What Is the Coronavirus Really Changing?

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Have the courage to speak up and act, America

W.J. Astore

On the surface, our lives are changing.  We’re staying home.  We’re practicing social distancing.  We’re wearing masks when we go out.  Many of us have lost jobs and maybe our health insurance as well.  People are suffering and dying.  I don’t want to diminish any of this.

Yet how much is really changing?  Two of my dad’s sayings come to mind: the more things change, the more they stay the same; and the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.  The latter saying defines our coronaviral moment.

The Trump/Congressional stimulus package favors corporations, banks, financiers, and other forms of big business.  Ordinary people will be lucky to see a one-time $1200 check, maybe not until this summer.  Once again, the trickle-down philosophy rules.

The stimulus bill itself is a grab-bag of special interest legislation.  Did you know there’s a “provision in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package [that] allows Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to seek congressional approval to waive parts of the federal law protecting students with disabilities”?  Crises are always a good time to attack the most vulnerable while extending the privileges of the most favored.

Meanwhile, truth-tellers are being vilified or punished.  Did you hear that “Dr. Anthony Fauci has been given added security after receiving threats”?  His “sin” has been to tell the truth about the perils of COVID-19, thereby contradicting all the spin and happy-talk of the Trump administration.  That pisses off the most fanatical of Trump’s cult, leading to threats against a medical doctor who’s trying his best to save lives.

Speaking of being punished, consider this report: “The Navy removed the captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, saying an outbreak of the virus aboard his ship had ‘overwhelmed his ability to act professionally.’ Days earlier, Capt. Brett Crozier had sent a letter asking for help, using an unclassified email system.”  According to Reuters, the move could have a “chilling effect on others in the Navy looking to speak up about issues they are facing at a time when the Pentagon is withholding some of the more detailed data about coronavirus infections for fear of undermining the perception of American military readiness for a crisis or conflict.”

Here’s what Navy Captain Crozier had to say before he was relieved of command: “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our sailors.”

Crozier made two “mistakes” here: he cared too much about his sailors while highlighting the uncaring nature of his chain of command; and he dared to say “We are not at war,” when the accepted wisdom is that America is always at war (how else to justify gargantuan “defense” budgets?).  By embarrassing a callous and mercenary military abetted by the Trump administration, Crozier had to go.  And as he left his ship for the last time, his crew chanted his name in a rousing sendoff.

Today’s final lesson to illustrate how “the more things change, the more they stay the same”: the story of Christian Smalls, a brave Amazon manager who spoke out against unsafe conditions at a fulfillment center.  For his honesty, Smalls was fired by Amazon, which then considered smearing him as not smart or articulate in a leaked memo.  Smalls just happens to be Black, so Amazon resorted to racist words (not articulate, not smart) to imply he had nothing to say of any value.  Interesting that Smalls worked for Amazon for five years but only became dumb and inarticulate when he began to protest unsafe conditions related to the spread of COVID-19.  I watched Smalls in an interview, and he made a great suggestion: stop clicking and buying from Amazon, America.  That’s the only language Jeff Bezos understands.

I’ll close with some words of wisdom from one of my readers.  This is what she had to say:

No reason to complain however, we are the lucky ones.  As with all pandemics, it will be the poorest and weakest in the pecking order who will bear the brunt.  People in countries engulfed by war, refugee camps, metropolitan slums, prisoners in overcrowded prisons stand no chance against this medieval plague.

Excuse my French: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

There’s No Vaccine for Stupidity

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Trump gives himself an A+ and a 10/10 for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.  Not everyone agrees.

W.J. Astore

A few thoughts generated by these coronaviral times:

Perhaps in a year, we’ll have an effective vaccine against COVID-19.  But developing a vaccine against stupidity will remain elusive.

Perhaps we should redefine COVID-19 as a terrorist outfit, thereby unleashing unlimited funding from Congress to combat it.

People are stunned by this pandemic and the changes driven by it.  We’ve been knocked out of our routines and perhaps our complacency.  At least some of us are now open to new ideas.  Which is precisely why our government is rushing in with old ideas, doubling down on trickle down, telling us to remain in place, not only physically, which is necessary, but mentally.  Look at the parade of old ideas trumpeted by the president.  And for that matter Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic establishment.  Trump and Biden are literally tired old men, not in age alone, but more importantly in how they view the world.  There’s nothing fresh or original about them.  Nothing.  Whereas Bernie Sanders is fighting for health care for all, better pay for workers, and a system that puts people first instead of profits.

