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Is It Wrong to Cure Blindness? Francesca Block



(Photos by Joe Sohm via Getty Images/ The Free Press)

Dr. Jeff Levenson first noticed the problem back in 2009 when he was biking to work in the dark hours of the morning. The glare from the headlights of approaching cars dazzled his eyes to the point he couldn’t see.

Then, a few weeks later, he looked across the kitchen table to glance at his wife, who sat less than six feet away. All he could make out was her shadow.

Levenson, an experienced ophthalmologist with a busy practice in Jacksonville, Florida, immediately knew what was wrong. He was going blind. But at 51, he also knew it was likely cataracts, which can be fixed with a simple surgery.

One month and two 15-minute surgeries on each of his eyes later, Levenson returned to his backyard and said he felt reborn. 

“I remember going outside and saying the sky is impossibly blue and these trees are impossibly green,” he said. 

The experience changed the trajectory of his life. He started reading about how many people around the world had cataracts—100 million, 17 million of whom had gone completely blind. 

“This wasn’t an inconvenience for them. It was a life-changing, life-defining, life-limiting experience,” Levenson told me. “It was a tragedy.” 

Levenson wanted to give others the gift of sight, and he wanted to give it to as many people as possible. 

But cataract surgery in the United States can cost around $3,000 to $5,000 per eye without insurance, mostly because the procedure relies on a highly specialized device that vibrates at 40,000 times per second. Through a tiny, 2 1/2 millimeter incision in the eye, the device swiftly sucks out the cataract, leaving space for the surgeon to insert a brand-new, man-made lens. 

But Levenson also discovered that doctors in developing countries have devised a cheaper way to treat cataracts, called Manual Small Incision Cataract Surgery (MSICS), which costs less than $20 with virtually the same patient outcomes.

Four months after his own surgery, Levenson hopped a plane to Honduras to meet a doctor who trained him how to do the surgery, and then set out to travel across the developing world and make the surgery accessible to anyone in need. 

“There’s this feeling that you get only very rarely in the course of a lifetime,” Levenson said, “that this is what you were born for.” 

In 2016 he became the chief medical officer of SEE International. In his almost 40 years as a practicing ophthalmologist, Levenson, now 65, estimates he’s helped bring back sight to 40,000 people. 

Then, last September, Levenson received an intriguing, if baffling, phone call. Someone named “MrBeast,” who was something called a “YouTuber,” had heard about Levenson’s work, and wanted to pay for one thousand people to have cataract surgery—and he wanted it to take place in three weeks.

Six years ago, an 18-year-old named Jimmy Donaldson—who went by the online username MrBeast—made a video in which the baby-faced performer sat in his bedroom and counted to 100,000—for 40 hours. It went viral. Six months later, he gave a homeless man $100,000, launching his trademark “stunt philanthropy.” Now Donaldson boasts more than 201 million subscribers—the second largest number on YouTube.

Three weeks after Levenson received that phone call, Donaldson showed up in the doctor’s waiting room with his 30-member crew. The final product—an eight-minute-long video released January 28 of this year and titled “1,000 Blind People See For The First Time”—caused a stir online. 

It begins with Donaldson surrounded by a cheering crowd declaring that he is “curing 1,000 people’s blindness.” Patients like Jeff Yaple, a 64-year-old who had gone blind in both eyes, are shown in a surgical chair in Levenson’s office in Jacksonville. Levenson slowly peels the white gauze from their eyes as the camera braces for their reactions. “Sheesh!” Yaple exclaims, looking down at his arm. “There’s my watch. I’ve never seen it before.” 

Other patients burst into tears after regaining their sight. Some are even presented briefcases filled with $10,000. Donaldson gives one young man a brand-new Tesla because after a lifetime of blindness, he can finally learn how to drive. 

At the end of the video, the screen turns black and white text appears, stating: “I wonder if we’ll get 1,000 more views from the people we cured LOL.”

The video now has 161 million views and more than 400,000 comments. But while some on the internet hail MrBeast as a saint, others slam his video as disparaging of those with disabilities, or in the preferred parlance, “ableist.” 

“At a fundamental level, MrBeast’s video is inspiration porn, meant to portray abled people as the selfless heroes waging war against the diabolical villain known as disability,” declares a TechCrunch article titled “MrBeast’s blindness video puts systemic ableism on display.” The TechCrunch post on Twitter (now X) linking to its article now has 9.4 million views, albeit with an added “community note” stating that the article is a “misrepresentation of the video.” Another X post calling the video “demonic” drew over 28 million views and 83,000 likes. 

