As a former teacher (21 years), grandparent of school children, and father of a teacher, I believe it is imperative we follow expert scientific advice to protect those in schools. It is unconscionable that this should be politicized.
We ran the CDC. No president ever politicized its science the way Trump has.
The administration is undermining public health
As America begins the formidable task of getting our kids back to school and all of us back to work safely amid a pandemic that is only getting worse, public health experts face two opponents: covid-19, but also political leaders and others attempting to undermine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the debate last week around reopening schools more safely showed, these repeated efforts to subvert sound public health guidelines introduce chaos and uncertainty while unnecessarily putting lives at risk.
As of this date, the CDC guidelines, which were designed to protect children, teachers, school staffers and their families — no matter the state and no matter the politics — have not been altered. It is not unusual for CDC guidelines to be changed or amended during a clearance process that moves through multiple agencies and the White House. But it is extraordinary for guidelines to be undermined after their release. Through last week, and into Monday, the administration continued to cast public doubt on the agency’s recommendations and role in informing and guiding the nation’s pandemic response. On Sunday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos characterized the CDC guidelines as an impediment to reopening schools quickly rather than what they are: the path to doing so safely. The only valid reason to change released guidelines is new information and new science — not politics.
One of the many contributions the CDC provides our country is sound public health guidance that states and communities can adapt to their local context — expertise even more essential during a pandemic, when uncertainty is the norm. The four of us led the CDC over a period of more than 15 years, spanning Republican and Democratic administrations alike. We cannot recall over our collective tenure a single time when political pressure led to a change in the interpretation of scientific evidence.
The CDC is home to thousands of experts who for decades have fought deadly pathogens such as HIV, Zika and Ebola. Despite the inevitable challenges of evolving science and the public’s expectation of certainty, these are the people best positioned to help our country emerge from this crisis as safely as possible. Unfortunately, their sound science is being challenged with partisan potshots, sowing confusion and mistrust at a time when the American people need leadership, expertise and clarity. These efforts have even fueled a backlash against public health officials across the country: Public servants have been harassed, threatened and forced to resignwhen we need them most. This is unconscionable and dangerous.
We’re seeing the terrible effect of undermining the CDC play out in our population. Willful disregard for public health guidelines is, unsurprisingly, leading to a sharp rise in infections and deaths. America now stands as a global outlier in the coronavirus pandemic. This tragic indictment of our efforts is even more egregious in light of the disproportionate impact we’ve witnessed on communities of color and lower-income essential workers. China, using the same mitigation tools available to us and with a far larger population, has had just a tiny fraction of the 3.1 million cases reported here. The United States now has more cases and deaths than any other country and the sixth-highest rate of any large country in the world — and we are gaining on the other five. The United States is home to a quarter of the world’s reported coronavirus infections and deaths, despite being home to only 4.4 percent of the global population.
Sadly, we are not even close to having the virus under control. Quite the opposite, in fact.
That’s what makes it hard to plan for schools. Any parent with a young child knows that classrooms, cafeterias and school buses are petri dishes for the common cold and the flu, even in normal times. And although children are at lower risk for serious illness and death from covid-19, the same is not true for the adults who work in schools, nor for the families children and school staffers go home to each evening. We must pay careful attention to safer school policies, including those the CDC released, to do everything we can to reopen our schools — and our economy — as safely as possible. This cannot happen equitably without additional federal and state resources to ensure that every school district — no matter the Zip code — can take the necessary measures to protect children, teachers and staffers. Black, Latino and Native American communities have suffered disproportionately during the first six months of the pandemic. We cannot let this same tragedy unfold this fall in our schools. The CDC’s guidance is a call for all of our nation to work together so as many schools as possible can reopen as safely as possible. This will mean wearing masks correctly, increasing distance — including by closing bars and restaurants in many places — and tracking and stopping the spread of the virus by supporting patients and protecting contacts.
Trying to fight this pandemic while subverting scientific expertise is like fighting blindfolded. How well and how quickly we adhere to the advice of public health experts at the CDC will determine whether, how soon and how safely our schools can reopen.
It is not too late to give the CDC its proper role in guiding this response. But the clock is ticking.
Robert Mueller: Roger Stone remains a convicted felon, and rightly so
Roger Stone, former adviser to President Trump, leaves following a court hearing in Washington last year. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)By Robert S. Mueller IIIJULY 11, 2020 Add to list
Robert S. Mueller III served as special counsel for the Justice Department from 2017 to 2019.
The work of the special counsel’s office — its report, indictments, guilty pleas and convictions — should speak for itself. But I feel compelled to respond both to broad claims that our investigation was illegitimate and our motives were improper, and to specific claims that Roger Stone was a victim of our office. The Russia investigation was of paramount importance. Stone was prosecuted and convicted because he committed federal crimes. He remains a convicted felon, and rightly so.
Russia’s actions were a threat to America’s democracy. It was critical that they be investigated and understood. By late 2016, the FBI had evidence that the Russians had signaled to a Trump campaign adviser that they could assist the campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to the Democratic candidate. And the FBI knew that the Russians had done just that: Beginning in July 2016, WikiLeaks released emails stolen by Russian military intelligence officers from the Clinton campaign. Other online personas using false names — fronts for Russian military intelligence — also released Clinton campaign emails.
Following FBI Director James B. Comey’s termination in May 2017, the acting attorney general named me as special counsel and directed the special counsel’s office to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The order specified lines of investigation for us to pursue, including any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign. One of our cases involved Stone, an official on the campaign until mid-2015 and a supporter of the campaign throughout 2016. Stone became a central figure in our investigation for two key reasons: He communicated in 2016 with individuals known to us to be Russian intelligence officers, and he claimed advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ release of emails stolen by those Russian intelligence officers. Default Mono Sans Mono Serif Sans Serif Comic Fancy Small CapsDefault X-Small Small Medium Large X-Large XX-LargeDefault Outline Dark Outline Light Outline Dark Bold Outline Light Bold Shadow Dark Shadow Light Shadow Dark Bold Shadow Light BoldDefault Black Silver Gray White Maroon Red Purple Fuchsia Green Lime Olive Yellow Navy Blue Teal Aqua OrangeDefault 100% 75% 50% 25% 0%Default Black Silver Gray White Maroon Red Purple Fuchsia Green Lime Olive Yellow Navy Blue Teal Aqua OrangeDefault 100% 75% 50% 25% 0%Opinion | The Mueller report is riddled with Trump’s lies and manipulation
We now have a detailed picture of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The special counsel’s office identified two principal operations directed at our election: hacking and dumping Clinton campaign emails, and an online social media campaign to disparage the Democratic candidate. We also identified numerous links between the Russian government and Trump campaign personnel — Stone among them. We did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in its activities. The investigation did, however, establish that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome. It also established that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.
Uncovering and tracing Russian outreach and interference activities was a complex task. The investigation to understand these activities took two years and substantial effort. Based on our work, eight individuals pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial, and more than two dozen Russian individuals and entities, including senior Russian intelligence officers, were charged with federal crimes.
Congress also investigated and sought information from Stone. A jury later determined he lied repeatedly to members of Congress. He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress.
The jury ultimately convicted Stone of obstruction of a congressional investigation, five counts of making false statements to Congress and tampering with a witness. Because his sentence has been commuted, he will not go to prison. But his conviction stands.
Russian efforts to interfere in our political system, and the essential question of whether those efforts involved the Trump campaign, required investigation. In that investigation, it was critical for us (and, before us, the FBI) to obtain full and accurate information. Likewise, it was critical for Congress to obtain accurate information from its witnesses. When a subject lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government’s efforts to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable. It may ultimately impede those efforts.
We made every decision in Stone’s case, as in all our cases, based solely on the facts and the law and in accordance with the rule of law. The women and men who conducted these investigations and prosecutions acted with the highest integrity. Claims to the contrary are false.
The public response to the demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd is now beginning to take shape more clearly along familiar ideological lines — in ways that are likely to propel politics this year and beyond, dividing left and right as Democrats and Republicans take opposing stands on the efficacy and even the legitimacy of this year’s protests against racism.
In contrast, 36 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of Black Lives Matter, with 12 percent strongly favorable. Fully half of Republicans hold an unfavorable view of the movement, compared with 8 percent of Democrats.
When voters were asked by the NYT-Siena pollsters to choose between two statements about the George Floyd protests — either “I support the demonstrations because they’re mainly peaceful protests with an important message” or “I oppose the demonstrations because too many have turned to violent rioting” — Democrats supported the protests 82-15, while Republicans opposed them, 68-25.
What these numbers tell us is that the demonstrations, and the electorate’s reaction to them, will play a key role in the 2020 election.
In a June 12 survey, Pew Research reported that “Republicans and Democrats have vastly different views on the factors underlying the protests”: 80 percent of Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party say that “anger over Floyd’s death after his arrest by police and tensions between Black people and the police have each contributed a great deal to the protests.”
At the same time, “much smaller majorities (59 percent) of Republicans and Republican leaners say anger over Floyd’s death contributed a great deal” and that “tensions between police and Black people (57 percent) contributed a great deal” to the protests.
An even wider gap emerged in partisan responses to a question asking whether “longstanding concerns about the treatment of Black people in the country” contributed a great deal to the protests. 84 percent of Democrats agreed compared with 45 percent of Republicans.”
Republicans also took a far more negative view of the motivation of the many large groups of diverse protesters.
82 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that “some people taking advantage of the situation in order to engage in criminal behavior” was a major factor in the protests, more than double the 39 percent of Democrats who agreed.
There is a range of perspectives among scholars over who the protesters are, especially the white participants.
The underlying causes of our growing civic breakdown go beyond the brutal police killing of George Floyd. Particularly in our core cities, our dysfunction is a result of our increasingly large, and increasingly multiracial, class of neo-serfs.
Kotkin elaborates: “Today’s serf class consists of the permanently marginalized — like the peasants of feudal times, these people are unlikely to move to a higher station,” and this class encompasses
many of our young people, white and otherwise, who appear to have little or no hope of attaining the usual milestones of entry into the middle class — gaining a useful and marketable skill, starting a small business, or buying a home or other property.
In a June 2 essay, published on the Tablet website, Lind sketches out another group of protesters he sees as a key component of the new metropolitan left:
The children of the white urban elite — some of them downwardly mobile for life, some of them just going through the underpaid intern phase of professional careers — have colonized rowhouses where workers once lived and have converted former factories and warehouses into settings for la vie bohème.
This group of 20- and 30-somethings in the new urban bohemia are the constituency for the new progressive left. Children of the managerial overclass join the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and engage in purges and cancellations on Twitter and move to Brooklyn on allowances from their parents.
Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has been conducting detailed surveys of the demonstrators, presented a more nuanced view of the protesters in an email:
First and foremost, protest participants are highly educated. Over 62 percent reported a B.A. or higher at every protest where we surveyed,” although she acknowledges that they “may be feeling economic anxiety since they tend to be entering adulthood during the current economic crisis — the median age of protesters is 30 or younger depending on the day and location.
