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What Happened: August 12, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Israel’s COVID-19 spike; U.S. evacuates Kabul; Amanda Knox interview

The Scroll
August 12, 2021

The Big Story

Israeli officials warn that the country is on track to reach a new record of 4,800 COVID-19 hospitalizations by September 10—half of them serious cases. Israel is already dealing with a significant Delta variant coronavirus spike. Data released Wednesday by the country’s Health Ministry shows that there were 405 serious COVID-19 cases on Wednesday—the highest one-day figure reported since last March. Officials are anticipating that the current high will accelerate, with cases doubling every 10 days until September 10. Significantly, the data also shows that more than half—250 out of the 405 total current patients—were so-called “breakthrough cases” in which people who were already fully vaccinated became infected with the virus. In Israel, more than 600,000 people over the age of 60 have already received a third COVID-19 vaccine booster shot. The government, which has allocated $773 million to fund a booster-shot initiative in hospitals, is planning to start offering the doses to younger age groups. Medical professionals point out that infections spreading among previously vaccinated people do not mean that the vaccines offer no protection, only that they offer imperfect protection. “We are preparing for a significant increase in the number of severe patients,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday. “Our goal is to double the capacity of the healthcare system.”

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Today’s Back Pages: The Amanda Knox Interview Part I

The Rest

➥ Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city and once an enclave of relative peace and prosperity on the country’s border with Iran, fell to the Taliban Thursday. The rapid Taliban takeover in this initial offensive does not, however, mean that the majority Pashtun Islamist group will have an easy time pacifiying the city. Herat’s Tajik majority under local leader Ismail Khan is likely biding its time before mounting a more concerted long-term campaign to take control back from the Taliban. When the dust settles after the U.S. withdrawal and the current Taliban offensive, Afghanistan’s future is a protracted civil war fought on a regional rather than national level. Resistance to the Taliban won’t be led by the Afghan national army, which mostly exists only on paper, but by local, ethnically defined forces like the Tajiks in Herat.
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➥ U.S. military forces were deployed Thursday to begin evacuating U.S. embassy personnel in Kabul as the Taliban encroaches on the Afghan capital. Currently some 5,000 Americans, both civilians and military, are located in or near the embassy.

➥ The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s claim that the Delta variant is “as transmissible” as chicken pox is bogus, according to a report from National Public Radio. The strain of the novel coronavirus is still highly transmissible, according to NPR, but not on the order of chicken pox, which is one of the most infectious viruses in existence.
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➥ California is now the first state to require teachers to get vaccinated or submit to regular COVID-19 testing. California Governor Gavin Newsom, the target of a competitive recall election, said that the measure aims “to give parents confidence that their children are safe as schools return to full, in-person learning.” Organized labor has resisted vaccine mandates in other states, including New York, but both of California’s teachers unions backed the measure.

➥ The Biden administration, in an effort led by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, is pushing the oil-producing OPEC+ countries, which cut output by some 10 million barrels a day last year during the coronavirus pandemic, to increase production. Sullivan urged OPEC to boost production yesterday in an effort to bring down gas prices and boost the U.S. economy. The average national price for gas was $3.185 per gallon yesterday, up from $2.174 at the same time last year.

➥ In related news, prices on gas and other staple products continue to climb in the United States. New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the consumer price index was up by 5.4% in July from the same time last year. Even though wages for U.S. workers are also climbing in a strong labor market, workers’ spending power isn’t keeping up with inflation.

➥ A two-part article at RealClearInvestigations documents how racial doctrines promoted by equity activists have taken over journals of academic medicine and other elite institutions in the healthcare field. In February, an article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine alleged that “modern American medicine has historical roots in scientific racism and eugenics movements.” Another recent example of medical practice becoming subordinate to activist politics: A Minneapolis healthcare provider removed a Filipino gynecologist as chair of the OB/GYN department because she criticized Black Lives Matter and How to Be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi on her personal Facebook account and argued for race-neutral medical care at her institution.
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➥ Leading cryptocurrency and financial services company Circle plans to become a fully standardized commercial bank regulated by the federal government. The plan was announced in a blog post by the company’s CEO, who wrote that “[e]stablishing national regulatory standards for dollar digital currencies is crucial to enabling the potential of digital currencies in the real economy.” While the reality of a crypto bank is still a long way off, this puts cryptocurrency on the path to merging with established financial institutions instead of continually threatening their existence. 

