America’s Twin Pandemics of Covid and Agency Panic

M. Davout

Agency and autonomy are fundamental to democracy. Panic is fundamental to fear and chaos.  Preserving personal agency while avoiding panicked reactions is one of the great challenges ahead of us. While the Covid pandemic will burn itself out, America’s pandemic of panic–manifested in the rise of wild and often evidence-free conspiracies–continues to accelerate. How much misinformation and mistrust can America tolerate before democracy itself crashes around us? Our very own M. Davout, who teaches political science, introduces the concept of “agency panic” and challenges us to take the red pill of uncomfortable truths.  W.J. Astore

America’s Twin Pandemics of Covid and Agency Panic

M. Davout

America is awash in conspiracy thinking and it is doing terrible damage to the country. However, the solution is not to dismiss conspiracy thinking altogether but to distinguish fake conspiracies from real ones.

Consider the many theories afloat about Covid-19.  Scrolling through the Facebook posts of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers curated on the Herman Cain Award subreddit, one is struck by the sheer quantity of conspiratorial memes circulating among networks of likeminded Facebook friends. The Covid pandemic is variously presented as the product of a nefarious plot enacted by the Chinese government or by the US government or by the Centers for Disease Control or…the list goes on. Public health measures that have been recommended or mandated at the federal, state or local levels such as quarantining, masking, and vaccinating are similarly condemned as elements of the conspiratorial machinations of Anthony Fauci or Bill Gates (or both of them working in cahoots), of profiteering Big Pharma, of collectivizing communists, of Medicare-For-All socialists, and so on.

As Richard Hofstadter demonstrated in his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the United States has from very early in its history provided fertile ground for the organized circulation of political rhetoric warning in shrill tones about the impending takeover of the political system. Alleged nefarious groups named in these conspiracy theories included the Illuminati, the Freemasons, papists, Jesuits, anarchists, Jews, international financiers, and communists. 

While the anti-mask and anti-vax conspiracies circulating on Facebook today manifest the characteristics of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” which Hofstadter identified as typical of the paranoid style, the sense of what is at stake has changed. It is no longer just constitutional government that seems to be at risk. When you read the conspiratorial warnings available across the ideological spectrum—from QAnon enthusiasts or Trumpist dead-enders or health purists or anti-corporate populists, among others—you get the sense that people feel their very identities to be under threat. Has a threshold been passed that separates the conspiracy-mongers of today from their anti-papist, anti-Masonic forebearers?   

In his book, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (2000), Timothy Melley argued that conspiracy thinking fundamentally changed after World War II with the rise of the “information age.” Consumers of electronic mass media became susceptible to what he characterized as a state of “agency panic,” an “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control” in the face of pernicious systems of social control acting with a singular will. Notions of secret plots hatched by bands of conspirators aiming at the conquest of political power were increasingly replaced by visions of “whole populations being openly manipulated without their knowledge” through the effects of advertising, schooling, fluoridation, and so on. The USA was ground zero for this new form of conspiratorial thinking because the American embrace of the idea of rugged individualism was so at odds with the reality of an increasingly interdependent society in which self-sufficient farmers were a dying breed.

Empire of Conspiracy was published at the dawn of the surveillance economy ushered in by Google and Facebook. This economy has at the same time systematically perfected the relentless tracking of individual activities and facilitated the exchange of conspiratorial memes and messages lamenting the threats to individual integrity and freedom. Paranoid messages that are likely to attract eyes are moved algorithmically to the top of search results or share lists. The Covid pandemic has only supercharged these developments by boosting mass dependence on the internet and amplifying mass grievance against infringements on individual freedoms. 

The easy response to this internet-fueled conspiratorial dynamic would be to dismiss conspiracy thinking as the paranoid raving of the uneducated and ignorant if it weren’t for the fact that real conspiracies are continually afoot in our political system. One has only to take note of the ever-accelerating revolving door between public officialdom and the lobbying-industrial complex or to monitor the ever-greater lobbying and campaign expenditures of major industries such as Big Pharma or Big Coal or Big Tech to know that well-paid influencers are working diligently with corrupted politicians to poach the common good.

