Serena Williams reacts after a point during her 2022 US Open Tennis tournament. (Kena Betancur via Getty Images)

TGIF: The Queen of the Court and the Princess of Montecito

Serena surges. Meghan chats it up. Plus: Biden's speech, Sarah Palin's loss, Blake Masters's pivot, and much more.

Joyeux Vendredi, everyone! Welcome to the second installment of the Nellie Bowles Sorry Surrogate Parade. Last week, Nick Gillespie set such a high bar that I’m not even going to try to match it. So consider this a limbo stick under which I am bending over backward while hoping not to fall on my tush. (And, in fact, Nick will be back next week, so you can think of this as a limbo sandwich . . . or something.) 

In case you’re wondering who is speaking to you right now, hello: I’m Meghan Daum. I’m the author of a few books (most recently “The Problem with Everything”), and I host two podcasts, a weekly interview podcast called The Unspeakable, and A Special Place In Hell, which I co-host with Sarah Haider. Also, I live in Southern California with a highly weather-inappropriate Newfoundland dog. Please don’t call the ASPCA.

Before we get into it, a quick recap of Back to School Week at Common Sense:

Maya Sulkin, our summer intern, kicked off the week with some advice to incoming freshmen. (As far as we know, it’s the first CS piece on a college curriculum: a course called “Courage to Know” at Boston College.) Blake Flayton wrote about how the rise in antisemitism on campus has young Jews calling it quits on America—including him. Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Tim Scott debated Biden’s student debt plan. And a former dean offered up an honest handbook for undergrads. (Hint: not everything is trauma.) 

On Honestly, Suzy Weiss investigated the years-long legal battle between Oberlin College and Gibson’s Bakery, while Lorna Gibson—the fourth generation to run the bakery—asked whether her family would ever see the $36 million they are owed by the school. Don’t miss either.

And now, to the news of note. Which is to say the news I noticed.

→ A “battle for the soul of this nation”: President Biden yesterday evening decamped to Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, to give a 24-minute speech in which he declared: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.” Biden went on: “MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.” (American carnage, anyone?) On the one hand, we can chalk up all the late Weimar-ish speechifying to, well, American politics circa 2022. On the other, it’s a really scary ratcheting up of emotions and pyrotechnics that will, no doubt, exacerbate the already polarized electorate.

→ Biden drops the f-bomb: Last night’s speech came on the heels of Biden’s portrayal of MAGA-land as “semi-fascist.” Speaking to Democratic donors in Maryland last week, the president of the United States declared that we’re witnessing the rise of “semi-fascism” in the United States. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called on President Joe Biden to apologize: “When the President speaks tonight at Independence Hall, the first lines out of his mouth should be to apologize for slandering tens of millions of Americans as ‘fascists,’” the Republican said. Didn’t quite work out that way.

→ Republicans are starting to sweat: And not just because it’s 5,000 degrees across a large swath of the country. The latest tracking shows support for Democrats surging, thanks to factors like the unpopularity of the Dobbs decision and the former president’s absolute refusal to exit stage right.

Even in Alaska, the GOP may be on melting ice. On Wednesday, Sarah Palin’s attempt at a political comeback fell apart. She took a surprise loss in a special election to fill a House seat for the remainder of the year. The winner is Democrat Mary Peltola, who flips the seat and becomes the first Democrat to hold it in nearly 50 years. She’s also the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. (The race was Alaska’s first state-wide ranked-choice voting—a system that eliminates the lowest-ranked candidate if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote. It’s a policy that political independents like Andrew Yang have been pushing for a while.)

GOP donors are bigly pissed at Trump. It looks increasingly likely that Trump will face a DOJ indictment. The Mar-a-Lago nothingburger—“closer to a bookkeeping issue than a national security threat,” according to Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the lead Republican on the House Intelligence Committee—may turn into red meat for the Democrats. It seemed at first that the FBI search would redound to Trump’s benefit. Now, not so much. Even Trump ally Newt Gingrich has urged GOP candidates to focus on bashing Biden rather than defending Trump, and someone described as a “top Republican fundraiser” was quoted in multiple outlets conveying donors’ “enormous frustration” over Trump’s behavior.

