Monday, July 6, 2020

HOW LATE BECOMES NEVER

There was one thing I liked about former President George W. Bush.

He was always on time.

Politicians have a habit of being late.  In August 2014, The Washington Post calculated that Barack Obama had been "a cumulative 2,021 minutes late for events".  Bill Clinton was  perpetually tardy. NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio  has been so late so often that, when he announced his presidential candidacy last year, one wag sported a campaign button that said  "Make America Late Again".  In 2015, he was even an hour and twenty minutes  late for a speech he delivered on climate change at the Vatican.

Donald Trump is his own kind of late.  Like other pols, he routinely shows up late to events and announcements. As is usually the case,  he was hours late to his campaign rally in Oklahoma two weeks ago.  During the spring and winter, his afternoon coronavirus pressers started late, often by more than an hour.  In 2017, 2018 and  2019, he was late to meetings of the G-7.

Unlike other presidents, Trump also doesn't show up in the Oval Office on most days until  11am.  In other words, he is generally . . .

Late for work.

Explanations (or excuses) for being late abound.  Polticians typically over-schedule themselves and this creates multiple opportunities for delay; one event or meeting goes over (they love to talk) and everything thereafter can't start or finish on time.  They could, of course, pack less into a single day or stay rigorously on the clock. But the first option  is never tried and the second is (genetically) impossible (Bush II excepted).

In the archive of consequence, being late is rarely fatal. Clinton, Obama and Trump won their elections in spite of their allergy to time, and George W. Bush did not leave office any more loved because he respected it. For some, late is an opportunity. Think bankers who have turned it into a profit center with all their late fees.  For others, it's the excuse for a low-rent penalty. Think the IRS . . .

Or the NFL.

It's also a widely shared belief that late beats not-at-all.

Better late than never . . .

They say.

But is it?

Is late merely annoying?

Or can it be fatal?

The two biggest crises in America today are Covid-19 and racism, the latter manifest most obviously at this time in  the deaths of blacks in police custody, and with both, delay has been the enemy of progress.

With coronavirus, an early unwillingness to acknowledge the potential severity of the problem left America flat-footed when the pandemic was upon us. Denial at the top gave away precious months that should have been used to stock up on supplies, develop a competent testing and tracing regime, and implement early quarantines that could have signifiantly lowered both the rate of infection and death.  And today, months into the crisis, premature re-openings coupled with an unwilllingness in certain precincts to require masks or enforce distancing and tracing has allowed the epidemic to spread and grow exponentially in areas that had been spared or were less severely affected.

With racism, a head-in-the-sand approach has defined reality for centuries.  From 1619 until 1865, we were explicit (violently so) in our devotion to the notion that blacks were inferior, and in the 155 years hence, our progress in resolving that problem has been intermittent, always divisive and often non-existent.

Following the Civil War, it took a hundred years to pass and enforce the civil rights laws.  While we were waiting, Jim Crow, lynchings and discrimination were the order of the day for most of that time.  In the later years, Brown v. Board of Education, desegregation, the 1960s Voting and Civil Right Acts and Obama represented undoubted progress.  But each was met with backlash and retreat.  One result is that, with police today, a formal opposition to brutality (which is illegal everywhere) runs aground on a consistent unwillingness to fire the relatively few bad cops who cause repeated problems. Protected by culture and contract, they remain on the beat.

This past Saturday, July 4, America celebrated Independence Day.

As with many things American, the day itself is bathed in paradox.  It's the day we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, a document which endorsed Revolution based on the simple truth that "all men are created equal" but whose prinicpal author owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime. As it turns out, that large paradox was joined by a host of minor ones.  Independence was actally declared on July 2 and the docment was not fully signed until August 2.  All that happened on July 4 is that the Continential Congress approved the final text.  In other words, what we are celebrating on July 4 is really . . .

The day we stopped editing the Declaration.

Which is fitting.

Because we have been caught in a sort of editing trap for the last 244 years . . .

Embracing the document's fundamental principle but unable to write it into our actual history.

Even today.

On Friday, President Trump went to Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota.  Before about 7,000 maskless supporters, he kicked off the naton's Independence Day weekend with an attack on those who have been protesting the killng of George Floyd under the banner of Black Lives Matter.  He called them "angy mobs . . . trying to . . . unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities", supporters of the "new far-left fascism" in "our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms" that ""sham[es] dissenters and demand[s] total submission from anyone who disagrees."  "If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantra, and follow its commandments," said the President, "then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished."

None of this is true.

The vast majority of protests over the past months have been peaceful and non-violent.  In many cases where property destruction appeared imminent, protesters themselves stepped in to de-escalate any violence.  This was particularly true in Newark, NJ, where police and protesters together stared down those whose intentions were either unclear or were veering in the wrong direction. Moreover, the notion that "schools, newsrooms and even . . . corporate boardrooms" have now been infected with "far-left fascism" is comical.  Tell that to Fox, the Wall Street Journal,  Falwwell's Liberty University or the entire SEC.  None have been shuttered nor are any less than free to pursue whatever interests they perceive as their own.  For years, blacks couldn't sit at lunch counters with whites, but boycotting Walmart is now  "the very definition of totalitarianism"?

Wrong, Donald.

It's actually the very definition of capitalism.

Trump is an Orwellian farce.  He pins labels (e.g., fascist, a/k/a a fact-free authoritarian who demonizes minority races, immigrants, and a free press while seizing extra-legal and/or illegal powers) on opponents that don't at all describe them but come pretty close to describing him.  He governs by fear when he governs at all, routinely lies, and literally tries to destroy any who dissent, a large portion of whom are the Mattises, Kellys, McMasters, Scaramuccis and Boltons who once worked for and supported him.  At Mt. Rushmore, he created a fictive universe of violent counter-culturalists bent on "destroying" American "civilization", all the while ignoring the one reality, Covid-19, that has already killed 130,000 of us.

