Bret Stephens: Gail, given what’s happened in the past two weeks, Martin Luther King Jr. Day feels particularly meaningful this year. It seems as if the country is just holding its breath, waiting for the next Capitol Hill mob to descend, somewhere, somehow, on something or someone.
Is this 1968 all over again, or do you feel any sense of optimism?
Gail: Well Bret, I was actually around in 1968 — politically speaking.
Bret: Ah, but do you actually remember it?
Gail: There were certainly a lot of … distractions, what with a cultural revolution around every corner. And a terrible string of assassinations — after King, I can remember when Robert Kennedy was killed in June, feeling like nobody was safe from crazy people and right-wing racists.
Bret: Now it’s like déjà vu all over again. Donald Trump spent five years stoking the paranoia and loathing of his crowds, and now it has been unleashed. We’ll be living with it for years.
Gail: But here’s the other thing. I remember in the 1970s, when I had a news service in Connecticut, listening to the state Legislature arguing vehemently about whether King deserved a holiday. It was controversial, even in the Northeast.
Now, we’re a different nation. On the dark side we have crazy people publicizing bring-your-own AR-15 rifle rallies. We have appalling racists conspiring with each other on the internet. But on the other hand, we live in a multiracial society that agrees, at least in theory, that everybody is equal. Even though, I know, the acting out part can be terrible.
Bret: Very true. The other day I was reading a dazzling essay in Tablet Magazine by its editor, Alana Newhouse, called “Everything Is Broken.” Alana is a brilliant thinker, but one of my own thoughts after reading her piece was: “Everything? Really?”
We’re so fixated on what is wrong today that we forget how much was far more wrong 50 years ago. We have serious racial problems today. They were a whole lot worse when King was murdered. We have this terrible pandemic. Unlike in 1968, we also have the medical know-how to develop a vaccine in less than a year. We breathe cleaner air than we did 50 years ago, fly safer planes, drive better cars and watch better TV (though literature has gotten considerably worse). Women have choices, opportunities and role models today that were only being dreamed about 50 years ago. We have a polarized and angry electorate, but probably not as polarized as it was when George Wallace won 46 electoral votes, the Vietnam War was raging and the draft was still in effect. In 1968 Richard Nixon was on his way into the White House. In 2021 Donald Trump is on his way out.
Gail: Yeah, and in 1968, as far as the world knew, the only gay celebrity in America was Sal Mineo.
Bret: That, too. It’s not like we don’t have terrible problems. But I take a lot of comfort in a few things. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by seven million votes. The Capitol Hill barbarians are being tracked down and arrested. Mike Pence didn’t pull a Tammy Wynette and stand by his man. And Joe Biden, centered and sane, is about to become president.
In other words, I’m not throwing in the towel on America. We are more resilient than we’ve probably seemed to the outside world in recent years.
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Answers to Your Vaccine Questions
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Gail: Once again we are on the same page, which makes me feel compelled to turn it and ask, How do you feel about Joe Biden’s agenda?
Bret: A mixed bag. The best part is the promise to speed delivery of the vaccine, above all to the elderly. Ideally, by March, anyone who was born before, say, 1956, should be able to get a shot at their nearest pharmacy or stadium parking lot. And of course we need to continue helping small businesses, self-employed people, nonprofits, schools and so on to get through the next few months.
Gail: So far we are in accord …
Bret: Then again, to adapt Everett Dirksen’s old line: a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking real money. The government has already spent about $4 trillion on pandemic relief. Now Biden wants to spend another $1.9 trillion. I’m no deficit hawk, but there has to be some limit to how much a government can print, borrow and spend without creating serious problems for itself and posterity. I also have my doubts about some of Biden’s other ideas, like raising the minimum wage to $15, since a lot of the hardest hit businesses — restaurants in particular — will struggle with the extra labor costs.
My biggest fear is that this becomes a new normal and government spending as a percentage of G.D.P. rises to French-style levels, with French-style economic results, but without French-style joie de vivre.
I’m guessing you’re much more of a fan than I am.
Gail: Well, yeah. We’re in a multiple crisis here. The country is in the throes of a pandemic, and Washington can’t expect everyone to go out and get a job or start a business when everyone is supposed to stay home as much as possible.
Bret: Don’t get me wrong: I’m quibbling more than I’m quarreling. The pandemic put whole sectors of the economy on the edge of bankruptcy, and I’m all for heavy spending in an emergency. But the money should be well spent, unlike in 2009 when all those “shovel ready” projects we were promised never seemed to materialize. And we should be spending money on the people who need it most, not sending $1,400 more to most Americans.
Gail: I agree about the upper-income folks. If you want to see the money plowed directly into the economy — not shoveled into savings accounts — the lower the income of the recipients the better. The Biden plan looks like it’ll be sending income-boosters for even many upper-middle-class families. I suspect I’ll support whatever he comes up with, but lower-income households not only need more money, they spend it faster, rather than stashing it away in banks in a way that won’t do anything much to boost the economy.
Bret: Dear God we agree again.
Gail: And about the “shovel ready” projects: Getting infrastructure projects going was one of Biden’s jobs in the Obama White House. Can’t say he was always perfectly successful, but he’s definitely a guy with practical experience.
Bret: In the meantime, Gail, I bet you’d never find yourself cheering Liz Cheney. Her vote for impeachment read like the opening salvo in the Republican Conscience Recovery Act of 2021.
Gail: Yes, but 147 of her fellow Republicans voted to overturn the results of the election. The party has a long way to go before it’s returned to the world of sanity.
Bret: I know. The words for those Republicans are “nauseating,” “revolting” and “emetic.”
Gail: First thing on the agenda: Republican leaders have to bring the party into a true reality-based, post-Trump world. Who do you think can do it?
Bret: Probably someone who isn’t now in political life. With all of my newfound admiration for Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger, they aren’t the ones. Should we ask our colleague Ross Douthat to volunteer?
The larger question in my mind is whether the G.O.P. is the village that must be destroyed in order to be saved, or, alternatively, is it like a group of previously reasonable people who got taken in by a cult and now must go through some kind of deprogramming so that they can lead normal lives again? My hope is that once Republicans realize that Trump was both a moral and political disaster for them, they might recover their senses.
I’d put the chance of that at around one in three.
Gail: Totally agree. If the Republicans would only come around to your way of thinking on this, the nation would be a happier place.
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