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Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Infrastructure, COVID-19, and kudos to The Chicago Sun-Times

Critic-at-large for The Washington Post Robin Givhan was both impressed and not impressed with the performance of the generals in answering questions before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

After 20 years, it”;s hard to know who to believe about why things went so terribly wrong in Afghanistan. But as the top military leaders involved in this country”;s withdrawal from that floundering country testified on Capitol Hill, the two men in uniforms adorned with ribbons and stars displayed a greater understanding of humility and America”;s limitations than all the public servants in their sober suits.

Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, took responsibility for the drone strike that killed 10 civilians. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the withdrawal had been a logistical success and a strategic failure. The military men had wanted to leave about 2,500 U.S. troops on the ground. McKenzie and Milley had given President Biden their best advice. He ordered all troops out. And when a petulant Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) demanded to know why Milley didn”;t resign in response, the general explained the exact nature of what it means to have a civilian in control of the military.

[…]

The generals contradicted what Biden said publicly about the advice he was given by his inner circle –; that he didn”;t recall anyone advocating for keeping a contingent of service members in Afghanistan. But they also refused to let politicians characterize the chaotic withdrawal as the result of one bad decision made a month ago or six months ago or even six years ago. Chaos was a long time coming. It was decades in the making.

Lindsey McPherson and Jessica Wehrman of Roll Call report that Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to move ahead with a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill later today.

House Democrats have been anxiously awaiting the results of Biden”;s negotiations with centrist Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia on the other piece of his economic agenda that is intertwined with the infrastructure bill. The duo have been the main –; but hardly the only –; obstacle to Democrats coming together to pass a sweeping tax and spending package through the partisan budget reconciliation process.

Pelosi thinks she can convince progressive House Democrats to support the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill if Biden can strike a deal with Sinema and Manchin on a topline spending figure and programs they”;d support in the reconciliation package, a leadership source said. The progressives are threatening to oppose the infrastructure bill until the reconciliation package is on a clear path to House and Senate passage, though the exact threshold for progress varies by lawmaker.

When she returned from the White House Wednesday evening, Pelosi contended that Biden was still having that negotiation and seemed to hold out hope for a result overnight.

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post lambasts the mainstream media for downplaying and barely recognizing “;The Eastman Memo.”;

Some national newspapers paid attention, but not much. USA Today with a story; the New York Times with a few paragraphs dropped deep into a sweeping news analysis.

For the most part, the memo slipped past the public –; just another piece of flotsam from the wreckage of American society, drifting by unnoticed.

Why wasn”;t the Eastman memo treated as what it is: a flashing red alert, signaling that Trump”;s allies were (and almost certainly still are) plotting the end of free and fair elections in America?

Here”;s one theory:

“;Trump and his ilk have flooded the zone with so many attacks on democracy that it”;s paradoxically become less likely for journalists to focus on any specific case,”; said Matthew Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters.

But the former and current network executives I spoke with offered a different view –; and largely agreed with decisions to downplay the memo.

Renée Graham of The Boston Globe calls out the hypocrisies of Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney.

Since the 2020 presidential election, Republican-led state legislatures have been pulling every imaginable trick (and some only the most diabolical minds could concoct) to codify efforts to make it harder to vote and easier to overturn election results. There is no greater threat to democracy than a political party that has abandoned any allegiance to the Constitution for destructive win-at-all-costs strategies.

Cheney may not be beholden to Donald Trump or his Big Lie that a majority of Republicans believe about an election Trump lost by more than 7 million votes. But in her failure to protect voting rights, she boosted every voter suppression bill and law that lie has spawned. She is complicit in Trump and the GOP”;s efforts to unravel the core tenet of our democracy.

None of this has stopped Cheney from continuing to garner the effusive praise that began when she voted to impeach Trump in his second trial. She later became one of only two Republicans serving on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, and was recently named its vice chairwoman.

Mara Gay of The New York Times laments the refusal of some New York unions to support vaccine mandates.

For years, these unions defended the health and safety of their members. They fought for better wages and protected workers”; rights. They built the middle class. Now they are fighting state and city vaccine mandates aimed solely at keeping workers and communities safe and healthy. So much for the old union idea that an injury to one is an injury to all.

At least city and state government officials have the best interests of the public in mind, even if some in the labor movement have forgotten which side they”;re on.

[…]

Because New York unions are so large, the unvaccinated minority still represents tens of thousands of people. Though most of the state”;s union leaders have supported vaccination efforts, many are working to appease anti-vaccination members as well as get them vaccinated. They”;re trying to have it both ways by encouraging members to get vaccinated while also opposing, slow-walking or otherwise frustrating the mandates. Ideally, that energy would be better spent rallying their members around support for the vaccine. Or as some labor activists might say: “;Don”;t mourn. Organize!”;

Nicole Hemmer of CNN reminds us that “;medical misinformation”; is nothing new and has always been dangerous.

The near-total breakdown of hope for a return to normal has also highlighted and fueled a wave of misinformation about the pandemic and the vaccines designed to end it. From groundless conspiracy theories that the vaccines contain microchips or alter people’s DNA to deliberate falsehoods about vaccine deaths and mask side effects, the pandemic misinformation industry is thriving in the US, more than a year and a half after the pandemic began.

Two features of modern American life seem most to blame for the angry distrust and intractable division that surround us: the dissemination machine of social media and the rejection of fact-based sources of information by many on the right, particularly among politicians and media.

We are living in a dangerously unprecedented moment.

Still, it’s important to understand that while the mechanisms for dispersing information have evolved, medical misinformation — the deliberate spread of demonstrably untrue claims for politics or profit — has been a feature of life in the US throughout the nation’s history. From patent medicine to fluoride conspiracies to false claims about the health effects of tobacco, misinformation has long crowded public debate.

