Nature Cannot Be Fooled — Nor Conned

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has COVID-19 and must be hospitalized highlights Richard Feynman’s famous observation that, whether you’re dealing with technology or science or medicine, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. Many Republicans have been proud to act carelessly, refusing to wear masks or even claiming the virus is a hoax. Trump, for example, enjoyed making fun of Joe Biden and his propensity for mask-wearing; he further claimed the virus would simply disappear.

Trump’s illness is a sobering reminder — and we shouldn’t have needed one — to take medical warnings seriously.

Here’s what I wrote back in March:

The Coronavirus Is Immune to Lies

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Richard Feynman

W.J. Astore

Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies.  It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science.  You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk.  And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.

Trump is the man who sold us a fake university.  Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president.  Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick.  And he’s good at it.  It’s a skill that got him to the White House.  But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.

The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist.  His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying.  Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction.  Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.

Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned.  Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:

“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”

The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism.  Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty.  (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)

Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America.  Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.

Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.”  So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all.  You’re acting murderously instead.

Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”

They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.

Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.

Wear the Mask! Wear the Mask!

 

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Why was this so much easier in 1918? (Georgia Tech game, 1918, courtesy of Andy McNeil)

W.J. Astore

I keep seeing headlines like this one from Alternet today: Trump ‘patriots’ ready to die for freedom shout down county commissioners because they don’t want to wear face masks.

How do you convince such “patriots” that wearing a face mask is not an assault on their freedom?

Perhaps by telling them that the Covid virus is much like those bad people invading us from the south.  You know: those “rapists” and “killers” and other viral elements poring through our border, as Trump warned us about in his first speech as a candidate in 2015.  A “threat” we can stop with a chant: “Build the wall!  Build the wall!”

Think of all those Covid viral droplets as unwanted and dangerous invaders — but we can stop them before they ruin America.  How?  Wear the mask!  Wear the mask!

Just think of the mask as a wall between you and the bad people out to ruin America.  There — don’t you feel like a patriot now, wearing your “wall” mask?  You can even get masks with American flags on them.  Wear with pride!

The New American Motto: Choose Death!

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Clint Eastwood as the Outlaw Josey Wales

W.J. Astore

As some Americans party hearty this Memorial Day weekend, I just happened to catch this snippet via The Washington Post:

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) [of Arkansas] said a recent high school swim party contributed to the state’s “second peak” of infections but still encouraged residents to venture out. “We take the virus very seriously, the governor told Fox News. “It’s a risk, it causes death, but you can’t cloister yourself at home, that is just contrary to the American spirit.”

Don’t you love the false choice?  Apparently, the only two choices available to Americans are 1) Cloister yourself at home; 2) Get out there, throw caution to the winds, and celebrate your “American spirit.”

What about a third choice?  Get outside, be responsible with social distancing, wear a mask when necessary, and be prudent while thinking of others and their health and safety.

Again, no one said you had to cloister yourself like a nun, but at least you’re not harming anyone if you do.  Far, far worse is an attitude of total irresponsibility, as the Post reported here from the Ozarks: A nearby bar and grill advertised a pool party for hundreds of people called “Zero Ducks Given.”

Ah, yes, how clever.  Or, as I like to say, “Live free and die.”

But let’s remember what the Outlaw Josey Wales said about this: “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”  Just so.

We Put A Man on the Moon …

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Earthrise as seen by Apollo 8

W.J. Astore

Is it possible the U.S. hit a peak of sorts in 1969?  I know – 1969 was a Nixon year, another year of destruction in Vietnam, though the music in those days was far better than today.  But I’m thinking of Apollo, as in our landing on the moon in July of 1969.  Having recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, that momentous event is still on my mind, especially when I think of the old poster I had on my bedroom wall that showed the Apollo journey from earth to the moon, its various stages and maneuvers.  It was all bewildering to a young boy caught up in the space program, but at least I knew my country was at the forefront of science.

In 1969 America reached the moon!  We respected science.  Many Americans were trying to end a disastrous war in Vietnam.  People marched for civil rights, they fought for equal rights, there was a sense America’s potential was nearly limitless.

WTF in 2020?  Many Americans, including our president, don’t respect science.  We fire doctors for calling out quack medical cures.  We put a breeder of labradoodles in charge of our Covid-19 pandemic response.  Wars just go on forever with little resistance.  We’re sliding backwards in rights for minorities, for women, for workers.  And the space program?  Moribund in the USA.  We’re very much stuck on earth, an earth that is less hospitable to life than it was fifty years ago.

