The Washington Post - 13.08.2019

(Kiana) #1




resident Trump will do just about
anything to get his daily, hypoder-
mic fix of attention, including the
spread of racist tropes and con-
spiracy theories. And no, I am not start-
ing a rumor that Trump is secretly a drug
addict. It is a metaphor. But if my editors
and their fact checkers were all on vaca-
tion, encouraging this lie would surely
kindle enthusiasm in portions of the left,
outrage on the populist right and tut-
tutting from centrists concerned about
damage to our democracy. With a large
enough dose of mendacity and malice, my
fabrication might even go viral.
Instead, I will just engage in my nor-
mal, non-viral tut-tutting, thereby aiding
Trump’s most recent attention grab — the
retweeted implication that a former pres-
ident was somehow involved in the ap-
parent suicide of disgraced financier Jef-
frey Epstein.
Conspiracy theories are not new to
American politics. They were arguably
more prevalent and powerful in the past.
Many Americans believed that the Feder-
alists were bought and sold by the British,
or that Catholic migration was really
papist infiltration, or that a Jewish cabal
sought to bring the United States into
World War II.
But contemporary conspiracy theories
are different in two ways. First, they are
carried widely and instantaneously on
the Internet, and often on social media
that echoes and exaggerates preexisting
convictions. Current technology gives be-
lievers in conspiracy theories the illusion
that their views are broadly shared. And
conspiracy theorists are early adopters of
new technologies, making innovation the
ally of deceit.
Second, the most prominent and visi-
ble American — Trump — regularly em-
ploys and legitimizes conspiracy think-
ing. Much of the social scientific litera-
ture related to conspiracy theories paints
their advocates as social outsiders, ex-
cluded from political power. But our
main problem is not Alex Jones or 8chan;
it is a president who is also a self-
interested fabulist. Trump employed con-
spiracy theories to question Barack
Obama’s legitimacy as president, and
then accused Obama of wiretapping
Trump Tower. Trump developed con-
spiracy theories about voter fraud in case
he needed to contest an unfavorable
outcome in the 2016 election. He cultivat-
ed conspiracy theories about the “deep
state” in an attempt to discredit Robert
S. Mueller III’s investigation. He asserted
that windmills cause cancer and that Sen.
Ted Cruz’s father was part of a conspiracy
to kill John F. Kennedy — because, well,
he prefers epistemological chaos.
Sometimes Trump has used conspira-
torial thinking to shape perceptions of
important issues. He accused the Mexi-
can government of purposely sending
criminals and rapists to the United
States. He accuses refugees, against all
evidence, of being a “Trojan horse” terror-
ist threat. The goal of these accusations
was clearly to whip up hatred of foreign-
ers and outsiders.
Conspiracy theories are a particularly
complex and malignant social challenge.
Studies have found that mere exposure to
anti-government conspiracy thinking re-
duces trust in governmental institutions
— even when accusations are refuted by
strong evidence. According to one study,
just being told about conspiracy theories
related to the death of Princess Diana
shifted people’s views, without them real-
izing their views had changed.
This presents a problem for social
scientists. Since they can’t even ask ques-
tions on this topic without influencing
the answers, how do they measure the
true influence of conspiracy thinking?
And this presents a problem for jour-
nalists, particularly opinion journalists.
What if the process of answering Trump’s
charges actually serves Trump’s purpos-
es? What if sunlight is actually not the
best disinfectant? And yet, doesn’t silence
in the face of lies imply concession?
Without fully understanding how to
deprive conspiracy theories of oxygen, we
have a good idea how they are hurting our
political system.
They sometimes have a direct influ-
ence on behavior — say, when conspiracy
theories about vaccines cause immuniza-
tion rates to fall.
They distract attention from other im-
portant issues — say, when a president
promotes a conspiracy theory to change
the topic from gun-related violence.
Conspiracy theories can encourage
cynicism and apathy about the political
They can undermine democratic dia-
logue. If our neighbor is wrong, we can try
to persuade him or her. If our neighbor is
part of an evil plot, there is no option but
to expose and defeat him or her.
And conspiracy theories can under-
mine a belief in truth itself. They elevate
the arguments that serve your side, no
matter how absurd or destructive they
become. They honor what is useful above
what is real and right.
All this might commend a different
response. Rather than refuting specific
conspiracy theories, perhaps we should
focus on the character of political leaders
who employ them. They are liars and
enemies of self-government.


