactment. It’s actually one that Savage quoted, due to a scene in which the White House communications director tells President Bartlet that he should stop pretending to be “folks,” and should wear his intelligence on his sleeve. “Make this election about smart and not, qualified and not,” the communications director tells the president. As he says this, Bartlet is in the middle of winning chess matches against multiple White House staffers at once, and resolving a seemingly impossible military stand-off with China, because he is a genius who can “see the whole board” while others cannot.
The other major storyline in “Hartsfield’s Landing” concerns the fictitious New Hampshire hamlet that gives the episode its title. Based on the real life Hart’s Location, it is a town of just over 40 registered voters that has outsized significance because it reports presidential primary results before anywhere else. The president’s deputy chief of staff is determined that he wants the president to win Hartsfield’s Landing, mainly for symbolic reasons, and dispatches his assistant to try to persuade a pair of voters who do not care for the president. The assistant reports back that the couple are dissatisfied that the president’s free trade policies have hurt manufacturing in New Hampshire, and they do not trust him because he has refused to take privatizing Social Security off the table. The deputy communications director is exasperated that the couple do not understand why the president is good, but eventually reasons that democracy is about choice and instructs his assistant to give up on trying to persuade the couple. (“The people” are often presented as a crankish annoyance in the show.)
(There is a third storyline about the press secretary having a feud with the president’s aide over who has paper copies of the president’s daily schedule, but it has fewer ideological implications and will thus be left undiscussed.)
“Hartsfield’s Landing” displays all of the tendencies that inspired a loyal viewership and made socialists grind their teeth in despair. In the president’s plotline, we see how a person of intellectual depth can outwit his lessers, and are granted a vision of what a “competent” presidency might look like. The New Hampshire couple clearly have legitimate grievances, but they do not appear on screen and there is no sense that the deputy communications director has any instinct except to explain why they are wrong. The New Hampshire plotline is presented as a tribute to the democratic process, with the lesson learned being that this process should be allowed to take its course (the president wins the village primary). I, of course, could not stop wondering why it was so unreasonable to want the president to pledge to protect Social Security, but this was touched on only briefly.
I went back through some of the West Wing recently because, like Savage, I see it as a very useful guide for understanding the aspirations and ideology of a certain kind of “technocratic liberalism.” Two conclusions stuck out: first, it is a very good show in lots of technical aspects, and this is important for understanding how horrible values can come to seem compelling and why talent and virtue are not synonymous. Second, it is not a depiction of an “unrealizable fantasy,” but an extremely realistic depiction of liberal governance that just needs to be interpreted correctly rather than in accordance with the intentions of its creators and the self-perceptions of its characters.
There is a tendency to believe that art with bad values is bad art, or that the people who produce it are stupid. I see this in some of the criticism of J.K. Rowling: people assume that because she is transphobic and has bad politics, the Harry Potter books are bad and trite and stupid. That may be true (I think the books are very good, as pieces of children’s literature) but people with horrible values can also be extremely talented and even “smart.” The West Wing is a compelling piece of television. The characters are memorable and seem like real people. (Pious know-it-alls like Bartlet are not rare, but quite common.) The dialogue is snappy, the political issues are well-researched, the jokes can be good, the plots are tight but intricate. I do not think the problem with Aaron Sorkin is that he is a bad writer. In fact, I think the problem with him is that he is a good writer who has appalling and ignorant values.
The West Wing, far from being unrealistic, was prophetic. It did not depict an administration that “could not exist.” In fact, the very thing it aspired to came about shortly after. Two years after the West Wing went off the air, the country elected Barack Obama, the brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning academic liberal president, who made “hard choices” and surrounded himself with the best and brightest. (He was also a good dad.) And what we found out is that just stuffing the West Wing with the “wisest,” most “pragmatic,” most “well-intentioned” people does not produce needed political change. Being a natural compromiser is not actually “pragmatic”—it just helps the other side win. It sells out our core moral values and gets nothing in return. It is neither good nor effective.
What’s interesting is that all of this was depicted in the West Wing, but the people making and watching the West Wing did not appear to notice. Because Aaron Sorkin is a good writer and artist who observes how people talk and act and does his research, he presented a fairly accurate picture of how a certain type of high-minded technocrat really behaves. I am reminded here of The Toast’s feature “Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History.” Male artists throughout the ages depicted the facial expressions of women with scrupulous accuracy. They just didn’t necessarily realize that the women they were painting were bored out of their minds, because they didn’t know how to interpret what they were representing. Sometimes it is true that Sorkin simply writes female characters badly, but other times he writes true-to-life characters and simply does not seem to grasp or care what is really going on between them.
President Bartlet is actually a dreadful president, and the show portrays this. As Savage points out, “after two terms in the White House, Bartlet’s gang of hyper-educated, hyper-competent politicos do not seem to have any transformational policy achievements whatsoever.” Bartlet’s speechwriting team, like Obama’s, is stuffed with Ivy League white guys who are great at talking and bad at listening. These men are sexist and smug. They rationalize bureaucratic inertia as pragmatism. They think reeling off statistics about agricultural subsidies is “doing politics.” They strut down hallways looking purposeful, without having any idea of where they’re going.
The West Wing, then, can be understood as a rather brilliant show that does offer a crucial political science lesson. It goes through issue after issue and shows how liberals fail on each. To see the reality, all we have to do is watch the show with a critical eye. When we do that, we gain a profound insight into why Sorkin’s (and Obama’s) politics are compelling to people, because we see what they appear like from the inside looking out. We see how important issues come to seem secondary, how defeats can be spun as victories, how government officials can be distracted by the trivial and neglect what actually matters. Sometimes the West Wing is contrasted with Veep, because the former supposedly portrays competent and moral government officials while the latter presents bumbling and venal ones. But this is false. Both shows depict bumbling and venal government officials, and do it beautifully, but the West Wing offers a more profound (if accidental) study of why people who do horrible things don’t notice that those things are horrible.
Let me show you what I mean. I went back through Season 1 of the West Wing and wrote down everything major that actually happens on the show. (Apparently after Sorkin left in the 4th year, the show became more bipartisan and less idealistic, so bear in mind that this is the West Wing’s idealists at their most idealistic.) In bold, I have noted the places where “actual politics” enters the show, by which I mean things that occur in the White House that have the potential to affect the lives of ordinary people. Much of the West Wing is personal drama, which is fine, because it’s a TV drama, but this means that we need to comb through and pick out the political bits in order to form a picture of what is really going on in the Bartlet White House.
The president injures himself in a bicycle accident. The deputy chief of staff makes an offensive comment about Christians, causing a public relations incident. A group of religious extremists have menaced the president’s daughter. The administration debates whether to rescue 1200 Cuban refugees approaching Florida in tiny boats. While they debate, the Cubans are caught in a storm and 350 of them die. A small percentage are rescued by the Coast Guard and seek asylum in the United States. The president’s deputy communications director sleeps with a woman he does not know is a sex worker, and ineptly conducts a White House tour for elementary school students.
Relations continue between the deputy communications director and the sex worker. The Vice President annoys the president’s staff by publicly stating that “the president needs our full support,” which they take as insufficient enthusiasm for the president’s policies. Staff fret about the fact that the Ryder Cup golf team has declined an invitation to come to the White House due to a golf joke made by the president. A senator decides to keep an unspecified bill in committee, irritating the PR agent who represents him. The president gets a new physician.
After an American plane is shot down in the Middle East, the president furiously demands a severe retaliatory strike that would kill thousands of civilians, and his advisers must frantically talk him out of it. (“Let the word ring forth from this time and this place, you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response, we come back [bangs fist on table] with total disaster!” — Bartlet.) The press secretary and deputy communications director argue over the latter’s patronizing attitude toward the sex worker. A Black teenager is interviewed for a job as the president’s aide.
The president needs support for his gun control bill, but cannot get the votes in part because progressive legislators view the bill as toothless and symbolic. Eventually the Vice President helps the president find the votes. The chief of staff’s marriage is crumbling. The communications director must explain an aberration on his financial disclosure forms. The president mixes up his medication.
The staff are disgruntled because they are being forced to meet with members of the public who have come to raise concerns with the White House. It is dismissed as “Throw Open Our Office Doors To People Who Want To Discuss Things That We Could Care Less About” day, and includes environmentalists encouraging the White House to protect wolves from ranchers and a representative of the United States Space Command saying that UFOs need to be taken more seriously. These petitioners are treated with derision. The president wants his staff to sample his prized chili, which he has made to celebrate his daughter attending Georgetown. The communications director worries that he was not the president’s first choice for the job. The deputy chief of staff is anxious after being informed he will be singled out for rescue in a nuclear attack. The press secretary encourages the deputy chief of staff to read a New Yorker article about smallpox.
Staff persuade a congressman to drop support for an amendment to a commerce bill concerning the methods of conducting the U.S. census. The deputy chief of staff and his assistant have a conversation about the nature and purpose of budget surpluses. The president’s daughter is involved in an altercation at a bar. The chief of staff’s wife leaves him.
The staff prepare for an elaborate state dinner. The press wishes to know what the First Lady will be wearing. The president orders labor and trucking industry representatives to reach a settlement to avert a nationwide strike, which has been called because certain employees are being denied benefits. The president takes no position on the issue and staff are divided on it. A hurricane is heading toward Georgia and may cause damage to a naval fleet. The FBI launches a raid on a house containing survivalists, for unclear reasons, though a staffer’s comments suggest the warrant to raid the home may have been obtained unethically. The president of Indonesia is asked for a favor.
The chief of staff frets because his daughter is dating the deputy communications director. The press secretary tries to avoid becoming romantically entangled with a reporter who is making advances. There is tension over the disparaging tone the president showed toward the Vice President in a Cabinet meeting. The staff debate whether to care that a measure endorsing strip-mining on federal land has been inserted into an important banking bill that includes certain consumer protections and will prevent “total” deregulation, though the president ultimately uses a clever legal maneuver to protect the land.
A retiring Supreme Court justice is annoyed that instead of nominating a working-class progressive judge of color named Mendoza, the President has decided to choose Peyton Cabot Harrison III, a Rhodes scholar and former dean of Harvard Law School whose father was Eisenhower’s attorney general. “I wanted to retire five years ago,” says the justice. “But I waited for a Democrat… and instead I got you… you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath.” Ultimately, however, when Harrison is revealed to have written that there is no Constitutional right to privacy, the President must choose Mendoza instead. A Congressman insists that there are substance abusers on the White House staff and the chief of staff is worried that his struggle with addiction will be revealed.
The press secretary continues to be hounded by the reporter who is aggressively making romantic advances on her, and her resolve begins to weaken. The president goes Christmas shopping. The staff look for dirt on political rivals to protect the chief of staff from having his substance abuse problem disclosed. The communications director learns about the life history of a homeless Korean War veteran. The press secretary discovers that her secret service code name is amusing. The press secretary is warned not to promise the administration will do anything after a horrible hate crime is committed because the White House is “not sure where they stand” on hate crimes legislation.
The deputy chief of staff is subpoenaed to testify about substance abuse on the White House staff. The White House media consultant decides to work for a Republican. An eccentric British diplomat is called in to help reduce nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan. The president’s daughter and personal aide begin dating one another.
The president threatens India over its military activity. The president has been concealing that he has multiple sclerosis, and his condition causes him difficulty during the preparations for the State of the Union. The communications director boldly decides to change a line in the speech from “the era of big government is over” to instead reflect the idea that “government, no matter what its failures are in the past, and in times to come… can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind.”
The staff is worried that a report they have commissioned on sex education is “not good” for them because it suggests abstinence-only education is not helpful. The president recommends burying the report for a year. The Georgetown student newspaper reports that the president’s daughter is taking a class with a right-wing sociology professor. The communications director persuades several members of Congress to let the president’s nominees for posts at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting proceed. A congressional subcommittee begins investigating the deputy chief of staff for lack of cooperation with the substance abuse probe. The president is about to sign hate crimes legislation passed after the horrific killing of a gay man. Because the victim’s parents are rumored to oppose the president, the administration is worried that the victim’s father is secretly conservative and was embarrassed by his son and therefore presents a public relations liability. As it turns out, the opposite is the case: the man is proud of his son and furious with the administration for taking no action on gay rights. To the press secretary he says: “Gays in the military, same-sex marriage, gay adoption, boards of education—where the hell is he? I want to know what qualities necessary to being a parent this President feels my son lacked? I want to know from this President, who has served not one day in Vietnam—I had two tours in Vietnam. I want to know what qualities necessary to being a soldier this President feels my son lacked? Lady, I’m not embarrassed my son was gay. My government is.” It is decided that this still makes the parents a public relations liability, so they are sent home and not allowed to attend the signing ceremony. An administration official has misused a government helicopter, causing a to-do.
The manager of a California congressional campaign is furious with the White House for cutting off funding to their campaign when the polls are tight. The deputy chief of staff explains that funding has been cut to prevent the campaign from succeeding, because the Republican incumbent is preposterously right-wing and his racist statements help the DNC with fundraising. The president elaborates that “I like the devil I got” and that he thinks the Democratic candidate is an “empty shirt.” The deputy communications director asks the deputy chief of staff to handle a weekend meeting so that the deputy communications director can go sailing. The president has 48 hours to decide whether to stay the pending execution of a Hispanic man who killed two drug kingpins. He agonizes over the decision because he is personally opposed to the death penalty but believes it would be controversial and politically awkward to intercede and is, in the words of his deputy communications director, “very serious about the separation of powers.” Eventually the president does nothing and the man is executed.
The president’s Supreme Court nominee, Roberto Mendoza, has been arrested by racist police officers, creating a situation. Mendoza wants to publicly expose what happened to him but is talked out of it by the administration, who wish to hush it up so the nomination can proceed. The deputy chief of staff conducts a disastrous press briefing and makes a gaffe. The Housing and Urban Development secretary, a Black woman, is instructed that she must either resign or apologize after she publicly calls a racist Republican congressman a racist for “scoring political points on the backs of poor people and minorities.” When the HUD secretary tries to explain that she believes it is incumbent on her as a Black woman to call out racism, the chief of staff says that her “role is first and foremost to serve the president,” which she has “failed spectacularly” at, and tells her the president will “fire her ass” in a heartbeat if she doesn’t comply. Mendoza condemns the president for making the HUD secretary apologize, infuriating the staff.
Staff discuss whether it would be politically advantageous for the president to come out against flag-burning. The president arranges improvements in Secret Service protection for his daughter. The administration asks for the Vice President’s help to pressure Congress to renew an ethanol tax credit that “has accomplished exactly none of its goals,” but the Vice President is reluctant, so they give up. A Hollywood producer offers the press secretary a job at a major studio. A major donor threatens to cancel a fundraiser if the president refuses to condemn a new bill that bans LGBT people from military service. The president offers the donor a private meeting to appease him, and stays silent on the issue, accusing the donor of throwing an “adolescent tantrum.” Jay Leno and David Hasselhoff guest star as fundraiser attendees.
The Chairman of the Federal Reserve has a fatal heart attack, causing a dip in the stock market. The First Lady’s vocal opposition to child labor causes a Congressperson to attach a provision restricting child labor to a trade agreement, angering the staff, who believe restrictions on child labor are politically inconvenient. The First Lady is upbraided by the president’s deputy communications director for her lack of message discipline. The First Lady intervenes to get the child labor restriction amendment removed from the trade bill. The president’s daughter’s interracial relationship is met with threats from white supremacists. The communications director tells a congressman concerned about the effect of free trade on domestic manufacturing to “shut up” because the congressman drives a foreign-made car. The president is upset that the First Lady has publicly disclosed her personal preference for who should be the new Federal Reserve Chair, because if he nominates that person it “makes me look like I’m taking instructions from my wife.”
The president’s daughter attends a party at which drugs are taken, creating a possible embarrassment for the administration. A Black nominee to be the attorney general for civil rights has created an awkward situation for the administration by blurbing a book on reparations, saying it should “be read by everyone and burned into the minds of white America.” The deputy chief of staff argues with the nominee about reparations but is eventually forced to concede he has a point. The deputy communications director makes a vigorous argument for school vouchers to a public school teacher in whom he is romantically interested, before ultimately admitting he does not believe the argument and actually supports public schools. The administration tries to get China to give the United States a new panda for the National Zoo.
