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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Amanda Little: Protecting the U.S. food supply means thinking smaller

For better or worse, Americans are not just what we eat, we are the laws that govern what we eat. As agriculture leaders in Congress deliberate over the 2023 Farm Bill, they must confront the need for historic shifts in our food-policy diet - a momentous legislative cleanse, if you will.Every five years, Congress revises this behemoth 1,000-page bill, reauthorizing some $800 billion in food and agriculture programs that oversee everything from farm subsidies and crop insurance to food-relief programs and organic standards. In the past half-century - since President Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to "Get big or get out!" - those allocations have overwhelmingly benefitted the largest producers of meat, grains and fresh fruits and vegetables in the industry.But if there's anything we've learned in recent years, it's that bigger is not better in an era of growing environmental and geopolitical disruption. Now the 2023 Farm Bill must shift America's food producers away from the anachronistic consolidation trend and toward climate resilience. When producers and processors in one region are hit by a wildfire or superstorm, a dynamic, distributed network of other producers must be ready to continue generating our food supply.There have been major benefits to the longstanding trend toward bigger, more consolidated industrial agriculture, which has produced an extraordinary abundance of low-cost food. My own household budget, along with hundreds of millions of others, has benefited. The last Farm Bill of 2018 went to great lengths to prop up big producers and support that abundance.But then Covid-19 happened, exposing the shocking fragility of our consolidated production and supply chains; and a costly series of climate disasters happened - from the punishing drought in the West to the hurricanes in the Southeast to the windstorms of the Midwest. And the invasion of Ukraine happened, revealing still more vulnerability in the supply and transport of global commodity crops. These successive crises showed that our food systems have not been designed to be resilient in the face of disruption.Now Congress has the chance to usher in a suite of agricultural reforms that can help small and middle-size farmers and ranchers become more productive and sustainable while encouraging Big Ag to get more nimble. My colleague Adam Minter recently argued that the 2023 Farm Bill should be, fundamentally, a climate bill, and he's right. There's no question that the single biggest threat to agricultural production going forward is climate change.Virtually every one of the 12 categories, or "titles," in the bill can and should include ambitious climate measures, starting with the Conservation Title, which oversees the environmental stewardship of farmlands. Past Farm Bills have had loose standards for defining and rewarding sustainable, climate-smart practices. These standards must become more specific and ambitious in 2023, emphasizing the most beneficial practices such as crop rotation and no-till.Provisions in other key titles should include:- The Energy Title must do more to incentivize promising new practices such as agrivoltaics and integrated wind turbines on America's farmlands;- The Horticulture Title should strengthen measures to support specialty producers growing crops from tomatoes to wine grapes that are uniquely vulnerable to climate pressures;- The Research Title must heavily focus its R&D investments on the full gamut of climate-smart agriscience from soil carbon sequestration and genetically modified crops to cultured meats and cultivated dairy;- The Forestry Title (the U.S. Forest Service is located within the Department of Agriculture) must establish a clear mission to manage all federal forestlands as natural climate solutions for optimal sequestration of greenhouse gasses;- The Nutrition Title, crucially, must strengthen food-relief programs for low-income Americans living in a time of costlier food and increasing hunger.These measures are just a start, and would help lay the foundation for a shift toward sustainable and resilient food systems. But the most difficult - and perhaps the most important - work of the 2023 Farm Bill will be empowering small and midsize producers, and reversing the trend toward consolidation in American agriculture.Senator Cory Booker recently reintroduced legislation that would prevent the development of new large factory farms in meat production and processing. That won't get much Republican support, but the bill contains more achievable recommendations that should be blended into the Farm Bill, such as revisions to the Packers and Stockyard Act, the antitrust legislation that is woefully out of date. If implemented, it could go a long way to reforming the monopolistic practices of large meat producers.Another recent bipartisan bill from Booker and Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, would ensure that smaller producers, in particular, benefit from climate-smart conservation programs, making them more resilient and competitive against bigger players. Still another recent bipartisan proposal would discourage anti-competitive behavior in farming and ranching checkoff programs.Deconsolidating the food and agriculture industries in America will be expensive, and it won't happen in one fell swoop. It will require dozens of policy measures implemented over time to shift the balance of power away from Big Ag and toward small and midsize farmers who have proven time and again that they can thrive in an age of increasing disruptions.But it will be far less costly over time than sticking with the status quo. The public health and climate disruptions of recent years have already laid bare the heavy cost of business as usual.- - -This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Charles M. Blow: Donald Trump must be prosecuted