According to her surveys, conducted by interviewing every fifth person encountered at demonstrations, “more than 60 percent reported voting in primaries earlier this year, double the average for all voters, and many report contacting an elected official in the past year,” a strong signal of political engagement.
Fisher’s data from three days of polling in the District of Columbia showed that 52.9 percent of the protesters were white; 25 percent were Black; just over 10 percent were Asian-American and just under 4 percent were Hispanic. A quarter were 24 or younger.
The demonstrations have proved to be a highly effective tool for energizing young voters in behalf of Democratic candidates, especially Joe Biden, who has struggled to win over voters under the age of 45, many of whom supported other candidates during the primaries, Bernie Sanders in particular. In an articleposted June 28 at Business Insider, Fisher wrote that in studying the demonstrators:
Every single person surveyed at events in Washington DC, New York City, and Los Angeles over the past month reported that they would be supporting Joe Biden in the election. In fact, not one respondent reported that they would vote for Donald Trump.
There are some red flags for Democrats in Fisher’s data.
Fisher wrote that 60 to 65 percent of the demonstrators agreed with the statement “some level of violence is justified in the pursuit of political goals.”
“These numbers are in stark contrast to data collected at the March for Racial Justice in 2017,” when just 40 percent agreed some level of violence is justified, she wrote, “suggesting that in less than three years, the people who participate in protests about racial justice in the US have changed their opinions substantially.”
The views of protesters concerning the legitimacy of violence stand in contrast to the views of voters taken as a whole.
A Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 72 percent of those polled disagreed with the statement “more violent protests and unrest are an appropriate response to the killing of an unarmed man by police,” including a solid majority of Democrats.
An even larger percentage (79), including 77 percent of Democrats, agreed with the statement: “The property damage caused by some protesters undermines the original protest’s case for justice.”
The Times/Siena survey asked voters whether they support or oppose “reducing funding to police departments,” a less extreme step than the call among some demonstrators to “defund the police.”
Nearly two thirds of voters polled, 63 percent, opposed reduction of funding of police departments, including 50 percent who said they “strongly oppose” such actions.
What makes these issues even more potentially polarizing, going into the 2020 election, is that there has been an increase in violent crime, especially homicide and shooting incidents, in the weeks since George Floyd was killed, in some of the cities experiencing sustained protests and anti-police demonstrations. These cities include Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and Chicago.
Donald Trump is already running ads online and on TV attempting to capitalizeon these trends. One spot shows looters and burning buildings while the words “Joe Biden fails to stand up to the radical left” appear on the screen. Another Trump ad that ran on Facebook warned: “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem.”
Trump’s Twitter feed, in turn, continues to serve as a weapon in his drive to demonize Democrats and the left, Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post notedon June 30:
As the country convulses from incidents of police killings, mass protests and a rapidly spreading pandemic that has led to double-digit unemployment, the president seems most intent on inflaming an already burning culture war, using his Twitter feed to focus on vandalism by protesters and the well-being of statues that have been targeted.
At the end of May, the Trump campaign and allied committees had $259.1 million in the bank, twice as much as the $122.1 million available to Biden’s campaign.
Given the degree of voter polarization — especially in the context of a surging coronavirus and jarring economic upheaval — the outcome of the 2020 election is likely to be determined by factors other than money, perhaps most importantly by the success or failure of the George Floyd demonstrators in retaining unforeseen levels of public sympathy.
So far, Trump’s attempt to focus public attention on the looting, burning and sometimes indiscriminate toppling of statues has been outdone by the emergence of an ever longer list of African-American victims of police brutality, by new videos of police violence, much of it collected by T. Greg Doucette, a lawyer in North Carolina, and by the filing of murder charges on June 17 against an Atlanta police officer in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks.
Nonetheless, Henry Louis Gates Jr, a university professor at Harvard and the director of the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research there, warned in an interview that
Racism has been part of America’s cultural DNA since before the ink dried on the Constitution. Dominant in some and recessive in others, it’s a gene that has mutated over time yet remains part of the inheritance weighing us down, one generation to the next. The damage it has done is systemic and goes all the way down to the cellular level.
Traditionally, it has been the Democratic Party that was most vulnerable to fracture over race, racism, crime and family dysfunction. But this year, as my Times colleague Adam Nagourney pointed out on June 29 in “Trump’s Self-Inflicted Wound: Losing Swing Voters As He Plays to His Base,” the susceptibility to division is also a Republican problem: “Mr. Trump’s focus on his base at the expense of swing voters,” Nagourney wrote, “is almost certainly not enough to win him a second term.”
The key group, Nagourney continued, is the nine percent of the electorate identified in the Times/Siena poll as undecided, but these voters may be out of reach:
They, like much of the country, hold unfavorable views of Mr. Trump’s job performance, and particularly his response to the pandemic and to the demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police.
Across the country, significant support has emerged for broad efforts to combat police brutality and racism, but that support is not monolithic. The current tilt in favor of the demonstrators is likely to face concerted, ugly pushback from Trump and his minions — and there are four long months to go before the election.
Joe Ingle was interviewed in 1978 by Southern Exposure, the print forerunner of Facing South, about his prison reform work in the South. He continues to do that work today and recently talked with Facing South about the changes he’s seen over the decades in both the U.S. prison system and the prison reform movement. (Photo at left by Doug Magee via Southern Exposure; photo at right courtesy of Joe Ingle.)
In 1978, Southern Exposure magazine, the print forerunner of Facing South, published a 116-page issue on prisons in the South. It exposed abusive conditions, quantified growing racial disparities, warned of coming prison expansion, and amplified voices calling for reform.
Pulled from the archives 42 years later, “Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons” serves as a time capsule offering a peek into the criminal justice system at a key turning point in U.S. history. The country was on the precipice of an era of mass incarceration that we are now struggling to escape.
In 1978, the national prison population was around 292,000 inmates. Today it is nearly 1.5 million, not counting those in jails or on probation or parole. The prison population had already begun to rise in the 1970s when politicians from both major parties used fear and barely disguised racial rhetoric to promote increasingly punitive policies. President Nixon started the trend by declaring a “war on drugs” and delivering speeches about being “tough on crime.” Under President Reagan the prison population exploded, jumping from 329,000 when he took office in 1980 to 627,000 when he left office eight years later, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The dramatic rise in incarceration hit communities of color hardest, and they remain disproportionately impacted today.
Today there’s a robust and growing people’s movement pressing for reforms to the prison system and an end to mass incarceration — and some of the people involved have been in it for the long haul. They include Rev. Joe Ingle of Nashville, Tennessee, who was interviewed about his work for the 1978 issue of Southern Exposure.
A North Carolina native, Ingle graduated from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg in 1968 with a degree in religion and philosophy and then attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he first worked with prisoners. After his time in New York, Ingle returned to the South and began working with Will Campbell and Tony Dunbar to found the Southern Coalition for Jails and Prisons in 1974 with offices in eight Southern states. Using lawsuits, advocacy, and civil disobedience, they worked to fight the death penalty and the abusive prison system. The organization folded in the early 1990s, but Ingle, a United Church of Christ minister, continues his work fighting against the death penalty, proposing alternatives to incarceration, and advocating for the rights of the incarcerated.
Ingle has been a witness to the monumental change that has happened in the past decades, both in the prison system and efforts to reform it. In this interview, which has been edited for clarity and brevity, Ingle offers his insights into the history and future of the prison reform movement.
* * *
Let’s step back in time to 1978, when Southern Exposure interviewed you. At that point, how long had you been working in prison reform, and how did you get involved in that work?
In September of 1971, I was looking around for how I wanted to spend my 20 hours a week (doing community service as part of studies at Union Theological Seminary). One day, on my little fuzzy black and white TV in my tenement apartment, I watched the rebellion in Attica prison take place right before my very eyes. The prisoners had gained control of the prison and were giving press conferences. And I thought, if even 10% of what these guys were saying was accurate, I would have been angry, too.
So here I am, a white guy in East Harlem. I have never been in a prison or a jail in my life, but my friends who grew up in East Harlem deal with the cops and the criminal justice system all the time. So I decided to spend my final year of seminary visiting some kind of prison or jail.
The only one I could get into was the Bronx House of Detention. So I drove up there in my little blue Toyota for my first visit. I had my little badge on that identified me as the chaplain, and I rode the elevator up to the sixth floor. The guard lets me in, says, “Come with me.” As I am walking, I look to my right, and see this really huge cage of men. We get to the end of the cell block and the guard gestures at this smaller room to the left. “That’s where we have clergy and lawyer visits,” he said. Now I looked in that big room, and I thought instead: “Why don’t you let me in there with these guys?”
That guard looked at me like I was nuts. Clearly no one had ever asked him that, but he shrugged his shoulders and said, “All right.” He went over to unlock the door to the cell block. Now remember, I’m the well-meaning white guy from the South. I stepped across that threshold, and that guard took great joy in slamming that cell door behind me. I can still feel it. As soon as that happened my instantaneous thought was this: “Oh my God, he’s locked me in here with these animals.” As soon as I had that thought, I realized — this is how I’ve been socialized.
A guy in the first bunk looks up at me and says, “Man, what are you doing here?” This guy introduced himself to me and then introduced me to everybody else. I spent that year visiting those guys, and this is what I learned. The 44 men I was visiting in that cellblock were all awaiting trial. At that time, the average length of time to trial was 18 months. That was the first stunning thing. The second was everybody I visited there was either black or Puerto Rican, except for one white guy. So that let me know how this whole thing worked racially. And the third thing I realized was that these guys are just like me. Just like me. Same hopes, same fears, just less chances because they were all poor. But we were brothers, literally brothers. So that’s what I learned that first year at the Bronx House of Detention — that we were up against a monster system that was really out to do people in. It had nothing to do with justice.
In re-reading your Southern Exposure interview, what were your immediate thoughts?
I was very sad, because it meant a lot of losses. A lot of good people who’ve worked with me over the years are dead. A lot of prisoners I know are dead. Many have been executed, and some just died of old age. And that is all in a context where things have become progressively worse.
And that’s not an abstract statement, when you know people who are actually caught in the maw of this machinery, when you know human beings who are trapped in this criminal legal system and are being destroyed. It’s a very painful thing to feel and experience, even as someone who’s just a visitor and has come to care for people. Especially when those people end up getting executed.
So the article reminded me where we were and where we are now. And it’s like a chasm has opened up between then and now. And a lot of people have fallen into that chasm.
Having said that, I also felt great gratitude, immense gratitude, for the people who I’ve had the opportunity to work with through the years. I’ve also seen some people that I dearly love get out of prison and have successful lives. I just wish there could be more of them who have that opportunity.