The president’s secretary tells him he is not getting enough roughage in his diet. The president’s staff warn him that it is a bad idea politically to try to put campaign finance reformers on the Federal Elections Commission. The president gives a speech to an organization of sport fishermen. The press secretary tries to track down and suppress an embarrassing memo outlining the president’s weaknesses. The president’s deputy communications director is tasked with fending off opposition to a measure expanding LGBT rights in the military, but realizes the president is not serious about pushing the measure. The president’s poll numbers dip. The president and his chief of staff clash, with each accusing the other of being the reason the administration has a timid approach to politics. The president says he is constantly being told he can’t do things, and the chief of staff says the president sets the tone: “You’ve never been out there on guns. You’ve never been out there on teachers. You dangle your feet… It’s my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off too far…Sam can’t get real on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because you’re not gonna be there… Everyone’s waiting for you. I don’t know how much longer.” The president, realizing this is true, resolves not to back down on nominating reformers to the Federal Elections Commission. There is a problem with the White House email system.
The press secretary admits to the press that the nomination of reformers to the Federal Elections Commission is symbolic and is expected to do nothing to reform elections. The press secretary boasts that the president voluntarily chose a Republican as one of the nominees, although it turns out this was mandatory. The deputy chief of staff attempts to flirt with a new colleague. The president is warned that coming out for marijuana legalization would be politically unpopular. The administration debates whether coming out for increasing drug treatment will lead them to be painted as “soft on crime.” A member of Congress pressures the administration to do something about mandatory minimum sentences.
The staff fret over the president’s approval rating. The president frets that he is being accused of wanting to legalize drugs. The deputy chief of staff frets that Republicans will bring up a bill trying to make English the official language of the United States. The deputy communications director’s relationship with the sex worker is exposed by the press. An ambassador is fired over a liaison. The president’s strategy to alter the composition of the Federal Elections Commission appears to bear fruit.
A space shuttle containing the communications director’s brother is in distress. The president prepares for a town hall event. An American pilot has been shot down over Iraq (why the United States had a military presence in Iraqi airspace is undiscussed). The press secretary frets over having to lie to the press. The deputy chief of staff convinces the Vice President that there is too much money in politics and that it has a corrupting influence. Racists open fire on the president, his daughter, and his staff, and it is clear people are injured, leading to a cliffhanger ending.
One of the most important truths about politics, which everyone needs to fully understand, is that bad things usually look like good things to the people who do them. The West Wing invites us to see Bartlet’s staff as they see themselves, and we can get wrapped up in their stories and come to like their characters (often people who do bad things are interpersonally likable). But when we step back and ask ourselves “But what is really going on here? What am I not seeing? Whose perspectives are being excluded?” we can realize that everything we’re taking in looks totally different from another angle. I think it’s important to note that you could set a drama in the upper ranks of the Pinochet dictatorship or the North Korean government, and so long as it never depicted what was actually going on “on the ground,” and polite euphemisms were used in the description of atrocities, the protagonists could be depicted as humane and likable. This is because evil is more often banal than “hateful,” and intelligent, sensitive people who love their families can be responsible for utterly heinous and murderous acts toward people who are not within their circle of valued human beings. To evaluate carefully, it can help to “defamiliarize” ourself with what we see, to try to look from the perspective of an outsider rather than an insider—not how “Josh” looks to “C.J.” but how the president’s chief of staff looks to the guy about to be executed; not how George looks to Dick, but how the Bush administration looks to an Iraqi.
Surely a few incidents in particular stuck out to you in those episode summaries. First, Bartlet’s chief of staff threatened to fire a Black woman for correctly calling a racist a racist, and shut her down when she tried to give her perspective. (This has a real life parallel: Bill Clinton fired Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders after she publicly suggested that masturbation was healthy and normal.) Second, Bartlet shows an unhinged desire for righteous patriotic vengeance against a Middle Eastern country, displaying exactly the sort of attitude that led to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Third, Bartlet declines to use his power to stop a man from being killed, even though he knows that the killing is wrong. Fourth, the administration suppresses the fact that a Supreme Court justice was racially profiled because it wants to avoid turning racial profiling into a national conversation. Fifth, and most indefensibly, the president’s staff refuse to allow the parents of a murdered gay man to be present at the signing of a hate crimes bill because they are worried the parents will criticize the president over his inaction on gay rights.
Each of these actions is wrong. But the West Wing is written in such a way that it’s easy not to notice how wrong they are, just as the people doing them don’t notice. This can help us understand why Barack Obama’s staff might have been so defensive of their own actions. As the West Wing’s West Wing looks to Bartlet staffers, so the Obama administration looked to itself. (Who were often directly inspired by the show!)
We can see how a president can come to think that “political circumstance” is simply “restraining” them from exercising their power, when actually they are declining to use their agency due to a combination of ideology and timidity. In Episode 19, Bartlet and his chief of staff get into an amusing argument, in which each thinks the other has been the reason the administration isn’t taking bold action. Bartlet thinks he’s being told he can’t do the things he wants to do, while the chief of staff thinks the president has given him a mandate to be “pragmatic” and keep the president from behaving rashly.
Of course, looking carefully at the storylines, we can see the points at which the president had clear agency and did not use it. See, for example, Bartlet’s original decision to nominate an Ivy League blueblood to the Supreme Court rather than a progressive. (Compare to Obama’s nomination of the inoffensive moderate Merrick Garland rather than a more principled federal judge like, say Jane Kelly, Goodwin Liu, or Jed Rakoff. Or hell, what about Michelle Alexander?) Or Bartlet not taking any action on the death penalty because he “respects separation of powers.” (Compare with Obama’s long reluctance to grant clemency petitions.) Or the choice to keep a far-right Republican in Congress because he’s supposedly a politically useful antagonist and fundraising tool. (Compare with Andrew Cuomo’s deliberate maintenance of a Republican majority in the New York Senate, or Joe Biden giving a paid speech for a Republican congressman instead of his Democratic opponent.) Bartlet takes on the left and creates a Blue Ribbon Commission to study new “options” for entitlement programs, i.e. Social Security cuts. Obama did almost the exact same thing. The Bartlet administration, like the Obama administration, excused its failures by suggesting there was nothing else it could have done, but as with Obama, when we look at the particular moments at which clear choices were made, we can see that this is false and that actually, the failure was due to ideology rather than necessity.
Certain mildly progressive measures are taken during the first season of the West Wing. Bartlet signs a banking bill that prevents “total bank deregulation” and appears to include one or two consumer protection measures. He appoints some “reformers” to the Federal Elections Commission, although it seems that this is purely symbolic. Justice Mendoza is confirmed, though we should remember that Mendoza was not the administration’s first choice. As with Obama’s, Bartlet’s staff would happily reel off a list of proud progressive accomplishments to any skeptic (tax credits for inner city public school teachers or something).
The West Wing reunion special even manages to show how liberalism has evolved in the years since the show first aired. The original show clearly had a race problem, with the only major character of color being the president’s personal aide. In the reunion, the role of chief of staff has been recast with a Black actor (the original actor died during the show’s run), though not a word of the script has changed. Thus the show manages to look slightly more progressive through a change in personnel rather than in its politics. (The creators also wisely did not choose to recreate one of the episodes in which actors make outright sexist comments.) This is a useful example of what my colleagues Yasmin Nair and Eli Massey call “inclusion in the atrocious,” adding more diverse and meritocratic features to an unjust institution in order to legitimize it.
We should not make the mistake of writing off the West Wing as a bad show with an unrealistic depiction of American politics. It is better understood as an essential show, a seven-season-long indictment of centrist politics that takes place in a self-righteous, delusional “boys’ club” of high-ranking government officials. It’s a tragedy about “educated fools,” a documentary about Obama made before Obama got to office. As the film Starship Troopers shows what fascism looks like to fascists, the West Wing shows what liberalism looks like to liberals. It attempts to hold the Bartlet administration up as virtuous and sensible, but it makes the mistake of accurately portraying the basic facts of Washington politics, which means the falsity of the show’s thesis is exposed within the show itself. If you want to figure out what has gone wrong with the Democratic Party, one of the best ways to do so is to watch the West Wing and ask yourself: when you set aside the personalities, the irrelevant drama, the rationalizations, what is actually going on and whether it is in fact correct and good.
At the end of his autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture, 60s radical activist Abbie Hoffman includes a sarcastic epilogue retracting everything he has ever believed. At the time he wrote the book, Hoffman was living underground, on the run from the law on drug charges, and he offered to give the following “confession” in exchange for readmission into respectable society:
You know, I’m really sorry and I wanna come home. I love the flag, blue for truth. White for right. Red for blood our boys shed in war. I love my mother. I was wrong to tell kids to kill their parents… Spoiled, selfish brats made the sixties. Forgive me, Mother. I love Jesus, the smooth arch of his back, his long blond curls. Jesus died for all of us, even us Jews. Thank you, Lord. … I love Israel as protector of Western civilization. Most of my thinking was the result of brainwashing by KGB agents… I hate drugs. They are bad for you. Marijuana has a terrible effect on the brain. It makes you forget everything you learned in school… I only used it to lure young virgins into bed. I’m very ashamed of this. Cocaine is murderous. It makes you sex crazy and gets uneducated people all worked up. Friends are kidding themselves when they say it’s nonaddictive. The nose knows, and the nose says no… Once I burned money at the stock exchange. This was way out of line. People work hard to make money. Even stockbrokers work hard. No one works hard in Bangladesh—that’s why they are starving today and we are not. … Communism is evil incarnate. You can see it in Karl Marx’s beady eyes, long nose, and the sneering smile behind his beard….Our artists are all perverts except, of course, for the late Norman Rockwell. …Our system of democracy is the best in the world… Now can I come back?
Part of Hoffman’s life is now indeed a major motion picture, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by TheWest Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is an unfortunate choice to bring Abbie Hoffman to the screen, since Sorkin’s basic worldview is one Hoffman completely rejected. TheWest Wing is known for showing a faith in good liberal technocrats to govern wisely, yet Hoffman was a “burn down the system” anarchistic radical. Sure enough, Sorkin’s Hoffman is almost the Jesus-loving patriot of the actual Hoffman’s biting satire.
The story of the Chicago 7 is one that needs to be remembered, so we can be glad that Netflix chose to bring it to the screen. After the 1968 Democratic convention, at which antiwar protesters clashed with Chicago police and were savagely beaten, shocking the country, the Nixon administration brought charges against a number of the event organizers. Nixon’s justice department wanted to teach the New Left a lesson in order to demonstrate it was serious about “restoring law and order,” and the charges against the defendants were flimsy. The trial itself was a farce, thanks in part to a biased judge who saw conviction as a foregone conclusion. But the defendants, instead of accepting their fate, decided to use the media attention being paid to the trial to publicize the cause of the antiwar movement, and called an array of celebrity witnesses (Dick Gregory, Allen Ginsberg, Jesse Jackson, Judy Collins, Norman Mailer, Arlo Guthrie, and even former attorney general Ramsey Clark) to “put the government on trial” and turn a political persecution into a media event that would keep the left’s message on the national agenda. Ultimately, while most of the defendants were convicted of conspiracy to riot, the convictions were overturned on appeal and the government dropped the case. The Chicago 7 trial’s historical significance is (1) as an example of the American government trying to criminalize dissent and intimidate the political left through selective prosecution and (2) as an example of how defendants can successfully fight back through turning a trial into a media spectacle and winning in the “court of public opinion.”
Abbie Hoffman, the most charismatic and media-savvy defendant, was one of the most colorful figures of the ‘60s left. Coming from a serious activist background as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Hoffman’s Youth International Party (Yippies) engaged in attention-grabbing stunts to publicize left causes. Infamously, Hoffman sneaked into the New York Stock Exchange and dumped dollar bills onto the trading floor, sending brokers scrambling for cash. In a giant antiwar march, he led a group trying to perform an “exorcism” of the Pentagon and send it off into space. At Woodstock, Hoffman scuffled with Pete Townshend of The Who when Hoffman stormed the stage to give a political speech. Hoffman’s Steal This Book gives advice on how to shoplift, deal drugs, and live free through all manner of scams.
Hoffman was an attention-seeker and provocateur, but he was also serious in his moral commitment to ending the Vietnam War, and his often-ludicrous counterculture antics came from a hatred of selfishness, authoritarianism, racism, and militarism. He was a utopian and an absurdist, but by pushing the boundaries of what civilized society could tolerate, he helped to make it freer.
Sorkin’s film does portray Hoffman relatively positively—even though Sorkin admitted he couldn’t really relate to him and found him somewhat intolerable—and Sacha Baron Cohen gives a strong performance. In fact, The Trial of the Chicago 7 presents Hoffman as charming, colorful, rebellious, and committed to using theatrics as a serious form of protest, a un-loving counterweight to fellow defendant Tom Hayden, who comes across as a humorless prig (though a somewhat unpleasant note at the end of the film mentions that Hayden went on to serve a number of terms in the California legislature while Hoffman ultimately “killed himself,” perhaps Sorkin’s way of suggesting that in the long run the ‘work within the system’ types will prevail). Sorkin’s Hoffman is not held up as a figure of ridicule, but rather as someone who has a different notion of how to help the antiwar movement.
Yet while The Trial of the Chicago 7 is sympathetic to Hoffman, it also softens him in a way that ultimately amounts to historical fabrication. In the climax of Sorkin’s film, Hoffman takes to the stand and defends the protesters actions by invoking Lincoln and Jesus, and gives a tribute to democracy that could have come from TheWest Wing. [Update: have since discovered Sorkin in fact directly recycledWest Wing dialogue for the Chicago 7 movie.] “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people,” Hoffman tells the court. In the film, Hoffman is a relatively benign spokesman for the basic right of dissent.
In reality, Hoffman’s testimony was far more radical. He even read out the Yippies’ list of demands, which included, among other things:
an immediate end to the war
“a restructuring of our foreign policy which totally eliminates aspects of military, economic and cultural imperialism
the withdrawal of all foreign based troops and the abolition of military draft”
“immediate freedom for Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and all other black people”
“the legalization of marijuana and all other psychedelic drugs;
the freeing of all prisoners currently imprisoned on narcotics charges,”
“the abolition of all laws related to crimes without victims,”
“the total disarmament of all the people beginning with the police,”
“the abolition of money, the abolition of pay housing, pay media, pay transportation, pay food, pay education. pay clothing, pay medical health, and pay toilets,”
“a program of ecological development that would provide incentives for the decentralization of crowded cities and encourage rural living,”
“a program which provides not only free birth control information and devices, but also abortions when desired.”
Hoffman was a revolutionary, not just a critic of the war, and he said so plainly. But Sorkin cuts the bits of Hoffman’s speech that would endear him far less to a mainstream audience. For instance, Sorkin keeps the part of Hoffman’s sentencing statement in which he suggested Lincoln would have been arrested if he had done what the defendants did. He removes the parts where Hoffman offers the judge LSD, says riots are fun, calls George Washington a pothead, and says that Alexander Hamilton probably deserved to be shot. This stuff is, yes, clownish, but it was part of Hoffman’s effort to turn the whole proceeding into an absurdity.
Sorkin takes other creative liberties with history that end up distorting it. Sometimes these are arbitrary, small, and relatively harmless (defendant Lee Weiner was extremely hairy and hippie-ish but is presented in the film as clean-cut and nerdy). Bobby Seale, the Black Panther defendant who was infamously bound and gagged in the courtroom when he continuously spoke out about the violation of his right to counsel, actually managed to repeatedly wriggle out of the physical restraints the government put on him; the film portrays the government as effective in silencing him. Worse are things like portraying the prosecutor (an anti-communist ideologue in real life) as an agonized, conflicted idealist who sticks up for civil rights. Or showing Quaker pacifist Dave Dellinger punching a cop. Or treating the Panthers, armed revolutionaries, as peaceniks who preferred words to guns.
The film’s biggest problems come from the fact that Aaron Sorkin subscribes to an ideology I call Obamaism-Sorkinism (like Marxism-Leninism). The tenets of this ideology are that American institutions are fundamentally good, and that while we argue, ultimately our interests do not conflict, and nobody is evil or irredeemable. So of course the prosecutor is good. It could not be that Hoffman et al. want to destroy everything the prosecutor holds dear and create a society of sex, drugs, and rock & roll that would horrify him.