Donald Trump may finally be indicted. Finally!The Manhattan district attorney’s office has signaled that charges, related to Trump’s reported hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, are likely.But there’s also hand-wringing: about whether this is the best case to be the first among those in which Trump is likely to be criminally charged, the strength of this case compared to others and the historic implications of indicting a former president for anything.And with regard to those implications, the central considerations always seem to be the importance of any precedent set by prosecuting a former president and the broader political significance — what damage it might do to the country. Often left out of that calculus, it seems to me, is the damage Trump has already done and is poised to continue to do.Prosecution is not the problem; Trump himself is. And any pretense that the allegations of his marauding criminality are a sideshow to the political stakes and were, therefore, remedied in 2020 at the ballot box rather than in a jury box, is itself a miscarriage of justice and does incalculable damage.Last year, around the time the House Jan. 6 committee was holding hearings, Elaine Kamarck, the founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, wrote: “Prosecuting Trump is not a simple matter of determining whether the evidence is there. It is a question embedded in the larger issue of how to restore and defend American democracy.”I don’t see it that way. Any case against Trump must hang on the evidence and the principle that justice is blind. The political considerations, including gaming out what might be the ideal sequence of cases, across jurisdictions and by their gravity, only serve to distort the judicial process.The justice system must be untethered from political implications and consequences, even the possibility of disruptive consequences.For instance, could an indictment and prosecution of Trump cause consternation and possibly even unrest? Absolutely. Trump has been preparing his followers for his martyrdom for years and evangelizing to them the idea that any sanctioning of him is an attack on them. This transference of feelings of persecution and pain from manufactured victimhood is a classic psychological device of a cult leader.Trump uses the passions he has inflamed as a political threat against those pursuing him: In 2019, when he was facing impeachment, he took to Twitter, citing a quote from Robert Jeffress, a pastor who’d appeared on Fox News and recklessly posited that if Trump were removed from office “it will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”Last year, on a conservative talk radio show, Trump said that if he were indicted in connection with his alleged mishandling of classified documents, “I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before. I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it.”Over and over, Trump has goaded his supporters in this direction: whether during the 2016 presidential race, urging rallygoers to “knock the crap out of” people who might disrupt the proceedings, or telling the Proud Boys, during a 2020 debate, to “stand back and stand by.”On Jan. 6, 2021, he waited and watched the attack on the Capitol for hours, resisting pleas from his own advisers to try to stop it. When Trump finally made a statement, he downplayed the insurrection and reluctantly told the rioters to go home, but not without adding: “We love you. You’re very special.”Trump is the impresario of incitement. He’ll use any attempt to hold him accountable to agitate and activate his loyalists.That’s not a reason to avoid vigorously and swiftly pursuing him legally, but rather a reason to do it. If we establish a precedent that amassing a significant threat to society is a ward against enforcement of the law, it makes a mockery of the law.It would reinforce what was already a persistent problem in the criminal justice system: unequal treatment of the rich and powerful, compared to that of the poor and powerless.A series of studies from more than a decade ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that upper-income people were more likely to lie, cheat and literally take candy meant to be given to children. The researchers postulated that several factors could have contributed to this, including a lowered perception of risk, plenty of money to deal with the “downstream costs” of their behavior, feelings of entitlement, less concern about what other people think and a general sense that greed is good.At the same time, as Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton write in their book, “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison,” “The criminal justice system is biased from start to finish in a way that guarantees that, for the same crimes, members of the lower classes are much more likely than members of the middle and upper classes to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned.”The authors go further, theorizing that the goal of the criminal justice system isn’t even to prevent crime or provide justice, but rather to “project to the American public a credible image of the threat of crime as a threat from the poor.” When you think of it that way, it’s not hard to see how Trump and many of his admirers choose to see him as above the law. Indeed, if he weren’t rich and powerful, charges would almost surely have been filed long ago.Prosecuting Trump won’t break the country. On the contrary, it would be a step toward mending it, a step toward undergirding the flimsy promise of “equal justice under law.”The eyes of the country are on these cases — the eyes of all those who’ve been badgered for minor violations, who’ve had the book thrown at them for crimes that others either got away with or served no time for. Not only are they watching, but so are their loved ones and their communities.They, too, are America, and further damaging their faith in the country should matter as much as damaging the faith of any other part of our body politic.To rehabilitate American justice, Trump must be prosecuted.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Opinion >  Syndicated columns

