Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this morning I was on my way to the World Trade Center as part of my regular commute. The conductor announced that it appeared a small plane had hit one of the towers. So I took a different train under the Hudson River and got off some blocks north of the Trade Center. Standing on Broadway, I watched the building burning and then got on a subway. By the time I’d gotten to work, the other tower had been hit. I could see them both burning from a window on that side of our building.

I reacted differently than most people, partly because it affected my job. We had to deal with the stock exchange being closed that week. But I didn’t watch any of the endless TV coverage and immediately feared that the president would take advantage of the situation, which he did in disastrous fashion. The air around the site was acrid and stayed that way for a surprisingly long time.

From David Roberts (@drvolts on Twitter):

3,200 on Thursday. 2,400 yesterday. On average, Covid is killing around as many Americans as died on 9/11 every single day. 

The very same people who were willing to send American children to war, spend trillions of dollars nation-building, commit war crimes, torture prisoners, & build a massive domestic-surveillance regime in response to 9/11 are unwilling to wear masks to stop a daily 9/11. 

What’s uncomfortable to talk about is that, especially for the loudest post-9/11 voices, it wasn’t really about the lives lost. It was about ego injury, about being hurt by a group of brown people we’d been socialized to think of as primitive & weak. 

The whole ensuing cascade of horrors was mostly about repairing the injury to the large & tender egos of America’s self-style Manly Men. The official elite discourse somewhat obscured this, but it was very, very clear when you read the war bloggers or watched Fox. 

Why does this 9/11 20th anniversary feel weird & muted? Because the real historical significance of 9/11 is that it marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the US, as a democracy & as the dominant global superpower. We’re too close to that, to *in it*, to reckon with it. 

And, just to bring it full circle, this explains the utterly hysterical reaction of US political elites & media to Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. It wasn’t about lives, it was about *humiliation*, the “Big Dog” running home with its tail between its legs, in failure. 

Preparing for a Worse Pandemic

It looks like the Gulf Stream will eventually collapse, leading to a climate catastrophe, but maybe it will take centuries, not months, so let’s consider a different catastrophe instead. Eric Lander, the administration’s top science adviser, explains what we need to do to avoid a much worse pandemic:

Coronavirus vaccines can end the current pandemic if enough people choose to protect themselves and their loved ones by getting vaccinated. But . . .

New infectious diseases have been emerging at an accelerating pace, and they are spreading faster.

. . . That’s why President Biden has asked Congress to fund his plan to build on current scientific progress to keep new infectious-disease threats from turning into pandemics like covid-19.

. . . For the first time in our history, we have an opportunity not just to refill our stockpiles but also to transform our capabilities. However, if we don’t start preparing now for future pandemics, the window for action will close.

Covid-19 has been a catastrophe: The toll in the United States alone is more than 614,000 lives . . . A future pandemic could be even worse — unless we take steps now.

It’s important to remember that the virus behind covid-19 is far less deadly than the 1918 influenza. The virus also belongs to a well-understood family, coronaviruses. It was possible to design vaccines within days of knowing the virus’s genetic code because 20 years of basic scientific research had revealed which protein to target and how to stabilize it. And while the current virus spins off variants, its mutation rate is slower than that of most viruses.

Unfortunately, most of the 26 families of viruses that infect humans are less well understood or harder to control. We have a great deal of work still ahead.

The development of mRNA vaccine technology — thanks to more than a decade of foresighted basic research — was a game-changer. It shortened the time needed to design and test vaccines to less than a year — far faster than for any previous vaccine. And it’s been surprisingly effective against covid-19.

Still, there’s much more to do. We don’t yet know how mRNA vaccines will perform against other viruses down the road. And when the next pandemic breaks out, we’ll want to be able to respond even faster.

Fortunately, the scientific community has been developing a bold plan to keep future viruses from becoming pandemics.

Here are a few of the goals we should shoot for:

The capability to design, test and approve safe and effective vaccines within 100 days of detecting a pandemic threat (for covid-19, that would have meant May 2020); manufacture enough doses to supply the world within 200 days; and speed vaccination campaigns by replacing sterile injections with skin patches.

Diagnostics simple and cheap enough for daily home testing to limit spread and target medical care.

Early-warning systems to spot new biological threats anywhere in the world soon after they emerge and monitor them thereafter.

We desperately need to strengthen our public health system — from expanding the workforce to modernizing labs and data systems — including to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected.

And we need to coordinate actions with our international partners, because pandemics know no borders.

These goals are ambitious, but they’re feasible — provided the work is managed with the seriousness, focus and accountability of NASA’s Apollo Program, which sent humans to the moon.

Importantly, these capabilities won’t just prepare us for future pandemics; they’ll also improve public health and medical care for infectious diseases today.