The years 1970-2020 has defined a half-century of American decline.  Perhaps we might speak of five bad “emperors”: Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Shrub Bush, and Obama, now joined by Trump, our very own blend of Nero and Caligula.  He fiddles and diddles while America burns.

Joe Biden and the establishment Democrats are hardly the answer.  Even Jesus isn’t the answer unless we start taking His words about the rich (and so much else) seriously.  The Jesus of my youth had no use for greed and money and material goods – He taught us our treasure was in heaven, gained by righteous living through faith while manifesting love.  That sacrificial message is drowned out today by the so-called prosperity gospel, preached by ministers who are cashing in even as they tell their followers that wealth is the most legitimate form of God’s grace.  Back in the Catholic church of my youth, such ideas would have been blasphemous.  At my church I recall the example set by Sister Emily and Sister Jane Elizabeth – they sure weren’t living in luxury.  Forgive them, sisters, they know not what they do.

Here we are, in 2020, in a land of un-truth, in a universe of alternative facts, in belief systems where money matters more than anything, where even ministers stoke conflict, and we wonder why we can’t come together and develop a clear, coherent, and coordinated response to the coronavirus crisis.

How to change this?  How about letting experts lead us?  You know the saying: it ain’t rocket science.  But Apollo was rocket science, and so we deferred to experts, and they got us to the moon and back six times and patched together an amazing rescue of Apollo 13 when it went wrong.  To beat Covid-19, we can’t listen to Trump and his band of grifters and losers.  We must listen to the scientists, the doctors, and act collectively based on sound medical science.  The “rocket scientists” will get us through this, together with the humanists and the selfless efforts of so many medical workers and (mostly) nameless others.

Longer term, we need to re-create our government, because it has, quite simply, betrayed most of us.  Simultaneously, we need to move beyond nationalism and think and act on a global scale to save our earth.  If Apollo taught us one thing, it’s the wondrous value of our own planet.  The moon may be a place of magnificent desolation, but who wants to live permanently in desolation?  We need global vision and action, not only to help prevent future pandemics, but also to preserve our planet as a viable biosphere for a global population projected to top ten billion people in the coming decades.

Nobody said it would be easy; yet if we stay on our current course, just about anybody can guess humanity’s fate.  But if we can put a man on the moon, surely we can come together to create a better future for ourselves and our children.

The year was 1969, and this song by the Youngbloods went gold: “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.  Right now.  Right now.”  It wasn’t – or shouldn’t be — just hippie dreaming.  Indeed, it’s the essence of true Christianity.

Random Saturday Musings

W.J. Astore

Hello, loyal readers of Bracing Views!

If corporations are people, can they catch the coronavirus?  It appears not, therefore they’re not people.  But let’s imagine corporations could catch COVID-19.  Don’t you think if Trump Inc. could be killed by a virus, the president would have acted far faster than he did?

When did fantasy become more important than science in American life?  My guess is roughly 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected on sunny optimism and trickle-down economics.  It’s only gotten worse since then.

The military-industrial complex has been relatively quiet lately, except for all those loud flyovers in honor of medical workers, first responders, and the like.  I haven’t heard anything about the Pentagon volunteering to cut its budget, either now or in the future, to help desperate Americans make ends meet.

Those demonstrations by Trump supporters who want “to reopen America”: they sure carry some interesting signs, as in this photo from Cape Cod:

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Some priceless symbols here: “the blue lives matter” flag to the far right, the various “don’t tread on me” flags, symbol of the Tea Party, together with signs to reopen gun shops.  It truly amazed me, as a history professor, to learn that so many of students equated freedom with the 2nd Amendment.  Reducing freedom to guns, God, and Old Glory (and perhaps gold as well) is truly a propaganda victory for the NRA, the Republican Party, and corporations in general.

Another perspective on that photo: these protesters are pro-authority, i.e. they support the police with the “thin blue line” flag but they’re anti-authority in that they resist a Republican governor’s call for social distancing during a pandemic. So they’re selectively pro-authority when it’s convenient for them to be, and anti-authority when they can’t gather and shoot their guns.

Echoing the photo above, this cartoon truly made me laugh out loud, perhaps because I had aquariums from roughly the age of ten to eighteen:

the fish

I love the fish holding the “My Choice” sign.  Except it’s not simply a “choice” when your decision to jump out of the tank imperils the lives of others.