Yet the rising tide of agency panic-driven conspiratorial thinking continually diverts Americans from the true causes of their collective misery into attacks on those few public measures that are in our collective interest. 

It truly is a choice between taking the red pill or the blue pill, as The Matrix meme circulated by so many of the Covid conspiracy Facebook posters suggests. But, against their expectation, taking the red pill would lead to a clear-eyed understanding of how corporate influence peddling diminishes our lives rather than to a revelation that supposed college roommates Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci hatched a conspiracy against our freedoms fifty years ago.

M. Davout, an occasional contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science at the collegiate level.

The Herman Cain Award Subreddit and What It Says about America’s Political Crisis

Deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S. recently passed 800,000 with no signs of abating. The blame game is also not abating. Are corrupt elites exacerbating and exploiting a crisis for their own interests? Are “irrational” elements at lower levels exhibiting mass resentments at being bossed around? Why does everything seem polarized in America, even “common sense” steps to save lives during a raging pandemic? M. Davout uses the lens of the “Herman Cain Award” to take a closer look at America’s Covid dilemma. He reaches a conclusion that will challenge many. W.J. Astore

Learning from the Herman Cain Award

M. Davout

As America undergoes a series of overlapping domestic political crises—notably among them, determined attacks on democratic election processes, fierce resistance to public health responses during a deadly pandemic, reckless brinkmanship over federal government budgeting and debt payment—commentators often resort to the notion of political polarization as an explanation of our problems. A recent case in point is the disapproving mainstream media response to the Herman Cain Award (HCA) subreddit, which is devoted to showcasing the social media posts of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who get sick with Covid-19 and end up in hospital ICUs in need of breathing assistance.

Herman Cain, you might remember, was a failed candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.  He attended a Trump reelection campaign rally in Tulsa, posted a photo of himself and his entourage at the rally unmasked while belittling concerns about Covid, and then died of the disease six weeks later.

Herman Cain

For any given recipient of the Herman Cain Award, the presentation of captured social media posts follows a typical arc. The early posts feature memes and images disparaging Fauci, Biden, the medical establishment, mRNA vaccines, and masked and vaccinated Americans (“sheep”), intermixed with memes and images exalting Trump, the healing powers of Jesus, the adequacy of their own unvaccinated immune systems, and their independent and courageous selves (“lions”). Then comes a series of posts notifying followers of their falling ill with Covid and their shock at the severity of the symptoms, their eventual hospitalization and need for prayers. Finally, posting duties fall to a relative or friend of the afflicted, who reports on the increasingly more radical medical procedures undergone, the almost inevitable decline in organ health, and eventual death. GoFundMe appeals for donations to cover the obscenely high medical expenses round out many of the HCA posts.

Many of the comment threads for each post could fairly be characterized as largely (though not exclusively) being exercises in schadenfreude. Some posters belittle the pleas for aid from “prayer warriors” and the all-caps invocations of divine intervention to heal failing organs. Self-proclaimed liberal commentators sarcastically express their “dismay” at being “owned” by conservatives who have scored ideological points at the cost of their lives. Accusations are often lodged against rightwing media celebrities and GOP politicians who amplify the conspiratorial memes which appear again and again on the social media accounts of the HCA recipients.

Occasional critical reference is made to the facilitating roles played by foreign disinformation campaigns in broadcasting lies and to Big Tech in channeling lies to those most susceptible to believing them. But, by and large, the commentators are unrelentingly hostile to the HCA recipients themselves for “shitposting” the lies to their family, friends, and other social media followers, and leaving family members bereft and financially devastated when they die.  

In a recent New York Times article, an academic psychologist is paraphrased as arguing that “these websites are an outgrowth of the nation’s extreme polarization.”