The virus is unmoved by Trump's agitprop.  It creates its own deadline with reality.  You can ignore him, wear a mask, socially distance and live.  Or you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder, unmasked,  in a newly re-opened bar, get sick, and either die or give it to someone who may.  You can even be undecided and uncertain, masked one day, maskless the next; properly distanced on Tuesday but tired of it all by Friday; one day cocky in the face of a President who refuses to model good behavior, the next suitably brought to shore when you meet someone who is sick.

The President doesn't care.

You, however, might.

Because with Covid-19,  late may not be better than never.

It may be never.

The same is true with police brutality.

It is no accident that the Black Lives Matter movement arose in  2013.  These were the latter years of the Obama administration, and Obama himself was the personification of progress on civil rights.  Many thought that if he could be elected -- and he obviously could because he was --  our worst racial sins were behind us.

Late, it seemed, had finally  beaten never.

But it hadn't.

And the "all lives matter" opposition actually proves it.

One would think that a nation over Jim Crow and lynchings, and able to put a black man in the Oval Office, would not have a terribly difficult time rooting out the small number of police who cause problems, that the fact that "all lives matter" would have by now produced a reality in which blacks no longer have to worry about their own being in peril at the hands of the state, that "they" are in fact treated as part of and not apart from the "all".

But it hasn't.

And they haven't been.

In 2013, George Zimmerman disobeyed police orders that he cease following Trayvon Martin, killed him after doing so, and was acquitted.  In 2014, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner was killed by the NYPD. Neither officer was charged.  Between then and now, more than a dozen unarmed blacks  have similarly been killed while in police custody or pursuit or by de facto vigilantes.

In 2016, Donald Trump called immigrant Mexicans rapists and became President.

In 2020, to win again, he is calling Black Live Matters protesters totalitarian fascists.

Trump dresses up his racism in stylized artifacts designed to deflect the charge before it can be made. At Mt. Rushmore, he lumped all the post-George Floyd protesters -- black and white, violent and non-violent -- into one undifferentiated "totalitarian" and "far-left fascis[t]" camp.  He did the same to those who have called for removal of Confederate monuments and statues.  They became  an undifferentiated  part of the "angry mobs . . . trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities."

In his world, non-violent protesters who want cops held to account stand accused (falsely) of "attack[ing] . . . our magnificent liberty", and those who want Generals Lee or Stonewall Jackson taken off their public pedestals stand accused (falsely) of wanting George Washington removed fom his as well.

Staw men erected, the bad cops go unpunished,  the statues still stand . . .

And late once again becomes never.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

STATUES OF LIMITATION

There are more than 1500 monuments to the Confederacy in the United States, over 700 of which are  statues. 

Five of those statues -- including those of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens -- are in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol building.  In the Hall, each  of the fifty states is allowed to designate two of its citizens for sculptured immortality.  Mississippi long ago designated Davis as one of its honorees, and the Stephens statue was given by Georgia in 1927.   For years, one of Virginia's heroes, Robert E. Lee, had a statue in the Hall.  It is now in the Capitol crypt, still part of the government's collection and on display, but at a remove from the glory of the rotunda's Hall.

Over the course of the last twenty years, there have been regular efforts to remove Confederate statues and monuments from public places and to re-name highways, streets, parks, buildings and colleges  named for Confederate leaders.  Those efforts wax and wane and in any case are both monumental (pun intended) and disjointed given the sheer number of memorials and the fact that they exist in pretty much every corner of the country. 

As of the summer of 2017, more than a hundred roads in eleven states were named for Jefferson Davis.  Since then,  countless memorials or designations of one sort or another have come down or been changed thoughout the old south, many of the Davis highways foremost  among them. The same has also occurred in New York, Vermont, Wisconsin, Montana, Washington and  California -- decidedly non-Confederate precincts that nevertheless were moved to remember for one reason or another the south's putative heroes.

Removal, however,  has not been universally approved.

In a 2017 Reuters poll, 54% said the monuments should remain, 24% said they should be removed, and 19% were undecided. Though the recent killing of George Floyd sparked renewed removal efforts, public opinion remains more or less unchanged.  In this month's HuffPost/YouGov poll, 51% oppose flying the Confederate flag but 49% also oppose removing the monuments.  This indecision is also reflected in legislative efforts.  Virginia, with more Confederate monuments than any other state, just repealed a law protecting them, and Congressional Democrats want to introduce legislation to have the Capitol remove them. The Virginia law, however,  gives localities the final say on the issue, and the Congressional  effort is a long-shot and not remotely bi-partisan. 

So most of the statues still stand.

And the question arises . . .

What gives?

Why are monuments to slavery and treason fit symbols for public art?

In our naming and sculpting, what are we trying to remember?

Or forget?

To begin, the monument craze wasn't a natural or inevitable outcome of the Civil War.  Robert E. Lee himself opposed the whole notion, rejecting any memorials other than cemetary headstones and explaining to any who asked that monuments would keep divisions alive and retard development in the south.  He refused to fly the Confederate flag at the college over which he presided.  He was not buried in his military uniform, and the southern Civil War veterans who walked him to his final rest were similarly non-uniformed. His alternative, a form of suppressed acceptance, may not have been any better inasmuch as it counseled the sort of stiff-upper-lip denial that often mistakes a vacuum of ignorance for tolerance and progress.

But it was certainly a far cry from the "lost cause" mythology that came in its place.

And come it did.

In 1866, Edward A. Pollard, a Virginia journalist, published The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates and laid the first of the myth's two foundationsThe south's erstwhile "system of servitude", Pollard announced,  was "the mildest in the world", did not "rest on acts of debasement", "elevated the African", and was therefore one in which "that odious term 'slavery'" could not be "properly applied". Two years later, Pollard followed up with The Lost Cause Regained and laid the second foundation -- state sovereignty.  Thereafter, the warriors in this just fight were said to have lost only because of the north's "overwhelming numbers and resources" (according to Lee) and uncivilized "ferocity" (according Jefferson Davis).