I saw Tara Reade’s interview with Megyn Kelly, which I highly recommend.  Let’s just say I find her account far more credible than Joe Biden’s blanket denial.  Here’s the link:

When it comes to Biden versus Trump, I can’t vote for either man.  Both are deeply flawed individuals.  I do agree with Tara Reade that Joe Biden should be replaced, no matter how unlikely that seems.

We need a leader who’s calm in a storm, a leader with compassion, a leader with experience with adversity, and a leader who wants to end America’s calamitous wars.  Yup: I’d still much rather see Tulsi Gabbard than any other Democratic candidate, even Bernie Sanders.  (Bernie really let me down with all that “my friend Joe Biden” talk.)  Of course, barring the apocalypse, this isn’t going to happen.

What say you, readers?  If Biden can be replaced, who should replace him, and why?

A happy Saturday to all!

Trump’s Motto: Pass the Buck

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President Truman: Unafraid to take action — and responsibility

W.J. Astore

President Harry S Truman famously had “The buck stops here!” on his desk.  He was unafraid to take responsibility — to make the tough decisions when they reached his desk.  And for this and other reasons he’s gone down in history as one of America’s better presidents.

News that President Donald Trump will soon disband his COVID-19 Task Force is consistent with Trump’s (unofficial) motto: “Pass the buck.”  Trump has apparently decided that Covid is a losing issue in 2020 with respect to his reelection, and if Trump knows one thing, it’s how to dodge responsibility for his own mismanagement.  Just consider his many failed casinos and business ventures.

If Trump appeared as a contestant on his own show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” is there any doubt he’d be the first guy fired?

Despite his complete lack of empathy and his total failure to take responsibility for his actions, Trump’s supporters still embrace him.  As they might say themselves, the Lord truly works in mysterious ways.

Yet despite all his tough-guy posturing, Trump is a very weak man indeed.  He doesn’t have Truman’s guts.  When Trump faces a difficult, demanding, or tough issue, his instinct is to avoid it, or spin it, or lie about it.  He’s both craven and lazy.  And uncaring to boot.  And in the coming months that combination is going to cost America a lot more lives.

As Don Henley sang, “These days the buck stops nowhere/no one takes the blame/but evil is still evil/in anybody’s name.”

America’s Bizarre Cult of Death

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B-2 bomber flies over Kansas City to honor Covid-19 workers

W.J. Astore

A recent news item caught my eye: “Whiteman Air Force Base [in Missouri] to salute health care workers with flyover on Tuesday: Flyover will include B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, four T-38 Talons and two A-10 Thunderbolt lls.”  New York City had its own flyover by the aerial demonstration teams of the Navy and Air Force.  “America Strong” was the theme of the latter.

Isn’t it curious that we celebrate our life-saving medical workers with flyovers by warplanes that are designed to take life?  And, regarding the B-2 stealth bomber, a life-taker on a truly massive scale, since it’s designed for nuclear warfare.

Maybe there’s a weird form of (unintentional) honesty here.  We use death-dealing machinery to celebrate life-preserving medical workers, highlighting a bizarre cult of death in America, one seemingly embraced and advanced by Donald Trump’s policies on Covid-19, among other policies working against the health and welfare of ordinary people.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in a new piece for TomDispatch.com, Trump is only America’s latest assassin-in-chief, but this time the killing is happening here in the homeland, rather than being exported to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries across the globe.  Speaking of violence coming home, together with homeland insecurity, is there any other country in the world in which gun sales have soared during this pandemic?  From an article in The Guardian:

Estimated gun sales also soared to 2.58m in March, Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting reported, an 85.3% jump from the same time last year.

An explosion in gun sales during a pandemic suggests something about the American psyche that is truly scary.  So too do combat jets screaming in the skies as a celebration of heroic lifesavers.

First as Tragedy, then as Farce

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W.J. Astore

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.  Karl Marx used it to describe Napoleon’s cataclysmic reign followed by the far less momentous and far more ignominious reign of his nephew, Napoleon III.

Marx’s saying applies well to two momentous events in recent U.S. history: the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and the current coronavirus pandemic.  The American response to the first was tragic; to the second, farcical.