To my mind, application of the notion of polarization to a political crisis or conflict encourages one to withhold judgment about the truth claims and reasonability of each of the two sides to a dispute. Particularly in the case of the HCA, polarization is too simplistic a way of understanding the fierceness of the social media pushback against vaccine denial and the avoidable deaths such denial causes. For me, the HCA posts are better understood in the context of a perennial question in my academic field about political dysfunction: is political crisis more a product of the pursuit of unaccountable power by corrupt elites or is it more a product of mass resentments which often find expression in campaigns of scapegoating and demonizing people?

Political theorist Michael Rogin usefully framed this issue within a longstanding debate between “realist” scholars who frame historical episodes of political dysfunction (e.g., McCarthyism) as products of elite-driven programs of political repression serving the interests of capitalism, the state apparatus or other powerful institutions, and “symbolist” scholars, who emphasize the dangers of popular indulgence in conspiratorial thinking and paranoid fears of racial, ethnic, religious or cultural “others.”

In response to the needless prolongation of the Covid pandemic, many of the HCA commentators seem to have taken the symbolist position, blaming rightwing members of the polity for indulging and promoting paranoia (e.g., drawing parallels between public health measures against Covid and Nazi genocide) and conspiratorial thinking (e.g., the offer of free vaccines as a Trojan horse for socialized medicine). To be sure, there are voices among them that take the realist position of blaming rightwing political and media elites for instrumentalizing populist anxieties for their own power interests.

So rather than characterize HCA commentary simply as “cruel sentiment,” I see much of that commentary as lodging symbolist (and, in some cases, realist) critiques of a deadly form of political dysfunction afflicting our public life, namely the perverse resistance of an irrational minority to reasonable and time-tested public health measures aimed at protecting all of us from exposure to a disease that kills far too many and disables many more.

M. Davout is a professor of political science and an occasional contributor to Bracing Views.

America, Land of Death

W.J. Astore

Checking today’s headlines at CNN was a grim affair. First, gun violence:

Ten mass shootings happened across the nation this weekend, leaving at least seven people dead and more than 40 injured. It was the latest in a streak of violent weekends in America. The weekend before this, there were also 10 mass shootings that left 12 people dead across seven states. (CNN defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot, not including the shooter.) This weekend’s violence included shootings at several parties and celebrations, including in California, Indiana and Colorado. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 293 mass shootings in 2021 so far.

After death by gun, we have death by vehicles on America’s roads:

38,680: That’s how many people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s the largest projected number of deaths since 2007, despite a 13.2% decrease in miles traveled from the prior year.

And of course the Covid-19 death toll has surpassed 600,000 in the United States (one study suggests the true Covid death toll is over 900,000), with the Trump administration having rejected any responsibility for its botched response to the pandemic. Most Trump supporters seem content with the notion that, well, at least Trump tried to do, well, something, like blaming the Chinese for “Kung Flu.” Sadly, Trump’s “gifts” of bluster and boasting and bragging and bombast just had no effect on a deadly virus.

At this site, I often marvel at how Americans have so little knowledge of or interest in America’s wars overseas and the deaths and suffering they produce. But the hard truth is that we also tend to ignore mass death here in the USA, whether from guns or motor vehicles or lack of affordable health care. Indeed, I’ve seen estimates to suggest that perhaps half of America’s deaths from Covid could have been prevented if our country had a national health care system. But we’d rather die from kleptocratic capitalism (in the name of freedom) than live with democratic socialism.

I don’t think America has a death wish — but we sure could use a lot more emphasis on life and living. Readers, what say you?

Remarkably, despite how busy he’s been, the Grim Reaper has time to answer questions at a Florida beach (as played by Daniel Uhlfelder)

The Incredible Shrinking Relief Check

W.J. Astore

Isn’t it nice to see them having fun?

I read the news today, oh boy …

Remember when Joe Biden promised a $2000 Covid relief check if the Democrats won both senatorial races in Georgia? He said they’d “go out the door immediately.” Well, immediately has turned into weeks and probably will turn into months. First, the Democrats reduced the amount to $1400, saying they’d meant all along that the previous $600 check had been included in Biden’s promise. OK–I almost believe that. Now the $1400 amount has shrunk to $1000, if the wishes of “moderate” Republican senators are upheld. Biden and Kamala Harris are meeting with these moderate Republicans today, seeking “bipartisan” accord on a much smaller relief package ($600 billion versus $1.9 trillion). It’s now all about “targeted” relief, based on family income as reported to the IRS.

