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What Happened: December 13, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Tornado, Public Education, The Rising Right and Left

The Scroll
December 13, 2021

The Big Story

An unusual cluster of at least 38 tornados killed more than 80 people Friday night and leveled towns across six states in the Midwest and the South. Authorities expect the death toll to climb significantly as recovery efforts continue today. The tornados themselves were also atypical in that most tornados don’t often occur in the colder winter season in the Midwest, and because one of the more severe tornados traveled over some 220 miles of ground across four states. The distance covered by the so-called quad-state tornado is potentially the longest distance a tornado has been recorded traveling in the United States, where fewer than 1% of the nation’s tornados travel “long-track” paths of 100 miles. Kentucky and Illinois were particularly hard hit by the quad-state tornado. In those states, a candle factory and Amazon warehouse, both filled with holiday-season workers, suffered severe damage and extensive casualties. “You could smell the aroma of candles, and you could hear the cries of people for help. Candle smells and all the sirens is not something I ever expected to experience at the same time,” a pastor at the Kentucky factory told the Associated Press.

Today’s Back Pages: The Rising Right and Left

The Rest

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown continued to decline discussions with local media on Friday after renewed questions about her signing of a bill that suspends high school requirements of math and reading proficiency for students to receive a diploma. Though Brown signed the bill in July, the ratification of the bill was only made public recently, according to The Oregonian. Unusual circumstances around the bill abound: The governor held no signing ceremony, and her office did not distribute a press release. The bill wasn’t entered into the state’s legislative database until two weeks after it had been signed, and no notice was distributed to those who’d requested updates. Advocates for the bill have defended the suspension of skills testing, saying that new requirements for reading and math shouldn’t be installed until at least the class of 2027 enters high school. The governor’s chief of staff said in a statement that this minimum five-year period allows the state enough time to develop graduation standards to benefit “Oregon’s Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.” Thus far, no bills expanding education opportunities for minorities or students of color have been proposed by the governor’s office.

→While Oregon tempers the burden of skills achievement for its graduating high schoolers, other public schools across the nation are attempting to assuage educators’ concerns about their own well-being by reducing the number of hours and days they’ll teach students in person. Despite the overwhelming evidence that virtual instruction leads to dramatically substandard outcomes for students compared to in-class teaching, educators, administrators, and teacher’s unions say staff burnout and mental health problems during the pandemic have necessitated more time off for teachers to recover. Detroit surprised its students’ parents in November when it announced that its schools would be all virtual on Fridays for the month of December and that there would be a classroom shutdown and no virtual instruction for the week before Thanksgiving. In Virginia, Suffolk public schools have shortened the school day every other Wednesday. “We want our teachers to be fresh, to be energized, to be in a better spot,” said Rick Briggs, an official in Maryland’s Wicomico County school district, where now seven full days of school on the academic calendar have been turned into half-days to reduce teacher burnout.

→A Starbucks near Buffalo became the first of 9,000 locations owned by the coffee chain to unionize, though few expect the effort to realize significant changes at the 50-year-old company. The union drive was aimed at three stores, one of which was still tallying votes this afternoon and one of which voted against unionizing. The local effort nonetheless drew intense attention from Starbucks executives, who spent several months lobbying workers at those chains to resist unionization.

→More than 100 migrant workers were said to be victims of a human-trafficking labor network across several Georgia counties, according to a federal indictment unsealed last week. Some two dozen conspirators face extensive charges for allegedly trafficking migrant workers from Central America to farms and workers camps in Georgia, where—sometimes under threat of gun violence—the migrants were forced to harvest vegetables in unsafe conditions, one worker was raped, and two workers died. The investigation, dubbed Operation Blooming Onion by the several federal and state agencies that took part in it, discovered that workers were sold and traded across the network and apparently forced to turn over passports and legal documents, and they lived in trailers leaking with raw sewage and surrounded by electric fences. The criminal ring made more than $200 million from the various illegal schemes.

→A Hong Kong court handed down sentences to eight defendants today for their involvement in a vigil last June to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre, a gathering the city police deemed illegal because of health risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Sentences between six months and two years were given out to key members of a now-defunct pro-democracy alliance in Hong Kong, as well as to Jimmy Lai, the publisher of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy tabloid that ceased publication last summer after law enforcement raided its office and arrested members of its staff.

