Nicole Karlis

Physicist Avi Loeb thinks there's a 'serious possibility' that 'Oumuamua was an alien spacecraft

Are we alone in the universe?

It's a question humans have been asking for thousands of years—but when a bizarrely fast, cigar-shaped interstellar object jetted past Earth on its trip through our solar system, Harvard professor Avi Loeb believes scientists weren't ready to seriously consider that it was of artificial origin. But Loeb is beyond consideration — he says it's very possible that 'Oumuamua (pronounced "oh moo ah moo ah") was an interstellar spacecraft.

Back in October 2017, a postdoctoral researcher named Robert Weryk at the University of Hawaii was sifting through the usual data stream from the Pan-STARRS astronomical survey of the sky when he noticed an unexpected object. It appeared to be highly elongated, like a stick, with a long axis 10 times longer than its short axis — unprecedented for an asteroid. Some hypothesized that 'Oumuamua swung towards our solar system as a result of a gravitational slingshot of a binary star system; others, that it might be an odd comet, though no tail was evident. Thus the search began to collect and analyze as much data as possible before it left our solar system.

Immediately upon discovering its physical properties, researchers realized its shape — which would minimize abrasions from interstellar gas and dust — would be ideal for an interstellar spacecraft. The idea understandably sent shockwaves through the scientific community and stoked controversy. Ultimately, scientists coalesced behind the idea that it was of natural origin, rather than artificial. But Loeb, who is the former chair of astronomy at Harvard University, remains certain that it was something akin to a light sail — a form of interstellar propulsion — spacecraft created by an extraterrestrial civilization. So much so that he wrote a whole book about it.

That book would be "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth," in which Loeb argues that the scientific community's resistance to discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life has hindered taking seriously his hypothesis that 'Oumuamua was an alien light sail. Loeb reflects on how what happened with 'Oumuamua was a bit of a missed opportunity, and that academia must invest more in the search for life in our universe to better prepare us for another interstellar visitor. But perhaps, most importantly, in a time when Earth faces an urgent global warming crisis, Loeb says that it could be finding extraterrestrial life that saves us from ourselves.

As always, this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What makes you think that 'Omuamua was a light sail spacecraft created by an extraterrestrial civilization?

At first, astronomers assumed it must be a comet, because these are the objects that are most loosely bound to stars. We have mostly comets in the outer parts of the solar system. These are rocks covered with ice, and when they get close to a star they warm up, and the ice evaporates into a cometary tail.

It was natural to assume that about 'Oumuamua, because it came from outside the solar system, so the assumption was it must be a comet. The problem with that was there was no cometary tail. Some people say, "okay it's not a comet, maybe it's just a rock." But the problem is, about half a year later, it was reported that there was an excess push in addition to the force of gravity acting on it by the sun. It exhibited some additional force. Usually that force comes from the rocket effect of the cometary tail, but there was no cometary tail. So the question was, what produces this excess push?

Moreover, during the time that it was observed, the reflected sunlight [off of 'Oumuamua] varied by a factor of 10. So, that implied that it has an extreme geometry. Even if you consider a razor-thin piece of paper tumbling in the wind, the amount of area that is projected in your direction is not varying by more than a factor of 10, because the chance of seeing it edge on is really small. It is tumbling in the wind. So it looked like this object has an extreme geometry. The most likely model that explains the reflective sunlight as a function of time — as it was doubling every eight hours — was that it has a flat, pancake-like geometry, not cigar-shaped the way it was depicted in some cartoons.

On top of that, it was on the shinier end of all the objects we have seen from the solar system. It also came from a special frame of reference that is called the Local Standard of Rest. That is sort of the galactic parking lot where, if you find a car, you don't know what house it came from, because this is the frame of reference where you operate with the motion of all the stars in the vicinity of the sun. Only one in 500 stars is so much addressed relative to that frame as 'Oumuamua was. So it was just like a buoy sitting on the surface of the ocean and then the solar system is like a giant ship bumping into it.

So there were many peculiar facts. I tried to explain the excess push, especially. The only thing I could think of is it comes from the reflection of sunlight. Then it needed to be very thin, sort of like a sail on a boat that is pushed by wind. I couldn't imagine a natural process that would make a lightsail, a sail that's pushed by light. In fact, our civilization is currently pursuing this technology in space exploration.

If this object came from an artificial origin, the question is who sent it? I should say that in September of this year, 2020, there was another object discovered that exhibited an excess push. It was called 2020-SO by the Minor Planets Center that gives names to celestial objects. It turned out that this one ended up being a rocket booster from a failed mission of lunar lander, Surveyor II, that was launched in 1966. So astronomers figured out that it intercepted the Earth if you go back in time to 1966.

But this object actually also showed an excessive push, because it's a hollow rocket booster that is very thin and pushed by sunlight. We know that it's artificially made. It had no cometary tail. We know that we made it. So that provides evidence that we can tell the difference between a rock and an object that is pushed by sunlight. To me, it demonstrated the case that perhaps 'Oumuamua was artificial, definitely not made by us. because it's been only a few months close to us. We couldn't even chase it with our best rockets.

That's fascinating. Can you explain to our readers what is a light sail?

So a light sail is just like a sail on a boat that reflects the wind, the wind is pushing it. In the case of a light sail, it's the light reflected off its surface that gives it the kick, the push. Light is made of particles called photons. Just like billiard balls bouncing off a wall, they exert some push on it. So the particles of light — photons — reflect off the surface and push and give it a kick.

The advantage of this technology is that you don't need to carry the fuel with the spacecraft [as you do with rockets]. Rockets carry the fuel and they expel gas from the exhaust, and that's how they get pushed forward, just like a jet plane. In the case of a light sail, it is light that is being reflected. That's why you don't carry your fuel. You can have a lightweight spacecraft. In principle, you can even reach the speed of light with this technology.

So, as you know, after your paper was published, another one was published in 2019 in Nature Astronomy. That paper proposed a natural origin, that 'Oumuamua could have been a small asteroid that came from a solar system with a gas giant orbiting a star, and that it could have been fragmented and ejected into our solar system. Is there any part of you that thinks that's still a possibility— why or why not?

No. And that is one out of three suggestions that were made by astronomers about the astral origin, and I'll mention all three.

Great.

The [theory] that you mentioned has to do with a disruption of an object that passes close to a star. There are problems with that scenario. First of all, the chance of coming close enough to a star to be disrupted like that is small. Most of [these] kinds of objects do not pass close to the star. So you need a huge population of objects to account for those that pass close to the star and fragment. The more important problem is that if you make shrapnel or fragments as the result of the destruction near a star, they would be elongated — like cigar shaped. The best model for 'Oumuamua was that it was pancake-shaped. You can't get that from the destruction of a bigger object. It's not natural to get that.

So that's my caveat about this scenario — that first, it's unlikely that you would get so many — I mean, you need a lot of objects to explain that we detected 'Oumuamua. More than one, you would expect naturally, given all the rocks that exist in planetary systems. Yet, this model even wants 'Oumuamua-like objects to be produced very close to the host star. So that makes it even less likely to happen.

More importantly, the shape is the issue. How do you get pancake shape?

Then there is another suggestion of a natural origin which is that it's a "dust bunny," of the type that you find in a household. But it needs to be like a football size. The dust bunny, the collection of particles, is sort of like a cloud that then is 100 times less dense than air, more rarefied than air, so that sunlight can push it around. To me, that sounds not so plausible. This object was the size of a football field and it was tumbling around every eight hours. So making that out of a dust bunny, a cloud of dust particles, and imagining that this dust bunny would survive for millions of years in interstellar space — I find that hard to believe.

Then the third possibility that was suggested is that it's frozen hydrogen; that it's a hydrogen iceberg. We've never seen anything like it before. We didn't see a dust bunny, we didn't see a hydrogen iceberg. The idea was that if it's made of hydrogen, then when the hydrogen evaporates, it's transparent so you can't see it. So there is a cometary tail you just can't see. But the problem with this scenario is that we showed in the paper that a hydrogen iceberg would evaporate very quickly in interstellar space because of starlight hitting it. Therefore, it would not survive the journey.