→ And here comes the pivot: In many competitive districts, some Trump-endorsed candidates are now scrubbing their websites not just of any mention of the former president, but also of references to hard-line positions on issues like abortion. Exhibit A: Blake Masters, the Peter Thiel-backed venture capitalist and rookie politician. Masters is the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, and has, in the past, likened the Roe decision to genocide. He has also called abortion rights  “demonic” and “human sacrifice.” But in recent weeks, various statements on abortion, including his support for a federal personhood law, have gone missing from his website. (A person close to the candidate explained that the site is a “living document” that Masters edits himself.)

In a digital campaign video released last week, Masters pivoted so hard he’s going to need a chiropractic adjustment. Sitting with his small children in what appears either to be the sun-drenched playroom of a stylish post-and-beam house or a liberal’s fantasy of a government-funded Scandinavian daycare center, Masters held a Star Wars TIE Fighter and called for “common sense regulation around abortion.” One reason for his new, softer persona could be because he’s polling eight points behind Democratic Senator Mark Kelly. 

Third World, U.S.A.: If you live in Jackson, Mississippi, make sure to shower with your mouth closed. That’s the latest public service announcement from local officials confronting a failed water-treatment facility. On Thursday, Jackson, a city of 150,000, began its fourth day with little to no potable running water; people are waiting in lines for bottled water so they can safely brush their teeth. The chief culprit here, we’re told by The Washington Post and other pillars of the legacy media universe, is climate change with a side order of structural racism. We wonder if decades of mismanagement, corruption, or poverty has something to do with it.

→ Chaos in Portland, OR: This city cannot catch a break. Last weekend, there were nine shootings. Eight of them happened on Sunday during illegal street racing takeovers, in which crowds blocked intersections and people were seen carrying flamethrowers. Elsewhere in the city, six people were shot in the last week, including one man who was killed while dumpster diving. There were 788 shootings in Portland as of July 31 of this year. That’s 67 more than last year. And it’s 415 more than in 2020 during the same time frame. (Read more here.)

Thank God it’s Friday! If you look forward to TGIF every week, please become a subscriber today:

→ The lost years: National test results released Thursday from the National Assessment of Educational Progress paint a bleak picture when it comes to reading and math levels among nine-year-olds. They dropped to the lowest level in two decades. The decline was seen at nearly every race and income level, with the lowest performing students being hit the hardest. Just add algebra to the list of things American schoolchildren have lost out on since the pandemic. 

→ Biden administration v. Fauci parody account: Last week, Mark Zuckerberg told Joe Rogan that, at the behest of the F.B.I., Facebook shadow-banned the Hunter Biden laptop story. Now it appears that the company also leapt to delete a Fauci parody account from Instagram at the request of the White House.

In another era, civil libertarians would have been all over this. Instead, I’ll look forward to more ACLU tweets about pronouns.

We interrupt this guest post to drop a guest post from Common Sense writer Peter Savodnik about the death of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev . . .

→ Mikhail Gorbachev, RIP: The last Soviet premier—the man who rose to power hoping to reform the old system and wound up presiding over its collapse—died on Tuesday at the age of 91 in a hospital in Moscow. 

He was not loved in Russia. In a 2017 survey, Joseph Stalin, who imprisoned or murdered tens of millions of Soviet citizens, outpolled Gorbachev. Russians thought he was vain or weak, a puppet who cared more about good press in Washington, D.C., and London and Paris than his own people.

Nor was Gorbachev's vision widely understood in the West, where Gorbymania obscured a more complicated reality. (See, for example, his 1992 American tour, which included stops at Trump Tower and the New York Stock Exchange, a triumphant trip to Capitol Hill, a private dinner with President George H.W. Bush, and a star-studded visit to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.)

He should have forced a long overdue national conversation about the Soviet past à la Germany's opening up of the Stasi archives, or the Czech Republic's policy of lustration, which barred members of the old secret police, among others, from joining the post-communist government. He should have kept the fawning West at arm's length. He should have been tougher with the hard-liners. 

