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Respectable white people continue to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt. Why?

There seems to be some confusion, at least among certain respectable white people, about the meaning of hypocrisy and its application to today's Republican Party. The confusion is understandable. The outrage over the Republicans saying one thing and doing another may even yield concrete results in time. But even then, we should have clear in our minds that Republican rhetoric operates on two levels simultaneously. Most importantly, it is hostile toward the principle of universal political equality.

To illustrate, let me draw your attention to an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the largest and most influential daily newspaper in that area.1 In it, the editorial writer excoriates the 21 Republicans in the United States House of Representatives who voted against bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal to "the officers, of various police units, who put their lives on the line (and in one case, died) protecting those very lawmakers after then-President Donald Trump incited the mob to storm the Capitol."

Asked to choose between the anti-democracy thugs who assailed America's seat of government, or the small contingent of police officers who valiantly tried to stop them, these 21 elected representatives of the people chose … the thugs.

For generations, writes the editorial writer, the Republicans were celebrated as the party of law and order. "That was infused with some hypocrisy from the start—Nixon would ultimately be driven from the White House for his crimes in office—but in principle, at least, it aligned with a central tenet of conservatism: that respect for the law provides the restraint of passions that is necessary for society to thrive."

But that was before the former president came along. "While in office, Trump's almost weekly displays of contempt for the restraints of the Constitution made Nixon look like a choirboy, culminating in his incitement of a riot in an attempt to retain power. And yet to this day, most congressional Republicans still kiss the Trumpian ring."

Since then, the editorial writer says, the GOP has shown it's "no longer defined by respect for the law." In addition to the 21 Republicans failing to honor heroic cops, the editorial writer cites Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, who said that "a rioter who was shot to death by an officer as she breached a Capitol window had been 'executed'." Also cited is Missouri Governor Mike Parson, a former sheriff, who signed into law a bill "to impose heavy fines against local police departments if they enforce federal gun laws." The editorial concludes: "'Law and order' is just another empty slogan designed to own the libs. All that today's Republican Party actually believes in is power."

Before I go on, let me say we are in a very good place if respectable white people of the kind who write and consume newspaper editorials in the country's major cities are offended by the appearance of Republican hypocrisy. That may counterbalance the outrage the Republicans are trying to invent (out of thin air) over "critical race theory." As I said last week, the Republicans don't know what CRT is. They don't want to know what CRT is. All they know is they already "know" what it is, enough for an ad-hoc scorched-earth campaign at the state level against free speech and free inquiry. Even if respectable white people are scared of the Republicans' newest boogeyman, they also know the Democrats never claimed, and will never claim, to be the party of CRT.

That said, I think respectable white people are making a grave error. They continue to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt. How? By assuming the Republicans care about equal treatment under law. If they did, they really would be hypocrites. If you drop that assumption, however, everything makes much more sense. "Law and order" is not another empty slogan. It's an expression of ideology. They value a dual system of law and order—one for us and one for them. This is the proper view, I think, of the Republican acquittal of Donald Trump. A Republican president can be above the law. A Democratic president can't be. One is protected. One is punished. The Republicans want what American fascists always want: two legal systems, separate and unequal.

The editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was right but only partly. It's not that the Republicans do not respect law and order. They deeply respect law and order as long as there are two sets, one for them and one for everyone else. What they do not respect is political equality. What they do not respect are attempts to hold them equally accountable. More ominously, what they want is a social order in which violence (white-power domestic terrorism) of the kind we saw on January 6 is a legitimate response to the "injustice" of a free and fair election. The insurgent shot to death at the Capitol was not a traitor, but instead a martyr to the cause of law and order.

It seems to me pretty clear that the Republicans don't care about equality or equal treatment under law. It seems to me pretty clear that certain respectable white people don't want to see the whole truth, because, as bad as the Republicans are, they aren't that bad for respectable white people. After all, respectable white people are going to benefit from a dual system of justice, whether or not they intend to. The trick, I think, is pushing them to see that there's more going on here than mere hypocrisy. The Republicans deeply respect "law and order." What they hate is America as it is.

Sociologist explains why the the myth of meritocracy is failing generations of Americans

Some phrases we've all heard: "He went from rags to riches." "Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps." "You can make it if you try." "We can all have the American Dream." Think about these popular movies: Rocky, The Social Network or The Pursuit of Happyness. We celebrate the characters in these films, because the protagonist overcomes obstacles and achieves success by dint of their grit and ingenuity.

These are all illustrations of America understood as a meritocracy—privilege, status and reward go to those with the talent and work ethic to acquire them. It's even-odds, in a meritocracy, between the kid living in a trailer park and the one living in a gated community who will end up as a CEO of an investment firm. It's a coin-toss between the son of a surgeon and the son of a sanitation worker as to who will go to Stanford.

But how true is this?

A meritocracy describes a system in which someone earns their power, social status and privilege. We can contrast this with a hereditary aristocracy, where power, social status and privilege are passed down through birth. I believe when people say meritocracy, they are referring to two different but related understandings.

One understanding refers to the intergenerational social mobility of people—the ability of children to do better than their parents. Some of the best research on this comes from Raj Chetty. He and a team of researchers calculated the proportion of children who make more than their parents from the 1940s to those born in the 1980s.

Comparing parents and their children's respective incomes at age 30, the authors found that 90 percent of children born in 1940 earned more than their parents. But since that time, social mobility has been in a steep decline. By 1984, only about 50 percent of children born in that decade are making more than their parents did.

So what does this mean? America's economy has continued to grow with some interruptions since the 1940s. Ideally, this economic growth should be shared across the population. However, economic gains are accruing to fewer and fewer people.

The second understanding of meritocracy focuses on people at the top. It is not just about social mobility as measured by income, but by prestige and power, too. A meritocracy refers to the type of person who constitutes the ruling class in society. Are the folks at the top there because they earned it or because they inherited their positions? Two books, Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit and The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits, address the question. Both provide a "yes-no" answer.

In the years immediately after World War II, America experienced an explosion of people enrolling in higher education. Elite colleges and universities went through a transformation. Before the explosion, the sons of the wealthy were ensured a place at an Ivy League school. Afterward, they had to compete with hungry, talented working-class and ethnic whites. The Polish or Jewish immigrant could compete with the Boston Brahmin for a spot at Harvard. This was meritocracy (for white people, that is).

But by 1980, there was a retrenchment of class privilege. Elite schools became hyper selective. Gaining entry required investment in prep schools, SAT courses and extracurricular activities. Moreover, the highest paying jobs—particularly in law and finance—began to recruit exclusively from these schools. Accordingly, wealthy parents now spend heavily on their children's education, thereby ensuring their class position.