So all together, I find these possibilities less appealing. All of them talk about it being something we have never seen before. So I'm saying, if we discuss it as a natural origin, and it involves something that we have never seen before—then why not also consider an artificial origin? That's also something we've never seen before? That's all I'm saying. I'm not saying it's definitely of artificial origin, but that it's one of the serious possibilities that we should contemplate.

How certain are you that 'Oumuamua was an object with artificial origin?

I would say, given everything we know, I would give a high likelihood that it could have been artificially made. The only way to know for sure, for certain, of course, is to take an image of something like that or get more data on something like that. We can't do it with 'Oumuamua because it's already too far away. It's now a million times fainter than it was when it was close to us. So we missed the opportunity. It's like having a guest for dinner, by the time you realize it's weird, it's already out of the front door into the dark street. That was the first guest, and we should look for more.

I definitely get the sense from your book how this was a missed opportunity to collect data. I thought about how, in your book, you described if cave dwellers were to find a modern cell phone, they would dismiss it as, like you said, as a shiny rock.

Exactly.

Is that what we did with 'Oumuamua?

Exactly. We tend to explain anything new that we see in terms of what we already saw. That's very natural but it also suppresses innovation, it doesn't allow us to see new things. As scientists, we should be open-minded.

Your book is about 'Oumuamua, but it's also about encouraging people to think differently about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, to be more open to it. I think it's interesting how you compare the hefty investments made by the scientific community to exploring dark matter to those invested in finding extraterrestrial life. Why do you think the idea of finding dark matter is more publicly acceptable and more interesting to scientists than searching for extraterrestrial life?

I think the reason is because it's less relevant to our lives. When something is close to home and affects you emotionally, that causes some distress. People prefer not to have that. They prefer to live in peace and be happy.

The point about reality is that it doesn't care about how uneasy you are with the notion. Reality is whatever it is. By ignoring it, you maintain your ignorance.

When the philosophers didn't look through Galileo's telescope, they were happy, because they thought the sun surrounded the Earth and they maintained their philosophical and religious beliefs that we are at the center of the universe. But that was temporary. It only maintained their ignorance for a little while. Eventually we realized that the Earth moves around the sun. The fact that they put Galileo in house arrest didn't change anything. The number of likes on Twitter or whatever we give each other, awards, or put someone in house arrest or anything, that only affects our relation with each other. Reality is whatever it is. By ignoring it, we don't gain anything, we just lose because we are more ignorant.

So my point is, the way to make progress is not to stick to your notions and maintain a prejudice. Of course that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say I don't need to search, I know the answer, I don't need to look through Galileo's telescope, of course it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will never find that you're wrong because you bully people that will do this kind of search, and you don't fund the research in that direction. It's like stepping on the grass and saying look it doesn't grow. Science is not about that, science is about finding the truth.

In the book you emphasize how great the reward would be if we were to discover extraterrestrial life. I'm wondering if you could share more about that with our readers. I think people think that there would be a negative impact on our life, but you argue that it could have a positive impact on human life and on Earth.

First of all, it gives us a better perspective about ourselves. I think astronomy as a whole teaches us modesty. We are occupying one planet out of 10 to the power of 20 planets in the observable universe. We are really responsible for a tiny real estate piece out of the big landscape. Also, we live for a short time relative to the age of the universe. So this immediately tells us that we are not very significant.

Previously, people thought that an Earth-like planet around a sun-like star was something rare. Now, with the Kepler data, half of the sun-like stars have a planet the size of the Earth, roughly at the same separation. Therefore, if you arrange for similar circumstances, I think that you would get similar outcomes.

It would be arrogant to assume that we are unique and special. You know, I think we are as common as ants are on a sidewalk. They are out there and we need to look for clues. Of course if we maintain the idea that we are special and we are unique we will never find the evidence.

On the other hand, if we have the instruments to examine this — we have the telescopes — and the public is so interested in us finding the answer, I think it would be a crime for scientists not to address this interest from the public. Moreover, the public is funding science, so we should attend to the interests of the public. There are examples from history that on many occasions when we thought we knew the truth and we ended up being wrong.

What kind of evidence would the scientific community need to have incontrovertible proof that there is extraterrestrial life, or more 'Oumuamua-like light sails, in our universe?

That's an excellent question. One approach is, of course, to find objects like 'Oumuamua that we can take a photograph of. By the way, we don't necessarily need to chase them in space, because every now and then one of them may collide with the Earth. We see those as meteors. One of the meteors that comes from interstellar space may be space junk from another civilization. That offers us the possibility of putting our hands around it. If there is a meteor that lands on the ground, we can tell from its speed that it came from outside the solar system and it looks suspicious in terms of its composition, we can examine it. So there are ways to continue this search, even just on the ground rather than going to space.

Beyond that, we can look for industrial pollution in the atmospheres of other planets around other stars as a technological signature, rather than looking for oxygen from microbes. That would be one way of definitely finding evidence for life, industrial life, because the molecules like [CFCs] that contaminate the atmosphere of Earth cannot be produced naturally. These are complex molecules. If we find evidence for them on other planets, that would indicate that there is definitely life out there.

I think it's interesting that this book has been published in a time when there's a lot of anti-scientist sentiment. With the coronavirus pandemic, science has become politicized. Do you think that harms legitimizing the search for extraterrestrial life?

No, I would think the other way around. Because the way I see science is that it could be unifying, rather than divisive. As long as the scientific community attends to the interests of the public, and is honest about how much evidence it has for every statement. Right now what happens in the academic world is that the scientists say we should never approach the public until we are absolutely sure about something, because otherwise they might not believe us when we say there is global warming. I don't think that's the right approach.

I think the public should see how science is done in the sense that most of the time there is not enough evidence — and we collect more evidence, more data, and eventually we become convinced that one interpretation is correct. If the public sees that process in motion, then it won't suspect that there is a hidden agenda behind it because it's transparent. You look at the evidence and everyone that looks that has enough evidence and believes the evidence would agree on the conclusions.

It should be understandable by anyone, and it should be something that anyone can pursue. And by collecting evidence and therefore it's not an occupation of the elite. It should not be suspicious. It should not have any political agenda. It should also be independent of which nation conducts it. Indeed, we can bring different nations together.

I'm wondering what do you think really needs to happen for there to be a shift in the scientific community to take the search for extraterrestrial life more seriously?

Well, more people speaking like me. And I hope eventually it will shift also the funding agencies, the federal funding agencies, to go in that direction. I think that what astronomers need to realize is it's not speculative given what we know right now, it's one of the most conservative ideas to fall on. It's much more conservative than dark matter, where we are in the dark, so to speak, because there are so many possibilities. People speculate that we invested hundreds of millions of dollars in experiments without much success yet. We don't know what the "darkness" is made of.

Of course, science is a learning experience and nobody regrets trying those experiments, because we rule out possibilities. That is much more speculative because we've never seen any evidence for dark matter yet or direct evidence for the nature of dark matter. It's part of science to search for the unknown. I would regard the search for extraterrestrial civilization — it should be a mainstream activity especially given the interest of the public.

You've already received a lot of media attention regarding this book and it hasn't even been published yet. I'm wondering what you hope people will get from this book and what you hope comes out of it?

I have two messages and you already mentioned them. One is that 'Oumuamua was unusual. It showed a lot of anomalies that could indicate that it was some technological equipment and we should explore and look for other objects that appear anomalous like it and get more data on them. It's sort of like looking for plastic bottles on the beach.

The second message is that the scientific culture should change and be more open minded to change. I'm sorry to say, but the commercial sector — companies have had much more open-mindedness, much more blue sky research than the academic world these days.

There are companies like Google or SpaceX or Blue Origins — originally it was IBM — that had a lot of innovations in them. That is surprising to me. It should be the academic world that carries the torch of innovation because it has, in principle, the tenure system that allows people to explore without any risk for their jobs. Unfortunately, many practitioners in academia worry more about their image and their honors, and so forth, and engage much less in risk-taking and in thinking independently and looking for evidence than intellectual gymnastics that demonstrate how smart they are.

Avi Loeb's book, "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth," is slated to be released on January 26, 2021 from Houghton Mifflin.

Right-wing moms are defending their sons' 'right' to storm the Capitol. Some even joined in

Our culture has terms for all kinds of mom archetypes: working moms, stay-at-home moms, soccer moms, wine moms and "cool" moms. But have you ever met a helicopter riot mom?