The courage and selflessness of doctors, nurses, first responders, and indeed all those who are risking exposure to the virus to help others has truly been inspirational.  We’re hearing a lot from the media about our doctors, nurses, etc. being “heroes,” which is encouraging.  Far too often in the U.S., and for too long, the concept of “hero” was linked to military service, with all troops being celebrated as “hometown heroes.”  Athletes, too, were called heroes for hitting homeruns or throwing touchdowns.  Our coronaviral moment is reminding us about the true nature of heroes.  As I wrote a decade ago:

Here, then, is what I mean by “hero”: someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place.  Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages, and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane).

“Hero,” sadly, is now used far too cavalierly.  Sportscasters, for example, routinely refer to highly paid jocks who hit walk-off home runs or score game-winning touchdowns as heroes.  Even though I come from a family of firefighters (and one police officer), the most heroic person I’ve ever known was neither a firefighter nor a cop nor a jock: She was my mother, a homemaker who raised five kids and endured without complaint the ravages of cancer in the 1970s, with its then crude chemotherapy regimen, its painful cobalt treatments, the collateral damage of loss of hair, vitality, and lucidity.  In refusing to rail against her fate or to take her pain out on others, she set an example of selfless courage and heroism I’ll never forget.

Perhaps it takes a crisis like this for us to recognize the “ordinary” heroes among us, the ones who aren’t “top guns” flying warplanes, the ones who aren’t throwing footballs for multi-million-dollar salaries.

Remember when Trump said: “I could stand In the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”?  This moment is proving him right.  He has colossally mismanaged this crisis, yet his followers still place their faith in him.  For his followers, Trump is the ultimate Teflon president.  Nothing sticks to him.  Eat your heart out, Ronald Reagan!

Finally, as a pandemic rages, the Trump administration is warning of a possible sneak attack by Iran even as it deploys ships and air assets in the drug war, specifically against Venezuela.  Echoing the words of Mehdi Hasan, a journalist at The Intercept, what kind of maniac does this?  But maybe it’s not mania; after all, Iran and Venezuela have something in common: huge reserves of oil, and regimes that resist the USA.  Once again, old thinking prevails, old scores must be settled, even as a new world order takes shape because of this pandemic.

Of course, Trump has never put America first.  He’s always put himself first.  He’s given himself an A+ and a 10 out of 10 for his leadership in facing this crisis.  Sad to say, his followers believe him.  Remember when I said there’s no vaccine for stupidity?

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.

Update (3/26): If America reopens by Easter with crowded churches and the like, prepare for lots of dead people, as this article and graph show (courtesy of the New York Times):

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Social distancing for 14 days leads to 128 million total infections in the USA by October (curve on left).  Social distancing for two months leads to 14 million total infections (curve on right).  Trump appears to prefer the curve on the left in the name of boosting our economy.  Which result would you choose as the leader of America?

Strong, Smart, and Resolute Leaders: What America Needs Now

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COVID-19: Not impressed by weak, dumb, and irresolute leaders 

W.J. Astore

If nothing else is true, COVID-19 is a wake-up call to all of us about the need for strong, smart, and resolute leadership.

Donald Trump is not that kind of leader.  He ducks all responsibility for mistakes, provides false information, and blames the crisis on others (Europeans, a “foreign” virus, the Obama administration, and so on).  His VP, Mike Pence, has been a non-entity for years and has done nothing to allay the concerns of Americans.

Meanwhile, the Democratic front runner, Joe Biden, has given short remarks read off a teleprompter.  I see headlines like “Can Biden handle a two-hour debate?” and I wince.  If serious people think Biden may not have the physical and mental endurance to perform well in a staged political conversation, how can we possibly believe he is fit enough to be president for four years?  Biden will be 78 in November, and none of us is getting younger.  If there are serious concerns about his mental and physical stamina now, when he’s not being pushed, how can there not be profound concerns about his ability to handle the burden of presidential leadership?  Severe stress ages everyone, and we shouldn’t close our eyes to this reality.

