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What Happened: December 22, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Harvard prof Lieber found guilty of charges stemming from involvement with the Wuhan University of Technology; student loan payment moratorium extended to May; American hostages freed by Haitian gang

The Scroll
December 22, 2021

The Big Story

During a White House address yesterday, President Biden promised that Americans would soon receive 500 million COVID-19 tests. That promise of at-home rapid tests, which would provide less than two kits per American, comes two weeks after Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki was widely criticized for mocking an NPR reporter’s question about why the United States hasn’t followed the lead of other nations and made tests more readily available. “I don’t think anyone anticipated this was going to be as rapid spreading,” Biden said about testing-kit availability during his address. “All of a sudden, it was like everybody rushed to the counter—it was a big, big rush.” The administration’s push to use tests to help deter the spread of the virus comes as widespread shortages and runs on pharmacies have led to hours-long lines at testing facilities. Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens all announced this week that they now limit how many tests can be purchased online and in stores.

Meanwhile, businesses with more than 100 employees remain uncertain if they will be forced to vaccinate or test their employees because the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for January still faces legal challenges, and some states have begun to implement their own workplace rules. Business leaders have expressed frustration at the muddled policy rollout, while business organizations report that workplaces have had difficulty stocking an adequate supply of testing kits as they prepare for various regulatory contingencies. Some public health officials have been critical of the Biden administration’s confusing and at times contradictory messaging, as all of this insistence on tests might come too late to make a difference after the Omicron variant surges across the nation during the holiday season. To what extent the Omicron variant leads to more severe infections remains to be seen. A new study released by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases found that over the past two months in South Africa, those infected with the new variant have been 80% less likely to be hospitalized, though it’s not clear if the lower rate is because of the virulence of the variant or because the population had achieved a higher degree of immunity due to a mix of vaccinations and previous infections.

Read more:

Today’s Back Pages: Your Weekend Reads

The Rest

→ The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research will soon announce its development of a vaccine effective against all existing strains of the COVID-19 versus, according to a new report from Defense One yesterday. That vaccine is the result of nearly two years of research to develop a shot that could handle a wide variety of potential variants, including those that have yet to emerge. “We decided to take a look at the long game rather than just only focusing on the original emergence of SARS, and instead understand that viruses mutate,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, Walter Reed’s director of infectious disease research.

→This week the Department of Labor ruled that it would investigate claims about illegal workplace surveillance made by a project manager fired by Apple this September. Ashley Gjovik submitted several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against Apple because of its workplace policies, including allegations that Apple surveils its employees in a way that stymies them from discussing workplace conditions. Gjovik cited the company’s internal handbook policy, which says it can search employees’ personal devices for the purpose of protecting Apple’s “confidential and sensitive information.”

→Harvard professor Charles Lieber was found guilty yesterday of tax fraud and making false statements to law enforcement about money he’d received from the Chinese government. Lieber faced six charges stemming from his decade-long involvement with the Wuhan University of Technology, a collaboration that fell under the auspices of China’s Thousand Talents, a state program that spends lavish sums of money to court leading academics such as Lieber, who is a well-known researcher in nanoscience. The case is one of at least two dozen the Justice Department has recently pursued as it seeks to combat efforts by the Chinese government to recruit academics for what investigators fear could be part of a Chinese espionage effort. Though Chinese funding of American researchers is legal, academics have come under scrutiny for their failure to disclose the source of the funding while they also seek grants from U.S. government agencies. After Lieber received several hundred thousand dollars, he told the FBI that he’d partnered with the Chinese laboratory because he wanted to promote his research to a larger audience and enhance his chance to win worldwide recognition. “I want to be recognized for what I’ve done,” Lieber said to investigators. “Every scientist wants to win a Nobel Prize.”

→The last remaining 12 American and Canadian hostages were released last week by the Port-au-Prince gang in Haiti that had abducted the original group of 17 missionaries two months prior. The hostage standoff had been a small but persistent foreign crisis for the Biden administration. Soon after the missionaries were taken hostage, the FBI dispatched agents to Haiti to help facilitate negotiations with their captors. It remains unclear if the gang’s demands of $1 million per hostage were met before the final hostages were released. Some 800 people have been kidnapped in Haiti this year alone, according to Rep. Andy Levin, who heads the House Haiti Caucus. The island nation has plunged into violent chaos since the assassination of its president this July, with several rival gangs feuding for territory

Thousands of federal inmates who have been released and confined to their homes during the pandemic will no longer be forced to return to prison. That decision, announced yesterday by the Justice Department, comes after intense lobbying by advocacy groups that inmates who were taken out of prison populations since March of last year get to remain free. The temporary release of inmates was part of an attempt by prison authorities to reduce crowding and transmission of the novel coronavirus during the pandemic. The announcement was hailed as a victory by several civil rights groups that had been campaigning against the Justice Department’s January decision to recall prisoners to corrections facilities. Advocates argued that many of the released prisoners have found gainful employment, avoided further legal trouble, and become reintegrated with family members.

→Stat of the Day: In May of last year, the cost of vaccinating the world’s population was estimated to cost $25 billion. Congress has so far dispensed with $6 trillion to combat the effects of the pandemic.