Levenson didn’t find out about the negative comments until a few days later when a reporter contacted him for a comment. 

“I didn’t think it had any moral validity, and I didn’t think it was fair to the patients or MrBeast,” Levenson said. 

But the criticism of the MrBeast video is emblematic of a larger debate in the medical community. Disability, some professionals now argue, no longer needs to be cured. Rather, it should be embraced and celebrated. 

This ideology is now making its way to the highest echelons of medical institutions and dividing doctors in the process, as many ask: isn’t the purpose of medicine to reduce human suffering? 

The National Institutes of Health, the $40 billion-endowed funding arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, recently took a stand against ableism by proposing a change to its mission statement, which promises to “enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”

An advisory committee within the NIH took issue with the phrase “reduce. . . disability,” writing in a 66-page report published last December that it “could be interpreted as perpetuating ableist beliefs that disabled people are flawed and need to be ‘fixed.’ ”

The NIH, which markets itself as “the largest single public funder of biomedical and behavioral research in the world,” has now proposed changing the second half of the mission statement to exclude the word disability. The organization is inviting feedback on the proposed change through November 24. 

It’s not the first time the NIH has responded to this criticism. In 2013, the organization erased language in its mission statement that named disability as a “burden.” (The NIH referred me to the organization’s website when I requested comment.)

But the notion that searching for cures or working to reduce any disability is disparaging of people with disabilities cuts to the core of the medical profession. 

“It’s an indictment of all of medicine,” Levenson told me. 

“So should we not cure Alzheimer’s because it’s ableist to want to be able to think and have clear cognition? Is it ableist to want to have a heart that enables you to walk up a flight of stairs?” he asked. 

I contacted Dr. William Hurlbut, a senior research scholar in neurobiology at the Stanford Medical School, who has also studied theology. He is a former member of the since-disbanded President’s Council on Bioethics. 

“We spend literally millions of dollars keeping some premature babies alive and in the neonatal intensive care unit, doing everything we can to keep them from having sensory disabilities like deafness and blindness,” he said. “And we do that because medicine is dedicated to the good of the individual patient.” 

Exploring moral quandaries around disability and medicine are core to Hurlbut’s work both as a physician and an ethicist. The subject is also deeply personal for him. 

When Hurlbut and his wife had their first child, Sarah, the baby’s heart stopped for nine minutes due to complications during delivery. She survived, but doctors predicted she would never sit up on her own and would die within a few years.

But Sarah defied all expectations. 

“When little Sarah was just five or six months old, I would sit her on my lap and stretch her arms. I’d say ‘fly like a birdie’ and she loved it; she thought it was so fun. But I knew what I was doing. I was stretching her arms out so they wouldn’t remain spastic, so they wouldn’t bind down,” Hurlbut said. 

Sarah, now in her 40s, lives a fulfilling life. Hurlbut declined to share more about Sarah’s condition out of respect for her privacy. 

He says the painful parts of raising his daughter “leads us deeper into the heart of love—either through our acts of healing, or through our unconditional acceptance and affirmation of the goodness and worth of every human life regardless of disability.” 

At the same time, he adds, “If I could have snapped my fingers and given her a normal physical and mental life, I would have done so in a second.”

But not all who are disabled feel the same way. 

Arielle Silverman, 38, was born with Leber congenital amaurosis; she has been blind since birth. She grew up in Arizona with an older sister, two loving parents, and a penchant for learning and challenging the status quo. She writes in her 2021 memoir Just Human how she struggled to connect with some of her high school peers and wished she could drive herself to school. She also faced discrimination—often, people patronized her. She sometimes wondered what a cure would mean, although there is none for her form of blindness.

“I kind of associated the idea of being able to see with greater inclusion and greater independence,” she said. 

Silverman went on to earn a PhD in social psychology and now works as the director of research at the American Foundation for the Blind. She lives in Virginia and is happily married to a sighted man.

She told me if given the option today, she wouldn’t seek treatment to be able to see. 

“I’m happy where I’m at, and I wouldn’t really want to radically change how I experience the world,” she said. 

