Archive for the ‘stinking piece of shit’ Category

The accusation against Biden — Who are the hypocrites?

May 5, 2020

Republicans call Democrats hypocrites for believing charges of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh but not Joe Biden.

Most women making such accusations are truthful. A lot of men behave like pigs. Especially powerful men with a sense of entitlement and impunity. Like Weinstein, Cosby, Trump, with proven patterns of behavior and numerous victims whose stories taken together lend credence.

The #metoo movement, calling them to account, was long overdue. Much justice was done. But women as well as men are fallible, and facts matter. Here is my assessment of the facts.

Kavanaugh had a clear history of major alcohol abuse, if nothing else, that gave credibility to the accusation, by a woman whose own reputation was stellar.

Biden’s case is entirely different. The alleged conduct would have been totally out of character. His open physical demonstrativeness toward women is not remotely comparable. As David Brooks commented, Tara Reade’s story entails not only lasciviousness but cruelty. That just is not Joe Biden. No similar accusation has ever previously surfaced, and nobody who knows him well believes it.

Having hormones myself, I understand the attraction of illicit sex. But mature, sane people control their impulses. The alleged behavior would have incurred huge risk for meaningless momentary jollies. That doesn’t sound like Biden either.

Reade, who briefly worked in Biden’s Senate office before being terminated, says she filed complaints at the time (1993), but no record of them has been found. People on Biden’s staff who would have known of it remember no such complaints, which they say would have been very memorable.

A few of Reade’s acquaintances, and her mother, have said she spoke of the incident at the time. That does not corroborate the story’s truth. Meantime, just months ago, her public story was totally different, claiming merely that Biden’s physical demonstrativeness made her uncomfortable — a far cry from the crude sexual assault she now describes.

This new story reeks of being contrived, pasting together stereotypical parts. Especially quoting Biden, “You mean nothing to me.” That’s the cruelty Brooks mentioned. It loudly rings false.

Why is Reade doing this? Who knows what demons can motivate people. Reade may actually now believe her tale. Memory plays tricks on us — particularly in the fraught realm of sex. The documentary film Capturing the Friedmans showed one young man literally writhing in anguish over his memory of sexual abuse. Which in fact never occurred.

One clue about Reade: She’s been quoted extravagantly gushing over Putin. I wouldn’t suggest she’s part of a Russian plot. Just nutty.

It is reasonable to believe Biden rather than Reade. At the very least, to give Biden the benefit of the doubt.

Now about those Republican taunts of hypocrisy. They not only defended Kavanaugh but of course disregard all women making accusations against Trump, well into double digits, up to and including outright rape. “Grab them by the pussy” is on the record. Likewise illegally paying off women to silence them regarding sexual transgressions. Amid all his innumerable other corrupt deeds (Trump University, charitable foundation fraud, etc., etc.), lies, and offenses against public decency. Yet these Republicans point fingers at Democrats? Who’s hypocritical?

But this is not about principle. For Republicans, all that matters is power. No ploy is too cynical if it might help keep them in power.

Biden has proven himself a thoroughly decent human being, an honest, responsible, public-spirited man, with deep regard for other people.

Everything Trump is not.

Reopening? Your money or your life

May 2, 2020

Jack Benny’s famous bit: A mugger demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny hesitates. Then says, “I’m thinking it over!”

Between economic sacrifices and sacrificing lives, we really had no choice. Couldn’t tolerate seeing hospitals overwhelmed and people dying for lack of care. We opted to accept the economic pain, and it’s proving to be immense. Now we’re confronting the issue of reopening. The federal government no longer endorses shut-downs. In fact, an America that once would have led a global response now won’t even lead its own states. Some (mostly Republican) are already relaxing restrictions, others planning for it.

I have a bad feeling about this.

In many places, notably New York, the restrictions succeeded in flattening the curve, with illnesses and deaths trending downward. Elsewhere they’re actually still rising. Many states aren’t testing much, so are flying blind. In any case, relaxing invites a new virus explosion. At the outset, The Economist foresaw repeated cycling between lockdowns and disease spikes until either there’s a vaccine or until something like 80% of a population has experienced infection. Creating “herd immunity,” where the virus dies out for lack of enough infectable victims.

We’re nowhere near that. On the other hand, reopening could make sense if the number infected were low enough that testing and contact tracing could feasibly contain new outbreaks. Unfortunately we’re in between those two infection levels. Ours is sufficiently high that to reopen safely would require testing and contact tracing on a massive scale, well beyond existing capabilities. Ramping that up enough could cost hundreds of billions. It would actually be worth it, as against the cost of economic shutdown in the trillions. But the Trump administration is not biting this bullet; hardly even tonguing it.*

A compromise approach might conceivably be reasonable: relaxing hard lockdown restrictions while still urging carefulness — masks, social distancing, hand-washing, etc. Perhaps gaining much of the benefit while avoiding much of the cost.

