Sensemaker: DC: the post-mortem

Friday 8 January 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The UK introduced a requirement for negative Covid tests for everyone arriving from abroad as more than 1,100 deaths in one day were recorded for the first time since April. 
  • The US threatened sanctions against individuals involved in the arrests of more than 50 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
  • Donald Trump called for reconciliation and denounced those who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, a day after telling them he loved them.
  • Neil Sheehan, who broke the story of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, died aged 85, five years after revealing how he did it in an interview published for the first time today.

DC: the post-mortem

What to do with a president who incites insurrection? The question consumes Washington because the whole town knows that doing nothing leaves the rule of law on life support.

Long stories short

  • The UK introduced a requirement for negative Covid tests for everyone arriving from abroad as more than 1,100 deaths in one day were recorded for the first time since April. 
  • The US threatened sanctions against individuals involved in the arrests of more than 50 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
  • Donald Trump called for reconciliation and denounced those who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, a day after telling them he loved them.
  • Neil Sheehan, who broke the story of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, died aged 85, five years after revealing how he did it in an interview published for the first time today.

DC: the post-mortem

What to do with a president who incites insurrection? The question consumes Washington because the whole town knows that doing nothing leaves the rule of law on life support.

The options:

  • Invoke the 25th amendment to the constitution and have Mike Pence replace Trump for the last 13 days of his term. This would require a cabinet majority, which looks implausible given that two members who might have supported the move – transportation secretary Elaine Chao and education secretary Betsy de Vos – have resigned. More importantly, Pence is reported to have ruled it out.
  • Impeach and convict. A much more convincing case for high crimes and misdemeanours on Trump’s part could be drawn up now than last time the Democrats tried it, and now that they control both houses of Congress the process could move quickly to a Senate trial. A conviction would also bar Trump from ever running for federal office again, which would be as much of a relief to many Republicans as to Democrats. But conviction requires a two-thirds Senate majority that remains implausible. 
  • Get him to resign – the Nixon option, championed today by the conservative editorial page of the WSJ. This would rid the world of a liability while leaving him some agency over his post-presidency. It might also be the preferred option of Pence, who after four years as a monotonic Trump enabler is suddenly a pivotal figure in the Trump endgame. But voluntary resignation by the man himself? Dream on.

A more likely scenario is one in which Trump leaves the White House a day early and skips the inauguration. That might reduce the likelihood of more unrest involving his supporters, although law enforcement tends to cut them an awful lot of slack.

Here’s Biden: “No one can tell me that if that had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol”. Or, as Tracey Dent, a Black community activist from Milwaukee, put it: “If that was us they’d be throwing us down the steps”.

In any other week a story that unfolded a few miles down the Lake Michigan shore from Milwaukee would have dominated headlines there and across America. This was the decision not to bring criminal charges against a white police officer who shot a Black man seven times in the back at point-blank range last summer – a prelude to deadly rioting in Kenosha and enduring anguish in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

What happened? On 23 August last year, police were called to an incident involving Jacob Blake and his fiancée Laquisha Booker in Kenosha. Booker claimed Blake had taken the keys to her rental car and was refusing to return them. 

Officers arrived at what they’d been told was a possible domestic abuse scenario. After an altercation Blake was shot seven times in the back, in front of his children, as he reached into a car despite officers insisting he “get down” and comply with further requests. 

This week Michael Graveley, the Kenosha County district attorney, said that after a “dramatically exhaustive investigation” he’d decided there was no ethical or practical basis on which to bring charges against Officer Rusten Sheskey, the seven-year police veteran who pulled the trigger. 

Why won’t the state prosecute? Graveley said he felt “in many ways completely inadequate for this moment”, never having experienced racial bias himself. Even so he said he saw no controversy in the facts of the shooting, nor in the evidence that the officers or Blake himself – who survived the incident with life-changing injuries – might have offered as witnesses.

Blake admits disobeying police commands, arming himself with a knife and resisting efforts to arrest him. And in Wisconsin the burden on prosecutors in cases like this is to disprove the appropriateness of police use of self-defence, rather than to prove its appropriateness.

The case was “about Officer Sheskey’s perspective, his knowledge at each moment, and what a reasonable officer would do, at each decision point”, Graveley said. He stated that nothing could be done to discredit Sheskey’s claim that he was on the verge of being stabbed at the very point when he fired the shots. 