To me, the most disturbing way in which Obamaism-Sorkinism infiltrates the film is in the treatment of the Vietnam War. American liberals have a tendency to think of the war as a noble mistake, and to focus on the deaths of American troops rather than Vietnamese civilians. In reality, antiwar radicals did not usually speak in the name of the troops against the government, but instead spoke up for the Vietnamese. The Trial of the Chicago 7 shows protesters waving American flags; they would probably have been waving Viet Cong flags. (Hoffman got into a tussle with a court marshal when he tried to bring a Viet Cong flag into the courtroom, an incident captured in the courtroom sketches.) The film ends with Tom Hayden upsetting the judge by reading out the names of the American war dead. This incident didn’t happen, but what did happen at sentencing was David Dellinger making a plea on behalf of those oppressed by the United States:
[W]hatever happens to us, however unjustified, will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people, to the black people in this country, to the criminals with whom we are now spending our days in the Cook County jail. I must have already lived longer than the normal life expectancy of a black person born when I was born, or born now. I must have already lived longer, 20 years longer, than the normal life expectancy in the underdeveloped countries which this country is trying to profiteer from and keep under its domain and control… [S]ending us to prison, any punishment the Government can impose upon us, will not solve the problem of this country’s rampant racism, will not solve the problem of economic injustice, it will not solve the problem of the foreign policy and the attacks upon the underdeveloped people of the world. The Government has misread the times in which we live, just like there was a time when it was possible to keep young people, women, black people, Mexican-American, anti-war people, people who believe in truth and justice and really believe in democracy, which it is going to be possible to keep them quiet or suppress them.
Instead of choosing to end with a moment of tribute to American soldiers (as uncontroversial a statement as it is possible to make), Sorkin could have ended with the defendants’ real-life statements calling out the country for its hypocrisy and injustice. He decided not to.
There is something odd and troubling in the way that Sorkin has Abbie Hoffman cite the Book of Matthew on the stand, as if to suggest that every real American is a flag-waving patriot who loves Jesus and the troops. (Recall Hoffman’s epilogue.) In fact, one of the most interesting elements of the real Chicago 7 trial was an ongoing tussle between Abbie and the judge, Julius Hoffman, over the meaning of their shared Jewish identity (not to mention surname). Abbie Hoffman infamously threw Yiddish slang at Judge Hoffman, calling him a “schtunk” (stinker/vulgar person) and a “shanda fur die goyim” (a Jew who embarrasses other Jewish people by doing the dirty work of the gentiles). Abbie called the judge “Julie” and said he would have been a glad servant of the Nazi regime. Abbie Hoffman drew much of his approach to rebellion from Jewish culture—from Jewish anarchism and the prophetic tradition to the comedy records of Lenny Bruce—and he believed the judge was choosing to serve the WASP elite in its persecution of racial and religious minorities. (Interestingly, Judge Hoffman seemed to have a strange soft spot for Abbie; many of Abbie’s most savage criticisms were grounded in a moral appeal to their shared cultural ties.)
We see, in The Trial of the Chicago 7, some of the ways that the defendants mocked the court (such as, for example, by coming in wearing judicial robes and talking out of turn). But the transcripts are rich with absurdity, and I think Sorkin left most of it out because it doesn’t really make for a good courtroom drama, since it was a ridiculous courtroom comedy. Below are a few of my favorite snippets from a transcript loaded with ludicrousness:
From Allen Ginsberg’s testimony
MR. WEINGLASS (defense attorney):
Let me ask this: Mr. Ginsberg, I show you an object marked 150 for identification, and I ask you to examine that object.
Yes. [Ginsberg is handed a harmonium and begins to play it.]
MR. FORAN (prosecutor):
All right. Your Honor, that is enough. I object to it, your Honor. I think it is outrageous for counsel to—
You asked him to examine it, and instead of that he played a tune on it. I sustain the objection.
It adds spirituality to the case, sir.
Will you remain quiet, sir.
I am sorry.
Having examined that, could you identify it for the court and jury?
It is an instrument known as the harmonium, which I used at the press conference at the Americana Hotel. It is commonly used in India.
I object to that.
I sustain the objection.
Will you explain to the Court and to the jury what chant you were chanting at the press conference?
I was chanting a mantra called the “Mala Mantra,” the great mantra of preservation of that aspect of the Indian religion called Vishnu the Preserver. Every time human evil rises so high that the planet itself is threatened, and all of its inhabitants and their children are threatened, Vishnu will preserve a return.
Abbie Hoffman pipes up about the jailing of David Dellinger
Mr. Marshall, will you ask the defendant Hoffman to remain quiet?
You are a tyrant, you know that.
The judges in Nazi Germany ordered sterilization. Why don’t you do that, Judge Hoffman?
Just keep quiet.
We should have done this long ago when you chained and gagged Bobby Seale. Mafia-controlled pigs. We should have done it. It’s a shame this building wasn’t ripped down.
Mr. Marshal, order him to remain quiet.
Order us? Order us? You got to cut our tongues out to order us, Julie. You railroaded Seale so he wouldn’t get a jury trial either. Four years for contempt without a jury trial. No, I won’t shut up. I ain’t an automaton like you. Best friend the blacks ever had, huh? How many blacks are in the Drake Towers? How many are in the Standard Club? How many own stock in Brunswick Corporation? [references to the judge’s condo building and an exclusive club for local Jewish leaders]
Bring in the jury, please.
From the testimony of Timothy Leary
MR. KUNSTLER (defense attorney):
I call your attention to March of 1968, somewhere in the middle of March, and I ask you if you can recall being present at a press conference?
Prior to this press conference had you had any other meetings with Jerry and Abbie?
Yes, we had met two or three times during the spring.
Your Honor, I object to the constant use of the diminutives in the reference to the defendants.
Your Honor, sometimes it is hard because we work together in this case, we use first names constantly.
I know, but if I knew you that well, and I don’t, how would it seem for me to say, “Now, Billy—”
Your Honor, it is perfectly acceptable to me—if I could have the reverse privilege.
I don’t like it. I have disapproved of it before and I ask you now to refer to the defendants by their surnames.
I was just thinking I hadn’t been called “Billy” since my mother used that word the first time.
I haven’t called you that.
It evokes some memories.
I was trying to point out to you how absurd it sounds in a courtroom.
From the testimony of Judy Collins
Who was present at that press conference?
There were a number of people who were singers, entertainers. Jerry Rubin was there, Abbie Hoffman was there. Allen Ginsberg was there, and sang a mantra.
Now what did you do at that press conference?
Well—[sings] “Where have all the flowers…”
Just a minute, young lady.
[sings] “—where have all the flowers gone?”
DEPUTY MARSHAL JOHN J. GRACIOUS:
I’m sorry. The Judge would like to speak to you.
We don’t allow any singing in this Court. I’m sorry.
May I recite the words?
Well, your Honor, we have had films. I think it is as legitimate as a movie. It is the actual thing she did, she sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which is a well-known peace song, and she sang it, and the jury is not getting the flavor.
You asked her what she did, and she proceeded to sing.
That is what she did, your Honor.
That’s what I do.
And that has no place in a United States District Court. We are not here to be entertained, sir. We are trying a very important case.
This song is not an entertainment, your Honor. This is a song of peace, and what happens to young men and women during wartime.
I forbid her from singing during the trial. I will not permit singing in this Courtroom.
Why not, your Honor? What’s wrong with singing?
May I respond? This is about the fifth time this has occurred. Each time your Honor has directed Mr. Kunstler that it was improper in the courtroom. It is an old and stale joke in this Courtroom, your Honor. Now, there is no question that Miss Collins is a fine singer. In my family my six kids and I all agree that she is a fine singer, but that doesn’t have a thing to do with this lawsuit nor what my profession is, which is the practice of law in the Federal District Court, your Honor, and I protest Mr. Kunstler constantly failing to advise his witnesses of what proper decorum is, and I object to it on behalf of the Government.
I sustain the objection.
From the testimony of Abbie Hoffman
Did you intend that the people who surrounded the Pentagon should do anything of a violent nature whatever to cause the building to rise 300 feet in the air and be exorcised of evil spirits?
I sustain the objection.
Could you indicate to the Court and jury whether or not the Pentagon was, in fact, exorcised of its evil spirits?
Yes, I believe it was. . . .
The defendants and the witnesses sang, they shouted, they showed utter contempt for the entire process. Defense attorney William Kunstler says that that “defense table was strewn with dozens and dozens of books (plus clothing, papers, candywrappers, and other assorted debris)” because the defendants treated the courtroom like their living room. They read books throughout the trial. They undermined the authority of the court at every turn, calling the judge by his first name (when they weren’t calling him a fascist) and thumbing their noses at all of his rulings. “Our whole defense strategy was geared around trying to give the judge a heart attack,” Hoffman joked, “because we weren’t going to beat the charge.” Sorkin portrays little of this, and I’m not surprised: how can someone who believes in process and institutions accurately portray the total breakdown of process and institutions that occurred in the Chicago 7 trial?
I have had a feeling of spiritual kinship toward Abbie Hoffman since my undergraduate years at Brandeis University. He loomed large among leftists on campus when I was there, as one of the university’s most famous alums—although one never boasted about on the admissions brochures. (The Sorkin film does contain a wonderful exchange in which buttoned-up Tom Hayden says to “tell Abbie we’re going to Chicago to protest the war, not to fuck around,” and Abbie replies, “Tell Tom Hayden I went to Brandeis and I can do both.”) Abbie was an inspiration because he was joyous, funny, and never sold out. He did somersaults in front of the courthouse. His colleague Jerry Rubin may have entered the world of business, but Abbie spent much of his post-1960s life fleeing from the government on drug charges, and then as part of the environmental movement. In the years just before his death in 1989, he was still a proud warrior for the counterculture. Fellow defendant Lee Weiner, in his autobiography Conspiracy to Riot, describes Abbie as “vibrant, aglow with energy and political wit and satire in the service of changing America and ending the war,” with “long untamed hair and a joyful, full faced smile.” He says Abbie was “impossible not to like—at least most of the time.” Abbie was a revolutionary with a spirit of optimism and fun, the kind of person the left needs if it’s going to build mass support.
Far from being a Jesus-loving patriot, Abbie Hoffman was a proud loudmouthed communist Jew who spat at everything pious and self-serious. (The epigraph of his autobiography is an anonymous hate letter he received that reads: “Dear Abbie: wait till Jesus gets his hands on you—you little bastard.”) Far from giving sermons on “the institutions of our democracy,” Hoffman defended the true spirit of democracy against our institutions. “I believe in democracy with a passion,” he said, “but it’s more than something you believe in, it’s something you do. We are very complacent because we live in Canada or the United States, we live in ‘democracies’—democracy’s not a place you live in, it’s something you learn how to do and then you go out and do it. And if you don’t do it, you don’t have it.”
I like Abbie Hoffman because he knew how to, in his words, “make outrage contagious.” He pissed people off, but he did it in the name of values worth defending. When he wore his American flag shirt on the Merv Griffin show, the network censors were so horrified that they turned the entire screen blue for the duration of his appearance. In retrospect, it seems incredible that this could ever have been controversial, but the counterculture had not yet won. This was a time when people were roughed up and arrested for having long hair, before the right to abortion had been secured. America had to be liberated from the reactionaries and squares, and the hippies and yippies were a vital part of it.
When Hoffman spoke, he said, he “never tr[ied] to play on the audience’s guilt, and instead appeal to feelings of liberation, a sense of comradeship, and a call to make history. I played all authority as if it were a deranged lumbering bull and the daring matador.” This gleeful “fuck you” anarchist spirit is valuable. It is not people like the Abbie Hoffman of The Trial of the Chicago 7—those who dare to memorialize the troops and celebrate our institutions while critiquing them within reason—who are most essential to a thriving democracy. It is people like the actual Abbie Hoffman, who could never have been the subject of an Aaron Sorkin film, because Sorkin would never have been able to get a square liberal audience to like him. Abbie Hoffman was an American original, a great dissident clown who could never, and should never, be considered part of respectable society.
My colleague Oren Nimni and I recently interviewed Chicago 7 defendant Lee Weiner, who retains much of the same ebullient, defiant, optimistic ‘60s spirit. Listen here.
In early February of this year I attended a “mandatory” staff meeting at the bar where I worked. Like every other service industry staff meeting I have ever attended, it followed the standard script: opening with praise for the staff, a rote rattling-off of everything that we were doing wrong or could improve upon with a litany of minute alterations to operating procedures and protocols, and a quick “any questions?” (There are never any questions.) We wrapped up with a final half-assed rally of thanks and praise: “You’re the best, there’s no one like you, #1.” (This is an actual quote.) Afterwards there was pizza. It’s the same thing every time.
However, at the end of this particular meeting, during the final lavishing of thanks and as most of us were already reaching for our coats, one of the partners went slightly off script and ad-libbed a complimentary flourish that gave me pause. He said,“It’s because of all that you do that [this place] is as successful as it is…thanks to all of your hard work, this year I was able to buy a house.”Though odd, and frankly quite a tacky thing to say to a room full of people whom you personally pay less than minimum wage, I do believe that he was being sincere. Spend enough time around them, and you come to realize that most bar owners (and restaurateurs) exude a certain aura of hep insouciance to anything other than their own brand, which tends to render them rather oblivious to their tone-deafness.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, maximum occupancy allowances for bars and restaurants dropped and curfews began. Then, on the night of Sunday, March 15th, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a complete shutdown of New York City. My fellow co-workers and I were informed by a laconic late night email from our employer:
“As per the mayor’s order, tomorrow night we will be closing our doors until further notice. At least you will all be immediately eligible for unemployment. Let us know if you have any questions and we will keep you informed of our status.”
What followed was a period of mad scrambling. Every single co-worker and friend I have in the industry relayed tales of desperately reconfiguring budgets, projecting and scraping, calling in favors, dodging student loan collectors, bargaining with roommates and pleading with landlords—all the while trying to find a connection somewhere within the sadly overwhelmed and grossly antiquated bureaucratic tangle that is the Department of Labor’s online services.
Loyal bar patrons began starting relief funds to support this huge mass of the newly unemployed, and fellow industry people quickly began inundating each other with text and email chains covering everything from free legal advice regarding renter’s rights and possible (or seemingly imminent) evictions, job opportunity leads, lists of resources for help with mental health and anxiety issues, financial counseling and aid, and even just simple “how are you holding up?” check-ins. It was an inspiring moment of solidarity, a welcome reminder that, despite everything, we were all more than willing to help our sisters and brothers.
The “check-ins” from our employers were much less inspiring. Some were platitudinal: “Hope everyone is doing well, maybe learning a new instrument or spending time with the pup in the yard. Holler if you have any questions about how unemployment works!” (I kid you not.) Some were openly pretentious acts of generosity: “Here’s a link to an emergency relief fund for service industry folks you should try”—basically invitations to participate in charity auctions sent by those who had helped create this mass of uninsured people living paycheck to paycheck in the first place. They may as well have offered us $2 scratch-off tickets.
A number of those funds, charities, and other aid organizations had their servers crash multiple times due to the overwhelming responses they received from scared and desperate service industry workers seeking financial relief. In an attempt to assuage the worries of potential applicants, one site in particular issued a statement that they had to reconfigure their application process as the response that they’d received was so overwhelming. It then went offline for days.
To read through the posted pleas and expressions of anger and frustration on the social media sites of these organizations by people trying to get through was to see just how precarious and anxious the state of the working class has become. To paraphrase E.M. Cioran, it seemed even our very quest for relief had become just a new form of anguish.
The fact that we’ve found ourselves this unsupported is far from surprising. The service industry, one of the top four employment sectors in the United States (comprising 16.7 million people), has sat atop the list of low wage, high violation industries for the better part of 20 years. The industry is guilty of most of the worst kinds of workplace social and economic inequalities—in fact, its GINI coefficient (a statistical measure by which income or wealth inequality is represented amongst a defined group) is higher than the national average. The median income of service industry employees, in every area surveyed, are dead last when compared to that of every other industry.
The industry profits by paying its employees less than the minimum wage, relying on the largesse of patrons to make up the difference. This is due to a “tip credit” employers receive from the federal government, which is supposed to equal the difference between the cash wages paid and the federal minimum wage. Unfortunately, employers routinely neglect the responsibility to make up that difference themselves. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, “investigations [in 2018] of over 9,000 restaurants in the U.S. … found that 84 percent of investigated restaurants were in violation of wage and hour laws, including nearly 1,200 violations of the requirement to bring tipped workers’ wages up to the minimum wage.”
These employers also regularly pay employees the tipped minimum wage for non-tipped work like setting tables or rolling silverware. It is also not unusual for employers to expect their employees to perform off-the-clock work and deny overtime pay (usually by offering a fixed per-shift rate rather than an hourly one). And, as anyone who has ever worked in the service industry can attest, bosses as a matter of routine fail to give workers uninterrupted breaks of any duration for shifts that can be ten-plus hours long.