Preparing for threats is a core national responsibility. . . . The White House will put forward a detailed plan this month to ensure that the United States can fully prepare before the next outbreak. It’s hard to imagine a higher economic or human return on national investment.

The My Pillow Guy’s Plot to Wreck America

Anne Applebaum is the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. She’s an historian and writes for The Atlantic. This is most of an article she wrote about meeting one of the Big Lie’s key supporters. She came away believing he’s a nice guy and a threat to our democracy:

When you contemplate the end of democracy in America, what kind of person do you think will bring it about? Maybe you picture a sinister billionaire in a bespoke suit, slipping brown envelopes to politicians. Maybe your nightmare is a rogue general, hijacking the nuclear football. Maybe you think of a jackbooted thug leading a horde of men in white sheets, all carrying burning crosses.

Here is what you probably don’t imagine: an affable, self-made midwesterner, one of those goofy businessmen who makes his own infomercials. A recovered crack addict, no less, who laughs good-naturedly when jokes are made at his expense. A man who will talk to anyone willing to listen (and to many who aren’t). A philanthropist. A good boss. A patriot—or so he says—who may well be doing more damage to American democracy than anyone since Jefferson Davis.

I met Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, in the recording studio that occupies the basement of Steve Bannon’s stately Capitol Hill townhouse, a few blocks from the Supreme Court—the same Supreme Court that will, according to Lindell, decide “9–0” in favor of reinstating Donald Trump to the presidency sometime in August, or possibly September. . . .

Last January—on the 9th, he says carefully, placing the date after the 6th—a group of still-unidentified concerned citizens brought him some computer data. These were, allegedly, packet captures, intercepted data proving that the Chinese Communist Party altered electoral results … in all 50 states. This is a conspiracy theory more elaborate than the purported Venezuelan manipulation of voting machines, more improbable than the allegation that millions of supposedly fake ballots were mailed in, more baroque than the belief that thousands of dead people voted. This one has potentially profound geopolitical implications.

That’s why Lindell has spent money—a lot of it, “tens of millions,” he told me—“validating” the packets, and it’s why he is planning to spend a lot more. Starting on August 10, he is holding a three-day symposium in Sioux Falls (because he admires South Dakota’s gun-toting governor, Kristi Noem), where the validators, whoever they may be, will present their results publicly. He has invited all interested computer scientists, university professors, elected federal officials, foreign officials, reporters, and editors to the symposium. He has booked, he says variously, “1,000 hotel rooms” or “all the hotel rooms in the city” to accommodate them. (As of Wednesday, Booking.com was still showing plenty of rooms available in Sioux Falls.) . . .

Along with Bannon, Giuliani, and the rest of the conspiracy posse, he is helping create profound distrust in the American electoral system, in the American political system, in the American public-health system, and ultimately in American democracy. The eventual consequences of their actions may well be a genuinely stolen or disputed election in 2024, and political violence on a scale the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. You can mock Lindell, dismiss him, or call him a crackhead, but none of this will seem particularly funny when we truly have an illegitimate president in the White House and a total breakdown of law and order.

Lindell had agreed to have lunch with me after the taping. But where to go? . . . Because Lindell is famously worried about Chinese Communist influence, I thought he would like to pay homage to the victims of Chinese oppression. I booked a Uyghur restaurant.

This proved a mistake. . . . Once we got there, he didn’t much like the food. He picked at his chicken kebabs and didn’t touch his spicy fried green beans. More to the point, he didn’t understand why we were there. He had never heard of the Uyghurs. I told him they were Muslims who are being persecuted by Chinese Communists. Oh, he said, “like Christians.” Yes, I said. Like Christians.

He kept talking at me in the restaurant, a kind of stream-of-consciousness account of the packet captures, his mistreatment at the hands of the media and the Better Business Bureau, the dangers of the COVID-19 vaccines, and the wonders of oleandrin, a supplement that he says he and everyone else at MyPillow takes and that he says is 100 percent guaranteed to prevent COVID-19. On all of these points he is utterly impervious to any argument of any kind. I asked him what if, hypothetically, on August 10 it turns out that other experts disagree with his experts and declare that his data don’t mean what he thinks his data mean. This, he told me, was impossible. It couldn’t happen:

“I don’t have to worry about that. Do you understand that? Do you understand I’ve been attacked? I have 2,500 employees, and I’ve been attacked every day. Do I look like a stupid person? That I’m just doing this for my health? I have better things to do—these guys brought me this and I owe it to the United States, to all, whether it’s a Democrat or Republican or whoever it is, to bring this forward to our country. I don’t have to answer that question, because it’s not going to happen. This is nonsubjective evidence.”

The opprobrium and rancor he has brought down upon himself for trying to make his case are, in Lindell’s mind, further proof that it is true. Stalin once said that the emergence of opposition signified the “intensification of the class struggle,” and this is Lindell’s logic too: If lots of people object to what you are doing, then it must be right. The contradictions deepen as the ultimate crisis draws closer, as the old Bolsheviks used to say.