By now, you've seen the images and videos of a mob of mostly white men violently storming and attacking the Capitol last Wednesday. They broke into the building through windows or forced their way through metal barricades. They bore Trump regalia and urinated on the floors. Some were armed with guns and tasers; one man, whom the internet has dubbed "zip-tie guy," dressed head-to-toe in paramilitary gear wielding plastic hand restraints. Counter-terrorist experts say this resembled the Michigan plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, suggesting there was likely a desire to "conduct vigilante justice against members of Congress." Five people are now dead because of Trump's insurrection, including a police officer and a member of Trump's mob.

Yet if you look closely at the images from last Wednesday, you'll notice that behind some of the more-photographed men, there are women lurking in the shadows. Some of them were mothers, who were supporting their insurrectionist sons on the ground.

"Zip-tie guy" was one of these men who brought his mom. Indeed, in the photo of him above, it is believed that his mom is the woman in the background. According to The Tennessean, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently arrested 30-year-old Eric Munchel, the so-called zip-tie guy. He currently faces charges for knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds, without lawful authority, and for violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. And according to the affidavit, federal authorities believe the woman he was photographed with in a hotel lobby and at the riot was his mom, Lisa Eisenhart. A Nashville Public Radio report says that his mom even booked the plane tickets for their flight to D.C.

According to The Sunday Times, a British newspaper, Lisa was interviewed expressing her far-right radical views, confirming she was with Eric, her son.

"This country was founded on revolution," Lisa told the British newspaper. "If they're going to take every legitimate means from us, and we can't even express ourselves on the Internet, we won't even be able to speak freely, what is America for?"

According to the interview, she also said: "I'd rather die as a 57-year-old woman than live under oppression. I'd rather die and would rather fight."

Eisenhart stressed in the interview that they entered the Capitol as "observers," and that her son told her not to touch anything.

Then there are the reports of insurrectionist moms swooping in to defend their sons. Jacob Chansley, 33, also known as Jake Angeli or the "QAnon Shaman," became an iconic symbol of the Capitol riot when he stormed the building donning a Viking-style horned hat, his furry vest open to his tattooed chest; photos of him inside the Capitol plastered the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Angeli was arrested after the riot, and now is being held in an Arizona detention center where he reportedly refuses to eat because he requires organic food. According to ABC 15 in Phoenix, Chansley's mom, Martha, explained that he gets "very sick if he doesn't eat organic food."

Martha Chansley was reportedly "unapologetic" for her son's role in the Capitol riot. "It takes a lot of courage to be a patriot, OK, and to stand up for what it is that you believe," Martha said. "Not everybody wants to be the person up front." She emphasized her son is trying to get people to "wake up."

Mom's support of her son's behavior is surprising inasmuch as it belies what we usually think of when we think of supportive parents. To most Americans, there's nothing wholesome about helping your son achieve an undemocratic coup. On a political level, however, the family element to the riot is not at all surprising. Anecdotally, far-right extremism is either breaking apart or uniting American families these days; many have been birthed into it, radical views upheld and passed down from generation to generation. Moms in politics get attention because they defy our wholesome stereotypes around what "mothering" means.

"There's the one image of the mother at home, you know, very quiet taking care of her business. And then there's a woman who gets mad because her child is threatened," said Katrina Bell McDonald, a retired professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, in an NPR interview. "And that's, I think, why people are so interested when they see mothers banding together."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, we've seen the rise of the "resistance mom" movement over the last four years, mothers fighting for economic justice or civil rights. In Portland, the so-called Wall of Moms — a group of mothers linking arms to protect anti-racism protesters as a response to the federal law enforcement officers who were tear-gassing and beating racial justice protesters — made international news over the summer.

Certainly viewing female activists through the lens of being a mother feeds into the stereotype about what a woman's worth is. But the women supporting their sons at the Capitol were insurrectionists and accomplices — women who believe they, and their sons, were doing the "right" thing.

New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister once wrote "women's anger certainly isn't always progressive." "White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy's most eager foot soldiers," Traister wrote in her book "Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger."

We saw the embodiment of this on Wednesday, thanks to the helicopter riot moms.

Biden will release all vaccine doses when he takes office: report

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, he will aim to release almost every available dose of the coronavirus vaccines, according to a CNN report.

The plan is at odds with President Donald Trump's plan of holding half of the US vaccine production to guarantee second doses are available. However, by releasing all vaccine doses, more people will have access to the first dose immediately once Biden takes office.

"The President-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible. He supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans' arms now," said TJ Ducklo, a spokesman for Biden's transition team, to CNN. "He will share additional details next week on how his Administration will begin releasing available doses when he assumes office on January 20th."

According to the report, Biden's team noted that they might hold back a small number of doses in the event of unforeseen circumstances.

The move comes after eight Democratic governors wrote a letter pleading that the Trump administration release all available doses as soon as possible as the virus surges. On Thursday, the U.S. recorded 4,085 coronavirus deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker; it topped the previous record of 3,865 on Wednesday.

"While some of these life-saving vaccines are sitting in Pfizer freezers, our nation is losing 2,661 Americans each day, according to the latest seven-day average," the governors wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. "The failure to distribute these doses to states who request them is unconscionable and unacceptable; we demand that the federal government begin distributing these reserved doses to states immediately."

As Salon previously reported, the vaccine roll-out has been a rocky one. According to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC), 22,137,350 doses have been distributed, but a little over 6.6 million doses have been administered, as of Jan. 8. Supply and vaccination goals are falling behind, in part because healthcare settings don't have the resources and staff to fight a surging pandemic and inoculate their workers.

"Healthcare settings have to deal with the fact that they're taking care of coronavirus patients at the same time that they're running vaccination clinics," said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in an interview earlier this week. "People who are vaccinating have other positions and they're being pulled, there's no such thing as a full-time COVID-19 vaccinator."

By releasing all the doses, there could be a risk that the second doses won't all be available at the same time. According to the New York Times, it's a risk the Biden administration will be willing to take as they reportedly have faith that manufacturers will deliver the second round of doses before they're needed.

Michael Pratt, a spokesman for Operation Warp Speed, sharply criticized Biden's approach to release mostly all of the vaccine doses.

"If President-elect Biden is calling for the distribution of vaccines knowing that there would not be a second dose available, that decision is without science or data and is contrary to the F.D.A.'s approved label," Pratt said, via the New York Times. "If President-elect Biden is suggesting that the maximum number of doses should be made available, consistent with ensuring that a second dose of vaccine will be there when the patient shows up, then that is already happening."

Karens are everywhere -- so where are all the Kens?

We all know a Karen. We've seen them in America's tree-lined, manicured suburbs asking to speak with the manager because the grilled chicken on their Caesar salad is too cold. Sporting Kate Gosselin's haircut circa 2009, the most benign Karens lambaste part-time Home Depot employees for having the wrong shade of taupe paint; the worst Karens leverage their white privilege to harass people of color. Entitlement, whiteness, privilege, always having to be correct — and being a woman — embody the idea of the "Karen," a pejorative that was coined in online discourse in the late 2010s but became prominent in 2020. Sarah Miller, writing in the New York Times, defined Karens as "middle-aged white moms who are always asking for the manager and calling the police on perfectly fine pool parties and wondering why kids are so obsessed with their identities."

Like any cultural phenomenon, much Karen name-calling and Karen-shaming is waged online. In articles, memes, and artifact-ridden JPEGs posted on Twitter and Facebook, Karens asking to speak with the manager run rampant across our laptop screens and beyond. The concept of the "Karen" has entered the popular lexicon to the extent that it is making its way into public policy. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the "CAREN Act" (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) in July, an allusion to the pejorative. Women with the name Karen are reportedly less likely to get dates online because of the stereotypes associated with their name.

While the origins of the Karen meme are unclear, some believe it originated from a Dane Cook comedy special that aired in 2005. Yet the term also has connections to the phrase "Miss Ann," a term was used by African-American slaves to refer to a condescending European-American woman, as André Brock, a professor at Georgia Tech, told CNN. As Karen Attiah further explained in an op-ed for the Washington Post, "Becky and Karen memes and jokes should be understood in this context, part of a long tradition to use humor to try to cope with the realities of white privilege and anti-blackness." Indeed, the pejorative's history is rooted in the many horrible ways white privilege can be weaponized by white women.