Even when politicians address wage theft, their efforts tend to be completely spineless. Earlier this year, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he was going to increase the minimum wage requirement, he excluded bars and restaurants—the largest employers of tipped workers, and again, the most shameless offenders when it comes to wage violations.And while Cuomo has been justly criticized, he is merely continuing a nationwide trend that began, according to a report by Fairwage.org, back in 1996 “[when] the National Restaurant Association struck a deal with President Bill Clinton: In exchange for a minimum wage increase, the tipped wagewas frozen in place.”
The federal minimum tipped wage of $2.13 an hour applies to any worker who earns $30.00 per month in tips. In Louisiana, where the service industry is one of the largest sectors of employment and workers rely on the federal minimum wage, Gov. John Bel Edwards has repeatedly attempted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour since he was elected in 2016. But despite his administration’s continued efforts, concerted lobbying efforts by groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business have continually resisted the effort.
A steady stream of both cultural and business-oriented media outlets have claimed that “it is abundantly clear that bars and restaurants need and deserve a bailout…” No call for bailing out the industry itself, however, has been so audacious and self-centered as that of restaurateur and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who called for restaurant owners to receive “four months of income replacement at 75 percent from the government in order to “’get open and get [them] through the slow period.’”
“Get open”—a.k.a., return to business-as-usual business. This, for workers, is unacceptable. Unacceptable because even if we do return to work, not only are we at risk of COVID-19 transmission, but our places of employment are now operating at a vastly diminished capacity—conditions far from ideal for those who rely on the generosity of patrons to even approach a livable wage. On top of that, we’re also returning to workplaces that, for the most part, still lack healthcare coverage and sick leave. In fact, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health has included the National Restaurant Association on the list of top 12 offenders who have been actively battling paid sick leave for restaurant employees.
Not only does the industry fight against having to pay its employees basic paid sick time, we aren’t even offered unpaid sick time. The industry standard regarding time off is usually delivered in all bold caps: YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR COVERING YOUR OWN SHIFTS. This is simply a more concisely-worded: “Oh, you don’t feel well? Awwww, too bad—you get back in that bear suit and dance…” It boggles my mind when I think of how many of us have muscled through shifts fighting off one ailment or another because we couldn’t find shift coverage. And if we did manage to find it, it’s shitty knowing that you’ll have to miss a day or two worth of wages. And now we’re being asked to work during the worst pandemic since 1918? I can just see that “MUST REPLY” email now “All employees are responsible for covering their shifts before they die.” This is a form of cruelty and greed that tacitly gives a financial incentive to spread disease and compromises the safety and wellbeing of customers.
To add insult to injury, more states are fighting for legislation that will provide businesses immunity from any COVID-19 related lawsuits. The stated purpose of such measures (which will incidentally be retroactive,spanning from December 2019 until December 2024) is “to protect already-struggling businesses.” These measures seem to do little more than place the employees of said establishments in the same category as customers; for both groups, any claims made against an establishment will be subjected to what is called a ‘rebuttable presumption’ on the grounds “that the claimant assumed the risks associated with COVID-19 infection, injury, or death when he or she entered the premises.”
And while the protections provided to businesses by the proposed so-called SAFE TO WORK ACT—currently being pushed by the Senate as a provision of the next coronavirus relief bill—“help, but do not absolve employers,” the heightened burden of proof and pleading requirements could make filing a lawsuit practically impossible. As the law firm Holland & Knight explains:
“…a defendant [i.e. bar or restaurant] who maintained a written or published policy on mitigation of transmission of the virus at the time of the alleged exposure would be presumed to have made reasonable efforts, which, in turn, the plaintiff may rebut by showing that the defendant was not complying with its own policy. In order to succeed [with a complaint] a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant 1) engaged in gross negligence or willful misconduct that 2) directly caused the alleged harm, damage, breach or tort resulting in the personal injury. Significantly, acts or omissions resulting from a resource or staffing shortage would not constitute gross negligence or willful misconduct by a healthcare provider.”
Plaintiffs would also have to:
“…plead with particularity (a heightened pleading standard): 1) each element of the plaintiff’s claim; 2) the identify of each defendant and the factual basis for the belief that a particular defendant caused the plaintiff’s alleged injury; 3) every other person or place visited by the plaintiff and every person who visited the plaintiff’s residence during the 14-day period prior to the onset of the plaintiff’s symptoms, along with the factual basis for the plaintiff’s belief that they did not cause his or her alleged injury; and 4) each alleged act or omission constituting gross negligence or willful misconduct.”
All this basically boils down to: “It’s your word against ours. Good luck with that.” Given that the National Restaurant Association included in its proposed Blueprint for Restaurant Survival the necessity of “liability protections,” we should not be surprised if, after COVID, this becomes a universally-accepted policy in the “hospitality” industry.
Most recently, in a typical display of business-minded self-interest, restaurants have started adding a COVID-19 Recovery charge to its patrons’ bills. The stated aim of said measure: “to help dining establishments stay afloat” will indeed help restaurants’ bottom line, but ultimately it will hurt their workers by “discourag[ing] tipping” according to a report by Rachel Wharton in the New York Times “…as some customers will mistakenly assume that some of the money automatically goes to employees.” Again, these are employees that are already earning well below the minimum wage, who even pre-pandemic were already nearly twice as likely to live in poverty as non-tipped workers.
For most people employed in the service industry, broaching any of these topics—sub-minimum wage, lack of healthcare, lack of sick leave, lack of basic workplace protections—with one’s employers is a risky endeavor. If you don’t receive a “perhaps you’d be happier elsewhere” (and subsequently find your number of shifts cut or your schedule changed), you will invariably be proffered some slight variance of: “that’s the restaurant biz,” “it is what it is,” or “you’re being unrealistic.” But these tired old saws are used by those who benefit from the status quo to ease their conscience and excuse themselves from making any sort of sacrifice. It does not speak well of those who employ such logic—nor of those who accept it.
The service industry continues to fight for owners, not workers. Melissa Fleischut, the president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association recently said: “We should be doing all we can to ensure that lifelines exist for these small business owners”—again, just the owners, not their employees, at a time when the country’s moratorium on evictions is drawing to an end and CARE payments for the unemployed have expired with no real relief in sight. And in an open letter posted on their website this past September, the Louisiana chapter of the National Restaurant Association argues that restaurants and bars should be allowed to fully reopen immediately. Utilizing some very specious and Trumpian reasoning, the authors state that “there is no direct correlation between actual transmission taking place in [restaurants] versus other locations.”
But very little has been said about the people whom these “owners” employ, people who unlike customers have little choice regarding the assumed risk of returning, the people who back in March and April were turned out with no “lifelines” other than useless rent deferments, Kickstarter pages, and spectacular inaction by pandering, ineffectual politicians. Nothing has been said of the conditions which they expect us to thankfully return.
I mentioned earlier how I honestly thought that my boss’s ‘thank you for the house’ crack was meant as sincere. I still do. Because of course the self-interested and monied classes would think that thanking us with a handful of stale compliments and slice of shitty pizza is an adequate reward for our labors; of course they expect us to unquestioningly return to the same conditions that lead us here; of course they would casually dismiss any questioning of the status quo, any critique of their modes of operation because the most we can ever muster in response is a “that’s fucked up” muttered under our breath to a coworker. Individually we gripe, but collectively we cower or discuss it as if it’s a problem happening elsewhere.
The initial outpouring of inter-community help at the start of the pandemic was encouraging, but generally there is little solidarity in the service sector these days. Only 1.4 percent of service industry workers belong to unions such as SEIU and Unite Here! While there are groups such as One Fair Wage, the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United who actively advocate for changes in the workplace, the reasons that things have remained as they are for so long are, according to Sam Bloch in The Counter, “more cultural than … economic or legal.” As Bhaskar Sunkara explains in his book The Socialist Manifesto, “most people don’t have any reason to believe that politics can improve their lives. Collective action—either in the workplace or outside it—is often riskier than accepting the status quo.” The dilemma “is figuring out how to take anger at unjust outcomes … and turn it into a challenge to the system itself.”
This needs to change, and it is not beyond our abilities.
Forming a union is critical of course, but it may be difficult in a resistant or apathetic environment with an entrenched culture of hopelessness. One way to start building awareness and a sense of agency is by becoming better informed as to what our actual rights and protections are. The Economic Policy Institute is a good resource. There are even a surprising number of law firms willing to pass on often overlooked information regarding workers’ rights and even legal advice regarding how to file complaints. By simply being more informed on an individual level we can begin to chisel away at the small inequities of our workplaces that wind up encouraging the more blatant abuses, and maybe encourage our more apathetic colleagues to believe that better things are indeed possible.
If you are afraid of coming across as “hostile,” “toxic,” or “socialist” (all honorifics I myself have earned), you can try the carrot instead of the stick. Organizations like Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment are “committed to taking the “high road” to sustainability. [That] believe[s] in fair wages, better benefits, racial equity and gender equity in the restaurant industry…by raising standards everywhere.” You can nominate worthy businesses at their website.
We can all continue to write and call our government representatives to demand that any bar or restaurant receiving aid should be forced to institute a basic non-tipped wage, healthcare coverage, and paid sick time for all returning workers. Believe it or not, actual correspondence does attract attention. Besides, the USPS can use some extra business.
Patrons can help also: if you like to write online reviews, try focusing more on workers’ rights than menu items. I mentioned above that bar and restaurant owners, to the detriment of more personable traits, exude a certain type of narcissistic hepness. Reviews like “we rolled into such and such a place and it was great, but after talking with the owner and finding out they didn’t offer their servers breaks during their shifts (sad emoji) we will not be back” might help more than you know.
This prolonged, COVID-19 induced period of (relative) inactivity has allowed us time to realize that our long-accepted norms are nothing but corroded structures based on inequality and exploitation. Hannah Arendt once said that there are moments in time when “the decline of the old and the birth of the new, is not necessarily an affair of continuity…the chain may be broken and an ‘empty space’, a kind of no-man’s land, comes to the surface which can only be described in terms of a ‘no longer and not yet.’” We are now in such an “empty space.”
As much as service industry owners need bailouts, they need us to return to work even more. They need us to patronize their establishments. And for the most part, we are more than willing to return to work and looking forward to returning to our favorite eateries and pubs—but not to the old status quo.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven a challenge to governments worldwide, and liberal democracies in particular have struggled to both contain the virus and keep citizens informed of the dangers. Within this context, a particular brand of political rhetoric has emerged: President Trump has unfavorably compared the risks to car crashes, Boris Johnson has appealed to “British common sense,” and a former U.K. Supreme Court justice has stated that we are suffering from “collective hysteria.” If only we could go back to a time when reason prevailed, we would—these men suggest—see that our response to the pandemic has been far too extreme.
This blasé attitude has had disastrous consequences. Johnson came down with COVID-19 after continuing to meet members of the public and shaking hands with everyone, including sick hospital patients. He had to be hospitalized, and only recovered after receiving intensive care—at a time when ordinary citizens were being turned away from hospitals. Trump (and much of his entourage) became sick after holding numerous political rallies, but also recovered after treatment with a riskycorticosteroid and an experimental antibody unavailable to the general public.
But despite the high infection rate even among the most powerful people in the world, and 1.11 million deaths and counting worldwide, COVID skepticism is still a popular pastime. The most prolific of the COVID skeptics, and probably the best regarded, is Alex Berenson, formerly of the New York Times. Berenson started his career as a business journalist, most notably publishing a book which analyzed the trend towards corporate mismanagement that led to the Enron scandal. He later spent time in Iraq as a war correspondent, and after leaving journalism became an award-winning fiction author. In 2019, he gained widespread media coverage with Tell Your Children, an intensively researched nonfiction book which argues that marijuana is far more harmful than commonly understood.
Over the past year, Berenson has found new notoriety by arguing that COVID-19 is far less harmful than experts would have you believe, and that lockdowns are in fact the greater harm. He is prolific on social media, having gained 200,000 followers on Twitter, but is also taken seriously in much wider circles. In recent months, Berenson has given numerous interviews on Fox News, and authored several opinion pieces in the New York Post, each time arguing against lockdowns. He’s even gone so far as to publish his argument in a “book,” which is really more of a pamphlet: Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns: Part 1. (He has already released a part 2.) Rather than dismiss his arguments offhand, I think it’s important to examine the main claims Berenson makes in Part 1 of his book, and in doing so attempt to explain, in layman’s terms, what we know about the virus, how we know it, and why Berenson’s arguments are so misplaced and dangerous.
Berenson’s claims can be roughly divided into two categories; first, that the coronavirus is not as bad as people think, and second, that the measures recommended by experts do not work. In both cases, Berenson’s conclusion is clear: do not trust the experts. But let’s dive in.
A. “Coronavirus is not that bad”
The principal thesis of Unreported Truths is that we have vastly overestimated the dangers of the pandemic, and the measures that we have taken have caused great harm:
By mid-April, it was obvious to me that the coronavirus epidemic simply was not going to be anywhere near as bad as the early predictions, and that the lockdowns were an extreme overreaction.
So, yes, the coronavirus epidemic has largely ended as a medical crisis. But for now, the policies it has spawned remain educational, economic, and societal millstones.
The book aims to explain to the reader how Berenson came to this conclusion, with reference to scientific evidence:
I will provide links to the papers and data I reference so you can judge whether the sourcing backs my answers. I am committed to following the truth and offering the most honest answers, whatever they may be.
In these times of uncertainty and misinformation, Berenson’s aim appears laudable. We sorely lack charismatic communicators who understand the science and are able to keep the general public informed. So what does he have to say?
1. The virus only kills old people, thus it is not ‘really deadly’
Berenson starts his book with the observation that COVID-19 is far more likely to kill people over 80 than under 50. As a scientific claim, this is undisputed, and for the record I reproduce the table he cites below.
From this, Berenson concludes that the coronavirus cannot really be considered “deadly”:
I knew coronavirus was more dangerous to older people, of course—but I assumed young people would also face serious risks. After all, any really deadly virus could hardly spare the young or middle-aged.
Although technically based on scientific data, this is actually a moral argument: the virus only kills a certain segment of the population, so it’s not really a threat to the rest. The implication is that the life of this segment of the population has less value than that of other segments of the population. Indeed, Berenson makes this claim directly:
Who would disagree that the death of a 10-year-old is harder to accept than, say, an 88-year-old? The child is only beginning her life; the man has already had his.
It is for the reader to decide whether to accept this value claim or not, but I for one would be incredibly upset if one of the elder members of my family, who still have a decent life expectancy and a well-earned retirement to enjoy, were to suddenly die. I do not believe that I would stoically dismiss their passing by saying “Well! They were old.”
While we’re on the subject of moral values, an almost universal value is that preventable deaths are a very bad thing, precisely because they are preventable. I think that we can all agree to the principle that behaving in a way that puts others in danger is unacceptable, and that we have a moral obligation to help those in need—and we can therefore agree that it is morally appropriate to change our behavior to protect those vulnerable to COVID-19.
And the dangers posed by the coronavirus cannot simply be reduced to the number of deaths. A common symptom of COVID-19 is the appearance of ground glass opacities in chest X-rays, which indicate some sort of lesion. An autopsy carried out in Japan suggests that these opacities are damage to the alveoli, the pockets in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide enter and leave the bloodstream. A study in China followed 90 COVID-19 patients (average age 45), who developed these lesions. Each individual was given several CT scans over a period of a month to track the progress of the lesions. While the extreme cases showed substantial recovery, the average degree of lung damage did not change significantly by the time the study ended. Moreover, of the 70 who were discharged, 94 percent still had lung abnormalities. 
A separate study of 58 asymptomatic individuals (average age 42) found that all had lesions in their lungs, despite the fact that only 16 went on to become outwardly sick. Of the 42 who did not go on to become clinically unwell, the lesions cleared up completely in half of them, while the rest showed some improvement.
For patients who do get better, recovery is seldom complete. In a study in Italy on patients who had been discharged from hospital, only 13 percent were free of all symptoms 60 days after they became unwell, and 44 percent reported a reduced quality of life. The main symptoms were fatigue, shortness of breath, joint pain, and chest pain. And we do not know how long the virus can remain in the body after recovery. Several individuals have recovered, and after multiple negative test results, suffered a relapse while still in quarantine and tested positive again. So the virus may remain for an indeterminate length of time, waiting to cause an opportunistic infection.
