Tuesday Reads

Vincent Van Gogh, Grapes

Vincent Van Gogh, Grapes

Good Afternoon!!

We are fast approaching the day of decision: November 8, 2022 is only 3 weeks away. Democracy is on the ballot, but according to the New York Times’ interpretation of a new poll, voters aren’t that concerned about a fascist takeover by Republicans.

The New York Times: Voters See Democracy in Peril, but Saving It Isn’t a Priority.

Voters overwhelmingly believe American democracy is under threat, but seem remarkably apathetic about that danger, with few calling it the nation’s most pressing problem, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll.

In fact, more than a third of independent voters and a smaller but noteworthy contingent of Democrats said they were open to supporting candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election, as they assigned greater urgency to their concerns about the economy than to fears about the fate of the country’s political system.

The doubts about elections that have infected American politics since the 2020 contest show every sign of persisting well into the future, the poll suggested: Twenty-eight percent of all voters, including 41 percent of Republicans, said they had little to no faith in the accuracy of this year’s midterm elections.

Political disagreements appear to be seeping into the fabric of everyday life. Fourteen percent of voters said political views revealed a lot about whether someone is a good person, while 34 percent said it revealed a little. Nearly one in five said political disagreements had hurt relationships with friends or family.

Political disagreements appear to be seeping into the fabric of everyday life. Fourteen percent of voters said political views revealed a lot about whether someone is a good person, while 34 percent said it revealed a little. Nearly one in five said political disagreements had hurt relationships with friends or family.

The entire article is trademark both-sidesing, of course–it’s The New York Times! The authors dug up a Democrat who is worried about “divisiveness” on “both sides.”

“I do agree that the biggest threat is survival of our democracy, but it’s the divisiveness that is creating this threat,” said Ben Johnson, 33, a filmmaker from New Orleans and a Democrat. “It feels like on both sides, people aren’t agreeing on facts anymore. We can’t meet in the middle if we can’t agree on simple facts. You’re not going to be able to move forward and continue as a country if you can’t agree on facts.”

The poll showed that voters filtered their faith in democracy through a deeply partisan lens. A majority of voters in both parties identified the opposing party as a “major threat to democracy.”

Most Republicans said the dangers included President Biden, the mainstream media, the federal government and voting by mail. Most Democrats named Donald J. Trump, while large shares of the party’s voters also said the Supreme Court and the Electoral College were threats to democracy.

Seventy-one percent of all voters said democracy was at risk — but just 7 percent identified that as the most important problem facing the country.

But why don’t we agree on “facts?” The poll suggests the media has something to do with that, but the NYT doesn’t include that in their analysis.

The NYT also doesn’t emphasize that it’s mostly Republicans who don’t care about saving democracy.

The polls have been so untrustworthy in the past few elections that I don’t know how much to trust them; but I do know I can’t trust the NYT to analyze the results honestly.

Meanwhile, Republicans seem so confident about taking over the House, that they are showing their cards ahead of the election.

The Washington Post: GOP to use debt limit to force spending cuts, McCarthy says.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that if Republicans win control of the House the GOP will use raising the debt limit as leverage to force spending cuts — which could include cuts to Medicare and Social Security — and limit additional funding to Ukraine.

“You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt,” the California Republican told Punchbowl News in a recent interview. “And if people want to make a debt ceiling [for a longer period of time], just like anything else, there comes a point in time where, okay, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior.”

Autumn landscape, 1889, Danish Peder Mørk Mønsted

Danish painter Peder Mørk Mønsted – An Autumn Landscape. Date: 1889.

“We’re not just going to keep lifting your credit card limit, right,” he added. “And we should seriously sit together and [figure out] where can we eliminate some waste? Where can we make the economy grow stronger?”

Pressed on whether changes to the entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security were part of the debt ceiling discussions, McCarthy said he would not “predetermine” anything.

The debt limit — the country’s borrowing cap — will need to be lifted next year to protect the country’s credit score and to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt. But McCarthy suggested that his party would be willing to hold the debt limit up for policy changes

The debt limit is the total amount of money that the government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salari.es, interest on the national debt, tax refunds and other payments. The debt limit is not new spending but rather allows the government to finance existing legal obligations.

Republicans are getting ready to do Putin’s bidding if they take over the House.

The Daily Beast: Ukraine Aid Could Be on the Chopping Block in a GOP-Controlled House.

