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The National Book Awards are woke.

For the most part, the 67th National Book Awards were not so different than the sixty-six that came before. This is meant to be an evening for the publishing industry to celebrate itself for promoting free expression and (though this is a relatively recent development) diversity. But it’s always been a bit ironic, in that the National Book Awards are also devoted to a certain kind of publishing, which is to say (typically and with the exception of the Poetry category) mainstream and corporate and moneyed. It is an event for the establishment, and however much the industry pats itself on the back for promoting voices that might otherwise not be heard, the National Book Awards is not really an event for these voices. Too often the people in the room take precedence over what is ostensibly being celebrated, but for the most part and to its benefit that was not true of the 2016 National Book Awards.

It was clear that the National Book Awards were better this year. They were absolutely centered in this historical moment—eight days after the election of Donald Trump, the awards were very much focused on the meaning of his election, and the importance of art and literature in the wake of it.

Host Larry Wilmore set the tone for the evening with a monologue that was more about the election than it was about books. “It’s exciting in the same way that an asteroid hurtling towards earth is exciting—yeah it’s spectacular but we’re going to die anyway!” he said. He then launched into an extended joke about how Trump’s election was like getting a new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 before hitting the bit’s ultimate punchline: “I’m a little concerned—is America ready for a white president?” It was mostly standard fare, but his monologue was funny and cathartic and a hundred times better than anything that’s been done at the National Book Awards in at least a decade.

But the 2016 National Book Awards were mostly a very serious affair. The most moving moment of the evening, by far, was when Congressman John Lewis and his two co-authors Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell celebrated winning the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for March: Book Three. All three held back tears. Lewis said, “I remember when I was 16 years old going down to the public library getting library cards and we were told that the library was whites only and not for coloreds. And to come here receiving this award...” Powell went for a joke, saying, “A challenge to our incoming president: I challenge you to take this trilogy into your tiny hands to allow your tiny heart to be transformed by it.”

Colson Whitehead, meanwhile, had advice for the audience: “I was sort of stunned. And then I hit upon something that was making me feel better and it was be kind to everybody and make art and fight the power. That seemed like a good formula for me, anyway.... They can’t break me—BMF—because I’m a Bad Mother Fucker.”

Ibram X. Kendi, who won for his timely intellectual history of racism in America, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, spoke about his six-month old daughter, saying, “We named her Imani. Imani in Swahili means faith. Her name of course has a new meaning for us. As the first black president is set to leave the White House. And as a man who was emphatically endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan was about to enter..... I just want to let everyone know that I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America, it’s horrific history of racism. But in the end I never lost faith that the terror of racism would one day end. Because every racist idea there was an anti-racist idea. For every killer of the mind there was a life-saver of the mind. And in the midst of the human ugliness of racism, there was the human beauty—there is the human beauty in the resistance to racism. That is why I have faith. And I’ll never lose faith that you and I can create an anti-racist America where racial disparities are non-existent, where Americans are no longer manipulated by racist ideas, where black lives matter.”

Larry Wilmore summed up the entire evening in his final remarks: “The National Book Foundation is woke!” Not always, but certainly in 2016—and, it seems, for the foreseeable future.

June 28, 2019

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Andrew Yang is the most YOLO candidate ever.

Moderately successful businessman and “random opinionated person” Andrew Yang may have been the breakout star of Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate—if only because of his proposal for a so-called “freedom dividend.” This is basically just Yang’s marketing term for a Universal Basic Income, under which every American adult receives $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year.

This would solve a lot of our problems, Yang said—including climate change.

Would this actually work? Who knows! I mean, is it really the craziest thing in the world to think that if everyone had a little more financial cushion, more people would be OK with making some of the temporary financial sacrifices that will become necessary over the next 11 years to rapidly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? If anything, it’s just as crazy as Joe Biden’s assertion that he can turn America’s entire vehicle fleet electric by the year 2030 without the help of Republicans. And hey, maybe if everyone had $12,000 more per year, they’d be willing to buy those electric cars. So, might as well try it, right? The human race only lives once, after all.

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Sanders’s “rotating judges” idea actually makes some sense.

On Thursday morning, the Supreme Court handed down two major rulings on gerrymandering and the census, and yet, only a few hours later, with the candidates gathered in Miami for the second Democratic debate, the moderators never raised the high court, nor did they ask how, if elected, the candidates would handle its emboldened conservative majority.

They came closest to tackling the issue in an exchange about Roe v. Wade and what the candidates would do to protect abortion rights if it were overturned. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders replied by saying he opposed adding additional justices to the bench, a solution several other candidates have proposed. “I do not believe in packing the court,” Sanders said. But “I do believe that constitutionally we have the ability to rotate judges to other courts.”

Huh? It’s not clear what this plan would entail—Thursday’s format wasn’t conducive to in-depth answers—but Sanders provided some clues about what he meant at a forum in April, when he offered up a similar proposal. “What may make sense is, if not term limits, then rotating judges to the appeals court as well,” he told the audience. “Letting them get out of the Supreme Court and bringing in new blood.” The proposal is constitutionally dubious, to say the least, and might require a amendment, but it’s not without merit if it gets rid of corrosive confirmation battles and tempers ideological divides among the justices.