David Brooks: Sadness among progressives has proved self-destructive

One well-established finding of social science research is that conservatives report being happier than liberals. Over the years, researchers have come up with a bunch of theories to explain this phenomenon.The first explanation is that conservatives are more likely to take part in activities linked to personal happiness — such as being married and actively participating in a religious community. The second explanation is that of course conservatives are happier; they are by definition more satisfied with the established order of things.The third explanation, related to the second, is that on personality tests liberals tend to score higher on openness to experience but also higher on neuroticism. People who score high on neuroticism are vigilant against potential harms, but they also have to live with a lot of negative emotions — such as sadness and anxiety.I’ve paid only casual attention to these debates over the years, mostly because, during the Barack Obama years, for example, liberals didn’t seem sad. Massive crowds of young Democrats were chanting “Yes We Can!” at Obama campaign rallies built around hope and change. Audiences thrilled to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” an optimistic, celebratory and multiracial account of America’s founding. There was an assumption of confidence — America is moving forward, the arc of history bends toward justice.Gradually, that atmosphere changed. First, smartphones and social media emerged and had a negative effect on the nation’s psyche, especially among the young. Then the election of Donald Trump darkened the national mood, on right and left.Young liberals were hit especially hard. A 2021 study by Catherine Gimbrone, Lisa M. Bates, Seth J. Prins and Katherine M. Keyes looked at the emotional states of 12th grade students between 2005 and 2018. Liberal girls experienced a surge in depressive symptoms. Liberal boys weren’t far behind. Conservative boys and girls also suffered from higher rates of depressive symptoms, but not nearly as much as liberals. Sadness was linked to ideology.Lord knows the right has gone off on its own jarring psychological journey of late, but many on the left began to suffer from what you might call maladaptive sadness. This mindset had three main features.First, a catastrophizing mentality. For many, America’s problems came to seem endemic: The American dream is a sham, climate change is unstoppable, systemic racism is eternal. Making catastrophic pronouncements became a way to display that you were woke to the brutalities of American life. The problem, Matthew Yglesias recently wrote on his Substack, is that catastrophizing doesn’t usually help you solve problems. People who provide therapy to depressive people try to break the cycle of catastrophic thinking so they can more calmly locate and deal with the problems they actually have control over.Second, extreme sensitivity to harm. This was the sense many people had that they were constantly being assaulted by offensive and unsafe speech, the concerns that led to safe spaces, trigger warnings, cancellations, etc. But, as Jill Filipovic argued recently on her own Substack: “I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are ‘deeply problematic’ or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life” are “vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt and a sense that life simply happens to them.”Third, a culture of denunciation. When people feel emotionally unsafe, they’re going to lash out — often in over the top, vitriolic terms. That contributes to the fierce volleys of cancellation and denunciation we’ve seen over the past few years. For example, Damon Linker recently wrote an opinion piece for the Times arguing that Ron DeSantis is bad, but not as terrible as Trump. The furies descended on him online. The gist was that it is shameful to merely say DeSantis is bad — you need to say he is a fascist, pure evil! If you aren’t speaking in the language of maximalist exorcism, you’re betraying the cause.This rhetorical style is also self-destructive. When maximalist denunciation is the go-to device, then nobody knows who’s going to be denounced next. Everybody finds himself living in a climate of fear, and every emotionally healthy person is writing and talking from a defensive crouch.I say that liberal sadness was maladaptive because the mindset didn’t increase people’s sense of agency; it decreased it. Trying to pass legislation grounds your thought in reality and can lead to real change. But when you treat politics as an emotional display, you end up making yourself and everybody else feel afflicted and powerless.I share the widespread sense that the “woke” era is winding down. Things are calming down. I hope people are coming to the same corny conclusion I have: If you want healthy politics, encourage people to have confidence in their ability to make a difference — don’t undermine that confidence.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Commentary: It’s not ‘woke’ — just thoughtful — to use more specific language than ‘you guys’

I’m trying an experiment in one of the courses I teach. The goal is to stop using the phrase “you guys.” I announced the plan at our first class meeting; now, the students laugh each time I slip. This is not an undertaking driven by “wokeness,” itself a glib, amorphous coinage to be avoided. Rather, it’s meant as a gesture of respect. The majority of these students are women, and I want to be ...
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Commentary: Guns are the biggest public health threat kids face. Why aren’t we warning them?

I still remember the raspy voice of the wizened cancer patient with the hole in her throat. So addicted to the poison that was killing her ‌— cigarettes ‌‌— she interspersed her words of warning about the dangers of smoking with taking puffs of a cigarette through her tracheostomy hole‌‌. It was a short, disturbing public service video shown in my sixth grade classroom as part of an‌‌ ...
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Commentary: Reflections, and regrets, 20 years after I opened the Department of Homeland Security

This was my second draft notice. The first came from Richard Nixon in 1969 and took me to Southeast Asia. More than 30 years later came notice number two, this time from George W. Bush. The president called me to leave my post as Pennsylvania’s governor to serve in the White House Office of Homeland Security. I accepted the call to duty, knowing full well the challenge that awaited. Some ...
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Trudy Rubin: The steadfastness of Galapagos tortoises is a symbol for our times

I took a vacation to the Galapagos in hopes that mingling with peaceful animals would provide some relief from writing about Vladimir Putin's bloody crimes. To an extent, it worked. These remote volcanic islands, 600 miles off Ecuador's Pacific coast, which famously provided the basis for Charles Darwin's theories of evolution, are now so carefully protected that their creatures show little ...
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Marc Rubinstein: How Buffett turned a few calls into 3,787,464%