You know, I’ve seen way too much. I really have. So I find that I don’t have the patience perhaps I had in 1978 because there’s been too much loss. It’s time. We need to be moving toward a way of doing restorative justice in this country and away from this whole retributive model because it’s such an utter failure. And to do that you have to change the economic framework. Because let’s face facts, this is big money in the criminal-industrial complex. It’s only when you move the money that you change the way we do justice in this country. How that happens? I don’t know. But that’s what needs to happen.
Give us a glimpse in the prison reform movement in those earlier years. How would you characterize the movement at that time?
To understand any movement for prison reform, you have to put it in the larger social context. So in 1978, we were still in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Matter of fact, that’s the reason so many white guys were the first people up for execution in North Carolina. James Hutchins was first up. Why was James first? Because they were not going to execute a black person first. And it was before we reached the worst context we’ve ever had as a society that I’ve lived through with Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, you know, pick your pumpkin — when we were literally throwing people in prison and jail willy-nilly. When the crime rate went up, people went for the easy solution: Lock people up. However, when you look at the crime rate, it usually correlates to unemployment rate. So when you have high unemployment, you usually have more crime. So any movement toward prison reform happens in the context of broader social issues.
As long as you have a judicial system that’s sitting there based on the premise of retributive justice, you’re going to have mass incarceration. There’s no way around it. Because this this system has to be funded. You have to move the money to move the system.
There were things going on in the reform movement that were very creative. We had a conference here in Nashville at one of our Southern Coalition staff meetings. The National Moratorium on Prison Construction (a joint project of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency) came in and we proclaimed “Jubilee Day.” So in the Bible, Jubilee is when they marched around the city of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. This is when the old Tennessee State Prison was still there. So we went out to the old prison when it was still operating and, with our trumpets and everything, we marched around the prison singing for the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. Now, I don’t know what the prison people thought, but was great. So when the walls of Jericho actually did come tumbling down at that prison as a result of the lawsuit (Grubbs v. Bradley, which won far-reaching reforms to Tennessee prisons), I always recall fondly that time we marched around blowing our trumpets.
With all the reform work that’s been done over the years, why do you think we’re just now having this reckoning with mass incarceration?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know off the top of my head if I know the answer. Because you could not have a greater contrast in today to what we were dealing with in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, back when I was getting death threats for speaking out against the death penalty. So how do you make that kind of cultural shift is the question. I really don’t know what it is.
Except I think one part of it is that so many more people are affected by this monstrosity of a system now than there were previously. It has kind of percolated out to a wider audience. And with things like DNA testing, there is more and more awareness that innocent people are being sent to prison, or even to death row. Or even executed. It’s like there have been these shafts of light into a mine. The shafts of light are becoming united, if you will, exposing what’s actually going on.
And I think that’s probably an accumulation of a lot of things, including cell phones. I mean, let’s face facts: With no cell phones back in the day to see people getting killed, the police were running amok and with impunity. So I think it’s been a gradual awareness and educational process that we had some role in. But also there are much larger societal factors that really opened people’s eyes. And frankly, I think the younger generation has a lot to do with it. We had a (Black Lives Matter) march last week that six teenagers organized in Nashville, Tennessee, that turned out 10,000 people. Think about that for a minute. And how did they do it? They did it through social media. We’re talking about high school kids. And it was peaceful. It was beautiful. Very powerful.
You’re a North Carolina native who’s been working in Tennessee for many years now. Why do you choose to focus your work on the South?
A lot of this is very personal. For me, it’s wrapped up in race and class. Here I am growing up in North Carolina, seven years old, when I watched my father die of a heart attack. My mother moved us from Jonesville, North Carolina, to Greenville to live with my grandparents. And it was in that year that I got my first lessons on race. I remember we were in the kitchen in my grandmother’s house and the bourbon was flowing. Man, I had some great storytellers in my family — my Uncle Blue, Aunt Grace, Aunt Frances. They always used the word “n—–” like it was like nothing. One night when I was 8 years old in this circle I thought, “Well, I can tell a story like my Uncle Blue can.” So I told a little story and I used the word “n—–.” My mother grabbed me by the arm, led me out of that room, set me down on her bed, and said “Joe, we do not use that word in this family. It is demeaning to Negros.” Of course I said, “But Aunt Grace and Uncle Blue, Aunt Francis — they all say this.” She replied, “I don’t care what they say, you are my child, and we will not use that language in our family.”
That was my first lesson on race. And little later that year, I was going downtown in the backseat of my Aunt Frances’s car and there was a Black woman waiting to cross the street with this really beautiful, multicolored dress. I pointed and said, “Aunt Frances, look at that colored lady’s beautiful dress.” Aunt Frances leaned around, quit driving, grabbed my arm, and pulled me to her face and said, “Don’t you ever call a n—– a lady again.” When I came home my mom straightened me out on that, too. As unhappy as I was, I was obviously learning some lessons that year.
My final lesson was in May of 1954 after Brown v. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of public schools. Now, in the summer in Greenville, North Carolina, we had no air conditioning, so we would always walk down to the public swimming pool. So in the summer after Brown I was in my little bedroom, getting my stuff together to go down to the pool. Mom walked in and said, “What are you doing?” “I’m going swimming,” I said. “It’s too hot, Mom. I can’t take this.” She said, “You’re not going swimming. They closed the pool.” I was incredulous. She told me, “The people who run the city don’t want to swim with Black people.”
So there were three lessons — this is the way the South is. That made an early impression on me. Having said that, these are still people I loved. So when I got through seminary, I wanted to come back to where I was born and raised. I wanted to work with the people I loved, but I wanted to change them. Because this stuff can’t stand. Whatever it takes, we have got to address it. If it takes going to jail, then it takes going to jail. If it takes marching, then it takes marching. Whatever it takes, we have to do it. Because the fundamental essence of the American South is still the race problem. And my friends up North, they’ve got their issues, too. But these are my issues. This is what I was born into. This is what I was born to deal with. This is my people.
It feels like we are living through a moment in history right now that will have big implications for criminal justice. While the Black Lives Matter movement focuses the nation’s eyes on police brutality, how do you think this moment will impact prison reform?
We have to have structural change. We have to change the whole policing system in the South. When you look at law enforcement, how did it originate in the South? With slave catchers. Then after Reconstruction they were running black people into the convict lease system. So until you realize how all this stuff came about, you’re not going to realize how to affect the fundamental structure. And the fundamental structure has got to go. Retributive justice has got to go. Restorative justice has to be the main model of justice in this country. That’s where the victim and offender come together with a trained facilitator and solve their problem. It doesn’t need a judge. It doesn’t need all of the accoutrements of a court system. It’s very simple, and it’s being done throughout the world.
We had a conference here three years ago with Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, and Howard Zehr. We wanted to begin this discussion of re-visioning justice. It was a great conference, and when you have people like that, resources like that you can draw upon, they ought to be in front of every legislative body in this country, state and federal. And they need to be listened to. Because these are the people who are on to the fundamental issues we’re encountering here. And unless you deal with the shaking of the foundations, we’re going to miss this opportunity.
But it’s a long haul. You’ve got to dig in and go to the roots. And you can’t just do one thing. The police are part of a larger system. Now granted, if we set up social workers to work with the homeless and take that money out of the police budget, that gets less and less of those kind of folks in jail. That’s important. But you have to understand that, as long as you have a judicial system that’s sitting there based on the premise of retributive justice, you’re going to have mass incarceration. There’s no way around it. Because this this system has to be funded. You have to move the money to move the system.
We’ve talked about how the problems that we’re facing have evolved. How have the solutions evolved?
Well, the fundamental need now is still the same as 1978 — restorative justice. So that hasn’t changed. Having said that, we were advocating for alternatives to incarceration. Now we have got alternatives to incarceration. The problem is, when you have all kinds of incarceration, you got to tie it to a decrease in the prison system. You just can’t have two parallel systems, that’s just more people. We talked about doing away with the drug laws, and today we’re doing that slowly. So I think we made some gains, but the reality is that the foundations are still needing to be shook. Hopefully that’s what this current process will do.
It’s been a very interesting year for me because in November 2018 I was with my dear friend Ed Zagorski here on death watch and he was electrocuted. (In Tennessee, death watch is a three-day period before an execution when the prisoner is moved to a cell next to the execution chamber and kept under 24-hour surveillance.) You can have a spiritual advisor. I was Ed’s spiritual advisor. We had done a death watch 17 days previous to that with Ed, and he got a stay an hour and a half before his execution. So I was with him for those three days the first time around, and then three days the second time around. And then he was killed. Now, I should have never done that. I mean, if you step back and look at this, it’s like being in an emotional vise and somebody is cranking it shut. You’re just being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. So after that first one, I should have stepped back and let somebody else do the second one. But I didn’t, and it wiped me out. I fell into melancholia and PTSD. I just got off my last psychiatric meds two weeks ago. I haven’t been into the prison in a year. I have been in trauma therapy on a weekly basis for all that time. So to have that personal experience of your own mortality, and to realize there’s so little you can do — when you’re in that state and look around and see all these wonderful things that are happening right now is a real lesson in humility. A lesson in just realizing, you know, this is a really cool time for a lot of issues that I care about. And it can happen without me.
I think the best generation is yours. These six teenage girls in Nashville — give me a break. It’s just percolating. It’s percolating all over the country. That’s something I haven’t seen before. I mean, when Martin Luther King was active and civil rights were huge, it was pretty much a Southern phenomenon, but this is percolating all over the nation. It’s really amazing. And who knows what’s going to come. Yeah. I like to think that once the genie is out of the bottle, we can’t get the genie back in the bottle. The genie is out.
Grace is a 2020 summer intern at the Institute for Southern Studies. She is a rising junior at Duke University studying history and journalism. She enjoys digging through the Southern Exposure archives and writing about social movements.Email Grace
I suppressed my rage about racism for decades. No more.
By Issac BaileyJune 6, 2020
I knew we were in trouble when I couldn’t find a way to not be angry, because I had never been angry before, not in a sustained way. It started when Donald Trump was elected. If a black man like me was having trouble corralling his anger, I knew it meant that anger among black people had to have risen to biblical proportions and could ignite given the right spark.
I was right. It has risen, and it’s erupting in cities in all 50 states.
When I saw a video of police officers kneeling with demonstrators taking part in protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd under the tag “This is how change begins,” I wasn’t inspired. I only grew angrier, knowing that none of this would have been necessary if those cops had been willing to take a knee four years ago when Colin Kaepernick took his. They could have helped usher in an era of radical reform of the way we are policed instead of deeming the nonviolent gesture un-American.
I grew angrier because I wasn’t always like this and don’t like being this way.
You see, for a long time I was one of the “good blacks,” whom white friends and colleagues and associates and neighbors could turn to in order to be reassured that they weren’t racist, that America really had made a lot of racial progress since its founding, that I was an example of that progress because of the success I had attained after all I had faced and overcome.
