A Farewell to Readers
Editor’s Note: The past few years have been a turbulent time. After a pandemic, the 2020 elections and fears of nuclear Armageddon, we’ve been through a lot. I want to thank you for sticking around and reading this newsletter through it all. That’s why it’s bittersweet to tell you that this is the last issue of this newsletter. But the news isn’t all bad: You will continue to receive sharp commentary and analysis on what’s happening in the world from fresh vantage points in our Opinion Today newsletter, sent Monday through Saturday. Sign up here to make sure it lands in your inbox.
When I started writing Debatable in 2019, my hope was to create a newsletter that could offer an entry point into some of the moment’s most pressing and impenetrable-seeming disagreements. In the years since, I’ve been heartened to hear that at least for some readers, it has served that purpose, helping you to cut through the high dudgeon of the hot-take industrial complex and to better figure out — or in some cases, reconsider — where you stand.
So for the last issue of this newsletter, I wanted to gather some past editions that I think might continue to be useful for months and even years to come. (Most of the others will still live on The Times’s website.) I’ll still be here at Opinion, working on other projects. But for now: Thank you for reading.
In the many instances when I mentioned to friends or other journalists that I was writing an edition of this newsletter on climate change, I often got a quizzical response: In view of the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue, what more was there really left to debate?
Quite a lot, as it turned out. For starters: Is it even politically and technologically possible for the United States to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050? And given that the United States has done more than any other country to contribute to climate change, what does it owe the rest of the world?
The challenge of decarbonization also raises profound questions about how our economic system may need to change in the coming years, in ways both large and small. Is Americans’ love of cars — even if they are replaced with electric ones — and gas stoves sustainable? To expedite the renewable energy transition, would a carbon tax suffice, or do we need a more sweeping industrial policy like the Green New Deal? On a planet with finite resources, might rich countries even need to shrink their economies?
As the costs of climate change mount — and they will, for the next few decades at least, no matter what we do now — attention is turning toward the urgency and limits of adapting to a hotter planet. Should humanity start to approach those limits, it will go looking with increasing desperation for technological solutions to the crisis, each of which courts factions of boosters and detractors: lab-grown meat, old-fashioned nuclear fission, nascent nuclear fusion — even turning the sky white.
The status of democracy, here and abroad
Political scientists and pundits have for years expressed fears that American democracy is in a bad way, imperiled by a too-powerful presidency, a “rogue” Supreme Court in dire need of reform and the slow death of the Voting Rights Act. But the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol raised the stakes: Suddenly, people were debating whether American democracy was about to collapse, whether in the aftermath of a stolen presidential election or in the fires of a second civil war.
The resurgence of authoritarian politics is a global concern: According to data from V-Dem, a monitoring institute based in Sweden, more democracies were deteriorating, and even slipping into autocracy, in 2021 than at any point in the past 50 years. But recently, as my colleague Amanda Taub wrote in The Interpreter newsletter last month, those findings have gotten pushback. For now, Taub’s remains an open question: “Is global democracy in decline — or is it just a vibe?”
Ukraine and the U.S. role in the world
There is still no end in sight to the war in Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin of Russia launched a year ago. In instigating the biggest military conflict in Europe since World War II, he has brought the harrowing possibility of nuclear war back to the fore of global consciousness, shocked the international economic order and forced a reckoning with the national-security risks of fossil-fuel dependency.
As public support for American military aid to Kyiv flags, and as the second anniversary of America’s controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, the Ukraine war has also added fuel to the longstanding debate about whether the United States has started to step back from its post-World War II role as the world’s policeman — and whether it should.
The pandemic next time
More than three years after the coronavirus emerged, no one can conclusively say where it came from. But what we do know, from their handling of both Covid and the mpox outbreak last summer, is that some of the world’s premier public health agencies — namely, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — are not nearly as prepared to respond to pandemics as many thought they were. The C.D.C., at least, has announced plans for an overhaul so that it can respond much faster to outbreaks and communicate to the public more effectively. The public has an immense interest in whether those reforms succeed: As my colleague Zeynep Tufekci wrote this month, the next, much deadlier pandemic could be just around the corner.
The United States and China, on the rocks
As I wrote last week, the international fracas caused by the downing of a Chinese spy balloon in American airspace this month was just the latest episode in a longer story of fraying ties between the world’s two great powers. U.S.-Chinese relations took a turn for the worse in 2018, when the Trump administration began a trade war with Beijing, and went further downhill after the coronavirus outbreak. At the time, The Times reported that “the entrenchment of a fundamental strategic and ideological confrontation between the world’s two largest economies” could end up being President Donald Trump’s “most consequential foreign policy legacy.” Given the way things are going, it could end up being President Biden’s, too.
The age of population anxiety
In 2021, U.S. population growth fell to its lowest rate ever, setting off a cascade of takes warning of America’s national decline. It was reasonable to wonder if the difficulty of raising a child in the United States had something to do with it. But slowing population growth is a global phenomenon: Even countries with more generous family and child care benefits have struggled to boost birthrates, and this year, China joined an expanding set of countries — which includes Italy, Japan and South Korea — whose populations have started shrinking. So anxiety about this new demographic transition is here to stay, as is the debate over just how much of a crisis it really poses.
The anti-feminist backlash
If American feminism had a high-water mark in the past few years, it was probably in 2020, when Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and felony sex crime charges — and even that victory was, well, debatable. In the years since, there’s been a re-evaluation of the #MeToo movement and how much it has actually done to root out sexual abuse and discrimination.
Then, in June 2022, came American feminism’s lowest watermark in decades: the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. The confluence of the abrogation of the constitutional right to abortion and the backlash to #MeToo led my colleague Michelle Goldberg to conclude that feminism had arrived at a “moment of despair, the brutal comedown after a season when social transformation appeared possible.” How long will this newer season last, and where will it take us?
Progressive culture, canceled
In the summer of 2020, 153 writers, artists and academics signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine warning of a threat to American intellectual life. The signatories argued that the urge to censor, publicly shame and professionally punish anyone deemed guilty of ideological nonconformity, long common on the right, had become a prevailing tendency on the left as well, creating an intolerant climate that stifled open debate.
Apprehension about cancel culture, as it’s come to be known, was and continues to be earnestly felt by people across the political spectrum. But as the pandemic progressed, that apprehension was seized upon by the right and assimilated into a broader campaign against “wokeness,” which increasingly revolves around the exposure of America’s children to anti-racist pedagogy and gender nonconformity.
In this newsletter, I tried to speak plainly about the partisan political origins of this campaign while still giving the underlying debates that animated it a fair airing. It is common to hear these debates described as belonging to “the culture war,” which can connote an absence of material stakes. But as efforts to ban books by or about Black or L.G.B.T.Q. people and to restrict the rights of transgender Americans accelerate, the stakes have proved to be very material indeed.
In November 2019, I asked my esteemed colleagues in the Food section to weigh in on some of the culinary debates that pop up every Thanksgiving. Opinions were divided on the acceptability of canned cranberry sauce, for example, and on the advisability of frying a turkey. But on the question of turducken, most were adamantly opposed. “This is bull,” said Kim Severson, an Atlanta-based Food reporter. “It’s essentially performative Thanksgiving cooking.”
That comment elicited perhaps my favorite reader response I’ve ever received: an email from Judith Butler, arguably one of the most famous living philosophers, clarifying the meaning (or rather, one meaning) of “performative,” a word she popularized and that has since taken on a life of its own. If that response has helped even one college student navigate the notoriously difficult prose of Butler’s feminist classic “Gender Trouble,” I’ll consider this newsletter a success.
SOME MORE FOR THE ROAD