New ideology announced, the defeated south eventually re-made itself into the segregated, white supremacist, Jim Crow post-bellum south.

And valorized Confederate veterans.

If there is any group that spearheaded monument making, it was the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).  Formed in 1894, the UDC's object was to commemorate Confederate soldiers and erect monuments to them.  To the UDC, the rebellion had been "a glorious fight" and those who undertook it "hallowed" veterans.  Out of the universe of statues and monuments, only a small number were erected shortly after the war or in the three decades that followed it.  The vast majority went up with UDC support (and often on account of the group's prodigious fundraising) in the first decades of the 20th century.  Their dedications, moreover, were major community events, Confederate flag-festooned pageants that attracted long speeches and large crowds.  In 1907, somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand showed up at a dedication in Newton, North Carolina.

The UDC aggressively promoted the myth of the lost cause and enthusuastically supported the south's post-bellum regime.  In its world, slavery had been benign (because it civilized blacks) , segregation was legitimate (because Reconstruction had made former slaves savage and immoral),  and noble Confederate soldiers had simply been overrun (by the uncivilized hordes that were the enemy's army).  In 1896, according to one historian, the group established an auxiliary Children of the Confederacy (COC) in order "to  impart to the rising generations their own white-supremacist vision of the future." To do so,  according to another, it made sure public schools  "perpetuate[d] Confederate mythology" by vetting text books and setting curricula.

It also venerated the Ku Klux Klan. 

In fact, in 1926, in North Carolina, the UDC even put up a memorial to the KKK.

None of this was done absent northern complicity. 

To the contrary, having left the south to its own devices after federal troops departed in 1877,  white northerners for the most part accepted Jim Crow and segregation, the latter of which the Supreme Court legalized in 1896 and northerners themselves practiced for much of the next century with only slightly more subtlety.  As for  lost cause mythology, they treated it like a palliative.  Without curing the underlying disease, it allowed peace to replace rebellion,  promoting reconciliation  by suppressing memory.   

And the statues and monuments to that lost cause,  dotting the American landscape in increasing numbers?

They stood as . . .

Silent sentinels to that suppression.

It's unclear what would have happended had the myth not taken hold in the south or been ignored in the north.  We might have become honest sooner, and in any case the racism that infected all corners of the nation could have been confronted earlier.  Alternative history is always speculative, but the south of Reconstruction (from 1865 to the early 1870s) was one where former slaves voted and held office,  the Ku Klux Klan was eliminated (it re-emerged much later), and vigilante justice was for the most part avoided.  Had it survived and matured, there might have been no Jim Crow and, with space and time, a peaceful and multi-racial polity.

But it didn't.

And there wasn't.

The UDC never erected a statue of Harriet Beecher Stowe or Frederick Douglass or the dozens of  black law-makers who initially served in the newly re-admitted Confederate states along with the freedmen who put them there.  Their stories were central to the Civil War but had no place in the myth of the lost cause.

And the statues and monuments remind us of that too. 

In Charlottesville in 2017, neo-Nazis marched in opposition to plans in that city to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park.  The proposed removal had been spurred by the shootings of Trayvon Martin in Orlando and Michael Brown in Missouri, and since then, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center,  114 Confederate monuments have come down. Today, in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, there are renewed efforts to remove even more.  

The deaths of Floyd and Taylor and Arbery are tragedies.

But the real tragedy is that . . .

The same thing keeps happening.

You can drive almost anywhere in the United States these days --  big and small cities, mid-sized suburbs, rural backroads,  red states and blue --  and see signs that say "Black Lives Matter".  

They do.  

They always have.  

But the statues and monuments say . . .

They don't.

It's time . . . beyond time . . . for them to go.





Tuesday, June 2, 2020

HOW NEWARK HONORED GEORGE FLOYD . . .
AND SCHOOLED AMERICA

George Floyd was killed on Monday evening a week ago.

When he died laid out on a street in Minneapolis with a knee on his neck and two on his back, Floyd was a forty-six year old father, grandfather, and restaurant security guard. He had lived in Minnesota for five years.  He was born in North Carolina and raised in Houston, where he had been a star high school athlete.  He was also a black man.  Among his last words were "I can't breathe," "my neck hurts," "everything hurts," "I'm about to die,"  and "Don't kill me."

None of them mattered.

At the time Floyd died, three cops were on top of him.  One, Derek Chauvin, had his knee on Floyd's neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Two others were kneeling on Floyd's back and legs.  Another stood alongside Chauvin.  At some point, a bystander told the police to "get [Floyd] off the ground," and complained that "You could have put him in the car by now.  He's not resisting arrest or nothing."

Those words didn't matter either.

When EMS arrived, Floyd was non-responsive.  He was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead at 9:25 pm.  The four cops were fired the next day,  and three days after that, Chauvin was arrested on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.  He now sits in a maximum security jail with bail set at $500,000 but apparently not met, and is scheduled to appear in court for the first time on June 8.  The other three are at large and have not been charged at this time.

A county medical examiner  ruled Floyd’s death a homicide and an autopsy performed by Dr. Michael Baden, the world renowned forensic pathologist and NYC's one-time chief medical examiner, concluded that Floyd's death was caused by the three policemen who held him down.

In the week since, protests have broken out in 141 American cities and a handful of foreign ones. The protests were multi-racial and bi-partisan.  In many cases, the police themelves either participated or were openly supportive.  And they should have been.  Floyd's death is only the latest in a long line of blue on black excessive force that stretches back over the decades and too frequently results in the deaths of black men.

Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, et al.

The list is long.

It's also part of a systemic problem that plagues law enforcement.  There's a reason for "the conversation" every black parent has with his or her child; the one warning the kids to keep their hands visible and their mouths shut whenever a cop approaches.

The alternative can be death.