For a long time, I wasn’t an angry black man even after growing up in an underfunded school that was still segregated four decades after Brown v. Board of Education in the heart of the Deep South.
I wasn’t angry even when I watched my oldest brother, my hero, be taken away in handcuffs for murdering a white man when I was a 9-year-old boy. He served 32 years, upending our family forever. Guilt is what I felt instead of anger. It’s akin to the guilt white liberals who go overboard in their efforts feel and are often guided by as they try to appease black people because of the racial harm they know black people have suffered since before this country’s founding.
Mine was a black guilt, a guilt stemming from the knowledge that my black brother had irreparably hurt a poor white family, guilt that helped persuade me to try to make it up to white people as best I could.
That’s why for a long time in my writings, I was more likely to focus on all the white people who didn’t yell “Nigger!” out their windows as they drove by as I jogged along Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach, S.C., instead of those who did. That’s why I spent nearly two decades in a mostly white evangelical church. That’s why I tried to thread the needle on the Confederate flag, speaking forthrightly about its origins, but carefully so as not to upset my white friends and colleagues who revered a symbol of the idea that black people should forever be enslaved by white people.
Still, for a long time, none of that turned me into an angry black man. For a long time, I took it as a point of pride that one of my white professors remarked on my research paper comparing Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. that I didn’t seem angry enough, if at all. It fit well with my Christian beliefs that we must love our enemies, must be slow to anger, must turn the other cheek.
There were times I was upset, like when I watched those cops beat Rodney King on the side of the road in 1991, but I forced myself not to remain angry or to allow it to define me or overwhelm my thoughts.
Anger didn’t set in even as I developed a severe stutter, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for a quarter of a century before being diagnosed and getting help, and was nearly killed by a rare autoimmune disease. It didn’t set in even though each of these things was related to a childhood pockmarked by systemic racism.
The problems of my oldest brother, Moochie, began with a father who beat him and our mom — a father who was born into a South that was still rounding up black men and using the criminal justice system to essentially sell them into a new form of slavery. Men like my father also faced the possibility of lynchings or other commonplace indignities. Society’s racist treatment of my father helped turn him into a threat to my black mother and my black oldest brother.
It also cut short the lives of my aunts and uncles who succumbed to a variety of stress-induced ailments. My last living aunt survived — survives — but not without deep scars. She’s shared tales from her childhood of black people “just disappearing” from our small Southern town.
That legacy contributed to the emotional and physical health struggles I contend with today. Audiences love to hear all I overcame, hate it when I tell them the price I and others like me had to pay. They don’t want to know that even the overcomers don’t come through racism unscathed.
My anger first showed up as severe disappointment about how many of the members of the white evangelical church I was attending reacted to the election of Barack Obama. They openly expressed hatred for him. They began believing in ugly racist conspiracy theories. My disappointment was replaced by a deep sense of betrayal when they rushed to make Donald Trump president even when we prayed together after Dylann Roof shot up the black church Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, S.C. — a church that sits along a street named after one of the nation’s most prominent slavery proponents, John C. Calhoun — where my future wife and I first attended a service together.
I got angry and couldn’t shake it. I got angry at white journalists who refused to hear people like me telling them that something was different, that things had changed, that it wasn’t just politics as usual. Mr. Trump’s use of open bigotry and racism propelled him into national politics. Republicans embraced rather than repelled him. The nastier he got, the higher his approval rating climbed within ranks of the party. I became ashamed that I had ever felt compelled to vote for Republicans, ashamed that I thought my calling had been to try to be a bridge across racial divides, which was why I remained so long in a white church where so many could believe that Donald Trump was God-sent and God-ordained.
In my new state of mind, I couldn’t not be angry over the past few months when data began showing that black people were disproportionately being affected by Covid-19 because of health maladies worsened by racism that had long weakened their bodies, and because that racism ensured that we were more likely to be in the kinds of jobs deemed essential during the pandemic, exposing us to the virus even more.
I knew that President Trump didn’t cause the racial disparities that have been embedded in our criminal justice, educational and health care systems since their creation. I knew that cops had been killing black men and black women without consequence long before November 2016. I knew that the Democratic Party had failed black people on the issue of race in too many ways to count as well. That’s why I didn’t blame Mr. Trump for the state of things — but knew that his elevation to the highest office in the nation was a tipping point.
It felt like an attempt by white America to turn back the clock to the 1950s. I knew that we, black people, wouldn’t quietly go back to the back of the bus, even as they shamed us for peacefully kneeling to protest.
I knew that if a black man like me found himself in a perpetual state of rage he couldn’t shake, things were ripe to explode.
Nobel laureate James Buchanan is the intellectual linchpin of the Koch-funded attack on democratic institutions, argues Duke historian Nancy MacLean
Ask people to name the key minds that have shaped America’s burst of radical right-wing attacks on working conditions, consumer rights and public services, and they will typically mention figures like free market-champion Milton Friedman, libertarian guru Ayn Rand, and laissez-faire economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.
James McGill Buchanan is a name you will rarely hear unless you’ve taken several classes in economics. And if the Tennessee-born Nobel laureate were alive today, it would suit him just fine that most well-informed journalists, liberal politicians, and even many economics students have little understanding of his work.
The reason? Duke historian Nancy MacLean contends that his philosophy is so stark that even young libertarian acolytes are only introduced to it after they have accepted the relatively sunny perspective of Ayn Rand. (Yes, you read that correctly). If Americans really knew what Buchanan thought and promoted, and how destructively his vision is manifesting under their noses, it would dawn on them how close the country is to a transformation most would not even want to imagine, much less accept.
That is a dangerous blind spot, MacLean argues in a meticulously researched book, Democracy in Chains, a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. While Americans grapple with Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency, we may be missing the key to changes that are taking place far beyond the level of mere politics. Once these changes are locked into place, there may be no going back.
An Unlocked Door in Virginia
MacLean’s book reads like an intellectual detective story. In 2010, she moved to North Carolina, where a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party got control of both houses of the state legislature and began pushing through a radical program to suppress voter rights, decimate public services, and slash taxes on the wealthy that shocked a state long a beacon of southern moderation. Up to this point, the figure of James Buchanan flickered in her peripheral vision, but as she began to study his work closely, the events in North Carolina and also Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker was leading assaults on collective bargaining rights, shifted her focus.
Could it be that this relatively obscure economist’s distinctive thought was being put forcefully into action in real time?
MacLean could not gain access to Buchanan’s papers to test her hypothesis until after his death in January 2013. That year, just as the government was being shut down by Ted Cruz & Co., she traveled to George Mason University in Virginia, where the economist’s papers lay willy-nilly across the offices of a building now abandoned by the Koch-funded faculty to a new, fancier center in Arlington.
MacLean was stunned. The archive of the man who had sought to stay under the radar had been left totally unsorted and unguarded. The historian plunged in, and she read through boxes and drawers full of papers that included personal correspondence between Buchanan and billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. That’s when she had an amazing realization: here was the intellectual linchpin of a stealth revolution currently in progress.
A Theory of Property Supremacy
Buchanan, a 1940 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University who later attended the University of Chicago for graduate study, started out as a conventional public finance economist. But he grew frustrated by the way in which economic theorists ignored the political process.
Buchanan began working on a description of power that started out as a critique of how institutions functioned in the relatively liberal 1950s and ‘60s, a time when economist John Maynard Keynes’s ideas about the need for government intervention in markets to protect people from flaws so clearly demonstrated in the Great Depression held sway. Buchanan, MacLean notes, was incensed at what he saw as a move toward socialism and deeply suspicious of any form of state action that channels resources to the public. Why should the increasingly powerful federal government be able to force the wealthy to pay for goods and programs that served ordinary citizens and the poor?
In thinking about how people make political decisions and choices, Buchanan concluded that you could only understand them as individuals seeking personal advantage. In an interview cited by MacLean, the economist observed that in the 1950s Americans commonly assumed that elected officials wanted to act in the public interest. Buchanan vehemently disagreed — that was a belief he wanted, as he put it, to “tear down.” His ideas developed into a theory that came to be known as “public choice.”
Buchanan’s view of human nature was distinctly dismal. Adam Smith saw human beings as self-interested and hungry for personal power and material comfort, but he also acknowledged social instincts like compassion and fairness. Buchanan, in contrast, insisted that people were primarily driven by venal self-interest. Crediting people with altruism or a desire to serve others was “romantic” fantasy: politicians and government workers were out for themselves, and so, for that matter, were teachers, doctors, and civil rights activists. They wanted to control others and wrest away their resources: “Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves,” he wrote in his 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty.
Does that sound like your kindergarten teacher? It did to Buchanan.
The people who needed protection were property owners, and their rights could only be secured though constitutional limits to prevent the majority of voters from encroaching on them, an idea Buchanan lays out in works like Property as a Guarantor of Liberty (1993). MacLean observes that Buchanan saw society as a cutthroat realm of makers (entrepreneurs) constantly under siege by takers (everybody else) His own language was often more stark, warning the alleged “prey” of “parasites” and “predators” out to fleece them.
In 1965 the economist launched a center dedicated to his theories at the University of Virginia, which later relocated to George Mason University. MacLean describes how he trained thinkers to push back against the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate America’s public schools and to challenge the constitutional perspectives and federal policy that enabled it. She notes that he took care to use economic and political precepts, rather than overtly racial arguments, to make his case, which nonetheless gave cover to racists who knew that spelling out their prejudices would alienate the country.
All the while, a ghost hovered in the background — that of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, senator and seventh vice president of the United States.
Calhoun was an intellectual and political powerhouse in the South from the 1820s until his death in 1850, expending his formidable energy to defend slavery. Calhoun, called the “Marx of the Master Class” by historian Richard Hofstadter, saw himself and his fellow southern oligarchs as victims of the majority. Therefore, as MacLean explains, he sought to create “constitutional gadgets” to constrict the operations of government.
Economists Tyler Cowen and Alexander Tabarrok, both of George Mason University, have noted the two men’s affinities, heralding Calhoun “a precursor of modern public choice theory” who “anticipates” Buchanan’s thinking. MacLean observes that both focused on how democracy constrains property owners and aimed for ways to restrict the latitude of voters. She argues that unlike even the most property-friendly founders Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Buchanan wanted a private governing elite of corporate power that was wholly released from public accountability.
Suppressing voting, changing legislative processes so that a normal majority could no longer prevail, sowing public distrust of government institutions— all these were tactics toward the goal. But the Holy Grail was the Constitution: alter it and you could increase and secure the power of the wealthy in a way that no politician could ever challenge.
Gravy Train to Oligarchy
MacLean explains that Virginia’s white elite and the pro-corporate president of the University of Virginia, Colgate Darden, who had married into the DuPont family, found Buchanan’s ideas to be spot on. In nurturing a new intelligentsia to commit to his values, Buchanan stated that he needed a “gravy train,” and with backers like Charles Koch and conservative foundations like the Scaife Family Charitable Trusts, others hopped aboard. Money, Buchanan knew, can be a persuasive tool in academia. His circle of influence began to widen.