What happens now? Blake can seek civil damages but, without sufficient evidence to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that Sheskey shot him unlawfully, his pursuit of justice in Wisconsin is coming to an end. 

On the federal level the US Attorney’s office is still pursuing a civil rights investigation which Graveley said was “getting to a point of making a charging decision”. This investigation covers the shooting and the protests, violence and arson that shook Kenosha in the days that followed and has echoed across the country ever since. 

Graveley believes his hands were tied, and that may be the problem. In the words of Blake’s uncle, the decision not to charge Sheskey “is going to weigh on this city and this state for years to come”.



Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Musk’s money
Elon Musk is now the richest person on earth. The Tesla CEO’s net worth surpassed that of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on Thursday morning and currently stands at $195 billion. Tesla’s share price, which had already grown seven-fold since the start of the pandemic, zoomed up again at the prospect of a Democrat-controlled US senate, which could pave the way for a Green New Deal and new US subsidies for electric cars. It’s an impressive feat for a company that has only just turned its first annual profit; Tesla is now worth more than most traditional car companies combined. No one is more aware of the fragile nature of his success than Musk. Last month he warned employees that if investors lose faith in Tesla “our stock will immediately get crushed like a soufflé under a sledgehammer”. At the news that he is now richer than anyone else on the planet, he tweeted: “How strange”. Indeed, but not half as strange as his earnest ambition to spend much of his fortune on a new city on Mars, and to die there.


New things technology, science, engineering

Four day week?
Its time has come, says the New Economics Foundation think tank, and the Guardian has an upbeat piece on working shorter hours more efficiently. Exhibit one is an Essex publishing firm that cut back to four days to compensate staff for a 20 per cent pay cut early in the pandemic, and found that everyone worked hard and cheerfully to keep their three-day weekends. Exhibit two is Unilever’s move to four days for its New Zealand workforce, with no change in pay. Microsoft and Toyota are experimenting with fewer days too, and another think tank says Rishi Sunak, the UK chancellor, could avoid mass unemployment by supporting employers cutting back to four. Bring it on.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Yet more warming
At the end of the week when a Democratic US Senate majority made progressive American climate policies more likely it may seem perverse to highlight a weird warming effect of the pandemic, but Sensemaker follows the evidence. A new paper in Geophysical Research Letters says a steep fall in aerosol emissions as the world went into lockdown led to a reduction in “aerosol cooling” and a modest net warming effect last spring. That aerosol cooling is apparently caused by, among other things, black carbon, which seems odd considering dark surfaces absorb light rather than reflect it. Explanations welcome. In related news, last year was, overall, the hottest ever recorded. 


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Covid drugs
The pandemic’s impact on British hospitals and healthcare workers, not to mention patients and their families, is beyond crisis point. More than 800 people are being admitted to ICU wards with Covid every day. More than 1,000 people have died after a positive Covid diagnosis on each of the past two days. Non-Covid care is as squeezed as it has ever been. Almost everything now depends on a fast vaccine rollout – but not quite everything. The BBC reports that two new drugs have been approved to treat those with severe cases of the disease. Tociliizumab and sarilumab, used in conjunction with the cheap steroid dexamethasone, can both save one extra life for every 12 people treated. A course of either one costs £750-£1,000 but that’s cheaper than an ICU bed for a day. Every little helps. 


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Uighur birth rate
Propaganda warning: the state-run China Daily newspaper is promoting a piece of state-backed Chinese research claiming Beijing’s “anti-extremism” policies in Xinjiang have emancipated Uighur women, lowering their birth rate so that they are no longer “baby-making machines”. Adrian Zenz, the world’s most respected researcher on the mass incarceration of the Uighurs, produced a report last year that noted a significant fall in the natural population growth rate among Uighurs in southern Xinjiang the year before, and suggested that this was a result of forced sterilisation. Truth will out, and more often from Zenz than the politburo.

Lucy Scholes: Radio has never been more important

It’s a medium that’s been around for decades – and yet it’s still proving its worth

Prior to March of last year, I’d always thought of radio as little more than background noise. This isn’t to undermine the pleasure and entertainment gleaned from particular programmes, but rather to try to explain that it was just one source of the many voices and sounds that made up the noisy fabric of my auditory environment. Yet, when my world, like all of ours, abruptly became so much smaller and quieter, I found myself turning the radio on or playing a podcast much more often than before. I also began to take more notice of what I was listening to. And, as it happens, I wasn’t the only one.