Let’s think back, way into the past, when Donald Trump was president. Do you recall the Republicans meeting with Democrats to secure bipartisan support for what they wanted to do? Me neither. I recall Trump and Republicans doing pretty much what they wanted, with most Democrats along for the ride.

So, how does a $2000 relief check become $1400 become $1000 become nothing (if your income exceeds $50K, or $100K as a family)? When you have miserly and dishonest politicians in charge.

Democrats could have moved immediately (there’s that word again) to pass a simple Covid relief bill for $2000 checks, instead of trying to pass a complex relief package that’s scheduled for next month at the earliest. But simplicity would not allow room for pork-barrel politics as usual, hence the complicated course we’re now on. Meanwhile, struggling Americans wait … and wait … and wait.

Joe Biden is a business as usual president — emphasis on “business.” As Chris Hedges recently wrote, he’s papering over the cracks in a rotting edifice, doing the job he was hired to do by his paymasters. But bipartisan accord will mean less than nothing when the whole rotting building crashes down around us.

Medicare for All: Force the Vote

It’s time! Commonwealth for the common health. Medicare for All!

W.J. Astore

The comedian and activist Jimmy Dore has inspired a movement for a vote in the House on Medicare for All early in January 2021. (Here’s Jimmy Dore talking to Cornel West on this issue.) Go to forcethevote.org and sign the petition to put pressure on Progressive Democrats to withhold their vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker unless she brings Medicare for All (M4A) to the floor of the House for a vote. If not now, during a global pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans and caused nearly 15 million Americans to lose their employer-based health insurance, when are we going to consider M4A?

I rarely sign petitions. But my wife and I instantly signed this one. Americans supposedly live in the richest country in the world, yet we allegedly can’t afford to fund health care for everyone. It’s absurd. Not only that, it’s a crime against our common humanity. Which of you, if a friend or even a stranger came to you sick and asking for help, would seek to profit off this? Which of you, if a friend or even a stranger came to you seeking a diagnostic test to see if that lump was possibly cancerous, would seek to deny such a test as “not needed” or “not covered”?

It’s obscene that America’s health care system is based on the profit motive and the exploitation of the sick and dying. That it drives families into bankruptcy. That people sometimes die because they’re afraid to go to a doctor or the emergency room because it will cost too much.

Progressives say they want Medicare for All. A majority of registered Republicans and nearly 90% of registered Democrats say they want M4A. Why can’t Nancy Pelosi hold a vote on it? She claims to represent the people. That she even “feeds” them. Why isn’t she working to give the American people health care during a deadly pandemic that may cost as many as 600,000 Americans their lives? Is it because she doesn’t really represent us?

It’s not just about holding a “performative” vote on M4A. It’s about forcing the hand of Congress and seeing who the phonies are. Who wants to deny Americans M4A at this awful time? I’d like to know. I’m sure all Americans would like to know. And if Joe Biden is willing to veto M4A, as he’s said he will, I’d like to see that veto and his rationale for denying Americans the health care they so desperately need.

Again, if not now, when? If Progressives aren’t willing to force a vote on M4A during a deadly pandemic, when there’s deep suffering in America, when will they be willing to act?

We need to force them to act. Sign the petition, call your Member of Congress, and spread the word.

Update (12/26/20): In the comments section below, JPA made a strong argument for institutionalized corruption within America’s privatized medical system. With his permission, I’ve added his comment here so that more people will see it:

When people lump “doctors” into a homogeneous group that is a mistake because “doctors” are no more homogeneous than “cops” or “blacks” or “gays”. Most doctors want to deliver good patient care. Most of these hate the [American medical for-profit] system. However, a significant minority of doctors is quite happy with the current system and oppresses doctors who speak out against it. I work with a lot of healthcare professionals who are driven to depression or suicidal despair because they are trapped in a system which abuses them and their patients.