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Damn right it’s a climate crisis.

The moderators of Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate devoted seven minutes to the subject of global warming. But nothing the candidates said during those seven minutes advanced the conversation as much as the first twelve words Senator Kamala Harris said about climate change during Thursday night’s debate.

Asked to explain what she would do about climate change, Harris first took a step back. “I don’t even call it climate change,” she said. “It’s a climate crisis.”

The idea that we should replace the term “climate change” with “climate crisis” has been bubbling up in environmentalist circles for a long time, but it started gaining mainstream attention last month, when The Guardian announced that it was changing its official style guide to recommend terms like “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” over simply “climate change.” The reasoning, according to Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, was simple accuracy. “Huge-scale and immediate action is needed to slash emissions, but they are still going up—that’s an emergency or crisis,” she said. “Extreme weather is increasing and climate patterns established for millennia are changing—hence breakdown.”

Since then, more media outlets have started changing their terminology. As Grist reported last week, that includes Spanish news agency EFE and Noticias Telemundo, the top U.S.-based Spanish-language news provider. Their reasoning was similar, Telemundo’s executive vice president of network news Luis Fernández said:
“The scientific community and linguistics experts agree that the world is facing a climate emergency.”

By pushing that conversation further into the mainstream on Thursday night, Harris did the planet, and its inhabitants, a much-needed favor.

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Cable news still doesn’t know how to talk about police violence.

On June 16, a South Bend, Indiana, police officer shot and killed a man named Eric Logan. The police officer shot him. Logan died. The mayor of South Bend is running for president, and is on the debate stage tonight. Moderator Rachel Maddow asked Mayor Pete Buttigieg about the incident.

She referred to it as an “officer-involved shooting,” a bit of obfuscatory cop-speak that is endemic in TV news despite the supposed mission of “news” being to inform its audience as to what happened, instead of forcing viewers to guess.

The officer was involved because he did the shooting. From what I could determine the last time I wrote about this, police departments invented the phrase in the 1970s or 1980s, and TV news—always dependent on cops for sensationalist stories designed to scare viewers into coming back tomorrow for more—adopted it without anyone involved stopping to think about whether the term made any sense.

Mayor Buttigieg used the term too. If you can’t be clear and honest about who did what when a cop shoots someone, you shouldn’t be in journalism or politics.

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Kamala Harris just took Joe Biden to school.

Biden had a clear strategy and it worked for most of this debate. He came in deciding to act like a frontrunner, using weasel words on tough questions about immigration and health care, and largely staying out of the fray. The other candidates could spar about ideology and policy, but Biden reminded people again and again that he worked with Barack Obama. He continuously reminded the moderators that he was out of time, a sign that he—unlike most of the other people on the stage—had something to lose by speaking, not something to gain. Whenever the moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands in response to a question, Biden did a strange thing with his hand—holding it out, instead of raising it, acting like he had something to say without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing to what was asked.

That changed when Kamala Harris pivoted a discussion about Pete Buttigieg’s response to a recent police shooting in South Bend to Joe Biden’s record on busing, race, and civil rights.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” she said. But “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two US senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country.... You also worked with them to oppose busing.”

Biden was definitely prepared to defend his recent comments praising two notorious segregationists he worked with in the Senate in the 1970s. But he wasn’t prepared for Harris’s all out assault on his record as one of the staunchest opponents of court-ordered school busing during the same period. That record undercuts Biden’s defense of working with segregationists—that he did it to pass civil rights legislation—and makes it clear that he was actively part of propping up the opposition to integration.

Biden couldn’t have responded in a worse way, bungling his answer by not only defending busing but making a states-rights argument. But it also drew a line between Biden on both generational and racial lines. Biden keeps turning the conversation back to his time working with Barack Obama, but he clearly can’t defend his record as a senator in the same way. Harris found his Achilles heel.

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Gentlemen, you can’t fight here, this is the debate stage!

Senator Kamala Harris’s first attempt at a breakout moment in this debate was a painfully rehearsed line designed to be dropped the minute there was some cross-talk she could break into: “Hey guys, America does not want to witness a food fight. They want us to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

It won immediate, sustained applause, and a bit of predictable Twitter approval. It’s a good line, superficially, and probably good strategically: A large number of hardcore partisan Democrats desperately hate conflict.

Those Democrats are, unfortunately, undermining their party’s political well-being. This is a debate. Everyone on stage is supposed to be making a case for why they should be president, which, when facing other candidates in an election, is traditionally done by drawing distinctions between yourself and your opponents.

More broadly, the line speaks to the self-defeating tendency of Democrats to imagine that their own affinity for compromise reflects the median voter’s preference for conciliatory politics. People say they hate partisan conflict, yes—but they vote for people who draw sharp distinctions between themselves and their (negatively defined) opponents.

Like I said: It was a good line for Harris in the moment, but it was a cynical line masquerading as a plea for unity.

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The debate moderators are addicted to right-wing talking points.