It is important to note that the virus does not just affect the lungs. Experiments on cell cultures have shown that the virus enters the cell via a membrane protein called ACE2, which can be found in the heart, intestine, kidney, and blood vessels as well as the lungs. And there is direct evidence that the coronavirus affects these organs; the Japanese autopsy showed blood clots in the kidney, which is a known cause of organ failure, as well as hemorrhages in the stomach and small intestine. And between 7 percent and 28 percent of hospitalized patients suffer an acute cardiac injury, while a third suffer from blood clots in the arteries or veins. If these clots block a vessel supplying the brain or lungs, it can result in serious complications or even death.
It’s well known that in acute cases, neurological side effects are caused by a so-called cytokine storm, where the body releases inflammatory agents in an uncontrolled manner in response to the infection. However, there are increasing reports of long COVID, which is not severe enough for hospitalization, but causes debilitating symptoms for weeks or months. The direct cause is unknown, as there is little evidence that the virus infects the nervous system, but it is now clear that neurological damage can occur even without a severe respiratory infection.
Neurological COVID-19 has not received enough attention, as hospitals are understandably occupied with the most acute cases. But a study of 43 patients in the United Kingdom shows how serious it can be. Many patients over 50 experienced strokes, caused by blood clots in a vessel supplying the brain. This age group was also susceptible to delirium and psychosis, although seven out of ten did recover. A small group of younger patients were hard to categorize, but symptoms included increased pressure in the skull, widespread microhemorrhaging, and a secondary bacterial infection in the brain.
The most prevalent condition, affecting all ages, was measurable damage to the nervous system, presumably caused by an autoimmune response. Of the 43 patients, 12 had inflammations of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). For the most part, this was damage to the protective covering surrounding nerve fibers, which could be seen as lesions or microhemorrhages using magnetic resonance imaging. These patients suffered from general weakness, fatigue and confusion, and had difficulty balancing. Seven patients had Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune condition where peripheral nerves lose their protective coating, which is diagnosed by measuring electrical activity in the muscles. The result is loss of sensation in the limbs and general weakness, which can progress to near paralysis. There is no known cure, and one in five people with Guillain-Barré syndrome are left with long-term problems.
It’s important to bear in mind that the above is a case study, so while it gives an indication of the most severe neurological symptoms, it does not represent the prevalence of such symptoms in the population as a whole. However, we can get some idea of the population statistics from TriNetX, who has been curating a database of 40,500 COVID-19 patients from around the world. Crucially, the database covers both inpatients (26 percent) and outpatients (74 percent), and has an even balance of individuals under and over 50.
Overall, 23 percent of the patients had neurological symptoms. Up to 2.7 percent had measurable neurological damage (stroke, movement disorders, peripheral nervous system damage, and nerve root disorders). The data confirm our general understanding of COVID-19: most people are not severely ill, but there’s a small chance of developing long-term effects including a debilitating neurological disorder. To put things in perspective, if everyone in the United States got COVID-19, we would expect up to 9 million individuals with such a disorder. The risk to theindividual may be small, but at a population level, mass infection would be a public health catastrophe.
COVID-19 has been around for less than a year, so we don’t know how long its side effects will last. The 2002 SARS outbreak may give some indication of the prognosis for those requiring hospitalization, as it was caused by a similar (but more deadly) coronavirus. In 2017, survivors (average age 47) who had been hospitalized were far more likely to have developed chronic conditions than the population at large. Over half had metabolic disorders such as diabetes, 60 percent had developed osteonecrosis—a degenerative bone condition—and 44 percent had cardiovascular issues. Some of these conditions may have been caused by the corticosteroids used to treat patients, which are also being given to COVID-19 patients (including Donald Trump).
In a separate study on the long-term psychiatric effects of hospitalization, a quarter of SARS survivors were suffering from PTSD from their time in intensive care, while 16 percent were clinically depressed.
2. Those with the disease would have ‘died anyway’
Berenson cites Neil Ferguson—who originally trained as a theoretical physicist, but is now a professor of epidemiology at Imperial College, London—to claim that those who died were already on the brink of death:
More than half would likely have died within weeks or months in any case, as Neil Ferguson said in his British testimony. From any practical point of view, those deaths are unpreventable. Their timing is a function of the coronavirus, but their cause is underlying conditions such as cancer or heart disease or dementia.
Furthermore, Berenson cites a study that concluded that those admitted to care homes have very little time left to live:
A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that half of all people admitted to nursing homes died within five months of admission (though the average length of stay was longer, because a fraction of residents lived several years after admission).
He also reports that a CBC investigation found that it is incredibly difficult to decide whether death is caused by an underlying condition or a more recent development:
Death can be complicated. If someone already extremely fragile with heart or lung disease is tipped over the edge with a flu infection, is that a flu death, or a heart death or a lung death? Which database gets to claim it?
Furthermore, Berenson cites a public health official as saying that anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus and subsequently dies, no matter the cause, will be counted as a COVID death:
If you were in hospice and had already been given a few weeks to live, and then you were also found to have COVID, that would be counted as a COVID death. It means technically even if you died of a clear alternate cause, but you had COVID at the same time, it’s still listed as a COVID death.
The implication is clear: so many of the fatalities were already terminally ill, and the criteria for assigning a COVID death are so lax, that the official COVID death figures are meaningless. Or in Berenson’s own words:
…the vast majority of people who die after becoming infected with coronavirus are old and unwell. In these cases, the distinction between dying WITH coronavirus as opposed to FROM coronavirus can be nearly impossible to make.
It sounds convincing, but does it hold up to closer inspection? While it is true that the combination of factors he gives could result in a distorted death count, he has not demonstrated that the death count has been distorted in this way. Berenson merely emphasizes the necessity of examining the evidence closely, giving this piece of advice gleaned from his years of investigative reporting: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
So what do his sources actually say? The CBC report states that official mortality statistics for influenza are a gross underestimate, because autopsies are rarely performed. This also applies to suspected COVID-19 deaths, perhaps even more so because of the risk of infection to the doctors performing the autopsy. And what about Neil Ferguson, Berenson’s authority on this topic? What did he actually say in his statement to the British Parliament?
We don’t know what the level of excess deaths will be in the epidemic, in that, by the end of the year what proportion of people who died from Covid would have died [anyway]? It might be as much as half or two thirds of the deaths we see.
Even if we take Ferguson as a reliable source, all he is saying is that between zero and two thirds of the casualties maybe had less than a year to live, which is not a particularly strong claim. Yet we have actual data that shows that at this point in time, there have already been 275,000 more deaths in 2020 the United States compared to the baseline average from previous years, and this number is continually rising. Similar data for 23 European countries show 200,000 excess deaths, mainly individuals aged 45 and upwards.
And when it comes to the life expectancy of COVID fatalities, there has been an actual study: a team of researchers in Scotland has estimated that for coronavirus deaths in Italy, the average number of years of life lost is 13 for men and 11 for women. The researchers based this conclusion on the actuarial life expectancy of each individual, taking into account their age, gender, and the presence of long-term medical conditions.
Berenson is therefore making the claim that just by chance, several hundred thousand extra Europeans and Americans were about to die in April and March of this year, even if there had not been a pandemic.
While these facts do much to discredit Berenson’s argument that the coronavirus is not that bad, let’s look at his other major claim: that the experts have failed to manage the situation.
B. “The experts are incompetent: they cannot predict or solve the crisis”
1. “The models were wrong”
One of Berenson’s arguments centers on the Imperial College paper co-authored by Neil Ferguson, which we briefly mentioned earlier. Berenson summarizes the paper as follows:
…the report forecast 1.1 million Americans and 250,000 people in the United Kingdom could die even with months of efforts to reduce the damage. Only long-term “suppression” of society—possibly until a vaccine was invented—could lower those figures meaningfully, the researchers wrote.
This is a very fair summary of the paper. But Berenson then cites a report from The Daily Telegraph to claim that Ferguson subsequently changed his forecast to a much lower number:
British newspapers reported that Ferguson had dramatically changed his predictions. He now said his new best estimate was 20,000 Britons would die from the virus even with just weeks of quarantines.
Berenson clearly puts great stock in the new number:
For the second time in just over a week, I found myself stunned. Instead of 500,000 British deaths, 20,000? Without months or years of lockdowns? In the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment? … And, again, why hadn’t the New York Times and other American media outlets—after giving the earlier estimate so much attention—given equal prominence to the new number?”
Even if we take the claim that Ferguson changed his numbers at face value, what are we to conclude? If a forecaster changes a prediction by an order of magnitude, even though nothing material has changed, is it sensible to continue taking this person as an authority?
In the paper, Ferguson considers three situations in the United Kingdom:
Up to 550,000 deaths in the unlikely event that the government takes no measures and individuals do not change their behavior.
On the order of 250,000 deaths with a mitigation strategy of case isolation, household quarantine, and social distancing of the elderly.
Between 5,600 and 120,000 with a suppression strategy using a combination of case isolation, home quarantine, social distancing, and school closure.
It is clear that Ferguson’s 550,000 figure was really just a baseline for a particular strategy, not a definitive prediction. As Ferguson said back on March 25:
“Fatalities are probably unlikely to exceed 20,000 with social distancing strategies but it could be substantially lower than that and that’s where real time analysis will be needed.”
The Daily Telegraph further clarified that:
Prof Ferguson said that the new social distancing measures announced by Boris Johnson earlier in the week meant the NHS would now be able to handle the incoming cases of coronavirus.
All non-essential services (gyms, churches, libraries…) to be closed.
As we can see, far from changing his prediction, Ferguson’s number of 20,000 deaths was in line with his forecast for a suppression strategy.
But that does not mean it was a good model in the first place. And this ties in with one of the critical questions that Berenson aims to answer in his book, namely:
“Why did the key predictive models that policymakers used when they agreed to lockdowns prove so inaccurate?”
Berenson is correct that the models were inaccurate—as of the time of this writing there have been more than 40,000 confirmed deaths in the United Kingdom, double Ferguson’s actual prediction—so I will endeavour to answer the question for him.
Modeling is common in science, but what is its aim? Usually, a model is a simplified representation of a physical system used to understand its fundamental properties. As long as the base assumptions are accurate, a model can give an indication of the qualitative properties of a pandemic, but it cannot accurately predict the number of cases or deaths. Every model has a number of tuneable parameters—such as the infection rate and the mortality rate—which are not known with great certainty. And this uncertainty can propagate and compound, rendering “prediction” very difficult with any accuracy.
To illustrate this point, the chart above shows the daily death rate in the United States, together with model predictions at the start of the pandemic and for the future. Despite an attempt to quantify uncertainty, one model underpredicted deaths in May by an order of magnitude. And future predictions differ so wildly that we could choose one to justify any policy we like.
Ferguson’s model was particularly poor in that it was too complicated to give any insight on the driving factors behind the pandemic. Rather than trying to build a simplified but informative description of reality, Ferguson had attempted to model every single individual, church, school, and office in the United Kingdom! Worse, the model had never been peer-reviewed beyond the vague description in the paper, and the program’s code was not available to the public. When the code was finally released in May, it took a team of professional software engineers several weeks to refactor it into a useable form.
So the real question is why was Ferguson, who has no formal training in public health, advising the British government?  And is Berenson simply focusing on Ferguson to undermine trust in public health officials?
COVID-19 is hardly the first pandemic in history, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States have been studying pandemics for years. In fact, it’s literally their job! In 2007, they published a comprehensive plan for dealing with a future influenza pandemic. The report considered a novel respiratory infection with both asymptomatic transmission and a large number of asymptomatic cases. The plan had three major goals (with an overall aim of reducing the spread as much as possible while a vaccine was developed):
Delay the exponential growth in the number of cases.
Decrease the epidemic peak.
Reduce the total number of cases.
The CDC knew very well that there would be a dearth of reliable information at the start of a pandemic, and that under such uncertainty the only course of action was to plan for the worst case scenario. For this reason, they developed a heuristic based on the case fatality ratio, which is the proportion of deaths among the already clinically unwell.
In January, the World Health Organization reported a case fatality ratio of 4 percent for COVID-19. By this metric, the United States should have started planning for a Category 5 pandemic immediately.
At that point in time, almost nothing was known about the virus. It could have been relatively minor, like the 2009 swine flu pandemic, or it could have killed a large portion of the world’s population, like the bubonic plague. This is not mere speculation—there is a branch of statistics called extreme value theory, which seeks to quantify the probability of extreme events. An analysis of historical pandemics shows that the only upper bound on the number of deaths is the humanpopulation of the earth. In the absence of good data, this is the worst case scenario.
The CDC’s recommendations are clear: action should have been taken as soon as community transmission had occurred on U.S. soil or in a city with strong transport links to the United States. The CDC recommended the following measures, with a planned duration of 12 weeks:
Isolation of cases at home
Quarantine of household members
Closure of schools
Cancellation of large public gatherings
The CDC knew from the 1918 pandemic that early adoption could drastically reduce the total number of deaths. But they also foresaw the present debacle:
The potential exists for such interventions to be implemented in an uncoordinated, untimely, and inconsistent manner that would impose economic and social costs similar to those imposed by strategically implemented interventions but with dramatically reduced effectiveness.
We can now return to Berenson’s argument. He may be mistaken on the science, and have little understanding of how to evaluate models and which models are worth evaluating in the first place, but we should give credit where credit is due if his practical suggestions are sound. What does he advocate that we actually do about the pandemic?
2. “Lockdowns do not work”
The term ‘lockdown’ refers to a government order to stay at home, combined with closure of transport and businesses. Berenson has stated severaltimes that lockdowns do not work, and in his book he supports this claim by referring to an unnamed German research institute:
Still, real information continued to drip out—often tucked away in scientific papers that went unnoticed, such as when a German research institute reported in mid-April that lockdowns had been broadly useless.
I can find no such report, but I assume that he is referring to a comment made to the press by German virologist Hendrik Streeck:
I agreed with the initial restrictions and the ban on major events. After they were imposed, the infection process already started to decrease. I would have made further measures, such as contact restrictions, dependent on the actual course of the outbreak.
It’s not clear what Streeck meant by ‘initial restrictions.’ On March 13, all German states decided to close schools. Three days later, all states agreed on social contact restrictions—bars and clubs were closed, and shops had to restrict entry to prevent crowding. Germany’s death rate did not peak until mid-April.
Berenson also takes inspiration from China’s response to the coronavirus. He seems to think that China recovered from the pandemic largely without the help of lockdowns, and implies that we should use the same measures:
I found myself thinking of China. Not about what had happened in Wuhan, but about what hadn’t happened everywhere else. Shanghai and Beijing and other huge cities had avoided catastrophe. In early February, epidemiologists warned the Chinese lockdowns had come too late to matter. Instead, China was already tentatively reopening, restarting factories and dropping quarantines.
While Berenson is correct that China has fared better than the United States, this is because China was in fact quick to impose an incredibly strict lockdown. In early January, authorities in Wuhan reported an outbreak of an unknown type of pneumonia, and put all known close contacts under medical observation. Case numbers increased rapidly, and on January 23, the entire city was quarantined. Masks were made compulsory, large gatherings were cancelled, public transport was shut down, and all major routes in and out of the city were closed. Other cities in Hubei province passed the same measures in the following days. At this point in time, there had been only 650 confirmed cases in China. As the number continued to rise in February, the province began preventing residents from leaving their homes without permission, enforced by a team of 300,000 local officials.
In comparison, the United States was slow to impose anything resembling the Chinese lockdown. In early March, citizens continued to enter the country from afflicted areas without being screened or quarantined. On March 12, when the United States had 1000 confirmed cases, President Trump banned entry for non-citizens arriving from Europe and China, but the measures taken internally were weak. In New York City—the worst-hit area—the subway remained open, and many left the city. Only five states (Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, Rhode Island and Texas) quarantined travellers from New York in late March, by which time New York State alone had over 7,000 confirmed cases. Checkpoints were only set up in August, and the city’s contact tracing program remained ineffectual.
In Europe and North America, lockdowns came too late to prevent widespread infection, but were they still a sound policy? This is a hard question to answer with complete certainty, as the infection rate and death rate took several weeks to stabilize in countries that imposed lockdowns. The best comparison we have is the difference in mortality between Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, which are broadly comparable in terms of demographics, health services, and climate. The major difference is that Norway and Denmark imposed strict lockdowns, while Sweden used much weaker voluntary measures.
The numbers are stark: Sweden has suffered more than four times the number of COVID-19 deaths per million than Norway or Denmark.
Another favorite argument of Berenson’s against lockdowns is that the sunbelt states fared better than New York. In a Twitter post on July 31, he said the following:
AZ/FL/TX: 60 million people, no lockdowns (now), 23,000 peak hospitalizations, 500ish (hopefully) peak daily deaths.