Silverman is among a growing number of Americans who view their disabilities as a core part of their identities. They believe that having a disability is just another facet of societal diversity that should be celebrated. She points to the text-to-speak function now available on all smartphones, which is based on technology first invented to assist the blind community.

What makes her uneasy is the way cures are presented as the holy grail—a goal that all those with disabilities should aspire to, regardless of whether or not they are happy just the way they are.

“The lives of people who are not able to be cured become devalued,” she said. 

The Deaf community is especially resistant to the idea of “cures.” 

Deafness isn’t just a physical condition; it’s also a culture. The Deaf community is now referred to with a capital D to recognize those who speak American Sign Language (the lowercase d recognizes the medical condition). 

But the invention of the cochlear implant in the 1980s—a surgically inserted device that can partially restore hearing to even profoundly deaf people—threatened the very existence of this culture and its language. 

As both hearing and deaf parents contemplated the new procedure for their young deaf children, accusations of child abuse were lobbed at both sides. Some activists against the new technology went so far as to say cochlear implants were a form of “oppression,” and potentially ethnocide, through its erasure of Deaf culture and language. As scientists gained greater understanding of the genetic markers for deafness, there even emerged a movement within the Deaf community for parents to select in favor of congenital deafness rather than to screen it out. 

Jennifer Delora said she understands where these parents are coming from. 

“Wouldn’t you want a child who’s like you?” she asked me over Zoom.

Delora, 61, slowly began to lose her hearing at the age of five due to a severe ear infection. Now fully deaf, she is adept at lipreading and able to verbally communicate, and considers herself a part of the Deaf community and an advocate for Deaf culture. She is an American Sign Language teacher based in upstate New York who advises about Deaf representation on film sets. 

And she rejects any notion that she’s in need of any help or a cure.

So when MrBeast released another video in May titled “1,000 Deaf People Hear For The First Time,” in which patients are fitted with effective hearing aids, Delora couldn’t help but roll her eyes. Though she didn’t criticize the video online, she and her Deaf friends discussed it among themselves and agreed it was “inspiration porn nonsense.”

She faulted the video for failing to mention Deaf culture, and also pushed back on the assumption that a hearing aid or implant is a “cure” for deafness. 

“He’s trying to help people,” Delora said, “but in helping people you’re perpetuating the myth that we can be fixed with a battery-operated little thing we stick in our ear.”

MrBeast’s team did not respond to requests for comment, but his partner in the video, Nora Stewart, the founder of Hearing the Call, an organization that increases access to hearing healthcare around the world, told me: “There’s a lot of people that really want our services and we have life-changing stories of them after they receive the help that we can give to people. 

“I just don’t want to live in the controversy because I think we can just honor and appreciate different points of views,” she added.

MrBeast had a major impact on donations at SEE International. After the cataract surgery video was released in January, the organization attracted 766 new donors who have so far given more than $400,000. 

The organization’s CEO Donald Bell wrote to The Free Press in an email: “It raised overall awareness of the social and economic suffering that results from needless blindness, and the incredible return on investment that high volume, low-cost cataract surgery produces.”

Ophthalmologist Jeff Levenson, meanwhile, would jump at the chance to work again with MrBeast. 

“Every time my phone rings I hope it’s him,” he said. “We should do it every year. I think we should do it every opportunity we get.”

Some of the people Levenson treated are full of praise for their experience. 

Before the surgery, Jacksonville resident Jeff Yaple had struggled to take care of himself and his disabled brother. Uninsured and unable to work, Yaple was desperately searching for someone to loan him the money for cataract surgery. Through the help of a local nonprofit, Yaple became one of the subjects featured in MrBeast’s video. 

For him, the experience felt like a miracle. 

“The haters will always hate, but I don’t care what anybody says,” Yaple said of MrBeast. “He helped me. He gave me my life back.”

Francesca Block is a writer for The Free Press. Read her last piece about “Stanford’s War Against Its Own Students.” Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @FrancescaABlock.

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May 24, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson




On Wednesday, May 22, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who had been the candidate for anti-Trump Republicans, said she will vote for Trump. Haley ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and maintained a steady stream of criticism of him, calling him “unstable,” “unhinged” and “a disaster…for our party.” Since she suspended her campaign in early March, she has continued to poll at around 20% of Republican primary voters. 