Few investors' words are parsed more intently than Warren Buffett's. But in this year's annual shareholder letter, which dropped Saturday, the Oracle of Omaha didn't give much away. It was one of his shortest ever and contained few fresh ideas. But he did offer one morsel: "Our satisfactory results," he wrote, "have been the product of about a dozen truly good decisions - that would be about one every five years."By "satisfactory results," Buffett is being modest. Shares in his investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, have returned 3,787,464% over his almost six decades at the helm. That just 12 decisions drove such performance is remarkable. Naturally, investors scrambled to identify them. For my part, the list can be narrowed down even more.Chief among them has to be the acquisition of National Indemnity, which forms the kernel of the insurance segment that now contributes about half of Berkshire's total assets. Headquartered a few blocks away from Berkshire in Omaha, Nebraska, Buffett acquired the business in 1967 for $8.6 million. With it came a captive investment portfolio that in 1967 sat on $174,000 of gains; by the end of 1968 - Buffett's first full year of ownership - it was sitting on $1.76 million.The acquisition sparked Buffett's love affair with "float." His biographer Alice Schroeder remarks: "To someone like Buffett, having other people's money to invest, on which he kept the profit, was catnip."Float arises because most insurance policies require that premiums be prepaid and because it usually takes time for an insurer to hear about and resolve claims; in the meantime, insurers get to invest the capital for their own benefit. "This access to 'free' money has boosted Berkshire's performance in a major way," wrote Buffett in his 1995 shareholder letter.Berkshire's latest annual report (page K-98) illustrates the point. In Berkshire Hathaway Primary Group, where National Indemnity now resides, over half of the claims are paid out more than three years after an accident. In one case (highlighted on page K-99) National Indemnity booked a $10.2 billion premium back in 2017 on which it has so far only paid out $2.7 billion. Last year, the overall cost of float was nominal; in prior years it has been negative.Over the years, "through acquisitions, operations and innovations," Berkshire has bolstered its float. From $39 million in 1970, the group's overall float now stands at $164 billion. Last year alone, it grew by $17 billion, partly from the acquisition of Alleghany. By itself, the Alleghany deal was too small to be one of the dozen, but another insurance acquisition does make the cut: Geico.Buffett had been following Geico for at least 25 years before he acquired a third of the company in 1976. Over the next 10 years, it grew to account for half of his public stock portfolio. In 1995, he took full control. Not only did Geico contribute $3 billion to the group's float but, unlike other insurance companies, it made money along the way via positive underwriting results. Despite a setback last year when it suffered losses as claims shot up, cumulative underwriting profits have amounted to $19.8 billion - not bad for an acquisition whose all-in cost was around $2.4 billion.Other insurance acquisitions were less accretive. In 1998, Berkshire acquired General Re, which came with $14 billion of float but a heap of problems. Buffett wrote in his 2002 letter that the company had "severely miscalculated the cost of the product it was selling."A greenfield investment in reinsurance years earlier also failed, highlighting the risks inherent in sourcing float. "After more than 20 years, [we] regularly receive significant bills stemming from the mistakes of that era," Buffett wrote of the scheme in his 1995 letter. "A bad reinsurance contract is like hell: easy to enter and impossible to exit." Neither General Re nor Berkshire's organic foray into reinsurance make it into the dozen.Fortunately, one key decision helped to resolve these mistakes: the hiring of Ajit Jain, currently Berkshire's vice chairman of insurance operations. "The search expenses that brought us Ajit Jain, now there was an investment that really paid a dividend," Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger said at the group's 2005 annual meeting. "I can think of no higher return investment that we've ever made that was better than that one."Jain came in to run Berkshire's reinsurance business and then launched a new business, "catastrophe insurance," in which the group is now the world leader. He's "added tens of billions of value," said Buffett at his 2017 annual meeting.The Jain hire together with the National Indemnity and Geico acquisitions represent a quarter of the "dozen truly good decisions" Buffett has made, but more than that, they define the structure of the Berkshire Hathaway group. Many of the other decisions are intertwined with them, including the purchase of Coca-Cola stock, a slug of which is held via Geico's float.Distilling 58 years of work down to 12 decisions is hard, but that level of endurance requires a firm foundation. How that foundation is set up is perhaps the most important decision of all.---This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Marc Rubinstein is a former hedge fund manager. He is author of the weekly finance newsletter Net Interest.
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Charles M. Blow: The spectacular fall of Lori Lightfoot and the politics of race and crime