Though large numbers of the protests -- and protesters -- were peaceful, a not insignificant number were not.

A Minneapolis police precinct was torched on Thursday and in cities throughout the country rioters  have overturned and set police cars and utility vehicles ablaze; in New York City, two lawyers  threw a molotov cocktail into a police car in Brooklyn.  Looting is commonplace, with property damage running into the millions, and as of Monday, four thousand had been arrested.  In twenty-one states, the National Guard has been called up.  At least five people have died and dozens of mayors have imposed curfews.

One city, however, did not burn.

Newark, New Jersey lies fifteen miles west of Manhattan as the crow flies and is home to 282,000, 84% of whom are black or Hispanic.  This past Saturday afternoon, 12,000 of them took to the streets to protest George Floyd's death at the hands of three of Minnesota's supposed finest.  Among the protesters was the poet's son and city's Mayor, Ras Baraka.

During the protest, no one was arrested, no police cars were torched, no looting occurred, and (save for a few slashed tires) no property was damaged.  The police chief, a white guy, decided that the cops monitoring the protesters' march would not be wearing SWAT or riot gear, and a citizen-manned, fifty person community street team created six years ago self-deployed to de-escalate any tension.

And de-escalate they did.

At one point, a white protester started smashing the window of a Dunkin Donuts.  At another, a group moved toward buildings owned by Prudential Financial, a business anchor that has been in Newark for over 145 years. The street team stopped both. Later that night, outside the First Precinct where riots had begun in the 1960s, an angry crowd of close to a thousand apparently bent on destroying or  trashing the place was faced down by a line of cops . . .

And the hundreds of citizens who stood with them.

By 10:30 pm, the crowd began to disperse as the street team told any who didn't actually live in the city to leave.

Newark's official historian, Junus Williams,  was a law student in the '60s when Newark burned.  Over the weekend, he praised the Mayor. Said Williams: "[T]he people . . . don't see [Baraka] as an obstacle to their righteous anger.  They know that he's angry, too."  Prudential's CEO was even more direct. "You can't underestimate [Baraka's] influence in this. It's . . . an overall image . . .  that we can do more together than we can do apart."  The best praise, however, came from the Rev. Louise Scott-Rountree, the head of Newark's Interfaith Alliance,  and was extended to her flock.  "You better not mess with my family," said the Reverend,  "That's Newark."

No kidding.

Call it Ghandi and Dr. King's non-violence . . .

On steroids.

Yesterday, a little more than two hundred miles south of Newark, the President of the United States had a different idea.

In a conference call, he told the nation's governors that they were "fools" who had "to get much tougher" with the protesters.  "You have to dominate," said Trump.  "If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time.  They're going to run all over you, you'll look like a bunch of jerks."

Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper were also on the call and echoed the president. Barr told them they needed "adequate force" to "dominate" and "control" the protesters.  Esper war-gamed the whole problem, telling the governors that they had to "dominate the battle space."  Following the call, and driving his point home, the President then announced that, if the governors didn't get tougher, he would invoke the Insurrection Act and send in the military to do the job "for them."

As with all things Trump, it's not at all clear that he has the power to do what he is now threatening to do.

The Insurrection Act was passed in 1807 and empowers the President to use the military to quell insurrection, civil disorder and rebellion in any state; to enforce federal law and protect Constitutional rights where the state cannot or refuses to do so; or when requested by a state's governor. None of those conditions have been met here, nor are they likely to be.  And a later law, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, expressly bars the use of the military to enforce any  president's domestic policies.

So, bluster aside, Trump either doesn't possess the power he so brazenly claims is his or that power has by no means been triggered.  Though he did order the military to  move a peaceful protest in DC's Lafayette Park yesterday so that he could walk across the street for a photo-op in front of St. John's church, he could do that only because DC is not a state.

From where I sit, if the governors want advice, they now have a choice.

They can call Cadet Bone Spurs -- the man-child  president who  never met a problem involving race that he didn't make worse (see, e.g., Charlottesville) -- and have him send in the marines . . . 

Or they can call Newark's Mayor Baraka.

I'd start with the Mayor.

His plan actually worked.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A MASQUE WITHOUT A MASK

In Elizabethan England, masques were a common form of entertainment.

They usually involved costumed, dancing courtiers, even the kings and queens themselves, masked around elaborate sets, with professional actors performing the singing and spoken parts.  They usually (but not always) flattered the court itself and sometimes took the form of interludes in larger productions.  Elizabeth I expected them on her travels through her kingdom and was generally presented with a fawning version of the former.  Shakespeare's masque in The Tempest, however,  is a good example of the latter.  That masque, a play within the play,  celebrates authority while the play itself  highlights the vulberability of those who exercise it.  His masque is thus metaphorically unmasked by the play itself.

And makes it more honest.

Something typical of the bard.

By the mid-17th century, however, masques were on the wane, most likely a victim of the English Civil War in which Puritans closed the theatres, one of their (and Cromwell's) many sins.  Though performed in eras thereafter, they were not as popular, and as theatre moved beyond the 19th and into the 20th century, their greatly reduced numbers became vehicles mostly to create change in the performing arts themselves.  In the 19th century, masques resurrected English musical composition; in the 20th, one tried to revolutionize dance.

The old masque, the lavish performance of disguised praise or of Shakespeare's not so disguised interlude of  unmasking, had died . . .

And then came Covid.

For the past two weeks. America has lived on a psychological knife edge, poised between the ennui of social distance and stay at home quarantines on the one hand and the hoped for return to some form of normal -- a job, a restaurant, a meeting other than on Zoom -- on the other.  Unfortunately for us, though he can monopolize the airwaves and social media, our Commander-in-Chief is no therapist in chief. 

Past presidents knew how to share our feelings, to empathize, to console.  Reagan would not let us forget "the crew of the space shuttle Challenger . . . as they waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God'".  Clinton felt our pain, most acutely in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing.  W stood atop a pile of rubble and "heard" all of us as we sat stunned, almost emotionless, days after 9/11. And Obama cried after Sandy Hook  and sang "Amazing Grace" in Charleston.