To see just how important radio still is to people, even though it’s competing with an increasing number of other digital entertainments, one only needs to look to all the attention that Emma Barnett’s Woman’s Hour debut received earlier this week (she kicked off her tenure as presenter by reading out a letter congratulating the show on its 75th anniversary – from none other than the Queen). Or the extra programming that’s celebrating The Archers 70th anniversary and its unrivalled place as the world’s longest running continuing drama.

But radio has also been particularly well suited to serving listeners during the pandemic. When it comes to commercial stations, both audience figures and the number of hours people were listening for grew markedly last spring, during the first lockdown. Then again during the second in late autumn. According to numbers compiled by the industry body Radiocentre, in November, more than a third of listeners were tuning in for an extra hour and 53 minutes a day when compared to pre-lockdown numbers. Put simply, more time at home – whether because your dining room table is now your office, you’ve been furloughed, or are in your sickbed – means more time spent listening to the radio. 

What we’re listening to has become an invaluable element of our strange new way of life. These voices have kept us company while our friends and family haven’t been able to. 

As the first lockdown hit, like so many others in her industry, Kate Molleson, presenter of Radio 3’s New Music Show & Music Matters, suddenly found herself classified as a key worker. It felt, she tells me, “completely bizarre,” especially as she initially struggled to equate her job with that of frontline health workers or people providing food or other life-and-death services. But as time went by, and she received more and more messages from listeners telling her just how much comfort Radio 3 was bringing them, she started to realise how important a service she and her colleagues were providing when it came to the state of the nation’s mental health.

Her regular listeners have always been a loyal lot, she says, but they had also kept what she describes as something of a “respectful distance”. Now, with people craving a sense of community and connection, this began to change. And it wasn’t just the audience who became more familiar.

“For my New Music Show,” she explains, “we asked musicians to record themselves at home: they sent songs from kitchens, living room sessions with kids and partners, strange late-night experiments involving whatever instruments and materials were to hand. The results have been way more vulnerable and daring than most polished studio recordings. So, in a sense, the lockdown had paradoxically brought people closer together. Listeners and musicians, right into each other’s living rooms. That’s the connection radio can offer.”

Sure, I can turn my TV on for a couple of hours of escapism via a great film or a gripping box set. And if I want the opposite – to have the headlines of the day handed to me – I can tune into the news. But if I want to feel a connection with others and engaged with the wider world around me, radio is uniquely well placed, not least because it’s a medium that encourages discursiveness and discussion. I tune into one station and find myself in the middle of a fraught conversation about the government’s latest U-turn; switch to another and I’m listening to two critics waxing lyrical about a new novel; try another still and I’m suddenly transported to a concert hall.

Radio doesn’t demand one’s attention in the way watching something on a screen does, rather it invites and encourages you to engage with what’s going on, which is somehow much more enticing. It makes us feel like we’re part of the world – especially if we’re listening while also doing something else; a boring piece of work, for example, or a dull domestic chore – and, in this, it’s the closest most of us come these days to overhearing an interesting conversation on the tube, or exchanging a few words with the people at the next table in the pub.

It makes complete sense, I realise, that I’ve enjoyed Locklisted, the regular extra episodes that the team behind the popular books podcast, Backlisted, have been recording over the past year as an extra offering for those of us who support them on Patreon. It’s like having them in my flat with me, chatting about books and films I love, or introducing me to music I’ve never heard before.

They, too, have seen their audience expand: Backlisted numbers were up a full 25 per cent in 2020. Especially interesting, though, is hearing that the show hasn’t just been a godsend for listeners, but also the presenters. Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, along with their producer Nicky Birch, are all quick to point out that making it has been a lifeline for them as well.

These days, when I turn the radio on, I often find myself thinking about Penelope Fitzgerald’s description of Broadcasting House during the Second World War as “scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark”.

It’s the line from which the novel Human Voices (1980) takes its title, based on Fitzgerald’s own experience at the BBC during the war. The circumstances may be different, but the end result is the same; I listen to these voices and it helps me feel a little less alone.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah

Patricia Clarke
@paticlarke

Photographs Getty Images