→Nicholas Kristof’s ongoing campaign for governor of Oregon continues to demonstrate the value of surrounding yourself with people who will discourage you from pursuing terrible ideas. The New York Times columnist left his perch on the opinion page masthead, released a cringe-worthy campaign video, and hired the expensive law firm Perkins Coie to write up a lengthy legal memo responding to criticisms that Kristof’s candidacy isn’t legally valid. As of last November, Kristof voted in New York elections as a resident of that state. A month later, Kristof registered to become a voter in Oregon, the state where he grew up and owns another home. But that new registration comes less than three years before the gubernatorial election, which might invalidate the resident requirement for candidates. In a bizarre testament to Kristof’s legitimacy, the Perkins Coie memo includes a long list of Kristof’s hobbies and business ventures: “He manages a farm and an agricultural business here. He has hiked the entire length of Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail … [He’s] backpacked around Mount Hood, eaten at Mo’s in Lincoln City, and grieved the loss of family members and friends as part of a community here.” The memo adds that Kristof had once brought his family dog to live in Oregon so that his daughter could take the pet to compete in Oregon dog shows.

→Struggling to generate good publicity, the Biden administration announced today that it would extend the moratorium on collecting student debt payments until at least May of next year. After campaigning on his ability to stop the pandemic, and a continual chain of missteps both foreign (Afghanistan) and domestic (Build Back Better), Biden has seen his approval ratings plummet. The moratorium extends a pandemic relief bill passed last summer that paused payments and running interest for some 40 million borrowers.

→Dear Scroll Readers: The newsletter will be off Thursday and Friday of this week and next week as we take the time to prepare for some changes and upgrades that we’re excited to unveil in the new year. More on all that soon—and, as always, thank you for reading.

The Back Pages

backpages Your Weekend Reads

→There’s a bipartisan consensus building around what ultimately amounts to a degrowth agenda. In a new piece for The Bellows, Jonathan Culbreath argues that these left and right factions form “a mirror-ideology of degrowth” that continues “a long trend of neoliberalization and globalization” that can be traced back to the Great Recession, if not earlier.

Degrowth and population control—often advocated by left-leaning proponents of “socialism”—have been best put into practice by the capitalist elite and their political puppets who govern the country. The stagnation of domestic manufacturing in the U.S. during the neoliberal era (exacerbated during the long period of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic) might be described as its own form of degrowth. The decline of population growth that has attended it is nothing short of a political experiment in population management.

The left wing of the neoliberal elite typically justifies this experiment by appealing to environmental justice—fewer people, after all, means a smaller impact on the environment. The U.S. Agency for International Development has long provided taxpayer funded “family planning and reproductive health programs” to foreign countries worldwide, with the explicit intention of “[mitigating] the impact of population dynamics on natural resources and state stability.” Billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates have likewise promoted the use of birth control technologies as a tool of population management, particularly in Africa, but disguised in the veil of humanitarian jargon. The Malthusian undertones of such commitments are difficult to ignore.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the right-wing elite has sought to avoid an increase in population size by tightening controls on immigration, and—while doing little to promote domestic economic growth—cutting taxes on corporations and imposing tariffs on Chinese imports.

→It’s practically a human instinct to categorize people, to apply labels for the purpose of dividing one group from another. It’s been a driving force behind the growing identitarian movement, a political project that attempts to overhaul how we categorize each other for the purported purpose of universal freedoms. We are also, of course, prone to apply labels to ourselves, a ritual that has become all the more confusing for adolescents who struggle to find a natural path toward self-understanding when so much social interaction is funneled through technology platforms.

Though from 2006, this provocative essay by Ian Hacking in the London Review of Books takes a look at the history of human codification and examines the justifications and impulses to apply labels in a process he describes as “making up people.”

I have long been interested in classifications of people, in how they affect the people classified, and how the effects on the people in turn change the classifications. We think of many kinds of people as objects of scientific inquiry. Sometimes to control them, as prostitutes, sometimes to help them, as potential suicides. Sometimes to organize and help, but at the same time keep ourselves safe, as the poor or the homeless. Sometimes to change them for their own good and the good of the public, as the obese. Sometimes just to admire, to understand, to encourage and perhaps even to emulate, as (sometimes) geniuses. We think of these kinds of people as definite classes defined by definite properties. As we get to know more about these properties, we will be able to control, help, change, or emulate them better. But it’s not quite like that. They are moving targets because our investigations interact with them, and change them. And since they are changed, they are not quite the same kind of people as before. The target has moved. I call this the “looping effect.” Sometimes, our sciences create kinds of people that in a certain sense did not exist before. I call this “making up people.”

→On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man, critic Ted Gioia makes the case that Macdonald, the most talented midcentury crime writer, was very much a novelist under the spell of Freud. In the piece, Gioia shares a statement Macdonald made about the father of psychoanalysis (“He made myth into psychiatry, and I’ve been trying to turn it back into myth again in my own small way”) and unpacks the implications of Macdonald’s Freudian influence on his approach to hard-boiled storytelling toward the end of his career.

Many small details that, at first glance, seem unimportant—the watering of lawns, say, or the spread of a brush fire—will appear charged with symbolic resonance upon further consideration.

Yet Macdonald takes a huge risk here. He is a specialist in crime fiction, but the significance of the crimes shrinks the further you go into The Underground Man. This would present a challenge to any mystery writer, but especially so to an author trying to carry on the hard-boiled tradition that flourished from the late 1920s into the 1960s. Some readers probably put aside The Underground Man, published in 1971, with dissatisfaction, seeing it as an arteriosclerotic detective story lacking the animal spirits necessary to keep the genre vibrant. Did this book represent the moment when the hard-boiled story went soft? Had private eyes lost their mojo by the end of the Nixon era?

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