Trump is . . .

Different.

And weirdly so.

He seems to have never met an anxiety in others he was not willing to exploit . . .

Or one in himself he was not willing to hide.

Early on, before the death toll approached 100,000, coronavirus was mocked.  It was a "hoax" that would magically evaporate as the mercury rose.  When magic failed, it became the fault of a mute WHO unwilling to sound the alarm . . . or of Obama, who supposedly left the cupboard bare of needed PPE and ventilators . . . or of "fake news", who never gave him credit but would gleefully hoist him on various  petards -- hydroxychloroquine, ingested disinfectant, more lies about testing than it was possible to count.  He sought to artificially depress the numbers by leaving sick people at sea.  His CDC drafted a plan with metrics to govern re-opening, but he deep-sixed the plan (apparently) because it was too austere.  The one he published in April set out phased re-opening periods linked to continuing two week declines in cases.

But it was promptly ignored by the states that wanted to re-open . . .

And then by Trump himself.

The doctors -- Fauci and Birx and Bright --  have either been demoted (Bright) or sidelined (Fauci) or ignored (Birx).   Dr. Bright, formerly the head of the federal government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), identified the equipment and shortage problems last year and long before the outbreak could have had the administration up to speed had it listened.  It didn't; so after he filed a 300-page whistle-blower complaint, it demoted him. Dr. Fauci went into self-quarantine after being exposed and has otherwise been scarce over much of the past three weeks; nevertheless, his virtual testimony at a mid-May Senate hearing warned that premature re-openings risked an enormous second wave. For her part, Dr. Birx keeps touting the need to take precautions, practice social distancing and wear a mask in public.  But this is advice . . .

Her boss and his more ardent fans ignore.

Maskless, Trump visited a Ford factory in Michigan last week.  Again maskless, he laid a Memorial Day wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington yesterday.  He travels hither and yon quite conspicuously unmasked, in part (he says) because he does not want to give the press "the pleasure of seeing it."  His supporters are even more obdurate.  Lake of the Ozarks, a Missouri vacation spot, was a maskless, sardine like crowd of bathers literally breathing on each other over the Memorial Day holiday.  The week before, protesters in Suffolk County on New York's eastern Long Island were lined up holding Trump 2020 signs and cursing out "fake news" as one accosted a reporter within inches of his face even after being asked to step away.

All this is Trump's play within the play.

The main event is a heart wrenchingly slow wrestle with an often lethal virus that spreads quickly and against which there is no known cure.  While researchers the world over work overtime to come up with a vaccine, dilution and seclusion are the only available antidotes.  That means staying apart (social distancing), keeping our germs to ourselves (wearing a mask in public), and avoiding large crowds (some form of quarantine or stay at home).  If those practices are consistent with re-opening, and sooner or later they will have to be lest we all go broke, the new normal will be nothing like the old.

Trump's performance, however, is an elaborately staged counterpoint, a steady stew of self-congratulation, denial and deceit.  

He praises himself and condemns his predecessor even as he creates an unmatched record of incompetence.  Intelligence back in December warned of the pandemic but was ignored.  BARDA knew of the equipment shortages at the same time but was sidelined. China was at best negligent and at worst complicit in the spread of the virus early on but had to first be  praised because our own Wizard of Oz thought that was the string that then needed to be pulled.  Thereafter, he closed the border but was too late . . . 

And in any case closed the wrong one.  

New York City had already become a host city thanks to some Italian tourists.

He flouts the mask, even re-tweeting a Fox news bit yesterday that mocked Joe Biden for having worn one in his own holiday visit to a war memorial.  The Ford plant he visited last week requires masks but he gave those workers the proverbial middle finger . . . 

Just to get even with the press.

He turbo-charges the non-compliant, either with false futures (his much ballyhooed Easter re-opening) . . .  or with LIBERATE tweets to camouflaged militants who the virus can overrun before they've even cocked their pistols . . .  or with lies that undermine science (it's all a "fake news" hoax) . . . and so makes it permissible to ignore -- as he does -- his own advisors.  

He's a modern day masque . . .

Without a mask.

Literally, he refuses to wear one, and figuratively, his phoniness unmasks his performance.  There is nothing great or perfect or even all that competent about it, all of his word salad and tweeted insults  to the contrary notwithstanding.  The death toll mounts,  the division grows, the denial remains, and the uncertainty continues. 

At the end . . .

And  as with the Elizabethans . . .

Only the courtiers are dancing.








Tuesday, May 5, 2020

TIME OUT

Donald Trump is the worst president in my lifetime.

He is a pathological liar, over 18,000 during his presidency alone according to the data base maintained by  The Washington Post.

He is lazy, routinely showing up to work in the Oval Office at or after 11 a.m. because he spends most of his mornings, and large parts of his apparently inomniatic nights,  glued to the cable shows and his twitter feed.

He is immature, a man-child who thinks the puerile ripostes of a schoolyard bully deriding those who disagree render him clever or authentic.

And he is dangerous, the natural consequence of a narcissism that avoids hard study, expert input, or even facts that are at odds with whatever self-interest captures his (brief) attention span.

His wealth, never as great as his boasts, was generated in part through an estate tax evasion scheme that illegally shielded large amounts of his father's estate from federal tax, and as a businessman he regularly stiffed vendors and contractors, forcing lawsuits and delaying payments with bogus defenses.  After six bankruptcies, at which point New York banks would not touch him, he reportedly got in bed with Deutsche Bank and was thereafter funded in part by Russian oligarchs (which probably explains his love affair with Vladimir Putin).

And nothing changed after he was elected president.

