Jul 15, 2020

The U.S. and China play chicken.

The U.S. and China play chicken.

Plus, is "cancel culture" really a thing?

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Today’s read: 12 minutes.

The U.S.-China tension, I share my opinion on the “cancel culture” debate, and a really important survey at the end of the newsletter.

The USS Ronald Reagan (pictured above) is one of the ships recently sent to the South China Sea to perform military exercises. Photo: U.S. Navy


Yesterday, I wrote that Donald Trump “shared a tweet from former game show host Chris Woolsey” in the “What D.C. is talking about” section. As several readers pointed out, the name of the game show host is Chuck Woolery. Chris Woolsey is, hilariously, a colleague at my day job whose email must have been open on my computer. Tangle does not regret the error.

This is the 10th Tangle correction in its eleven-month existence. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and plan to stop counting when the number becomes embarrassing.

Quick hits.

  1. Jeff Sessions lost a runoff primary election in Alabama to former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. Sessions, the former Attorney General, lost support from President Trump after recusing himself from the Russia investigation. The president endorsed Tuberville, who will now face Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat, who replaced Sessions when he left the Senate to become attorney general. In Texas, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar won a runoff in her primary race and will now face Republican Sen. John Cornyn in the 2020 Senate battle. Meanwhile, former White House physician Ronny Jackson won the GOP nomination for a House Congressional seat in Texas’ 13th district.
  2. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal Supreme Court justice, was hospitalized yesterday with an unknown infection. A spokeswoman said she was experiencing fever and chills and underwent an endoscopic procedure to clean out a bile duct stent that was placed last August. Ginsburg, 87, has faced a series of health issues over the last few years, once being forced to hear oral arguments in a case from her hospital room.
  3. The White House reversed course and rescinded its controversial guidance barring international students from living in the U.S. while taking fall classes online yesterday. Trump faced a slew of lawsuits from top universities for the guidance, which would have forced foreign students to leave or face deportation if their universities decided to go fully online due to COVID-19. It was a surprising and unusual reversal by the White House.
  4. President Trump’s trade advisor Peter Navarro published an op-ed in USA Today trashing Dr. Anthony Fauci today, a serious escalation of the tension between the White House and Fauci that was covered in yesterday’s Tangle. White House officials are slamming Navarro for the move, though, saying he skirted the White House protocol on getting op-eds screened by the administration before publication. “Navarro went rogue,” one official said, “and put out his personal opinion without any approvals. The White House does not stand by these unauthorized opinions and Mr. Navarro owes Dr. Fauci an apology.”
  5. The Trump administration is undercutting CDC’s data collection on COVID-19, according to a new Washington Post report. The administration is asking governors to allow the National Guard into hospitals to improve data collection about coronavirus patients, supplies and capacity. But the move would eliminate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a recipient of that information — a “decision that is sparking controversy about whether or not the data is reliable.”

What D.C. is talking about.

China. Over the last week, tensions between the two greatest global powers have hit an all-time high, and it’s got everyone wondering how things will end. Here’s a quick recap of what’s taken place in the last week alone:

  • The U.S. and China each held massive military exercises in the South China Sea, where the U.S. let loose hundreds of jet launches from two aircraft carriers continuously for three days and nights while China showed off its own military might just hours away.
  • On Monday, China imposed sanctions on three U.S. lawmakers — Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) as well as Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) — who have all criticized China’s ruling Communist Party for its harsh policies towards ethnic minorities. The sanctions were a response to U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials over China’s human rights abuses against Muslims in the Xinjiang region. The U.S. sanctions banned top Chinese officials from coming to the U.S. and from having property transactions with Americans, a serious escalation against some of China’s most powerful leaders.
  • The United States also publicly rejected China’s claims to offshore resources in the South China Sea, pushing back on years of intimidation by the Chinese military in the coveted sea trading route. This was meant to signal to other allies in the region that the U.S. would use its power to keep the waters, parts of which are claimed by a half dozen different countries, free from Chinese control.
  • Yesterday, Britain said it would prohibit Huawei, one of China’s most valuable telecommunications companies, from building out its high-speed mobile phone 5G system in England. The decision came after the U.S. sanctions made it impossible for Britain to be sure the systems were secure. The U.S. also threatened to sever its intelligence-gathering arrangement with Britain if they didn’t get out of the deal.
  • All of this comes with the backdrop of China’s failure to prevent the global spread of COVID-19 and its recent restrictions on Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous city that had some of the strongest free speech laws and pro-Democracy activism of any city in southeast Asia, but a new Hong Kong “security” law has allowed mainland China to begin cracking down on dissent, setting off weeks of protests.

