I’ve been swamped with trying to keep up with the Russian war on Ukraine—you can read all of my analyses since the start of the war here—but I thought I would send along some quick comments on two of the most important stories this week.
The first is the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion about overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. I am not going to trudge through the politics of the leak; I have no idea who did it, and I could just as easily imagine it was a liberal clerk trying to alarm the nation as it was a conservative clerk who wanted to defuse a possible electoral time bomb by getting the news out early and buffering the shock.
In general, I hate ever commenting on abortion. As my Atlantic colleague Caitlin Flanagan wrote in 2019, no one’s mind is ever changed, and the strongest arguments on both sides are morally agonizing. I believe abortion should stay legal, and the reality, no matter what I or Samuel Alito thinks or wants, is that abortion is not going to end in America or anywhere else.
It will just become costlier and more dangerous.
This is to me the salient point because I learned, after my mother passed away more than 20 years ago, that she nearly died from an illegal abortion in the late 1950s.
I have not written in detail about this before now, and I am not sure I ever will. I will say this much: The impact of my mother’s abortion, both psychological and physical, stayed with her for the rest of her life, and I cannot imagine returning to the nightmare in which abortions still take place but more women die. All I know is that I wouldn’t have wanted anyone but my mother making those decisions for her. She suffered enough in a life that was full of hardship from her earliest childhood without having to explain herself to legislators who couldn’t have cared less whether she lived or died.
What happened to my mother makes me recoil from the tribal sloganeering and screaming and moralizing and finger-pointing that passes for “debate” in America, and I dread the social warfare that Alito and others are so eager to inflict on our country. The American right has long relied on abortion to rile up voters, and I inherently distrust its motives, as I wrote in my book Our Own Worst Enemy:
The unfocused rage at the culture, at the elites, or at some other culprit is not just a distraction; it provides a wellspring of political energy that savvy operators exploit by affixing it to hot button moral issues. An anti-abortion activist in Kansas, for example, admitted as much bluntly to Thomas Frank in the late 1990s: “You can’t stir the general public up to get out to work for a candidate on taxes or the economy. People today are busy. But you can get people who are concerned about the moral decline in our nation. Upset enough to where you can motivate them on the abortion issue, those type of things.”
Yes, “those types of things” are easy to weaponize, especially if you don’t care about what happens after you win the votes. Opportunistic Republican legislators must now deliver on promises many of them thought they’d probably never have to keep. But today’s GOP is all about staying in power by inflaming social divisions, and nothing will stick it to those urban libs like punishing poor women in red states.
Speaking of lib owning: Hillbilly success story turned MAGA troll J. D. Vance finally got his wish—or, probably more accurate to say, Peter Thiel’s wish—and will likely become a U.S. senator after winning the GOP primary in Ohio. Regular readers of The Atlantic know that I have a particular distaste for Vance—I called him a word that begins with A and ends with hole—because I detest his betrayal of his own people. As a son of the working class myself, I find Vance’s turn from educated Never Trumper to Trump sycophant nauseating.
This is a man who, after all, once described Trump as “cultural heroin” and even compared him to Hitler. His campaign was bereft of substance or issues, but that was the right play, because what Ohio Republicans really wanted to know was who Donald Trump was going to endorse. (So much for the “Trump is not in control of the GOP” narratives.) As Charlie Sykes pointed out, Vance knew that no one really gave a damn about anything else:
Vance studied the Trumpified GOP electorate and figured that his transparent phoniness and opportunism wouldn’t be held against him.
He was right.
He turned himself into a troll spewing cartoonish bigotry on demand … He tightly hugged the most extreme MAGA types, campaigning with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and eagerly accepting the endorsement of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., even defending her appearance at a white nationalist conference.
Of course, the execrable Josh Mandel tried all this as well, but as Charlie notes, Vance did not shy away from racing Mandel to the bottom on everything from racism to the January 6 insurrection. Mandel would have been no better than Vance; he seems very much like the kid you hated going right back to grade school, the ultra-ambitious weenie who would say or do anything to get elected to something. Mandel ran by trying to harvest the dumbest and worst voters, gibbering away in a torrent of inane and idiotic public statements that rendered him unfit even to walk through the doors of the Russell Building, much less have an office there as a senator.