Last year he tried to illegally bribe Ukraine's president by withholding appropriated military aid in exchange for a phony investigation of Joe Biden, and this year, he ignored early warnings of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the government he runs should have been testing, tracing and quarantining the recently infected back in February, moves that, had they occurred, could have mitigated the spread, he was instead telling all who would listen that it would go away "miraculously" when the weather warmed.  

Failing that, and once the pandemic took off, he disclaimed responsiblity, refused to wield the purchasing power he had under the Defense Production Act to commandeer business and industry into manufacturing needed protective gear, left it to the nation's governors to find supplies more or less on their own, and then speculated on cures, some of which lacked a sound medical basis (hyroxychloroquine) and others of which were just plain crazy (ingesting disinfectant) .  

Those state governors more like him, mini-Trumps as it were, have now decided to "re-open" their states without even meeting the standards set by the administration itself (14 days of declining cases), and the nation's economy is on life support as unemployment approaches Depression-era levels.  

Two stimulus packages have passed and been signed into law, but a third, which would help state and local governments whose balance sheets have been decimated, is on ice in McConnell's Senate as Republicans claim they are not willing to use pandemic relief to fund state pension plans.  In fact, however, no such demand is being made by the states; to the contrary,  their tax receipts have cratered and they need the federal cash merely to replace what the taxpayers, were they fully employed, would have provided.

Meanwhile, right-wing nut jobs are showing up armed and in cammo in Michigan, pretending their phallic accoutrement will cow state leaders into ignoring the science they themselves choose to disregard.  And on Friday, one of them shot a cop who ordered his sister to don a mask while in a Dollar Store in Flint.

This is America, circa May 2020.

Distraught. 

Divided.

And on edge.

Enough on its public policy plate to keep an army of competent government leaders busy on the one hand.

Bereft of such leadership at the top on the other.

Under the circumstances, this is not an ideal time for a sex scandal. 

But, mirabile dictu, one has emerged.

Joe Biden is now accused of having sexually assaulted an ex-aide, Tara Reade, in the halls of Washington, DC's capitol building sometime in 1993.  Last Friday, he calmly but expressly denied the allegation on MSNBC's Morning Joe in a seventeen minute interview with show host Mika Brzezinski.  

As we now know, any knee jerk dismissal of Reade's charge  given the passage of time is neither appropriate nor necessarily accurate.  For many reasons -- trauma,  fear of reprisal, embarassment, re-victimization -- victims often deep-six accounts of  assaults for years, or can't remember all the particular details once they decide to talk, and the fact that they have done so does not in itself render their reports false or malicious or vindictive or any of the other shibboleths routinely launched by those who shower them in disbelief.

It is, of course, a given that political partisans, myself included, are the last people who should be called upon to adjudicate claims involving politicians.  If we have learned anything on this subject over the past thirty years, it is this -- partisan bias pretty much predicts where you'll come down.  

No one I know who wanted Clarence Thomas or Brett Kavanaugh confirmed, or Donald Trump elected, was willing to fully believe Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford or the twenty-five victims of Donald Trump's apparently unbridled libido.  Some of the same people who defended Thomas later impeached Clinton for lying about a consensual but inappropriate relationship, others who defended Thomas or Sen. Packwood (himself forced to resign in the '90s from the Senate on account of sexual harassment) cheered for Paula Jones, and some of the same people who vilified Kavanaugh are now defending Biden.

It is also easy to predict the arguments that will be made.  

Those who favor Biden's accuser will embrace the claims made above regarding victim memory and delay, and saddle Joe's defenders with the charge of hypocrisy in view of how they went after Kavanaugh in 2018.  

Those who favor Biden will note the passage of time, the fact that his accuser has told different stories at different times regarding the nature of her claims against him, the fact that  her current late report is her second late report, the first having come in 2019 (without any of the incendiary sexual assault claims regarding digital penetration), and the fact that then staffers in Biden's Senate office have all denied that any claim was ever made against their boss.  Perhaps most importantly, his defenders will note that, in a public career spanning almost fifty years, Joe Biden has never been accused of sexual wandering, let alone sexual assault, of any kind.   

Biden's defenders will also contrast his calm demeanor and clean past with the defenses mounted by Thomas, Kavanaugh and Trump.  

The two justices more or less trademarked outrage in the hearings held to assess the claims against them.  Thomas claimed he was the victim of a "high-tech lynching" and Kavanaugh literally shouted his denials, insulting anyone who pondered the possibiity that his well-known penchant for beer might have clouded his memory as much as it loosened his shorts, while lying about the meaning of references to  "devil's triangle[s]" (i.e., threesomes) in his high school yearbook.  

For his part, Trump's defense is not remotely sophisticated.  He says everyone of his accusers, all twenty-five of them, are lying about allegations that run the gamut from groping to rape.  His current press secretary is now asserting that the claims against him were in effect litigated in his favor by the voters in 2016.  If so, it's the first jury where a minority of the votes determined a case's outcome.

What to do?

There is no good answer.  

Unlike Senate confirmations, there is no forum in which an investigation can be launched, even were we to assume it could be a fair one.  None, thusfar, have been.  Witnesses who might have corroborated Blasey Ford's story in 2018 were never contacted in the much ballyhooed follow-on FBI investigation after the initial Kavanaugh hearing, and Biden himself was roundly criticized for not having called a witness who could have corroborated Anita Hill's testimony in 1991.  And political campaigns seem uniquely unsuited to the task.  No one who talks to a reporter, including both victims and the accused, is under oath.  No one can be subpoenaed.  No one can be cross-examined.

There is also a greater  risk here.

This presidential campaign will be among the ugliest in our history.  Trump himself makes that ineluctable. He is incapable of living anywhere but the gutter and has turned every campaign he ran -- all of the 2016 primaries as well as the general election -- into mudbaths.  He will lie, insult, and troll his way to November 3, diverting attention from his latest outrage as he works to drive-up Biden hatred and hijack the election.

That's what he did with Hillary and her emails.  

It's what he tried to do last year with Ukraine.

And it's what he'll do with Reade's allegation. 