Those children, as Markovits writes, did "earn" spots in top-tier schools. They studied hard. They trained hard. They "earned" high salaries. They "earned" top positions. But they did so in a context where wealth was a necessary but insufficient precondition. Here are some data points from Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit illustrating this point:

  • "More than 70 percent of those who attend the hundred or so most competitive colleges in the United States come from the top quarter of the income scale; only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter."
  • At the most prestigious schools, "there are more students from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the entire bottom half of the country."
  • "If you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), your chances of attending an Ivy League school are 77 times greater than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent)."

Yes, elites do earn their place. But they do so in a context of heavy parental investment, making it exceedingly hard for non-wealthy people to compete. The research from Shetty on social mobility, and from Markovits and Sandel, point to one conclusion. Your class background matters more now than it has since the mid-20th century.

Because we often juxtapose myth and fact, myth often becomes synonymous with fiction. Sociologists like me, however, take a different approach. Its truthfulness is of less importance than its ability to transmit a people's values and meaning. Myths bind a society together. George Washington surely lied on occasion, but the myth that he did not lie helped cement his image as someone Americans should admire. I suspect this is why his precedent of only serving two terms held for about 150 years without a formal law enforcing it. No president wanted to be less honorable than Washington.

We need myths. And in a capitalist society, we need the myth of meritocracy to power the engine of innovation. But as the myth of meritocracy floats further away from concrete realities, we must ask ourselves if the myth is not binding us in another way. Is it constraining our thinking? Is it preventing us from making the necessary changes in public policy to address the decline in social mobility, increasing wealth inequality or the ability of wealthy parents to transmit their class status to their children?

I think so.

When policies such as increasing minimum wage, providing free health care or forgiving student loan debt are proposed, the rebuttal is usually a version of "not deserving" (i.e., not earned by merit). But these policies help clear a path to the American Dream for the poor and working class. We are assuming a meritocracy when there is none and then using that assumption to justify present inequalities. To make meritocracy a future reality, we must first face up to meritocracy as a present myth.

Trump transcended class divisions between white people. GOP governors are inflaming them

The idea that the Republicans are the party of the working class is now conventional wisdom among some members of the Washington press corps. That has bothered me for a variety of reasons, but I don't recall reporting the following annoyance. If the Republicans are the party of the working class, what does that mean in terms of class? We don't know, because most of the press corps does not bother asking the question.

Instead, we are left to read between and among the lines. The working class is drawn to the Republicans on account of the Republicans standing against things and people and ideas that the working class stands against. Those "things and people and ideas" have a certain color and a certain gender such that the Republicans are the party of the working class less in terms of class and more in terms of bigotry and prejudice. We are not talking about a working class so much as a whites-only working class. This is what lurks between and among the lines but the press corps never comes out and says it.

There are intimations of class, though. The people who twice broke for Donald Trump were largely the very obscenely rich as well as Americans believing they deserve to be very obscenely rich but for whatever reason are not. They live in every city and town. They are businessmen, property-owners and church members. They are respected and admired. They work hard and give back. They didn't go to college, which to the press corps means they are working class. To everyone else, they are the local upper crust.

That's not usually reported either. Neither is the root of the local upper crust's support for their idol. The Republicans, when they had control of the Congress, did one thing. They passed tax cuts benefiting the very obscenely rich. To the extent they benefited a petty bourgeoisie that's resentful of not being very obscenely rich, it was by treating the petty bourgeoisie as if they were very obscenely rich. That they got little or nothing materially is beside the point. The point was being seen as being like Donald Trump.

In this, the former president was a unity figure. In him was embodied the right combination of "cultural" factors that were capable of transcending real class divisions between the whites-only working class and the whites-only petty bourgeoisie for whom the whites-only working class worked. By "cultural," of course, I mean bigotry and prejudice. In this context, I think, we would profit from reconsidering the relationship between class and race (and other identifiers). To the whites-only working class, Trump was their hero. To the whites-only petty bourgeoisie, he was their ideal. To both, I'd suggest, he was the means by which they either stayed white or got whiter.

e're all familiar with the idea of upward mobility. If you work hard and play by the rules, the American dream can be yours. But what if, as Editorial Board member Kaitlin Byrd has argued persuasively, the US economy was built in accordance with white supremacy? Then class and upward mobility, in reality, are indistinguishable from systemic racism. That would mean the whites-only working class panics when the economy crashes. Being white no longer protects them. They need a savior. That would mean the whites-only petty bourgeoisie rejoices at the sight of their idol signing massive tax cuts for the very obscenely rich. Though they are not and never will be very obscenely rich, it doesn't matter. They got to be like Trump. They got to be whiter.

Seen from this perspective, one has to wonder how the whites-only working class is feeling in 25 states, where the Republican governors have shut off pandemic relief funding at the behest of a whites-only petty bourgeoisie that does not want to pay more in wages than the whites-only working class is receiving in unemployment benefits. Where Trump was capable of transcending the real class divisions between these camps with appeals to their whiteness, these GOP governors are inflaming divisions by taking whiteness away from one while maintaining it for the other.

We don't usually talk this way, because the (mostly white) press corps doesn't talk this way. It doesn't have, or doesn't want to have, the language with which to convey these felt realities. Instead, it talks about class as if it were only about class. It talks about race as if only Black people had a race. I hope someday we will all have access to a new American social vocabulary. In the meanwhile, I'll have to settle with being annoyed.

European Union blacklists big banks

The European Union is shaking up the financial world by excluding a group of large banks from participating in the marketing of bonds being floated to help in the economic recovery of member states.

According to reports in various business publications, the 10 banks are being singled out because of their involvement in cases in which they were accused of manipulating bond and currency markets. In other words, they are being punished for misconduct.

These moves may not have a major bottom-line impact on the banks—which include U.S. giants JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America. But the EU is sending an important message about corporate wrongdoing.

Large companies have come to assume they can essentially buy their way out of legal jeopardy by paying fines and settlements that have grown larger but arein still far from seriously punitive. As Violation Tracker documents, the big banks are Exhibit A for this phenomenon.

The database shows that the financial sector overall has paid more than $300 billion in U.S. penalties in the past two decades, far and away more than any other part of the economy.

Bank of America is at the top of the list of penalty payers, with $82 billion; JPMorgan, second with $35 billion; Citigroup, fourth with $25 billion.

Deutsche Bank on the List

Non-U.S. banks being singled out by the EU have also accumulated substantial U.S. penalties, apart from what they have paid elsewhere. For example, Deutsche Bank paid $18 billion and NatWest (formerly the Royal Bank of Scotland) $13 billion.

The EU's move is focused on a particular set of scandals in which these banks were alleged to have colluded to rig markets.

Among these are cases involving the manipulation of currency markets. In 2015, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland each paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to resolve criminal charges brought by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Unlike many other situations in which large corporations are offered deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements, the banks in this case had to plead guilty to the felony charges.