Ohio Republicans had other choices, and they didn’t take them. So unless the rest of Ohio rallies around Democrat Tim Ryan, one of the Buckeye State’s Senate seats will be held for at least six long years by a shallow and shameless authoritarian wallowing in money he earned as the most elite of the elites, who will shovel lies and prolefeed into the Fox News machine while laughing at the gullible marks who elected him.
And you wonder why I’m focused on nuclear war with Russia? Some days, it’s less depressing.
And now a few letters from the mailbag.
First, the good news. When I railed about the deluge of pharmaceutical ads on television, almost all of you were overwhelmingly supportive. Yes, I got one or two letters from people who were associated in some way with pharmaceutical research who tried the “We’re just helping people learn about stuff” argument, but it was nice to see how many people were sick of being pummeled by discussions about our skin, hearts, colons, and, uh, bent carrots.
A few of you noted my comments about depression. Sarah G., whose family has struggled with this issue, said: “I worry about people experiencing very real, very unpleasant side-effects from drugs that are promising to turn our lives into sunshine, rainbows, and endless pool parties. Some people will be helped; others may find that they are worse off than they were before.”
Amen to that. Treatment for depression was a life-changer for me, but it’s not as simple as just taking some pills.
Several doctors weighed in, of course. Mark C. wrote: “I’m a retired pediatrician, and I used to get annoyed at the dumb and misleading drug ads in the medical journals, long before TV drug ads. Yes, I do miss the days when the most offensive drug ad on TV was ‘Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself!’”
One alert reader noticed that I see some of these things on late-night television, watching old reruns; I’ll visit those shows in a post here at some point. Yes, John K., you can catch Mannix on MeTV at 2 a.m. Eastern. (Speaking of my mother, she loved Mannix. I would watch it with her as a kid, and though it’s a better show than you might remember, sometimes I watch it just to think of her. You should, however, ignore Mannix's wardrobe choices after Season Two.)
That’s the good news. The bad news is that when I wrote about mask mandates in 2022 being just another form of security theater—much like taking our shoes off in airports—most of you disagreed. There were a few folks who cheered the end of mandates, but some of you were pretty mad at me. Some readers even canceled subscriptions with extreme prejudice.
Jonathan R., a retired internist, said that it was “truly moronic to dismiss mask wearing on planes as safety theater,” but added, “that is what the unsubscribe option is for.” Barry G. was a bit angrier: “I unsubscribed from your newsletter because I realized your expertise is built in [sic] the same ideological base as Trump’s and Biden’s and Hitler’s.”
Others among you were firm but respectful. Kathryn N. made a point with which I agree: “Governments, to be effective, may have to stoop to tailoring their message or legislation to appeal to ‘the lowest common denominator.’” That’s true, but I suspect the travel mandate only stayed in place because of inertia (and fear of an angry and vocal group of voters), and so removing it, in my view, wasn’t pandering. A recent Atlantic piece by Juliette Kayyem got it right, I think: She’s an expert in how governments handle emergency situations, and she thinks the Biden administration is “right-sizing” the COVID response after two years of emergency measures.
But I get it: Most of you think that getting rid of travel mandates is caving to the ignorant and the obstinate. I agreed with you all and I defended all the mandates for a year, but I remain convinced that risk management is a political decision, and that at some point we have to get the country back to something like a normal life, even on airplanes.
That’s it for this week. I wish I could say that I think next week, with spring arriving, more of us getting out, and an improving economy, will be a better week. But I think we’re in for a rough time this summer, both at home and abroad.
I can’t end on such a negative note. So I’ll tell a joke from the old Soviet Union that came to mind after I read this excellent Yevgenia Albats piece on how the Russian oligarchs are now trapped inside Russia with their mad tsar of a president and can’t get out.
I heard this one in the late 1980s:
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his minister of foreign affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, go out one night and get completely drunk. Gorbachev wakes up the next morning with a raging hangover and the phone ringing.
“Misha, do you realize what we did last night? We got so loaded that we opened up the borders!”
Gorbachev rubs his forehead. “Holy mother of God.” Then he says, alarmed: “Wait! Does that mean it’s only you and me left?!”
“What ‘you and me’?” Shevardnadze says. “I’m calling you from London.”
See you next week.