There are two ways to look at Haley’s capitulation. It might show that Trump is so strong that he has captured the entire party and is sweeping it before him. In contrast, it might show that Trump is weak, and Haley made this concession to his voters either in hopes of stepping into his place or in a desperate move to cobble the party, whose leaders are keenly aware they are an unpopular minority in the country, together. 

The Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war. The last of the establishment Republican leaders who controlled the party before 2016 are trying to wrest control of it back from Trump’s MAGA Republicans, who have taken control of the key official positions. At the same time, Trump’s MAGA voters, while a key part of the Republican base, have pushed the party so far right they have left the majority of Americans—including Republicans—far behind.

Abortion remains a major political problem for Republicans. Trump appointed the three Supreme Court justices who provided the votes to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized the constitutional right to abortion, and he has boasted repeatedly that he ended Roe. This pleases his white evangelical base but not the majority of the American people.

According to a recent Pew poll, 63% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while only 36% think it should be illegal in most or all cases. But Republicans are continuing to push unpopular antiabortion legislation. On Thursday, Louisiana lawmakers approved a law classifying mifepristone and misoprostol, two drugs commonly used in abortions, as dangerous drugs—a category usually reserved for addictive medications—making it a crime to possess abortion pills without a prescription. 

Louisiana prohibits abortions except to save the life of the mother or in cases in which the fetus has a condition incompatible with life. The law requires doctors to get a special license to prescribe the drugs, one of which is used for routine reproductive care as well as abortions. The state would then keep a record of those prescriptions, effectively a database to monitor women’s pregnancies and the doctors who treat them. Louisiana governor Jeff Landry, a Republican, is expected to sign the measure into law. 

Trump has repeatedly promised to weigh in on the mifepristone question but, likely aware that he cannot please both his base and voters, has not done so. On Tuesday, May 21, though, he stepped into a related problem. Since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned Roe v. Wade, antiabortion activists have begun to talk about contraception as abortion, with some warning that it is “unbiblical.” But in February, 80% of voters polled said that contraception was “deeply important” to them, including 72% of Republican voters. On Tuesday, Trump said he was open to regulating contraception and that his campaign would issue a policy statement on contraception “very shortly.” He later walked back his earlier comments, saying they had been misinterpreted.

On May 19 the same judge who tried to remove mifepristone from the market by rescinding the FDA approval of it, Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, blocked the Biden administration from implementing a new rule that requires sellers at gun shows and online to get licenses and conduct background checks. The rule closes what’s known as the “gun show loophole.” According to the Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy, 86% of Americans want mandatory background checks for all gun purchases. 

Trump himself is a problem for the party. His base is absolutely loyal, but he is a deeply problematic candidate for anyone else. As Susan Glasser outlined in the New Yorker yesterday, in the past week he chickened out of testifying in his ongoing criminal trial for paying hush money to an adult film actress to keep damaging information from voters in 2016 after insisting for weeks that he would. He talked about staying in office for a third term, ran a video promising that the United States will become a “unified Reich” when he wins reelection, and accused President Joe Biden of trying to have him assassinated. He will be 78 in a few weeks and is having trouble speaking.

In addition to his ongoing criminal trial, on Tuesday a filing unsealed in the case of Trump’s retention of classified documents showed that a federal judge, Beryl Howell, believed investigators had “strong evidence” that Trump “intended” to hide those documents from the federal government.

Also revealed were new photographs of Trump’s personal aide Walt Nauta moving document boxes before one of Trump’s lawyers arrived to review what Trump had, along with the information that once Trump realized that the men moving the boxes could be captured on Mar-a-Lago’s security cameras, he allegedly made sure they would avoid the cameras. The new details suggest that prosecutors have more evidence than has been made public. 

This might explain why, as Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley of Rolling Stone reported today, Trump is pressuring Republicans to pass a law shielding presidents from prosecution in state or local courts, moving prosecutions to federal courts where a president could stop them.

Yesterday, Marilyn W. Thompson of ProPublica reported on yet another potentially harmful legal story. There were a number of discrimination and harassment complaints made against the Trump campaign in 2016 and 2020 that Trump tried to keep quiet with nondisclosure agreements. A federal magistrate judge has ordered the Trump campaign to produce a list of the complaints by May 31. Those complaints include the charge that the 2016 campaign paid women less than men and that Trump kissed a woman without her consent. 

Trump’s current behavior is not likely to reassure voters. 