Recently, the term has begun to transcend gender. Anyone can be a Karen, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, if their appearance is feminized and amended with the Gosselin bob. Last month, when Musk seemed to misunderstand how his COVID-19 test worked, a scientist mocked him and called him "Space Karen."

But as the Karen meme entered the mainstream, it mutated. Specifically, it's gone from being hyper-specific to a slur that has become synonymous with merely "bad," "shrill," "a woman I don't like," or perhaps "a man who acts like an entitled woman."

Much as the word "socialism" has become meaningless to much of the right, spouted as a catch-all slur for anyone or anything on the left they don't like, a certain (mostly male) subset has begun Karen-baiting any women they don't like — even if she doesn't embody Karenesque traits.

Yet Karen-ifying everyone these days is often a dodge. In many cases, memes about Karens come off as instances of bald-faced sexism, disconnected from the original meme, distracting from the issues that made "being a Karen" a problem in the first place — problems that have nothing to do with Karen's gender and everything to do with her behavior.

So if Karen has devolved into the go-to pejorative to describe anyone who makes a fuss about or questions anything, one wonders why isn't there a man's name — like Ken, Donald, Kevin, or (dare I say) Elon — that we can call white men when they're demanding to speak to the proverbial manager, and acting like their needs are above everyone else?

Lest you think the call for a male or gender-neutral "Karen" is tantamount to feminism run amok, I should note that we had this cultural conversation about hurricanes decades ago. In the 1950s, the U.S. decided to give storm systems female names only. This had a peculiar trickle down effect: "Once these storms took on female names, weathermen began talking about them as if they were women," Becky Little writes for History.com. "They used sexist clichés to describe their behavior—saying that this one was 'temperamental,' or that another was 'teasing' or 'flirting' with a coastline." A feminist campaign to give storm systems male names too was won in 1979, leading to the gender-alternating system we have today.

Just as with hurricane naming systems, it's not the name specifically that is sexist, but how it is being used—and who's using it. Considering a woman with a blonde bob memed with the overlay "Felt cute. Might talk to the manager later," it's worth asking why men who exhibit similar entitlement aren't subjected to the same kind of scrutiny.

Indeed, many Karen memes depict said Karens as shrill, nagging — sexist stereotypes, disconnected from any larger racial or class discourse. These are merely the same misogynist stereotypes that have stuck to women for decades.

There is no shortage of white-male names that could serve as a male spin-off of Karen. But a male-equivalent of a "Karen," standing alone throwing a fit at Walmart demanding to speak to the manager, is not something we have the recognizable stereotype of, nor is this meme popular.

Maybe it's time to popularize "Ken," Karen's male equivalent. Or maybe this is just another story about how internet neologisms often devolve into sexist stereotypes.

We asked small business owners how they've weathered the pandemic

In April, a month after the pandemic hit the United States, Cliff Hodges was one of millions of small business owners teetering on the brink.

Hodges, who ran a small outdoor wilderness club in Santa Cruz, California, a beach town 75 miles south of San Francisco, applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to keep his business afloat — but he was denied, by three different banks, because they ran out of funds. The rejections weren't a result of Hodges bad timing; he applied for the loan right away, the first day the banks made it available online. When Salon spoke with him in April, a fourth bank responded and marked his case as "closing." He didn't know exactly what "closing" meant, but he felt skeptical that a loan would actually come through. Disappointment clung to his voice.

"I haven't been able to reach anyone, so maybe there is a small chance that I have money coming, but I don't know," he told Salon, nervously, in April.

Eight months since we last spoke, Hodges is relieved to report that the final bank delivered. He received a PPP loan and used it for payroll, and he's already applied for forgiveness for a portion of it.

However, this doesn't mean it's business as usual for him, and he won't go as far as saying the worst has passed. Instead, Hodges is living by a mantra that all small businesses live by — or at least, the ones that are lucky enough to still hang an "open" sign.

"We are surviving, I wouldn't say we're thriving, but we're surviving," Hodges said. "April, May and the first part of June were really tough."

Hodges' business, Adventure Out, offers small-group outdoor activities like surf lessons to wilderness survival training. Given what we know about how the novel coronavirus is transmitted outside, the services his business provides have been somewhat pandemic-proof. But as the state of California descends into another stay-at-home order, like most of the country, he's buckling up for another season full of uncertainty.

"We've had a whole slew of cancellations and decreases in business," Hodges said. "To get through this winter, and I think it's going to be a really tough winter, another round of stimulus for small business is needed; I don't see how we're going to get through it without some sort of help."

In September, business review site Yelp released a quarterly economic impact report with a harrowing statistic: 60 percent of business closures on its platform were permanent. The demographics of the small businesses that haven't survived mirror the ongoing disparities we've seen throughout the pandemic. According to a separate survey by Color Of Change and Main Street Alliance, 46 percent of the Black small businesses polled were forced to close, or are planning to close within the next six months. And these statistics provide just a small snapshot of what's happening.

"I think that we don't know yet what the actual closure rates are going to be, but the ones that are surviving are surviving on a sort of skeletal operations, racking up a lot of debt," Amanda Ballantyne, the executive director of Main Street Alliance, told Salon in an interview. "In the beginning of the pandemic, there were so many unknowns, and the federal relief packages were rolled out in ways that I think made it hard for a lot of real, independent small businesses to access them timely."

The federal government designed the PPP program to provide small businesses with loans up to two and half times their monthly payroll. The loans could be converted into grants as long as 75 percent of the funds were used to retain employees; the loans had to be used within eight weeks from the time the loan was distributed in order for it to be forgiven.

That was in April, and small businesses have yet to receive further federal relief since then. Moreover, providing loans through private banks gave priority to business owners who had relationships with the bank, which exacerbated disparities, experts say.

"Moving the PPP loans through the private banking system was a big mistake," Ballantyne said. "It sounds like Congress is going to restart the PPP again, but they should fix what we already know is wrong with the program."

Small business advocates like Ballantyne, and John Arensmeyer, CEO of Small Business Majority, a small business research and advocacy organization, tell Salon that grants will be key for "true" small businesses — meaning those that have fewer than 20 employees — to survive.

"We've been calling for grants from day one," Arensmeyer said. "We want to see money set aside for lending institutions like CDFI [the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund] that serves more low income communities and communities of color, and we want to see loan forgiveness."

Shayai Lucero, owner and floral designer of Earth & Sky Floral Designs in New Mexico, is relying on grants for Native American business owners and artists. She considered applying for the PPP loan, but ultimately given the size of her business and the amount she'd qualify for, she said it wasn't worth it. Plus, most of her employees are seasonal. Lucero said one saving grace that has kept her business afloat is that she was already running her business out of her own home, and doesn't have to pay for rent on a storefront. However, given the nature of her business, providing floral arrangements for life events, fewer celebrations this year means very thin margins.

"Last month, I operated at 35 percent of what I needed for the previous month in the previous year," Lucero told me. "I look at those numbers and I break down. . . . being able to be a home-based florist has helped me through the pandemic, but I don't know how long it's going to last."

In Las Vegas, Nevada, Ron Nelsen, the owner and general manager of Pioneer Overhead Door, told Salon in an interview in April that he received an email stating that his bank no longer had PPP loan funds. Similar to Hodges, he eventually secured a PPP loan in "what they call the second tranche," he explained.

Nelsen said he suspects that not having a personal relationship with the bank pushed him to the end of the line the first time he applied, and that the second tranche was an easier process to endure. But since then, operating a business that furnishes and installs garage doors, garage door openers, has come with its own set of pandemic-related challenges.

"There was a while we couldn't find any masks, hand sanitizer, and all that stuff, for our employees," Nelsen said. "And then you got the flip side of it, you go to customers houses and some people are COVID deniers, and they don't want to have anything to do with the masks."

Fortunately, he hasn't had any employees get sick, but that's in part due to more honest communication, and less privacy, between him and his seven full-time employees.

"You can't just call in with a tummy ache, you have to tell me what your symptoms are." Nelsen said. "Basically if you're taking off work for any reason other than a hangover, you can't come back the next day."