MacLean observes that the Virginia school, as Buchanan’s brand of economic and political thinking is known, is a kind of cousin to the better-known, market-oriented Chicago and Austrian schools — proponents of all three were members of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international neoliberal organization which included Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. But the Virginia school’s focus and career missions were distinct. In an interview with the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), MacLean described Friedman and Buchanan as yin and yang:
“Friedman was this genial, personable character who loved to be in the limelight and made a sunny case for the free market and the freedom to choose and so forth. Buchanan was the dark side of this: he thought, ok, fine, they can make a case for the free market, but everybody knows that free markets have externalities and other problems. So he wanted to keep people from believing that government could be the alternative to those problems.”
The Virginia school also differs from other economic schools in a marked reliance on abstract theory rather than mathematics or empirical evidence. That a Nobel Prize was awarded in 1986 to an economist who so determinedly bucked the academic trends of his day was nothing short of stunning, MacLean observes. But, then, it was the peak of the Reagan era, an administration several Buchanan students joined.
Buchanan’s school focused on public choice theory, later adding constitutional economics and the new field of law and economics to its core research and advocacy. The economist saw that his vision would never come to fruition by focusing on who rules. It was much better to focus on the rules themselves, and that required a “constitutional revolution.”
MacLean describes how the economist developed a grand project to train operatives to staff institutions funded by like-minded tycoons, most significantly Charles Koch, who became interested in his work in the ‘70s and sought the economist’s input in promoting “Austrian economics” in the U.S. and in advising the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Koch, whose mission was to save capitalists like himself from democracy, found the ultimate theoretical tool in the work of the southern economist. The historian writes that Koch preferred Buchanan to Milton Friedman and his “Chicago boys” because, she says, quoting a libertarian insider, they wanted “to make government work more efficiently when the true libertarian should be tearing it out at the root.”
With Koch’s money and enthusiasm, Buchanan’s academic school evolved into something much bigger. By the 1990s, Koch realized that Buchanan’s ideas — transmitted through stealth and deliberate deception, as MacLean amply documents — could help take government down through incremental assaults that the media would hardly notice. The tycoon knew that the project was extremely radical, even a “revolution” in governance, but he talked like a conservative to make his plans sound more palatable.
MacLean details how partnered with Koch, Buchanan’s outpost at George Mason University was able to connect libertarian economists with right-wing political actors and supporters of corporations like Shell Oil, Exxon, Ford, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, and General Motors. Together they could push economic ideas to the public through media, promote new curricula for economics education, and court politicians in nearby Washington, D.C.
At the 1997 fiftieth anniversary of the Mont Pelerin Society, MacLean recounts that Buchanan and his associate Henry Manne, a founding theorist of libertarian economic approaches to law, focused on such affronts to capitalists as environmentalism and public health and welfare, expressing eagerness to dismantle Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare as well as kill public education because it tended to foster community values. Feminism had to go, too: the scholars considered it a socialist project.
The Oligarchic Revolution Unfolds
Buchanan’s ideas began to have huge impact, especially in America and in Britain. In his home country, the economist was deeply involved in efforts to cut taxes on the wealthy in 1970s and 1980s and he advised proponents of Reagan Revolution in their quest to unleash markets and posit government as the “problem” rather than the “solution.” The Koch-funded Virginia school coached scholars, lawyers, politicians, and business people to apply stark right-wing perspectives on everything from deficits to taxes to school privatization. In Britain, Buchanan’s work helped to inspire the public sector reforms of Margaret Thatcher and her political progeny.
To put the success into perspective, MacLean points to the fact that Henry Manne, whom Buchanan was instrumental in hiring, created legal programs for law professors and federal judges which could boast that by 1990 two of every five sitting federal judges had participated. “40 percent of the U.S. federal judiciary,” writes MacLean, “had been treated to a Koch-backed curriculum.”
MacLean illustrates that in South America, Buchanan was able to first truly set his ideas in motion by helping a bare-knuckles dictatorship ensure the permanence of much of the radical transformation it inflicted on a country that had been a beacon of social progress. The historian emphasizes that Buchanan’s role in the disastrous Pinochet government of Chile has been underestimated partly because unlike Milton Friedman, who advertised his activities, Buchanan had the shrewdness to keep his involvement quiet. With his guidance, the military junta deployed public choice economics in the creation of a new constitution, which required balanced budgets and thereby prevented the government from spending to meet public needs. Supermajorities would be required for any changes of substance, leaving the public little recourse to challenge programs like the privatization of social security.
The dictator’s human rights abuses and pillage of the country’s resources did not seem to bother Buchanan, MacLean argues, so long as the wealthy got their way. “Despotism may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe,” the economist had written in The Limits of Liberty. If you have been wondering about the end result of the Virginia school philosophy, well, the economist helpfully spelled it out.
A World of Slaves
Most Americans haven’t seen what’s coming.
MacLean notes that when the Kochs’ control of the GOP kicked into high gear after the financial crisis of 2007-08, many were so stunned by the “shock-and-awe” tactics of shutting down government, destroying labor unions, and rolling back services that meet citizens’ basic necessities that few realized that many leading the charge had been trained in economics at Virginia institutions, especially George Mason University. Wasn’t it just a new, particularly vicious wave of partisan politics?
It wasn’t. MacLean convincingly illustrates that it was something far more disturbing.
MacLean is not the only scholar to sound the alarm that the country is experiencing a hostile takeover that is well on its way to radically, and perhaps permanently, altering the society. Peter Temin, former head of the MIT economics department, INET grantee, and author of The Vanishing Middle Class, as well as economist Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon and author of The One Percent Solution, have provided eye-opening analyses of where America is headed and why. MacLean adds another dimension to this dystopian big picture, acquainting us with what has been overlooked in the capitalist right wing’s playbook.
She observes, for example, that many liberals have missed the point of strategies like privatization. Efforts to “reform” public education and Social Security are not just about a preference for the private sector over the public sector, she argues. You can wrap your head around those, even if you don’t agree. Instead, MacLean contends, the goal of these strategies is to radically alter power relations, weakening pro-public forces and enhancing the lobbying power and commitment of the corporations that take over public services and resources, thus advancing the plans to dismantle democracy and make way for a return to oligarchy. The majority will be held captive so that the wealthy can finally be free to do as they please, no matter how destructive.
MacLean argues that despite the rhetoric of Virginia school acolytes, shrinking big government is not really the point. The oligarchs require a government with tremendous new powers so that they can bypass the will of the people. This, as MacLean points out, requires greatly expanding police powers “to control the resultant popular anger.” The spreading use of pre-emption by GOP-controlled state legislatures to suppress local progressive victories such as living wage ordinances is another example of the right’s aggressive use of state power.
Could these right-wing capitalists allow private companies to fill prisons with helpless citizens—or, more profitable still, right-less undocumented immigrants? They could, and have. Might they engineer a retirement crisis by moving Americans to inadequate 401(k)s? Done. Take away the rights of consumers and workers to bring grievances to court by making them sign forced arbitration agreements? Check. Gut public education to the point where ordinary people have such bleak prospects that they have no energy to fight back? Getting it done.
Would they even refuse children clean water? Actually, yes.
MacLean notes that in Flint, Michigan, Americans got a taste of what the emerging oligarchy will look like — it tastes like poisoned water. There, the Koch-funded Mackinac Center pushed for legislation that would allow the governor to take control of communities facing emergency and put unelected managers in charge. In Flint, one such manager switched the city’s water supply to a polluted river, but the Mackinac Center’s lobbyists ensured that the law was fortified by protections against lawsuits that poisoned inhabitants might bring. Tens of thousands of children were exposed to lead, a substance known to cause serious health problems including brain damage.
Tyler Cowen has provided an economic justification for this kind of brutality, stating that where it is difficult to get clean water, private companies should take over and make people pay for it. “This includes giving them the right to cut off people who don’t—or can’t—pay their bills,” the economist explains.
To many this sounds grotesquely inhumane, but it is a way of thinking that has deep roots in America. In Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative (2005), Buchanan considers the charge of heartlessness made against the kind of classic liberal that he took himself to be. MacLean interprets his discussion to mean that people who “failed to foresee and save money for their future needs” are to be treated, as Buchanan put it, “as subordinate members of the species, akin to…animals who are dependent.’”
Do you have your education, health care, and retirement personally funded against all possible exigencies? Then that means you.
Buchanan was not a dystopian novelist. He was a Nobel Laureate whose sinister logic exerts vast influence over America’s trajectory. It is no wonder that Cowen, on his popular blog Marginal Revolution, does not mention Buchanan on a list of underrated influential libertarian thinkers, though elsewhere on the blog, he expresses admiration for several of Buchanan’s contributions and acknowledges that the southern economist “thought more consistently in terms of ‘rules of the games’ than perhaps any other economist.”
The rules of the game are now clear.
Research like MacLean’s provides hope that toxic ideas like Buchanan’s may finally begin to face public scrutiny. Yet at this very moment, the Kochs’ State Policy Network and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that connects corporate agents to conservative lawmakers to produce legislation, are involved in projects that the Trump-obsessed media hardly notices, like pumping money into state judicial races. Their aim is to stack the legal deck against Americans in ways that MacLean argues may have even bigger effects than Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling which unleashed unlimited corporate spending on American politics. The goal is to create a judiciary that will interpret the Constitution in favor of corporations and the wealthy in ways that Buchanan would have heartily approved.
“The United States is now at one of those historic forks in the road whose outcome will prove as fateful as those of the 1860s, the 1930s, and the 1960s,” writes MacLean. “To value liberty for the wealthy minority above all else and enshrine it in the nation’s governing rules, as Calhoun and Buchanan both called for and the Koch network is achieving, play by play, is to consent to an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form.”
Dee Evans, national director of communications at the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said in 2019, 46 states recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of recognition. Getty Images
Ask Bettie J. Durrah, a longtime Presbyterian from Atlanta, what she remembers of the 211th General Assembly (1999) and she will tell you how her fellow African Americans perplexed delegates in the Fort Worth, Texas, convention hall by gathering to celebrate Juneteenth.
“Juneteenth” — a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth” — commemorates when Texas’ enslaved people were notified of their status as free citizens, which occurred on June 19, 1865. Texas was the last state to inform its people, with the notification coming two years, six months and 19 days after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
June 19 has come to represent Independence Day to African Americans more so than July 4. Yet the day has gone mostly unheard of by many Americans, let alone Presbyterians.
“The delegates found the celebration to be a curious sight,” Durrah said, noting that some mistook the fanfare for an early Fourth of July celebration. It was an opportunity, she says, to educate her fellow Presbyterians about the significance of Juneteenth, which is also called Freedom Day.
Today, educational opportunities abound as Juneteenth conversations — and observances — are growing beyond the African American community.