Together, these latest developments could reasonably be described as the most important story in the world right now. China and the United States share the most important trade relationship in the world, their economies impact just about every nation on earth, and — besides Russia — they also happen to have the two most powerful militaries in the history of mankind.

What the right is saying.

Generally speaking, the right wants to continue an aggressive posture with China. And the Trump administration isn’t just talking the talk, it’s walking the walk. When the U.S. sanctioned China, it included Chen Quanguo, a member of the CCP’s elite 25-member Politburo, the most powerful political body in China. This was a bold, decisive move that surely shocked some of China’s most powerful leaders. Hitting the inner circle like this is something that’s never been tried by past U.S. administrations.

“The rest of the world has been aware of the CCP's human rights abuses in Xinjiang since 2016, yet other than paying lip service, no other government nor the United Nations Human Rights Council has taken any meaningful steps to address such abuses like the Trump administration has done,” Helen Raleigh argued in a Fox News op-ed.

Henry Olsen argued that the current strongman stance against China is necessary but difficult. The U.S. is asking its European allies to choose the U.S. or China, and many of them have tried not to make that call. Britain just chose us, and the rest of Europe needs to follow suit — because if the unified front isn’t unified we’re in big trouble.

“China is the only nation in the world that can seriously threaten the United States, and its open drift toward seeking global leadership makes its intent crystal clear,” Olsen wrote. “Its sheer size — China’s population is more than four times as large as that of the United States — means it will be a serious competitor to the United States within a decade if it continues its rapid growth. Better to confront the problem now rather than delude ourselves and wait until our adversary is stronger.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board agreed, arguing that Trump would get little credit for smart moves against China that have to be taken now.

“This is one of those Trump-era diplomatic moves—like moving the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem or pulling out of failing arms accords—that a more risk-averse Administration would not have tried,” it wrote. “China won’t be happy. Yet the decision brings official U.S. policy in line with international law and geopolitical facts. No matter who wins the White House this year, a key priority of U.S. foreign policy in 2021 will be deterring Chinese lawlessness and expansion.”

What the left is saying.

The left is calling for more diplomacy and engagement, fearful of a military flare up and also conscious of the way xenophobia towards Chinese citizens might spread in the U.S. In The Atlantic, William J. Burns argued that we once assumed too much about the benefits of engaging China, and now we’re assuming too much about the feasibility of decoupling from them.

“Preventing China’s rise is beyond America’s capacity, and our economies are too entangled to decouple,” he wrote. “The U.S. can, however, shape the environment into which China rises, taking advantage of the web of allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific—from Japan and South Korea to a rising India—who worry about China’s ascendance.”

Mario Del Pero pushed back on the idea of a “new Cold War” in The Guardian, saying it was dangerous to call it a “new Cold War” and imploring people to stop. Del Pero concedes there are similarities, like the fact the U.S. and China stand on their own in economic power, military might and global influence. But he lays out key differences as well, and points to the deep connectedness of the two countries.

“US firms locating part of their production in China; American investments there and, later on, Chinese investments in the US (and the rest of the world); the unique ability of the voracious American market to absorb durable goods produced in China; Beijing’s willingness to hoard dollars and US treasury securities in order to subsidize America’s consumption and to keep the value of its currency artificially low; the millions of Chinese students in US colleges and universities: such interdependencies now define US-Chinese relations and are revealing in how particular and determined these connections are.”

Jason Rezain pointed the finger at Trump in The Washington Post, arguing that his failed attempts at a successful trade deal with China and his administration’s inability to cut Iran off from the world markets has led those two countries to each other, and now they’re working on a massive deal where China would invest billions of dollars into Iranian infrastructure.

“China cares little about the regime’s transgressions against the Iranian people,” he wrote. “Beijing appears prepared to help keep this regime afloat for the foreseeable future. Any potential influence Washington hoped to have with Iran has been ceded to Beijing… Couldn’t the Trump administration have seen this coming?”

My take.

I could spend some time throat-clearing here about Trump’s failings on a trade deal with China or mismanagement of a pressure campaign on Iran, but I won’t. The truth is the right, and Trump, have been owning the narrative of China’s threat for the better part of this decade, and now we’re seeing many of their worst fears come to fruition.

China is a complex, gigantic place. Besides one night of partying in Hong Kong after a flight cancellation, I’ve never been there, though I’ve spoken to plenty of experts on the country as a whole (and have many Chinese or China-based readers I’m excited to hear from!). What I do know, though, is that the human rights abuses in China are unthinkably horrid. Forced labor, forced population control, mass detention and a gigantic spy state that has made freedom nothing more than a mirage — just to name a few.