As for what's next, everyone Salon spoke with emphasized that shopping local will definitely help small businesses this holiday season, in addition to a much-needed federal relief package.

"Support small local businesses because Amazon doesn't need any more of our dollars," Hodges said. "I'm just really trying to promote that, not just in my professional life but also in my personal life."

Mental health experts: Here are 5 tips for coping with a lonely Thanksgiving

Loneliness often defies stereotypes. A traveler in a foreign country may be surrounded by strangers yet feel utterly alone, while someone living alone can have a rich social life. Loneliness is not something our society is well-accustomed to discussing; indeed, "lonely" is often synonymous with "desperate." Yet humans are social creatures, and socializing is an innate need, like food, loneliness expert Cat Moore told me. "And like hunger, it signals that a social need isn't being met," Moore said.

This year, Thanksgiving — one of the most social holidays — is apt to be a particularly lonely affair for millions of Americans. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention urged Americans to stay home and celebrate Thanksgiving with people in their households, or alone. "Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19," the CDC explained in an advisory released Thursday. "Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year." (Notably, record travel numbers suggest that not everyone is following this guidance).

Those pandemic heroes with few or no guests in attendance during Thanksgiving might be especially lonely given the unusual circumstances. Holiday blues aren't a new thing — and before the coronavirus pandemic, there was a loneliness epidemic, experts say — but this year's sense of loneliness is deeply exacerbated by the necessity of social distance.

Because this is the first modern pandemic Thanksgiving, there's no playbook for how to cope with being alone when it feels like others around you are with loved ones. We asked four mental health experts how to tangibly deal with loneliness this Thanksgiving.

It might sound cheesy, but do something nice for someone else

In the worst-case situation, loneliness can lead to a mental downward spiral that motivates one to reach for the next-best-unhealthy thing to immediately ease the discomfort — i.e. drinking too much alcohol, doing drugs, doom-scrolling, or descending into nihilism and being social without precautions. This is referred to as "maladaptive coping" in the therapist world, which is when a person turns to something specifically to escape their problems.

"When individuals are at that point and they're headed towards maladaptive coping skills, the first idea [that] comes to mind is to get outside of oneself and help others," Ken Yeager, the clinical director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who has been a mental health practitioner for over 30 years, told me. "It's not until you get out of yourself and give to somebody else that you can move your mood forward and address the loneliness you're experiencing."

Yeager said if you sit and focus on what you're missing out on this Thanksgiving, you stay "inside of yourself."

"You're only musing and perseverating over your issues," Yeager said. "And it's not until you get out of yourself and give to somebody else that you can move your mood forward and address the loneliness you're experiencing."

Volunteering is usually top of mind when one thinks about helping others. Since food banks across the country are struggling to keep up with the surge in demand, one COVID-safe way to help out this week is to clean out your pantry and donate to your local food bank. Another way to cope with your loneliness by helping others could be to plan out the gifts you'll give to family and friends this year, or spend part of your day writing your holiday cards.

"You don't have to be out in public to do something nice for somebody," Yeager said, adding that you could also write a nice letter to the people who have helped you this year, too.

Skip the stuffing, skip the turkey

Why try and force something that's not happening? Thanksgiving isn't officially cancelled, but it's definitely not the same. Hence, Yeager said another way to cope with loneliness is to "make yourself a kid again" and do something "different." Don't feel the need to force yourself to eat turkey alone, especially if you don't actually enjoy turkey that much.

"If you've got a fireplace, roast some marshmallows over your fireplace, if you've got some hot dogs, roast those over the fireplace," Yeager said.

The point is to not try and recreate a traditional Thanksgiving, because that will only "conjure up memories of previous gatherings by cooking those things," Yeager said. "If you try to recreate Thanksgiving, it's never the same," Yeager added, emphasizing this is especially true for people who might be grieving the loss of a family member. Over 260,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States; that's a lot of people who will be without their friends and family this year.

Another way to move through the grief, Yeager said, is to share funny stories about the people you've lost.

"And what that does is very suddenly begins to move people from the grieving process into the appreciating process," Yeager said.

Put some pants on and go for a walk with a friend

Nathalie Theodore, a psychotherapist in Chicago, told Salon that another way to cope with loneliness this Thanksgiving is to think of different, unique ways to stay connected with friends and family.

"We are all experiencing Zoom fatigue at this point (not to mention overall pandemic fatigue), so it's important to think outside the box to make this holiday fun, even under these unusual circumstances," Theodore said via email. "You can meet outside and go for a walk, or meet online for a yoga class."

Theodore added that if one is planning a "Zoom Thanksgiving," it might be worth trying to make it "more festive."

"Make your Zoom Thanksgiving more festive by inviting friends or family members you miss and haven't connected with recently," Theodore said. "After dinner, get together with friends online for a game or movie night."

"Finding creative ways to connect with friends and family will help stave off feelings of loneliness and make the day feel more festive," Theodore said.

Remember, it's just one day

Remember, Thanksgiving is just one day out of the year. And if you're lonely, so are millions of other Americans going through the same thing.

Dr. Carlin Barnes, MD, and Dr. Marketa Wills, MD, MBA, who are the co-authors of "Understanding Mental Illness," told me that it's totally normal to feel lonely this Thanksgiving. "It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that Thanksgiving is one day and not a week or season," they said. "Shifting your focus to a day instead of managing a holiday week or holiday season can help reduce anxiety."

"It is important to acknowledge and validate if you are feeling lonely on this Thanksgiving holiday," Barnes and Wills added. "If you are feeling some loneliness, this is very normal, many of us are having these same feelings."

Together, Barnes and Wills sent me a list of activities they recommend:

  • Connect with family and friends virtually (with use of Zoom, FaceTime, or other video conferencing platforms)
  • Participate in a drive by, socially distant potluck dinner
  • Reach out via phone and reconnect with family and friends with a phone call
  • Plan activities that allow you to use your alone time enjoying fun or relaxing activities (e.g. exercise, volunteer by dropping food off to a shelter or writing letters to nursing home residents or veterans, read a good book, watch a good movie, cook a special holiday meal)
  • Meditate and/or create a gratitude list of things you're grateful for
  • If possible, get out in nature
  • Start planning how you will spend next Thanksgiving when things are (hopefully) back to normal

Understand your needs

The suggestions from mental health professionals above might be helpful for some people, but not everyone. Yeager told me that coping mechanisms for loneliness can often depend on whether or not a person is an extrovert or an introvert.

"Extroverts need other people to gain energy," which is why COVID-19 has been so hard on them and this holiday season might be even more challenging, Yeager said.

"When they're alone their energy level goes down, they're not smiling as much, they're not building the energy that they do when they're around people because everything they do is built upon the response of others," Yeager explained. "If the extrovert is alone, and they're feeling that loneliness, they really need to find a way to connect with others via technology."

During a "normal" holiday season, Yeager said, introverts usually struggle with anxiety, and thus might find relief in a change of plans this year. However, loneliness is experienced by both cohorts. "If you're an introvert, you need to find the pieces of solace that help you to build energy and to thrive during this difficult time."

In other words, check in on your extroverts.

How Trump inadvertently mobilized hundreds of thousands suburban women against him

Do conservatives own the phrase "housewife"? or can it be reclaimed by liberals? The stereotypes that the phrase "housewife" recalls — manicured lawns, whiteness, nuclear families like in "Leave it to Beaver" — may seem counterposed to liberal values, emblematic of a reactionary ideal of an idyllic American past. But in the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump's loss to President-elect Joe Biden was mostly due to voters in the suburbs of important battleground states. Exit polls show that Black women and suburban women were critical to Biden's coalition; as AP News explained, Trump would have won if only men had voted. Trump's loss is owed in part to this tidal shift in women in the suburbs, who banded together and organized in Facebook groups like the 200,000-member strong "'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump," a group that started after Trump's sexist and racist pitches to female voters in the suburbs fell flat.

Back in August, Trump tweeted that the "suburban housewife" would be voting for him. "They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood," Trump said. "Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey Booker in charge!" He continued to reiterate this message at campaign rallies in battleground states like Michigan, where he told women he was getting their "husbands back to work."

But the hundreds of thousands of self-identified suburban housewives, Trump's rhetoric motivated them to mobilize against him.

Loni Yeary, who started the Facebook group "'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump," told Salon that Trump's "suburban housewife" tweet was what pushed her over the edge.