It is very likely that the tests ordered by the doctors who treated Maine’s brother were mandated to do so by the hospital’s electronic health record (EHR). EHR’s are mandated by law in large healthcare organizations ostensibly to improve patient care. In reality these make patient care more difficult and their real purpose is to run algorithms to determine the way to maximize the billed charges.

Doctors who work in hospitals are employees who are pressured to admit patients, do procedures, and run tests. If they don’t they can be fired, and their contracts usually contain non-compete clauses that prohibit them from working in the area. When someone has a family, and large student loan payments, then one is at the mercy of the employer. Very few people have the courage to stand up to that kind of pressure. Those who do often risk bankruptcy or divorce when the spouse realizes that they are not going to have the lifestyle they planned upon.

Or the hospital labels the physician as “disruptive” and other physicians who act as stooges for the hospital fabricate complaints that get the “disruptive” physician in trouble with their state medical board.

Here are the main things I hear from healthcare providers:

  • It is not possible to practice good medicine in the current environment
  • The pressure to meet corporate demands for revenue generation is contrary to good medical practice
  • Clinical guidelines are set by people/organizations with conflicts of interest
  • Upcoding, excessive testing, unnecessary procedures/screening/testing are expected and demanded
  • For-profit medicine does not work

Individual corruption occurs when a person behaves unethically. That is not the problem in American medicine. The problem in American medicine is institutional corruption.

1) Institutional corruption occurs when the laws, policies, and guidelines of a system are structured to enforce a set of values that is antithetical to the values the system is ethically obligated to express and uphold.

2) Health care professionals are obligated to place a higher value on patient care than on making profit.

3) The laws, policies, and guidelines of the American healthcare system are set up to prioritize making profit over providing patient care.

4) From 1, 2, and 3 above, the American medical system is institutionally corrupt.

This system is supported and maintained by a corrupt system of government. For further reading on this I recommend On Corruption in America by Sarah Cheyes.

Biden’s Motto: Same As It Ever Was

Biden: A scold with no vision and no new ideas

W.J. Astore

An old friend and faithful reader sent me this query: Biden’s Defense/National Security Team looks like a tired Obama 2.0 retread. Iran nuclear deal back? Middle East entanglements/deployments suddenly fashionable again? Drone strikes? Russia fixation? Averting eyes from China?

He’s right about the retread. As Biden himself promised to his corporate sponsors, nothing would fundamentally change under his administration. Think about that for a moment. He’s been running for president off and on for 30+ years, and yet when he finally wins, he’s got no vision. None. He just wants to occupy the Oval Office and change nothing.

What’s the point of running for president and being a leader if you want to do nothing? I don’t see the point, but I understand Biden’s corporate sponsors who profit from the status quo. They like America and the way rich people are gaining even more money and power — why change a good thing?

We see this with America’s military-industrial-Congressional complex. A retired general who works for Raytheon is announced as the next “civilian” defense secretary. Men who were for the Iraq war, a disastrous decision that you’d think would be disqualifying, are those who get high positions as national security advisers or as secretary of state. Not a single progressive or skeptical voice against war gets hired, even though the last 20 years of endless wars have been disastrous.

The “defense” budget at $740 billion remains untouchable. It recently passed with strong, veto-proof, bipartisan support in Congress. The main American enemy of the moment is Covid-19 and the collateral damage of deaths, loss of jobs, bankruptcies, and forthcoming evictions and foreclosures, yet Congress can’t pass a stimulus bill to help the working classes. Yet a stimulus bill for weapons makers is easily passed — we just happen to call it the NDAA, or the national defense authorization act.

Remember when there were serious Congressional debates about guns and butter? We settled those in favor of the guns. Domestic issues take a back seat to the need to fund the Pentagon and its global network of bases and installations. We’re so busy exporting money and violence that we don’t even see how we’ve become our own worst enemies.