→The West Side Story remake by Steven Spielberg finished with the top spot at the box office this weekend. But the $10 million debut made a small dent into the blockbuster’s $100 million budget. The poor turnout at theaters is part of an ongoing trend during the pandemic, with movie houses seeing tepid attendance and streaming platforms increasingly becoming the default distribution point for consumers to see new movies. The musical revamp was released exclusively in theaters at the request of Spielberg, who, despite signing a new deal with Netflix this summer, has been critical of streaming platform debuts that undermine the in-theater film experience.

→While the labor force in general will grow about 5% over the next decade, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cohort of workers who are 75 are older is expected to grow by more than 96% over that same period. That surge in the elder working population is driven in part by low average Social Security retirement benefits and also because almost half of American families lack any kind of savings for retirement: More than 15 million people aged 65 or older have incomes 200% below the poverty line.

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→A longtime professor and physicist researcher won an unfair dismissal case against University of Exeter, after administrators fired her for interactions with two graduate students at the university. Dr. Annette Plaut argued that she was unfairly targeted because she was a woman and discriminated against because of her Eastern European heritage, which Plaut said meant that she was “naturally loud, her body language was demonstrative, and her conversational style was naturally argumentative,” according to The Guardian. In siding with Dr. Plaut, the tribunal overseeing the dispute wrote in its decision that “senior management had decided that Dr. Plaut would not be tolerated further. The good things she had done over the years were given no weight.”

The Back Pages

backpages The Rising Right and Left

A recent New York Times column from Ross Douthat on the so-called new right makes the case that a rising generation of reactionary conservatives are particularly relevant to the current political moment (and potentially the concern of today’s voters) because of their focus on a set of problems that have arisen in the years since 9/11:

[In the United States], the threat to liberty from Silicon Valley monopolies enforcing progressive orthodoxy and the threat to human happiness from the addictive nature of social media, online pornography and online life in general. The collapse of birthrates, the dissolution of institutional religion and the decline of bourgeois normalcy, manifest in the younger generation’s failure to mate, to marry, raise families. The post-1960s “great stagnation” in both living standards and technological innovation. The costs of cultural libertarianism, the increase in unhappiness and high rates of depression and addiction in a more individualistic society.

Then finally, the way in which the technocratic response to the pandemic, the retreat to a virtual life suited only to a “laptop class” (and maybe not even to them), may make these problems worse.

Douthat is correct to point out that some of the new right’s critics, or what he sees as the more progressive flank of liberal democrats, devote more of their energy to problems that have been on the shelf for several decades—a broader, more robust social welfare system, for example, and what Douthat describes as “the deconstruction of white male Christian heteronormativity for woke progressivism.” But there’s a narrowness, too, in Douthat’s application of this catch-all description to the new right’s opponents. Indeed, the existential crisis Douthat sees on the right is in fact quite real for both sides of the aisle, and the new factions share a good deal of concern about the same set of problems—crime and drug addiction, income inequality, and high rates of depression—if not the same ways to fix them.

If there are two core common beliefs of these small but growing flanks, it’s first a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s own obsession with identity politics as a solution to many of these more modern issues. And second, there’s a shared belief by both sides that any real political progress requires the dismantling of the sclerotic institutional parties from which both flanks originate.

To what extent a complete overhaul is possible for either party will be determined in no small part in the upcoming midterm elections, when races such as the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania feature a showdown on the Democratic ticket that illuminates the lack of party coherence and a growing anti-establishment sentiment that continues to chip away at the priorities of the party leadership. As the so-called centrist democrat, Conor Lamb has been critical of his party’s advocacy to defund the police and other various identitarian policies that “are unworkable and extremely unpopular.” As the so-called far-left candidate and Pennsylvania’s current lieutenant governor, John Fetterman has mixed a Bernie-style class populism with an advocacy for the working-class Pennsylvania towns that are afflicted by lost livelihoods and the drug overdose crisis and don’t see much of themselves in the Democratic appeals to their laptop-class constituents. To solve the problems afflicting these voters right now, Fetterman has been touting not very green New Deal things such as natural gas fracking, which he sees as necessary to bring desperately needed jobs to struggling post-industrial Pennsylvania cities. That the leading Democratic candidates in a key swing state sound increasingly unlike the party they represent points to the growing dissatisfaction we’re likely to observe nationwide come next November.

Send your tips, comments, questions, and suggestions to [email protected].

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

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