But there is a distinctly American element to his thinking too. The argument from personal experience; the evidence acquired on the journey from crack addict to CEO; the special kind of self-confidence that many self-made men acquire, along with their riches—these are native to our shores. Lindell is quite convinced, for example, that not only did China steal the election, but that “there is a communist agenda in this country” more broadly. I asked him what that meant. Communists, he told me, “take away your right to free speech. You just told me what they are doing to these people”—he meant the Uyghurs. “I’ve experienced it firsthand, more than anyone in this country.”

The government had taken his freedom away? Put him in a reeducation camp? “I don’t see anybody arresting you,” I said. He became annoyed.

“Okay, I’m not talking about the government,” he said. “I’m talking about social media” . . . .
It is true that there has been some organized backlash against MyPillow, which is indeed no longer stocked by Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl’s, and other retailers. But I suspect that this reaction is every bit as red-white-and-blue as Lindell himself: Plenty of Americans oppose Lindell’s open promotion of both election and vaccine conspiracy theories, and are perfectly capable of boycotting his company without the aid of Chinese bots. Lindell’s lived experience, however, tells him otherwise, just like his lived experience tells him that COVID-19 vaccines will kill you and oleandrin won’t. Lived experience always outweighs expertise: Nobody can argue with what you feel to be true, and Lindell feels that the Chinese stole the election, sent bots to smear his company, and are seeking to impose communism on America. . . .

Alongside the American business boosterism, Lindell’s thinking contains a large dose of Christian millenarianism too. This is a man who had a vision in a dream of himself and Donald Trump standing together—and that dream became reality. No wonder he believes that a lot of things are going to happen after August 10. It’s not just that the Supreme Court will vote 9–0 to reinstate Trump. It is also that America will be a better place. “We’re going to get elected officials that make decisions for the people, not just for their party,” Lindell said. There will be “no more machines” in this messianic America, meaning no more voting machines: “On both sides, people are opening their eyes.” In this great moment of national renewal, there will be no more corruption, just good government, goodwill, goodness all around.

That moment will be good for Lindell, too, because he will finally be able to relax, knowing that “I’ve done all I can.” After that, “everything will take its course. And I don’t have to be out there every day fighting for media attention.” He won’t, in other words, have to be having lunch with people like me.

Alas, a happy ending is unlikely. He will not, on August 10, find that “the experts” agree with him. Some have already provided careful explanations as to why the “packet captures” can’t be what he says they are. Others think that the whole discussion is pointless. When I called Chris Krebs, the Trump administration’s director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, he refused even to get into the question of whether Lindell has authentic data, because the whole proposal is absurd. The heavy use of paper ballots, plus all of the postelection audits and recounts, mean that any issues with mechanized voting systems would have been quickly revealed. “It’s all part of the grift,” Krebs told me. “They’re exploiting the aggrieved audience’s confirmation bias and using scary yet unintelligible imagery to keep the Big Lie alive, despite the absence of any legitimate evidence.”

What will happen when Lindell’s ideological, all-American, predicted-in-a-dream absolute certainty runs into a wall of skepticism, disbelief, or—even worse—indifference? If history is anything to go by … nothing. Nothing will happen. He will not admit he is wrong; he will not stop believing. He will not understand that he was conned out of the millions he has spent “validating” fake data. (One has to admire the salesmanship of the tech grifters who talked him into all of this, assuming they exist.) He will not understand that his company is having trouble with retailers because so many people are repulsed by his ideas. He will not understand that people attack him because they think what he says is dangerous and could lead to violence. He will instead rail against the perfidy of the media, the left, the Communists, and China.

Certainly he will not stop believing that Trump won the 2020 election. . . .

Lindell mostly speaks in long, rambling monologues filled with allusions and grievances; he circles back again and again to electoral fraud, to the campaigns against him, to particular interviewers and articles that he disputes, some of it only barely comprehensible unless you’ve been following his frequent media appearances—which I have not. . . . I asked him about the events of January 6. He immediately grew more precise. “I was not there, by the grace of God,” he said. He was doing media events elsewhere, he said. Nor did he want to talk about what happened that day: “I think that there were a lot of things that I’m not going to comment on, because I don’t want that to be your story.”

Not too long after that, I suddenly found I couldn’t take any more of this calculated ranting. (I can hear that moment on the recording, when I suddenly said “Okay, enough” and switched off the device.) Although he ate almost nothing, Lindell insisted on grabbing the check, like any well-mannered Minnesotan would. In the interests of investigative research, I later bought a MyPillow (conclusion: it’s a lot like other pillows), so perhaps that makes us even.