Yet there was little in the way of consequences beyond the penalty payments. The banks were put on probation, on the assumption this would cause them to cease their bad behavior. Yet all the banks continued to rack up regulatory violations in subsequent years.

€86 Million Hit

Reuters estimates that the blacklisted banks will lose out on about 86 million euros in syndication fees. This is a lot less than what the banks have paid in penalties. Yet, if banks begin to see that misconduct will cause them to be excluded from business opportunities, that may be more of an inducement to avoid corrupt behavior.

The dilemma for policymakers is that misconduct is so widespread in the financial sector that it is difficult to find service providers with clean hands. While excluding the 10 banks, the EU turned to a group of others to handle the debt issue. Those included the likes of HSBC and BNP Paribas, which have their own substantial corporate rap sheets. Perhaps a larger blacklist is needed.

This article is from Dirt Diggers Digest.

'I've got lots of ammo': NC conservatives express 'real fear' elections are being stolen -- and they want action

Jay DeLancy, a retired Air Force Colonel with a clean-shaven head and the energetic manner of a nondenominational preacher, stood at the front of a Baptist church in the Appalachian foothills on a recent Saturday afternoon at the conclusion of his presentation on voting by non-citizens.

Complete with a slideshow and self-deprecating commentary, DeLancy's presentation detailed a saga running back almost a decade when his group Voter Integrity Project attempted to challenge dozens of registered voters on the basis of jury excuse forms that indicated they were not citizens of North Carolina. The state Board of Elections had thrown out each of the challenges, and successive efforts to obtain legislation remedies failed. DeLancy said he was also frustrated that after 11 of the cases were referred to Immigration & Customs Enforcement for investigation, nothing seemed to come of it.

Voter Integrity Project responds to the NAACP v. NCSBEE ruling.

"But these people are running around saying, 'There is no vote fraud because, well, there's no prosecutions," DeLancy said. "We'll, have you gotten the gist of how hard it is to get a stinkin' prosecution? Have you gotten that yet? So, it's really hard to get one."

A woman with short, silvery hair raised her hand and stood to speak.

"Do you really think that we — we can't go in and break dishes, and we're supposed to sit back like this — I don't think we've got that type of time," she said during the question-and-answer period at the June 12 "Voter Integrity Bootcamp." Held in the spacious sanctuary at Calvary Baptist Church, about 50 people — almost exclusively white, with the exception of one African-American man — strategized methods for deterring voter fraud.

DeLancy attempted to interject, but the woman continued.

"I really don't," she continued. "My real fear is — and this is coming from someone who's usually pretty calm, pretty cool and collected — I want to go out with a baseball bat and break some dishes and make some things happen. I'm tired of this…. I have a real fear that there's going to be civil unrest amongst what are usually very peaceful people. You can only be pushed to the precipice before — I'm done. I mean, when are we going to go golf?"

Expressing frustration, the woman continued, "I'm still not getting any direct action on what I can do."

"Trust me, that's next," DeLancy told her. "But it's a question of the ballot box versus the ammo box. And I'm trying to avoid…."

"I've got lots of ammo," the woman interrupted.

"Honey, you don't have enough," DeLancy said. "You don't have enough. There's not enough ammo on this planet for what you're talking about. Just saying. So, calm down."

Asked about whether his message could potentially fuel violence by undermining confidence in elections, DeLancy told Raw Story: "I'm not going to lie to them. I think there's a way to thread the needle to get elections back to something we can be confident in.

"We need a lot more transparency in this," he continued. "If we don't get it, we will lose our republic. We will become another Venezuela if we don't get this solved."

DeLancy, who co-founded Voter Integrity Project in 2011, held up the Arizona election audit as a model for the kind of process he would like to see to restore trust in elections. The Arizona audit has been widely panned for being run by a little-known company with no experience in election audits, concerns about ballots being compromised, and limiting access to the press.

"We'd like to see an audit — an Arizona-style audit," DeLancy told Raw Story. "In the worst-case scenario, people laugh their heads off, and say, 'You wasted all this money for nothing.'

"In my world, that's how we would do it," he added. "We would have citizen oversight of the process. We've outsourced the job to full-time and part-time government employees. The government employees are not neutral."

A majority of Republicans — 53 percent — believe, falsely, that Donald Trump is the "true president," according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in May. In comparison, only 3 percent of Democrats believe the election was stolen from Trump. Put together with unaffiliated voters, the poll found that 25 percent of all Americans buy into the false belief that the election was stolen.

DeLancy's trainings are receiving publicity from the NC State Defense Forces, which describes itself as an "all-volunteer, pro-government, non-partisan civil defense force comprised of currently and formerly serving military, police, first responders and other like-minded legal US citizens." The group, which announced its aim to "assist state citizens learning how to protect elections," says it upholds an oath to "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic and to protect and serve the citizens of North Carolina according to the NC State Constitution in times of need such as natural disasters or local threats to law and order." Another press release, dated Dec. 15, 2020, that is published on the group's website announces: "Oath Keepers in North Carolina joining North Carolina State Defense Forces." It is not clear what, if any, connection the NC State Defense Forces might have with the dozen-plus defendants facing federal charges related to the Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol. Calls to a number listed on the group's website for this story were not returned.

Two recurring themes in DeLancy's presentations are the notion that voter fraud is widespread and that institutions are unresponsive to efforts to ferret it out. Belying DeLancy's complaint about the difficulty of getting prosecutions when it comes to non-citizens voting — which had prompted the woman at his training in King to say she was ready "to go out with a baseball bat and break some dishes" — was a fact that went unmentioned in his presentation: Federal prosecutors under both Trump and Biden have announced indictments of dozens of North Carolina residents accused of voting as non-citizens, including 19 in August 2018, another 19 in September 2020 and, most recently, 24 others in March 2021.

Since the launch of the Voter Integrity Project in 2011, DeLancy has cultivated relationships among far-right Republican lawmakers in the NC House, including Rep. George Cleveland. Bob Hall, a voter-rights watchdog who often winds up on the opposite side in legislative fights, confirmed DeLancy's account that the Republican leadership doesn't always go along with him.

"He's more extreme than what the leadership wants," Hall said.

DeLancy framed his presentation on non-citizens voting at the June 12 training as a tale of heroes and villains. He suggested his audience would probably deem Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who vetoed a bill requiring local clerks of courts to share jury excuse forms with election offices, as the villain. But DeLancy offered a counterintuitive alternative, showing a slide with Cooper's faced X-ed out, alongside that of Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. With Berger leading the Senate, the bill remained bottled up in committee when the Republicans had a veto-proof supermajority, DeLancy pointed out.