It was a stunning rebuke. On Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, the first Black woman and first openly LGBTQ person to lead the city, failed to advance to a runoff, earning just 17% of the vote and becoming the first incumbent mayor in 40 years to lose a reelection bid.Four days before the election, I interviewed Lightfoot in her Chicago office. The space, with its soaring ceiling, was a clash of aesthetics, like many government buildings, displaying a kind of prudent grandeur, evoking the gravitas of the office without signaling excess, much like Lightfoot herself, who settled her small frame, dressed in a smart gray suit, into a large chair.During our nearly hourlong interview, she choked up and fought back tears when discussing the sacrifices her parents had made for her and her siblings. A smile lit her face when we talked about all the memes that had made her a folk hero in the early days of her term, and she puffed with pride when discussing her proudest moments as mayor, including how she and her team had dealt with the COVID-19 crisis.But those weren’t the reasons I’d trekked to the frigid city on the lake. I’d come because Lightfoot belongs to a group of recently elected Black mayors of major U.S. cities, including Eric Adams in New York, Sylvester Turner in Houston and Karen Bass in Los Angeles.In those cities, Black people are outnumbered by other nonwhite groups, and in New York City and Chicago, their ranks are dwindling.Each of these four mayors was elected or reelected around the height of two seismic cultural phenomena: Black Lives Matter and the pandemic. Of the four, Lightfoot would be one of the first to face voters and test the fallout. (Turner is term-limited and can’t run again.)It clearly did not go well.On one level, the results of Tuesday’s election speak to how potent the issue of crime can be and how it can be used as a scare tactic. Lightfoot said that it was absolutely used as a political tool in her race: “You’ve got people who are using it as a cudgel against me every single day. You’ve got the only white candidate in the race who’s acting like he’s going to be a great white savior on public safety.”That white candidate is Paul Vallas, who finished at the top of the crowded field Tuesday with 34% of the vote. Vallas had run a tough-on-crime, law-and-order campaign in which he told one crowd that his “whole campaign is about taking back our city, pure and simple.”Lightfoot called the remark “the ultimate dog whistle.”In our interview, she was brutal in her racial assessment of Vallas: “He is giving voice and platform to people who are hateful of anyone who isn’t white and Republican in our city, in our country.” She is also surprisingly candid about how race operates in the city itself: “Chicago is a deeply divided and segregated city.”It is that division, in her view, fomented by candidates who see politics in the city as a zero-sum game, that provided Vallas with an opening to win over the city’s white citizens. As she put it, “People who are not used to feeling the touch of violence, particularly people on the North Side of our city, they are buying what he’s selling.”Indeed, Vallas won many of the wards in the northern part of the city, while Lightfoot won most of the wards on the largely Black South Side of town.But two things can be true simultaneously: There can be legitimate concerns about rising crime, and crime can be used as a political wedge issue, particularly against elected officials of color, which has happened often.In this moment, when the country has still not come to grips with the wide-ranging societal trauma that the pandemic exacerbated and unleashed, mayors are being held responsible for that crime. If all politics is local, crime and safety are the most local. And when the perception of crime collides with ingrained societal concepts of race and gender, politicians, particularly Black women, can pay the price.In 2021, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta chose not to seek reelection, becoming the city’s first Black mayor to serve only a single term, after wrestling with what she called the “COVID crime wave.” Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans is facing a possible recall, largely over the issue of crime in her city, and organizers said this week that they have gathered enough signatures to force a recall vote.Even in cities where Black mayors aren’t likely to be removed from office, their opponents are searching for ways to limit their power, using criminal justice as justification.The Mississippi House recently passed a bill that would create a separate court system and an expanded police force in the city of Jackson, one of the blackest cities in America. The new district “would incorporate all of the city’s significantly populated white-majority neighborhoods,” as an analysis by The Guardian pointed out. Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, said the plan reminded him of apartheid.Crime often comes in waves, but a question lingers about how people, even liberals, respond when a crest arrives under Black leadership: Are Black mayors too quickly and easily blamed for rising crime, and if so, why? Because of an unwillingness to crack down on criminals, or because of a more insidious, latent belief in ineffectual Black leadership in times of crisis?Lightfoot said she understood that as a woman and as a person of color, “I’m always going to be viewed through a different lens — that the things I do and say, that the toughness that I exhibit, is viewed as divisive; that I’m the mean mayor; that I can’t collaborate with anyone.”Even so, she conceded, “If you feel like your life has been challenged because of the public safety issues coming to your doorstep, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are; you need to feel safe.”But feelings on issues of politics, crime and race also tap into our biases, both conscious and subconscious. In that vein, Lightfoot may be a harbinger, or at least a warning, for the other big-city Black mayors: As the COVID crime wave wears on, will their mostly non-Black citizens feel that their safety is being prioritized and secured under Black leadership?This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Charles M. Blow: America, right-wing censors, and the ‘battle for the next century’

Chris Rufo, the man who orchestrated the attack on critical race theory, underscored a new focus earlier this month.“Conservatives must move the fight from ideology to bureaucracy,” he tweeted. “We’ve won the debate against CRT; now it’s time to dismantle DEI.”DEI stands for diversity, equity and inclusion, a concept that goes far beyond just the racial prism of critical race theory, and moves into the worlds of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, age and class.What Rufo is proposing is the distorting and demonizing of legitimate practices and areas of academic inquiry. He admitted as much in a 2021 tweet, back when he was still focused primarily on critical race theory: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’ ” he wrote. “We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”Republican elected officials are quick to “amen” Rufo’s talking points. Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, for instance, amplified Rufo’s tweet this month about moving on from fighting “ideology” to taking on the entire bureaucracy. Rufo, Roy said, was “speaking my language.”This is the same Roy who voted against the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, one of only 14 members of the House to do so, on the grounds that it created “a separate Independence Day based on the color of one’s skin.”This is the same Roy who, during a congressional hearing a few years ago, referenced an “old saying” that seemed to be celebrating lynching: “Find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree.”This is the same Roy who was one of only three representatives to vote against the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, saying that the legislation “simply raises the punishment” for offenses that are already federal crimes “in an effort to advance a woke agenda under the guise of correcting racial injustice.”Meanwhile, Roy has been pushing his “Restoring Military Focus Act,” a bill he first introduced two years ago that would, if passed, eliminate the Department of Defense’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.In 2022, Sen. Marco Rubio introduced companion legislation in the Senate, and together, the two men released a report on political influences in the military titled “Woke Warfighters.”The report, which featured on its cover six cartridges strapped to the back of a helmet, each one carrying a rainbow-colored bullet, repeatedly invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as it railed against the Pentagon’s attempts to deal with racism within its ranks.The report also focused on trans people serving in the military and receiving gender-affirming care, as well as what it called the military’s promotion of “individual identity and self-actualization in recruitment and retention efforts, particularly for the LGBTQ+ community.”This year, just a week before Roy responded to Rufo’s tweet, he reintroduced the bill, this time to a House that Republicans controlled.This fight against DEI isn’t confined to public institutions and bureaucracies. As the leader of this movement, Rufo has set his sights on corporate America as well. In July, he published what he called a survey of the “programming” of every Fortune 100 company, and found they had all adopted DEI programs, including those that “promote the most virulent strands of critical race theory and gender ideology.”When Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a law limiting DEI in the workplace last April, Rufo likened him to Teddy Roosevelt and praised his “muscular” strategy for combating “corporate malfeasance.” “Conservatives,” he wrote, “need to build on these efforts by developing a comprehensive agenda for pushing back against left-wing ideology in corporate America.”In fact, Rufo sees Florida as the seeding ground for his censorship, where it can take root and spread, and Texas has already followed suit. Earlier this month, just a few days after DeSantis announced plans to block state colleges from having programs on DEI, the office of the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, issued a memo warning state agency and public university leaders that the use of DEI in hiring was illegal.This was precisely the worry of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, who played a leading role in developing critical race theory into a discipline, when I spoke with her recently:“They started with CRT. They moved to ‘Don’t Say Gay.’ Now, they’re moving to all of Black studies. It’s not going to be long before they include all ethnic studies. We’ve already seen they’re attacking diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. And, the real thing, Charles, is going to be when they come for diversity, equity and inclusion in corporations.”This is the New Right’s strategic plan: a relentless push to reestablish and strengthen the straight, cis, patriarchal, white supremacist power structure. And as Crenshaw put it: “This thing will not be satisfied by one victory. This is just one skirmish, in a wider, broader battle to make racism unspeakable, and basically to contain the power of Black folks, queer folks, women, and pretty much everybody else who doesn’t agree to the agenda of reclaiming this country that the MAGA group claims.”In fact, every perceived win will only embolden the extremists. The objective is to win the war against progress and to freeze America in a yesteryear image of itself. This is a swing-for-the-fences play. They are seeking to widen the conservative aperture in their quest to suppress and reverse, to promote a universal vision on oppression, to apply uniform pressure.As Crenshaw put it, “I believe that this is the battle for the next century.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Commentary: Bringing back the firing squad in Idaho would expose barbarity of the death penalty