Yesterday he wrote on social media that “Evan Gershkovich, the Reporter from The Wall Street Journal, who is being held by Russia, will be released almost immediately after the Election, but definitely before I assume Office. He will be HOME, SAFE, AND WITH HIS FAMILY. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, will do that for me, but not for anyone else, and WE WILL BE PAYING NOTHING!”

There is no good interpretation of this post. If Trump does have that sort of leverage with Putin, why? And why not use it immediately? Is he openly signaling to Putin to ignore the Biden administration’s ongoing negotiations for Gershkovich’s release? Trevor Reed, who was arrested in Russia in 2019 when visiting his girlfriend in Moscow, noted: “As a former wrongful detainee in Russia, I would just like to remind everyone that President Trump had the ability to get myself and Paul Whelan out of Russia for years and chose not to. I would be skeptical of any claims about getting Evan Gershkovich back in a day.”  

Reed was freed in 2022 as part of a prisoner swap arranged by the Biden administration. 

Last night, at a rally in New York, Trump accepted the endorsement of alleged gang members, rappers Michael Williams (Sheff G) and Tegan Chambers (Sleepy Hallow). In 2023 the two men were indicted with 30 other people on 140 counts, including murder, attempted murder, illegal possession of firearms, and at least a dozen shootings. Sheff G was released from jail in April after posting a $1.5 million bond. 

Then, Trump’s people claimed that 25,000 people turned out for the rally, but they requested a permit for only 3,500, and only 3,400 tickets were issued. Aerial shots suggest there were 800–1,500 people there. 

MAGA voters don’t care about any of this, apparently, but non-MAGA Republicans and Independents do. And this might be behind Haley’s promise to vote for Trump. The unpopularity of the MAGA faction might allow Haley to step in if Trump crashes and burns, so long as she kowtows to Trump and his base. Or it might be calculated to try to repair the rift in hopes that the party can cobble together some kind of unity by November. As The Shallow State noted on X, Haley’s announcement showed that “Trump is fragile.”

But Haley’s statement that she will vote for Trump does not necessarily mean her voters will follow her. Deputy political director for the Biden campaign Juan Peñalosa met with Haley supporters in a prescheduled zoom call hours after Haley’s announcement. On Thursday afternoon the campaign issued a press release titled: “To Haley Voters: There’s a Home For You on Team Biden-Harris.”

MAGA Republicans know their agenda is unpopular, and they are working to seize power through voter suppression, violence, gerrymandering, and packing the legal system. But there are signs a bipartisan defense of democracy may be gathering strength.  









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Could Trump Turn the Bronx Red? Olivia Reingold




Former president Donald Trump greets supporters at his rally in the Bronx’s Crotona Park on Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Jabin Botsford via Getty Images)

In an overgrown field in the Bronx, a borough that has not voted red in a presidential election since 1924, Orthodox Jews, fraternity brothers, George Santos, Dominican immigrants, off-duty firefighters, and thousands of others are craning their necks for a view of Donald J. Trump. 

“Thank you, thank you,” Trump mouths to the crowd over the tune of “God Bless the USA.” 

He strides up to the podium, in a breeze that rattles the American flags behind him but is no match for his frozen blond quiff. Thousands of hands spring into the air, pumping rhythmically to chants of “U! S! A!”

“Hello, New York City, and hello to all the incredible tough, strong, hardworking American patriots right here in the Bronx,” roars the former president. “Who would think—who would think?”

Who would think, indeed. Not Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, who for the past five weeks has been trying to pin a felony conviction on Trump involving hush money he allegedly gave to a porn star. Two days earlier, Trump had shuffled out of the courtroom, quiet except for a quick interview where he told reporters, “Remember. . . I’m not allowed to say what I’d really like to say,” referring to the gag order barring him from publicly commenting on the case. 

“Hello, New York City, and hello to all the incredible tough, strong, hardworking American patriots right here in the Bronx,” roared the former president. “Who would think—who would think?” (Jim Watson via Getty Images)

But now, in front of a sea of at least 8,000 in Crotona Park, the prospect of becoming a convicted felon seems far from Trump’s mind. “We are going to turn New York City around, and we are going to turn it around very, very quickly!” he proclaims to cheers from the crowd.