This resembles Sweden’s approach. They never locked down, but did push social distancing and the like, while also taking more rigorous measures to protect the most vulnerable. The idea was to arrive at herd immunity at limited cost in both lives and economic damage. Sweden’s death rate does exceed that in otherwise comparable countries, but it’s not out of control, and may actually represent a reasonable balance between fighting the virus and protecting the economy.

But America is not Sweden, whose citizens have a very high level of social consciousness and trust their government. America’s government is widely viewed with hostility. Certainly its president inspires zero trust in anything he says. He’s even issued lockdown guidelines while encouraging people rebelling against them. Protesting with their “Trump 2020” banners, guns, and Confederate flags — and no social distancing. These nitwits may be a small minority. But even if most Americans act more sensibly, too many (thanks to Trump’s inconsistent messaging) are irresponsibly complacent about Covid-19. Relaxing restrictions will exacerbate that. Enough foolish people and the virus can spread like wildfire.

So the danger of a big resurgence is very high. What’s our Plan B for that? Lock down again? The public’s willingness will be limited, having suffered it once and relishing their escape. And closing the economy again is the last thing Trump will want as the election nears.

During tough wars voices always say we should just declare victory and go home. Trump’s strategy may be something like that. Reopen the economy, swagger about his imaginary tremendous victory over Covid-19, and basically ignore its recrudescence. The administration may use various wheezes to actually avoid reporting infections and deaths. Even now they’re much undercounted. Trump and his dupes are masters of reality-denial. Many Americans will avert their eyes.

Coronavirus coming here was not Trump’s fault. But the human and economic damage would have been much less had he not refused to listen, in January and February, to repeated cogent warnings urging action. Since then his response has been shambolic in every way. He is directly guilty for tens of thousands of deaths and trillions in economic loss. (Talk about “American carnage.”)

And if we reopen too soon, those sacrifices will have been for nought. We’ll have paid the price without getting what we thought we were buying. “Your money or your life” — we’ll have forfeited both.

* At every stage, lying about our testing capability. Claiming it exceeds that of any other country is blatantly false. In fact we’re nowhere near having testing and tracing capability to reopen without a virus resurgence.

Trump and China

April 28, 2020

It’s now clear that in November Trump will be running against — China.

Republicans are in a panic that Trump’s ghastly Covid-19 performance means he won’t be re-elected. (Not seeing it means he shouldn’t be re-elected.) So now, his last-ditch campaign plan is targeting China as the enemy, and Biden as “soft on China.” Recycling some ancient anodyne Biden quotes welcoming China’s integration into the global community.

Reality has never figured much in Trump’s shtick. But painting himself as our avenger against China is particularly preposterous. As for quotes, plenty of his own kiss the feet of China’s ruler. His idiotic trade war hurt America’s economy and consumers more than China. Covid-19 began in China, but Trump’s incompetence was what made it catastrophic here.

Soft on China? His first day, Trump torpedoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among 11 nations the Obama Administration painstakingly negotiated, to combat China’s regional dominance. Trump’s action handed China a giant geopolitical triumph. Its newly empowered rulers couldn’t believe their luck.

Though I doubt Biden will highlight this, the words “trade deal” having alas become myopically toxic for many Democrats as well as Republicans.

Even if you favor toughness toward China, it’s a complex problem, and Trump just lashes out erratically and ignorantly. The proverbial bull in a China shop.

And for him to run a China-bashing campaign will be especially bizarre since China will likely work with Russia to help him win. Because they know how bad he is for America, undermining the U.S. as an adversary.

Trump’s Covid-19 disaster vindicates their judgment. Initially the virus gave China a black eye, but America’s is worse. Now China crows that it’s proven how great their system is and how America’s is weak and dysfunctional. Trump’s vileness had already battered our global standing. Covid-19 makes people everywhere lose yet more confidence in, and admiration for, America. A recent global poll showed China is now preferred over the U.S. as a world leader.

That is truly chilling.

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes recently authored The Light that Failed. Referring to the idea (epitomized by Fukuyama’s The End of History) of liberal democracy as a blueprint for the flourishing of human values. Now being beaten back, the new book argues, by populist onslaughts fueled by a nationalism that actually sees liberal democracy (often demonized with the term “neoliberalism”) as some kind of alien implant.

Nowhere is this more true than in China. Optimists had once envisioned a richer China, more globally integrated, becoming a better and more benign China. But its regime, through fierce propaganda and mind control, has succeeded in turning the population’s psychology against “Western” liberal humanistic values, and toward truculent nationalistic chest-pounding.

A recent column in The Economist tells of “Fang Fang,” whose candid blogging about being quarantined in Wuhan gained a huge adoring following. Fang Fang criticized the government for its cover-ups and missteps. Then her writings were translated and published in the West. China’s netizens turned on a dime, now vilifying her en masse as a traitor, assailing her right to be heard at all. Dissension within the family might be okay — but not giving China’s foreign critics ammunition.