The Back Pages:

backpageInterview with Amanda Knox Part I

On July 29, Amanda Knox published a thread on Twitter criticizing the new Matt Damon movie Stillwater for profiting off her name. Both Damon and Stillwater director Tom McCarthy said the movie was inspired by Knox’s life—by which they meant the years in her early twenties when Knox was imprisoned in Italy after being convicted of a murder for which she was later acquitted and fully exonerated by the Italian Supreme Court. “Does my name belong to me? My face? What about my life? My story?” Knox asked in the first of a long thread of tweets that called attention to how “others continue to profit off my name, face, & story without my consent.” 

A few days after that thread and a subsequent article Knox published expanding on the points it raised, I spoke with her and her husband and creative partner, Christopher Robinson. (Robinson co-wrote the excellent novel War of the Encyclopedists with my friend Gavin Kovite.) Together Knox and Robinson host a podcast called Labyrinths, which you can find here.

The following is an edited and abridged version of the first part of our interview. The second part of the interview will appear in Monday’s Scroll.

How did you first find out that this movie supposedly based on your life was being made?

AK: I first heard about it when the trailer came out and was being promoted. So like any random person in the world would find out about the film Stillwater. 

You had no clue about it before then?

AK: None whatsoever, and that’s an ongoing part of all of this. I feel like I’m Dracula, in the sense that everyone gets to have their own sort of spin on it, and I’m just a character. I’m not a real person. There is no legal requirement that Matt Damon or Tom McCarthy should inform me in any way that they’re going to be making a film inspired by my story, or that they’re going to be using my name to promote that story. But the fact that it didn’t even occur to them to reach out and inform me is the fundamental problem.

I don’t think that they’re bad guys who are sitting there cackling in the background going, “Hey, how can we take advantage of this young woman who went through this horrible thing?” I think they’re thinking, “Oh, I heard about this thing awhile ago, here. I am sort of putting my own spin on it, and now I’m putting it out into the world,” and it just never occurred to them that I could want to be informed of that, that it might dredge up some things for me, or that it might have reputational costs for me. It’s this ongoing reminder that I’m not a real person in a lot of people’s minds, even when they are inspired by what happened to me.

It’s an ongoing issue in our culture and in the culture of Hollywood, where there is this sense that the real-life stories that we use as source material for our own storytelling are so distant and far away that those people aren’t even approachable in our own minds. And it’s like, honey, I am very approachable. I’m a very outspoken person talking about how narratives are usurped and distorted and misappropriated. If anything, I am one of the most approachable people about this issue.

CR: It’s also telling that she’s not hard to find or hard to locate. And, indeed, when Malcolm Gladwell’s book was about to come out, it was very easy for him to find her contact information to ask permission to use excerpts from her audiobook in his audiobook, but it didn’t occur to him to talk to her while forming his conclusions about who she is as a person. [Gladwell’s 2019 book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, devotes a chapter to Knox’s case.] 

What I found compelling about your response to Stillwater is that it’s as much an aesthetic criticism as it is a personal criticism. You weren’t just saying, “Hey, this is unfair to me,” you were pointing out something about how the movie succeeds or fails as a piece of art that claims to be based on a true story but is actually based on the mythology of a tabloid crime story.

AK: If Tom McCarthy had taken my story and been like, “You know what, this story is really interesting—a father is trying to save his daughter as she’s going through some sort of legal drama abroad … ” There’s a lot of interesting nuts you can grind in this storytelling technique. The problem is that he didn’t really let his imagination go wild. He just sort of rehashed the same idea, which is a young girl in some kind of sexual relationship with her roommate and then is indirectly or directly responsible for her roommate’s death. That’s a story that’s been reiterated over and over. And it’s one that is the driving force of the reputational costs that I deal with today, because people just assume that even if she’s technically innocent, she is indirectly or directly responsible for this person’s death and is probably sexually deviant in some way and is sexually involved in some way. So it’s not like they went very far in fictionalizing. In fact, they just entrenched themselves more in the false narrative that I’m constantly trying to combat—because it just keeps getting reiterated over and over again.

CR: You know, there’s a real story of Amanda’s dad—not Matt Damon tracking down a guy and walking in the basement or whatever happens in the film—but like the actual version of a father helpless while his daughter is stuck in an Italian prison. That’s a crazy story that actually hasn’t been told and maybe in a lot of ways is a lot more compelling than the fictionalized Hollywood version where it involves the father having to go track down the killer.

AK: Which isn’t to say that every telling of my story has to be a biopic. That’s not what I’m saying. But we’re talking about, Is it inspired by the real story? Or is it inspired by the mythology? Is it dealing in clichés and scandal-mongering? Or is it dealing in real human drama?

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel and Park MacDougald.