Democrats and Republicans have both been backing Ukraine aid for months now. But there’s a growing sense of unease on Capitol Hill that something could soon happen to disrupt that financial support: Republicans could win the House in November.

“I’m absolutely not supporting any further funding for Ukraine,” Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast last week….

Throughout Congress, Republican support for providing Ukraine aid has swung in multiple directions since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war earlier this year. Several GOP lawmakers have told The Daily Beast they think President Joe Biden is being far too “weak” on Russia and not sending enough weapons to help Ukrainians fight back.

But there’s also been a strong and steady resistance to sending billions of dollars to Ukraine, even as Putin wages war. Some Republicans have tried to blame the war on Biden and have said they would rather focus on domestic priorities—from inflation to the southern border—and want to condition Ukraine aid on other issues, whatever the consequences may be in withholding aid from Ukraine.

Dozens of Republican members of the House have already sought to throw up roadblocks to Ukraine aid packages. Fifty-seven Republicans tried blocking $40 billion in aid to Ukraine earlier this year, in addition to 11 Republican Senators. Not a single Democrat tried to stand in the way.

Amherst Campus no.1 (1969) Fairfield Porter. Parrish Art Museum, New York.

Amherst Campus (MA) no.1 (1969) Fairfield Porter. Parrish Art Museum, New York.

In other Ukraine aid news, Elon Musk’s has threatened to stop supporting Starlink in the country. Starlink is the Musk-owned satellite system that supports internet communication in the Ukraine. He has wavered on this decision, but the Biden administration doesn’t trust him. Politico: Pentagon eyes locking in Starlink funding for Ukraine.

The Pentagon is considering paying for the Starlink satellite network — which has been a lifeline for Ukraine — from a fund that has been used to supply weapons and equipment over the long term, according to two U.S. officials who are involved in the deliberations.

The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative is designed to provide enduring support for the Ukrainian military by financing contracts with American firms for weapons and equipment that would be delivered in months or even years….

The discussion comes after CNN reported that SpaceX warned the Pentagon last month that it would no longer be able to finance the satellite terminals and communications services, which has already cost it over $80 million and could cost hundreds of millions more over the next year….

The company donated the use of Starlink terminals after Russia invaded Ukraine in February amid fears that the country would be cut off from the outside world. SpaceX’s philanthropic efforts drew widespread plaudits.

The Defense Department said on Friday that it was continuing discussions with SpaceX about a way forward. But it also said it is considering other alternatives for commercial satellite communications.

Elon Musk has shown his cards recently, offering a suggestion for negotiated peace in Ukraine that would favor Russia’s interests. Insider: Elon Musk’s pro-Russian peace deal is ‘classic Putin,’ and there’s a clue of the Russian leader’s role, Fiona Hill argues.

Elon Musk’s recent efforts to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine have almost certainly been puppeteered by Vladimir Putin, according to top Russia expert Fiona Hill.

“Putin plays the egos of big men — gives them a sense that they can play a role. But in reality, they’re just direct transmitters of messages from Vladimir Putin,” Hill told Politico this week, noting that the Tesla billionaire has tipped his hand in an obvious display of Putin’s influence.

Earlier this month, Musk tweeted a proposed peace plan he suggested could end the war in Ukraine that parroted Russian demands and echoed Kremlin talking points.

Autumn Leaves, Lake George (1924) Georgia O'Keeffe. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.

Autumn Leaves, Lake George (1924) Georgia O’Keeffe. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.

Ian Bremmer, a prominent political analyst, later reported that Musk spoke privately with Putin before drafting his proposition — an allegation that Musk denied.

While it was his October 3 tweets that garnered buzz around the globe, Musk was publicly evoking Putin’s desires even earlier.

Hill cited Musk’s September appearance at a conference in Aspen, during which he suggested a similar path forward through the war, encouraging Ukraine to “seek peace” by allowing Crimea — a territory which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 — to be recognized as Russian.

Musk also reportedly told attendees that the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine ought to be up for grabs. Russia annexed four occupied Ukrainian territories just days later, including the two mentioned by Musk.

You can also check out an interesting interview with Fiona Hill at Politico: Fiona Hill: ‘Elon Musk Is Transmitting a Message for Putin.’’

Some Democrats have been getting wishy-washy about promoting abortion as a top tier issue in the upcoming elections, but Joe Biden still seems to think it’s important. Politico: Biden to pledge legalizing abortion on Roe anniversary if Dems expand majorities.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday will promise that the first bill he’ll send to the next Congress will be legislation to reinstate the abortion protections of Roe v. Wade, according to a Democratic official previewing the president’s remarks.