So saturated with nationalism have Chinese minds become that, far from coveting human rights, they enthusiastically embrace a regime that crushes them. The Chinese, the columnist drily concludes, actually “are demanding less freedom of speech . . . an autocrat’s dream.”

Trump wants to posture as tough on China. Yet never whispers a word against the Orwellian tyranny his great friend Xi Jinping is building.

And this is why it’s chilling that world opinion now prefers Chinese over American leadership. This is the kind of pathology that is prevailing nowadays over ideals of liberal democracy. I am hoping that Trump’s November defeat can break the spell and be a catalyst toward restoring sanity. Outside China at least.

“Total authority” and Robinson’s Law

April 16, 2020

Trump has claimed “total authority.” Robinson’s Law: Any democracy is one bad man away from dictatorship.

Germany was a democracy until January 30, 1933. Then President Hindenburg named yet another new Chancellor (prime minister). The chancellorship had been a revolving door. Now it was the turn of National Socialist party; though never winning an electoral majority, they did have a large parliamentary bloc. Hindenburg was unaware of Robinson’s law. (I hadn’t been born yet — in fact Hindenburg’s action led to my birth.)

We’ve seen this movie enough times, we know the script. Put in power the wrong kind of bad man and there’s no turning back. Erdogan in Turkey. Putin in Russia. Maduro in Venezuela. Ortega in Nicaragua. Orban in Hungary. Sisi in Egypt. Modi in India seems to be trying.

China was no democracy, but did have term limits and no one man wielding total power. Until Xi Jinping got it and made himself president for life. Sri Lanka appeared stuck with the Rajapaksa brothers until its voters defied the script and did see them off. But then idiotically brought them back.

It doesn’t actually have to be a man. Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh appears to be on this script.

How is it done? You still hold elections, but with varying degrees of rigging. Demonizing, delegitimizing, silencing opposition. Some regimes stuff ballot boxes, or don’t even bother, simply faking results. In Congo’s presidential election, Fayulu got at least three times as many votes as Tsishekedi; Tsishekedi was decreed the winner. America’s Republicans use voter suppression: enacting all sorts of rules hampering opponents (students, the poor, minorities) from casting ballots, voiding their registrations, requiring particular IDs most don’t have, while polling stations in their neighborhoods are few and far between. With resulting hours-long waits.

Usually, the bad apple has to actually win an election at least once. And too many voters are suckers for them, like Brazil’s creep Bolsonaro. It’s the perennial appeal of the strong man, the tough guy, who will put all to rights. “I alone can fix it.” Even badness itself exerts a strange allure. “Grab them by the pussy.” Duterte in the Philippines, whose anti-drugs program entailed simply murdering thousands, still enjoys robust approval ratings.

You also chip away at checks-and-balances. Co-opt or discredit bodies like the FBI or Justice Department. Stuff the courts with your tools. Stonewall Congress by just disregarding it. All power to the leader. Gradually it becomes the reality.

Then there’s propaganda. You flood the zone with lies, aided by a state propaganda broadcaster (Faux News), while undermining the credibility of real news reporting — “the enemy of the people.” That phrase literally straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, chillingly echoed by dictatorships everywhere. Trump candidly told reporter Lesley Stahl he smears the press so when they report the truth about him, people won’t believe it.

And it works. You might think citizens in a country like Russia would understand it’s a regime of lies and refuse to swallow it. Some do keep their independent minds. But too many just swallow the propaganda. It can be very slick, like Faux News. And of course it fits with what they want to believe.

Total authority.” Today it’s just another grotesque lie. But it could be prophetic. In November, American voters have one last chance to reverse the ghastly mistake made in 2016.

I am hopeful. The vote is sacred. Wisconsin has been ground zero for Republican voter suppression efforts, where they forced an election last week to grab another state high court seat. But enough voters, God bless them, literally risked their lives to go to the polls, and the Republicans lost.

The American Crisis

April 13, 2020

These are the times that try men’s souls. “Try” meant “test” when Thomas Paine wrote those words.

We’re having an extraordinary economic crisis, entwined with an extraordinary health crisis. While America was already undergoing a crisis of the soul. A political and leadership crisis that was also a moral one, testing the very principles this nation stands for.

All this will end. But the world will be different.

We’re not hearing much now about limited government. I’m no government-loving “progressive,” but even libertarians recognize a need for government to protect us in situations like this, organizing and mobilizing a societal response. But unfortunately we’re also seeing why the big modern bureaucratic state is distrusted. It’s not size that counts so much as how you use the thing.