Though New Yorkers are famously Democratic, more of them seem to be warming to Trump’s America First message. Perhaps it’s the rising crime, or the migrants who are increasingly begging in the streets, or the fact that it now takes a family of four at least $318,000 a year to live here. Whatever it is, according to a Siena College poll this month, Joe Biden has lost 20 points in New York City, compared to his 2020 victory when he won 76 percent of the vote in Trump’s hometown. Meanwhile, Trump is up seven points, with Biden’s lead cut to single digits in the 2024 race for president.

One New Yorker who needed no convincing is John Wang, a 44-year-old acupuncturist born in China who became a U.S. citizen in 2011 and has already voted for Trump twice. He says people like him—Trump voters—are the “silent majority.” He brought along his 7-year-old son, who played in the grass with a fake million-dollar bill bearing the face of the billionaire from Queens.

“I’m from communism, I know how bad it is,” says John Wang, a 44-year-old acupuncturist born in China who became a U.S. citizen in 2011. “Now I feel like here is getting like China.” (Photo by Olivia Reingold for The Free Press)

“He was born in Manhattan,” says Wang of his son, who can name every single American president throughout history, in order. “Then we moved to Queens, and by the time I had my third child, we moved to Long Island ’cause you can’t live in the city anymore—it’s too dangerous.”

Wang says he was sick of worrying about getting pushed onto the subway tracks, which is exactly how one New Yorker died in March, allegedly shoved by a perpetrator with a violent past who was out on bail. Wang, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in order to become a citizen, tells me he was drawn to the U.S. because it would allow him to openly practice his Christian faith. Now, he’s troubled by the media, which “tells people Donald Trump is a dictator,” and by the anti-Israel mobs who cover their faces and “don’t know what they’re screaming for.”

“I’m from communism, I know how bad it is,” says Wang, wearing a bright red MAGA hat and work boots stamped with the Stars and Stripes. “Now I feel like here is getting like China.”

Top Democrats thought this wouldn’t happen on their turf. The morning of the rally, Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents the portion of the South Bronx that includes Crotona Park, told an MSNBC panel that he’s “confident that the people of the Bronx are not going to buy the snake oil he’s selling.” U.S. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also told a local affiliate that Trump could not “trick” Bronx residents into supporting him. “It is truly an embarrassment to him, and I am looking forward to the response of everyday Bronxites talking about how they feel about him coming to their backyard,” said the congresswoman, whose district is east of the park.

But the people of the Bronx—and New Jersey, and Queens, and Long Island, and upstate New York, many of whom traveled miles to come see the former president whip the crowd into a frenzy—told me otherwise. 

Adam Solis, a 33-year-old who’s half-Dominican and half–Puerto Rican, says AOC does not represent even “one percent” of the values of the Bronx, where he’s lived his entire life. 

“A lot of the morals and the traditions that come out of the Bronx have always been right-leaning and conservative,” he says, his two diamond earrings glistening in the sun. “We all believe in God here in the Bronx, we believe in tradition, we believe in family values, the nuclear family—these are all pillars of our existence.”

Trump supporters in the Bronx chant “U! S! A!” (Spencer Platt via Getty Images)

I hear members of the crowd murmuring in multiple languages—Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, and possibly Portuguese. “Ay, dios mío,” gasps one middle-aged woman, her enormous false eyelashes peeking from beneath the brim of a MAGA hat. Deeper into the crowd, a twentysomething woman perches on a man’s shoulders as if at a music festival, calling out in ecstasy: “Weeee love yooooou, Trump.” When Trump mentions New York, a redheaded boy cups his hands around his red cheeks to scream, “Yeah Trump, turn it red!”

While most other rallygoers are screaming at the top of their lungs, Samuel Heath-Quashie is less starstruck. Still, come November, the black 19-year-old student at Bergen Community College in New Jersey tells me he plans to cast his first-ever vote for Trump.

“It’s not like I look up to him like he’s my god,” the teen shrugs. “He’s a man—he does things I don’t agree with. But so does Biden, and at the end of the day, I want someone who’s going to help the American people.” 

One day, he says, he hopes to move out of his parents’ home in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, but inflation has tanked those dreams. When I ask him if he’s found any apartments he’d be able to afford, he says, “Yeah—they’re not good. They have mold and they have bugs.” He pauses, grimacing. “And I don’t like mold or bugs.” 