Biden didn’t have much of a slogan when he ran for president. It was something like “build back better.” It really should have been “same as it ever was,” as in the same “legalized” corruption, the same misguided priorities, and the same stale ideas.

Imagine running for president with no new ideas … forgive me for repeating myself, but how sad is that?

Joe Biden Wins!

United, but for what causes?

W,J. Astore

I’ll admit it: I never saw Joe Biden as president. Not when I remembered his abortive presidential run in 1988, when he lied about his college record and plagiarized speeches of Bobby Kennedy and Neil Kinnock.

He made an effective vice president for Barack Obama, mainly at first because he reassured White America that the Black guy was OK. Being vice president is an “It must have been cold there in my shadow” kind of job, but Joe handled it pretty well, and even catastrophically deferred to Hillary Clinton as Obama’s rightful successor in 2016.

After that debacle, Joe persisted, and in the campaign of 2020 he found a Democratic establishment that loved his pro-business and pro-banking record, his strong support of high military spending and overseas wars, and his past calls for cuts to Social Security as well as his steadfast opposition to Medicare for all. Our kind of Democrat, the owners and donors said, and with a big push from Obama, Biden found himself anointed as the candidate to defeat the Orange Ogre.

But Biden didn’t defeat Trump; Trump defeated Trump. Trump’s response to Covid-19 was so incompetent, so reckless, and so tone-deaf to lives lost that even the usual spin about fake news and alternative facts didn’t work. Indeed, Trump first said the pandemic would magically disappear, then tried to blame it all on China, then said the media was covering it only because it hurt his chances for reelection, then persisted in holding rallies that turned into super-spreader events for the virus.

Despite all of Trump’s flaws, despite all of his lies, he still almost defeated Biden, a stunning achievement when you really think about it. To my mind, the closeness of this election, the narrowness of Biden’s victory, is as much a reflection of the weaknesses of Joe Biden as it is the strength of the Trump cult.

What kind of president can we expect Biden to be? He won’t be anything like Trump, which in some ways is a bad thing. What I mean is this: Trump turned the narrowest of victories over Hillary Clinton into mandate-level deeds. He got the big tax cut Republicans covet. He got to pick three Supreme Court justices and to redefine lower-level courts for a generation. He served his base and made no apologies.

What is the likelihood that Biden adopts a progressive agenda? That he takes no prisoners, that he rides roughshod over Republicans, that he calls them traitors and dictates terms to them? Unlikely indeed. Even if Democrats win a majority in the Senate, which we won’t know until January and runoff elections in Georgia, Biden will likely position himself as a centrist, i.e. a moderate Republican, a man willing to reach across the aisle for bipartisan accord.

It’s likely Biden will even appoint Republicans to his cabinet. I’m betting we’ll see more Republicans in his cabinet than progressive Democrats.

I won’t shed any tears when Trump departs, perhaps into a new self-named media empire. Because for Trump it’s Trump now, Trump tomorrow, Trump forever. Biden, unlike Trump, has at least some experience with public service, and that can’t be a bad thing.

The question is: Which publics will Joe Biden serve with the most passion?

Four Big Reasons Not to Vote for Trump

Trump, keeping his promise about American carnage

W.J. Astore

Back in May of 2016, I wrote an article on two big reasons not to vote for Donald Trump. Those reasons, his denial of climate change and his cavalier approach to nuclear weapons, remain valid. But I’d like to add two more that we were unaware of in 2016: his total inability to bring people together, i.e. his divide and rule approach to everything; and his murderously incompetent response to Covid-19.

If there are any lukewarm Trump supporters reading this, I hope you join me in voting your conscience, which in my case meant rejecting both Trump and Biden for candidates I believe in (in my case, Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders).

Don’t vote for a man-child, Donald Trump, who’s golfing and tweeting while the planet burns; who has no idea what nuclear weapons can do, but who threatens to use them while bragging about the size of his nuclear button; who dismisses Covid-19 as just another virus that will magically disappear; and who is so eager to divide us in the cause of enriching himself and his family.

