Our Best Stuff From a Week in the Depths of February

Impeachment, a WHO report on the pandemic’s origins, and snow. Lots of snow.

February is the Siberia of the calendar. It’s frigid and windy and nearly unlivable. It has a dismal history. Nothing good ever happens in it. And we would be better off without it.

That paragraph, dear readers, is based on an old Slate essay that is at once beloved and much-derided, suggesting that we excise August from the calendar. I hope that the author—my old boss, David Plotz—doesn’t mind me appropriating it and picking a different month.

August is usually a challenge for journalists for its lack of news. D.C. empties out, leaving political reporters twiddling their thumbs. There’s a lull in the sports world, with baseball between the All-Star break and the playoff crunch, and football teams in training camps. It’s not typically a great time for movie releases. (Which is why at Slate we would so often use the excuse of a slow news day to republish the tongue-in-cheek screed.)

February, of course, has been a challenge for the exact opposite reason.  And the month can’t even do us the kindness of being original. This is the second straight February with an impeachment trial. (Interestingly, Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial ended in February 1999 and the House voted to impeach Andrew Johson in February 1868.)  And one year ago, we were wondering anxiously if that novel coronavirus emerging from China was going to turn out more like the SARS outbreak of 2002 (about 8,000 people around the world were infected) or the Spanish flu of 1918. 

It’s the shortest month, but it can feel interminable. We spend way too much time looking at weather forecasts and yet can still be surprised. Here in the Ohio bureau we went to bed Monday night expecting one to three inches of snow and woke up to eight on Tuesday. Then, once properly dug out, we got hit with ice and more snow on Wednesday night. (Kudos to our school district, which has been in-person all year: On Tuesday and Thursday we received emails explaining that *technically* it was still a school day because COVID delayed the start of the school year, and students should *definitely* check to see if they had work, but it could be done over hot chocolate after playing in the snow. Wink wink, nudge nudge.) I just hope that the forecast for another five to 10 inches starting Sunday is equally wrong, but in the other direction.

What else has February given us throughout the years? Let’s see. The battleship Maine was blown up, leading to the Spanish-American War.  In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated right before its scheduled landing. America began its internment of Japanese Americans in February 1942. And it’s when the 16th Amendment, which allows Congress to collect income taxes, was ratified. 

To be fair, it’s not all bad. It’s the month when not only Washington and Lincoln were born, but also great Americans like Ronald Reagan, Norman Rockwell, and Babe Ruth. There’s a good reason it’s Black History Month: In 1956, civil rights leaders ended their three-month bus boycott and the Supreme Court later desegregated buses. In 1960, four black students began a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. 

So maybe it’s just that the cold is getting to me. The sun still comes up too late and sets too early. But we are closer to spring than we are fall. In a similar vein, vaccines are on the rise and new COVID cases are declining—sharply. Impeachment is almost behind us. Schools that have remained shuttered all year are feeling the pressure to open. And here in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine completely lifted our statewide curfew, so we can stay out past 11.

So maybe we don’t need to get rid of February altogether. But next year, just to be safe, how about we make like bears and hibernate through it? In the meantime, grab a warm beverage and snuggle up with our best stuff from the past week.

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What the Pandemic Has Exposed About the Politics of Public Health

For all the questions the pandemic has presented over the last year—how well do masks work, when are we going to get effective treatments, are the kids ever going back to school?—there’s a big one whose answer remains frustratingly elusive: How did this all begin? China finally let in a team of scientists from the World Health Organization to investigate. The team ruled out both China’s preferred theory — that it came in from elsewhere via frozen food — and the theory that is most politically damaging to the Chinese Communist Party — that it escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But the whole episode reveals something important that is only tangential to the pandemic itself: the way that our public health organizations inevitably get drawn into politics. The WHO has faced  well-deserved criticism for too willingly accepting China’s (often misleading) messaging on the pandemic, but Andrew’s reporting demonstrates why it’s important for WHO to keep working with China despite the headaches: It’s been the source of so many disease outbreaks in recent decades.

Wrongthink and Word Choice

An award-winning veteran public health reporter for the New York Times resigned after The Daily Beast reported that, on a 2019 spring break trip with high school students sponsored by the Times, he repeated a racial slur while discussing whether one of their classmates should be suspended for using it in a video when she was 12. In the midweek G-File (🔐), Jonah isn’t relishing the opportunity to have a long discussion about the n-word or even cancel culture more broadly, but it’s “one tiny facet in the disco ball of dysfunction currently lighting up the political landscape.” He contrasts that incident with one more example—how Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyers are trying to defend him against a charge of incitement by claiming that his speech is protected. “The Times wants to criminalize language regardless of context—figuratively speaking—and Trump’s lawyers want to absolve crimes—or high crimes and misdemeanors—involving words, regardless of context,” he writes. 

The Dangers of the Derp State

As we told you last week, former Fox News political director Chris Stirewalt has joined The Dispatch as a contributing editor. In his first contribution, he dives right into the chicken-and-egg question of whether Donald Trump is a symptom or cause of our current political atmosphere. He looks at the usual suspects—economic shifts, our tendency to seek out media that conforms to our viewpoint, even our education system—and writes that Trump’s influence is so widespread that it makes a proper diagnosis difficult. But also: “Foolishness is nothing new in America,” he writes. “This is the country of P.T. Barnum, medicine shows and pet rocks, after all. But our current concentration of imbeciles has surpassed any kind of safe level. How we became a nation of so many dupes and fools is a matter at least as complicated as the causes of Trump’s presidency.”

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And now for the best of our rest:

  • Ryan Bourne and Oliver Wiseman remind Democrats that, back before they were in power, they cautioned that we had to kill the virus to save the economy. Now they are ignoring their own advice.

  • What to do about trolls and bots and everything else that ruins social media? Christian Schneider makes the case for sites to ban anonymity.

  • Joe Biden has upended Donald Trump’s policy on the Yemen civil war, but Danielle Pletka points out that, in the end, his policy is really no different from his predecessor’s: “A set of demands for power sharing with no leverage and no teeth.” 

  • Why do U.S. cruise ships sailing between domestic ports make a point to stop in Canada? In Capitolism (🔐), Scott Lincicome explains everything Jones Act and why it’s such a drag on our shipping industry.

  • Can’t get enough Stirewalt? Sarah interviews him for a members-only edition of The Sweep (🔐).

  • And the pods: On The Dispatch Podcast, the gang analyzes the impeachment trial, in particular the harrowing videos from inside the Capitol on January 6. David and Sarah also touch on impeachment in Advisory Opinions, but admit it: you want to know their take on the Zoom cat lawyer. And on the Remnant, Jonah is joined by Ayaan Hirsi Ali to discuss her new book, Prey.