The rest of the world, and plenty of people in the U.S., have turned their eyes away. The NBA, a multi-billion dollar professional sports juggernaut, has kowtowed to China and censored its players and owners because the basketball market there is huge. John Bolton claimed in his recent book about Trump that the president told China’s President Xi Jinping that building concentration camps for the Uighurs was “exactly the right thing to do” — I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s the kind of ghoulish and absurd thing past employees of the president have accused him of. Democrats have been paralyzed by fears of sounding xenophobic against Chinese citizens living here (it should go without saying, but it doesn’t, that criticisms of “China” relate to its government — not its people).

Say what you will about Trump or the corporate giants unwilling to do anything, the current U.S. administration is acting. And they seem to be acting out of a genuine pressure from the right to fight back against a government that loathes individual freedom and, apparently, ethnic minorities. That’s the right thing to do, and this White House should be praised for it.

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. The brave citizens of Hong Kong are now in a fight for their lives, desperately pleading with the world to stand behind them while they try to resist a rising police state. America seems to be pulling all the levers it can, but it might just be that there’s nothing anyone can do to stop China from taking over Hong Kong. Pro-Democracy banners and free speech protesters are already dissipating from the region, and the last time they put their lives on the line and flooded the streets they didn’t get much help from the international community. Maybe this time it will be different.

Your questions, answered.

Want your question answered? Just reply to this email and write in. You can ask me anything, and I’ll try to tackle it in an upcoming newsletter.

Q: Is cancel culture really "cancel culture," or is it just "dollar voting"? I.e. the concept that consumers are making choices based on producers' actions — which is a major part of how capitalism works.

— Ron, Pawleys Island, South Carolina

Tangle: Ah, the question of the day! And perhaps the year. For those not “in the know,” this question is about a recent spate of social media pressure campaigns that have led to firings of top newspaper editors, the removal of movies from HBO libraries, actors turning down roles, advertisers dropping from major television shows, some people losing their jobs and the “cancellation” of certain writers and public figures for past misdeeds (like racially inflammatory comments or accusations of sexual harassment).

Cancel culture, as it has been dubbed, has also set off a huge debate.

The right says this era of cancel culture has ushered in a world where people are fearful of speaking their minds, where public debate has turned into public shaming, where ideas can no longer be shared freely without fear of reprisal. All of this has come to a head recently, with hundreds of academics, writers, reporters and public figures signing a letter in Harper’s Magazine that calls for a defense of the free exchange of ideas, saying “it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

Then, yesterday, a well-known writer and editor at The New York Times named Bari Weiss resigned, issuing a public resignation letter claiming she had endured months of abuse and bullying from her lefty colleagues for the crime of being a centrist.

The left, on the other hand, has largely argued that cancel culture is not a thing — or at least not in the way the right has constructed it. The left argues that the term has “turned into a catch-all for when people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism, something that they’re not used to,” as TIME’s Sarah Hagi put it. In that sense, it is the dollar vote — it’s an expression of free speech, speech that acts in the form of boycott, pressure and social media campaigns to take power from the people who have it.

Naturally, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The left’s argument that what we’re really witnessing is a shift of power is absolutely true. Ten or twenty years ago, there was very little recourse to fight workplace misconduct, casual racism or mistreatment, especially if it came from a powerful superior. Anyone who has dealt with a toothless HR department knows that. There was also little you could do when a celebrity or famous politician said something blatantly wrong or stupid besides shake your head.

Now, though, marginalized, working-class, not-famous and often unheard people have power. They can share photos, videos and documentary evidence on social media that, if it lands in front of the right activist or celebrity, will be elevated by the masses. They can come up with clever hashtags to create movements. This has created a “cancel culture” where powerful people who were previously untouchable can have their crimes or transgressions displayed to millions of others. Then those millions can decide collectively to resist supporting that person, corporation, or entity in a way that removes their power.

I do not think this framework is bad. Corporations, platform creators, celebrities, they all have power. There’s an exchange inherent in being well-known: we all consume you, and in exchange you have influence over us. But we also get to hold you accountable. I engage in that exchange every day, on a much smaller scale, with Tangle readers and Twitter followers.

What does concern me, though, is the number of “regular” people who have been caught up in this machine. Yascha Mounk highlighted these folks in an absolute must-read story called “Stop Firing The Innocent.” In one particularly egregious example, Mounk highlights Emmanuel Cafferty, a Latino utility worker who lost his job because an activist with a cell phone claimed to have captured him making the “white supremacist OK sign” with his fingers. In reality, Cafferty was simply hanging his hand outside the window of his truck on his way home from work.