"It really angered me," the 40-year-old said. "Because I am a suburban housewife, I'm a stay at home mom to three kids and I live in a suburb of Cincinnati. . . . I knew a couple of other women who felt the same as I did and I just decided to start a group."

That was back in August. Yeary invited friends from Kentucky, Texas, and Florida, to join the group; they then invited their own friends. Two weeks later, it had grown to over 25,000 members; more than 230,000 women are in the group now.

Yeary realized the group had the potential to be a place where women could organize themselves and their neighbors for Biden, and partnered with the group Red, Wine and Blue, a progressive 501(c)(4) whose stated goal is to "harness the power of suburban women." With their help, "'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump" turned into a centralized online location where suburban women could swap organizing ideas, collaborate together to phone bank, text bank and write postcards for Biden and other Democratic candidates in their communities. Women also regularly shared ideas on how to talk to neighbors and people within their circles to "flip their votes" blue, which was core to the group's "philosophy."

Online organizing was of particular importance in the 2020 presidential election, as in-person political organizing was made more difficult by the pandemic. As ephemeral as a Facebook group might seem in the larger political sense, the group's organizers say that the real-life connections fostered by social media gave their group greater power to change minds.

"Our philosophy has been that if you want to change the vote, you're going to do it through your interpersonal relationships, like friends, coworkers and neighbors," Yeary said. "Sometimes those are pretty awkward conversations to have, but it's important, people are more likely to vote because they know that their neighbor down the street is going to vote for Joe Biden, rather than just somebody randomly calling them or texting them."

To group members, the meaning of the phrase "suburban housewife" is precarious; obviously, there are gendered and — some would argue — outmoded connotations to the phrase. Indeed, in the official title of the group, the phrase "suburban housewives" is rendered in double-quotes, suggesting a facetious or tongue-in-cheek interpretation. Often, members joke about it; one group member said she made a "blue garden" full of Biden-Harris signs in her front lawn as a "suburban housewife" might. Some group discussions center around the sexist tone of "housewife," and how "annoying" it is to be called the term, especially by a man. Yet ultimately, the group focused on election organizing more than philosophical or cultural debates.

Tracy Barnett, a 54-year-old in Charlotte, North Carolina, joined the group early in August. In an interview, she told Salon she was a "lifelong Republican" until 2016. After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, she realized she wanted to get more involved in politics and become more informed. She was alarmed as she watched those in her community and extended networks descend into Trump's "cult of personality," as she called it.

Eventually, a friend invited her to "'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump" on Facebook.

"It was a great place for sourcing and compiling information," Barnett says. "I'd often see people post and say, 'Hey, I've got a colleague (or thread) that is sharing X, Y and Z, I need some information to counteract this,'" Barnett said. She noted that Trump's tweet that precipitated the group showed how "detached" he was from the suburbs.

"'Suburban housewives,' what is that even?" Barnett said. "Nobody's a housewife, and nobody's referring to themselves as a 'suburban housewife,' so there's an incredible tone deafness to that. And then you couple that, with the implied racist segregationist rhetoric, and it just . . . insulting."

Indeed, Trump's attempt to reach women who live in the suburbs may have been meant to appeal to a part of his "base" who equate the so-called "American dream" to suburbs full of all white, middle-class families that exhibit traditional gender roles. While American suburbia is far from a "utopia," historian Lily Geismer told Salon, our nation's suburbs have changed dramatically over the last three decades.

"The suburbs have gone through a sort of tremendous transformation, which I think is one of the things that in some ways the election results actually demonstrates," Geismer said. "And one of the biggest trends is in their racial diversity; the suburbs by no means have never been a monolith, but that's been especially true in the last 30 years."

Miesha Tate Ander told Salon she joined the Facebook group to contribute to the "many faces, many colors, and what-have-yous," that make up the suburbs today.

"In [Trump's] mind, there's no such thing as a Black, quote-unquote suburban housewife," Ander said. "It's not just white women who live in the suburbs."

Ander, who is 43 and living in Atlanta, started a company called Grab 'em by the Postcard, designing e-postcards to, in her words, empower and uplift undecided voters. Those e-cards became popular in the Facebook group. Likewise, Ander said she's also found the Facebook group to be a place where women who might not otherwise connect in real life become friends.

"You've got women in here who were previous[ly] Republican supporters. . . but it doesn't even matter the party. Honestly it just brings together humanity in such a huge way," Ander said. "And that's what I really appreciate."

"'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump" isn't the only liberal "suburban women" organizing group that organically sprouted up online. There's also "Suburban Women for Kamala Harris," a Black women–led group that also has over 200,000 members. According to the group's description, it's a reaction to Trump's adviser's comment that Harris would "scare the s**t out of suburban women."

Geismer said suburban women organizing is nothing new for either the left or right. Historically, "suburban liberals" have used their identity as suburban parents to their advantage, which she added we're seeing again in the "resistance mom" movement on the left. However, there are questions around how far the resistance-mom activism can go, and how this cohort can push to dismantle systemic racism; exit polls found that fifty-three percent of white women in America still voted for Trump in 2020.

As a historian, Geismer said she's interested in this "cleaning" of the "housewife" category, and wonders if it will stick beyond Trump. "It's a dated term in many ways," Geismer said. "I would be fascinated at the staying power of that idea going forward without Trump as the focus."

As Yeary explained, the title of the group was a direct reaction to Trump's comments. While she hopes the group continues to encourage suburban women to stay engaged in politics and support local Democratic candidates, the term "housewife" will likely stick around, even as Trump's star fades.

"Both words are key to describing our group, but I recognize that not all the women in the group identify as 'suburban; or as a 'housewife,'" Yeary said. "I do like the idea of keeping 'housewives' in the name, just as a snarky reminder of where the group's name came from in the first place; using that description allows us to claim that word and define it how we see fit."

How Trump accidentally mobilized hundreds of thousands of women against him

Do conservatives own the phrase "housewife"? or can it be reclaimed by liberals? The stereotypes that the phrase "housewife" recalls — manicured lawns, whiteness, nuclear families like in "Leave it to Beaver" — may seem counterposed to liberal values, emblematic of a reactionary ideal of an idyllic American past. But in the 2020 presidential election, President Donald Trump's loss to President-elect Joe Biden was mostly due to voters in the suburbs of important battleground states. Exit polls show that Black women and suburban women were critical to Biden's coalition; as AP News explained, Trump would have won if only men had voted. Trump's loss is owed in part to this tidal shift in women in the suburbs, who banded together and organized in Facebook groups like the 200,000-member strong "'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump," a group that started after Trump's sexist and racist pitches to female voters in the suburbs fell flat.

Back in August, Trump tweeted that the "suburban housewife" would be voting for him. "They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood," Trump said. "Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey Booker in charge!" He continued to reiterate this message at campaign rallies in battleground states like Michigan, where he told women he was getting their "husbands back to work."

But the hundreds of thousands of self-identified suburban housewives, Trump's rhetoric motivated them to mobilize against him.

Loni Yeary, who started the Facebook group "'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump," told Salon that Trump's "suburban housewife" tweet was what pushed her over the edge.

"It really angered me," the 40-year-old said. "Because I am a suburban housewife, I'm a stay at home mom to three kids and I live in a suburb of Cincinnati. . . . I knew a couple of other women who felt the same as I did and I just decided to start a group."

That was back in August. Yeary invited friends from Kentucky, Texas, and Florida, to join the group; they then invited their own friends. Two weeks later, it had grown to over 25,000 members; more than 230,000 women are in the group now.

Yeary realized the group had the potential to be a place where women could organize themselves and their neighbors for Biden, and partnered with the group Red, Wine and Blue, a progressive 501(c)(4) whose stated goal is to "harness the power of suburban women." With their help, "'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump" turned into a centralized online location where suburban women could swap organizing ideas, collaborate together to phone bank, text bank and write postcards for Biden and other Democratic candidates in their communities. Women also regularly shared ideas on how to talk to neighbors and people within their circles to "flip their votes" blue, which was core to the group's "philosophy."

Online organizing was of particular importance in the 2020 presidential election, as in-person political organizing was made more difficult by the pandemic. As ephemeral as a Facebook group might seem in the larger political sense, the group's organizers say that the real-life connections fostered by social media gave their group greater power to change minds.