In a speech at a Democratic National Committee event in Washington, Biden will also pledge to sign that bill into law around the anniversary of the original Roe ruling in late January.

Biden’s plans are contingent on Democrats holding the House and increasing their majority in the Senate, a factor acknowledged by the official previewing the remarks. As such, it is a vow that appears aimed at energizing Democrats to turn out in force in the upcoming midterm elections where the party is struggling to keep its slim majorities, as polls show early outrage over the fall of Roe v. Wade this June has been outstripped by economic concerns.

Biden has increasingly escalated his attacks on Republicans over abortion rights since the high court’s ruling this summer overturning Roe. He’s repeatedly predicted that there will be a massive surge of voter activity in the midterms pushing back against the decision — particularly from women voters. Biden also has argued that abortion will be just the start of GOP attempts to dial back rights, warning that protections for contraception and same-sex marriage could be next.

“Republicans don’t have a clue about the power of women,” he told a gathering of Democrats recently. “Let me tell you something: They’re about to find out.”

golden-autumn-1888, by Ivan Shishkin, Russian

Golden Autumn, 1888, by Ivan Shishkin, Russian painter

Meanwhile, women in red states are still dealing with the GOP’s efforts to take control of their bodies. Caroline Kitchener at The Washington Post: Desperate pleas and smuggled pills: A covert abortion network rises after Roe.

Monica had never used Reddit before. But sitting at her desk one afternoon in July — at least 10 weeks into an unwanted pregnancy in a state that had banned abortion — she didn’t know where else to turn.

“I need advice I am not prepared to have a child,” the 25-year-old wrote from her office, once everyone else had left for the day. She titled her post, “PLEASE HELP!!!!!!!!”

Within hours, she got a private message from an anonymous Reddit user. If Monica sent her address, the person promised, they would mail abortion pills “asap for free.

Monica didn’t know it at the time, but her Reddit post connected her to a new facet of the battle for abortion access: the rise of a covert, international network delivering tens of thousands of abortion pills in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down Roe v. Wade.

The emerging network — fueled by the widespread availability of medication abortion — has made the illegal abortions of today simpler and safer than those of the pre-Roe era, remembered for its back alleys and coat hangers. Distinct from services that sell pills to patients on the internet, a growing army of community-based distributors is reaching pregnant women through word of mouth or social media to supply pills for free — though typically without the safeguards of medical oversight.

Read the rest at the WaPo.

That’s all I have for you today. What’s on your mind? What stories are you following?


Thursday Reads

Rainy Day Boston, Frederick Childe Hassam

Rainy Day Boston, Frederick Childe Hassam

Good Morning!!

Here’s what I see as the major topics in the news today: world events stemming from Russia’s war on Ukraine; the ongoing Trumpist attack on U.S. democracy; and the new wave of Covid-19 cases.

Outgrowths of Ukraine War

Fascism and totalitarianism expert Timothy Snyder at The New York Times: We Should Say It. Russia Is Fascist.

Fascism was never defeated as an idea.

As a cult of irrationality and violence, it could not be vanquished as an argument: So long as Nazi Germany seemed strong, Europeans and others were tempted. It was only on the battlefields of World War II that fascism was defeated. Now it’s back — and this time, the country fighting a fascist war of destruction is Russia. Should Russia win, fascists around the world will be comforted.

We err in limiting our fears of fascism to a certain image of Hitler and the Holocaust. Fascism was Italian in origin, popular in Romania — where fascists were Orthodox Christians who dreamed of cleansing violence — and had adherents throughout Europe (and America). In all its varieties, it was about the triumph of will over reason.

Because of that, it’s impossible to define satisfactorily. People disagree, often vehemently, over what constitutes fascism. But today’s Russia meets most of the criteria that scholars tend to apply. It has a cult around a single leader, Vladimir Putin. It has a cult of the dead, organized around World War II. It has a myth of a past golden age of imperial greatness, to be restored by a war of healing violence — the murderous war on Ukraine.

You’ll need to read the whole essay to get the full impact of Snyder’s argument, but here’s a bit more:

We understand more about fascism than we did in the 1930s. We now know where it led. We should recognize fascism, because then we know what we are dealing with. But to recognize it is not to undo it. Fascism is not a debating position, but a cult of will that emanates fiction. It is about the mystique of a man who heals the world with violence, and it will be sustained by propaganda right to the end. It can be undone only by demonstrations of the leader’s weakness. The fascist leader has to be defeated, which means that those who oppose fascism have to do what is necessary to defeat him. Only then do the myths come crashing down.