A conspiracy


truth itself


very August, my mother and her
siblings host a family barbecue
under the enormous pecan tree at
the house where they grew up in
Severn, N.C. In the mix are great-aunts
and great-uncles, along with two or three
generations of cousins and folks who have
been friends of the family forever. In
short, a great focus group for the 2020
Democratic presidential contest.
This was kind of an in-person reprise of
a totally unscientific Twitter poll I con-
ducted in May. The foursome then of
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Sen. Eliza-
beth Warren (Mass.), Mayor Pete Buttigieg
of South Bend, Ind., and former vice presi-
dent Joe Biden are still top of mind now.
Biden’s hold on African American support
was confirmed. I saw potential for Butt-
igieg to boost his support among black
voters. The enthusiasm for Warren was
palpable. And there was respect for Har-
ris, but there was also concern.
A family friend started things off when
he came to me and said he liked Warren.
He liked her directness and toughness.
Two others said the same thing. The en-
thusiasm was what stood out. They were
real-life examples of what I had been
reading a lot about lately: Warren is excit-
ing black voters because she talks to them
not as voters to whom she must pander
but as voters worth pursuing.
I couldn’t help but be surprised by how
many times Buttigieg was mentioned.
Many of them couldn’t say his name. One
said, “This other little fella.” Her face lit up
when I showed her a photograph of Butt-
igieg, “That’s him!” We’re talking African
Americans who are in their 60s, 70s and
older who mentioned him favorably. “I
like him because he was straightforward,”
one relative said. When I asked her what
Buttigieg was straightforward about, she
talked about how he handled questions
about the police-involved shooting in
South Bend in June. “He didn’t tell lies. He
didn’t embellish stuff.”

Another relative echoed that senti-
ment, saying Buttigieg “stands strong”
and is “not apologetic” — an implicit
reference to Buttigieg being openly gay.
More than one person said his being out
meant no one “could hold it over him” to
hurt his candidacy.
My mother likes Buttigieg. But her
heart is where the hearts of the over-
whelming majority of the people I talked
to are — with Biden. Biden was the first
choice of 20 of the 26 people at the bar-
beque. The No. 1 reason mentioned was
Biden’s experience. Not mentioned by
anyone was his former boss, former presi-
dent Barack Obama. So, you are mistaken
if you think black affection for Obama is
the wind beneath Biden’s wings. Nope.
They like Biden.
But there is also something else at work
here. It’s a belief that it’s going to take a
white man to straighten things out. “The
way the system is set up now, there is so
much racism that it’s going to have to be
an old white person to go after an old
white person,” my aunt told me. “Old-
school against old-school.”
Now, get this. Despite saying that about
Biden, guess who her favorite candidate
is? Harris. Yet, my aunt, like everyone else
at the barbecue, thought that Biden was
the one who could beat President Trump.
She thought this not only because Harris
is not “an old white person” but also
because Harris is a woman. “Nobody is
going to vote for a woman,” said another
female relative. “They didn’t vote for Hil-
lary [Clinton].... If she were a man, she
would have won.”
Another relative put it this way. “I’m not
concerned about color. I’m not worried
about [the nominee being] a woman,” she
said. “My concern is for the country.” Yet,
there is good news for Harris. Harris was
the person who was most mentioned as a
second choice for Democratic nominee.
Others mentioned were Sen. Bernie Sand-
ers (I-Vt.), Warren and Buttigieg. In fact,
one of my older female relatives said of
Buttigieg, “He may become my first
choice.” As for dream tickets, the most
mentioned was a Biden-Harris ticket.
Here are two other takeaways. I came
away with the distinct impression that
where Harris is with these black voters is
where Obama was with African American
voters about this time in 2007 when black
voters for the most part were with Clinton.
That is, until Obama won the Iowa cau-
cuses in 2008, a thunderclap moment
when black voters saw that Obama could
win. Harris needs a similar moment. She
just needs to clear two hurdles. There’s the
“a woman can’t win” refrain I heard all
afternoon. Then there’s the worry that it’s
still too soon to have another black person
as president.
The final takeaway is that my 26 rela-
tives and family friends want to win.
While they love Biden, they will vote for
the Democratic nominee next November,
thus making them part of the growing
“vote blue, no matter who” chorus among
Democrats. Defeating Trump is Priority
No. 1.
Twitter: @CapehartJ