When we walked outside, I thought that I might say something dramatic, something cutting, something like “You realize that you are destroying our country.” But I didn’t. He is our country after all, or one face of our country: hyper-optimistic and overconfident, ignorant of history and fond of myths, firm in the belief that we alone are the exceptional nation and we alone have access to exceptional truths. Safe in his absolute certainty, he got into his black SUV and drove away.

Charge Him Now: Obstruction of Justice

Remember this? It was news in May 2019:

President D___ T___ would have been indicted for obstruction of justice in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation if he did not hold the nation’s highest office, nearly 700 former federal prosecutors argued in an open letter published on Medium on Monday.

The ex-prosecutors — who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower — said Attorney General William Barr’s decision not to charge T___ with obstruction “runs counter to logic and our experience.”

The letter added, “Each of us believes that the conduct of President T___ described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”

“We believe strongly that, but for the OLC memo, the overwhelming weight of professional judgment would come down in favor of prosecution for the conduct outlined in the Mueller Report,” the letter continued.

The Mueller report cited 10 episodes indicating that T____ could be prosecuted after he left office. He left office more than six months ago, but there is no sign so far that the Department of Justice is pursuing the matter.

Before leaving office, the former president also tried to overturn the results of the election. I’m not sure there is anything in federal law that explicitly makes that behavior illegal. The laws against treason and sedition are narrowly written and may not apply to a president doing everything he can to illegally remain in office. Congress probably never imagined that kind of behavior.

Nevertheless, this latest news is remarkable:

Former President D____ T____ . . . explicitly pressured {the acting attorney general] to declare the 2020 election “corrupt” in a December phone call, according to documents published Friday by the House Oversight and Reform Committee. [They are] the most recent evidence of T____’s extraordinary campaign to overturn the election’s results.

The House committee—which is investigating the T____ administration’s potentially unlawful efforts to influence the outcome of the election—made public notes taken by former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen’s deputy, Richard Donoghue, during a Dec. 27 phone call between T____ and top officials from the Department of Justice.

In the notes summarizing the call, Donoghue recalled T____ asking Rosen and other top officials to “just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me” and congressional allies [Forbes].

But, according to The Guardian:

D____ T____ insisted on Saturday that when he told senior justice department officials to “Just say that the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me”, he was not attempting to subvert US democracy, but to “uphold the integrity and honesty of elections and the sanctity of our vote”. . . .

One Washington editor, Benjy Sarlin of NBC News, wrote on Twitter: “We can’t take a continuous historic scandal for granted just because he says it out loud all the time. These are Watergate-level allegations.”

On Friday, Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House oversight committee, said: “These handwritten notes show that President T____ directly instructed our nation’s top law enforcement agency to take steps to overturn a free and fair election.”

If that isn’t treason or sedition, strictly speaking, it sure sounds like “interference with the orderly administration of law and justice”, i.e. obstruction.

The Department of Justice has work to do in the matter of former president D___ J. T____.

Or doesn’t the rule of law apply to him?

The Original Sin

These are the opening and closing paragraphs of a review in The New York Review of Books (the review is “Uncanny Planet” by Mark O’Connor; the book is Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade by Nathaniel Rich):

In the opening lines of the Bible, having brought forth the world and everything in it, God makes his inaugural address to Adam and Eve. “Be fruitful, and multiply,” he tells them, “and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” God’s first, foundational decree explicitly casts the relationship between humanity and nature as one of separation and control. The whole sorry business with the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the banishment doesn’t come about for another two chapters, but if you were in the mood for a little heretical revisionism you might argue, just for fun, that the true original sin can be located not in man’s first disobedience, but in God’s first command.

The attitude toward nature that He defines and sanctifies with those words is, after all, precisely the attitude that led human beings to exploit nature so ruthlessly, and for so long, that the planet is now in danger of becoming unlivable for vast numbers of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. Our adherence to this view of the world and our place within it, in other words, has amounted to its own kind of Fall. . . .

[The first line of Stewart Brand’s original Whole Earth Catalog — “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it” —] recalls Francis Bacon’s characterization of his scientific work, and by implication that of the scientific method itself, as rescuing humanity from its fallen state. Bacon saw science and technology as the means by which we could reclaim our former oneness with the divine. The “true ends of knowledge,” he wrote, were in

a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation.

The path of knowledge that led us out of Eden will, if we follow it long enough, eventually lead us back. . . . 

Though Rich’s book is hardly what you’d call a polemic, the stories in it gather toward an argument, which could be seen as a less nakedly utopian version of Bacon’s aims. There are over 7.5 billion of us on a rapidly warming planet; the seas are rising, the forests are burning, and every year hundreds of species go the way of the passenger pigeon. There is no reversing the Fall. There is no going back to whatever might be meant by “nature.” We must become “as gods,” not in order to return to a state of prelapsarian wholeness, but to move forward to some kind of livable future.