"Cleveland understood what [the legislation] was doing," DeLancy recounted on June 12. "My fingerprints were not on that bill. Cleveland put it through. He said, 'Should I name it 'Voter Roll'? I said, 'No, no, no. It's about jury excusals, interagency cooperation, that's all.' And he did it. He framed it that way."

The legislation supported by DeLancy would have also made the jury excuse forms into public records.

"That's a huge concern," Hall said. "In addition to the fact that the data is not reliable, you're giving an overworked staff at the county board a bunch of bad data. There's no penalty for someone to write, 'I'm not a citizen of the state,' to get out of jury duty. It's not a felony or a misdemeanor. People can write all kinds of things."

The harm of releasing jury excuse forms to citizen volunteers is illustrated by what happened when DeLancy accessed the forms in Wake County in 2012, Hall said.

"He got access to the jury excuse forms, and had his data guy line it up with registered voters," Hall recounted. "It turned out that the data was all wrong. It was complete harassment. There was a guy they videoed; Jay and his allies were coming up to this guy in his driveway, and they say, 'We want to talk to you.' It turns out he's a legitimate citizen. They wanted to claim he wasn't part of it. The thing was by the time they got that information — people who were not citizens at the time they were called to serve on juries had become citizens. Six months later, by the time he was doing his campaign, the data was old."

While DeLancy found Berger, the Republican leader of the state Senate in North Carolina, to be unreceptive, his view of other Republican officials across the country has likewise dimmed.

DeLancy told Raw Story that at one time he believed voter fraud primarily benefited Democrats. That changed during the 2020 election.

"After 2020, I think it mainly benefits an ideology," he said. "You might call it 'Never Trump.' You might call it globalism. In Arizona, the Republican senators were trying to get the ballots, and the Republican governor is trying to stop them."

DeLancy told Raw Story without hesitation that he believes the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Multiple judges have thrown out lawsuits challenging the 2020 election based on lack of evidence.

"I just find it mighty interesting that Trump was winning those key battleground states that had those large dumps of votes after midnight," DeLancy said. "You get a massive number of ballots that suddenly show up that swing the election conveniently against Trump."

The phenomenon DeLancy described was widely predicted by election observers who had noted that early returns would tend to favor Trump, while later surges of write-in and absentee votes — a method more widely embraced by Democratic voters — would benefit Biden. DeLancy indicated he's well aware of the theory, accurately identifying it as the "Red Mirage."

DeLancy said he's teaching citizen volunteers at the Voter Integrity Bootcamps to canvass voter rolls to try to identify illegal voters. By having volunteers knock on doors at addresses for voters listed as "inactive," he hopes to gather signed statements from witnesses attesting that these voters no longer live at the addresses where they are registered. He said his group will exercise "all options, to include challenging those voters if they show up at the polls."

The two trainings held so far this year by Voter Integrity Project have taken place in Republican-dominated areas, first in Waynesville on April 24 and then in King last weekend. But three trainings scheduled for next month are aimed at Democratic strongholds in Fayetteville, Raleigh and Durham.

During the recent training in King, DeLancy acknowledged the presence of a reporter and made sure everyone in the audience was also aware of it. But he did not temper his remarks.

During a digression on the topic of undocumented people traveling to North Carolina to obtain driver's licenses before the DMV stopped the practice in 2006, DeLancy complained about a TV news story that was too positive for his liking.

"There was just a friendly story about these people who came flooding in from Atlanta in a van," he said. "Couldn't speak a lick of English, but they were getting that license before they had to provide their citizenship. And only in TV-land in Charlotte is this something to celebrate."

Then his voice rose in a growl that revealed his frustration about the way he imagined he and his allies would be perceived because they weren't comfortable with undocumented people obtaining licenses to legally operate motor vehicles.

"But people like you who are obviously white supremacists, people like you are appalled by it," DeLancy said. "And it's like, come on. Come on, guys. Can't we defend our country? Aren't we allowed to have borders?"

The waters wars are coming to a state near you — in fact, they're already here

When it comes to dams, we're not just talking about hydropower. We're talking about agriculture, water storage and flood control. We're talking about storing hazardous materials. While the first dam Americans think of is usually the Hoover Dam or the Grand Coulee, most in the US are embankment dams (which are made from soil that retains the water). Many in the US were built and owned by the federal government. Today, however, more than half of them are privately owned, operated and maintained.

It may come as a shock, but the average age of the more than 90,000 dams in the US is 56. The number that are hazardous and outdated is growing. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that repairing them would cost nearly $45 billion. That price tag is prohibitive when neither the federal government nor the private owners of these dams is willing to front the money. We are seeing the makings of a 21st-century "water war," in the US and around the globe, but it's a war being waged over more than dams.

Underneath this story of development are the stories of conflict over water rights, the privatization of water resources, and the steady depletion of aquifers and rivers.

Especially in the American West, states are suffering through drought after drought, through problems with groundwater extraction and through conflict over who has the right to which water. In the US, as is the case in most other countries, maintaining the infrastructure for the safe use of water comes with a high financial cost as well as a high political cost. The financial cost is self explanatory, but the political cost comes from the fact that repairing things like dams and other hydrological infrastructure projects is rarely something politicians can point to as "savvy" or "impressive." It's attractive for politicians to claim they're building new and impressive water projects. But repairing infrastructure? Well, that just doesn't sound like a cool campaign ad.

In the 19th century, Americans packed their belongings and made their lives in the western United States in search of gold, coal, oil, or just to build a new life. But in the process of settling, and basically claiming the West as "American," one of the most important resources has become increasingly scarce and expensive: water.

In the West, water issues have been consistently a flashpoint, not just between and among states but also between and among white settlers, Indigenous Americans, federal government officials and the business elite. The West holds the headwaters of the major rivers in the continent, mainly the Columbia, Missouri, Mississippi, Rio Grande and the Colorado. But, importantly, the West also has the driest regions as well: the Mojave, Great Basin, and Chihuahua deserts. Historically, and to this day, the region depends on consistent irrigation to maintain agricultural production, especially because rainfall is totally insufficient. The scale of this irrigation development grew exponentially in the late 19th century as the federal government aimed to make the West attractive to agricultural settlers. The Bureau of Reclamation constructed dams across many western rivers to store water and then make use of it for irrigation. In the early 20th century, the dams the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed began to provide hydroelectric power as well as irrigation, water supply and recreation.

However, this so-called "great" era of federal investment came to a halt in the late 1980s, especially with the Water Resources Development Act in 1986. This legislation led to the general view that private and local interests should shoulder more of the financial burden for these water projects, that the environment is a new consideration that must be factored into planning and maintenance, and that smaller or more marginal projects (especially those on Indigenous American reservations) will most likely not be constructed. So for most of the 20th century, the federal government's massive investment in water projects fulfilled the main objective: attracting settlers to the West. Virtually none of the cities in the west today, nor any of the major industries in the region—such as mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and others—would have survived if not for the federal investment in water projects across the region.