2020 thoughts

from a family




he San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s
99th baby southern white rhi-
noceros was born recently, but
the arrival of “Edward”
sparked much more widespread inter-
est than the previous 98 births of his
subspecies. That’s because Edward’s
conception occurred not through nat-
ural mating but via artificial insemina-
tion. He is the first southern white
rhino born through artificial repro-
duction in the United States.
The world’s five rhino species all live
under severe threats to their survival,
including from poaching and shrink-
ing habitat. Some species, such as the
greater one-horned rhino, number in
the thousands and are considered
critically endangered. The Javan and
Sumatran rhinos of Asia, by contrast,
are near extinction.
Some rhinos in human care don’t
reproduce well, which complicates ef-
forts to sustain these important insur-
ance populations. Scientists have
worked for years to develop reliable
means of artificial reproduction, with
limited success. Examples are scarce:
A dozen years ago, a southern white
rhino was born through artificial in-
semination in Budapest, and a greater
one-horned rhino was born with such
help in Miami in April.
Southern white rhinos of Africa,
once close to extinction, have rebound-
ed in protected sanctuaries. Edward’s
arrival by artificial means thus would
not have been quite the heralded event
it was if not for one fact: His birth
holds out hope for saving the function-
ally extinct northern white rhino.
Only two northern white rhinos
remain in the world, and both are
female. The last male died in March

  1. The duo lives under protective
    guard from poachers at the Ol Pejeta
    Conservancy in Kenya. But there is
    hope, in the form of DNA from a dozen
    northern white rhinos banked at the
    San Diego Zoo Institute for Conserva-
    tion Research, in a facility called the
    Frozen Zoo. Over the past 44 years,
    tissues and cells from some of the
    world’s most endangered species have
    been stored in this cryobank.
    Analysis by my colleague Oliver
    Ryder, director of conservation genet-
    ics, has found that there is sufficient
    genetic variability in the frozen north-
    ern white rhino cell lines to theoreti-
    cally reestablish the population. By
    collaborating with scientists around
    the world, we envision a future north-
    ern white rhino baby born to a south-
    ern white rhino surrogate. Perhaps
    Edward’s mother, Victoria, will fill that
    Victoria and her new calf are doing
    well. Edward represents an important
    step in an effort to save a related white
    rhino subspecies, but what we learned
    from his birth could also help Suma-
    tran and Javan rhinos. At the moment,
    though, he is simply a baby rhino,
    staying close to his mother as she
    guards him, cuddles him (in rhino
    fashion, between her horns) and puts
    mud on his back to screen him from
    the summer sun.
    Edward is also a lesson to all of us, a
    reminder that humans, as stewards of
    Earth, must protect species at risk of
    extinction. The world faces an epic
    extinction crisis, outlined most recent-
    ly in a United Nations report in May
    that brought together three years of
    work by nearly 150 researchers from
    50 nations. Climate change, habitat
    loss, wildlife trafficking and other
    human-caused disturbances all play a

role in the rising threat.
Humanity must work to preserve
these species — in the wild and in
managed care. Ideally, protective ac-
tion will follow the guidelines of the
International Union for Conservation
of Nature’s One Plan Approach to
Conservation, which blends human
management with preservation in the
wild. But the world cannot wait until
each species, one by one, vanishes
before our eyes. Success will require
initiating conservation efforts when it
is possible to bolster and protect
existing populations.
Last year, San Diego Zoo Global
played a part in efforts to rebuild the
black rhino population in Africa by
sending a Safari Park-born 8-year-old
black rhino to be released into the wild
in Tanzania. He has joined a female
black rhino at Singita Grumeti Re-
serves, where we hope they will help
restore a rhino population that was
lost in the region, and unite four
scattered remnant populations of the
species. If they are successful, the
species will recover long before it gets
to the brink of extinction.
But the northern white rhino is
already teetering on the brink. Now we
are compelled to intervene using
banked frozen cells rather than pro-
tecting populations of living individu-
al animals. Saving individual animals
and family groups while fostering
sustainable populations is the ideal
conservation strategy. But sometimes
artificial reproductive intervention
may be the only way to avert extinc-
tion. With persistence leading to fur-
ther scientific advances, Edward’s ar-
rival will be living proof of that.

The writer is the director of reproductive
physiology at San Diego Zoo Global.