“A lot of the morals and the traditions that come out of the Bronx have always been right-leaning and conservative,” said Adam Solis, 33. (Selcuk Acar via Getty Images)

Across the lawn, I find Mika Kol wandering around, asking if anyone has a lighter she can borrow. She’s wearing micro jeans shorts and a hat bearing the legend “I <3 Jesus,” and I assume she’s a Fashion Institute of Technology student. Close: she tells me she’s an online seller of vintage designer clothes under the alias “trustfundgoth.”

“I voted for Biden last time because I thought it would make my mom happy, and she pays my bills,” shrugs Kol, 25, who tells me she is a Jew of Iraqi heritage born in Texas. 

She said she started having second thoughts during the summer of 2020, when other fashion sellers pressured her to give ten percent of her profits to Black Lives Matter, which she calls “Fraud, Inc.” “All that social pressure made me feel like, you know what, I can’t stand woke people. They’re just holding the left hostage.”

And then she realized: “I could say whatever I want around conservative people, and they’ll just be happy that I’m there.”

When I exit the park, I happen upon dozens of police officers in riot gear. Young men and women—draped in keffiyehs and many in N95 masks—are standing behind them on a giant rock, shaking a sign that says, “Fuck Trump / Fuck Biden / The people of the Bronx / We run this shit.”

Anti-Trump protesters gather outside the rally. “It’s just wasteful energy,” said Youssef Naim, 24, of the demonstrators. “Trump is going to win, for sure.” (Stephanie Keith via Getty Images)

“They don’t give a fuck about you,” the protesters chant at the Trump crowd, clapping between words. 

I ask a young man, standing next to me, dressed all in black, what he thinks of the scene. 

“It’s just wasteful energy,” says the man, who introduced himself as Youssef Naim, 24. He said no matter how loud the protesters chant, “Trump is going to win, for sure.”

“And that’s not me saying that’s because he’s a better person—that’s because of a multitude of things,” says Naim, an art teacher who adds that he’s nonetheless leaning toward voting for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

But he has no trouble explaining Trump’s appeal: “A lot of people had this experience that they did better when Trump was in office, paired with Biden shitting himself and having dementia.” 

I ask him if the protesters, who are now marching toward the subway, see what he sees, that the former president could actually become the sitting president once again. 

“Half of them probably don’t. The other half are here because their friends are here, and then a select few just don’t want to admit it.”

Olivia Reingold is a field reporter at The Free Press. Follow her on X @Olivia_Reingold and read her piece “They’re Black Democrats. And They’re Suing Chicago Over Migrants.” 

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What If Raising Awareness Doesn’t Help? Suzy Weiss




“I was walking up the terminal in Newark airport early in the morning recently when I walked past a gate that had been festooned with mylar balloons spelling out ‘Autism Awareness.’” (Image via X, illustration by The Free Press)

Mark your calendars, because July is Fibroid Awareness Month. Maybe you already celebrated National Fibroid Awareness Week—yes, there is both a month and a week—which starts in mid-April and, little-known fact, overlaps with National Infertility Awareness Week. In April, we’re also meant to have awareness for foot health, stress, irritable bowel syndrome, congenital diaphragmatic hernias, STIs, Parkinson’s, limb loss, and frogs

It’s easy to dismiss these holidays as marketing ploys, or the purview of bloated HR departments in search of new excuses to send emails. But look closely and you’ll notice that the mission of Raising Awareness, along with its cousin, Ending Stigma—we often Raise Awareness to End Stigma—has carved into our popular culture a huge place for itself. 

Still, there are a lot of emails. 

A search of my inbox surfaces calls to raise awareness for mental health (which gets its own month, May), veterans’ experiences, guns, epilepsy, and antisemitism.

To raise awareness for domestic violence, a building in downtown Pittsburgh was lit with purple lights. A bakery I like encouraged me to buy pink macarons for breast cancer awareness. I was walking up the terminal in Newark airport early in the morning recently when I walked past a gate that had been festooned with Mylar balloons spelling out “Autism Awareness.” It was 6 a.m. The gate was empty. Travelers, autistic and not, had presumably shoved off to their destination. 

“Tourette awareness” is something I’ve learned about thanks to Baylen Dupree, a TikToker I follow along with 9 million other people, who posts videos of her involuntary tics. I’m not picking on Dupree: she’s just one voice in a massive chorus of chronic illness sufferers who display their symptoms—this part is often referred to as a “journey”—to the world on social media. The goal—say it with me now—is to raise awareness for their conditions. 