Taking the life of another human being is the most serious act imaginable, whether it’s a murderer taking the life of a victim or the state taking a life. A bill was introduced Wednesday morning to bring back the firing squad as a back-up method of execution in Idaho. That’s because Idaho is having a difficult time procuring the drugs necessary for execution by lethal injection. Rep. Bruce ...
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Commentary: Ukraine’s outsized reliance on the US is a risk for the world

One year into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, a few things are clear. Ukraine remains highly motivated, punching well above its weight against a far bigger and more experienced foe. The Russian military, meanwhile, has underperformed to nearly the same degree, though it continues to muster bodies and ammunition to throw at the front. It is also clear that the U.S. role has been essential in ...
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Our transgender daughter’s life was saved by care that Idaho legislators want to ban | Opinion

Seventeen years ago, my wife and I joyfully stood in front of our congregation, before our families and before God, and vowed to love, nurture and protect our newborn baby. In the ensuing years, we have done just that. We have devoted ourselves and our energies to being the best, most supportive and loving parents we can be; and we believe with God’s help, we have been largely successful. Our ...
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Charles M. Blow: Robbed of space to mourn

When RowVaughn Wells arrived at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on an icy, gray Wednesday in Memphis, Tennessee, she was there to say goodbye to her son Tyre Nichols. He was dead. Killed. Beaten to death by local police officers while he screamed for her less than 100 yards from her house.There was a phalanx of television crews across the street from the front of the church, and the Secret Service manned the doors. The sanctuary was full of dignitaries, including Vice President Kamala Harris.Wells entered the church under the glare of TV cameras that craned over the balcony, and when she neared the front, and the black coffin surrounded by white flowers, she began to shake her head and fight back tears.Her grief and mourning were not her own. They could not be walled off from the political drama in which she was thrust and caught.When the church’s presiding pastor, the Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, opened the service, he said:“This family has endured the unsolicited, unwarranted, unreasonable, unjustifiable and massive burden of grieving their loved one and at the same time fighting for justice.”This is the thought that I have not been able to shake in this case and those that preceded it:Not only is their loss staggering, but their ability to grieve that loss has also been altered and interrupted, converted into politics and performance. Privacy is unavailable to them.As Hunter Demster, a local organizer, told me, the family members have endured “vigil, after protest, after news conference, after news interview.” Although he was leery of saying for certain, he didn’t believe they’d “had a moment to sit and grieve.”Mourning, properly, slowly and messily if needed, shouldn’t be a luxury. It’s the least that any of us deserves when tragedy befalls our families.As Collette Flanagan, whose son was also killed by a police officer and who runs the group Mothers Against Police Brutality, told me by phone just before the funeral started, she remembers telling herself that “you’re going to have to put this grief on a shelf,” that “you’re going to have to put aside all of your hurt and your sorrow, and you cannot go quietly into the night.”Forcing these families to subjugate their mourning is a crime, a moral crime.Mourning in public, on repeat, under and in front of the lights and cameras, isn’t part of the normal grieving process. Many people can hardly understand their flood of emotion, let alone live with the pressure of constantly being asked to form those feelings into sound bites.And yet, somehow, families like Nichols’ valiantly do just that. They put their personal mourning “on the shelf” to become leaders of a mass public mourning. They advocate for their dead child instead of simply mourning the dead child. They are drafted into a war — without warning or preparation — a war in which the enemy is entrenched and the comrades beleaguered.What they surrender — what we force them to surrender — is what grief expert Joél Simone Maldonado described to me as the “sacredness in grief,” the sitting alone with it in silence, the honoring of loss and developing ritual around it. Families must engage instead in what Maldonado calls “performance grief.”And sadly, the legions of these families are growing.At the funeral, I sat in front of Donna Gates Bullard, who tapped me on the arm before the service and explained that her brother Michael Gates was also beaten to death by law enforcement in Memphis. He was killed by sheriff’s deputies in a so-called “jump and grab” sting operation in 1989. (Memphis seems to have no shortage of horrible names for their tough-on-crime efforts.)Bullard said she came to the funeral to honor her brother. This is something I’ve often seen, the pilgrimage of mothers or sisters of other slain children to the sight of a funeral of the newest one. Their grieving is ongoing and unresolved.During one of the musical interludes, I looked back and saw Bullard burst into tears, her hands clasped across her bosom, as if trying to hold herself together.These family members are constantly told that they must be strong for their killed child, but where is the space for vulnerability? Where is the space for human frailty? Where is the opening to confess their fatigue without judgment? Where is the space for them to be when the only noise their mouths can make is that of wailing and cursing the sky?We have a model for a kind of perfect performance of grief from these women, a single script to follow.They are made to polish and professionalize mourning, to substitute oration for lamentation, to respectfully receive an endless stream of condolences when the soul craves silence.I have seen this conflict up close in other mothers who have lost children to violence and who made that loss part of a cause.When I first interviewed Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, in person, she was consumed and shrunken by grief. She brought her mother to the interview, and she reflexively wrapped her hands around her mother’s arm and rested her head on her mother’s shoulder as she spoke.When I spent the day with Sam DuBose’s family in 2015, his mother, Audrey, was so drained that she needed to cling to me just to leave the car and walk into a TV interview. But when the lights came on and the camera rolled, she delivered a stirring and spirited interview. After it was over, she confessed to me in a whisper, “All I want to do is just shut my door and cover up and never open it again.”When I interviewed Tamir Rice’s mom, Samaria, that same year, on the one-year anniversary of her son’s death at the hands of a Cleveland police officer, one of the first things she told me was, “I’m tired and I’m overwhelmed, and I just want to go to bed.” But she couldn’t go to bed. That day, she had to perform; she had to receive hugs and do interviews and deliver a speech, which she did with passion and conviction just feet from where the blood of her 12-year-old boy had soaked the ground.Not only do these women lose a part of their heart when their children are killed, the rest of the heart is bound in expectations and advocacy. The loss is compounded.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Bret Stephens: How Will Joe Biden Be Remembered in 50 Years?