According to Dee Evans, national director of communications at the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, in 2019, 46 states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of recognition. And, in 2018, a resolution recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday passed the Senate.
Despite the recognition, work still needs to be done to educate the public on the significance of Juneteenth — a quintessential American holiday that continues capturing the tension between the American ideal of equality and the reality of how that vision is eclipsed by systems of injustice.
“We still wrestle for all to be free today,” said the Rev. Denise Anderson, coordinator for racial and intercultural justice in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
Freedom narratives shared
Dr. Lydia Willingham, a lay pastor in Trinity Presbytery and a member of Ladson Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, says educating younger generations about Juneteenth is a “holy calling,” underscored by the miracle “that our ancestors survived slavery.”
While Juneteenth is a time for celebration, Willingham, who also serves as president of the National Black Presbyterian Women Caucus, sees it as a time to acknowledge the brutality of slavery and the blood that was shed. That’s a reason why, she says, the wearing of red and the eating of red foods, such as red velvet cake, is often part of Juneteenth. The red also symbolizes the redemptive blood of Christ, making Juneteenth “more than a freedom story, but a faith story.”
“Our people prayed to be free from their bondage, and their prayers were answered,” said Willingham. “It is a vital role of our congregations to pass on the stories of those who endured and fought against slavery.”
Helen Toney, a retired educator and member of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, has vivid memories of celebrating Emancipation Day during August in Obion County, Tennessee, in the 1930s.
Toney was born in 1924 and heard stories of slavery firsthand from relatives like her great-grandmother, who was 16 when slavery ended. She also heard stories of perseverance that made the freedom celebrations “sweeter.”
Dr. Whitney Peoples, director and coordinator of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Michigan, views preserving stories like Toney’s as a powerful ministry opportunity for churches.
“Many churches have unique access to these freedom narratives, and it is important to create spaces to share them. Faith communities are often intergenerational, and the pews are full of living history. It is important to capture these valuable African American stories and traditions while we can,” said Peoples.
A new generation emerging
While many communities around the nation experienced emancipation from slavery on different dates, Juneteenth is the closest the nation has to a nationally recognized Emancipation Day. And a new generation is emerging to champion the celebration of Juneteenth.
A quick search of #Juneteenth on social media brings up thousands of images about the holiday, while a growing number of blogs and podcasts disseminate information about its history.
Many black millennials see Juneteenth as an alternative celebration to July Fourth. A common sentiment is that the vision for equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 did not include those of African descent.
In contrast, Juneteenth represents a movement toward freedom for all people — and it can be celebrated by all people.
Yet the ways that Americans observe the holiday may change based on one’s race and ethnicity. For the rev. abby mohaupt (name lowercased as requested), moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA, Juneteenth is a call for reckoning and repentance for the sins of racism. She sees the holiday as an invitation for white Presbyterians to listen deeply to those who are descendants of enslaved people and as a time to confess their own complicity in institutionalized injustice.
Anderson agrees, cautioning white congregations to temper the celebrations so that the meaning of Juneteenth does not get lost.
“I don’t want congregations co-opting the celebration without engaging in the difficult history and lingering present,” she said. “Black and brown people are still incarcerated at disproportionate rates. I would hope white congregations take Juneteenth as an opportunity to wrestle with that and avail themselves to criminal justice reform in their communities.”
Dr. Kathy Dawson, the Benton Family Associate Professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary, sees Juneteenth as an opportunity to grapple with slaveholding in Presbyterian history. She also invites congregations to use Juneteenth as a time to hold educational offerings on current human trafficking.
For the Rev. Jeff Geary, senior pastor of White Plains Presbyterian Church in New York, rooting his congregation firmly in a “theology of place” helps to put faith in context.
White Plains Presbyterian, founded in 1714, is just two blocks from the historic location where the Declaration of Independence was first read and adopted by a colonial government. The church uses the time between Juneteenth and July Fourth to revisit the Declaration of Independence, while putting that document in conversation with the works of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and other freedom fighters.
Willingham says that her congregation, Ladson Presbyterian, walks their youth down to the Mann-Simons Cottage in Columbia, South Carolina. Celia Mann and Ben Delane were African Americans who walked from Charleston to Columbia to find freedom in the early 1840s. Their family home is now a museum that tells the story of Columbia’s African American community from enslavement to the present.
“The blood and tears of our ancestors truly meant something. We must remember that we are the sum of those parts,” Willingham said, adding that the bloodshed did not end with emancipation. “African Americans endured decades of disenfranchisement, dehumanization and domestic terrorism following emancipation, and that struggle for complete equality continues until this day.”
The Ladson Presbyterian congregation also makes it a point to sing James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on Juneteenth, Willingham says.
The lyrics to the song, known as the Black National Anthem, resonate deeply for her. She says the line that is especially poignant to her that captures Juneteenth’s past, present and future is: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun of our new day begun. Let us march on till victory is won.”
Presbyterians are marching on. This Juneteenth, Presbyterians were planning to gather at General Assembly to remember the past, to be honest about the present and to work toward a more just future.
According to Anderson, the service of lament and celebration was to be held the afternoon of June 19 in the lobby of the Baltimore Convention Center during the 224th General Assembly. Unlike the 1999 gathering that Durrah remembers as being a “curious sight,” this observance would have been different, with more Presbyterians having heard of the hard work for freedom that continues today. Anderson had hoped “to bring awareness to the lingering impacts of slavery and the ways in which slavery in other forms persist.”
But Juneteenth is not the only day to raise that awareness. Every day is one to “sing a song full of faith.”
Zeena Regis is a member of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.
I am and have always been fiercely proud to be Southern. I speak Southern, and I eat Southern. I feel sad for those poor souls who are not blessed to be Southern, and at the same time I don’t want them to know how great the South is because I don’t want them moving here.
Others are free to disagree with me. We all have the right to be wrong.
I grew up around, and myself proudly displayed, Confederate flags.
In High School, I wore a jacket with a Confederate flag patch on the sleeve. My truck had both a Confederate flag license plate and a sticker on the window. Even my High School ring had a Confederate flag on it.
This probably sounds bizarre to many of you, but it was not to us. The Confederate flag was a common symbol of Southern pride and heritage, in spite of its association with and usage by white supremacist organizations.
If objections were ever raised, our default response was always, “It’s heritage, not hatred.” We don’t celebrate the enslavement and abuse of millions of Africans, we don’t participate in the ongoing mistreatment of their descendants, but we do love being Southern, and this flag is a symbol of that, no matter what others might say.
In the Fall of 2002, when I was nineteen years old, I had a single, short conversation that made me reevaluate that symbol.
I was working year round at a Christian camp. One of the volunteers there was a man named Hank, whom I had known for a few years. One Saturday, after our day of basketball ministry had ended, Hank sat beside me on the bleachers.
“Hey, Jarrod,” he said, “I wanted to talk to you about something. I’ve noticed the Confederate flag on your truck.”
I mentally rolled my eyes before letting forth with my prepared response: “It’s heritage, not hatred. I’m from the South and I’m proud of that. I’m not racist.”
“I understand that,” Hank said. “I know you, and I don’t think you’re racist. And I know that you love Jesus, and that you want to tell other people about Jesus. I know that you love people. But when people see that flag, they don’t think of that, they think of hatred. They assume you hate them because they see you with that flag. I would hate for someone to get the wrong idea about you, or about Jesus, because of that flag.”
That was it. The conversation moved on to other topics from there, and Hank never said anything about it to me again.
But a few days later, I removed the Confederate flags from my truck. I haven’t displayed a Confederate flag since.
That conversation had an effect on me that no prior conversation had, and the reason why is friendship.
Hank and I were friends for a few years before that conversation. He respected me, and I respected him. We worked together, played together, and annoyed each other. When he broached a sensitive subject, it was as a friend, not a stranger or an enemy.
Hank acknowledged both my perspective and my deeper purpose. He never told me I was wrong, but accepted my explanation as right from my point of view. However, because he and I were friends, he was able to know what meant the most to me, where my heart was. He did not accuse me of anything, but appealed to something better in me.
Hank gave me no ultimatum. He presented an idea, and let me make my own conclusion. If I had chosen differently, Hank would have remained my friend. But he left the decision up to me.
You cannot change someone’s mind through accusations, demands and ultimatums. That causes them to dig in their heels, throw up their defenses, and double-down on whatever it is you want them to change.
Racism is an ongoing American sin.
It is multifaceted and complex, nowhere near as simple and straightforward as many of us wish it to be.
Racism is both prevalent and subtle. It is deeply ingrained in our society and culture, so much so that we think of it as normal. When light is shined on our systemized racism, we protect it as the status quo.
That’s why I didn’t want to take down my Confederate flags. I saw them as one thing, even if the world saw them as something else. It’s not my fault that others use this symbol differently than what I intend.
But I can’t be willfully naïve and ignore the message that most of the world receives. No matter what intention I might have in flying that flag, the world will continue to see it as a symbol of hatred and violence. This is not news.
It has been nearly twenty years since that conversation with Hank. In that time, I have had to learn how to listen. I have had to sit through uncomfortable lessons. I have had to acknowledge my own complicity in racism, and I have dug in my heels and refused to acknowledge my failures far too often.
I am still learning. I am still growing. To my shame, I am only now starting to speak out against something I’ve claimed I’m against my whole life.
It has taken a lot for me to accept that my actions, my words, my apathy and my choice of symbols have consequences beyond my intention.
People have had to have patience with me.
It is my intention for my daughters to grow up speaking Southern English just as naturally as me. But it is also my intention to improve their heritage, to raise them to love all people not in word alone but in deed and action.
They will still be Southern even if the only place they see a Confederate flag is in a history book.
In Union There Is Strength I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation. When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside. We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them. James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that “America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a moreforbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law. Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics. Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children. We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our
Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s “better angels,” and listen to them, as we work to unite. Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad. James Mattis
On the morning of Friday, February 28th, Ævar Pálmi Pálmason, a detective with the Reykjavík police department, was summoned by his boss. Iceland did not yet have a confirmed case of COVID-19, but the country’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management wanted to be prepared. Suppose somebody tested positive? A team would be needed to track down everyone with whom that person had been in contact. Pálmason’s supervisor told him he was going to lead that team.
“We were just talking: ‘If and when the first case happens—it could be this week, we just don’t know,’ ” Pálmason recalled. “And then, two hours later, we got the call.” A man who’d recently been skiing in the Dolomites had become the country’s first known coronavirus patient.
Two other cops, two nurses, and a criminologist had been assigned to Pálmason’s team. “With our detective techniques to find people, we began to gather some information from the case,” Pálmason told me. The man, the team learned, had been back in Iceland for several days before he’d been diagnosed. During that time, he’d done all the things people normally do—gone to work, met with colleagues, run errands.
Anyone who’d spent more than fifteen minutes near the man in the days before he’d experienced his first symptoms was considered potentially infected. (“Near” was defined as within a radius of two metres, or just over six feet.) The team came up with a list of fifty-six names. By midnight, all fifty-six contacts had been located and ordered to quarantine themselves for fourteen days.