However, underneath this story of development are the stories of conflict over water rights, the privatization of water resources, and the steady depletion of aquifers and rivers. Most of the rivers have been dammed to the limit to capture the runoff and in many western states the groundwater has been tapped beyond the recharging limits of the aquifers. The "water wars" of the 21st century are only going to get more intense.

In the 20th century, most fights took place in courtrooms or in legislatures, but there were also literal conflicts. One of the most famous was the conflict between Los Angeles County and the Owens Valley. In 1904, William Mulholland, the man in charge of the waterworks in Los Angeles, decided to divert the Owens River to Los Angeles County. This would mean enough water for decades. Despite years of pushback from residents in the Owens Valley (as well as some naysayers in the federal government), Mulholland achieved his objective, and his ditch in the San Fernando Valley was hailed as a great achievement that rivaled the Panama Canal itself.

In the 20th century, most fighting took place in courtrooms or in legislatures, but there was also literal shooting over water.

In what seemed like a few hours, Los Angeles transformed from a region plagued by water shortages into a virtual oasis. However, in 1924, citizens of Owens Valley decided to use dynamite to make their point heard and reverse the water diversion. With this, the conflict left the legislature and turned into a shooting contest. After three years of on-again off-again fighting, then some negotiation, the Angelenos coughed up $12 million to "clean up Owens Valley." For the citizens of Owens Valley, however, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Today, they're fighting back. Across the country (between Texas and New Mexico for example), there are other conflicts over water.

One of the most important fights over water comes from Indigenous Americans, who, since a landmark 1908 Supreme Court case (Winters v. United States), have been trying to get their rightful claim over water on reservations. Despite this case "reserving" water for Native Americans in 1908, the federal government as well as white citizens across the West have made it harder for Indigenous Americans to get even their fair share of drinking water, let alone funding for irrigation projects on their lands.

So the "water wars" in the 21st century are already upon us.

They might not be as bloody as the "war" in California in the early 20th century, but the stakes will be higher. Across the country there are failing dams that neither private companies nor the federal government is willing to repair; rivers like the Colorado are virtually dying from overuse, ensuring that eventually citizens, especially those living in arid and drought-prone climates, will be fighting harder for water; and most importantly, some of the most marginalized communities, like Indigenous Americans, continue to fight inside and outside the system for the basic right to water.

America was once hailed for its irrigation and dam development as a beacon of "modernization." As one looks deeper, however, it's clear the conflict over water has not only been drawn out, but it's also a fight that won't be ending anytime soon.

Reasons for hard political hope: Our country's strongest democratic institution is still intact

I have been reading Living with Music, a collection of essays about jazz by the novelist Ralph Ellison.1 One of them is a reflection on Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer. He and Ellison grew up in Oklahoma City around the same time. In it, the author of Invisible Man said something I think is valuable to us today. It was about hard political hope.

Oklahoma City's Black community was a product of a great migration in the US starting around 1915 during which six million Black Americans moved from the Jim Crow South to find jobs, opportunity and (a bit more) freedom in cities ungoverned by apartheid. Despite unspeakable tragedy, despite the 1921 pogrom in Tulsa (which destroyed an entire district of that city because it was literally bombed, killing as many as 300 Black people and displacing 10,000 more), optimism was in OK City's air.

"We had a Negro church and a segregated school, a few lodges and fraternal organizations, and beyond these there was all the great white world," Ralph Ellison wrote in 1958 in Saturday Review. "We were pushed off to what seemed to be the least desirable side of the city … and our system of justice was based upon Texas law; yet there was optimism within the Negro community and a sense of possibility which, despite our awareness of limitation (dramatized so brutally by the Tulsa riot of 1921), transcended all of this, and it was this rock-bottom sense of reality, coupled with our sense of the possibility of rising above it, which sounded in Rushing's voice."

To be honest, I don't hear that in Rushing's fine singing, but I believe Ralph Ellison in saying that he and others did. And if Ellison and others could feel hopeful in the face of murderous "limitations" that no one faces these days, no matter how bad they indeed are, then I'm pretty sure we can all find ways to feel more hopeful today. I'm sympathetic to those saying our democratic institutions are not what they should be, but let's not confuse them for what they have been, which was really, really terrible.

To be sure, the former president should be under criminal investigation for virtually everything he did while in office. In the past week alone, it was revealed that his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, asked the United States Department of Justice to investigate phony allegations of voter fraud as part of Donald Trump's attempts to stay in office. It was proven conclusively, with an audio recording, that his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, tried extorting a foreign leader into involving himself in a conspiracy to defraud the American people. It was revealed Friday that the Justice Department had subpoenaed the records of reporters and members of Congress in a bid to stop leaking.

These three stories are bad enough but when combined with everything else we know about the former president, they should put to bed forever all comparisons to Watergate, which was bad, really bad, but not this bad, and it wasn't this bad, because as bad as Watergate was, democratic institutions back then were more resilient than they are now, which is to say, Richard Nixon's goon squad actually went to jail after Watergate, whereas now we can't bring justice to a former president even when he's so very clearly guilty of criming in ways no president before him had ever crimed. Perhaps we should stop thinking no one's above the law, because some of us are, and start thinking about how we're going to prevent criminals from being above the law.

That said, we should be hopeful. Why? Because public opinion—"the community of opinion," as Liah Greenfeld calls it—remains our country's strongest democratic institution. I think it's the best indicator of what we are as a political community, as a nation. And I think it's the best indicator of where we are in our history. As Ellison might have put it, it's a robust measure of the "emotional continuity in American life," which I'll take for the time being to mean that Americans have always hated political corruption and that hate burned brightest during the fabulously corrupt Trump era.

Trump is still unpopular. Given today's reporting, he will be unpopular as long as he keeps yammering away about having been robbed in 2020. According to Politico, the Republicans appear very much in favor of him knocking it off already. "If Trump focused on Pelosi and Biden's policy failures, he would help us," said an unnamed Republican from a swing district. "If it's about election fraud and sour grapes from 2020, it will hurt us. We may be able to still win the majority, but I think it makes the hill harder to climb. Obviously, the base likes it, but the base doesn't win the majority in the House."

Donald Trump won't knock it off. He can't. Restraint is just not in him. Politics may be too ambiguous, but that much we can count on. And we can count on the Democrats not letting public opinion forget his criming. For instance, that story about Meadows? The source was a "Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into whether Justice Department officials were involved in efforts to reverse Mr. Trump's election loss," per the Times. Even as we lament democratic institutions that can't or won't hold him accountable, there will be a steady drip drip drip of headlines about what he did.

