Hello, and welcome back to TGIF! I'm Kat Rosenfield: culture writer, novelist, podcast co-host, and now two-time pinch-hitter for Nellie Bowles, a.k.a. the greatest honor of my life. What's even left for me after this? Nothing, that's what. Time to hang it all up and become a goat farmer.
What a week at Common Sense! Reuel Marc Gerecht confronted the Biden administration's dogged pursuit of a nuclear deal with the oppressive Iranian regime whose abuse of women is currently making international headlines. Lisa Selin Davis investigated the scandal surrounding the new WPATH guidelines for treating transgender children, which seem designed mostly to protect doctors from being sued by regretful patients.
Also: Walter Kirn explained why A.I. can never produce real art; Liam Collins and John Spencer outlined the path to victory in Ukraine; and on Honestly, Kmele Foster, John McWhorter and Glenn Loury discussed race abolition and the so-called “Racial Reckoning” of 2020.
And now, the news.
→ This Is Fine: Mortgage rates surged to a 15-year high of 6.7% this week, while the S&P 500 plunged to its lowest level since 2020. Thank God we have the Inflation Reduction Act (which, uh, won't reduce inflation).
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre assured reporters last Friday that the stock market is "just one measure of the economy," adding that "it’s also important to look at what’s happening on Main Street.”
Meanwhile, on Main Street…
→ Stormy Weather: Hurricane Ian arrived in Florida on Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, flooding the streets with seawater, detritus, and at least one very confused visitor.
Because nothing, not even the weather, is safe from being made into a political issue, the take-havers had takes. CNN's Don Lemon gamely attempted to blame the storm on climate change, while lefty podcaster Rachel Vindman tweeted, “We should use they/them pronouns for Hurricane Ian to annoy DeSantis.” (Vindman later deleted the tweet—not because it was offensive to the Floridians who lost their homes and lives to the storm, but because of the harm done to the trans community by the invocation of non-gendered weather events.)
With due respect to land sharks and pronoun jokes, a sobering bit of news: The hurricane already has a death toll "in the hundreds" per the Lee County Sheriff.
→ I See Dead People: President Biden appeared to look around for Representative Jackie Walorski during his speech Wednesday at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, & Health, asking, "Where's Jackie? Jackie, are you here?"
Unfortunately, Jackie Walorski was not there, because she was killed in a car accident early last month.
Instead of acknowledging the President's mistake, the White House insists that no, the President did not forget his colleague had died. Instead, he was just asking if she was in the room because he was honoring her incredible work and because she was “top of mind.”
→ We Have Always Been Friends with North Korea: In a truly incredible hold my beer moment, Joe Biden searching the audience for a deceased colleague was not the most horrifying oratory flub to come out of the White House this week. That honor went to Kamala Harris in her Thursday remarks after her appearance at the demilitarized zone: "The United States shares a very important relationship," she said, "which is an alliance with the Republic of North Korea."
Notice to the White House intern: Let’s switch out the decaf and get the executive branch back swinging, or at least only calling out for alive people and not making truces with sworn enemies of the state.
→ Italians Rallyin': Giorgia Meloni, the newly elected prime minister of Italy, went viral this week after her remarks from a 2019 speech at the World Congress of Families in Verona surfaced on Twitter. Not since Roberto Benigni vowed to make passionate Jupiterian love to the entire audience at the 1999 Academy Awards has a speech by an overwrought Italian gotten so much attention from the American chattering class.
The aforementioned nervousness about Meloni isn't just due to her ability to bring a crowd to its feet; her win in Italy is part of a rising tide of populist sentiment in Europe. There, the years-long migration crisis and pandemic-related economic struggles have combined with anxieties over the war in Ukraine to give right-wing politicians a boost. Sweden, which is experiencing similar issues, just saw a major election win for the far-right Sweden Democrats, which are now the second-largest party in the next parliament.
For mainstream American commentators, the main point of debate seems to be whether or not Meloni is a fascist. (For much of this crowd, everything and everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders is a fascist.) Here’s what we know: Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy, is a sort of nephew-thrice-removed of Italy's original fascist party. But as Yascha Mounk at The Atlantic points out, Meloni has disavowed fascism (“fascism is history,” she has said) and suspended members of the party who praise it. So declaring her the second coming of Mussolini would be, at the very least, premature.