But all that is mostly beside the point. The most important thing about Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was that he grasped that there was something deeply immoral and backward and broken about the Soviet Union, and that it had to be fixed. And he grasped that fixing it might mean sacrificing not only power and money—he's reported to have cut that 1997 Pizza Hut ad because he needed the cash—but his legacy as well. He knew they wouldn't be naming any cities after him when he left the Kremlin. 

(It’s unsurprising that Gorbachev will be buried next to his wife, Raisa, at Novodevichy Cemetery, in Moscow; other Soviet leaders are buried in the Kremlin Wall. Nor will Gorbachev get an official state funeral. Nor will Vladimir Putin be attending the funeral he does get.) 

We live in an era in which Gorbachev's providential sense of purpose is vanishingly rare. Our leaders are not simply self-seeking. The things they seek are so paltry. They obsess over their audience, their brand, how much money this or that Netflix deal might bring in.

Gorbachev is a complex figure, but, on this one, all-important count, he got it 100-percent right, and he was unwilling to bend, and we should celebrate that. – PS

Okay, it’s me, Meghan, again and I’m about to segue like a pro . . .

→ Americans are dying younger: Vigorous Russian leaders like Gorbachev may be living to 91, but Americans are dying younger and younger. That’s the depressing headline from the National Center for Health Statistics, which reported that the average American can now expect to live to age 76, which is three years younger than the average life expectancy in 2019, and the sharpest decline in nearly a century. The blame cannot be placed solely on Covid: The data found that while the pandemic has played a large role, drug overdoses, accidental deaths and chronic liver and heart disease are all meaningful factors. Suicides are up, too.

While black Americans still have a shorter life expectancy than whites, the rate of decline among whites was higher. But the most depressing news by far is that poverty, lack of access to health care and high rates of diabetes and obesity have brought life expectancy for Native Americans and Alaska Natives to just 65, which was the average for all Americans in 1944.

I have nothing clever or funny to say about that, so I will now shift to the most delicious news of my week . . .

→ Queen Meghan I of Montecito. Ah, Meghan Markle, my favorite podcasting duchess. Markle, who got a $25 million podcast deal from Spotify nearly two years ago, finally figured out how to use Zencastr and got the show up and running this past week. It’s called Archetypes and Meghan promises that the show will “dissect, explore, and subvert the labels that try to hold women back.” In the pilot, Markle went deep with Serena Williams about that hateful adjective “ambitious” and it only got rawer and realer from there. Williams revealed that she consulted the Duke and Duchess of Sussex before deciding to retire from tennis. (Megxit, meet Serexit). In turn, Markle compared herself to Nelson Mandela. 

The second episode was an interview with Mariah Carey about the word “diva.”  When Markle said the diva persona was “not something I connect to,” Carey playfully pointed out that Markle could be kind of a diva sometimes, hastening to add that Markle wouldn’t get so much hate if she weren’t so beautiful and fabulous and didn’t have “such gorgeous ensembles.” My jaw was on the floor. 

Speaking as yet another Meghan with not one but two podcasts, I’m going to offer Markle a little sisterly advice. Whether or not you’re a diva now, you won’t be for long because, let me tell you, podcasting is humbling. If you’re not dealing with technical problems because your MacBook settings aren’t right, you have to contend with your neighbor using a circular saw outside your window when you’re trying to record. Or the UPS guy ringing the doorbell and making the dog bark just as your guest is about to come out as Satoshi Nakamoto. Go easy on yourself. You’ll get the hang of it. And maaaaaybe consider some guests that aren’t moguls. Excuse the archetype. 

→ Serena’s Swan Song: After 27 years on the court, Serena has decided to hang up her racket . . . but only after she tries for one more U.S. Open victory. The 40-year-old beat Danka Kovinić, then Anett Kontaveit—it’s no fun to play against the crowd favorite—and is set to play Australian Ajla Tomljanovic today.  