When you think about it, our conventional view of institutions may be too narrow. It does not take into account all the many ways people are thinking and acting in an open and democratic society such as ours. Just because Donald Trump isn't facing justice of the kind we might prefer right now does not mean he will not face justice of a kind we can't quite let ourselves imagine in the future. Ralph Ellison was once asked if Black Americans failed to "create institutions to preserve our gains." His reply: "We do have institutions. We have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And we have jazz."

Tensions flare among Republicans in Arizona as factions split over the future of the 2020 'audit'

The same split that is dividing Republicans nationally, whether to embrace or reject the fiction that the 2020 presidential election was illegitimate, is now reverberating backstage at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Arizona, where pro-Trump contractors are leading a state-sponsored inquiry into the vote in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and 60 percent of Arizona voters.

The state Senate's lead contractor, Florida-based Cyber Ninjas, whose CEO Doug Logan had said that Joe Biden's victory was illegitimate, has been opposing an effort to widen the Arizona Senate's inquiry—via another assessment that vets the 2020 vote more thoroughly. Logan also has sought to muzzle and even oust the lead proponent of that more detailed inquiry, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, a Republican. Senate President Karen Fann asked Bennett to take the role of Senate audit liaison after she hired Cyber Ninjas. He is not taking any compensation for his role, unlike Cyber Ninjas and the subcontractors.

Beyond the personality clashes involved, which Voting Booth heard about while reporting from Phoenix as a hand count of 2.1 million paper ballots was nearing completion, is an emerging bottom line: Cyber Ninjas has spent several million dollars and two months conducting inquiries that are not poised to present sufficient analyses that can legitimately assess the presidential results.

Cyber Ninjas' inquiries, which include a hand count of all paper ballots and looking for forged ballots based on high-resolution and microscopic examination of the ballot paper and ink marks, are generating reams of information that could be cited in partisan propaganda—which is how pro-Trump media outlets have covered the audit from its inception.

Crucially, the data Cyber Ninjas is accumulating has not been compared to the building blocks of the state-certified vote count. At best, it is conducting a loosely constructed recount, which is not an audit—which is based on comparisons.

"There must be comparable results in sufficient detail, or else it is not an audit," said Larry Moore, the retired founder and CEO of Clear Ballot, a federally certified audit firm. "It is unacceptable to put out anything less."

Moore is not an unbiased observer in Phoenix. He has criticized the inquiries and is part of a team of seasoned election auditors that has parsed the same official records given to Cyber Ninjas after a Senate subpoena. The team's early analysis confirmed that Joe Biden won in Arizona and offered an explanation why. The official records revealed voting patterns showing that tens of thousands of voters supported most Republicans on their ballots—but did not vote for Trump.

Moore's team, which is locally led by Tucson's Benny White, who is a longtime Republican Party observer in state and local elections, has shared its findings with news organizations in Phoenix, whose coverage is beginning to reframe how the Senate's exercise should be evaluated.

The team has gone further in recent days. They challenged Cyber Ninjas to take their subtotals (gleaned from the official election data) and compare it to the subtotals in a sealed box of ballots. By June 11, there were several dozen boxes of ballots that had not yet been opened and hand-counted. Cyber Ninjas did not take up the challenge.

The auditors then gave their data to the press, including reporters who have observed Cyber Ninjas revising their procedures repeatedly in recent weeks. The evaluation pushed by Moore and White would directly compare the paper ballots marked by voters, the starting line, to the official election results, the finish line, to attest to the election's accuracy. Cyber Ninjas' process isn't making this comparison.

Growing Pressure Inside and Out

That fundamental procedural flaw, meanwhile, has bothered Bennett, the former Arizona secretary of state who says he volunteered to be Senate liaison because he felt that doubts about the election's legitimacy had to be put to rest. Since April, he has expressed interest in expanding the Senate's audit's inquiries to parse the electronic records that detect votes on the paper ballots and then compile the overall results.

Bennett has been pushing for a so-called ballot image audit to do this assessment, which would compare the digital images of every ballot created by vote-counting scanners to the electronically compiled vote totals. Bennett has attempted to hire a California nonprofit, Citizens Oversight, that happens to be run by a Democrat for that specialized assessment. But that prospect has been attacked in right-wing media and on social media, including by the audit's contractors led by Logan.

Inside the Phoenix arena, there are reports that Logan has told Bennett—who also is a former Arizona Senate president—not to talk to the press. Logan has reportedly bad-mouthed Bennett in closed meetings with pro-Trump activists and legislators visiting from out of state—who are seeking to bring similar privatized partisan assessments to their states (after Trump also lost there). It is clear, according to interviews by Voting Booth with witnesses to these incidents, that Logan's allies fear that more investigations would expose their shortcomings and undermine whatever report they issue.

Thus, among other things, pushing Bennett out of the inquiry would seem advantageous to pro-Trump Republicans' efforts to discredit the integrity of the 2020 election. In response, Bennett said that he is committed to examining Maricopa County's 2020 ballots and vote counts as thoroughly as possible, because he said that he is still a trusted messenger to enough Arizona Republicans who are awaiting his verdict.

"It's not what evidence is presented to most people, it's who it is presented to them by," Bennett said. He added that he wants to look at what Cyber Ninjas' analysis, the analysis by Moore and White, and what Citizens Oversight may do, and then present his judgment, and, if necessary, the details leading to his evaluation, to dispel any doubts.

"I believe that we can convince 90 percent of the people that are questioning the election [of its legitimacy], because it was the opposite party that was questioning the results in 2016. Ninety percent can understand that if Trump lost the election, it was Trump that lost the election," Bennett said. He mentioned several debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election in Arizona, saying, "It wasn't ballots flown in at midnight from China. It wasn't any fractional counting of votes on voting machines. It wasn't because Dominion [Voting Systems] was owned by China or Russia, or I don't know who… And similarly, when the Democrats lose, maybe it's because Hillary Clinton just wasn't what the American people wanted in 2016."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The core problem with American democracy has deep historical roots

The covid pandemic has taught us a couple things I want to talk about. One is that public health policies are not important to lots of people that we share democracy with. If the choice is between being wrong about democracy and dying, we have proof that lots of people we share democracy with will choose dying. Two is that politics does not run on a track separate from public health policy. They are the same track.

New research by political scientists Julie VanDusky-Allen and Olga Shvetsova finds that states with GOP governors saw more cases of the covid and more deaths by the covid, whereas states with Democratic governors saw the opposite. You might think GOP governors would change their minds—about mask mandates, for instance—after seeing so much death, but don't bet on it. "Recent history suggests that in the next public health crisis, governments across the US may once again focus more on politics than on policies grounded in the best available science," VanDusky-Allen and Shvetsova wrote. "Experience also suggests that even when this leads to bad health outcomes, Americans aren't likely to rethink the partisan divide over health care."

