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About that death in front of the Supreme Court | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, a scheme for ridding Utah of its radical right-wing U.S. senator

One of two things is going to happen between now and next Tuesday’s newsletter. Either I will finally witness an epic moment in NBA lore as a team comes back from an 0-3 playoff series deficit to win, for the first time in the league’s 75-year history. Or else I can breathe a sigh of relief as the Sixers finally finish off Toronto. This Philly-based history fanatic is voting for the more mundane Option 2, please.

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What to think about the climate activist who immolated himself at the U.S. Supreme Court

In the 20-plus years since the 9/11 attacks, Washington, D.C. has often looked like a city living endlessly on pins and needles. How many times has TV cable news dropped everything for a breathless breaking report on lockdowns from gunfire, real or imagined, or, heaven forbid, a low-flying airplane like the one last week for a parachute stunt at a Nationals baseball game that forgot to warn the Capitol Police?

In that nervous atmosphere, it’s somewhat stunning how little attention was paid last Friday evening when a man walked onto the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, just a stone’s throw or two across from the Capitol, and lit himself on fire. The badly burned man was helicoptered to a D.C. hospital and pronounced dead on Saturday. You can be excused if you didn’t hear about it. There was little coverage, and the first threadbare pieces that did appear like this one from NBC News seemed remarkably incurious about who would do this, or why.

Now that we know more, it feels as if a city that pushes all the buttons when there’s a whiff of terrorism is utterly flummoxed by an apparent act of conscience.

The deceased was a 50-year-old climate-change activist from Colorado who chose Friday’s annual celebration of Earth Day to lodge the ultimate protest against humankind’s failure to act quickly or decisively about fossil-fuel pollution. For older folks like me, the news of a self-immolation in the nation’s capital brought back unwelcome memories of the Vietnam War era, when Buddhist monks over in South Vietnam and, famously in 1965, a Pennsylvania-born Quaker outside the Pentagon burned themselves to death to protest that conflict. Now, as back then, the shock of a self-immolation brings a flood of contradictory feelings.

In the case of what happened Friday at the Supreme Court, I feel as if we should absolutely not glorify the act — and yet it’s also impossible to ignore, given the growing stakes of the climate fight and the muddled place where we are right now.

I’m deliberately not mentioning the name of the man who died. Whatever one might feel about this particular man’s passion for saving our planet and for his Buddhist beliefs, which were apparently similar to the monks who self-immolated in the 1960s, I think we can all agree we desire no more deaths like this one. To the contrary, we need caring, engaged souls like the one that left us this weekend here on our embattled earth, fighting until their last given breath. And so maybe not glorifying the man or his words will help discourage others.

But I’ll also make one small exception, around the reason I’m writing this. Earlier this year on his active Facebook page, the man posted a picture of the Swedish youth climate striker Greta Thunberg with the question “What now adults?

That’s a great question. In the first four months of 2022, I’ve been stunned to watch the widening disconnect between the urgent United Nations climate reports — that humankind has less than three years to make carbon pollution start going down instead of up — and the short-term thinking of world leaders who can always find a crisis, from a war in Ukraine to their sagging approval ratings, they can use to justify inaction or flip-flops.

That disconnect is a looming environmental and political disaster, but as a parent I also can’t stop thinking about what these betrayals by the so-called grown-ups are saying to the younger generations who were taught, correctly, that without immediate action they will enter adulthood along with rising sea levels, deadly droughts, and killer wildfires. We told these children that they were going to change the world, and if you haven’t thought about the consequences of then blowing off their marches and their climate strikes, maybe you should. Many youth activists are talking about the impact on their mental health.

“When leaders met with youth organizers and the streets were full of people marching for climate justice I thought for sure there was no way our cries for action would be ignored,” Jamie Margolin, a 20-year-old filmmaker and founder of the youth climate movement’s Zero Hour, wrote this month in a bitter essay titled “No More Empty Words.”

“In high school I thought it was sincere, all of the promises, all of these leaders and companies saying that they cared. It’s only recently that I realized there was something much more insidious going on. The Youth Climate Movement ᵀᴹ began to feel less like a movement for progress and more like a game show at the end of the world.”

Margolin is hardly an isolated case. Several full-time youth activists spoke recently to Teen Vogue about their mental-health struggles after devoting so much of their lives so far to the climate fight, and with progress so painfully slow. “We let it consume our lives and what we believe,” said Trinity Colón, a Chicago environmental justice activist since she was 16. “When somebody attacks you, it’s difficult to hear and it hurts you mentally and it hurts your spirit.”

What’s so frustrating right now is that — even with the world starting out the 2020s in a kind of a cosmic funk — we’ve actually shown in our other recent crises that today’s humans can still rise up to meet big problems, like developing working vaccines against COVID-19 in less than a year, or slipping antitank missiles to Ukraine to fight back a Russian invasion. All these young people want is the same urgency about the fate of the planet.

Today’s young Americans need a message of hope — that it’s not too late to stave off the worst climate impacts, if we start today — from their parents, their teachers, and from their leaders. That would be good for our big outdoors, and good for the inner well-being of the people who live here.