A half-century from now, Joe Biden’s presidency will be remembered, as most presidencies are, with a short summary sentence. It will read: “He defeated Donald Trump, and ____________.”It won’t be the infrastructure bill, the rate of inflation or the Inflation Reduction Act — which, so long as China, India, South Africa and other countries continue building huge coal-fired plants, probably won’t lead to a major reduction in global greenhouse-gas emissions. It won’t be Hunter’s emails. Nor will it be whether he served one term or two.What will matter in 2073 is whether he reversed the global tide of democratic retreat that began long before his presidency but reached new lows with the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If Biden can turn it, it will be a historic achievement. If not, much darker days will lie ahead.He has a real chance.On the positive side, there is last week’s announcement of 31 M1 Abrams tanks for Ukraine, unlocking German Leopard 2 tanks to be sent as well. The decision brings Ukraine a significant step closer to eventual NATO membership, to which it has more than earned the right.Then there’s the apparent end of attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and a visibly tougher posture by the administration toward Iran’s misogynistic tyrants, including, last week, the largest-ever joint military exercise with Israel.And there is the president’s repeated public statements that the U.S. will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. Had Biden failed to say so, the island would be in even graver danger than it is now. Closer defense ties to Japan and Australia reinforce the point.Each of these steps evoke the cautious but purposeful way in which Biden’s political hero, Franklin Roosevelt, came to Britain’s aid in 1941 with Lend-Lease while preparing America for the possibility of war. They come on top of Biden’s other foreign-policy successes, none of which were a given at this time last year: trans-Atlantic unity in the face of Russian aggression and energy blackmail; Finland and Sweden on their way toward NATO membership; the decimation of Russian military forces in Ukraine thanks largely to NATO weaponry and intelligence.But Biden, like FDR, will not be judged by how he managed these crises at their start. What counts is how he brings them to an end.For Ukraine, the minimal U.S. objective is to deny Russia any gains from its aggression in the past year — anything less and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be able to claim victory, freeze the conflict and bide his time against an enfeebled and demoralized Ukrainian state. For Iran, the objective is to stop the regime from reaching a nuclear breakout. For Taiwan, it’s to arm the island to the point where it can defend itself, by itself, against Chinese invasion while preserving a viable U.S. option to intervene.On all this, the administration is a portrait in ambivalence.Thirty-one tanks for Ukraine are better than none, even if they won’t arrive on the battlefield for months. So why not announce 62 tanks, or 124, which would bring Ukraine much closer to the 300 it says it needs to win? The old argument that these tanks are beyond Ukraine’s capabilities to operate is now inoperative. So is the argument that we must take care not to provoke Russia: Putin has shown that he is provoked by the weakness of his enemies, not by their strength.It’s time to arm Ukraine with the arms it needs to win quickly — including F-16s — not just to survive indefinitely.As for Iran, what’s the administration’s policy now that it acknowledges negotiations for a renewed nuclear deal have failed? Biden has so far remained mostly silent. Maybe he’s hoping for a return to bargaining now that the protest movement seems to be receding. But he isn’t likely to get an acceptable deal from a regime that has only moved much closer into Russia’s orbit in the past year. Is there a Plan B?There had better be. An Iran that crosses the nuclear threshold, as North Korea did in the 1990s, will be followed by nuclear proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East, a curse that will haunt successive generations of Americans. Surely this is not the legacy Biden wants: a region in which four or five nuclear powers, prone to religious fanaticism, are at daggers drawn with one another, in ever-shifting balances of power.And Taiwan: Last year, the administration approved a little more than $1 billion in arms sales to Taipei, which is a small fraction of what the island will need to defend itself against invasion. Last week, Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, head of the Air Mobility Command, sent a memo to his officers with a blunt warning: “I hope I am wrong,” he wrote about the prospect of the United States getting into a war with China. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”What if Minihan isn’t wrong? Can the administration honestly say it’s doing enough?In 50 years, they’ll know. Biden’s sentence could be, “He defeated Trump, and then he defeated Putin, Khamenei and Xi.” Or it will be, “He defeated Trump, but then he came up slightly but fatally short.” Time will tell.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Nicholas Kristof: Inclusive or alienating? The language wars go on