Awareness is a big tent. Under awareness goes anything wacky, intimate, perverse, or otherwise eye-catching that allows you to accrue followers who you can then sell things to. A running influencer who spreads awareness about chronic illness, specifically Epstein-Barr, swears by Better Nature Tempeh. Brittney Mahomes hawks Auvi-Q, an EpiPen approved for toddlers, while raising awareness about food allergies. “Disabled Eliza” uses a duster made by Flash

It’s not a coincidence that the most shocking conditions get the most eyeballs. Perhaps we tell ourselves it’s “consciousness-raising” or “bringing visibility to an issue” or “using our influence,” but let’s be real: it’s voyeurism with a built-in pardon. Being authentic, finding community, and ending stigmas are, on the surface, good things. The internet is for everyone—no one should be judged, much less punished for, things they can’t control, whether it’s a rare blood disorder or a deformity or a disability. People can and do share whatever they want online, but it’s worth noting when authenticity demands intimate details for twisted incentives.

I am not proud to report that I was recently served up a video on Instagram Reels of a cute girl named Hannah. Hannah is an 8-year-old who suffers from a new-ish eating disorder—it was introduced to the DSM in 2013—called AFRID, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. She is a clinically picky eater whose “safe foods” include Goldfish crackers and string cheese and whose “fear foods” include guacamole, spaghetti, applesauce, and cucumbers. The video showed Hannah trying mashed potatoes for the first time. She said the bowl of food made her “uneasy” before spooning three incredibly tiny bites into her mouth, which made her gag and nearly cry. 

A YouTube video explaining Hannah’s journey to a diagnosis—which includes her mother sharing her height and weight—is festooned with hashtags including #arfidawareness, #eatingdisorderawareness, #autismawareness, #mentalhealthawareness, and, at the end, simply #awareness. 

I watched a few more short videos—she tried a plum, orange Jell-O—before I stopped myself: Why in the world am I watching a child that I don’t know struggle through eating a honeydew? Why is anyone watching this? 

The comments included notes from cheering teens, nosy moms, judgy nutritionists, and perverted men. There are hundreds of comments. Hannah isn’t a niche internet oddity. She has 1.4 million followers. She went on Good Morning America, where she told the host, “Whenever I try food I think about all the people that I’m helping.” She added, “It motivates me.” But becoming well should be its own reward, something judged by parents and doctors and therapists.

ARFID is not well known, so until the proper research can be done and more resources cultivated, the segment laments, “Hannah is doing what she can: raising awareness.”

Awareness hasn’t always been an excuse to gawk, or an eternally open-ended project. 

Growing up, I remember running 5Ks on Sundays for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. There were pale pink wreaths of balloons and pink bagels and many, many ribbons. There was always a woman flanked by other women on a platform announcing that some massive amount of money had been raised to put toward breast cancer research, resources, and earlier detection. They gave out pamphlets for how to self-screen for lumps. I still do examinations in the shower because of it.

But somewhere along the way, that kind of real-world awareness got surreal. 

Awareness these days doesn’t ask for much. It also doesn’t offer much. It invites you to be on your phone and just let the awareness wash over you. There used to be an ask, usually money, tied to awareness, but lately we’ve let things get loose and let awareness drift away from any end. Finding a cure for autism, diagnoses for which are booming, has become passé. The new drugs to combat obesity weren’t the result of awareness, but discovery. It’s unclear how being aware of endometriosis or limb loss or Tourette is going to help any of those people, or ourselves. We’ve let people run roughshod over our consciousness in the name of awareness. 

It’s worth asking: What are we not raising awareness for? Maybe it’s the influence of Big Pharma on our increasingly sick lives and of Big Tech on our increasingly corrupted ways of dealing with it. 

I hope fibroids and frogs and IBS get proper research funding. I hope Hannah—the little girl searching for more foods to add to her safe list—gets better. But I wonder if she is destined to join the fight for children’s internet privacy, or if one day she’ll be declared cured and allowed to retire the Instagram page and fade away into normalcy, or if she’ll keep on trying to find new safe foods, in front of her followers, forever.

Suzy Weiss is a reporter at The Free Press. Read her piece, “Hurkle-Durkle Is the New Way to Self-Care Ourselves to Death,” and follow her on X @SnoozyWeiss.

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