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David Wallace-Wells On The Mutating Dangers Of Covid19

David Wallace-Wells On The Mutating Dangers Of Covid19

David is a deputy editor at New York magazine and one of the sharpest journalists covering the Covid19 pandemic. (He edited my essay on plagues this past summer.) He’s also a clear-headed expert on climate change and the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. This pod is full of fact, insight and speculation on the virus, the vaccines, and the new variants. If you need to get your head wrapped around where we are in this plague, check it out.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. To hear two excerpts from my conversation with David — on the threat posed by vaccine skeptics; and on whether lockdowns did more harm than good — head over to our YouTube page.

Meanwhile, a reader sounds off on last week’s episode:

I was so pleased to hear Christopher Caldwell on your podcast! I agree he is one of the sharpest conservative thinkers and a first-rate stylist. In fact, I’ve become a bit obsessed with his work. I’ve recently written a lengthy review of Age of Entitlement for a specialized scholarly journal, to be published soon. (So, if I'm lucky, maybe a couple dozen people will read it.) You and I have never met, but I am the editor of a book that features essays by both you and Caldwell: American Epidemic: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Opioid Crisis (New Press, 2019).

I have a few thoughts about your podcast interview. First, I wish you had pushed back at one point. Caldwell said that Age of Entitlement is “not a manifesto,” but rather “a work of history.” I suspect you will agree that it is often difficult, while reading that book, to separate Caldwell (the historian) from Caldwell (the rancorous, sharp-witted partisan). Age of Entitlement is not just an analysis of the continually broadening scope of civil rights since the 1960s. It is also, very plainly, a jeremiad against the post-1964 civil rights movement. He’s trying to have it both ways. 

Second, you occasionally talk over your guests when you’re excited about something! Caldwell said he liked the idea of the 1776 Commission, and I think he was about to talk about it more substantively. I would have liked to have heard him assess the Report’s quality and execution. But he didn’t finish his thought. You declared the Report was execrable garbage, then the conversation moved in a different direction.

From another reader who listened to the episode:

Caldwell claims that civil rights legislation has created a system whereby courts can overrule democratic majorities, but the Constitution was explicitly designed to prevent rule by democratic majorities. George W. Bush and Donald Trump both lost the popular vote but got to be president and appoint a bunch of judges that were confirmed by senators representing a minority of the population. That the resulting court affirmed things Caldwell is uneasy with, like same-sex marriage, is no different than them carving out religious exemptions that I am uneasy with, such as allowing discrimination against same-sex couples trying to adopt children.

Importantly, that is the system working as intended. Neither of us gets entirely what we want and so we are motivated to cast our votes for representatives we feel will pass laws and confirm judges that we like, but that tension cannot be resolved because it is fundamental to our system of government. 

Conservatives like Caldwell seem to be arguing against the entire constitutional system of American representative democracy because it doesn’t always deliver the results a bare majority of people want — in same way Woke critical theory adherents want to tear down the system because it sometimes delivers the results a bare majority of people want. They are both upset about the necessity of empowering minorities in a democracy. How are the two views fundamentally any different?

Another reader digs into some legal history:

I listened to the podcast and thank you for the gentle challenging you did, which helped illuminate the argument. I was startled by Caldwell’s apparent lack of acknowledgement during the podcast that there might be strong reasons for a civil rights regime in places outside of the South, e.g., in the context of housing policies in northern cities.

But the place he really lost me was in his description of the Griggs v. Duke Power ruling, which introduced the legal theory of disparate impact. Yes, nominally, the ruling said a neutral rule that just coincidentally causes a disparate impact could be unconstitutional. But the actual rule employed by the Duke Power Company was in fact no such coincidence, as was transparent to the Court and all litigants. Here's Richard Primus describing the background:

The defendant in Griggs, the Duke Power Company, had officially discriminated against blacks until July 2, 1965, which happened to be the date that Title VII became effective. On that date, the company ceased its official discrimination but adopted a rule that only high school graduates who passed two written aptitude tests could be employed anywhere other than in its lowest wage, lowest status division. These requirements had the effect of preventing all but a few blacks from gaining employment outside the one division where blacks had been allowed before Title VII. This tactic was an obvious subterfuge for intentional discrimination. Nonetheless, the district court found as a fact that the company had no discriminatory motive in adopting the high school diploma and written testing requirements. The Supreme Court accordingly faced a choice between overturning a factual finding or imposing liability without respect to the defendant's intent, and it chose the latter.

One way of reading Griggs and later cases is that they authorize courts to recognize, and forbid “obvious subterfuge[s] for intentional discrimination.” That’s the kind of stuff the doctrine is most often actually used against.

Another reader looks to an episode from December:

I had some time to catch up on your podcasts. I noticed the sound quality has improved, which is great, and even though they may be a tad on the longish side, the conversations are really interesting. So I listened to your conversation with Damir Marusic & Shadi Hamid. About 15 minutes before the end, you talk about the absence of religion in the world. You mention continental Europe (where I live), call us continentals “dead inside” and quote Francis Fukuyama’s statement that we “are shadows of human beings”. Because “we” do not have religion.