The first case was followed by three more cases, then by six, and then by an onslaught. By mid-March, confirmed COVID cases in Iceland were increasing at a rate of sixty, seventy, even a hundred a day. As a proportion of the country’s population, this was far faster than the rate at which cases in the United States were growing. The number of people the tracing team was tracking down, meanwhile, was rising even more quickly. An infected person might have been near five other people, or fifty-six, or more. One young woman was so active before she tested positive—going to classes, rehearsing a play, attending choir practice—that her contacts numbered close to two hundred. All were sent into quarantine.
The tracing team, too, kept growing, until it had fifty-two members. They worked in shifts out of conference rooms in a Reykjavík hotel that had closed for lack of tourists. To find people who had been exposed, team members scanned airplane manifests and security-camera footage. They tried to pinpoint who was sitting next to whom on buses and in lecture halls. One man who fell ill had recently attended a concert. The only person he remembered having had contact with while there was his wife. But the tracing team did some sleuthing and found that after the concert there had been a reception.
“In this gathering, people were hugging, and eating from the same trays,” Pálmason told me. “So the decision was made—all of them go into quarantine.” If you were returning to Iceland from overseas, you also got a call: put yourself in quarantine. At the same time, the country was aggressively testing for the virus—on a per-capita basis, at the highest rate in the world.Diners in downtown Reykjavík. Since the onset of the pandemic, only a few types of businesses—night clubs and hair salons, for example—were ever ordered closed.Photograph by Valdimar Thorlacius for The New Yorker
Iceland never imposed a lockdown. Only a few types of businesses—night clubs and hair salons, for example—were ever ordered closed. Hardly anyone in Reykjavík wears a mask. And yet, by mid-May, when I went to talk to Pálmason, the tracing team had almost no one left to track. During the previous week, in all of Iceland, only two new coronavirus cases had been confirmed. The country hadn’t just managed to flatten the curve; it had, it seemed, virtually eliminated it.
I had initially planned to go to Iceland in March, for a story unconnected to the coronavirus. Suddenly, the trip was called off. The European Union was barring Americans from entering, and the United States was barring Europeans. Flights were being cancelled. There didn’t seem any way to resurrect the trip, until it occurred to me: what if I wrote about Iceland’s response to COVID-19?
I looked online and learned that all those entering the country were required to submit a form outlining how they planned to quarantine for two weeks. I applied to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs for an exemption as a journalist. The answer came back: no.
I did some e-mailing and phoning around. Iceland, which has three hundred and sixty-five thousand residents—about half the population of Denver—is a famously tight-knit country. Almost everyone, quite literally, is related to everyone else, and if two people want to know how exactly their families are intertwined they can consult a genealogy database run by an Icelandic biotech firm called deCODE Genetics. Iceland was able to test so many people because, at the height of the outbreak, deCODE turned its state-of-the-art facilities over to screening for the virus. I got in touch with the head of the firm, Kári Stefánsson, a neurologist and a national celebrity. He told me that he would work things out.
A few days later, the no became a yes, with qualifications. I’d have to enter a “modified” quarantine for journalists. The list of rules ran four single-spaced pages and included provisos on how to use—or, really, not use—public rest rooms. It laid out a half-dozen scenarios—“interview of a public figure in a private company setting,” “interview of any person in a private setting out of doors”—with detailed instructions for how each one should be handled. An “interview of a public servant in the workplace” was allowed, but with numerous conditions. (“The director of the public entity must be informed and assent to the interview even if they are not the interviewee. . . . The journalist should not explore the site, even with a guide, but only visit the space designated for the interview.”)
Icelandair had, by this time, suspended service from the United States, except for sporadic flights out of Boston. The day I left, a Saturday, the international terminal at Logan was as solemn and silent as a mausoleum. Not a single ticket desk was open. On the plane, I counted fourteen seats occupied, out of nearly two hundred. I spoke briefly with a woman seated a few rows in front of me. She was going to visit her fiancé, an Icelandic soccer player, and was unhappy that they would be spending the first two weeks of her stay in separate apartments.
The in-flight magazine, which apparently hadn’t been replaced for several months, was filled with pictures of vacationers in the snow. It read like an illuminated manuscript—a relic from another era. One of the crew members told me that he and almost all of his colleagues, including the pilots, had been given three months’ notice; they were working only occasional flights. Despite the generalized gloom, it was thrilling to be going somewhere; for the previous eight weeks, the farthest I’d travelled was to the liquor store.
When we landed at Keflavík, Iceland’s international airport, I faced my first crisis of conscience. Among the many proscribed activities for me, I knew, was shopping. But it was nearly 10 p.m., and Icelandair had cancelled the flight’s meal service. Was I allowed into the duty-free store? I decided that I was. Dinner that night was beer and licorice.
The next day, Stefánsson offered to pick me up at my hotel. (Crisis No. 2: “Even those being interviewed should maintain 2 metres distance from the journalist in quarantine as much as possible.”) As soon as I got into his Porsche, he asked me where I was from. I said western Massachusetts. “Massachusetts is probably the most boring place on earth,” he declared.
Stefánsson, who is seventy-one, is tall and broad-shouldered, with white hair and a white, Hemingwayesque beard. For most of the eighties and nineties, he lived in the U.S., teaching first at the University of Chicago and then at Harvard. He returned to Iceland with the notion of using the country’s small, inbred population to study the connection between disease and genetic variation. This was before the human genome had been fully sequenced, and Stefánsson was sailing into uncharted waters. He founded deCODE, and it grew into a large company, which, like much of the rest of Iceland, went bankrupt following the financial crisis of 2008. DeCODE is now owned by an American biotech company, Amgen; its offices are in a sleek, metal-clad building not far from Reykjavík’s municipal airport. Refrigerated storage rooms in the basement hold blood samples from a hundred and eighty thousand Icelanders—roughly one of every two people in the country.
Stefánsson told me that he’d decided to get involved in COVID-19 research a few days after Iceland’s first case was announced. He was driving to his office one morning when he heard on the radio an estimate of the virus’s fatality rate. “They predicted that 3.4 per cent of those who were infected would die,” Stefánsson recalled. “And I couldn’t understand how they could calculate the death rate, not knowing the distribution of the virus in society. So when I came to work I sat down with my colleagues. And I told them we should offer to screen the general population in Iceland.”
Iceland’s university hospital was already testing people who had symptoms of COVID-19. But by testing people who had no symptoms, or only very mild ones, deCODE picked up many cases that otherwise would have been missed. These cases, too, were referred to the tracing team. By May 17th, Iceland had tested 15.5 per cent of its population for the virus. In the U.S., the figure was 3.4 per cent.
Meanwhile, deCODE was also sequencing the virus from every Icelander whose test had come back positive. As the virus is passed from person to person, it picks up random mutations. By analyzing these, geneticists can map the disease’s spread. At the beginning of the outbreak, travellers returning to Iceland from the Italian Alps seemed to be the primary source of infections. But researchers at deCODE found that, while attention had been focussed on Italy, the virus had been quietly slipping into the country from several other nations, including Britain. Travellers from the West Coast of the U.S. had brought in one strain, and travellers from the East Coast another. The East Coast strain had been imported to America from Italy or Austria, then exported back to Europe.
By sequencing the virus from every person infected, researchers at deCODE could also make inferences about how it had spread. “One of the very interesting things is that, in all our data, there are only two examples where a child infected a parent,” Stefánsson told me. “But there are lots of examples where parents infected children.”
Stefánsson is a frequent critic of the Icelandic government. He often fires off opinion pieces to newspapers, on subjects ranging from the management of fisheries to hospital financing. (A few years ago, he circulated a petition demanding that the government spend more on health care, and a third of the country’s adult population signed it.) At any given moment, he’s almost sure to be wrangling with one ministry or another; in March, when the Icelandic Data Protection Authority said that it couldn’t rule immediately on a request from deCODE, Stefánsson issued a lengthy denunciation on Facebook. But, when I asked Stefánsson about the Icelandic government’s response to COVID-19, he had only kind words.
“This was done in an extremely balanced way,” he said at one point. “And I think the authorities did pretty much everything right.” At another point, he told me, “The remarkable thing in this whole affair is that in Iceland it has been run entirely by the public-health authorities. They came up with the plan, and they just instituted it. And we were fortunate that our politicians managed to control themselves.”
In Reykjavík, I stayed at one of the few hotels that were open, in an Art Deco building not far from the parliament. One evening, upon returning to the hotel, I found a film crew and a jumble of equipment blocking the hallway. In front of the cameras stood two middle-aged men and a woman, all dressed in white terry-cloth bathrobes. Though I’d been in Iceland for only two days, I recognized them. They were the team who had guided Iceland’s response to COVID-19: the country’s director of emergency management, Víðir Reynisson; its chief epidemiologist, Þórólfur Guðnason; and its director of health, Alma Möller.
Reynisson, Guðnason, and Möller worked together out of an improvised COVIDcommand center in the offices of the Icelandic Coast Guard. Through March, April, and much of May, they gave a joint briefing every day at 2 P.M., at which they discussed, matter-of-factly, what they knew and what they didn’t. Sometimes they invited guests, such as a psychologist who spoke about how to talk to kids about the pandemic. On occasion, they warned about misinformation—for instance, the potentially fatal consequences of attempting to fight the virus by drinking bleach. Three-quarters of Icelanders tuned in at some point. Reynisson, Guðnason, and Möller became so well known that they were referred to simply as the “trio,” or the “tripod,” or, as one person put it to me, the “holy trinity.”
Video From The New Yorker
That evening, the holy trinity had put on bathrobes to attempt another miraculous rescue. About forty per cent of Iceland’s export revenue comes from tourism. To make up for all the Americans and English and Germans who would be staying home because of COVID-19, the government had commissioned a commercial to encourage Icelanders to travel domestically over the summer. Reynisson, Guðnason, and Möller went into separate rooms—Reynisson on one side of the hall, the two others on the opposite side. At the count of þrír, tveir, einn, they were supposed to open their doors, bedroom-farce style. Then Reynisson was to look into the camera and deliver the punch line: “We’ll come along, just in case.” (Each time he did so, the camera crew cracked up; I had to assume it was funnier in Icelandic.) As one take followed another, I tried to picture the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci; the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield; and the White House coronavirus-response coördinator, Deborah Birx, in terry cloth.
As it happened, I had an appointment the next morning to speak to Möller. She was back in her own office, in a sleek glass tower by the harbor. The first thing she said when I sat down was “I’m so sorry. I knew from early February that the U.S. would be in great trouble.” Möller is an intensive-care physician by training; in 1990, she became the first woman to serve as a helicopter doctor with Iceland’s Coast Guard. The job entailed such tasks as being lowered in a harness onto fishing boats in the North Atlantic to treat sick crew members. In 2018, she became the country’s first female director of health.