Paris Street in the rain, by Gustave Caillebotte

Paris Street in the rain, by Gustave Caillebotte

As in the 1930s, democracy is in retreat around the world and fascists have moved to make war on their neighbors. If Russia wins in Ukraine, it won’t be just the destruction of a democracy by force, though that is bad enough. It will be a demoralization for democracies everywhere. Even before the war, Russia’s friends — Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Tucker Carlson — were the enemies of democracy. Fascist battlefield victories would confirm that might makes right, that reason is for the losers, that democracies must fail.

Had Ukraine not resisted, this would have been a dark spring for democrats around the world. If Ukraine does not win, we can expect decades of darkness.

The Economist: The coming food catastrophe. War is tipping a fragile world towards mass hunger. Fixing that is everyone’s business.

By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin will destroy the lives of people far from the battlefield—and on a scale even he may regret. The war is battering a global food system weakened by covid-19climate change and an energy shock. Ukraine’s exports of grain and oilseeds have mostly stopped and Russia’s are threatened. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories. Wheat prices, up 53% since the start of the year, jumped a further 6% on May 16th, after India said it would suspend exports because of an alarming heatwave.

The widely accepted idea of a cost-of-living crisis does not begin to capture the gravity of what may lie ahead. António Guterres, the un secretary general, warned on May 18th that the coming months threaten “the spectre of a global food shortage” that could last for years. The high cost of staple foods has already raised the number of people who cannot be sure of getting enough to eat by 440m, to 1.6bn. Nearly 250m are on the brink of famine. If, as is likely, the war drags on and supplies from Russia and Ukraine are limited, hundreds of millions more people could fall into poverty. Political unrest will spread, children will be stunted and people will starve.

Mr Putin must not use food as a weapon. Shortages are not the inevitable outcome of war. World leaders should see hunger as a global problem urgently requiring a global solution.

landscape-with-rain-wassily-kandinsky

Landscape with rain, Wassily Kandinsky

Russia and Ukraine supply 28% of globally traded wheat, 29% of the barley, 15% of the maize and 75% of the sunflower oil. Russia and Ukraine contribute about half the cereals imported by Lebanon and Tunisia; for Libya and Egypt the figure is two-thirds. Ukraine’s food exports provide the calories to feed 400m people. The war is disrupting these supplies because Ukraine has mined its waters to deter an assault, and Russia is blockading the port of Odessa.

Even before the invasion the World Food Programme had warned that 2022 would be a terrible year. China, the largest wheat producer, has said that, after rains delayed planting last year, this crop may be its worst-ever. Now, in addition to the extreme temperatures in India, the world’s second-largest producer, a lack of rain threatens to sap yields in other breadbaskets, from America’s wheat belt to the Beauce region of France. The Horn of Africa is being ravaged by its worst drought in four decades. Welcome to the era of climate change.

The Trumpist Attack on U.S. Democracy

This is from The Washington Post news analysis by Leigh Ann Caldwell, Theodoric Meyer: Trump uses Pa. primary to continue effort to undermine electoral system.

Donald Trump‘s continued effort to discredit or manipulate the electoral process is playing out in two distinct but related ways in the wake of Tuesday’s primary contests in Pennsylvania.

First, he is casting doubt on the result of the Senate GOP primary by once again making baseless claims that mail-in ballots are causing problems and suggesting his preferred candidate, Mehmet Oz, should just declare victory.

“It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find,’” Trump said, providing no evidence, on his social media platform Truth Social, our colleague Colby Itkowitz reports.

Second, the nominee he backed for governor, Doug Mastriano, won the primary and if he wins the election in November, Mastriano would have considerable influence over how the state’s presidential election results are handled in 2024 when Trump may be on the ballot as our colleague’s Rosalind S. HeldermanIsaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey explain.

Mastriano has been one of the staunchest backers of Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election and the steps he wanted officials to take to deny Joe Biden victory.

Rain swept street, by Mike Barr

Rain swept street, by Mike Barr

“As governor, Mastriano would have the opportunity not just to speak, but to act,” Roz, Isaac and Josh write. A possibility that is “worrying experts already fearful of a democratic breakdown around the 2024 presidential contest.”