→ Pure Heroine: Iran is nearing the end of its second week of protests after the death of 22 year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of its morality police, and the anger shows no signs of abating despite a furious crackdown by authorities. It’s impossible to trust official numbers from Iran, but at least 76 people have been killed and more than 1,000 arrested by police since the protests began hours after Amini died on September 16. (Videos circulating on social media purport to show police firing live ammunition at protestors.)
Unlike previous uprisings in Iran, this one is making serious inroads into mainstream American discourse, including an appearance on Good Morning America by the Iranian activist and journalist Masih Alinejad, who cut her hair live on air in solidarity with protestors:
As Common Sense contributor Reuel Marc Gerecht noted this week, this can't be comfortable for President Biden, who's been trying to strike a deal with the same dictator upon whom the protestors are very vocally wishing death. (Catch Masih Alinejad Friday night on Real Time with Bill Maher.)
→ Revenge of the Nords: The Nord Stream pipeline, which carries Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea to the EU, is leaking like an overripe tomato wrapped up in a pair of mesh underpants. A new leak in the pipeline was found Thursday, bringing the total to four. NATO says the leaks are the result of deliberate sabotage, and while nobody is saying that Russia definitely did it, Russia is not only already denying that it did it, but accusing the U.S. of having done it.
The pipeline had recently been shut down—ostensibly for maintenance, although the ongoing tensions between Russia and the rest of Europe make it difficult to know for sure., But having it out of commission indefinitely is still bad news for Europe, which is staring down a serious energy shortage with winter on the way.
→ Biden’s Takesies Backsies: Six Republican-led states announced yesterday they are suing the Biden administration over its estimated $400 billion student debt-cancellation plan. A statement released by Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson’s office called the plan “economically unwise” and said the president does not have the power “to unilaterally relieve millions of individuals from their obligation to pay loans they voluntarily assumed.”
All of which may explain why the Biden administration—also on Thursday, mid-afternoon East Coast time—quietly scaled back its debt-cancellation plan: about four million borrowers have commercially held loans, and, until less than 24 hours ago, they were eligible for one-time debt relief. Not anymore! As of yesterday, these former students are out of luck. Did that have anything to do with the lawsuit? NPR notes that one of the states that’s suing, Missouri, is home to the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (known as MOHELA), which services billions in student loans and will be affected by the new student debt-cancellation plan.
→ Berkeley Law Bans Pro-Israel Jews: Nine different affinity groups at Berkeley’s law school—including the Women of Berkeley Law and the Queer Caucus—have promised not to invite any Zionists to speak on campus, by which they mean the vast majority of Jews, according to Gallup.
The move is hardly a surprise given the school’s track record, but it is yet another sign of a deeply troubling development on American campuses. Progressive groups seem to be moving past their focus on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which purported to only hold their institutions to anti-Israel standards, and instead are just targeting specific people (three guesses who this affects most!) for their identity.
This is happening on the East Coast, too. Two Jewish students at SUNY New Paltz lodged a federal complaint alleging that the school failed to address antisemitism on campus last year. When a professor at CUNY's Kingsborough Community College likewise complained of Jew hate on campus, the administration assigned a former director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations—yes, the organization with leaders allegedly connected to Hamas– to investigate. She was later taken off the case.
→ What Draft? Did I Say ‘Draft’? Vladimir Putin concedes that, okay, maybe, just maybe, Russia didn’t need to draft so many soldiers to fight its highly unpopular war with Ukraine. Like old men and fathers of three or more kids. This comes on the heels of a nationwide panic over the army’s announcement that it was conscripting an additional 300,000 troops. The president, it should be noted, did not take responsibility for any mistakes. In a videoconference with his Security Council, he said: “Those who were called up without proper reason should be returned home.” Always the passive voice.
This comes at the same moment that Russia has decided to annex some of the territory it has occupied in Ukraine—even as Ukraine pushes on with its successful counteroffensive. “If you want to live, run,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday in his daily address, in Russian.
→ The Alex Jones Saga Continues: This sordid story will never end. Here we are, weeks into the second defamation trial brought by the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook mass shooting against Infowars Don Alex Jones. Jones claimed for years on his show that the shooting was a hoax so that the government could take away guns, and that its victims were crisis actors. In a heated exchange last week between Jones and one of the Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ lawyers, Jones lashed out, “Is this a struggle session? Are we in China?” He added, “I’ve already said I’m sorry, and I’m done saying I’m sorry.”
This trial is to determine how much Jones owes the plaintiffs—eight parents, and one F.B.I agent—in damages. A jury this summer in Texas ordered Jones to pay another victim’s parents $49.3 million.
→ Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists: New York Times reporter Michael Powell blew the lid off the infuriating cancellation of a documentary filmmaker after critics objected to her film, The UnRedacted (formerly titled Jihad Rehab) on identitarian grounds.
Here’s what happened: Meg Smaker made a documentary about Arab Muslim men at a rehabilitation center in Saudi Arabia for accused terrorists despite being neither Arab, Muslim, nor terrorist herself. The film was denounced in an open letter signed by more than 230 filmmakers—most of whom had not actually seen it. By all accounts from those who have, it's a deeply sensitive and nuanced portrait of its subjects, and many of the criticisms to the contrary are flat-out lies.
While stories like this are increasingly common, the piece showcased some exceptionally slimy behavior by Abigail Disney, who executive produced the movie but then disavowed it after criticisms started to swirl. One gem from the groveling apology letter from Abigail: “I should have pushed back on the idea that the protagonists consented to appear in the film. A person cannot freely consent to anything in a carceral system, particularly one in a notoriously violent dictatorship.” (You should read the whole thing.)
Hopefully the attention drawn by the NYT allows Smaker's film to get the distribution it deserves.
→ Now It Can Be Said, Menstrual Edition: Last year, amid the first rollout of Covid vaccines, many women reported experiencing menstrual side effects from the shot. At the time, they were painted on social media and in the press as a bunch of crazy, science-deniers who were just useful idiots for anti-vax conspiracy theorists. It turns out that a study has concluded that the vaccines do, in fact, mess with your period, which is surely information that it should never have taken this long to confirm.
For insight into how the menstrual side effects of the vaccine went unnoted, I called my friend Dr. Elizabeth Comen, an oncologist specializing in breast cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering. The problem, apparently, is that it never occurred to researchers to track them.
“No one thought that menstruation was a key data point during the vaccine trials,” Dr. Comen says. “Nobody thought to ask if it impacted a woman's menstrual cycle and it led to a lot of distrust in the medical system, because they weren't thinking about something that women really care about.”
→ Lock Her Up: New York Times reporter and White House correspondent Maggie Haberman has released her new book, Confidence Man, about Trump, leading to perhaps the greatest documented instance of shoot-the-messenger syndrome of all time:
The idea that Haberman could have single-handedly seen Trump put in jail and/or shot into space from a high-powered cannon, if only she'd been more forthcoming, seems like extremely wishful thinking. The supposedly damning admissions he made to her are things he said pretty much all the time, to everyone . . . unless it's a felony to mistake a group of diverse congressional staffers for cater waiters.
→ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: After two years of low-grade fearmongering about Covid-tainted Candy Corn, we were really due for a good old-fashioned Halloween-based moral panic. And now, here it is: rainbow fentanyl! The DEA issued a warning last month that cartels are distributing candy-colored fentanyl pills to target young people, causing a certain subset of politicians to meltdown over the prospect of trick-or-treating kiddies chowing down on opioids disguised as SweeTARTS.
I'll leave this one with the libertarians of Reason, whose expert dutifully pointed out that “few [children] would survive to come back for more,” making fentanyl-as-Halloween-candy not just an evil idea but also a poor business strategy.
→ Literary Friction: PEN America has released an ominous report about the scourge of American book banning, which they generously define as any incident “where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”
Let me be the first to say that I am anti-book ban. I like books! I write books! And yet, the way that PEN has chosen to frame this issue leaves much to be desired. What's on the banned list? Books whose inclusion in school libraries or on classroom reading lists has been challenged by conservative groups (they seem to have a particular jones for Moms for Liberty.)
What's not on the list? All the books—hundreds of them—which are “weeded” (as in, removed) every year by librarians eager to “decolonize” their collections. If every administrative decision that denies kids access to certain books is a ban, then certainly the latter category deserves to be part of this story, too—as do the blanket bans of some of the most significant works in the African-American canon by well-meaning liberals who think censorship is the best way to do anti-racism.
→ This One Time at Band Camp: Lest you thought the Floridian street shark was the most bonkers video out there this week, here's Lizzo twerking while playing an antique crystal flute that belonged to President James Madison. Not sure how they'll ever top this, unless someone wants to dig up the corpse of President William Howard Taft and make it booty-clap.
→ Please rise for the national anthem: Artis Leon Ivey Jr., better known as Coolio, died Wednesday at the age of 59. May he rest in gangsta's paradise.