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The sliding definition of ‘lockdown’ in U.S. politics

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When the novel coronavirus appeared in the United States in early 2020, experts — both medical and political — had little information about how best to handle it. It seemed, based on preliminary and ultimately inaccurate information, to spread through contact, meaning that the focus became hand-washing and Clorox wipes instead of covering one’s mouth. There was, however, full understanding of that lack of certainty, meaning that authorities tended to err on the side of caution to keep the virus as contained as possible and limit its damage.

What followed the virus’s arrival, then, was an ad hoc effort to restrict person-to-person interactions as much as possible. Bans on large gatherings were implemented and recommendations were made to remain at home as much as possible, with compliance voluntary. The hard-and-fast prohibitions centered on places where people might tend to congregate, such as bars and schools. It was a restriction of options more than a restriction of activity.

This was appreciably different from what had already been underway in China. There, movement was at times restricted entirely as the autocratic government sought to stamp out transmission of the virus in one fell swoop. First the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, then other cities as cases emerged. These were “lockdowns” in an often literal sense: people forced to stay in place in an effort to halt the virus. When looser rules arrived in the United States months later, the same term was often applied by Americans to a very different process.

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The effects of that have lingered. Over the past three years, the idea that the United States had a system of “lockdowns” has persisted, and an array of responses to the virus has been loosely grouped under that umbrella: remote schooling, restaurant closings, restrictions on entering facilities. Some of the closures and limits arguably or demonstrably incurred more cost than the value they offered, but none were “lockdowns” in the Wuhan sense.

Democratic leaders and locations moved first to impose restrictions — in part because the virus first spread widely in Democratic places. But soon, President Donald Trump and Republican leaders joined the push to impose limits on person-to-person contact. The White House announced a national emergency on March 13, 2020, and, a few days later, guidelines aimed at limiting in-person interactions. Other officials took the same steps: On March 17, for example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced the closure of bars and restaurants for 30 days.

The era of collective, bipartisan interest in stopping the spread (as the vernacular had it) was short-lived. The economy was understandably hammered by closures of businesses and schools. Trump, with an eye on his upcoming reelection campaign, turned against widespread shutdowns fairly quickly, suggesting that maybe by Easter — April 12, 2020 — things could be close enough to normal that churches could be filled once again. He and his advisers revised downward their recommendations for states to reopen (another bit of vernacular conflating the specific closures with a state’s status), and then Trump quickly demanded that states get back to normal regardless.

People in a number of states began protesting pandemic rules. Trump, eager to see the economy rebound completely, offered his approval. At first, most Americans disagreed with Trump’s encouragement of the protests, but a line had been crossed. Particularly as the year wound on and the pandemic continued to depress Trump’s poll numbers, the political right cast overbearing government officials as a threat to individual liberty and characterized the “lockdowns” — by now seemingly meaning nearly any covid-19 response unpopular on the right — as the embodiment of the threat.

It’s certainly true that Republican officials (and Republicans) have consistently been less fervent about coronavirus responses than Democratic officials (and Democrats). The partisanship of the pandemic is broad and well-documented. But the idea that Democrats enacted “lockdowns” or seek new “lockdowns” persists not because there have been calls even to introduce new limits on in-person interaction. Rather, it endures because it is politically useful to suggest that Democrats want to do so — since using “lockdown” as a synonym for “government forcing you to do something” plays into long-standing Republican rhetoric.

As the 2020 election approached, Trump’s White House was touting his successes, including that he had managed to save lives during the pandemic “while ending harmful lockdowns.” DeSantis began promoting “Don’t Fauci my Florida” gear on his campaign website, picking up on Trump’s scapegoating of the country’s top infectious-disease doctor, Anthony S. Fauci, as a way of demonstrating opposition to efforts to contain the virus. These were pivots away from their embrace of early measures to slow the virus’s spread, measures that had both become unpopular with Republican voters — thanks largely to Trump’s election-trail rhetoric — and that had often been exaggerated for effect.

The Biden White House has been asked repeatedly whether President Biden supports “lockdowns.” In February, for example, a reporter asked press secretary Jen Psaki about the idea.

“The president has been clear we’re not pushing lockdowns; we’ve not been pro-lockdown,” she replied. “That has not been his agenda. Most of the lockdowns actually happened under the previous president.”