“Those concerns are made especially acute in Pennsylvania by the fact that the governor has the unusual authority to directly appoint the secretary of state, who serves as chief elections officer and must sign off on results. If he or she refuses, chaos could follow.”

Read more at the WaPo link.

Reid Epstein at The New York Times: Midterm Stakes Grow Clearer: Election Deniers Will Be on Many Ballots.

Republican voters in this week’s primary races demonstrated a willingness to nominate candidates who parrot Donald J. Trump’s election lies and who appear intent on exerting extraordinary political control over voting systems. The results make clear that the November midterms may well affect the fate of free and fair elections in the country.

In Pennsylvania, Republican voters united behind a nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, who helped lead the brazen effort to overturn the state’s 2020 election and chartered buses to the rally before the Capitol riot, and who has since promoted a constitutionally impossible effort to decertify President Biden’s victory in his state.

In North Carolina, voters chose a G.O.P. Senate nominee, Representative Ted Budd, who voted in Congress against certifying the 2020 results and who continues to refuse to say that Mr. Biden was legitimately elected.

And in Idaho, which Mr. Trump won overwhelmingly in 2020, 57 percent of voters backed two Republican candidates for secretary of state who pushed election falsehoods, though they lost a three-way race to a rival who accepts Mr. Biden as president.

The strong showings on Tuesday by election deniers, who have counterparts running competitively in primaries across the country over the coming months, were an early signal of the threat posed by the Trump-inspired movement.

This story about what’s happening in Idaho was published before yesterday’s primaries, but it’s still an important read. Christopher Mathias at HuffPo: Living With The Far-Right Insurgency In Idaho.

IDAHO — White nationalist Vincent James Foxx had a new video for his nearly 70,000 subscribers on BitChute, one of the few tech platforms that hasn’t banned him. On Feb. 16, he appeared wearing a baseball hat emblazoned with the state’s outline tilted on its side so that it resembled a pistol.

“We are going to take over this state,” Foxx declared. “We have a great large group of people, and that group is growing. A true, actual right-wing takeover is happening right now in the state of Idaho. And there’s nothing that these people can do about it. So if you’re a legislator here, either get in line, or get out of the way.”

Foxx, 36, isn’t from Idaho. He only recently moved from California to Post Falls. But in the video, he showed off photos of himself posing with a string of prominent Republican politicians in the state as he explained who he’s supporting in the upcoming primaries, slated for May 17.

gregory thielker Rainy day in Washington DC

Gregory Thielker,, Rainy Day in Washington, DC

He was especially excited about a selfie he’d taken a week prior: It showed him and fellow white nationalist Dave Reilly, a recent Pennsylvania transplant also living in Post Falls, standing alongside Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin. All three were smiling.

“We’re supporting her,” Foxx said, bragging of his movement’s “deep connections” to McGeachin, whom former President Donald Trump endorsed in the GOP primary race for governor. Foxx then explained how his particular brand of Christian white nationalism is poised to conquer Idaho, then the country.

“The solution is local politics: Amassing power in these pockets of the country until it’s time to unify,” he said. “I’ve only been here for a couple of months and I’m tapped in the way that I am. You can do it too.”

Fascists like Foxx are famous fabulists, experts at exaggerating their influence and success. But Foxx wasn’t just talking shit.

He is one of many far-right activists who have flocked to Idaho in recent years, where a large and growing radical MAGA faction in the state’s Republican Party has openly allied itself with extremists to a shocking extent, even for the Trump era. This faction is accruing more and more power in Boise, the state capital: Imagine a statehouse full of Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Steve Kings. At the local level, they have seized seats on school boards and county commissions at a fast clip.

Please read the rest. This could easily happening in other small states.

New Covid Wave

The Washington Post: Top Biden health officials sound warning on rising covid infections.

Top Biden administration officials warned Wednesday that one-third of Americans live in communities experiencing rising levels of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and urged them to resume taking personal protection measures, including wearing masks.

The increase in new infections — nearing 100,000 a day — comes as the nation heads into Memorial Day weekend with its large gatherings and travel. That case count is almost certainly an undercount, officials said, given the widespread use of at-home tests for which results are often not reported to health officials.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strongly encouraged those living in communities designated yellow or orange, indicating they have large numbers of new infections and hospitalizations, to consider wearing masks in indoor public spaces and taking other steps to protect themselves.

“As we’re currently seeing a steady rise of cases in parts of the country, we encourage everyone to use the menu of tools we have today to prevent further infection and severe disease, including wearing a mask, getting tested, accessing treatments early if infected and getting vaccinated or boosted,”she said.