Well ... thanks!

I could just get on with my life and chalk your insights up to Christian and/or British delusions or whatnot. But something about it bothered me, because I see it reflected in the English reaction to the Brexit negotiations with the EU. You situate the border between people who are dead inside and the people who are still (?) “alive inside” in the English Channel and the North Sea. How convenient.

This merits some soul-searching on your part. When is the last time you visited Europe, besides England? You spoke on your podcast with a soft authority on the subject of European zombiedom as if you spend alternate weekends on the continent. Your readers know that not to be true. I look forward to you unpacking some of this stuff. Best and warm wishes to you and your colleague Chris for a much better and life-affirming 2021!

I can get carried away sometimes. I was thinking of the post-religious ennui in Western Europe, which is no different in the UK.

The dissenting reader who back in December told me to chill over Trump — a dissent I called “the most effective counter to my worries about our democracy that I have ever read” — follows up:

I spent quite a bit of time feeling very proud that you guys published my dissent in which I argued that Donald Trump was not going to lead a coup and that you were too worried about the prospect of violent uprising. Then came the Capitol Hill Riot and this caused me to engage in some hard self-reflection. Had I been wrong? To what degree did these actions legitimize the notion that Trump and his supporters represent an existential threat to the government of the United States? 

Still, despite the Capitol Riot, I believe I was right. 

I think that it’s important to divide two things that you might argue are indivisible.  One is the fact that there are a huge number of Republicans who believe in the Big Lie that the election was stolen.  This trend is extremely worrying, and is seen in the votes of the Republican members of the House and Senate who voted against certifying the election results. The second is the riot itself and the attack on the Capitol — a lawless use of violence to upend a key aspect of the election.  

One might argue that the riot naturally grew out of the soil of distrust of the election results, and on one level this is self-evidently true. The Big Lie called all those yahoos to DC and sent them off into the Capitol Building. And yet, given that huge numbers of Americans believe that this election was legitimately stolen, this riot turned out to be a farce and a fiasco. If millions of Americans really believed that the dark night of tyranny was about to fall, would only a couple thousand have shown up? The crowd was only “large” because the police were not present in large enough numbers to block them.

Despite zip-tie guy (who most likely found them on the ground), I still believe that this riot was largely unplanned LARPing that met with no security and pushed its way in. That is to say, if it was planned, what the hell was the plan? Assuming that this was a calculated assault assumes that the rioters were smart enough to know that the Capitol would be largely unguarded but dumb enough to believe that they would somehow be able to get Congress to change the election? I suppose you could argue that there was a cohort of trained terrorists/paramilitary members ruthlessly accomplishing their goals while the open doors allowed clowns like shirtless buffalo guy to wander in. But there seems to be no evidence that anyone was ruthlessly or efficiently doing anything. 

In your podcast where you rehost (and re-roast) Shadi Hamid, you argue that the protesters got what they wanted in that they disrupted the certification of the vote.  But they didn’t get what they wanted — not by a long shot. They delayed the certification for about half a day and, if anything, probably reduced the number of Republican dissenters in Congress. Additionally, the riot has led to the unpersoning of Trump on social media along with many other right-wing figures. Parler was basically annihilated by Apple, Google and AWS. And now a bunch of the rioters are going to go to jail — maybe for decades. 

As an aside, isn’t the glee with which everyone is turning them in a sight to see?  Where was this glee when mobs were burning, stealing and looting this summer?  You certainly never would see articles like this or like this

Imagine a world where the riot didn’t happen. You would have had *more* Republicans dissenting from the certification, and wouldn’t that have been worse? 

You cite Plato to argue that the tyrant is undisciplined and cannot control himself and you are right! Plato does argue that this is the defining characteristic of the tyrannic man. You use this definition when Trump’s incompetence is pointed out —of course he’s incompetent, his tyrannic nature makes it impossible for him to rule effectively. But here’s the key point: Trump is such a tyrannic man that he cannot rise to the level of actual tyranny. You compared him to Richard III, but how could you insult Britain’s last Plantagenet king this way? If Shakespeare is to be believed, Richard was a schemer par excellence. Trump has no plan, and no capacity to plan.  

Finally, I do share many of your feelings. The fact that so many Republicans were willing to overturn the views of their own voters is disturbing. All of the aspersions that Trump has been casting on the results really are corrosive. The fact that our media has schismed into two warring realities is profoundly upsetting.  Here’s some more Republic for you:

Have we any greater evil for a city than what splits it and makes it many instead of one? ...Doesn't the community of pleasure and pain bind it together, when to the greatest extent possible all the citizens alike rejoice and are pained at the same comings into being and perishings?

I worry that the United States is no longer a shared community of pleasures and pains. The hypocritical responses by the right and the left make this clear. I do believe that this division is a cancer in the heart of our nation. Still, I don’t think it presents an imminent threat. We are still too fat, prosperous and successful. If our economy crashes — I mean really crashes — or if we get hit with a much more deadly and fatal virus, then I will join you in panicking. 

I’m grateful for this thoughtful response, and want to share your optimism. We’ll see, I guess, won’t we?

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