Chuck Todd predictably emerged as one of the villains of the first debate, derailing a decent policy discussion with a seemingly endless barrage of right-wing talking points. He, for instance, asked the candidates not about gun control, but to speak to Republican fears about gun confiscation. He asked Julián Castro if his immigration reform plan amounted to “open borders.” The charitable reading of this strategy was that he wanted Democrats to speak to swing voters. But it’s June in the year before the election. They don’t need to persuade skeptical voters, they need to explain their policies. His line of questioning didn’t do that and it basically ruined what was otherwise a fine opening debate.

Unfortunately, the second debate has largely revolved around the kinds of GOP talking points that Todd is addicted to. The debate opened with Bernie Sanders being asked how he would pay for Medicare for All. How we would pay for policies like Medicare for All has been the focus of much of the moderators’ attention, not explaining what those policies would actually do. At the same time, they’re pumping up candidates like Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, who have been the most aggressive critics of the Democrats’ turn toward “socialism.”

This is partly a result of how the two debates were drawn. Wednesday’s was (accidentally) the kids’ table debate, and the moderators asked questions about policy. Now they want them to fight, but not about their substantive differences. They want them to fight in cable news-ready soundbites. And it’s going to get worse—Chuck Todd will be on soon.

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Will anyone be brave enough to try to take down Joe Biden?

Or should that be stupid enough?

The first Democratic debate was notable for the absence of two pronouns: Donald Trump, the man who the eventual nominee will take on next year, and Joe Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner. Trump was, of course, impossible not to mention, but was avoided whenever possible. Biden, however, never came up at all.

He wasn’t on the stage then, however. He will be tonight. The perception among many—myself included—is that Biden’s support is soft, and that voters only need to be reminded of his sizable baggage, his somewhat creepy persona, and his penchant for saying dumb stuff to flock to a different candidate. Given that he’s already made two sizable gaffes, on abortion and race, there is plenty for the other nine Democratic candidates to take on.

But it might not be worth it. Going after Biden might be a disaster if a candidate is polling in the low single digits. Recall Chris Christie’s entertaining dressing down of a robotic Marco Rubio in a February 2016 debate. Rubio limped on afterwards, but never regained the glow of a potential challenger for the throne. Christie, meanwhile, didn’t see a boost for his own candidacy. It was, as my former colleague Elspeth Reeve wrote at the time, something akin to a political murder-suicide.

One crucial difference: That took place in February of 2016. The Iowa caucuses had already taken place. We’re more than six months away from an election. Candidates right now have an incentive to play nice. Of course, if Biden stays in the lead, he could end up cementing his status. That is, unless someone is crazy enough to take him on.

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Isn’t it time for NBC to get a less peppy debate tune?

Heading into the second Democratic debate tonight, many are hoping for more climate talk and fewer non sequiturs. Personally, I’m dreading the music, which will almost certainly be the same as last night’s. Sure, it’s a minor matter—an aesthetic detail of short duration. Still. It’d be nice, particularly this year, if NBC would ditch its usual fanfare for something a little more understated. The Olympics-meets-Indiana Jones intro soundtrack feels too flashy, too entertainment-oriented for the present moment—more suited to something people watch with popcorn and a beer, rather than a knitted brow and a bottle of Xanax.

Like the Democratic candidates gamely discussing tax brackets and health care last night while ignoring this unprecedentedly erratic presidency, blaring something that sounds like it was written up by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for an Erroll Flynn movie right before we’re about to hear about drowned immigrant children abrades the senses (and the morals) a bit. There’s something a little Hunger Games about the aesthetic: signaling spectacle and entertainment in the face of a political climate that’s actually disturbing.

While we’re on the subject, as a few folks asked on Twitter last night: Why are these debates still taking place in front of live audiences? Isn’t it time to cut the whoops and claps, letting the candidates discuss their proposals like the world-shifting policies they are? Do we really still need sound effects like a ‘90s sitcom?

June 27, 2019

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The Democratic debate was a milestone for transgender rights.

When politicians discuss the rights of transgender Americans, they often place an outsized focus on whether trans women should be allowed to use the bathroom in peace. But the issues facing the trans community are far more diverse, and often far more consequential—and during the first Democratic primary debate on Wednesday night, two candidates made an effort to highlight that fact.

While answering a question about abortion rights, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro said that he would expand abortion access for everyone—that is, not just for cisgender women, but for trans men and others who are capable of getting pregnant. “A person’s right to choose is under assault,” he said, consciously using gender-neutral language. “I don’t just believe in reproductive freedom. I believe in reproductive justice. And what that means is just because a woman—or, let’s not also forget someone in the trans community, a trans female—is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose. So, I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion.”

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker also placed some focus on the transgender community—specifically on black trans Americans, a group disproportionately affected by hate crime and police brutality. “We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans and the incredibility high rates of murder now,” he said. “We don’t talk enough how many children, about 30 percent of LGBTQ kids, who do not go to school because of fear.”

The comments represented the first time Democratic candidates spoke about issues facing the trans community on a major debate stage, beyond the context of the bathroom.