The conventional wisdom, at least among liberals, is that we should keep politics out of public health policy. The thinking is we should get people to do what's good for them. That can't hurt, I suppose, but it won't solve the problem given that, you know, lots of people would rather die than give bureaucrats the satisfaction of being right. To get people to do what's good for them, you have to do more than say it's good for them. More important than public health policy are political attitudes toward democracy.

We tend to think of the United States as a place where life changes swiftly, and where we're too busy keeping up with the next new thing to bother thinking about what just happened. But political attitudes toward democracy probably have not changed much since the country was fully settled by white people, since state and local governments were first established. According to journalist Colin Woodard, regional attitudes toward democracy are consistent with the settlement patterns of Europeans. The similarities are so striking Woodard wrote a book about them a decade ago called American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

I use Woodard's book when I teach undergraduates how to understand American politics.1 It's reductive, but it's knowingly reductive. Woodard understands the weakness of boiling down United States geography and history into 11 neatly defined units. Even so, the scheme is useful, because it gives students, and I think normal people, a means of thinking about the country in ways they had not previously. When it comes to a pandemic that will probably kill before it's over more than a million Americans, Woodard helps us understand the question isn't whether politics should be involved in public health policy. It's whether the politics in question is good or bad.

Of the 11 "nations" in America, Woodard identifies two "superpowers." These are what he calls "Yankeedom" and "Deep South." Each has "the identity, mission and numbers to shape continental debate," Woodard wrote. "For more than 200 years, they've fought for control of the federal government and, in a sense, the nation's soul."

Over the decades, Deep South has become strongly allied with Greater Appalachia and Tidewater, and more tenuously with the Far West. Their combined agenda—to slash taxes, regulations, social services and federal powers—is opposed by a Yankee-led bloc that includes New Netherland and the Left Coast.
Other nations, especially the Midlands and El Norte, often hold the swing vote, whether in a presidential election or a congressional battle over health-care reform. Those swing nations stand to play a decisive role on violence-related issues as well.

Don't worry about all those names. They are his inventions. Focus on "Yankeedom" and "Deep South." Here are the former's political qualities. Since the outset, it has "put great emphasis on perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good and assimilation of outsiders. It has prized education, intellectual achievement, communal empowerment and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public's shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats and other would-be tyrants. Since the Puritans, it has been more comfortable with government regulation and public-sector social projects than many of the other nations, who regard the Yankee utopian streak with trepidation."2

Here are the latter's political qualities

Established by English slave lords from Barbados, Deep South was meant as a West Indies–style slave society. This nation offered a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many. Its caste systems smashed by outside intervention, it continues to fight against expanded federal powers, taxes on capital and the wealthy, and environmental, labor and consumer regulations.3

You'll notice something important by now. The first map showing more cases of the covid and more deaths by the covid in states run by Republican governors overlaps pretty well with the second map, Woodard's, showing where "Deep South" is and where its attitudes toward democracy prevail around the country. The more people think "democracy is the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many," the more people have been getting sick and dying. Importantly, they have been insisting on getting sick and dying because they would rather die than be wrong about what they believe. In order to save American democracy, we should de-southernize it.

That probably won't ever happen fully. The best we can hope for is showing just enough people in regions of the country that have been in alignment with white southern politics that maintaining that alignment is the road to suicide. The best we can hope for is showing them public health policy is not just good for them but "a shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats and other would-be tyrants"—which is to say, a Republican Party bent on denying the will of the people. Public health policy can take us only so far. We have to meet bad politics with good politics.

I'm hopeful the combo of Donald Trump's presidency and the pandemic has rejiggered the national electorate so that El Norte or the Midlands or Tidewater (again Woodard's inventions) stops siding with white southern attitudes toward democracy and starts siding with attitudes privileging the greatest good for the greatest number. Perhaps then democracy will thrive—if and when we get through this damn pandemic.

A scandal at Yale exposes a major gap in sexual harassment law

Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, who are married to each other, are in the news. Again. It's not because of an important book or a pro bono constitutional law case. As the Times put it, it's their "boundary-pushing behavior" with students.

Everyone loves a good scandal about good-looking, influential and wealthy people. And since we are also in a political moment during which exposing college faculty as phonies is in vogue, it's no surprise this colorful pair is getting negative press.

The couple was unknown outside of scholarly circles before Chua wrote a best-selling book in 2011, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A memoir about perfectionist helicopter parenting verging on self-parody, Chua's success pushed her husband and two daughters to the front page. There they stayed. But then things took a dark turn.

Chua defended Yale grad Brett Kavanaugh as a "mentor to women" during Supreme Court hearings marred by sexual harassment allegations. Then the accusations about Chua and Rubenfeld's behavior toward students became public. In August 2020, Rubenfeld was suspended for two years after a sexual harassment investigation. Chua was barred from socializing with students. The couple denies some of the allegations while other allegations, they say, have been misunderstood and misreported. But this week, Chua is again under scrutiny due to accusations she broke her agreement.

Recent investigative reporting on Chua and Rubenfeld reveals every element that a juicy higher-education scandal requires. A power couple, known to student critics as "Chubenfeld," holds court in a lavish home. There are allegations of boozy dinner parties, sexual harassment and favorites pushed for coveted Supreme Court clerkships. Students spy on each other to get more ammunition against other law professors.

But this is more than a delicious celebrity-faculty scandal. It's about the role that discrimination and harassment, the stepchildren of Title IX, a federal gender equity and inclusion law passed in 1972, are playing right now on elite university campuses.

The complaints against Chua and Rubenfeld do not all claim discrimination and harassment. But connecting the dots between those that do, and other behaviors that are simply noxious and unwelcome, reveals a world that Title IX made. And it also reveals a major problem in higher education. There's no consensus about where sexual harassment begins and ends or even why it affects equity and inclusion on campus.

This is why Title IX should be revised to make its governance over sexual harassment explicit as well as to define what sexual harassment is, and by implication, is not.

Currently, the words sexual harassment do not appear in Title IX at all. The law was initially conceived as an amendment to crucial civil rights bills passed in the 1960s. Written by Congresswoman Patsy Mink and Senator Birch Bayh, it was intended to close gaps in existing law. The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not cover education. The Higher Education Act of 1965 did not specify gender as a protected category.

Equity in secondary school and colleges would, Mink and Bayh argued, determine whether women could compete with men for the opportunity education provided. The language is simple: "No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Initially, the law targeted overt discrimination against women. It also addressed covert spending priorities—such as school athletics, which could be converted into college scholarships—that produced discriminatory educational outcomes for women.