Here’s what I wrote in May of 2016:

Nuclear proliferation and global warming are two big issues that Donald Trump is wrong about.  They’re also the two biggest threats to our planet. Nuclear war followed by nuclear winter could end most life on earth within a matter of weeks or months.  Global warming/climate change, though not as immediate a threat as nuclear war and its fallout, is inexorably leading to a more dangerous and less hospitable planet for our children and their children.

What does “The Donald” believe?  On nuclear proliferation, which only makes nuclear war more likely, Trump is essentially agnostic and even in favor of other nations joining the nuclear club, nations like Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia.  When all countries should be earnestly working to reduce and then eliminate nuclear stockpiles, Trump is advocating their expansion.  (An aside: recall in a previous debate that Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad is; add intellectual sloth to his many sins.)

On global warming, Trump is essentially a skeptic on whether it exists (“hoax” and “con job” are expressions of choice), even as he seeks to protect his resorts from its effects. Along with this rank hypocrisy, Trump is advocating an energy plan that is vintage 1980, calling for more burning of fossil fuels, more drilling and digging, more pipelines, as if fossil fuel consumption was totally benign to the environment and to human health.

Along with his tyrannical and fascist tendencies, Trump is wrong on two of the biggest issues facing our planet today.  His ignorance and recklessness render him totally unfit to be president.

Monday Musings, October Surprise Edition

My vote for 2020 is in …

W.J. Astore

The real October surprise is that there is no surprise. Trump or Biden will win, meaning Wall Street, Big Finance, and the Military-Industrial Complex win. (Biden is on record as saying he would increase defense spending!) All you “little people,” whether you’re for Trump or Biden: you lose.

My dad, born in 1917 and a survivor of the Great Depression, used to remind me you need three things in life: A roof over your head, three square meals, and clothes to keep you warm. (Nowadays, given the high cost of getting sick, I’d add health care coverage.) How sad is it that America may soon face a massive eviction crisis, and is already seeing people hungry in the streets, even as Wall Street booms? (Yes, I know America has had trouble housing and feeding people for decades — and it’s only getting worse.)

Amy Coney Barrett was picked for one reason, and one reason alone: Her mentors and handlers know how she will vote in the future. So much for judicial independence.

When you think about it, there shouldn’t be “liberal” or “conservative” justices. Each justice should interpret the law based on her understanding of it informed by her conscience. If this were true, justices would be more or less unpredictable in their rulings. But the justices are hopelessly politicized, rendering “justice” politicized as well.

Speaking of justice, Amy Coney Barrett is a friend of corporations; she’s also uncertain whether global warming even exists. Does this sound like a person with a strong conscience, someone who will fight for equality under the law?

What does it mean that the U.S. military is still at war in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but that few Members of Congress even attempt to exercise oversight of the same, let alone make an attempt to end these wars?

I got my ballot this weekend. Faced with a choice of voting for Biden and Harris versus Trump and Pence, I wrote in Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders, in that order. It’s the only way I couldn’t waste my vote.

Tulsi would make a great president. Young, insightful, smart, she’s taken a critical stance against the military-industrial complex and wants to end America’s awful regime-change wars. Bernie would make a terrific vice president. Seasoned, dedicated, he could focus on domestic policy while Tulsi remakes U.S. foreign policy. Imagine if Bernie really could advance his essential policies: Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, free college education, relief of student debt, and so on. Gabbard and Sanders are the closest candidates to my positions, so I voted for them.

There are still plenty of good people in the USA, but callousness and cruelty are on the rise. Who knew that as the Covid-19 death toll soars past 200,000 to approach possibly as high as 400,000 by the new year, so many people would just shrug collectively and then consider voting for a man who so disastrously mismanaged the pandemic response? Trump — what a loser!

Speaking of Trump, is he even our president? As near as I can tell, he’s spent most of his presidential days golfing, tweeting, attending rallies, signing statements and holding them up like a child, and traveling to and from his various resorts. America’s next authoritarian autocrat will be far less lazy and spoiled — and far more dangerous to the world.

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

richard-feynman-1
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.