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Opinion: America has run out of metaphors for crisis

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President Gerald R. Ford cited Hemingway in a 2000 letter he sent to a member of the Fall of Saigon Marines Association — a group whose website says its “members consist of United States Marines serving at US missions in the Republic of Vietnam during the spring of 1975,” when the city fell, on April 30, 1975.

Ford also nodded to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month. The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days, the saddest of my public life.”

As America completed its tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan this week, with Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division as the last man out — lifting off in a C-17 cargo plane at Kabul — some drew comparisons between Saigon 1975 and Kabul 2021. And one could easily wonder to whose words, years from now, President Joe Biden might turn to describe his feelings.

For now, it was remarks to the nation on Tuesday afternoon, imperfect but “powerful and evocative” in their certitude, wrote Aaron David Miller. The President’s resolute words were “not directed at allies, adversaries or even Afghans — but at the American public,” whose trust in Biden is waning. His approval rating stands at 44%, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll; while a majority of Americans agree with the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, that same poll says fewer than 3 in 10 approve of how Biden’s handled it. Rightly so, assessed Peter Bergen. Bergen spoke with Leslie Schweitzer, a board member of the American University of Afghanistan, about how to help the thousands of students and graduates left behind. Schweitzer described learning that the university “was not considered a priority by the US government,” even though, she says, “our university people are very much at risk” and that the Taliban has taken over the campus (where, in August 2016, Taliban gunmen killed at least a dozen students and staff). For the Atlantic, David Rothkopf took a different view, arguing that Biden “deserves credit, not blame” for his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. “Unlike his three immediate predecessors in the Oval Office, all of whom also came to see the futility of the Afghan operation,” Biden alone had “the political courage to fully end America’s involvement.” Hao-Nhien Vu urged Biden to look to his predecessors for a model on handling Afghan refugees seeking to escape the Taliban. Presidents Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush kept America’s doors open to refugees from Vietnam, including himself and his family, after the fall of Saigon: “Should we do the same for the people of Afghanistan? Yes … Can we do it? Yes. As trying as our current moment is, the US is economically and socially stronger now than it was in the 1970s. The question is: Will we do it?”

Why #TexasTaliban was trending

After an extreme law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and empowering citizens to enforce the law themselves took effect in Texas Wednesday, Frida Ghitis called out the hypocrisy of state Republicans. “The same politicians who declare that mask requirements are an intolerable intrusion by government into sacrosanct individual freedom, have just imposed the country’s most restrictive abortion law since the Supreme Court made abortion legal in the landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade.” And after the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 midnight order, allowed the law to stay in effect despite “serious constitutional questions,” The Nation’s Elie Mystal urged Democrats to “get creative to protect women’s rights. They will need to be willing to challenge ‘norms,'” he wrote (citing as one possibility federalizing abortion providers to protect them from private civil actions in the state). His bottom line: Instead of throwing up their hands, Democrats “will need to act like Republicans.” Legal historian Mary Ziegler wrote that the Supreme Court’s refusal to stand in the way of Texas’s dystopia spotlights the long-game strategies the anti-abortion movement has been building at the state level for years. Not only is there nothing “stopping other states from following the playbook Texas has developed,” which is sinister in its “genius” according to Ziegler, but other state abortion challenges loom on the horizon, most notably a Mississippi case that will be argued before the Court in the fall.

A back-to-school nightmare

For many Americans, Labor Day weekend signals an official end to summer; many K-12 and college students are already back in their classrooms, and more will soon follow. Parents, teachers, students and the medical community are all facing a steep rise in cases of the Delta variant as what began as a summer of hope transforms into an autumn of anxiety.

It’s a lot for anyone to process, acknowledged Luke Winkie in The New York Times. He asked: “Is it possible to be hoodwinked by a respiratory disease? This is a question I never thought I’d need to ask. God, I miss that ignorance. Remember the short period of euphoria when the whole nation believed that the pandemic had been defeated for good? Remember how we danced on its grave?” Dr. Susannah Hills, a pediatric airway surgeon, pointed to the hospitalization of children in Texas and Florida and observed that children, as they return to school, could be at higher risk for a combination of Covid and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus — one of the most prevalent pathogens that can damage young children’s airway and lungs). Hills wrote: “While we wait for Covid-19 vaccines to be approved for kids younger than 12, political leaders must allow our school systems access to the essential protection of mask mandates. They must also facilitate strategies to help vaccinate every eligible person — instead of obstructing these efforts,” Hills writes. Nicole Hemmer put the increasing cases of companies instituting vaccine mandates in the context of the long history of private industry’s role stepping in to push public policy goals when governments don’t. “The private mandate saps some of the polarized politics from the vaccine,” she noted.History professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, meanwhile, mourned the loss of what is normally a joyful time for faculty, staff and students as they return to college campuses. Outbreaks across the country, and uneven use of vaccine or mask mandates have left many vulnerable, she argued. Some instructors have resigned or been fired amid this tension. “Asking faculty to participate in practices that can jeopardize collective well-being is untenable in a moral as well as public health sense … No matter the individual policies in place at a particular school, many faculty feel in a broader sense that they, their students and the staff who work alongside them are being treated like guinea pigs in an experiment predicated on a refusal by most universities and colleges to entertain a return to remote teaching, no matter what happens.”