Demands for investigations that cannot happen, or sealed documents that have no relevant information, are already being made.  Trump will enlist those demands to create yet another shiny object designed to take all eyes off him -- his incompetence, his vulgarity, his idiocy, his sheer danger -- while training them on his parody of Biden.  If the media play to type, as they did in 2016, a commttment to phony balance will make them constantly repeat this single and as yet unproved charge against Biden while voters spin their heads in the blur created by Trump's two dozen plus victims and his constant but ever changing parade of disqualifying inanities, tantrums and lies. 

America needs a break from sex.  

A time out.

Tara Reade waited twenty-seven years to tell her story.

Maybe we should wait six months . . .

Before deciding to listen to it.











Monday, April 20, 2020

OUR PANDEMIC(S)

We are in the midst of a pandemic. 

As of today, on a worldwide basis, over 2.4 million people have been diagnosed with coronavirus or Covid-19.  Of those, approximately 636,000 have recovered, leaving about 1.6 million active cases. More than 166,000 people have died.  In the United States, there are approximately 764,000 cases, 652,000 of which remain active.  Over 40,000 people have died here.  The United States leads the world in diagnosed and active cases and in the number of deaths. In the most-infected state -- New York --  242,000 cases have been diagnosed and almost 14,000 have died.

In Europe as a whole, their number of diagnosed cases exceeds ours, as do their number of deaths. But Germany, which did early testing, a form of contact tracing and quarantining, has kept its death total (4,600) low relatively speaking and on average has also had far fewer cases than the worst states in Europe -- Spain and Italy.  For the same reason, South Korea had similar success, as has Singapore. The latter was truly effective, having turned testing and tracing into a  fatality rate of less than 1%.

In New York, the number of new cases appears to have flattened, as is the case in California and Washington state.  This does not mean there are no new infections or that the contagion has been contained.  It does mean that, barring resurgence, there will be enough hospital beds to take care of patients that emerge going forward.  And it also is evidence that social distancing and quarantining works.

There is a growing concern that the economic devastation from the pandemic will exceed the physical devastation.  Over 22 million Americans are now unemployed, the rate having gone from a low of 3.5% to estimates now putting it at levels of the Great Depression in the 1930s (or over 20%). The recently passed stimulus package provides up to $1200 to individuals; the amount declines as your annual income closes in on $100,000 and ends at that level.  The stimulus package also provides $350 billion in loans cum grants to small businesses as so-called paycheck protection; last Thursday, however, that fund was exhausted and no new applications could be accepted.  The package contains $150 billlion for state and local governments, $100 billion for hospitals, $58 billion for commercial airlines, over $400 billion for the Federal Reserve, and $20-30 billion each for farmers, ranchers, schools  and food programs.

Despite the enormity of the package, it is widely considered inadequate to the ultimate need.  Brandeis Prof. Robert Kuttner estimated that we would need a package on the order of 25% of GDP to get throught the crisis, which would require roughly quadrupling the current assistance.  He bases this on what it in fact took to catapault America out of the Great Depression. NY's Gov. Cuomo has already explained that the amount his state is getting under the current package is nowhere near what has been and will have to be spent.  And the jockeying on Capitol Hill has already begun around talk of additional legislation, with Republicans holding back and Democrats demanding more.

Part of the calculation, of course, is that the amount of ultimate government assistance necessary to the task will inevitably depend upon when America can get back to work and what that will look like whenever it happens.  The administration has proposed a set of guidelines that would implement re-opening in three phases, each tied to satisfying so-called "gating criteria" beforehand.

In Phase One, schools, daycare facilities, camps and bars would remain closed, as would visits to hospitals or senior living facilities, but  large venues like restaurants, movie theatres, sport venues and churches could operate with "strict distancing protocols", as could gyms. In Phase Two, the closed facilites (schools, daycare, camps, bars) reopen, the last with "diminished standing room occupancy", and the strict distancing protocols become "moderate" in the large venues.  And finally, in Phase Three, the distancing requirements become "limited" and employers regain full access to their worksites.

The gating criteria require that cases decline for continuous fourteen day periods prior to entering each phase.  Under the plan, states are responsible for testing and contact tracing of their populations,  sufficient equipment (ventilators, PPE, etc.), sufficient hospital capacity (defined as the ability to treat "without crisis care"), the "ability to surge ICU capacity", and "robust" testing for at-risk health care workers.  States must have  plans to protect workers in critical industries, those in high-risk facilities like nursing homes, and employees and users of mass transit.  They must also be able to "monitor conditions and immediately take steps to limit and mitigate any rebounds or outbreaks by restarting a phase or returning to an earlier phase."

None of the states hard hit by the pandemic have anywhere near the ability to do the testing and tracing required to determine on a continuous months long basis that cases have declined, that no new infections have emerged, and that no resurgent outbreak has occurred, the latter of which is almost certain in the event that any "phase" is entered into prematurely or the virus itself is seasonal.  In addition, and as has been demonstrated throughout the pandemic, the states hardest hit have regularly confronted shortages in needed protective equipment.  Though the predicted run on ventilators never materialized, that was only because governors imposed stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols that flattened the curve of new cases and lessened the run.

The policy is quintessential Trump.  It is high on optics but otherwise shallow and insufficient if the goal is to actually solve the problem and re-open the country without renewing Covid-19's lease on life.  The key to implementing the policy is testing and contact tracing and Trump has decided that this must be the responsibility of the states.  The states, however, have told him they do not have the capacity to do the job. The result, therefore, will be a swiss-cheese approach where states decide to go forward (or not) based on incomplete data in the face of the apocalyptic twins of physical disease and/or economic depression.  To avoid the latter, they will risk the former, or vice versa.