→ How about the TERF Archetype? This week, LibsofTikTok’s proprietor Chaya Raichik continued her ongoing detective work. Posing as a mother seeking a gender affirming hysterectomy for her 16-year-old daughter, Raichik phoned the Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. and captured audio of two different hospital employees saying that their their specialized gynecologic care program for children has provided “gender-affirming hysterectomies” for kids that age and younger. It was not clear that Raichik was talking to employees who were expressing official policy, and the hospital denied doing the procedure for kids that young.

I’m not the biggest fan of Libs of TikTok. Her taste for low-hanging, woke fruit too often makes the account a neighborhood watch patrol for self-parodic social justice excesses. But you’ve got to hand it to Raichik: She’s doing the work actual reporters should be doing by picking up the phone and asking questions. We know from the reporting of Suzy Weiss and others, that teens as young as 15 are getting double mastectomies. Abigail Shrier wrote in these pages about the genital surgery done on Jazz Jennings at age 17.  

The mainstream press should be taking an interest in what is actually happening at children's hospitals too.

Under any other circumstances, the discovery that the healthy body parts of even a tiny handful of children were being intentionally removed by world class medical institutions would be non-stop national news. But the forcefield of denial and magical thinking around trans issues makes it so the removal of healthy organs is actually life-saving surgery performed by doctors carrying the banner of the next civil-rights movement. The media, of course, plays along or pretends there’s nothing to report here. 

After the Children’s National Hospital story blew up last weekend, NPR was more interested in anti-trans threats against hospitals than in looking into what was actually going on. A since-deleted statement on CNH’s website indicating that gender affirming hysterectomy was available to patients “between the ages of 0-21” was charitably waved off by The Washington Post as “an error that has been corrected.” Yes, well, mistakes happen. 

→ A tiny bit of good news out of scorching California: Yesterday the state legislature voted overwhelmingly to save Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. In a state that’s warning of rolling blackouts—and is demanding that by 2035 all new vehicles sold here be powered by electricity or hydrogen—this is a bright spot.

→ Men’s Health sex columnist declares straightness a “fetish”: Remember the good ole days when sexuality was something to be ashamed about? Well, those days are right now. According to the sex-advice column in Men’s Health, being solely into “vulva-owners”—don’t shoot the messenger— is technically a “fetish” (no different than loving blondes or feet or whatever else) that is also potentially “offensive.” 

What to do with this problematic urge to only bed members of a certain sex. Our 21st-century Ann Landers tells us to make it crystal clear, on your dating profile, that you’re only interested in “people with a vulva.” And then, have another totally normal, not at all bizarre conversation about whether you’d like to see them solely for fetishization purposes or if you’d actually like to spend time with the person attached to the genitals. Either way, totally cool!.

Friends, do not do this. 

(Thanks to friend of the newsletter, Jesse Singal for pointing this one out.)

→ Pass the chronic: Regular cannabis use now outpaces cigarette smoking in the U.S., according to a new Gallup poll. Of the American adults surveyed, 16 percent said they currently smoke marijuana and half said they’d tried it in their lifetime. Only 11 percent reported smoking cigarettes regularly. When the question was asked in a 1969 survey, 40 percent of respondents said they’d smoke cigarettes that same week whereas only four percent said they’d ever tried marijuana. It’s worth noting that 1969 was the year President Nixon enacted Operation Intercept, which all but shut down U.S.-Mexico border crossings (for less than a month) in an attempt to curtail Mexican marijuana from coming into the country. This led to a weed shortage that then drove people to use harder drugs. 

→ RIP, Trapper Keeper: Gen X-ers mourn the loss of E. Bryant Crutchfield, inventor of the iconic Trapper Keeper notebook. Trying to explain to younger generations the appeal of this item is a lost cause. Technically, it was a chunky plastic organizer, with slots for your papers and a datebook, but it was so, so, much more. 

It was our analogue version of an avatar—we decorated them with stickers and doodles and photos. Plus it could fit a calculator! Remember those? 

Despite the fact that school supplies have been all but killed (or consolidated) by tech, I hope there are at least a few students—pen freaks and notebook hounds, the light in me honors the light in you—who are reveling in their back-to-school loot. 

That’s all for now.  Have a wonderful weekend. And if you’re in California, I hope you’re somewhere with strong AC.

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