It’s probably not helpful for the administration to conflate what happened in 2020 with “lockdowns,” given that, more recently, the current press secretary was asked for a White House response to protests against China’s very different lockdowns. But it also probably doesn’t matter. That Biden has pushed Americans — with decreasing force as time goes on — to take steps to combat the virus means that he, not Trump, is seen by much of the country as the lockdown president and his party as the lockdown party.

More because that perception is useful to Biden’s opponents than because it’s accurate. Because, in short, it fits into the long-standing frame of Democrats as the party of big government intrusion and Republicans as the party of do-what-you-want.

And that’s also why it’s likely to stick.

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Uyghur refugee vote by Canada MPs angers China

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OTTAWA –

The Chinese government says a motion MPs passed Wednesday to provide asylum to persecuted Uyghurs amounts to political manipulation by Canada.

MPs including Prime Mister Justin Trudeau unanimously called on Ottawa to design a program that would bring 10,000 people of Turkic origin, including Uyghurs, to Canada from countries other than China.

They passed a motion that acknowledges reports that Uyghurs outside China have been sent back to their country of birth, where they have faced arrest as part of Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim groups.

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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing that people in the Xinjiang region live in peaceful harmony, contradicting widespread reports of forced labour and sexual violence.

An English translation by the ministry said Canada should “stop politically manipulating Xinjiang-related issues for ulterior motives,” and Ottawa is “spreading disinformation and misleading the public.”

The non-binding motion said the government should come up with the outline of a resettlement program by May 12 that would begin in 2024 and meet its target within two years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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Republicans push to remove Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel

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Washington, DC – In one of his first moves since becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is leading an effort to block Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from serving on the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee over her past criticism of Israel.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the House advanced a resolution to remove Omar from the panel. Democrats opposed the move, accusing McCarthy of bigotry for targeting the politician – a former refugee of Somali descent who is one of only two Muslim women serving in the US Congress.

A few Republicans initially opposed McCarthy’s effort, casting doubt over his ability to pass the resolution against Omar, given the GOP’s narrow majority.

But on Wednesday, all 218 House Republicans present voted to move forward with the measure, as Democrats remained united in support of Omar with 209 votes. A final vote is expected on Thursday as progressives rally around Omar.

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) defended Omar, calling her an “esteemed and invaluable” legislator.

“You cannot remove a Member of Congress from a committee simply because you do not agree with their views. This is both ludicrous and dangerous,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement on Monday.

The resolution

The resolution aimed at Omar, introduced by Ohio Republican Max Miller on Tuesday, cites numerous controversies involving the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel and US foreign policy.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” Miller said in a statement.

Omar retorted by saying there was nothing “objectively true” about the resolution, adding that “if not being objective is a reason to not serve on committees, no one would be on committees”.

While the Republican resolution accuses Omar of anti-Semitism, it only invokes remarks relating to Israel, not the Jewish people.

For example, the measure calls out the congresswoman for describing Israel as an “apartheid state”, although leading human rights groups – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have also accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

Early in her congressional career in 2019, Omar faced a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – drive support for Israel in Washington.

Omar later apologised for that remark but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.

In the past two years, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations spent millions of dollars in congressional elections to defeat progressives who support Palestinian human rights, including Michigan’s Andy Levin, a left-leaning, Jewish former House member.

‘Different standards’

Although the Democratic Party is standing behind Omar now, the Republican resolution prominently features previous criticism against the congresswoman by top Democrats.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an advocacy and research group, said Republicans are trying to validate their talking points against Omar by using the statements and actions of Democrats.

“They own this,” she said of Democrats who previously attacked Omar. “They made a decision in the last few years to jump on board and score political points at Ilhan’s expense … And that decision is now the basis for the resolution that is being used to throw her off the committee.”

Friedman added that Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are held to “different standards” when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both legislators were the subject of racist attacks by former President Donald Trump who in 2019 tweeted that they, along with other progressive congresswomen of colour, “should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

Omar in particular became a frequent target of Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. At one rally in 2019, Trump failed to intervene as his supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar.

Friedman said attacks on Omar appeal to the Republican base and play well for the party politically.