Laura Spinney writes for The Guardian that lawsuits related to COVID-19 political and policy decisions may not be the best way to prevent future pandemics.

It”;s understandable that people who are grieving should want answers, and likely that governments could learn lessons that would save lives before this pandemic is over. It”;s far from clear, however, that the blame game will help the bereaved or ensure that any of us are better protected against future pandemics. In fact, it could do the opposite.

First, finding blame among those who coordinated the pandemic response at local or national levels diverts attention from those cross-border human activities, such as the industrial-scale farming of animals, that inflate the risk of a pandemic happening in the first place.

Second, all the efforts to identify culprits are illuminated by the incandescent glow of hindsight, when even scientists were in the dark at the time of many of the events in question. Even in hindsight, it”;s difficult to assess whether a given official decision was justified in terms of lives saved. Whose lives? Over what timeframe? Valued how? If people in positions of authority know that whatever they do they will be criticised -; being accused of underreacting or overreacting -; the danger is they”;ll do nothing at all next time.

Abdon M. Pallasch returns to The Chicago Sun-Times to chronicle the Sun-Times decades-long investigation in pursuing justice for the victims of Robert Sylvester Kelly.

It was hard getting victims to talk to us when we started ringing doorbells. Some had signed non-disclosure agreements with Kelly and risked having to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars if they agreed to be interviewed.

Kelly”;s well-paid lawyers intimidated newspapers out of quoting the girls”; charges against him. His publicists preempted his victims”; charges in friendly media, calling the girls opportunists.

More generally in those days before “;MeToo,”; America was simply not taking such claims from women seriously. We broke our first big story in 2000, revealing the accusations of girls who said that Kelly had lured them into sexual relationships when they were as young as 15 and encouraged them to quit school.

We braced for other media to jump on the story. It never happened.

Kelly”;s lawyers and publicists called the teens scheming hussies looking for a payday. Kelly”;s fans called us and the Sun-Times racist “;haters.”; Our colleague, the dauntless columnist Mary Mitchell, caught hell for calling out the silence of Black clergy and community leaders.

And yes, The Chicago Sun-Times Mary Mitchell has been called everything but a child of God in her pursuit of justice for Mr. Kelly”;s victims.

Kelly can”;t blame his conviction on the influence of the “;Me Too Movement”; or the powerful expose “;Surviving R. Kelly,”; even though the documentary renewed interest in Kelly”;s inappropriate relationships with minors.

It took time for young Black women to take up their own cause and for older Black women to let them know we have their backs.

That happened when the “;Mute R. Kelly”; campaign shut down Kelly”;s concerts here and abroad. Co-founders Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye started the movement in 2017 when they found out that Kelly was to perform at a venue in Atlanta.

It also took the persistence of two white men, Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch, my former colleagues, to expose the predatory nature of Kelly”;s sex life.

It wasn”;t easy for these men to put such an explosive story out there. Critics condemned them as the “;man trying to bring a successful brother down.”;

Sara Reardon writes for Kaiser Health News about the threat that wildfires in the western part of the United States pose to water supplies.

Wildfires and their lasting effects are becoming a way of life in the West as climate change and management practices cause fires to increase in number, intensity and acreage burned, while extending the length of the fire season. In “;burn scars,”; where fires decimated forest systems that held soil in place, an increase in droughts followed by heavy rainfall poses a different kind of threat to the water supplies that are essential to the health of communities.

“;You know about it; it”;s in the back of your head,”; said Glenwood Springs resident Paula Stepp. “;But until you face it, you don”;t know how it”;s going to impact your town.”;

Dirty, turbid water can contain viruses, parasites, bacteria and other contaminants that cause illness. But experts say turbid water from burn scars is unlikely to make it to people”;s taps, because water utilities would catch it first.

Still, the cost to municipal utility systems –; and the residents who pay for water –; is immense. Rural small towns in particular face the choice between spending millions of dollars to try to filter turbid water or shutting off their intake and risking shortages in areas where water may already be scarce.

Chabeli Carrazana and Orion Rummler write for The 19th News about the “;deep disparities”; revealed by the U.S. Census Bureau”;s first ever data collection about LGBTQ+ citizens.

According to the data, which captures results from July 21 to September 13, LGBTQ+ people often reported being more likely than non-LGBTQ+ people to have lost employment, not have enough to eat, be at elevated risk of eviction or foreclosure, and face difficulty paying for basic household expenses, according to the census”; Household Pulse Survey, a report that measures how Americans are faring on key economic markers during the pandemic.

While think tanks like the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law and advocate-led research groups have previously studied LGBTQ+ poverty, no large government population surveys, like those conducted by the census or the Treasury Department, have attempted to capture the real-time economic experiences of LGBTQ+ people.

Previously, those analyses were limited to studies of “;same-sex couples,”; a question the census began analyzing with limited success in 1990, but that leaves out significant portion of LGBTQ+ people. Lack of accurate data on the population as a whole –; and particularly on transgender people, a group that has been chronically under surveyed –; hampered any federal response to persisting inequities, advocates say.

Finally this morning, The Angry Grammarian writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer on President Joe Biden”;s use of euphemisms–; profane and otherwise.

On the one hand, the man won a presidential campaign with the slogan “;No malarkey!“;

On the other hand, it was more than 11 years ago that hot microphones picked up the then vice president telling Barack Obama that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was a “;big f–;ing deal”; –; back when hearing expletives in the White House was less common. Donald Trump initiated a thousand newsroom debates about when and how a president”;s vulgarity should be reported as newsworthy, which made it that much more notable this week when, upon hearing the results of Germany”;s election, Biden responded in the folksiest way possible:

“;I”;ll be darned.”;

Which, in a way, is more newsworthy than a profane outburst.

Everyone have a great day!

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