Before the millions of views, the subsequent ridicule and finally the earnest apology, The Associated Press Stylebook practically oozed good intentions in its tweet last week:“We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated.”“The French”?Zut alors! The result was a wave of mocking conjecture of how to refer sensitively to, er, people of French persuasion. The French Embassy in the United States proposed changing its name to “the Embassy of Frenchness.”The AP Stylebook deleted its tweet, citing “an inappropriate reference to French people.” But it doubled down in recommending that people avoid general terms with “the,” such as “the poor, the mentally ill, the wealthy, the disabled, the college-educated.”It’s not obvious to me that “the college-educated” is a label that dehumanizes people. I’m guessing George Santos wishes he were included in that category.The flap over the French underscores the ongoing project to revise terminology in ways that are meant to be more inclusive — but which I fear are counterproductive and end up inviting mockery and empowering the right.Latino to Latinx. Women to people with uteruses. Homeless to houseless. LGBT to LGBTQIA2S+. Breastfeeding to chestfeeding. Asian American to AAPI. Ex-felon to returning citizen. Pro-choice to pro-decision. I inhabit the world of words, and even I’m a bit dizzy.As for my friends who are homeless, what they yearn for isn’t to be called houseless; they want housing.Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., who identifies as Afro-Latino, noted that a Pew survey found that only 3% of Hispanics themselves use the term Latinx.“I have no personal objection to the term ‘Latinx’ and will use the term myself before an audience that prefers it,” Torres told me. “But it’s worth asking if the widespread use of the term ‘Latinx’ in both government and corporate America reflects the agenda-setting power of white leftists rather than the actual preferences of working-class Latinos.”Similarly, terms like BIPOC — for Black, Indigenous and People of Color — seem to be employed primarily by white liberals. A national poll for The New York Times found that white Democrats were more than twice as likely to feel “very favorable” toward the term as nonwhite people.A legitimate concern for transgender men who have uteruses has also led to linguistic gymnastics to avoid the word “women.” In an effort to be inclusive, the American Cancer Society recommends cancer screenings for “individuals with a cervix,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidance “for breastfeeding people,” and Cleveland Clinic offers advice for “people who menstruate.”The aim is to avoid dehumanizing anyone. But some women feel dehumanized when referred to as “birthing people,” or when The Lancet medical journal had a cover about “bodies with vaginas.”The American Medical Association put out a 54-page guide on language as a way to address social problems — oops, it suggests instead using the “equity-focused” term “social injustice.” The AMA objects to referring to “vulnerable” groups and “underrepresented minority” and instead advises alternatives such as “oppressed” and “historically minoritized.”Hmm. If the AMA actually cared about “equity-focused” outcomes in the United States, it could simply end its opposition to single-payer health care.Dr. Irwin Redlener, president emeritus of the Children’s Health Fund and a lifelong champion of vulnerable children, told me that the linguistic efforts reflect “liberals going overboard to create definitions and divisions” — and he, like me, is a liberal.“It actually exacerbates divisions rather than accomplishing something useful,” Redlener said, and I think he’s right.I’m all for being inclusive in our language, and I try to avoid language that is stigmatizing. But I worry that this linguistic campaign has gone too far, for three reasons.First, much of this effort seems to me performative rather than substantive. Instead of a spur to action, it seems a substitute for it.After all, it’s the blue cities on the West Coast, where those on the streets are often sensitively described as “people experiencing homelessness,” that have some of the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness. How about worrying less about jargon and more about zoning and other evidence-based policies that actually get people into housing?Second, problems are easier to solve when we use clear, incisive language. The AMA style guide’s recommendations for discussing health are instead a wordy model of obfuscation, cant and sloppy analysis.Third, while this new terminology is meant to be inclusive, it bewilders and alienates millions of Americans. It creates an in-group of educated elites fluent in terms like BIPOC and AAPI and a larger out-group of baffled and offended voters, expanding the gulf between well-educated liberals and the 62% majority of Americans who lack a bachelor’s degree — which is why Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have seized upon all things woke.DeSantis, who boasts that he will oust the “woke mob,” strikes me as a prime beneficiary when, say, the Cleveland Clinic explains anatomy like this: “Who has a vagina? People who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) have vaginas.”So I fear that our linguistic contortions, however well-meant, aren’t actually addressing our country’s desperate inequities or achieving progressive dreams, but rather are creating fuel for right-wing leaders aiming to take the country in the opposite direction.—Contact Kristof at, or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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