Wednesday’s warnings from Walensky and two other officials — Ashish Jha, White House coronavirus coordinator, and Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser — came on the same day the United States surpassed the grim milestone of 1 million covid-19 deaths, a toll that even the starkest predictions at the start of the pandemic in 2020 did not anticipate.

In the Rain, ,Franz Marc

In the Rain, Franz Marc

Also from The Washington Post: How big is the latest U.S. coronavirus wave? No one really knows.

Experts say Americans can assume that infections in their communities are five to 10 times the official counts.

“Any sort of look at the metrics on either a local, state or national level is a severe undercount,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist at the Pandemic Prevention Institute, housed at theRockefeller Foundation. “Everyone knows someone getting covid now.”

Hospitalizations nationally have increased 57 percent since bottoming out six weeks ago. But the roughly 23,000 covid patients in hospitals over the last week still represent nearly the lowest hospitalization levels of the entire pandemic.The recentincrease is led by the Northeast, where hospitalization rates are almost twice as high as in any other region.

Reported cases of covid have also tripled in the Northeast in just over a month, driving much of the growth nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.The country has averaged about 100,000 new cases each day over the past week —more than three times as high as at the lowest point in March.

The latest uptick in infections is testing a new CDC alert system adopted by many local and state governments that categorizes community levels of covid-19 as “low” even with the number of new cases rising to a level once considered high.

More than two-thirds of Americans live in low-risk areas under these metrics. But 43 percent of residents in the Northeastlive in areas considered high-risk, compared with 9percent in the Midwest and less than 1 percent each in the South and West.

I recommend clicking the link and reading the entire article.

morning-on-the-seine-in-the-rain-1898, Claude Monet

Morning on the Seine in the rain, Claude Monet

CNBC: U.S. faces unnecessary Covid deaths if Congress fails to pass funding bill, top health official warns.

Top U.S. health officials on Wednesday reiterated their calls for Congress to pass funding for the nation’s fight against Covid-19, warning that failure to act now would result in an unnecessary loss of life in the fall and winter.

Their warning comes as new infections and hospitalizations are on the rise as the more transmissible omicron subvariants sweep the U.S.

The nation is reporting more than 94,000 new infections daily on average as of Monday, a 25% increase over the previous week, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, hospitalizations have increased 18% over the past week with about 3,000 people admitted with Covid every day on average, according to CDC data.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House Covid response coordinator, said the fact that many people are now taking at-home tests, results of which are not captured in the data, has to be taken into consideration.

“We know that the number of infections is actually substantially higher than that, hard to know exactly how many, but we know that a lot of people are getting diagnosed using home tests,” Jha said during a White House update on the pandemic Wednesday. “We’re clearly undercounting cases. There’s a lot of infections across America.”

Those are today’s top stories as I see it. What do you think? What stories are you following?


Thursday Reads

Rare Sunrise Eclipse Entrances Northeast States

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA – JUNE 10: A partial solar eclipse is seen as the sun rises behind the Capitol Building on June 10, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)

Good Morning!!

I don’t know why I keep reading articles about the lab-leak theory. It’s not that I necessarily believe it’s true. I certainly don’t believe that a virus was created or modified in the Wuhan lab and then released into the population. I do think it’s possible that a researcher picked up a virus in the field and somehow carelessly infected someone on the outside. I still think the most likely scenario is the cross species (animal-to-human) route, because that clearly happens. I guess I’m just interested in why the argument has arisen in the media and won’t go away. 

Anyway, there’s an interesting article on the subject at The Atlantic this morning: Don’t Fall for These Lab-Leak Traps.  Recent coverage of the pandemic’s origins has ensnared readers in semantic quibbles, side points, and distractions, by Daniel Engber. I won’t try to summarize the piece because it’s so long, but here’s a bit of what Engber writes about what he calls “the mad scientist trap.”

The lab-leak theory isn’t singular; rather, it’s a catchall for a continuum of possible scenarios, ranging from the mundane to the diabolical. At one end, a researcher from the Wuhan Institute of Virology might have gone out to sample bat guano, become infected with a novel pathogen while in the field, and then seeded it back home in a crowded city. Or maybe researchers brought a specimen of a wild-bat virus back into the lab without becoming infected, only to set it free via someone’s clothes or through a leaky sewage pipe.