China’s authoritarian regime sneers at governments hamstrung by democratic accountability. China was indeed unfettered in imposing draconian measures to contain the virus. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been such a big problem if they hadn’t started out silencing doctors who raised the alarm. China also failed to properly alert the world. Thus its regime is very culpable.

So is ours. Even given China’s guilt, the disaster here did not have to happen. Had we done what South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore did — merely acting competently. Instead, America’s government bumbled and fumbled in a disorganized manner for almost two months because Trump refused to heed experts ringing alarm bells. This tragic fact is now well documented by multiple responsible sources. It cost us many thousands of lives, untold other human suffering, and trillions of dollars.

So a key lesson is the importance of competent, intelligent, responsible, sane leadership. That’s up to voters. So far I don’t see that lesson sinking in.

COVID-19 threatens our national security. Trump fetishizes the military, imagining this conveys strength. Actually the bulk of our giant defense budget is oriented toward re-fighting WWII (all those costly aircraft carriers, etc.), not the real threats of the modern world. Like pandemics. Wasting all those resources on useless “defense” actually weakens us. Spending a tiny fraction of that money on defense against threats like COVID-19 could have made all the difference. We didn’t do it.

This American failure is not invisible to other countries, who are suffering in consequence. They expected better. A real blow to our international standing.

Meantime, big government is getting bigger. The crisis prodded Congress into the kind of bipartisan action that seemed unimaginable just weeks ago, expanding government’s role in both size and scope to support the economy in ways also unimaginable weeks ago. We may think this is just a temporary emergency response. The bipartisanship already is fading. But expansions of government don’t have a tendency to reverse themselves. The idea of government relieving businesses of downside risks, and subsidizing paychecks, may stick around, with large implications. Not socialism, exactly; more like state capitalism. And the bailouts seem more accessible to big businesses than small ones, accelerating a trend toward consolidation, as against the more dynamic small-firm end of the business spectrum.

The government is throwing around trillions of dollars very fast and without preparation or forethought. A massive program like this ought to have been preceded by a careful legislative process with input from divergent viewpoints. Of course this is an emergency situation. But oversight is definitely lacking. In fact, Trump’s already fired the inspector general who’d been tasked with keeping tabs on the handouts. Why? It’s hardly paranoid to foresee massive abuse and corruption. Surely there must be an investigation of where all the money is going. Trump will foam at the mouth screaming “witch hunt.”

This is also changing us as a society. Sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone pointed up a trend toward atomization. That preceded the smartphone era, which has prompted vast handwringing about growing solipsism. Strangely, on one level, it’s all about human connectedness, with people fixated on their phones mainly for stimuli from others. Yet while our Facebook “friend” rosters grow, real friendships contract. (I’m baffled by people obsessing over online content concerning others they hardly know.)

Now we have “social distancing” — as if that hadn’t already been an apt way to describe what was happening. In-person communication being supplanted by virtual communication. If this were a battle between the two, the former has just suffered a devastating strategic reverse. Now it’s actually wrong for us to socialize in person, it’s bad for public health!

Our society is built upon our webs of human interconnectedness, embodied in the term “social capital.” A key element of that is social trust. It’s the very basic understanding that you can walk down the street with no expectation that a passer-by will bash you on the head and grab your stuff. Or, more prosaically, that when you buy packaged food it won’t be poisoned. Et cetera, et cetera. A vast range of ways we trust that society will work as it should. This can’t be taken for granted, it was built up over thousands of years.

Countries where social trust — and, in particular, trust in government and other institutions — is high (like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) have seen commensurately high levels of citizen cooperation with public health directives.

But polls have shown that Americans’ social trust is eroding. It’s not that people are actually becoming less trustworthy. It’s that more of us believe others are less trustworthy. This can become self-fulfilling if we act in ways that exhibit less trust. The decline in social trust may be partly due to reduced face-to-face interaction. And it’s aggravated by having two political tribes each believing the other consists of bad people who threaten everything that’s good and holy.

And now, we look at other people we encounter in the street, in stores, etc., and view them as literally potential threats to us. “What if that guy has the virus?” What if this kind of distrust becomes ingrained, even after the crisis ends?

Yes, Virginia, there are racists

April 11, 2020

My last post ended by noting how many people doing important work, especially in these perilous times, are non-whites. Which irks certain whites. My writing this irked certain commenters (on the Albany Times-Union platform).

Some quotes: ” . . . castigate an entire race of people [whites], based solely on THEIR skin color;” “fueled by a sense of superior, and excessive righteous indignation;” ” . . . this tripe — like we’re still living in 19th century America under Jim Crow? . . . who notices the color of one’s epidermis? Fringe nuts and Frank . . . a racebaiter pure and simple;” ” . . . blatant example of the politics of division.”