Roughly the same age, Bernie Sanders appears mentally and physically robust, and his speeches on the pandemic have been sensible, detailed, and smart.  But even Bernie isn’t getting any younger.

In Biden’s case, people may argue that Joe can always fall back on his VP if he fails in office.  But we don’t elect a president with the idea that he’s infirm and may soon need to pass his duties to a younger man or woman.

There is one presidential candidate still in the running for the Democrats who is strong, smart, and resolute and who is young to boot: Tulsi Gabbard.  She is 39 and has dramatic ideas to help ordinary Americans during this crisis.  Yet she’s been excluded from the Democratic debate by the DNC that can’t forgive her for supporting Bernie Sanders in 2016 while criticizing corruption within the party.

As Americans, we need to get serious about our leaders.  Trump has shown he has no answers.  Biden’s debate performances (among other public appearances) raise serious questions about his mental and physical capacity for office.

Yet as of this moment these two men appear to be our likely choices come November.  At a time of severe crisis, that’s no choice at all.

Pandemics and Partisan Politics

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From the Oval Office: Beware of foreign viruses

W.J. Astore

If ever there was a time to put aside partisan politics, you’d think it would be now, as the United States faces the COVID-19 virus.  (When the American Mecca, Disney World, closes, you know times are tough.)  Instead, partisan politics are raging, especially in the White House, as President Trump implausibly blames his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the chaotic response by the Trump administration.  (Will “Crooked Hillary” be blamed next?)

Americans need to come together, and I think we are; Bernie Sanders gave a fine speech emphasizing science and teamwork as well as compassion and aid for those who lose their jobs and so on.  We need a much better testing regimen and we need to give doctors and health care personnel the resources they need to do their jobs.

But as I read David Lauter (LA Times Essential Politics), I despaired at the games being played as America faces a serious health crisis.  Here’s what Lauter had to say:

The Democrats have made clear what their line of attack will be: As Biden showed, they’re poised to say that while Trump didn’t cause the coronavirus outbreak, he made it worse by cutting government agencies designed to deal with epidemics and by refusing to take the advice of health officials and act aggressively to counter the illness when he could.

What Biden offers voters, Doyle McManus wrote, is a return to normalcy.

Trump has also tipped his hand on his likely response: Portray the disease as a foreign threat.

In his address to the nation Wednesday night, Trump repeatedly used rhetoric of a foreign invasion to describe the virus, as Noah Bierman wrote. His main policy response was to ban Europeans from traveling to the U.S., blaming them for having “seeded” many of the disease outbreaks in this country.

The speech did nothing to calm markets — indeed it roiled them further, as Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote. But it did provide a preview of Trump’s likely path.

Since the first moments of his astonishing political rise, with his opening blast against Mexican rapists, Trump has campaigned against immigrants and foreigners. And, despite much talk about blue-collar workers voting for him because of economic distress, the overwhelming weight of evidence is that opposition to immigration, concern about the changing demographics of the country and a belief that white Americans face discrimination form the biggest factors in predicting a person’s support for Trump.

In 2018, faced with the prospect that Republicans would lose control of the House, Trump tried to turn the election into a referendum on the supposed threat of immigrant caravans moving north through Mexico — a specter that largely evaporated soon after the election.

In 2020, deprived of the chance to campaign on economic prosperity and a rising stock market, it’s near certain that he will return to the theme that has powered his rise.

That approach might not work. His effort failed spectacularly in 2018 as suburban voters turned against Trump in droves. But Democrats would be wise to avoid overconfidence: The history of epidemics is also a history of xenophobia.

It would be a disaster if COVID-19 led to yet more fears of “foreigners,” however defined.

If anything, a threat like COVID-19 should remind us of our common humanity.  We are all vulnerable, and the smart way to meet this threat is to remain calm, to work together, and to listen to the experts.

Sure, the people who’ve botched America’s response so far should be held accountable.  But let’s first and foremost get a grip on the virus itself and stop its spread.  Because one thing is certain: partisan politics won’t stop a pandemic.  It’ll just make a bad situation worse.