The microbiologists Michael Imperiale and David Relman, both former members of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, told me several weeks ago that lab-leak scenarios of this rather more innocent variety—involving the collection and accidental release of a naturally occuring pathogen—were the most probable of all the non-natural possibilities. Yet the most prominent opinionating on this topic has clustered at the other end of the continuum, at first around the dark-side theory of a bioweapon gone awry, and then around the idea that a harmless virus had been deliberately transformed into SARS-CoV-2 (and released by accident) after a reckless series of tabletop experiments.

The eclipse viewed from Brooklyn Thursday morning. Justin Lane EPA, via Shutterstock

The eclipse viewed from Brooklyn Thursday morning. Justin Lane EPA, via Shutterstock

That’s another pitfall in this debate: a tendency to focus only on the most disturbing and improbable versions of the lab-leak hypothesis, and to downplay the rest. The mad-scientist trap sprays a mist across the facts by presuming scientific motivations; it posits that researchers could have caused the pandemic only if they’d been trying to create infectious pathogens.

Efforts to enhance a virus in a lab, usually described as “gain of function” studies, have engendered hyperbolic speculation….

The problem is, depending on how one chooses to define gain-of-function research, it could well include most virological research, some forms of vaccine development, and a healthy portion of biology writ large. Anytime a scientist tries to probe or tweak the function of a gene, she could be working in this vein. In that sense, yes, the National Institutes of Health is a “huge gain-of-function bureaucracy.” So what?

Engler concludes:

One might assume that the single-minded fear of gain-of-function research is peculiar to conservatives—sitting, as it does, at the shadowy convergence of Big Government and Critical Frankenstein Studies. But the urge to blame scientific hubris for scientific problems, as opposed to farcical incompetence, seems to have long-standing, bipartisan support.

This trap was last sprung seven years ago. In March 2014, a CDC lab accidently shipped the highly virulent H5N1 bird flu to a poultry lab at the Department of Agriculture. Then in June, another CDC lab sent off samples of the bacteria that cause anthrax without properly inactivating them—and 75 government employees were potentially exposed. A few weeks after that, scientists at NIH stumbled across six vials of smallpox in a forgotten cardboard box. Regulators had every reason to believe that accidental laboratory leaks of naturally occurring pathogens were more common (and more likely) than genetic-engineering studies gone awry. But when confronted with all this evidence that scientists were slipping on banana peels, the government looked at other risks instead: It announced a pause on gain-of-function research.

Rare Sunrise Eclipse Entrances Northeast States

The sun rises next to the Statue of Liberty during an annular eclipse on June 10, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

We’re in the process of defaulting to the same idea—that better biosafety might be achieved, and the next pandemic headed off, if we prevent or slow the development of genetically engineered bananas. That might only help ensure that no one thinks too hard about the odds of slapstick-fueled catastrophe. We may yet find, with more investigation, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and other places like it around the world, is positively strewn with banana peels. If that’s the case, our first and most important goal should be to clean them up. In the meantime, don’t be fooled by false antonyms. The opposite of nature isn’t hubris, and if SARS-CoV-2 turns out not to have a “natural” origin, that doesn’t have to mean someone made it in a lab.

Sorry for the long excerpt, but I do think it’s a useful article. Read more at the link if you’re interested.

The New York Times has an article on this morning’s eclipse: Highlights From the ‘Ring of Fire’ Solar Eclipse at Sunrise.

Just after sunrise over the eastern half of North America, the sun was almost completely blotted out by the moon for a few dawn hours in an annular solar eclipse.

During such an eclipse, the black silhouette of the moon — too far from Earth to completely cover the sun — will be surrounded by a thin ring of our home star’s surface, or photosphere. Many know this as a “ring of fire,” but few will get to experience the full effect.

The eclipse started after sunrise north of Lake Superior and began crossing remote regions of Canada, on its way into Greenland and the Arctic Ocean before going over the North Pole. Its course then heads south before ending in parts of the Russian Far East.

Still, some lucky souls got to experience this cosmic geometry, and a few were even intrepid and well organized enough to book airplane flights into the zone of maximum darkness. Many more of us got to experience a partial solar eclipse if we woke up early to clear enough skies….

It was dark and windy as the visitors spread out across the 86th floor observation deck 1,050 feet above midtown, adjusting camera lenses and perfecting positions as they waited for the sun to appear.

When the sky began to lighten and clouds turned shades of fuchsia pink, attendees of the event, who had paid $114.81 each to be there, could be overheard begging the skyline to clear up so there would be a better view….