I’ve always rejected rhetoric calling America an incorrigibly racist society, having seen tremendous progress in my lifetime. Signified by electing a non-white president. I didn’t vote for Obama but was deeply moved, that election night, by a middle aged Chicago black woman jumping up and down, with tears in her eyes, shouting “God bless America! God bless America!” I understood what African-Americans must have felt at that moment after what they’d experienced all their lives.

And I did believe racism was finally relegated to the fringes, the dark corners of our society. Not foreseeing what a backlash Obama’s election would provoke. Some whites’ antipathy toward non-whites had been contained by believing they were still really in an inferior station. For those whites, Obama’s election was a rude awakening. Now America’s reality as an integrated multiracial society, with whites no longer securely on top, hit them in the face. They might tolerate blacks as subordinate but not as equals (let alone in the White House).

So they acted out. Some of the criticism of Obama (like  mine) was principled or ideological, continuing what had been the Clinton wars and Bush wars. But for some Obama’s real sin was governing-while-black. It drove them nuts — epitomized by the idiotic “birther” foofaraw — promoted by Trump.*

Even so, they were still really on the fringe, with no legitimation in mainstream society. Which only deranged them more.

Then came 2016. Careful psephological analyses have shown that the one factor most strongly correlated with voting for Trump was not economic anxiety, nor even religiosity, but racial/ethnic antagonism. Seeing non-whites and foreigners as muscling in where they don’t belong. Not all Trump supporters are racist but all racists are Trump supporters. Because they know he has their back, giving them the seeming legitimacy so long denied them.

And so these racists and white supremacists now feel empowered to push their misbegotten hatefulness as never before (in modern times). Charlottesville was only the most prominent manifestation. Trump made absolutely clear what side he is on, and continues doing so in repeated despicable ways. (Chutzpah: a Trump fan lecturing about “the politics of division.”)

Still don’t think racism is alive and well in today’s America? Three years ago I wrote a blog post titled “Why so many blacks in ads?” It’s my most widely read ever (and not for its analytical sophistication). It’s attracted way the most comments, over 300 and counting. Here’s the link: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/why-so-many-blacks-in-ads/

Please look at those comments. If you have a strong stomach, to see the face of today’s American racism in all its unabashed Trumped up vileness.

* And don’t spout that nonsense that it was really Hillary.

Human social virtues in a time of crisis

April 1, 2020

Garrison Keillor once said, if the purpose of one’s life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? This actually poses a deep philosophical issue. John Donne wrote that no man is an island. Yet each of us experiences existence only within the confines of our own skulls. Experiencing only one’s own feelings, not those of others.

It can be argued that we only ever do seemingly selfless deeds when it rewards us with good feelings. Evolution programmed us to have such feelings — and with empathy for the feelings of others, even if we cannot experience them directly — to make us do things for the common good. Hence even if pure selfishness might seem strictly logical, a degree of selflessness is a fundamental part of our human nature (barring sociopaths who failed to get that software installed). And we measure our virtue largely in terms of our interactions with others. Summed up pretty well by the golden rule. Nobody is perfect but most of us try.

And not just because of our programming. Your rational brain tells you that if you want to live in a society where people treat each other well, it behooves you to behave that way yourself. And if everybody does this, it’s good for everybody. We do what’s right mainly because we know it’s right, and why.

Holding fast to these standards of conduct is especially vital in a crisis like today’s, where the temptations for selfishness are heightened, and so is its ill effect. Where social solidarity is more needful than ever. Americans are largely meeting the test.

Acting rightly does make one feel good about oneself. But that may not be enough. We all have egos, greedy for such feelings, and one way to pump them up is through validation from others. This may seem strange because, again, you don’t have direct access to what others feel. But you’re affected by their behavior, which in turn is affected by their feelings toward you. And our social programming makes our position in society important to us. All this makes us crave the good opinion of others, and suckers for flattery.

Thus if we do good or are successful, we want others to know it. One way is to tell them. But that actually contravenes the golden rule. How so? Well, do you enjoy hearing others’ boasts? Saying “Look how great I am” implicitly tells the hearer, “and you’re not.” Even if unintentionally, self-aggrandizement forces the hearer to ponder the comparison. It’s not nice. That’s why bragging has a negative connotation, and modesty and humility are virtues.* A basic rule of living in society.

Much human behavior seeks to evade that rule. Successful, rich people cannot wear a badge announcing their net worth. But a lot of what they do (and buy) is mainly to advertise to others about their success. Boastfulness by other means.

But some are boastful by boasting. “I am very rich,” Trump has said. “I am very smart.” He’s even boasted of being the most modest person ever. And he tells us he’s doing a great job. Thus his coronavirus briefings (whose TV ratings he’s bragged about). Recently the word of the day, repeated like a verbal tic, was “tremendous.” Then he switched to “incredible.” Maybe tomorrow it will be “fantastic.” And not content to trumpet his wonderfulness himself, he trots out sycophantic flatterers to bubble about it.