Trump’s Wall and Its Meaning

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They’re so proud of Trump’s wall, though new sections proved surprisingly easy to cut through

W.J. Astore

I caught this snippet via the New York Times today:

Border wall funding: President Trump plans to divert $7.2 billion from the military for the construction of a wall on the southern border, two people familiar with the plans told The Times. Congress set aside $1.375 billion for it last month.”

Diverting money that’s been appropriated by Congress is an impeachable offense, but the Democrats will do little since they know Trump will spin their opposition as being pro-immigrant and anti-American, irrespective of the lies contained in that spin.

Trump was elected in part through his fear-mongering about immigrants (he spoke of murderers, rapists, gang members, even Muslim terrorists hidden within the “caravans” approaching America’s southern border).  “Build the wall” is a popular chant at his rallies, and Trump knows the issue still stirs up his base.

What’s it all about?  Recently I was reading “Shadow of the Silk Road,” by Colin Thubron.  This is what Thubron had to say about the Great Wall of China:

As a true bulwark the Wall was senseless.  Huns, Mongols, Manchus overswept it almost at will.  The Sinologist Owen Lattimore proposed that it was built to keep the Chinese in rather than the nomads out.  Perhaps, unwittingly, it was less a physical defence than a monstrous definition.  It separated civilisation from barbarism, light from darkness.  It was an act of shuddering denial: over there is not what we are.  And it was steeped in fear. [Emphasis in original.]

“Over there is not what we are”: Trump recognizes how “his” wall serves as a dividing line between the “good” people (Americans) versus the “bad hombres” (his term) seeking to “invade” America.  And it is, as Thubron says, both a monstrous definition and an act of shuddering denial.

Of course, the wall already exists, as Greg Grandin notes in his book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”  Trump merely wants to lengthen it, mostly in areas where a wall is redundant due to already forbidding terrain.

But the wall is not about protecting America from “hordes” of “invaders.”  It’s about defining America in retrograde ways, contrasting the alleged barbarism of brown-skinned people with the civilization of (mostly) White America.

Walls demarcate and divide.  They are also a denial of common humanity.  They pit us against them in battles over turf.  In short, they’re a perfect symbol for Trump’s vision of greatness.

Troop “Reduction” in Afghanistan!

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Photo that allegedly persuaded Trump that Afghanistan wasn’t a lost cause

W.J. Astore

Trump was elected president in 2016 partly because he railed against America’s wasteful wars.  So, what did his advisers talk him into?  A mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan.  I still recall the odd news of Trump being shown photos of Afghan women in skirts (vintage 1972) to convince him that westernization and modernization of Afghanistan was possible.

Several thousand additional U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2017, predictably achieving nothing of note.  A little more than two years later, we have another item of “big” news today, according to CNN:

The Trump Administration is preparing to announce a long-awaited reduction of US troops in Afghanistan, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN. There are between 12,000 and 13,000 US troops in the country right now, and the US has maintained a solid presence throughout the 18-year war in the area. This drawdown would remove up to 4,000 troops, with more possible reductions in the future, the official said. That matches the claim Trump made on Fox News Radio in August that his administration would take the number “down to 8,600.” The reduction comes at the same time the US is restarting peace talks with the Taliban, and some worry the troop drawdown could be seen as a concession to the terrorist group.

Where to begin with this CNN snippet?

  1.  The “reduction” is not a reduction but a return to previous troop levels at the end of the Obama administration.
  2. The U.S. “has maintained a solid presence”?  Good god.  You’d never know about all the bombing, droning, and killing the U.S. has done over the last 18+ years.  Or is that the “solid presence” we’ve been maintaining?
  3. The troop “drawdown” as a “concession” to the Taliban?  Guess what: The Taliban aren’t going anywhere, and they’re winning.  A few thousand U.S. troops, either as a “plus-up” or “drawdown,” have had and will have no impact on the reality on the ground.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or do both.  Perhaps my dad put it best: “We laugh to hide the tears.”

Update (12/17): Speaking of laughing to hide the tears, the Pentagon has responded to the systematic lying revealed by the so-called Afghan Papers.  It won’t surprise you the response consists of three artless dodges:

  1. We’re looking forward, not backward!
  2. This is all old news.
  3. Nothing to see here, move along.

I kid you not.