Finally, the sun rose and the eclipse was visible — if a little hazily — through the cloud cover.

“You could hear the entire audience react at the first viewing of the sun,” said Jean-Yves Ghazi, president of the Empire State Building Observatory. “Everybody was gasping and it was absolutely magical.”

Read more at the link.

US-SOLAR-ECLIPSE-WEATHER

Annular (partial solar) eclipse is seen as the sun rises over Scituate Light in Scituate, MA, June 10, 2021. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) via Getty Images)

From Stephen Collinson at CNN on Biden’s first foreign trip: Why Biden’s foreign trip is so unique and so important.

No US President has ever left the nation’s shores with democratic values under attack as broadly and systemically at home as they are abroad. This extraordinary reality will complicate his mission to purge the trauma of the Donald Trump era and convince both foes and friends that the US is reclaiming its global leadership role for good.

Biden meets British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday before the G7 summit, makes a hop to NATO in Brussels, then has a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva that will evoke the most tense days of the Cold War.

“We’re going to make it clear that the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges,” Biden told US troops at an air base in eastern England on WednesdaFor Biden, democracy is not just some abstract concept from civics class that Americans experience only when they enter the voting booth every few years.

It is a system, a way of life and a set of rules and norms that made the United States the strongest and richest country in history. The free, prosperous nations the US rebuilt and protected after World War II faced down communist tyranny in the form of the Soviet Union and underwrote 70 years of peace. This web of open, like-minded countries is also the key to America’s global power. If democracy ebbs abroad, so does US influence.

The rise of a new superpower, China, determined to overhaul US riches and power is becoming a grave threat to democracy, and offers potential autocrats an alternative power template of one-party rule.

Russia — the adversary that Biden will confront at the end of his Europe trip — meddled in the last two US elections to help Trump, who often seemed to advance its foreign interests over America’s.

But the most extraordinary feature of Biden’s trip is that he’s not an American President going out to confront tyranny abroad — that’s happened before. He’s huddling with US allies at a moment when the greatest threat to democracy comes from within the United States.

The world looked on, horrified, at the insurrection against the US Capitol orchestrated by Trump in January. Since then, the ex-President has poisoned millions of Americans against democracy with his false electoral-fraud claims. Republican state lawmakers are quickly passing bills that make it harder for all but their own supporters to vote and make it easier to steal elections. The principle that voters have the right to pick their own leaders is under threat.

Thursday’s eclipse over the Toronto skyline.Credit Frank Gunn, The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Thursday’s eclipse over the Toronto skyline. Credit Frank Gunn, The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

I don’t see how U.S. democracy can be saved unless Trump and his enablers are investigated and prosecuted. It’s also vitally important to investigate the insurrection that Trump incited on January 6, 2021. There are endless avenues of corruption to deal with from Trump’s four years in office, but here’s the latest to hit the news (actually is old news…). 

Adam Klasfeld at Law and Crime: ‘Point of No Return’: Don McGahn Told Congress How Close Trump Came to ‘Inflection Point,’ Another ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’

In a fit of pique over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, former President Donald Trump almost reached an “inflection point” and “point of no return” that would have set in motion a Richard Nixon-style “Saturday Night Massacre,” ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn recently told Congress behind closed doors.

The just-released transcript of McGahn’s closed door testimony before the House Judiciary Committee contains a series of new answers and elaborations on details that were publicized in the Mueller Report.

Releasing the June 4th transcript on Wednesday, Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said: “Mr. McGahn provided the Committee with substantial new information—including firsthand accounts of President Trump’s increasingly out of control behavior, and insight into concerns that the former President’s conduct could expose both Trump and McGahn to criminal liability.”

“Mr. McGahn also confirmed that President Trump lied when he denied the accuracy of the Mueller report, and admitted that he was the source for a Washington Post report that confirmed Trump’s direction to McGahn to remove the Special Counsel,” Nadler wrote in a statement.

In the transcript, McGahn explains his reluctance to convey a message from Trump pressuring then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to not allow the special counsel to serve because of alleged conflicts—a request that McGahn considered an “inflection point.”

“‘Inflection point,’ with that I meant a point of no return,” McGahn testified. “If the Acting Attorney General received what he thought was a direction from the counsel to the President to remove a special counsel, he would either have to remove the special counsel or resign. We are still talking about the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ decades and decades later.”

Have a great Thursday Sky Dancers!!