What’s truly incredible is a president using a horrific crisis, with thousands dying, and millions suffering deprivation, as an occasion for sickening orgies of self-congratulation.

And contemptible as such braggadocio is, worse yet if the boasts are lies. It’s been factually documented how his failure of leadership delayed forceful action on testing to contain the virus. Doing what other countries did would have saved many thousands of lives and trillions in economic devastation. This reality might have brought forth some humility. A different reality can only be constructed out of lies. Like the simply false claim that we’re testing more than any other nation. (Our per-capita testing rate is certainly way below.)

I have pilloried Governor Cuomo in the past, but his coronavirus briefings are models of what Trump’s are not. No self-praise extravaganzas. No bashing the press and other critics, no demanding obsequious flattery. No lying. Cuomo gives us the unvarnished truth. He takes responsibility. He brings the situation home to us in a very human way we can all relate to. He tells us what needs to be done, what we all must do.

Knowing he’s being unfavorably compared to Cuomo infuriates Trump. But, incapable of learning from Cuomo, he resorts to pot-shots at him: “He had a chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price . . . he shouldn’t be talking about us. He should be buying his own ventilators.” But instead, said Trump, Cuomo goes for “death panels and lotteries.”

Albany Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill has deconstructed exactly how vile this Trump cheap shot is. It came (surprise) from the internet, a right-wing website, based on a 2015 state task force report on pandemic planning. Churchill read it and interviewed the task force leader — concluding that the attack on Cuomo was “blatantly dishonest.” The report discussed strategies for dealing with a ventilator shortage, but did not recommend buying thousands just in case. Let alone somehow present an option to buy 16,000 “at a very low price.”

But Trump’s gross distortion of the facts is kind of beside the point. He’s repeatedly shown he needs no facts at all to slime somebody. And keeping up such divisive dishonesty, even in this time of national trauma, is just ghastly.

Here is the real point, that all this leads up to. I started out talking about our most fundamental human precepts for living among others. How normal people have that software pre-installed, and how crucial it is in a crisis like we face now. When the leadership we choose is someone who has not had that software installed, we are in very deep trouble as a society.

* Certain commenters will jump to sneer about my own modesty. I was tempted to actually talk about it here. But that would be immodest.

As the virus goes viral

March 30, 2020

My first 3/9 post on coronavirus was mocked for underestimating it. That’s a misreading. But I was over-estimating the government’s response. Which could have greatly limited the damage, but failed to.

An in-depth 3/29 New York Times report* details how the Trump administration squandered the opportunity to identify hot spots by testing, and to confine the disease through targeted quarantines — avoiding what became a need for a nationwide lockdown with unfathomable human and economic costs. While other countries were already testing tens of thousands daily, we were still doing fewer than a hundred. We effectively lost an entire, critical month.

Trump’s claim that we’re testing more than any other nation is simply false. Even today, many Americans with symptoms cannot get tested. A Brooklyn ER doctor, in a radio interview Saturday, said her hospital was turning away hundreds daily. While many coming in for unrelated problems are actually testing positive for COVID-19. So it’s likely our count of known cases is just the tip of an iceberg.

The Times documents the leadership failure. The NSC’s pandemic response team, established under Obama, was disbanded under Trump. Bureaucracies acted like bureaucracies. As the crisis metastasized, the FDA was actually tightening restrictions on testing; we were using a test both slow and faulty; were slow to fix that; while refusing a better test on offer from the World Health Organization. (Trump disdains such international bodies.)

The Times report is sickening (no pun here), and makes a mockery of Trump’s daily self-congratulatory briefings. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We now need megatons of cure because we didn’t test swiftly and widely. Even now, a massive crash testing program — which would cost a tiny fraction of the price tag for our economic shutdown — could pay off hugely in limiting the damage. We should test everybody. (At last we seem to have a test that’s cheap & quick.) Then quarantine those infected, and everybody else could resume normal life, knowing they’ll be safe.

We’re still doing nothing like that. The death toll is now projected to exceed 100,000. Trump tells us he’s a hero because it would have been 2 million if nothing at all had been done. But the whole story would have been very different with true, responsible, sensible leadership.

* * *

The Bible tells us those who have will get more, and for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. (Biblical morality.) Coronavirus is taking from everyone; perhaps reducing inequality by shredding the investments of the rich; but the poorest are suffering most. They’re not the ones with jobs suitable for working from home. It’s mainly lower wage workers losing paychecks. The giant bail-out legislation indiscriminately spews cash, but won’t make whole those thrown out of work.

Our biggest inequality is in education. Born into a poor family in a poor neighborhood, your chances of surmounting are slim because your school likely stinks. Now even those schools are closed. Distance learning may help affluent kids in stable homes. Poor kids in dysfunctional ones, often without computers or even web access, will fall further behind.