It feels as if ignoring a man immolating himself at the Supreme Court is a tragic but accurate metaphor for the way we treat climate change writ large. Sure, we can try to prevent the next one by not talking about it, but that’s not really the right answer. If you truly don’t want moral people with a troubled conscience setting themselves on fire, the world’s decision-makers need to start showing their own humanity by attacking a planetary crisis with the urgency of war.

Or to put it simply ... what now adults?

Yo, do this

  1. If you follow me here or on Twitter, you may be familiar with my obsession over the replays of Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40″ radio extravaganzas from the 1970s and ’80s (including my eulogy for Kasem when he passed in 2014, a personal favorite piece). So you can imagine I was thrilled when I saw that double-Pulitzer-winning Philly native Wesley Morris devoted an episode of his just-revived Still Processing podcast for the New York Times to Kasem and a quest to understand our pathological need to rank and rate pop culture. With some bold, whip-smart insights from Yale prof Daphne A. Brooks.

  2. The writer Radley Balko was arguably ahead of the curve when he published Rise of the Warrior Cop, a 2013 look at how America developed its heavily militarized police forces — a take that looked beyond prescient when the nation saw that overwhelming force on display a year later in Ferguson. I’m currently listening to the audio version that was overhauled in 2021 after the George Floyd protests, because the story of the warped policing culture that arose from the ashes of the 1960s is very much the story of America today.

Ask me anything

Question: Overall, has twitter been good or bad to journalism and democracy? — Via Abraham Gutman (@abgutman) on Twitter

Answer: I’m breaking all the rules to answer this one from my great friend Av — a colleague on The Inquirer editorial board — to celebrate his awesome upcoming new gig as the paper’s mental health reporter (where he’s sure to win a Pulitzer ... book it). It’s also a great question that I’ve pondered dozens of times myself, as a guy who’s spent way too much time on social media since the mid-2000s and watched platforms with such bold early promise of advancing social movements for democratic change — think the Arab Spring and then Occupy Wall Street in 2011 — devolve into Trumpism and Russian election tampering, among many, many sins. Call me naïve, but I still believe the need for humans to connect, learn, and rediscover our shared values can make Twitter a place where good trumps evil. Monday’s sale of Twitter to billionaire Elon Musk shouldn’t be a signal to run away, but for decent people to fight to restore the spirit of 2011.

Backstory on a plan for saving democracy ... in Utah

This weekend, it felt that political punditry required a hot take on the French presidential election, with the incumbent centrist (or center-right, maybe) Emmanuel Macron defeating dangerous right-winger Marine Le Pen by a healthy margin. What’s interesting is that Macron won with Biden-level low approval numbers, and with similar levels of voter anger over the French economy. But, as they say in Paris, vive la différence ... in their voting system. With a multiparty first round, a head-to-head finale, and the final winner determined by the popular vote (how crazy is that?), French voters could make an ideological statement with their first vote, then get pragmatic in Round 2. In the end, voters held their nose and voted Macron because the hard-right extremism of Le Pen was simply not acceptable. Experts on democracy say this is how to beat back dictatorship — when rival factions work together in the name of stopping a despot. But could that happen here in the United States, where enmity between the left and right is at an all-time high?

Utah will be the test case for that theory, apparently. Short of the restoration of Donald Trump, there are few Republicans more dangerous to our democracy than that state’s senior senator, Mike Lee. He arrived as an icon of 2010′s Tea Party and, we now know, was encouraging Trump to challenge Biden’s 2020 election victory (although he backed off before the Jan. 6 insurrection). He’s also up for reelection in November, in a bedrock conservative state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1970 election.

Utah Democrats would love to get Lee out of office, but experience says a traditional mainstream center-left Democrat just can’t win there. But independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin — who actually ran for president in 2016 as a “Never Trump principled conservative” and got 21% of the Utah vote — might. On Saturday, Utah Democrats nixed a little-known party regular to endorse McMullin, deciding the chance to avoid six more years of Lee’s extremism with an ethical conservative is preferable to certain defeat with a liberal candidate. Seems like a smart bet.

Recommended Inquirer reading

  1. Like many American voters in mid-2022, I have some mixed feelings about how President Biden is performing, but I believe strongly that his administration is getting a raw deal in how the media and thus the public overlook the success of his 2021 economic policies for folks on the bottom of the ladder. In my Sunday column, I also complained that Washington is now letting those gains slip away.

  2. As a columnist on national affairs, I am finding myself increasing drawn toward Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Florida, which is becoming a kind of diabolical laboratory for advancing the creeping Republican fascism of the Trump years into an even scarier 2020s. Over the weekend, I wrote about the move by DeSantis and his GOP allies to punish Disney for the exercise of free speech, and how that connects to Florida’s wider war on public education and critical thinking.

  3. The fight for the soul of the American Experiment is centered in an unexpected place right now, in the hundreds of balkanized local school boards that sprawl across the hills and valleys of a politically divided state like Pennsylvania. This week, The Inquirer’s suburban education writer Maddie Hanna dropped a revealing look inside the Pennridge School District, in the far reaches of Philadelphia’s northern exurbs, where a Trump-fried takeover of the board has meant a halt in diversity education, to the dismay of its handful of Black families. Imagine America without local journalists to keep an eye on what our schools are up to. Please subscribe to The Inquirer to make sure that never happens.