Let me explain.  I vividly recall the aftermath to the 9/11 attacks.  The world was largely supportive of the United States.  “We are all Americans now” was a sentiment aired in many a country that didn’t necessarily love America.  And the Bush/Cheney administration proceeded to throw all that good will away in a disastrous war on terror that only made terror into a pandemic of sorts, with American troops spreading it during calamitous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, among other military interventions around the globe.

Again, it was tragic for America to have thrown away all that good will in the pursuit of dominance through endless military action.  A great opportunity was missed for true American leadership achieved via a more patient, far less bellicose, approach to suppressing terrorism.

In this tragedy, the Bush/Cheney administration avoided all responsibility, first for not preventing the attacks, and second for bungling the response so terribly.  Indeed, George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 and has now been rehabilitated as a decent man and a friend by popular Democrats like Michelle Obama, who see him in a new light when compared to America’s current president.

Speaking of Donald Trump, consider his response to America’s second defining moment of the 21st century: the coronavirus pandemic.  It’s been farcical.  The one great theme that’s emerged from Trump’s 260,000 words about the pandemic is self-congratulation, notes the New York Times.  Even as America’s death toll climbs above 50,000, Trump congratulates himself on limiting the number of deaths, even as he takes pride in television ratings related to his appearances.  The farce was complete when the president unwisely decided to pose as a health authority, telling Americans to ingest or inject poisonous household disinfectants to kill the virus.

Tragedy, then farce.  But with the same repetition of a total failure to take responsibility. As Trump infamously said, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the botched response to the pandemic.

9/11 and Covid-19 may well be the defining events of the last 20 years.  After 9/11, Bush/Cheney tragically squandered the good will of the world in rampant militarism and ceaseless wars.  Then came Covid, an even bigger calamity, and now we have our farcical president, talking about the health benefits of injecting or ingesting bleach and similar poisons.  At a time when the U.S. should lead the world in medical expertise to confront this virus, we’ve become a laughingstock instead.

What comes after farce, one wonders?  For too many Americans, the answer may well be further death and loss.

American Health Care Is Wealth Care

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Covid-19 is exposing the American health care system’s greatest weakness: its focus on wealth rather than health

W.J. Astore

As millions of Americans lose their jobs due to Covid-19 disruptions, they also lose their health care, which is tied to their jobs.  Only in America is health care contingent on employment.  Efforts to create a national, single-payer, health care system have failed since the Truman administration in the late 1940s.  Americans have been sold on the idea that health care is best administered by “the free market,” which of course is neither free nor much of a market.

The American health care system puts profit over people; in short, it’s wealth care, not health care.  This is simply fact.  Health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, are motivated by money.  Indeed, health insurers make money by denying you coverage, not providing it.  They raise co-pays and deductibles to unbearable limits.  Meanwhile, they spend liberally on lobbyists to keep Congress in their pockets, as well as on advertising to persuade Americans that health insurers are always on your side.  Until you file a claim, that is, or need expensive treatment.

Health care should be about health, not wealth, and people, not profit.  Back in 2013, I wrote the following article on health care for Huffington Post.  Of course, the system has only grown worse.  America faces a crisis today, driven by a deadly pandemic.  Isn’t it time to embrace single-payer health care for all?

***

Americans generally, and politicians in particular, proudly proclaim that we live in “the greatest” country. But how should we measure the greatness of a country? I’d suggest that quality of life should be a vitally important measure.

And what is more fundamental to quality of life than ready access to health care? When you’re sick or suffering, you should be able to see a medical specialist. And those costs should be — wait for it — free to you. Because health care is a fundamental human right that transcends money. Put succinctly, the common health is the commonwealth. And we should use the common wealth to pay for the common health.

Here’s the truth: We all face the reality of confiscatory taxation. If you’re like me, you pay all sorts of taxes. Federal, state, and local income taxes. Property taxes. School taxes. Social security. State lotteries are a regressive tax aimed at the poor and the gullible. We pay these taxes, and of course some for health care as well (Medicare/Medicaid), amounting to roughly 30 percent of our income (or higher, depending on your tax bracket, unless you’re super-rich and your money comes from dividends and capital gains, then you pay 15 percent or lower: see Romney, Mitt).

Yet despite this tax burden, medical care for most of us remains costly and is usually connected somehow to employment (assuming you have a good job that provides health care benefits). Even if you have health care through your job, there’s usually a substantial deductible or percentage that you have to pay out-of-pocket.