There are plenty of other examples, too, but Cafferty is representative of what can happen when the “mob” misdirects its anger at an innocent. We’ve seen it again and again, and it terrifies me. Far too often, people in our country — especially those on the left — are quick to pull out their cell phones and start filming someone they think is doing something wrong. They’re even quicker to share these 30-second clips online, begging the mob to join them in justice or doxxing. And more often than not, they find a receptive audience that takes them on their word that the narrative they’re portraying is accurate and the people they’ve “identified” are, in fact, the evildoers. This has repeatedly upended the lives of completely innocent people.

I believe the current environment has had other chilling effects, too. I think people are reasonably fearful to make widely-held beliefs public because they don’t want to be next.

I’ll give you a personal example: I wrote in a Friday edition last week about the convincing article published in The New York Times’ Magazine that made the case for reparations. I found the piece quite compelling, and felt much more on the fence about the concept of reparations than I ever had before.

Previously, though, I was politically opposed to the idea. Not just because I thought it would be impossible to execute, but because I feared the almost inevitable white backlash to a government-mandated program to give wealth to people of color. I also feared the concept, generally, of the government deciding who the “real” Black descendants of slaves were and weren’t.

But I’d never shared that feeling publicly. In fact, I’ve never shared it until now, when I can couch it in the context of moving toward a pro-reparations position. Why? Because I could not possibly imagine a way to express that position publicly without the risk of being called a racist, or without being accused of not understanding the laundry list of injustices our nation has dropped on the heads of its Black citizens.

And that worries me. It worries me that I feared publicly taking a stance that 70% of Americans and nearly 30% of Black Americans support. Mostly, it worries me because I imagine there are a huge number of other ideas or values or opinions like this that are cowering in the corner. Ideas that are important for us to engage and debate and discuss without trying to “cancel” the person we’re debating with.

Elizabeth Bruenig, who is far to the left of where I am, recently said on Twitter that the culture of accountability we live in (her words, I think, for cancel culture) is not tenable if we don’t pair it with a culture of redemption, never mind accuracy. And I agree with this point, too.

In other words: I think the “cancel culture” the right frankly whines about is often the product of powerful people finally being held accountable for their grotesque, dumb or dangerous opinions. Bari Weiss getting criticized on Twitter for a bad story is not “cancel culture.” But Bari Weiss being bullied and trashed in a company-wide Slack channel with zero repercussions for what are, in my estimation, centrist political leanings, is a dangerous and frightening evolution of the public’s attempt at broader accountability.

And the stories of Emmanuel Cafferty and others who have lost their livelihoods for minor transgressions or no transgressions at all is even more frightening.

So does cancel culture exist? It really depends on how you define it. I do think we’re living in a culture where the masses can hold the most powerful individuals and entities on the planet accountable in a way they never could before. And I think that’s good. But I’m also wary of the mob’s delight in this accountability, and the mistakes it makes in its haste to crush the “opposition,” which has repeatedly left innocent ordinary citizens in ruin.

A story that matters.

For the last few years, economists and labor experts have been warning that automation would destroy jobs and usher in new demand for a more skilled workforce. But in the last four months, the coronavirus pandemic has sped the timeline up more than they could have imagined. Companies are embracing automation to cut costs and increase efficiency. Half of all Americans were working from home in May, up from 15 percent before the pandemic. Now, Democrats and Republicans — usually on opposite ends of this debate — are both calling for training programs to help transition millions of workers into jobs they can do from home. “The Great Recession was a lost opportunity,” said Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University. “Now, are we going to take this moment to help low-wage workers move into the middle class and give them skills to thrive? Or are they just going to go back to low-wage jobs that are dead ends?” Click.


  • $2 trillion. The price tag, over four years, on a new plan from Joe Biden to address climate change and overhaul America’s energy system.
  • 18.5%. The percentage of political ads in the Alabama Senate Republican race that were “positive ads,” the lowest in any primary in the country.
  • 59%. The percentage of Americans who rate their overall stress level as high or moderate.
  • 43%. The percent of registered voters who think Trump represents change.
  • 50%. The percent of registered voters who think Biden represents change.
  • 2%. Kanye West’s share of the national vote, according to a new poll.
  • 11. The number of days Kanye West was running for president, before dropping out this morning.

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Healthy volunteers who took Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine candidate generated an immune system response to the virus, and there were “no trial-limiting safety concerns,” a major step forward in getting a vaccine to the public. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was a small phase one trial and is not seen as definitive proof of a vaccine’s efficacy. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, in charge of running the trial, said it makes it “pretty clear that this vaccine is capable of inducing quite good [levels] of neutralizing antibodies.” Click.

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