New York: 20 million people, hard lockdown, 18,000 peak hospitalizations, 1000 peak daily deaths.
Let’s lockdown forever!
But this comparison is unfair. A statistical analysis of 50 cities worldwide suggests that climate plays a huge role in the spread of the coronavirus. Notably, areas with substantial transmission are located in the band of latitude 30° N to 50° N, with temperatures of 41° to 52° F (5° to 11° C). This almost exactly describes New York City in March.
In comparison, the three sunbelt states started closing bars and restaurants well before the number of cases exploded, and when they did reluctantly lock down completely, their new case rate was far lower than New York’s when it imposed similar measures.
While the sunbelt lockdowns lasted, the number of deaths increased linearly, which indicates that the measures were working—if they hadn’t been working, the growth would have been exponential instead. However, all three states ended lockdown prematurely, and deaths started rising rapidly after a lag of approximately one month.
In the chart, the death rate does appear to be tapering off as of late September. The reason is not yet clear, but it could be due to the widespread adoption of masks.
Florida in particular has taken a high risk strategy. It has no statewide mask order, and its schools were recently forced to restart in-person teaching under threat of drastic budget cuts. The effect on the caseload remains to be seen.
3. “Lockdowns do more harm than good”
Berenson has started distancing himself from the claim that lockdowns don’t work at all, and has pivoted to saying that they do more harm than good. This is one of the main arguments in his book:
In less than three months, lockdowns have done incalculable damage. They need to be lifted as soon as possible. More importantly, we must agree that we will not restore them even if coronavirus deaths rise again in the fall and winter—unless hospitals face the real risk of collapse. The changes we have already made to protect the most vulnerable, as well as individual efforts at social distancing make a large wave of deaths less likely.
He does not provide evidence for this claim in his book—it entirely depends on whether you agree that we should just accept the deaths of the old and frail. However, he does elaborate on what he means by “incalculable damage” on his Twitter feed, where he claims that deaths caused by lockdown dwarf those caused by COVID-19:
The costs of lockdowns have been far higher than even the worst estimates (including their health costs; if #COVID deaths are overstated, lockdown deaths must be understates [sic]). Meanwhile their effectiveness appears to be near zero.
Again, to see the actual effect of lockdowns, we can return to Scandinavia, and this time compare excess deaths.
Sweden, without a strict lockdown, had far more excess deaths than either Norway or Denmark, which suggests that the number of lives saved by lockdown outstrips by far the number of lockdown-related deaths. And in terms of economic harm, Sweden fared littledifferentlythan its neighbors. In this light it’s misleading to consider lockdowns as the cause of economic harm—the pandemic causes enough economic damage by itself.
In another Twitter thread from mid-August, Berenson made perhaps his most dishonest use of statistics. He shared a chart from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which compares weekly death counts from all causes based on age group.
Berenson said the following about this chart:
This age-stratified death data from @cdcgov is simple and compelling evidence about how much damage the lockdowns may have caused versus #Covid. Okay, first look at 85+ deaths.
Then deaths come almost back to normal (not quite, we know #Covid does cause excess deaths in the very elderly). By June they’re maybe 10-12% above normal. The Sunbelt spike brings them up to 20% above normal, 3,000 deaths a week or so, but still far below the April bump…
Okay, now look at deaths in the 25-44 range. They start to rise at the same time and rise almost as much. BUT THEY NEVER COME DOWN. They remain at 25-35% above normal every single week. We know these people are at exceptionally low risk from #Covid. THESE ARE LOCKDOWN DEATHS.
In short, he is arguing that lockdown causes 25-35 percent excess mortality in 25-44 year olds, while COVID-19 causes only 20 percent excess mortality in the very elderly. Therefore, he implies, lockdowns do more harm than good. This is misleading because the baseline number of deaths is, of course, much lower in 25-44 year olds. In terms of absolute numbers, the excess mortality for the younger group is about 1,200 in recent weeks, and 3,000 for the older group. But even if you accept the premises, the conclusion only follows if you assume a priori that lockdowns do not work. The only thing Berenson has shown is that there may be some lockdown-related deaths.
This is an important point. We should absolutely be concerned about the mental and physical effects of lockdown. Governments around the world have made a conscious choice on whether or not to support their citizens through the crisis. The U.S. government has been very willing to provide corporate bailouts, but has been much more reluctant to provide aid to individual citizens, or even cover the cost of medical treatment. With these priorities, suffering is inevitable.
4. “Masks do not work”
There is a possibility that the pandemic could be brought under control by widespread mask usage, even without lockdowns. There have been no good clinical trials on the effectiveness of masks, and it is unlikely that such a trial will ever take place—it would be unethical to require a cohort of doctors to forgo masks for the sake of the control group, and thereby risk both their own health and that of their patients. Such a trial was in fact attempted in China, but 37 percent of the doctors in the control group defied the study’s protocol and wore masks.
However, there is still good evidence that masks offer protection against viral transmission. In an Australian study, researchers had patients with clinically-confirmed influenza cough into a sample plate, with and without a mask. The samples were then analyzed for influenza RNA using the reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, which is a technique for replicating any viral RNA found in the sample until its concentration is above the detection limit. Influenza virus was detected in all of the plates from the control with no masks, but was not detected in the plates where patients had worn surgical masks or N95 masks. These findings are likely to apply to COVID-19 as well, as it has a comparable size (60-140 nm) to the influenza virus (80-120 nm). A similar study on a seasonal coronavirus came to the same conclusions.
Studies on the protective quality of masks for the wearer are more difficult, but have been carried out on mask-wearing mannequins set up to simulate human breathing. In one such study, the mannequin was sprayed with ultrafine salt particles (smaller than 200 nanometers) to mimic a virus. Under steady spraying, the surgical mask prevented 45 percent of the particles from entering the mannequin’s mouth. With explosive spraying 30 cm from the mannequin (to simulate coughs and sneezes), between 100 percent and 30 percent of the particles were blocked, depending on whether the mask was fully sealed or not. When the distance was increased to 60 cm, between 100 percent and 80 percent of the particles were blocked. This suggests that masks are highly effective at preventing transient transmission events, but are far less effective if spending extended periods of time in the presence of a sick individual. So if combined with social distancing, masks could largely prevent the spread of COVID-19.
However, we must examine the worst-case scenario, in which there are insufficient supplies of surgical and N95 masks, and the general public must make their own. A recent review of the literature suggests that homemade masks have an efficiency of zero to 50 percent at preventing outward viral spreading, while the inward protection efficiency is 20 percent to 80 percent. Taken together, these figures suggest that universal mask wearing could reduce the transmission rate by 20 percent if the homemade masks are all of poor quality, or by 90 percent if all the masks are high quality.
Given that Berenson is against lockdowns, are masks his solution to the pandemic? He says very little about masks in his book, but he shares his thoughts in a comment on Twitter, in response to the Surgeon General begging Fox News viewers to wear masks:
No, we’re going to take away your freedoms with mandatory isolation and quarantine orders and contact tracing; insisting you wear a mask is just a test of your willingness to accept pseudoscience and an effort to panic you.
And he explicitly says that masks are useless in a tweet on September 17:
Here’s the California report about the Spanish Flu I mentioned on @IngrahamAngle. Masks: useless in 1919, useless in 2020.
He includes a screen capture of a 1919 report from the California State Board of Health entitled The Wearing of Gauze Masks, with the following highlighted:
…the very complete records at the disposal of the California State Board of Health indicate conclusively that the compulsory wearing of masks does not affect the progress of the epidemic…
The evidence, the article explains, is that cities without compulsory masks fared the same or better than cities that made masks compulsory. However, the article specifies that the problem was the manner in which masks were used, not masks per se:
“…the masks were worn carefully under circumstances of least necessity, as upon the public streets and in the open air. They were just as conscientiously laid aside in private offices, and among gatherings of friends, the very places where the chances of contact with an early case of influenza and where the conditions for the transfer of droplet infection were the most favorable.”
It is also worth noting that the masks were made of gauze, which does not have a tight weave. We know the exact quality of 1918 gauze from a contemporary paper on surgical masks:
The gauze of which the masks were made varied in quality, some being as fine as twenty-eight strands to the warp and twenty-four to the woof per inch.
So the best gauze had only 52 threads per inch, while we know now that effective masks have at least 300 threads per inch.
5. “Herd immunity is the way to go”
So what is Berenson actually advocating? As we have seen, his book is more of a takedown than position paper, but in a New York Postarticle entitled “We could ‘beat’ COVID-19 before a vaccine is ready,” he comes close to endorsing the unproven strategy of herd immunity:
A growing number of scientists believe the threshold for herd immunity may be much lower. Some predict it might be 40 percent. Others say it could be as low as 20 percent—meaning that the epidemic will burn out after only 1 in 5 people is infected with and recovers from the virus.
If we can actually reach herd immunity after 40 percent or less of the population is infected, far fewer people will die than the early forecasts, even without lockdowns.
Herd immunity is a terrible idea for several reasons. Aside from the obvious public health disaster with mass fatalities, there is currently no proof that herd immunity is achievable. While there is encouraging evidence that the immune system produces antibodies and T cells in response to the coronavirus, we simply do not know how much protection these confer, or whether they will protect against all future strains. In the case of seasonal coronaviruses (which cause the common cold), it’s common for an individual to be infected twice by the same virus within a 12 month window. And there have been numerousreports of individuals getting COVID-19 twice, sometimes with increased severity.
Furthermore, a conscious strategy of trying to infect as many people as possible makes a second wave far more likely. A second wave can refer to two scenarios:
Increase in infections and severity due to seasonal changes.
A virus mutating into a more deadly strain.
The second possibility is particularly alarming. By advocating for herd immunity, Berenson is effectively advocating for a population scale virus incubator. The more people have the virus, the more likely it is to mutate into something much, much worse.
Post Mortem of a Berenson Argument
Berenson’s great flaw is over-optimism. His arguments always seem to hinge on the best-case scenario being true, yet he never convincingly demonstrates this to be the case. The most egregious example is when he simply assumes that the number of asymptomatic cases are equivalent to the hidden part of an iceberg, without quoting a single study:
For now, the crucial point is this: randomized antibody tests from all over the world have repeatedly shown many more people have been infected with coronavirus than is revealed by tests for active infection. Many people who are infected with SARS-COV-2 don’t even know it. So the hidden part of the iceberg is huge.
In the absence of a readily available test, we simply do not know the asymptomatic proportion. As of the time of this writing, the CDC gives a best estimate of 40 percent, with a lower bound of 10 percent and an upper bound of 70 percent. So Berenson might be right, but is it worth the risk? Who will take responsibility if we play Russian roulette with people’s lives and lose?
At times, Berenson borders on the conspiratorial; at others, he appears naïve. His astonishment that the media are “painting as bleak a picture of the coronavirus as possible” comes off as disingenuous, especially given that he originally made a name for himself by painting as bleak a picture as possible of marijuana. He portrays himself as a lone hero who dares to speak a truth that is being suppressed, but he rarely commits to a definite course of action, leaving himself room to deny what any reader would take as his obvious implications. His rhetorical technique is to signal his own credibility by listing errors (both real and imagined) made by journalists and scientists, but he provides little evidence to back up his claim that COVID-19 has largely ended as a medical crisis. His most cogent argument—that the current pandemic is not serious because the majority of deaths are among the elderly—is a question of morality, not science, and is repulsive to anyone who views the elderly as equal human beings. His claim that most case fatalities had only weeks or months to live is false.
It’s entirely possible that Berenson is sincere in his search for the truth about COVID-19, but his refusal to question his own premises will no doubt keep it far out of his reach.
 Two of the patients died after the first scan, 17 remained in hospital, and one was transferred to a different hospital.
 It’s beyond the scope of this article to answer the question of why Ferguson was appointed, but it’s illustrative that the British government has deemed it necessary to shut down its public health agency in the middle of the pandemic and to replace it with a new body run by a minor aristocrat with no relevant qualifications.
Jennifer Handsel is a data scientist based in the United Kingdom.
Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Obama administration official, is the most cited legal scholar in the country. He is known chiefly for co-creating the concept of “libertarian paternalism,” the idea that while members of the public should formally have freedom of choice, benevolent technocrats should psychologically manipulate them into making the “correct” choices. Sunstein also has a tendency to make arguments of the “I am a liberal, but we should listen to the right and side with conservatives on X” type.
There have been persuasive and devastating critiques of Sunstein’s work, pointing out that his mixture of free markets and light nudges by the nanny state is incapable of solving crises requiring major action by a powerful central government (e.g. climate change). Obviously, it is an indictment of legal academia that Sunstein is its most-cited scholar, but his work is also deeply insidious, especially insofar as it presents conservative positions as mere “rationality” and the acceptance of conservative talking points as “fair-mindedness.”
Sunstein’s latest column in Bloomberg is a particularly extreme example of this practice. He calls it a “primer for conservatives,” saying that because a “well-functioning democracy requires two parties” he will answer the question “what ideas and approaches should [Republicans] champion?” He suggests that Republicans “might want to go back to basics” and that “one of the most clarifying accounts of the conservative tradition” comes from Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction. Hirschman proposed that conservative rhetoric against social reform often boils down to three arguments: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. “Perversity” means the social reform will produce the opposite of its intended consequences, “futility” means it will have no effect, and “jeopardy” means it will jeopardize something good we have already achieved. Sunstein gives an example:
Suppose that in an effort to help the working poor, you increase the federal minimum wage to $15 (as Biden is promising to do). The objection is that by doing that, you’ll actually hurt the working poor—because employers won’t be able to hire as many people, meaning that a lot of working people will find themselves priced out of a job. The claim that a policy has perverse effects does not question the goals of the reformers. It merely doubts their means. It suggests that reformers are clueless. They don’t see that things bite back—and that many public-spirited changes to the status quo end up biting the most vulnerable members of society.
Sunstein gives other examples: new environmental and occupational safety regulations may end up having a “crushing impact on small business” and “hurting a lot of people.” Or the Green New Deal may not achieve much because the United States is responsible for only a fraction of the world’s emissions. Sunstein says that when conservatives make these “standard” objections, progressives “badly need to give a fair hearing” to them and “will have to concede a point or two, or even more” or “decide that their original proposal was wrong in some important respect.” Then they can fix their proposals by “going in a different direction.” For example, “some people think that if you want to help the working poor, a large increase in the Earned-Income Tax Credit is better than a large increase in the minimum wage.” Ultimately, he says, conservatives “will be entitled to start a lot of conversations.”
Sunstein is right that Albert Hirschman’s Rhetoric of Reaction is an extremely useful guide to understanding conservative arguments. In fact, it’s a must-read book on the intellectual history of the right wing. But the thesis of the book is exactly the opposite of Sunstein’s. What Hirschman actually shows is that conservative arguments are always the same, regardless of the issue or the facts, and that “the perversity, futility, and jeopardy arguments, have been leveled unfailingly, if in multiple variants, at three major ‘revolutionary,’ ‘progressive,’ or ‘reform’ moves of the last two hundred years.” Therefore, while these arguments may occasionally have some degree of fairness, they are almost always suspect. Hirschman goes back through hundreds of years of social reform and shows that conservatives spew the same bullshit talking points no matter what the issue is. They always say that it will “hurt the very people it is trying to help,” that it will do nothing, or that it will destroy civilization. Always. They said it about abolishing slavery. They said it about ending Jim Crow. They said it about universal suffrage. Here, for instance, is an 1840s reactionary talking about the perils that will come of giving ordinary people a vote:
The word freedom sounds rich and beautiful, but no one should talk about it who has not seen and experienced slavery under the loud-mouthed masses, called the “people,” seen it with his own eyes, and endured civil unrest . . . I know too much history to expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will mean the end of history.
Hirschman’s conclusions are devastating for the conservative intellectual movement. He says that “advocates of reactionary causes are caught by compelling reflexes and lumber predictably through set motions and maneuvers,” and that when you understand that they are just repeating the same points over and over without any regard for whether they are correct, using “simplistic, peremptory, and intransigent rhetoric,” “some ‘deep thinkers’ who had invariably presented their ideas as original and brilliant insights are made to look rather less impressive, and sometimes even comical.” Sunstein points out that Hirschman did not say conservative arguments are always wrong, a caveat that Sunstein uses to conclude that The Rhetoric of Reaction encourages us to give conservatives a fair hearing. But Hirschman was extremely clear: the fact that a broken clock is right twice a day, and sometimes social reforms don’t accomplish their intended goals or have negative unanticipated consequences, does not mean conservatives are arguing in good faith:
I have said so here and there already, but it bears repeating quite bluntly and generally: there certainly have existed situations where well-intentioned “purposive social action” has had perverse effects, others where it has been essentially futile, and still others where it has jeopardized the benefits due to some preceding advance. My point is that, much of the time, the arguments I have identified and reviewed are intellectually suspect on several counts. A general suspicion of overuse of the arguments is aroused by the demonstration that they are invoked time and again almost routinely to cover a wide variety of real situations. The suspicion is heightened when it can be shown, as I have attempted to do in the preceding pages, that the arguments have considerable intrinsic appeal because they hitch onto powerful myths (Hubris-Nemesis, Divine Providence, Oedipus) and influential interpretive formulas (ceci tuera cela, zero-sum) or because they cast a flattering light on their authors and provide a boost for their egos. In view of these extraneous attractions, it becomes likely that the standard reactionary theses will often be embraced regardless of their fit.