America, land of the free! But not free health care. Pay up, you moocher! And if you should lose your job or if you’re one of the millions of so-called underinsured … bankruptcy.

Health care is a moral issue, but our leaders see it through a business/free market lens. And this lens leads to enormous moral blind spots. One example: Our colleges and universities are supposed to be enlightened centers of learning. They educate our youth and help to create our future. Higher Ed suggests a higher purpose, one that has a moral center — somewhere.

But can you guess the response of colleges and universities to Obamacare? They’re doing their level best to limit adjunct professors’ hours to fewer than thirty per week. Why? So they won’t be obligated by law to provide health care benefits to these adjuncts.

Adjuncts are already underpaid; some are lucky to make $3000 for each course they teach. Now colleges and universities are basically telling them, “Tough luck, Adjunct John Galt. If you want medical benefits, pay for health insurance yourself. And we’re limiting your hours to ensure that you have to.”

So, if Adjunct John Galt teaches 10 courses a year (probably at two or three institutions of “higher” learning) and makes $30,000, he then faces the sobering reality of dedicating one-third of this sum to purchasing private health insurance. If that isn’t a sign of American greatness, I don’t know what is.

I groan as much as the next guy when I pay my taxes. But I’d groan a lot less if I knew my money was funding free health care for all (including me and mine). Commonwealth for the common health. With no death panels in sight.

A healthy republic that prides itself on “greatness” should place the health of its citizens first. That we don’t is a cause for weeping — and it should be a cause for national soul-searching.

Is the Coronavirus Emasculating?

 

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James Mattis, modeling combat-inspired leather jackets for “real” men

W.J. Astore

Is the coronavirus emasculating?  It’s a serious question.  Judging by photos, most of the people protesting shutdown and social isolation orders are men, with a few sporting totems of manhood like assault rifles.  Many men (and women too, obviously) have lost their jobs, with some “reduced” to new roles as Mr. Moms.  Are we already seeing a hypermasculine reaction to Covid-19, an emphasis on toughness and grit, a live and let die mentality, or perhaps live free and die?  If so, it will only imperil public health and safety further, while possibly aiding Donald Trump in his reelection efforts.

There’s an article circulating that persuasively argues the countries that have best handled the coronavirus crisis are led by women, like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel.  Is it because women are better listeners, a bit more willing to submit to expert advice, and more patient?  Or is it that women just have to be better than your average bloke to get ahead in this man’s world?

Certainly, it’s illustrative of something that Donald Trump claims he’s a “wartime” leader in a “war” against the virus.  Trump almost desperately wants to pose as a wartime leader, much like Winston Churchill, facing down a foe with fierce and manly determination.  But a contagious virus isn’t exactly the Nazis, and a “never mind the odds” mentality of risk-taking is almost guaranteed to lead to further contagion and death.

If nurses, grocery clerks, and the like are America’s new heroes, does that lead more than a few wannabe men of action to question where they stand in the heroes olympiad?

What put me on this line of thought is an advertising campaign for a jacket marketed by a company headed by a combat veteran that features retired Marine Corps General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis as a model.  The boilerplate for the company says their jacket is designed “for men who refuse to hide what they truly are. It’s mean, streamlined and fast.”  And expensive too at roughly $1330, but it does come with its own tracking device.  Eat your heart out, James Bond.

Hey, it’s just marketing, but even marketing tells us something about society.  Conservatives talk about the feminization of society, often deploring the rise of metrosexuals and mixed gender roles.  “Take charge” men are seemingly the antidote. Trump is aware of this phenomenon.  Indeed, as a friend of mine noted, Trump most resembles the stereotype of loudmouthed fathers of the 1950s and 1960s, the ones who insisted on being obeyed no matter what.  The “do as I say, not as I do” dads, the ones who got their way by bluster and bullying.  (No Ward Cleavers need apply.)

Wartime toughness, “mean — streamlined — fast,” may be just the thing in combat.  But it isn’t what the doctor ordered in the struggle against Covid-19.  The virus, after all, can’t be shot, or punched, or bullied into submission.  It’s oblivious to bluster; indeed, you might say it feeds on it.  What works instead is a community spirit of containment through cooperation.  A quieter form of heroism.  Nothing masculine or feminine about this.

A sensible and patient approach, grounded in sound science and proven medicine, is what’s working.  No hard men in combat-inspired leather jackets are required.