* * *

Almost forgotten in the midst of this cataclysm is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national census right now. It isn’t postponed. The Trump administration was already trying to skew it for political advantage, by undercounting people in Democrat-leaning areas, to reduce their congressional representation and electoral votes. One way was to simply underfund the census, making it harder to count people on the margins. They tried to particularly target Hispanics by including a citizenship question to scare them off from participating. The Supreme Court slapped down this proposal, literally ruling it was based on lies.

Trump said the census should count only citizens. The (“phony”) Constitution actually says all persons must be counted. That includes even the undocumented. But despite the Court ruling, the “citizenship” gambit probably succeeded in scaring off a lot of them.

The virus surely makes a full accurate count even harder, with census workers confined to quarters and practicing social distancing.

* * *

Almost forgotten too is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national election. Many primaries are postponed. That might have been a mess had the Democratic race not already been effectively decided. Especially now, Bernie should end his candidacy and urge uniting behind Biden.

Some say Biden’s invisible. Actually he’s not silent, is acting very responsibly, and quite reasonably the media is currently giving little attention to the election. That’s fine. Our campaigns are too long anyway. Biden will be on the ballot in November. Is anybody still “undecided?”

Now, more than ever — now that Trump’s fecklessness has really and truly fucked this nation up — we need that vote.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/28/us/testing-coronavirus-pandemic.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200329&instance_id=17169&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=60449143&segment_id=23230&te=1&user_id=0588054855cd59fb97458c82182d229e

The pandemic and the Trump cult

March 27, 2020

(Expanding on my Feb. 13 featured commentary in the Albany Times-Union)

America is the culmination of thousands of years of people grappling with how to make good lives in a good society. Striving to tame all the demons in human nature, so our better angels can flourish.

This humanistic triumph cannot be taken for granted. Those demons always threaten it — more than do viruses. Many are the societies that have succumbed. America has no God-given immunity from its own bad choices.

Coronavirus is putting us to the test. Calling forth our better angels and social solidarity. We do see it in health workers, heroically on the job, often denied protective gear, literally risking their lives. We all must sacrifice, to serve the common good; and stay mindful of our most disadvantaged, who will suffer the most. Americans are mostly good, public-spirited people, rising to the challenge. But unfortunately right now we have an administration whose ethos is not social solidarity — rather, stirring up divisions and mutual hatreds, and led by the most self-serving man on Earth. A bad choice we’d made.

His supporters are unnervingly oblivious to the seriousness of unleashing those demons of human nature. Like foolish children, playing with fire, heedless of the profound consequences. Blithely condoning the shredding of cultural norms and standards that took centuries to build up.

I knew we were in trouble when “grab them by the pussy” did not end a presidential candidacy. Suddenly, we’d become a different country.

We’ve always had racism, xenophobia, and other hatreds, but never so legitimized. We’ve always had dishonesty and lying. But never like this, a war against the very concept of truth. We’ve always had thirst for political power, but never such willingness to subvert democracy and rule-of-law for it. There’s always been corruption, viciousness, cruelty. But never like this, at the top, a collapse of civic decency. Taken all together, degrading every virtue America used to embody.

Virtues all the more sorely missed in today’s crisis. With Trump’s daily “briefings” of misinformation, press-bashing, and self-glorification, telling us mainly what a tremendous job he imagines he’s doing. Endlessly repeating the word “tremendous” may gull people who don’t know better. His claque will sneer I’m just venting my Trump hatred. Well, I had a very bad opinion of Governor Cuomo too — yet recognize Cuomo’s exemplary leadership in this crisis. The contrast against Trump’s asininity couldn’t be more stark. 

Any rational person can see the reality. Trump true believers’ refusal to, even in this extremis, is stunning. They’re devotees of a cult that blinds them. People are often suckers for venerating a god, a messianic figure. Here they’ve got a doozy. Evil always exerts a strange attraction. So, more pedestrianly, does strength, or an illusion of it. Thus the appeal of military strongmen. Vile behavior, and getting away with it, plays to that, a potent macho brew more bracing than what’s seen as weak tea on the other side. And dupes of this cult are also blinded by their own demons: immigrants, foreigners, other religions and ethnicities; the media and other “elites;” the whole Democratic party.* It’s a mess of pottage for which they’ve sold their souls to a real devil. No good can come from this depraved bargain.

Power never makes bad men better. Trump is a very bad man, and we keep giving him more power. Impeachment acquittal left him with almost unchecked power. He soon made clear he’s drunk with it. What would re-election do?

Polls show about half of Americans still approve of this monster. People who wrap themselves in a flag of patriotism but have lost all sense of the country’s meaning. Have lost their minds.

This is more than just politics. America can survive Coronavirus but not another Trump term.

*Who, unlike Republicans, have kept their heads in responsibly choosing a moderate, decent, honest, experienced presidential candidate, rejecting radical alternatives.