Sexual harassment, a term that was just beginning to circulate in feminist circles, was not one of the problems Title IX addressed. These cases were understood primarily as employment problems and litigated under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But in 1980, Yale law professor Catharine MacKinnon, who had popularized the term "sexual harassment" in a ground-breaking 1979 book, changed that. She employed the novel argument that Yale, faced with multiple sexual harassment claims, had a duty under Title IX to provide an institutional remedy. In part, this was to provide redress. But Yale also, MacKinnon argued, had a duty to address the needs of female faculty who were functioning as an unpaid, informal counseling staff to traumatized women.

Though dismissed, Alexander v. Yale established the principle that sexual harassment could be litigated under Title IX. It is now common that in any educational setting receiving federal funds, unwanted sexual attention is prohibited as discriminatory.

So are behaviors that can lead to, or follow from, sexual harassment, like preferential treatment, unsolicited personal comments and social intimacy linked to the workplace. But in the absence of actual sexual harassment, should they be?

There seems to be little evidence that Chua, however noxious and unwanted her behavior, has set the stage for behavior Rubenfeld is accused of. Nor is there evidence that students have been denied opportunities because they refused to tolerate them.

Some students defend Chua. Some students of color note she's the only woman of Asian descent on the faculty and a vital mentor. Others are clearly uncomfortable with and angered by her behavior. They have a right to say so and to ask for change. But do Chua's social intimacies and favoritism rise to a level of university discipline?

In the world Title IX has made, yes. But they aren't Title IX violations, nor does Yale say as much. So on what grounds can she be punished? Title IX needs to be clearly revised to make this point. It doesn't seem to be protecting anyone's rights at Yale.

Trump is trying to clean up his reputation by relying on an ancient blame game

Donald Trump aims to ride a COVID conspiracy theory to reputational rehab. "Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus," the former president said.

It's unclear why a president who failed to protect us from a bioweapons attack, or who failed to respond to the fallout of a lab accident, would be more sympathetic than a president who was outmatched by an ordinary virus, but let's set that aside. Trumpian rhetoric is not about logic. It's about arousing prejudice and grievance. Trump is playing the ancient game of scapegoating. He believes that if he can convince his supporters that COVID is China's fault, they'll forget the parts that were his fault.

Epidemics and conspiracy theories go together like crops and fertilizer. The imagery varies according to the technologies and anxieties of the era, but the basic logic never changes. In the pre-modern era, you were more likely to hear about poison and black magic. The tropes have since shifted to bioweapons and lab accidents. Faced with the horror of an outbreak, even modern people tend to forget that epidemic diseases are a natural and depressingly predictable feature of human history and existence. The conspiracists always say this time is different. This time our enemy hurt us on purpose.

More even-handed conspiracy theorists often allow for the possibility that our enemy hurt us by accident, on account of being inept, dirty and irresponsible. Theories that posit without evidence that the latest plague was an accidental release of a bioweapon, or an innocent experiment gone awry, fall into this category. Granted, lab leaks have occasionally resulted in outbreaks, but if you're pushing a lab-leak theory without evidence, and your theory involves someone covering up said lab-leak, you're probably indulging in conspiratorial thinking, especially if you're blaming an outsider for it.

There is no evidence that COVID was released from a lab. There is a mountain of evidence that animals infect humans with novel viruses all the time; that bats are a natural reservoir of numerous coronaviruses in the SARS family; that bats are constantly recombining them in their bodies; and that the wildlife trade is a vector for spreading them from bats to humans, often through an intermediate species.

After SARS, the question on every expert's mind was not: Will there be a more transmissible SARS? This pandemic was not just predicted. It was inevitable.

The idea that our enemies have caused the plagues that afflict us is one of the oldest propaganda tropes, much older than the germ theory of disease, let alone modern biolaboratory methods. During the plagues of the Middle Ages, Jews were often accused of poisoning wells. Europe saw multiple cholera riots during the 19th century, each independently sparked by rumors that the rich had deliberately poisoned the poor. (To their credit, the poor had correctly observed that the rich were less likely to die from cholera, but the killer was inequality, not poison.) During the great flu pandemic of 1918, Americans accused the Germans of releasing this viral scourge from U-boats, poisoning over-the-counter medicines, and other wiles—even though Germans were also dying from the flu. The AIDS epidemic spawned multiple sub-genres including a KGB-sponsored disinformation campaign code named "Operation Denver," claiming that HIV was an escaped US bioweapon. Historical records reveal that the goal of the disinformation campaign was to spread anti-American sentiment around the world and create controversy and division inside the United States.

When the original SARS coronavirus broke out in 2003, there was rampant speculation that SARS was a bioweapon. Foreign policy hawks blamed Beijing. Meanwhile, Chinese activists pointed the finger at Washington. We later learned that humans caught SARS from trafficked palm civets in a live animal market, who caught it from bats. The civet connection was exposed relatively quickly but it took 15 years for scientists to find one cave that housed a colony of bats carrying between them all the genetic building blocks of SARS. They still haven't found a bat with a complete SARS virus in its body, but because bat roosts are such fertile environments for recombining new viruses from existing viruses, the discovery was strong enough to close the case.

When the MERS coronavirus hit in 2012, a now-familiar style of argument recurred: "Many of the features [of MERS] are paradoxical and cannot be explained by known principles of epidemiology," claimed a press release on behalf of an Australian professor who argued MERS could be a bioweapon. In other words, this is new. It's got features we've never seen before and can't readily explain, and it's scary. Ergo, it could be a bioweapon. Spoiler alert: It was camels, who probably caught it from bats.

In 2021, we're still battling the same knee-jerk assumption that if we don't fully understand something, it must have been created by someone we hate. Novel features of the COVID-19 virus are being cited as evidence of artificial origins. As soon as one potentially artificial feature is explained, the conspiracy mill generates a new one.

Scientists have yet to isolate COVID from an animal in the wild. Nevertheless, there's a huge body of evidence to support the idea that COVID-19 came from the same place the last two epidemics of deadly human coronavirus came from: From bats encroached upon by humans and their livestock, or from some intermediate host that was infected by a bat before being scooped up by a poacher and ferried to a big-city wildlife market.

It's now considered unlikely that COVID made the final jump from animal to human at the famous Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cases of COVID were observed, because the earliest known case had no connection to that market. But there's no particular reason that the jump would have had to have happened at the market in order for the virus to be zoonotic. And it's noteworthy that about two-thirds of the earliest known COVID cases were associated with either the Huanan Market, another market that sold live animals or another source of live or dead animals.

It's hard to accept that random mutations in lowly horseshoe bats upended human civilization for over a year. It's always easier, cognitively and emotionally, to blame our enemies for our woes. It's a trap any of us can fall into if we're not careful. And as usual, Trump is positioning himself to capitalize on human weakness.

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