"Our philosophy has been that if you want to change the vote, you're going to do it through your interpersonal relationships, like friends, coworkers and neighbors," Yeary said. "Sometimes those are pretty awkward conversations to have, but it's important, people are more likely to vote because they know that their neighbor down the street is going to vote for Joe Biden, rather than just somebody randomly calling them or texting them."

To group members, the meaning of the phrase "suburban housewife" is precarious; obviously, there are gendered and — some would argue — outmoded connotations to the phrase. Indeed, in the official title of the group, the phrase "suburban housewives" is rendered in double-quotes, suggesting a facetious or tongue-in-cheek interpretation. Often, members joke about it; one group member said she made a "blue garden" full of Biden-Harris signs in her front lawn as a "suburban housewife" might. Some group discussions center around the sexist tone of "housewife," and how "annoying" it is to be called the term, especially by a man. Yet ultimately, the group focused on election organizing more than philosophical or cultural debates.

Tracy Barnett, a 54-year-old in Charlotte, North Carolina, joined the group early in August. In an interview, she told Salon she was a "lifelong Republican" until 2016. After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, she realized she wanted to get more involved in politics and become more informed. She was alarmed as she watched those in her community and extended networks descend into Trump's "cult of personality," as she called it.

Eventually, a friend invited her to "'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump" on Facebook.

"It was a great place for sourcing and compiling information," Barnett says. "I'd often see people post and say, 'Hey, I've got a colleague (or thread) that is sharing X, Y and Z, I need some information to counteract this,'" Barnett said. She noted that Trump's tweet that precipitated the group showed how "detached" he was from the suburbs.

"'Suburban housewives,' what is that even?" Barnett said. "Nobody's a housewife, and nobody's referring to themselves as a 'suburban housewife,' so there's an incredible tone deafness to that. And then you couple that, with the implied racist segregationist rhetoric, and it just . . . insulting."

Indeed, Trump's attempt to reach women who live in the suburbs may have been meant to appeal to a part of his "base" who equate the so-called "American dream" to suburbs full of all white, middle-class families that exhibit traditional gender roles. While American suburbia is far from a "utopia," historian Lily Geismer told Salon, our nation's suburbs have changed dramatically over the last three decades.

"The suburbs have gone through a sort of tremendous transformation, which I think is one of the things that in some ways the election results actually demonstrates," Geismer said. "And one of the biggest trends is in their racial diversity; the suburbs by no means have never been a monolith, but that's been especially true in the last 30 years."

Miesha Tate Ander told Salon she joined the Facebook group to contribute to the "many faces, many colors, and what-have-yous," that make up the suburbs today.

"In [Trump's] mind, there's no such thing as a Black, quote-unquote suburban housewife," Ander said. "It's not just white women who live in the suburbs."

Ander, who is 43 and living in Atlanta, started a company called Grab 'em by the Postcard, designing e-postcards to, in her words, empower and uplift undecided voters. Those e-cards became popular in the Facebook group. Likewise, Ander said she's also found the Facebook group to be a place where women who might not otherwise connect in real life become friends.

"You've got women in here who were previous[ly] Republican supporters. . . but it doesn't even matter the party. Honestly it just brings together humanity in such a huge way," Ander said. "And that's what I really appreciate."

"'Suburban Housewives' Against Trump" isn't the only liberal "suburban women" organizing group that organically sprouted up online. There's also "Suburban Women for Kamala Harris," a Black women–led group that also has over 200,000 members. According to the group's description, it's a reaction to Trump's adviser's comment that Harris would "scare the s**t out of suburban women."

Geismer said suburban women organizing is nothing new for either the left or right. Historically, "suburban liberals" have used their identity as suburban parents to their advantage, which she added we're seeing again in the "resistance mom" movement on the left. However, there are questions around how far the resistance-mom activism can go, and how this cohort can push to dismantle systemic racism; exit polls found that fifty-three percent of white women in America still voted for Trump in 2020.

As a historian, Geismer said she's interested in this "cleaning" of the "housewife" category, and wonders if it will stick beyond Trump. "It's a dated term in many ways," Geismer said. "I would be fascinated at the staying power of that idea going forward without Trump as the focus."

As Yeary explained, the title of the group was a direct reaction to Trump's comments. While she hopes the group continues to encourage suburban women to stay engaged in politics and support local Democratic candidates, the term "housewife" will likely stick around, even as Trump's star fades.

"Both words are key to describing our group, but I recognize that not all the women in the group identify as 'suburban; or as a 'housewife,'" Yeary said. "I do like the idea of keeping 'housewives' in the name, just as a snarky reminder of where the group's name came from in the first place; using that description allows us to claim that word and define it how we see fit."

Biden's free childcare plan is a worthy feminist reform

Joe Biden wasn't the first choice for many women during the Democratic presidential primaries, yet the president-elect's social agenda has proven to be surprisingly feminist in its orientation. Nowhere is this clearer than in his proposal for subsidizing toddler-age childcare, a progressive platform that has earned plaudits from feminists and which has been a local success story in local jurisdictions in which it has been implemented.

According to the Biden-Harris transition website, the administration plans to make it "far easier to afford child care and to ensure aging relatives and people with disabilities have better access to home and community-based care." The new administration also promises to "elevate the pay, benefits, and professional opportunities for caregivers and educators; to create millions of good-paying new jobs in these areas with a choice to join a union; and to free up millions of people to join the labor force and grow a stronger economy in return."

This refers to the $775 billion plan Biden announced while campaigning in Delaware in July, when Biden proposed a national pre-K for all children ages 3 and 4. In that proposal, families earning less than $125,000 a year would receive an $8,000 child care tax credit per child, up to $16,000. Parents earning less than 1.5 times the median income in their state could subsidize child care and would pay no more than 7 percent of their income. Those with a very low income would pay nothing.

Notably, the pandemic's economic affects are seriously setting back gender equality, as I've previously written. Large swaths of women in America left the workforce or cut down their hours to be a stay at home caregiver during the pandemic. As of May 2020, women account for 54 percent of initial coronavirus-related job losses. According to the Women in the Workplace report, Black women said they were more likely to consider stepping away from their careers due to the pandemic. One in four women are thinking of either leaving the workforce of downshifting their careers—a move that would have been dubbed "unthinkable" last year.

This is all to say that the Biden-Harris administration's focus on reviving the economy will largely hinge on whether it prioritizes making it easier to get women back to work, and that means universal childcare.

Research shows that universal preschool can have a big impact on the economy. For example, Washington D.C. has been running what is arguably the most comprehensive universal childcare for three and four-year olds since 2009; it spends an estimated $17,545 per child enrolled in preschool, which is the highest any state (or district, in this case) pays in the country. A Center for American Progress study found that this program increased the city's maternal labor force participation by 12 percentage points. In D.C., the labor participation rate for mothers with 3- and 4-year-olds is now about the same as it is for mothers with kids in elementary school, which is already free and compulsory. These positive trends were observed among both low-income and high-income families; the largest participation increases were among mothers without a high school degree, according to the study.

"These results suggest that two years of universal, full-day preschool is associated with a large positive effect on maternal labor supply—comparable in magnitude to the impact found in studies of universal preschool programs in other countries," the Center for American Progress study noted. "On a national scale, policies that support maternal labor force attachment could contribute to faster growth in gross domestic product (GDP); stronger financial security for young families; and fewer career sacrifices by women, who assume a disproportionate share of their families' care responsibilities."

As Vox explained in 2018, the D.C. program has had some unintended consequences, specifically on private child care business, which became less likely to take infants and toddlers at subsidized rates.

Yet the Biden-Harris plan doesn't just focus on making it easier for families to afford childcare. It is also a jobs plan. First, it proposes a bailout for child care centers, many of which are at risk of closing due to the pandemic. A survey of California providers by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) found that 80 percent of open child care programs face higher costs associated with pandemic cleaning requirements; in some cases, these centers are funding the additional costs themselves. The survey found that 77 percent of that state's child care centers lost income due to the pandemic, and it warned that without more public funding "the California child care industry will continue to collapse."