“It’s a really handy way to embarrass and corner Democrats because when Democrats vote against this tomorrow, the Republican argument is going to be: ‘I don’t get it. You said all these things [against Omar]. Why are you not holding her accountable?’ Politically, this is just fantastic for them.”

For her part, Omar has remained defiant, calling McCarthy’s effort to remove her from the committee, against initial opposition from his own caucus, “pathetic”.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-American advocacy group, praised Omar’s commitment to a “human rights-centered foreign policy”.

“Rep. Omar speaks truth to power – a rarity in Congress. And House Republican leadership would rather waste time by attacking a progressive Black Muslim woman and pushing a far-right agenda than working on addressing the needs of the American people,” Taeb told Al Jazeera in an email.

Omar has been a vocal proponent of human rights and diplomacy in Congress. While her comments about Israel often make headlines, she criticises other countries too – including those in the Middle East – for human rights violations.

Still, critics accuse her of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of Israel and even allies have described some of her comments as “sloppy”, if not malicious.

On Thursday, Win Without War, a group that promotes diplomacy in US foreign policy, decried the Republican push against Omar as an attempt to strip the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a “progressive champion and skilled legislator who challenges the political status quo”.

“Rep. Omar has helped raise the bar for progressive foreign policy in Congress. She has steadfastly advocated for cuts to the Pentagon budget, held US allies accountable for human rights abuses, and confronted the racism and Islamophobia present in US foreign policy,” Win Without War executive director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement.

Committee wars

Congressional committees serve as specialised microcosms of Congress. The panels advance legislation, conduct oversight and hold immense power over the legislative process.

Usually, the party in power appoints the chairs and majority members of committees, while the opposition party names its own legislators to the panels.

But back in 2021, Democrats voted to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her assigned committees for past conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.

That same year, the Democratic House majority also formally rebuked Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican, for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, Greene is an outspoken proponent of removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“No one should be on that committee with that stance towards Israel,” Greene said earlier this week. “In my opinion, I think it’s the wrong stance for any member of Congress of the United States – having that type of attitude towards our great ally, Israel.”

After Greene was stripped of her committee assignments, McCarthy had openly promised payback against the Democrats if they became the minority in the House, an event that came to pass in the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” McCarthy said at that time.

The newly elected speaker has also blocked Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee. Schiff was the former chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman George Santos, who is facing calls to step down for lying about his heritage and professional and personal history, “temporarily recused” himself from committee assignments as he is being investigated over his campaign conduct.

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Former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen steps down as MP

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Member of Parliament and former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen has resigned her seat in the House of Commons.

Bergen, 58, has represented the Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008. She served as interim leader of the Conservatives and leader of the Opposition from February to September 2022. Prior to that, she served as deputy leader of the Conservatives.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Bergen said she has submitted a letter of resignation, “ending an incredible and very fulfilling 14 years.”

Bergen thanked her constituents, family, volunteers, staff and political colleagues “on both sides of the aisle, regardless of your political stripe.”

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Bergen announced in September of last year that she would not seek reelection. Pierre Poilievre replaced her as Conservative leader that month.

Bergen did not give a specific reason for her resignation and did not mention any future plans.

“I’m choosing to leave now not because I’m tired or I’ve run out of steam. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” she said in the video.

“I feel hopeful and re-energized. Hopeful for our strong and united Conservative Party, and our caucus, under the courageous and principled leadership of my friend, Pierre Poilievre.”

Bergen ended her goodbye message on a hopeful note.

“With God’s grace and God’s help, I believe that the best is yet to come. Thank you so much Portage—Lisgar, and thank you Canada.”

The Toronto Star was the first to report the story.

“On behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, thank you Candice for your leadership, your devotion to our Conservative movement and your service to the people of Portage—Lisgar, and all Canadians,” Poilievre said in a tweet Wednesday.

The news means there will be a byelection in Portage—Lisgar to replace Bergen.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced last week that he’d step down as an MLA to seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding.

The death of MP Jim Carr late last year set up a byelection in another Manitoba riding — Winnipeg South Centre. The Alberta riding of Calgary Heritage and the Ontario riding of Oxford are also up for byelections later this year.

“I thank her for her many years of service,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Bergen in a media scrum Wednesday.

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