Ida: The sign that ‘wait and see’ days are over

Stalled cars caught in flash flood are seen near Queens Boulevard after remnants of Hurricane Ida brought three inches of rain per hour across the city, in the New York City borough of Queens, NY, September 1, 2021.Hurricane Ida devastated Louisiana, smashed across the South and left dozens dead in the Northeast amid shocking images of flooded subway stations and swamped basements. Alexandra Kane, a New Orleans resident who fled to Mobile, Alabama, before Hurricane Ida made landfall, said the decision to evacuate wasn’t easy: “The truth is that evacuating is a privilege — one that requires money, transportation and a safe place to flee to.” Kane and her neighbors had come to rely on each other during the pandemic, creating a tight-knit extended family. They frequently gathered on their building’s porch — eating, talking and celebrating. She described tears, paralysis, preparation: “I bought supplies in case we stayed, and I packed in case we left … I know leaving was the right thing for me to do but the thought that I could have been of help in any capacity haunts me.”Jesse M. Keenan, who also evacuated from Louisiana, wrote that politicians and bureaucrats are too quick to point a blaming finger at a so-called lack of community resilience instead of connecting storm suffering to the dire need for action on the climate crisis, especially the curbing of fossil fuel emissions.On top of this pain and fear, scientists in Ida’s path expressed anger and frustration. As ecologist Carl Safina put it: “Like most scientists, I’m not an alarmist and I don’t jump to conclusions. If anything, I am a ‘wait and see’ kind of guy. But there is an undeniable pattern here: more extreme weather is happening more often, and we are its cause.” Adam H. Sobel emphasized: “The nonstop, compound environmental disasters of this summer alone — the fires, heat waves, droughts, floods and hurricanes — would probably have been enough to shock us. But they also come after a year and a half of a pandemic. Even worse, they come atop an ongoing crisis for our democracy that is preventing us, as a nation and a species, from effectively meeting any of these challenges … With a retrograde faction as powerful as it is in our national politics, we’re supposed to solve the climate problem?”

More smart takes:

Mitch Landrieu: From Katrina to Ida, what has Louisiana learned?Merissa Nathan Gerson: I fled Ida. Are we truly all together in a storm?

As if my family could ever forget

With the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 days away, Kimberly Rex wrote that the refrain of “never forget” rings hollow for those like her — her father perished in the World Trade Center’s north tower. There is no forgetting, ever, for families of victims, for anyone who fled those buildings, who responded first or who searched for victims, she wrote: “We are haunted by what we remember, 20 years later and likely 20 years later … As if each year, when the calendar slowly moves toward September, the little things — like the slight chill of a fall breeze or the scent of the leaves at my feet — don’t settle in my stomach, hard and knotted. As if my body doesn’t remember. Muscle memory of grief … As though it’s easy to forget that your strong, stocky father was whittled down to only pieces. That when we buried him, only my mother knew how much of him was inside the coffin. As if we’d forget that this actually makes us lucky. That others have only empty plots filled with knickknacks, mementos instead of remains …”

More commentary:

Jonathan A. Greenblatt: ADL head: On NY Islamic center, we were wrong, plain and simple

This Labor Day, meet America’s newest union-in-the-making

Labor Day, since its inception in 1882, has celebrated the movement for workers’ rights. With Covid laying bare the lack of respect for the economic value of mothers’ caregiving and caretaking, it’s time for a labor movement for moms, writes Reshma Saujani. “Moms should be clear-eyed about this call to action: like the teachers and drivers and service workers that comprise the backbone of our nation’s economy and society, we too may be told that ‘we chose this role’ — and therefore have no right to complain. It’s an argument that ignores both the value we create, and the conditions under which we’re expected to create it … So, this Labor Day — with a new school year and a new season of uncertainty for families upon us — let’s borrow a page from the union playbook. Let’s harness the grit and optimism we put into caring for others to create better conditions for ourselves.”

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‘Jeopardy!’ clue: The person who eventually gets the beloved position on television she/he should have had all along

Peniel E. Joseph weighed in on the ouster of Mike Richards as executive producer at “Jeopardy!” — deeming it tellingly overdue — and described what it would mean to see LeVar Burton on the screen as permanent host: “many fans (myself included) wondered why Burton, former star of ‘Roots,’ ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and beloved children’s show ‘Reading Rainbow’ — the closest thing America has to a Black Mr. Rogers — was not named the permanent host, even after a very visible campaign of public support for him unfolded on social media. The image of Burton as ‘Jeopardy!’ host is a deliciously subversive one. A Black host of a game that appeals to intelligence, curiosity, a love of books and learning would visibly refute stereotypes about Blackness and intellect that have remained stubbornly powerful in American society.”

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