In July, when Biden revealed his plan, he also called for an increase in pay for child care workers, along with health benefits and freedom to unionize. A CSCCE report found that 57 percent of pre-K teaching staff report household incomes of less than $30,000 a year. Many caregivers in general aren't paid, and hence, the Biden-Harris plan proposes to give these unpaid caregivers a $5,000 tax credit in addition to Social Security credits.

The inclusiveness and intersectionality of the Biden-Harris plan makes it effectively a feminist reform. Three-fourths of American teachers are women, while over half of the country's family or informal caregivers are women. Meanwhile, women are more likely to sacrifice their careers when a crisis hits home, as they generally make less money than men. A workforce without affordable childcare and one that treats caregivers less than they deserve is the modern-day equivalent of the dire conditions faced by impoverished seamstresses in the late nineteenth century: long hours, no bathroom breaks, unsafe working conditions. These conditions kept many women out of the workforce. I'd argue that today's economic climate is not too dissimilar, in that it stresses mothers, their families, and oft-underpaid and undervalued professional female caregivers.

Besides D.C., a few other American cities and counties have enacted subsidized or universal childcare policies. Last week, Multnomah County, home of Portland, Oregon, passed one of the most progressive universal preschool policies in the nation, Measure 26-214. Universal preschool advocates in Portland won by assembling a coalition of parents, teachers, unions, and progressive groups like the Democratic Socialists of America; the newly-passed measure is funded by a progressive income tax. "By making preschool free for every 3- and 4-year-old and guaranteeing preschool workers a living wage, Measure 26-214 gives Multnomah County families options, lets kids thrive, and addresses the deep inequities in our community," the proposition's boosters in Oregon argued. Now, Biden's similar plan may see such progressive feminist reforms grow beyond local communities like Portland and D.C., with resounding economic effects.

Can Trump really stage a coup? Experts break it down

For the first time in history, an incumbent president is refusing to concede after clearly and indisputably losing a presidential election. That's making observers, citizens, and experts nervous that Trump may be preparing to stage a coup of some sort, or perhaps call again on his supporters to commit violence to sustain his rule.

Though it sounds alarmist, such happenings are certainly not unprecedented in the global arena; the United States frequently interferes with the Democratic process in other countries, and often undermines it in order to provoke a coup or make a citizenry lose faith in a governing party, as US interests did in Bolivia last year. What is more unprecedented is for such a thing to happen in the United States. We've certainly had bitter and controversial presidential elections, including, infamously, in 2000. Moreover, the Founding Fathers prophesied this happening: as my colleague Matthew Rozsa noted, in early American history George Washington warned against Americans electing a president who'd refuse to step down.

But in a historical first, Trump is the first president to flat out refuse to concede, leading some to believe he's setting the gears in motion for a coup d'etat. Since the election was called on Saturday, Trump has tweeted baseless claims that there's a pathway to invalidating counted ballots. In addition to his refusal to concede, he's pushed to fight the election results with evidence-free lawsuits.

As Barton Gellman wrote in The Atlantic before the election, the possibility that Trump might not concede was a prophecy that turned out true. "We have no precedent or procedure to end this election if Biden seems to carry the Electoral College but Trump refuses to concede," Gellman said, noting that there are "endless happenstances in any election for lawyers to exploit."

Now that we find ourselves one week post-election, there are various opinions about what Trump might do, and what is actually possible for him to do given his limited political power. Here's what experts are saying about the potential for a coup.

While a coup may not be imminent, some fear Trump's baseless election lies are eroding faith in democracy

Some political scientists are arguing that rather than a coup, we should be more concerned that Trump's baseless claims erode faith in democracy. Such moves are often the first step in a longer process towards a future coup — a kind of death spiral for democracy.

In an article in the Washington Post, political scientist Henry Farrell said Trump's baseless claims about voter fraud "corrode American democracy." In part, Farrell writes, because when Trump's followers and supporters believe his claims, they are saying they don't believe in our democracy. That's borne out by polling: A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found 70 percent of Republicans say they don't believe the 2020 election was "free and fair," an alarmingly high percentage.

As Farrell wrote:

"They will think that the game is fixed so that they have no opportunity of winning. In a worst-case scenario, this can lead to accelerating democratic breakdown. If the people on one side believe that democracy is systematically rigged against them, they are unlikely to submit to the democratic process and may instead turn to other means to protect their interests. This may, in turn, provoke a spiral of retaliation and counter-retaliation."

Farrell points to an interview he did with political scientist Adam Przeworski, who said: "Regulating conflicts by elections is then self-enforcing."

"Violence and other costly forms of conflict are avoided by the mere fact that the political forces expect to take turns," Przeworski told Farrell. "Yet this mechanism fails when the short-term stakes in an election are too high or when the opposition sees no chance to win according to rules."

A coup won't happen because the courts will save us

In The Nation, Elie Mystal, who covers the courts, the criminal justice system, and politics, writes that yes Trump is trying to overturn the election, but is not likely to succeed. The main reason is that none of Trump's lawsuits provide evidence of voter fraud.

"Trump's claims that his poll watchers were not allowed to watch the counting of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania is flatly untrue, and his lawyers have had to admit in court that they were allowed in the room," Mystal writes. "They've been reduced to arguing that their poll watchers were not close enough, which, whatever. The remedy for that is to move them closer, not throw out tens of thousands of votes."

As Mystal explains, none of Trump's flawed claims would result in the courts throwing away counted votes because that "is not something that courts do."

In fact, what Mystal argues is that the Trump campaign is going to put America through 70 days of turmoil all in the name of a grift.

"These lawsuits purportedly challenging the election are a huge money-making opportunity for the Trump campaign," Mystal writes. "If you read the fine print on the new fundraising e-mails Trump's campaign is sending out to supporters, they say that '60 percent of contributions' will go toward retiring campaign debt."

But as Mystal notes, if Trump launches "a full-scale coup d'état and uses the military to keep him in power" then yes, we'd be at war.

Yet as Salon columnist Amanda Marcotte opined, Trump's attempted coup appears disorganized, as he clearly doesn't have the support of generals. Marcotte likened it to a "clown show."

Coups are one thing, but what about a civil war?

It's important to remember that an estimated 71 million Americans voted for Trump, and 76 million voted for President-elect Joe Biden. Our country remains just as divided, if not more so, than in 2016. But research shows that such divisiveness isn't enough fodder for a civil war. As the Washington Post explained, while Americans are at odds with each other civil wars usually happen when "the state is weak." In other words, when both the country has high poverty rates and it lacks the law enforcement and military capabilities to control armed rebellions.

Others are less optimistic that a civil war isn't on the horizon. Salon's Chauncey DeVega recently interviewed Richard Kreitner, who writes for The Nation. "The United States never resolved the first civil war," Kreitner said. "The idea of a second civil war has been around literally since within months of the end of the first one. Too many Americans do not appreciate that fact." He continued:

The issues that led to the first civil war remain in many ways unresolved. There is a massive reckoning over the country's own history that has been long postponed. Resolving such matters is rarely peaceful. There are also foreign adversaries and other forces who are interfering in the election. All the elements for the story are present right now in America.

Theory: Trump is just playing to get out the vote for special elections

Trump is trying to keep his base engaged for political reasons, some political scientists suspect. However, claiming voter fraud falsely still undermines democracy.

"By all appearances, yes it looks like Trump is trying to reverse the outcome of elections that by all accounts had equal monitoring of ballot counting by Republicans and Democrats, and in states where the Chief Election Officer is a Republican (GA, NV)," Wendy Schiller, chair of Brown University's political science department, told The Boston Globe. "As unrealistic as these efforts are, they are a direct attack on the fundamental system of elections."

The appearance of what Trump is doing matters most to the GOP, Schiller argues.

"Everything Mitch McConnell is doing and saying is about keeping the Trump voters enraged enough to get out in full force for those Senate seats," Schiller wrote, referencing the upcoming runoff elections for both Senate seats in Georgia.

Paul M. Collins Jr., a professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, agreed that Republicans are trying to keep their supporters engaged and angry to leverage the base for whatever Trump is planning for next.

"They see them as a way of delegitimizing the Biden administration and the electoral process itself," Collins told The Boston Globe. "I think they believe this will help maintain their base of support, whether for a potential 2024 presidential run or to help the president succeed in whatever other plans he has after January of 2021."

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