Möller pulled up a series of graphs and charts on her laptop. These showed that, per capita, Iceland had had more COVID-19 cases than any other Scandinavian country, and more than even Italy or Britain. There was an outbreak in a nursing home in the town of Bolungarvík, in northwestern Iceland, and one in the Westman Islands, an archipelago off the southern coast, which seemed to have started at a handball game. (In Europe, handball is a team sport that’s sort of a cross between basketball and soccer.)
“The numbers in the beginning were terrible,” Möller said. She attributed the country’s success in bringing the caseload down in part to having got an early start. The “trio,” along with officials from Iceland’s university hospital, had begun meeting back in January. “We saw what was going on in China,” she recalled. “We saw the pictures of people lying dead in emergency departments, even on the street. So it was obvious that something terrible was happening. And, of course, we didn’t know if it would spread to other countries. But we didn’t dare take the chance. So we started preparing.” For example, it was discovered that the country didn’t have enough protective gear for its health-care workers, so hospital officials immediately set about buying more.
Meanwhile, Möller began assembling a “backup” team. “You know, everybody knows everyone in Iceland,” she said. “And so I rang up the president of the Icelandic Medical Association and the head of the nurses’ association.” Doctors who had recently retired, nurses who had gone on to other jobs—all were urged to sign up. When new cases started to be diagnosed in a great rush, the backup team, along with doctors whose offices had been shut by the pandemic, counselled people over the phone. “If you were seventy, if you had high blood pressure, you got called every day,” Möller told me. “But, if you were young and healthy, maybe twice a week. And I’m sure that this led to fewer hospital admittances and even to fewer intensive-care admittances.”
This, in turn, appears to have cut down on fatalities. Iceland’s death rate from COVID-19 is one out of every one hundred and eighty confirmed cases, or just 0.56 per cent—one of the lowest in the world. The figure is so low that it raised some doubts. Möller’s department decided to look into how many Icelanders had perished for any reason since the outbreak began. It turned out that over-all mortality in Iceland had actually gone down since the coronavirus had arrived.
I asked Möller about masks. In Massachusetts, an executive order issued by the governor requires that masks be worn by anyone entering a store, taking a cab, or using public transit, and violators can be fined up to three hundred dollars. In Iceland, masks aren’t even part of the public conversation. Möller said that wearing one might be advisable for a person who is sick and coughing, but that person shouldn’t be walking around in public anyway. “We think they don’t add much and they can give a false sense of security,” she said. “Also, masks work for some time, and then they get wet, and they don’t work anymore.”
Möller was careful not to suggest that Iceland had beaten the virus. She seemed almost embarrassed by the idea of claiming credit for herself, for the trio, or for Iceland. The furthest she would go, when pressed, was to say, “We are a nation that’s used to catastrophes. We deal with avalanches, earthquakes, eruptions, and so on.” Among the slides she showed me about the country’s experience with COVID was one labelled “Success?”
Iceland was one of the last (more or less) habitable places on earth to be settled by humans, sometime toward the end of the ninth century. Genetic analysis performed by deCODE shows that the island’s original inhabitants were mainly men from Norway and women from the British Isles. (It seems likely that the women were seized by the Vikings and brought along by force.)
For centuries, hardly anyone from anywhere else bothered to travel to Iceland; it just didn’t seem worth the effort. Isolation, combined with low population density, tended to keep out epidemics—the island was, for example, spared the Black Death. But, when disease did slip in, the effects on a population that lacked immunity could be devastating. In 1707, an Icelander contracted smallpox during a trip to Copenhagen. He died on his way home and was buried at sea. His clothes continued on to the town of Eyrarbakki, on the island’s southern coast, sparking an outbreak that, by 1709, had killed about a quarter of the country.
Today, Iceland is still far from anywhere. Its nearest neighbor, Greenland, is mostly ice, and the capital city of Nuuk is almost nine hundred miles away. But jets and cruise ships have turned Reykjavík into a bucket-list destination; last year, almost two million foreign tourists visited, four times the number that visited just a decade ago. Iceland’s first COVID casualty was, perhaps not surprisingly, a vacationer. The man, whose name was not released, was Australian. He died on March 16th, shortly after arriving at a medical clinic in Húsavík, a small town on the northern coast known for whale-watching. His widow, who also tested positive, was ordered into isolation, a development that prompted an outpouring of sympathy from Icelanders. A woman named Rakel Jónsdóttir set up a Facebook group, With Love from Us, so that people could post messages to her; more than ten thousand people joined. “You may not see us, you may not know us, but we all think of you and have you in our hearts,” Jónsdóttir wrote.
Icelanders, too, are big travellers: in 2018, more than eighty per cent of them vacationed abroad. I spoke to several people in Reykjavík who’d brought the virus home from overseas. One was Börkur Arnarson, an art dealer. I went to speak to him at his gallery, i8, which was closed to the public at the time. (Rule 4b: “Only those being interviewed should have direct interaction with the journalist.”)
Arnarson, who represents, among others, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, had been in New York, attending the Armory Show, at the beginning of March. After the show ended, he’d gone to a crowded party where finger food was served. “I’m not a news guy,” he told me. “But I knew what was going on here in Iceland, and I knew what was going on in Europe. And I was struck by how New Yorkers were so confident. They didn’t believe it was going to happen, or, if it was going to happen, somehow it was going to be O.K.”
Arnarson started to feel crappy almost as soon as he got home. His daughter signed the family up for COVID tests that were being offered by deCODE; when his came back positive, Arnarson went into isolation in a studio loaned to him by an artist friend. Every day, someone on the team of nurses and doctors phoned him. “They asked, ‘How are you doing? What are your symptoms? Are you getting all the help you need?’ ” he recalled. “And that was really amazing. It was so comforting, knowing that they were doing this.” He was given a number to call in case of an emergency: “I don’t think they were getting many calls, because they were so proactive.” While he was in isolation, his wife and his daughter, who’d originally tested negative for the virus, came down with it. They received the same treatment. None of them ended up going to the hospital or to a clinic.
Arnarson spent nearly six weeks on his own; with his family in isolation, he couldn’t go home once he’d recovered. During that time, along with the rest of Iceland, he watched the trio daily at 2 P.M. “The three of them—the policeman, the doctor, and the epidemiologist—they’re such heroes,” Arnarson said. “They were just calmingly talking to the people, with just the facts and just the basics. There were no politics and no politicians in the way.”Young people waiting in line outside Laugardalslaug on the eve of its reopening.Photograph by Valdimar Thorlacius for The New Yorker
At the height of the outbreak, Iceland’s government imposed a ban on gatherings of more than twenty people. It also closed high schools and universities. (Primary schools and day-care centers remained open, on a limited schedule.) The restrictions started to ease up in early May. By the time I arrived, the schools had reopened, the limit on gatherings had been raised to fifty, and people were again getting their hair cut. Across from where I was staying, the building that once housed Iceland’s state telephone company was being converted into a hotel. Every day, I woke to the clang of construction.
In the absence of tourists, though, many businesses in Reykjavík remained shuttered. One day, I took a walk down Laugavegur, the city’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue. Spúútnik, a used-clothing store, was open, as was Swimwear & Bikini, a bathing-suit shop. But Óðinn, a store stocked with troll dolls and assorted other “Icelandic memorabilia,” was “closed until further notice.” So was Iceland Memories, a souvenir shop called Thor, and another souvenir store called idontspeakicelandic. I stopped by a shop that was stuffed with puffin figurines and model Viking ships. (This was an admitted violation of Scenario 5; by this point, though, I’d been tested for the virus myself, and the result had come back negative.) It was empty except for two women working there.
“We have no tourists and we are a tourist shop,” one of them said, when I asked about business. She hunched her shoulders together: “Normally, we are so crowded you cannot walk.”
Having effectively eliminated the virus—the week I was there, only one new case was confirmed—Iceland now finds itself in a position at once enviable and awkward. Obviously, the fewer people who enter the country, the less likely a new outbreak. But no visitors means empty hotels, unsold trolls, and thousands upon thousands of lost jobs. (Icelandair may require a government bailout; well before the virus hit, it was losing money.)
Even as I was struggling to abide by the rules of my modified quarantine, longingly eying the coffee bars and the public rest rooms, Icelandic authorities were considering how to reopen the border. On May 12th, the country’s Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, announced a plan to let visitors into the country by mid-June. Under the plan, foreigners arriving at Keflavík would be presented with three options. They could show a certificate confirming a recent negative COVID-19 test, be screened for the virus, or go into quarantine. Who would perform the screening, and how this would all work, was left unspecified.
The day after Jakobsdóttir’s announcement, I was talking to Kári Stefánsson about it when he asked, “Do you want to talk to the Prime Minister?” I said sure. He called her press secretary, who didn’t answer, so he dialled Jakobsdóttir directly. She picked up.
Jakobsdóttir, who is forty-four, is a member of the Left-Green Movement. She became Prime Minister in 2017, at a particularly turbulent moment in Icelandic politics: two governments had collapsed in quick succession, one owing to a scandal involving a sex offender, the other to a scandal involving offshore assets. She works out of a handsome building known as the Cabinet House, which was erected in the late eighteenth century as a prison.
As I was ushered into her office, she told me that she had agreed to see me mostly because it was easier than arguing with Stefánsson. I asked her why she thought Iceland had done so much better at dealing with COVID-19 than so many other countries. “We were following the news from China very closely,” she said. “So we started our preparations long before the first case tested positive here in Iceland. And it was very clear from the beginning that this was something that should be led by experts—by scientific and medical experts.” She went on, “And the experts, they were very humble. They were saying, ‘We really don’t know everything about this virus.’ And I think one of the strengths of the process is that we just said, ‘Well, we don’t know what is going to happen next.’ ”
Jakobsdóttir praised the work of the contact-tracing team, which had compelled one of her three sons to go into quarantine. (Her husband took him to a summer house for two weeks.) I asked about the plan to reopen the border. She noted that all the countries in Europe were struggling with this issue.
“We think we are taking a really cautious step, by saying we are going to start this experiment, where people can choose between a test or quarantine,” she said. “If it works well, it might become the arrangement, at least for the next few months. It won’t save the tourism sector in Iceland this year. We are very much aware of that. But we need somehow to insure that people can come and leave the island, and we need to do it without putting too much pressure on the health-care system. So it’s a delicate balance.”
That evening, the weather was clear and cool—by New York standards, too cool to eat outside, by Reykjavík standards balmy. The outdoor cafés were crowded. Restaurants had been asked to arrange their tables to keep groups two metres apart, but some diners, I noticed, had pushed the tables closer together. Everyone was talking and laughing, masklessly. The scene was completely ordinary, which is to say now exotic—just people meeting up with friends for dinner. For a traveller these days, this might be an even better draw, I thought, than glaciers or whale-watching. ♦
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