Hirschman was, as Sunstein notes, a fair-minded person, and he also believed there were progressive arguments that were intellectually suspect (such as believing that change is automatically progress because we’re on the “right side of history”). His point, though, was that conservatives are generally bullshitters, by which I mean that they conform with Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit as a statement whose truth or falsity the speaker doesn’t care about. Conservatives are going to say that raising the minimum wage kills jobs regardless of what the studies say. They’re going to say the Green New Deal will destroy jobs before they even hear the evidence of whether that’s the case. They’re going to say opening the borders would cause catastrophe before ever investigating the question of whether that would actually happen.
We can see this, actually, in Sunstein’s own example of the arguments progressives need to “give a fair hearing” to. He cites a $15 minimum wage, and says that “the objection” is that this will hurt the poor. Indeed, that is the objection, and it was always going to be the objection, because as Hirschman points out, conservatives always say a reform is going to hurt the poor. The question is: in this situation, is it actually true? Well, as MarketWatch notes, the $15 minimum wage was predicted to hurt New York City, but it didn’t. The Economic Policy Institute says raising the minimum wage nationwide to $15 would lift the wages of 33 million workers. There are studies suggesting that there is a trade-off involved: that while many people would be lifted out of poverty some others would lose their jobs. But the question of what the minimum wage does, and whether it accomplishes our desired social goals efficiently, is an empirical one. Sunstein notes that “some people” think the Earned Income Tax Credit is a better way to help people than increasing the minimum wage. Indeed, some do, and some others say the Earned Income Tax Credit is highly overpraised by technocrats who fetishize tax credits. Progressives do not, as Sunstein continually argues, need to prepare themselves to concede points and change their policies unless their policies are proven to be wrong and bad.
The problem with Sunstein’s approach is that it totally ignores the core insight of The Rhetoric of Reaction, which is that conservative “perversity, futility, jeopardy” rhetoric should not be assumed to be well-founded. It is, instead, ideological. That does not mean it is done in “bad faith,” i.e. that conservatives do not mean what they say. They might be perfectly sincere, but their sincerity comes from their ideology rather than reality. This means that a conservative’s fear of the consequences of mass immigration are not based on an actual dispassionate investigation of immigration, but on the prejudice and fear (of change and difference and the other and the unclean masses) that is at the core of conservative thinking.
This is also why Sunstein’s idea that we need more conservative professors is so misguided. If we need more conservative professors, it is because they are insightful rather than because they are conservative, but their insight needs to be proved, not assumed. If an examination of the arguments reveals that conservative beliefs are ill-founded, then there is no more reason to give affirmative action to Republicans than there is to invite the phlogiston theorists, phrenologists, and flat-earthers into the hard sciences.
We can agree with Sunstein’s point in an extremely narrow sense: it is important to be “fair” to all ideas. But Sunstein goes much further and implies that because conservatives make a point, they are likely to have a point, and that progressives should prepare ourselves to compromise and admit the truth of conservative objections before we have even checked if those objections have validity.
That is actually anti-rational. A sensible person does not assume that critiques are valid just because they are critiques. Understanding what is wrong with Sunstein’s perception of conservative views helps us understand a core problem with all of Obamaist technocratic liberalism: It simply misunderstands the right. Conservatives do not disdain social justice because they have good arguments; as I have shown over and over, they do not actually grasp the left’s case or give it a fair hearing. Instead, they have a preconceived worldview, and they interpret the facts in accordance with that worldview rather than building the worldview on the basis of a careful examination of the facts. There are plenty of people on the left who do the same, of course, but that does not mean that “both sides are equally incorrect”; the question is: which side is saying things that, when we check them carefully, actually turn out to be true? The fact that none of the conservative arguments against the socialist position hold up should strongly suggest that “both sides” do not have an equal amount to contribute to the discussion.
Sunstein’s work is an example of pseudo-rationality: a performance of reasonableness and fair-mindedness rather than the real thing. A truly reasonable person is concerned with empirical fact, not “equal time.” A reasonable person investigates how biased values can be disguised by “cost-benefit analysis,” rather than just assuming that because we say “on the one hand, on the other,” we are doing policy scientifically. A reasonable person certainly does not resent it when statisticians expose holes in their analyses. Sunstein has praisedStar Wars because, in his view, it is “bipartisan,” but there is nothing inherently good or reasonable about bipartisanship; some terrible atrocities have been committed with cross-party consensus. (Also, it is absolutely bizarre to view the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force in Star Wars as “equally valid”; as if the Jedi should just compromise with the Emperor’s desire to displace and murder all of them.) Rationality does not demand admitting conservatives are correct, but checking whether they are. When we do that, we see, as Hirschman did, that their endlessly-repeated talking points are, for the most part, simply worthless expressions of their own fears and desires rather than factually-grounded assessments of what is likely to happen.
Joe Biden’s second climate plan, released in the wake of the Biden-Sanders climate task force, has for the most part been lauded as a marked improvement on his first. Where the activist Sunrise Movement graded that first plan an F, it now calls the new one “a major step forward.”Noting that step, John Nichols concludes in The Nation that “That movement is what matters.” A headline in Common Dream announces that “Progressives Welcome Biden’s $2 Trillion Green Energy Plan,” and, findingthe plan a “truly useful compendium of the mainstream and obvious ideas for an energy and conservation transition,” Bill McKibben sees it as a “good roadmap by which to steer.”
How “major” is a “major step”? How “good” is a “good roadmap?” Though McKibben finds the roadmap “good,” he adds that it “avoids the most controversial areas of the debate,” remaining “especially quiet about the efforts that will be necessary to limit mining and drilling for fossil fuels.” We might well wonder: if a map doesn’t lead to such limits, what does it mean to call it good, even in a qualified way? In following such a map, where does even a “major step forward” get us?
For the most part, that is, Biden’s plan has been approached in light of the wrong question. Mitch Jonesargues that “Better-Than-Before Climate Plans Still Aren’t Good Enough,” and in that light it becomes clear that the overriding question isn’t “is Biden’s second plan better than his first?” or “is it,” as Grist describes, “the most ambitious climate plan a . . . Democratic presidential nominee has ever taken into the general election?”but, rather, especially as time runs out: “is the plan good enough?”
Incrementalist framings—like seeing the plan as a “major step forward” or holding that “the movement is what matters”—have long begged that increasingly desperate question. Of course, incrementalism is often justified with a logic conveniently abstracted from any historical, scientific, or social context: we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What the particular context of the climate crisis presents us with is a logic of a less convenient sort: as our house burns down, we must not let what is comfortably called the “good” be the enemy of the sufficient.
I’d like to address what “sufficient” might mean here and to suggest the nature of the Biden plan’s failure in that regard. But I want to clarify first that the plan’s insufficiency doesn’t mean that defeating Donald Trump isn’t imperative. It means rather that, however devoutly that outcome is to be wished and worked for, defeating Trump should not itself be confused with taking the drastic urgency of climate change seriously.
Time is running out. We’ve almost reached the point of no return and arresting the rush toward the climate cliff would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” This is the way the historically too-cautious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change articulated the necessity, in 2018, of “transformative systemic change”—a fundamental disruption of business as usual. If defeating Trump is a necessary condition for those “rapid” and “unprecedented changes,” it is itself far from a sufficient one. If the next four years are going to see sufficient disruption of business as usual, it will take intense political pressure and massive activism. In this context, Biden’s election is itself necessary only in the sense that another Trump term would likely obliterate the last, already slender, prospect that such an effort could matter.
Achieving the sufficient won’t be possible if we avert our eyes from the nature of the challenge. What’s at risk in the climate crisis isn’t the planet itself (which in some form will exist for billions of years) but the particular climate system that is a precondition for the origin and maintenance of what we call “civilization.” Because of anthropogenic global warming (supplemented by other ecocidal degradations) that system—our necessary home—is likely rapidly approaching a threshold, a point of irreversible collapse into some other system altogether, sometimes called“hothouse earth.”A “sufficient” climate plan, then, would offer some reasonable chance of stopping short of that catastrophic threshold.
What degree of planetary heating represents that threshold? Our current, relatively stable, version of Earth emerged after the last period of glaciation, about 10,000 years ago. With atmospheric concentrations of CO2 remaining roughly steady at about 270 parts per million, global temperature remained more or less constant until about 200 years ago, when, as industrial production began to depend on the burning of coal, releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, the temperature began to rise precipitously. If it gets high enough, that relatively stable system—the life-support system for “civilization”—will likely collapse. Atmospheric CO2, now about 415 ppm, is, as climate scientist Timothy Lenton and his coauthors write, “already at levels last seen around four million years ago,” a time when evidence suggests global sea level was over twenty meters higher than today. That concentration of CO2, they added, “is rapidly heading towards levels last seen some 50 million years ago . . . when temperatures were up to 14°C higher than they were in pre-industrial times” and alligators lived north of the Arctic Circle.
Of course, given the innumerable, complex processes involved, and the necessarily incomplete understanding of how they might interact, defining any particular degree of increased warming as a threshold is really only defining what degree of risk one calls acceptable. But in 2009 the international communityconfirmed 2°C of warming (above the pre-industrial level) as a limit that should not be crossed. In 2011, an important study defined that amount as the threshold between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” warming, and in 2018 the IPCC report stressed the extreme danger of passing even the 1.5 degree mark. Though that report has itself been criticizedfor framing the danger too conservatively, it nonethelesscalls for changes on a non-incrementalist scale, detailing how limiting heating to 1.5°C would require greenhouse emissions to be about halved by 2030 (relative to 2018 levels) and brought to “net zero” by about 2050. (Of course, in the two years since this report, emissions have in fact increased.)
We’ve already warmed the planet about 1°C and, because the carbon we emit now stays in the atmosphere for a long time, we have baked in significant future warming. So we’re already very close to having committed to passing that 1.5-degree mark. This means that the amount of carbon we can still emit while remaining within that limit—our “carbon budget”—is very, very small, just as the time available to cut it down is very, very short. At the same time, in 2011, Bill McKibbenpointed out that the world’s energy companies have on their books an amount of fossil fuel—much of it still below ground— that, if burned, would produce emissions exceeding our carbon budget by about 5 times. And they’ve continued to aggressively look for even more. If our planetary house is burning down, business as usual has responded by dousing the place with gasoline.
This is the problem: if the point is not just to put out an “ambitious” climate plan but to stop short of the looming, catastrophic threshold within the few years we might have left during which that’s still possible, then Biden’s plan remains ecocidally insufficient.
This is perhaps suggested by the relative modesty of its proposed cost: 2 trillion dollars over 4 years. That might sound like a lot, but it’s far less than the 16.3 trillion over 10 years that Sanders’s (possibly sufficient) versionof the Green New Deal proposed to spend. It’s also 4 trillion less than the Covid-19 stimulus packages to date, less than a third of what has been spent on the “war on terror,” and many trillions less, by some accounting, than the Obama-Biden Wall Street bailout.
But beyond questions of sheer cost, the plan’s drastic insufficiency manifests in at least three specific ways, each of which itself betrays the plan’s fundamental commitment to ecocidal business as usual.
Don’t Leave It in the Ground. Far from addressing the question of how to remain within our small and rapidly dwindling carbon budget, Biden’s plan utterly ignores the question of how to reduce the extraction and burning of fossil fuels—the main source of greenhouse gas. Like the addled drama critic who asked, “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” the proposed plan turns aside from the extreme violence at the center of the scene. It keeps loudly silent about hydrofracking, for example—even as some studiessuggest that the methane released by that process may, along with the burning of the mined gas, produce perhaps as much warming as coal itself. As if to resolve any ambiguity in that silence, Biden has recently insisted, “I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.” Commensurately, the plan leaves ample room for the exportation of that fracked gas and other fossil fuels, and for the building of fossil fuel infrastructure (such as pipelines) to transport them. The “egregious” result, Kate Aronoff writes, is that “there’s still no timeline for getting the country off fossil fuels, leaving U.S. producers largely free to dig up and export as many of those as they please, wherever they please.”
Of course, the plan does feature the development of renewable energy. Like Biden’s election itself, however, that obviously necessary measure does not speak to—and functions largely to obscure—questions of sufficiency. “The big question,” Mike Berners-Lee writes, “is whether we will have the renewables as well as or instead of the coal, oil, and gas” (emphasis mine). Historically, simply increasing the amount of energy provided by one source does not by itself decrease either the use of another source or energy usage overall. When more energy has become available (or when energy efficiency has increased), we have simply used more energy. Thus, while, as Aronoff observes, in introducing his plan Biden “touted his experience overseeing the $90 billion invested in renewables as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” in fact “making clean energy cheaper and more widely available . . . is not in itself a plan for getting off coal, oil, and gas along the timeline the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends.” Indeed, even as it made modest investments in renewable energy, Forbes approvinglyreports that “oil production rose during the Obama Administration at the fastest rate in the 150-year history of the U.S. oil industry.”
What Is NET Worth? The Biden plan can leave plenty of room for the continued burning of fossil fuel because its goal is not for the United States to stop emitting greenhouse gas. It aims, rather, to achieve, by 2050, “net-zero emissions”—a goal only to remove from the atmosphere as much gas as is emitted. Thus, the plan announces that “Biden will double down on research investments and tax incentives for technology that captures carbon[after or as it is emitted] and then permanently sequesters or utilizes that captured carbon.” There’s a crucial difference, however, between hoping such technology might play a part and relying on it to meet the necessary goal in the short time we might have left. Indeed, with the phrase “doubling down” (a blackjack term meaning to double the stakes of a bet), Biden half-acknowledges that his plan to preserve a viable human future is premised on a bogglingly reckless and unnecessary wager. Negative Emission Technologies (NETs) don’t currently exist at a scale that could make a significant difference, and research suggests that they are very unlikely to do so during the next few do-or-die years.
In the benumbed language of environmental science, a 2018 study in Environmental Research Lettersconcluded, for instance that, “given the biophysical and economic limits that are suggested by the available, yet still patchy, science,” the “large-scale deployment of NETs . . . appears unrealistic.” This confirms a 2015 study, in Nature Climate Change, which found that “a failure of NETs to deliver expected mitigation in the future, due to any combination of biophysical and economic limits examined here, leaves us with no ‘plan B’”; thus “‘plan A’ must be to immediately and aggressively reduce GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions.” Surveying these and other studies, Harold Herzog—a recipient of the Greenman Award “in recognition of contributions made to the development of greenhouse gas control technologies”—has decided “we cannot count on the future use of NETs to compensate for our failure to do enough mitigation today.” More vividly, in Science climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters conclude that counting on NETs as a crucial element of any adequate climate plan amounts to “letting someone jump into a raging torrent, and telling them that we may be able to save them with a technology that we have not yet developed.” Though in the ecocidal political discourse of our deranged day he is defined as “moderate,” in fact, Biden’s technophilic premise is thus recklessly radical. So that fossil fuel companies can keep mining and burning, his plan ignores the evidence and gambles with billions of lives.
Winning the Century, Losing the World. Global warming demands a global response. But while Biden does dutifully acknowledge climate change as a global crisis, he adopts that ostensibly global vision only from within a framework of an extreme nationalism. He conceives of other countries not primarily as partners in addressing an existential threat to all butmainly as competitors in an international economic marketplace, “pit[ting] the U.S. against the world,” as Aronoff puts it, “in the midst of a truly global crisis.” In “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future” (confusingly separated out on the campaign website the rest of the climate plan itself), for instance, he defines one of its “key elements” as “POSITION[ING] THE U.S. AUTO INDUSTRY TO WIN THE 21ST CENTURY.”