How a newborn rhino

could help save his cousins

A day-old southern white rhino calf beside his mother at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on July 29.



t’s naive to think that any single
policy or program can prevent every
form of gun violence, ranging from
intimate partner violence to gang
drive-by homicides, suicides and mall-
rampage atrocities. Yet each form of such
violence involves one common mecha-
nism: a gun.
We can reduce these risks through a
suite of evidence-based policies that do
two things — create more careful licens-
ing for gun purchasers and more effec-
tively regulate teenage and young adult
gun buyers.
Better background checks for all sales
provide the foundation for any effective
gun policy. These measures are most
effective when paired with a system that
requires purchasers to obtain a license
from law enforcement. Most states with
purchaser licensing require applicants to
submit fingerprints, as people must do
when applying for occupational licens-
ing. Fingerprint-based background
checks are less likely to miss people who
are legally barred from buying guns.
Licensing also creates greater account-
ability, whereby sellers, both licensed and
private, can sell a gun only to someone
with a valid license. Many studies have
found that purchaser licensing reduces
homicide and suicide, as well as the
number of guns available in an under-
ground market. Sixty-three percent of
current gun owners and 81 percent of
non-owners support such requirements.
We should also provide more stringent
oversight of young people who wish to
buy powerful weapons.
The risk of committing a homicide
peaks between the ages of 18 and 24;
offending rates do not decline until the
mid-to-late-20s. Fully 38 percent of mur-
derers with known ages are below age 25.
This is due in part to ongoing develop-
ment of brain domains that regulate im-

pulse control, judgment and long-term
planning. Yet people in this age range
frequently provide little actionable infor-
mation about their well-being or trust-
worthiness to medical or law enforce-
ment authorities.
The angry 20-year-old loner who posts
racist or misogynist Reddit manifestos
probably hasn’t been convicted of any
crime. He’s even less likely to have been
involuntarily committed to a mental in-
stitution. From the perspective of an ad-
ministrative system, he’s just another guy
who lives at home with his parents, taking
part-time classes at community college.
Within the past two weeks, young
adults used legally purchased firearms to
perpetrate several atrocities across the
nation. A 21-year-old suspect is charged
with killing 22 people in El Paso on Aug. 3.
A 24-year-old gunman killed nine people
in Dayton, Ohio, the next day. Only a week
before, a 19-year-old killed three people at
California’s Gilroy Garlic Festival.
These are just three dramatic exam-
ples. They are not typical, but they do
underscore gun violence that is occurring
among young adults every day in our
country. Young adults ages 18 to 24 ac-
count for only 9 percent of the popula-
tion, yet they accounted for 23 percent of
all firearm homicide victims in 2017. This
increased risk for both perpetration and
victimization of gun violence requires us
to consider additional oversight of young
gun purchasers.
Avis, Hertz and their competitors in
the rental car business have figured out
that young drivers are greater safety risks
than their older friends and relatives,
and, consequently, implement more rig-
orous standards before renting out a car.
Why not do the same for guns?
We are not suggesting that individuals
under the age of 25 should be barred from
buying weapons. But more oversight is
warranted. For example, youthful gun
purchasers might need to meet higher
standards for gun ownership (e.g., no
criminal history at all) and additional

safety training. There could be a more
rigorous licensing process through law
enforcement, such as requirements that
parents or others provide supporting ref-
Or we could take a lesson from motor
vehicle safety and create a graduated
licensing system for guns. Graduated
driver’s licensing has reduced rates of
motor vehicle deaths among young driv-
ers by limiting exposure to risky situa-
tions that could lead to harm for them-
selves and others. Of course, exemptions
could be extended to those serving in the
military or law enforcement.
Our patchwork of state laws makes it
far too easy for people who are dangerous
to themselves or others to obtain fire-
arms. Coupled with anger and hate, these
individuals can cause harm, even when
they don’t make the news. The problem is
particularly clear regarding assault-style
weaponry. As long as assault weapons are
legal, licensing standards for purchasing
these guns should be higher, including
age-based restrictions and oversight.
Again, we issue special driver’s licenses
for 18-wheelers; more powerful guns
should face similar requirements.
These solutions can help reduce gun
violence without infringing upon lawful
gun owners’ interests and rights. The
American public is crying out for effective
No single policy will prevent all mass
shootings or eliminate everyday acts of
gun violence. That’s no reason to be
passive. A portfolio of feasible efforts
such as these is a great place to start.

Cassandra Crifasi is an assistant professor
and deputy director at the Johns Hopkins
Center for Gun Policy and Research. Harold
Pollack is Helen Ross professor of social
service administration at the University of
Chicago. Daniel Webster is Bloomberg
professor of American health at the Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School and director of the
Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and

Where to start on preventing gun violence

Biden was the first choice of

20 of the 26 people I talked to.

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