 

Coronavirus realities

March 24, 2020

Trump, having previously said the economic shutdown could last till August, now wants a return to normalcy much sooner. (Much sooner than medical experts recommend.)

Actually we’re only just beginning to see how bad things are. The Economist’s latest issue (as usual) provides much clarity.

COVID-19 is very contagious, and the containment measures look too little too late because the virus is already very widespread. The swiftly rising number of reported cases is likely just the tip of an iceberg. Many infected people don’t show symptoms right away, if ever, but meantime can infect others.

Our efforts might, in a couple of weeks, appear to bend the curve down. But the problem is that a majority of the population won’t have been infected, hence won’t have developed immunity, and the virus won’t have disappeared from the landscape. This means that after Trump declares victory and restrictive measures are relaxed, the virus will likely spike back up — necessitating a reimposition of restrictions. “This on-off cycle,” says The Economist, “must be repeated until either the disease has worked through the population or there is a vaccine which could be months away, if one works at all.”

This virus, while new, is not a fundamentally different creature from others of its ilk, so in principle previous methods to create vaccines should succeed. But before then, most of our population could contract the illness. As we know, most would have only minor symptoms, or none. But even a death rate below 1% could still be expected to kill a million or two.

Of course, besides a vaccine, a medicine to treat the illness would change everything. While some candidates are being tested, we don’t have a treatment yet.

Note that — barring the virus’s complete eradication (practically impossible) — the more effective a shutdown is in preventing infections, the worse will be the second wave, after the relaxation, because the virus will have so many potential new victims without immunity. The Imperial College in London built a set of models (reported by The Economist) showing this effect after five months of restrictions. If they included schools, the second wave is even more severe. (China may soon be putting this to the test.) Governments need to be candid about this prospect, instead of encouraging us to imagine the whole thing will just go away in due course.

I have argued that we really have no choice but to accept severe economic pain to avoid a nightmare scenario of a health system unable to handle a flood of illnesses so that many thousands die simply from lack of care. That’s starting to look likely despite our best efforts. Realize not just coronavirus victims will be affected — hospitals won’t be able to treat accidents, heart attacks, anything else. And, says The Economist, “the bitter truth is that [those containment efforts] may be economically unsustainable. After a few iterations governments might not have the capacity to carry businesses and consumers. Ordinary people might not tolerate the upheaval. The cost of repeated isolation, measured by mental well-being and the long-term health of the rest of the population, might not justify it.”

An agonizing dilemma. But The Economist also says it can be mitigated by a massive testing regime and use of technology to trace contacts and identify who really needs quarantining. As South Korea and China have done.

Trump keeps patting himself on the back for his early restrictions on travel from China and, later, Europe. That may indeed have helped slow the virus’s spread. However, it was already underway before the travel bans, so it was delusional to think they solved the problem. What was really needed was what South Korea did — again, massive testing, right away.

But even to this day, we’re still not doing that. Still only starting to ramp up toward it.

As The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist (on American affairs) writes, this testing inadequacy at least partly owes to the Trump administration’s “decision to scrap the NSC’s dedicated pandemic unit” (established under Obama). He also points to its “sticking with a faulty viral test when the WHO could have provided a working alternative.” (As South Korea used. The tests mostly in use here now, still way too few, also don’t give results for up to ten days — almost useless in this fast-moving pandemic.) Lexington also points to overall White House dysfunctionality, and concludes: “a stunning catalog of failure.”

Add in Trump’s fountain of false and misleading information, which delayed most Americans’ taking the problem seriously. Last Wednesday he belatedly invoked the Defense Production Act, enabling government to require industries to produce stuff needed in an emergency. We’re desperately short on respirators and protective gear. But just signing an order, with Trump’s posturing flamboyance, actually produces nothing, absent follow-through. And it is absent. Trump seems to imagine he’ll nevertheless make the needed items magically appear.

Trump (never able to admit error) now claims he knew very early this would be a pandemic. Contradicting his own previous statements. And begging the question: if he knew so early, why was our response, particularly on testing, so dilatory?

The harsh truth: South Korea’s infection began exactly the same time as ours. Had we done what South Korea did, we might have avoided the need for economic restrictions as extreme as those now in force, which may well fail anyway. And avoided literally trillions in costs and losses and untold human suffering. And of course a vast number of deaths soon to occur.

Trump bears terrible blame for this catastrophe. As do Americans who voted for such a person.

Suppose there were some disease that would somehow disproportionately take out Republicans. Well, here it is. They do tend to be much older on average. But moreover, many Trump fans who took on board his early pooh-poohing of the virus still treat it less seriously than even he does now; thus are more likely to expose themselves to infection and death.

On the other hand, this thing is bollixing up voting, and Republicans will take advantage to make casting ballots harder — especially for Democrats. We must be vigilant lest our democracy be another casualty of COVID-19.