When the plan does turn to the question of global action, the point is not to urge global cooperation but to bleat American Indispensability. “We have to bring the world along with us,” the section on globalization in the plan’s introductory video begins—as if it were only the United States that really understood the problem and could provide sufficient leadership, the rest of the world, as the text of the plan has it, needing to be “pushed” and “persuaded.” “Thinking globally” in that plan means framing climate change as a problem produced mainly by the rest of a world that has to be whipped into shape by the indispensable nation. From within the cocksure confines of its categorical innocence, it’s up to the United States not merely to “rally,” “push,” “encourage,” and “demand,” but also to “stop countries from cheating,” to “not allow other nations, including China, to game the system,” and to “name and shame global outlaws.” Other countries thus appear to Biden not as collaborators in a global attempt to face a global catastrophe but, rather, as laggards and outlaws—or, again, as competitors in a race to become “the world’s clean energy superpower.”
Chief among these laggards is China. Biden insists that “The United States accounts only for 15 percent of global emissions,” and so, as the introductory video puts it, “the rest of the world has to step up as well . . . especially China, by far the world’s largest emitter of carbon.” (In this formulation, the United States has already“stepped up.”) Here, Biden’s amnesiac accounting obscures that what causes heating is cumulative emissions, and on this crucial score the United States has (since 1750) emittedalmost twice what China has. Indeed, on a per capita basis the United States still produces over twicewhat China does, and, of course, even these comparisons don’t account for the factthat a significant portion of China’s emissions trace to production for goods consumed in the United States.
Focused on “winning the century,” nowhere does Biden’s plan acknowledge that most of the greenhouse gas boiling the planet has been emitted by the Global North—with the United States leading the way—while it’s the Global South that has suffered (and in the short term will continue to suffer) the most severe consequences. To help address this historical and continuing injustice (which amounts to an atrocity), the U.N. Green Climate Fund was created as a means for richer countries to help poorer ones develop and decarbonize their own economies. Biden’s nationalistic requirement that “clean” technologies be Made in America, however, may well “shut off paths to green developmentfor low- and middle-income countries” as Aronoff points out, many of which are the most vulnerable.
Biden does glance at the Green Climate Fund itself, though irrelevantly, promising merely to fulfill Obama’s original commitment, for 2015-2018, to throwing the Fund a few crumbs—a perfunctory $3 billion (15 percentof a single year’s subsidy for fossil fuels at the time), $2 billion of which Obama then declined to actually deliver before leaving office. When it comes to the relations of the United States to the rest of the world, the plan makes quiet mockery of its titular trumpeting of “Environmental Justice.”
In calling Biden’s plan “a major step forward,” the Sunrise Movement also stresses that we still “have our work cut out for us.” Considering the plan in light of the question of its sufficiency indicates how much work that is. As I’ve tried to suggest, in the most crucial ways, the plan represents not a radical break with the Democratic Party’s climate history but an affirmation of the Party’s incrementalist premises. Indeed, during the primary, the Party’s power structure swiftly coalesced behind Biden precisely because he represented a continuation of the status quo, preferable—despite his obvious weaknesses as a candidate—to the challenge represented by Bernie Sanders, whose own climate plan arguably did in fact represent something like a sufficient response.
Attempts to persuade Biden to accept the imperative of an adequate response to the climate crisis must reckon with this history. While Democrats have comfortably demonized climate “deniers” like Trump, their party’s own framings of climate change have in fact long peddled a more pervasive, normalized, denial—one that sometimes acknowledges the problem in general terms but then belatedly responds, if at all, with nationalist chest-thumpings and incrementalist policies absurdly inadequate to the existential scope and urgency of the dilemma. In the United States, commitment to ecocide has been a matter of bipartisan agreement.
Indeed, that commitment was epitomized by the record of the Obama-Biden administration itself, to which Biden regularly and religiously alludes. It’s not merely that that administration put climate on the back burner, delaying until its last two years whatever minimal attention it eventually did bring to the issue, a delay that, as we speed toward the likely climate cliff, has made slamming on the brakes less and less possible. It’s also that, supported by Biden, Obama was an aggressive champion of fossil fuels. His “climate policy in his first term was largely indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s,” David Bookbinder writes in Vox. “Both fought mightily to avoid greenhouse gas regulation,” Obama succeeding to the point where, again, oil production rates reached record levels. In 2012, he boasted about his part in the unfolding atrocity:
Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.
Indeed, even as the prospects for preventing the most apocalyptic scenarios dwindle, and as paying pecksniffian obeisance to the “existential crisis” has for Democrats grown increasingly de rigueur, Obama’s ecocidal boasting has continued unabated. In November 2018—the month after the IPCC defined the necessity of immediate and drastic greenhouse gas emissions requiring “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”— Obama referred to the “rising energy output under [my] watch and sudden talk of America’s leading role in oil and gas production,” and beamed “That was me, people. Just say thank you.”
The failure of Biden’s climate plan to mention any limitation on the mining and burning of fossil fuels, its reckless dependence on carbon capture technologies, and its extreme, amnesiac nationalism thus signify a continuation of the ecocidal history of his party. If the point is to stop the house from burning down, Biden’s election remains a necessary condition, but real sufficiency will mean his making—or being compelled to make—not merely incrementalist steps in the right direction but a radical and timely break from that history of pyromania.
A major obstacle in this regard is that, in the common sense of the political sphere, “climate change” is defined as an “environmental issue,” one of interest mainly to “environmentalists.” Might the Covid-19 pandemic present an occasion for disrupting this discursive business as usual? Making plain the uncommon sense that the “environment” constitutes not a political “special interest” but the very context and condition of human being, the coronavirus now speaks to us in literally arresting terms. As business as usual is arrested, the consequences of ignoring inconvenient scientific warnings have been made manifest. We might thus wonder, could the pandemic help make the normalized present sufficiently visible as a crisis of civilizational scope, an atrocity the present is in the act of inflicting on itself and the future? Galvanized by that awareness, might massive political activism yet rouse even a prospective Biden administration out of its ecocidal stupor? We have to hope and try to make it so. There isn’t much time left.
The only Thai restaurant in Bishkek has begun selling anti-pollution masks for children: for less than $10, apparently, you can outfit your family with respiratory gear while waiting for your pad see ew. The advertisement for these masks boasted of a range of sizes, an array of colors. I came across it in January, at a time when cities across Central Asia were in the grips of what has become a grim annual event: the settling of impenetrable blankets of smog over urban skylines once fall settles in, as though to counterweight the coming whiteness of snow with the blackness of soot. This was neither the first nor the last time I would see anti-pollution aids on offer in the places I least expected to find them: in line at a coffee shop last winter, for instance, I noticed a placard next to the specials board advertising air purification devices. The photo showed a gleaming white box with smooth edges parked in a room whose cream-colored minimalist décor in no way matched the atmosphere of the Soviet-era apartment blocks of our city. I imagined the machine emitting a quiet, almost contented whirr as it set about the task of rendering the corrupted pure.
Like many capitals in the global south, Bishkek has seen a catastrophic rise in air pollution over the past decade or so, with measures of particulate matter in the air regularly spiking to levels at which any outdoors exertion is considered unhealthy. Come winter, when the smog hits its noxious peak, the topic of air quality becomes ubiquitous in conversations, in the way that people under less smoke-dimmed skies might chat about the weather. We weigh the relative merits of AQI versus PM2.5 measurements; we observe how the smog peaks and ebbs throughout the course of the day, as though the city itself is a creature that breathes in and then out again from the belly of the earth. And meanwhile all around us, as the temperature drops and the air quality worsens, the engines of capital are revved into action to see what money can be got out of urban environmental collapse.
With more and more cities around the globe afflicted by toxic smog (or, in the case of many cities on the American West Coast, wildfire smoke), the number of those who would profit from the suffering of these citizens has only increased. It’s a situation that gives the lie to liberals’ insistence that “we’re all in this together,” a slogan wielded in the face of both the COVID and the climate crises even as those who use it advocate policies that do little to nothing to attack the root causes of these problems. While it has become axiomatic on the left that the brunt of the already-enfolding environmental catastrophe will be borne by the poor and the marginalized while leaving the wealthy relatively unscathed, liberals have largely failed to recognize the class and racial dimensions of environmental degradation. “We all breathe the same air,” insist op-ed writers for newspapers across America and politicians calling for bipartisan environmental policies. But living in Central Asia has shown me that on the most literal of levels, this is false.
A single bottle of Vitality Air will set you back roughly $25, not including the cost of shipping from Canada. The containers, which bear an unnerving resemblance to cans of bug spray meant to be fitted over your mouth, are filled with nothing more than what the name suggests––to wit, about 160 of what the marketing material odiously dubs “shots” (roughly a minute’s worth of breath, all told—though it’s not clear how you tell when the can is “empty”). As one respondent in a Washington Post product review stated after his first inhalation of the stuff (and what more, really, is there to add?), “That’s air.”
There are “flavored” options (who among us has not yearned to huff rootbeer-scented gas?), there are limited-edition collectibles (shell out $15,000 and you too can own an oxygen canister studded with diamonds and signed by 2Chainz), but the ostensible heart of this poorly conceived business is the original product: air that purports to come from Canada’s Banff National Park. Though the ad copy skirts dangerously close to making unsubstantiated health claims, fine print on the labels cautions that the air is for “recreational use only,” prompting anyone reading it to wonder how and when breathing ceased to be a baseline bodily function and instead became a fun activity for the whole family. One can only assume that the people enjoying themselves in this scenario are none other than the company’s founders—given the price per bottle, they’re no doubt laughing their way to the bank. The company explicitly targets buyers in Asia, particularly residents of cities in China and India where the air pollution crisis is most severe. As such, they create a cycle whereby entrepreneurs in Western countries sell those in the global south “solutions” to the catastrophic environmental devastation for which Western outsourcing of industrial production in search of a more exploitable workforce is partly responsible.
Vitality is not the only company charging exorbitant prices for “pristine” air or to leverage the health fears of residents of smog-choked cities for profit. There’s Aethaer, which is apparently able to command prices of over $100 for jars of air “farmed” from across England. There are also a raft of Swiss companies that trade on the cultural cachet of the Alps. Reading media coverage of these firms, I’m struck by how few writers raise what would seem to be obvious points of criticism. Many articles seem content to treat these ventures as vaguely amusing novelties, the latest kooky start-up in an infinite disruptive series. When pressed during interviews, founders make bland statements of concern regarding their concerns about pollution but fail to connect the dots regarding the fossil fuels consumed in the production of the plastic-nozzled bottles in which their products are sold. (As for the bottles themselves, any pseudo-virtuous promises of recyclability are undercut by the fact that much of the plastic we so diligently sort ends up in landfills anyway). And what about the gas burned on the trips to and from the “unspoiled” landscapes from which the air is supposedly taken? Then again, of course, given the fact that more pollution presumably means more customers, it pays not to think too hard about these questions.
Despite one Vitality founder’s stated desire to become “the king of air,” I have a hard time envisioning a future where canned air gains mass traction among the masses: it’s patently absurd, offers no health benefits, and boasts an eye-watering price tag (then again, given the ubiquity of bottled water, perhaps I will soon find myself eating my words). Right now, bottled air is marketed as a luxury item, and company officials admit that many of the purchases are as gag gifts rather than for the purpose of practical (and I use that term sparingly) use. But there’s an assumption underpinning the existence of these companies that seems to have been smuggled in more or less successfully. Skeptical commentators have posed the question of why someone would pay for air—what most fail to ask is why they should. As such, the main objection being raised is one of feasibility and not morality—having already ceded the point that air may be sold, the bone of contention is merely at what price. I am tempted to write that this points towards a dangerous precedent for the future. But the fact of the matter is—as I see in Bishkek—that the dystopian future is now.
It’s worth mentioning that in a sense the commodification of air is not new. The 19th-century gentlemen and ladies who flocked to chic spa towns in the Alps or beside the sea to “take the air” were essentially paying to breathe. As the coalstacks of the Industrial Revolution increasingly blackened city skies, locales with purer air took on a new value that the well-to-do were willing to pay for, and in an era before the advent of antibiotics, the prevailing medical wisdom held that fresh air was the best treatment for tuberculosis and other lung ailments. As historian Alison F. Frank points out, around the same time as Marx explicitly listed air as an example of a non-commodity in the opening chapter of Das Kapital, air was becoming a major selling point of the Kurorts and sanatoria to which the wealthy and the consumptive now turned.
What is new, however, is the nature of that commodification. The Victorian convalescents taking in sea breezes or mountain gusts were removing themselves from the city temporarily until such time as they (hopefully) recovered. Today, of course, vacation destinations still draw visitors with promises of purity and wellness. But those with the desire and the means to distance themselves from the deleterious effects of industrial capitalism no longer have to resort to places of great spatial remove in order to do so. Technology has increasingly allowed for the superposition of healthy (or healthier) city onto unhealthy city as the wealthy and the poor navigate the same streets but with vastly different experiences thereof.
Consider the panoply of air purifier devices currently available for homes and cars. Or the array of deluxe masks that promise buyers ever-more protection from the dangerous health effects of smog. MicroClimate Air, a wearable air filtration system that resembles a baggy astronaut’s helmet, sports a fan system and HEPA filtration. It’s surely no coincidence that the ads feature (white) businessmen in sleek suits checking their smartphones or striding through an airport terminal for a work trip: as disease-free breathing becomes a commodity, this is the class of people who will be able to pay the price.
Rather than imagining the heady vision of a Vitality-chugging future, what we have before us is a present in which the divide between rich and poor is marked by an ever-widening difference in access to the clean, breathable air that is our right. The World Health Organization currently estimates that ambient air pollution is responsible for millions of deaths each year from lung cancer, heart failure, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and infections; the vast majority of these deaths are of people in low-and middle-income countries. Within the United States, the American Lung Association has collected an array of studies from across the country to show that neighborhoods with low income, high unemployment, and predominantly nonwhite populations were far more likely to see residents die premature deaths due to particle pollution—a correlation that is particularly strong for Black communities. The structural racism of America’s housing market—which has shut out minorities from certain areas and forced many to settle in areas dangerously close to sources of pollution—has created a reality in which the wealthy and the working class, the white and the nonwhite, breathe fundamentally different air.
In 2014, an article in The Daily Mail breathlessly reported that Beijing’s pollution had so unmoored the city from the natural world that its citizens were reduced to wistfully watching the sunrise on television screens. The story—subsequently picked up by outlets around the world—was accompanied by a harrowing image in which Beijing residents appeared to crowd around an LED screen beaming forth an image of a radiant sky as the air around them swirled with impenetrable grey smoke. Only none of it was true: the supposed ersatz sunrise, it was later revealed, was in actuality nothing more than part of a travel advertisement, a clip that had probably flickered across the electronic billboard for no more than a few seconds before dissolving. In the Western media’s eagerness to believe the most outlandish of stories about China’s pollution—not to mention the almost-palpable delight with which they relate them—it’s easy to detect a modern echo of racist colonial notions of “the East” as dirty, uncultured, alien, and diseased.
If we want to meaningfully organize around pollution, we first have to deconstruct popular narratives that demonize those most victimized by it. Fail to do this, and environmental concerns will only serve to solidify already-existing social divisions.
In Bishkek, the story of the air pollution crisis is fundamentally a story of class inequality. Much of the smog comes from the burning of coal, clothing scraps, and trash by residents of novostroiki, outlying settlements that the municipal government refuses to formally recognize as part of the city. In denying official status to these areas (whose population numbers in the tens of thousands, mostly poor migrants from the countryside who moved in search of work), City Hall slyly dodges responsibility for paying to connect them to public utilities such as gas lines, meaning that residents have no choice but to heat their homes using whatever they can afford to gather up and burn.Yet these are the people whom you might hear being complained about by long-term residents of the city, who deem these migrants “dirty,” “messy,” “uncultured,” as though they are a form of pollution in and of themselves. And meanwhile the well-to-do residents of the center ride through the streets in private cars, windows rolled up against the smog; they work in insulated office buildings and meet friends at chic coffee houses that purify their air; and perhaps they have already invested in their own purification system for their apartment, so that when they return home the rooms that receive them are blissfully devoid of the reek of the air outside. And as they make their way home they pass people selling used books or apples or honey on the street, wares spread out on the ground on a blanket or arrayed on a card table. These merchants would have spent the day breathing in exhaust from the cars that whizz by, and when they pack up for the evening it is to queue for who knows how long before a shuttle bus comes to bear them homeward. In the night, as the cold snakes its way in, they stoke coal fires in their living rooms. Perhaps they wear a mask, and perhaps they do not, but if the fire is in the house with you I expect it hardly makes a difference.