The policy is also quintessential Trump in that it allows him to claim credit and apportion blame without accepting any responsibility.  If a state reopens and avoids a resurgence, he can claim his guidelines were the solution.  If, however, a state reopens and the coronavirus is resurgent, he can claim the state lacked the resources they should have had in place beforehand.  Similarly, if a state does not reopen or others reopen faster, he can claim that the resulting economic hit is also the responsibility of governors who did not adequately prepare.  None of his claims will be true because the lack of preparedness, and in particular the absence of sufficient testing capacity, was itself caused by Trump's early denial that there was any problem.

But truth never matters to him. 

Neither in his personal life.

Nor his professional one.

Meanwhile, his absurd show goes on.

Early last week he announced, czar-like, that he was the public offcial with the ultimate authority to determine if and when any state could relax its emergency protocols and return to work.  This was nonsense, essentially because it is not the law.  On Thursday, however, when he announced the guidelines, he reversed himself, telling the nation's governors that they "would call the shots" on  re-opening.  Unfortunately, he also made it clear that the states themselves would be responsible for insuring that there was adequate testing and then claimed, falsely, that such capacity in fact existed. 

Finally, on Friday, as far-right activists in recent weeks sponsored rallies in a half dozen states demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, Trump launched his all caps "liberate" tweets, seen by the protestors as a Presidential call to arms.  His "LIBERATE  MINNESOTA" tweet that morning was followed in the afternoon by a few hundred pro-Trump protestors packed tightly on the sidewalk outside the governor's residence yelling "USA". Underscoring their demand that the quarantine end, one protestor hoisted a sign that said "If ballots don't free us bullets will."

The call to violence was not unique. 

A QAnon conspiracy theorist with 50,000 twitter followers called for armed insurrection after Trump's liberate tweets, as did a thousand other tweets from a host of on-line extremists. A comment to Trump's "LIBERATE VIRGINIA" tweet said the time was now for insurrection to "earn our freedom . . . like our forefathers did in 1776."  And one of the organizers in Minnesota specifically predicted that "violence . . . will happen. People in our culture are not designed to obey these kind of orders."

It's not entirely clear what specific "orders" annoy them to the point of armed insurrection. The stay at home requirements incident to quarantining obviously qualify, but it is not clear that distancing, masks  and bans on group gatherings of more than ten are not equally offensive.  The Minnesota protestors who crowded onto the sidewalk outside the governor's house were more than happy to shout their epitaphs sardine-like from the street, their mouths unmasked,  and the "culture" whose "design" is  at odds with the orders they loathe includes baseball and football, where packed stadia will become petri dishes of death if opened too soon.

Trump knows he is validating these groups and that they are essentially advocating a return to the status quo ante either immediately or without regard to whatever science may tell them.  But they, like Trump, have no respect for government or science, and he is willing to feed them the red meat they need to remain loyal.  Apart from last week's "guidelines", his signature moves on Covid-19 thusfar have been to blame China (which deserves it), vilify the World Health Organization (WHO) (which doesn't), and attack Democratic governors for the testing and equipment  failures of the government Trump himself is supposed to be running. To that trilogy he has now added inciting/supporting the nut-job and violent far-right.

My college friend and long-time ABC television journalist John Donvan recently noted that, unlike past crises such as 9/11, Covid-19 was not uniting America.  He's right.  There's been no rally round the flag effect.  Trump's guidelines come across as buck passing, fourteen pages of putative instructions to individuals, employers and states that cannot be implemented absent testing capacity the federal government could and already should have put together but hasn't. His daily (and lengthy) press conferences are campaign performances where he routinely attacks journalists, disclaims responsibility, and lies. 

And the citizenry, not surprisingly,  has retreated to its respective red and blue silos.  

America is a nation of myths.

There's the founding myth in which We the People rose up as a whole to throw off the yoke of British colonialism.  There's the governing myth in which the people democratically determine their fate in a land where all are created equal.  There's the economic myth where rugged individuals get ahead in a free market whose only limitation is one's capacity for work. And there's the cultural myth of exceptionalism where we are uniquely moral beacons of progress and virtue.

Each of these myths has within it a kernel of truth. 

But only a kernel.

18th century colonists did declare independence and then wage a war of attrition where British exhaustion and the timely arrival of the French fleet in the Chesapeake Bay turned the world upside down  at Yorktown. But on the way there, and at any one time, somewhere between 40 and 70 per cent of those-to-be-liberated were either rooting for the other side or did not care who won.  Similarly, the famous Declaration did declare as "self-evident" the "truth"  that "all men are created equal". But its authors owned slaves or prospered in economies that relied on slavery at some level, and when it came time in 1787 to create a government, that corruption was more more than respected; it was accepted. 

Going forward, for every rugged individual who spawned the likes of Carnegie and  Rockefeller, Jobs and Gates, there was the pauper, the wage-slave, the unemployed and the uninsured.  And for every moral beacon, every Gettysburg, every moon shot,  there was an abject moral failure, a Cherokee Trail of Tears, a Klan, a coup, a casting couch.

Sometimes our myths are confirmed.

Sometimes they are are refuted.

Which, unfortunately,  is what we are doing now.

Because red and blue, the unbridgeable division in which we now live, the one which our President has decided to actively advance as his only available avenue to reelection,  the one that makes it impossible to act rationally because we are too busy arguing irrationally, is its own pandemic.  

And it's killing the founding myth of unity, the governing myth of equality, the economic myth of prosperity, and the cultural myth of moral exceptionalism.

There truly is no Republican or Democratic approach or solution to this Covid-19 crisis. The notion that we have to be guided by science and data, and that we have to hang together lest in Franklin's prescient warning we wind up doing so separately, is inarguable.  

Dumb and divided has never won a war.

And any effort to play regions or states off against each other, to force them into a price-gouging competition  for scarce resources, to fail to unleash and exploit the power of the federal government to provide the tools neeeded to manage and conquer the crisis, or to set things up so that the finger of blame can be pointed at one or the other party for any death or depression that may ensue . . .

Will not win this one.




Monday, April 6, 2020

HIDING BEHIND IGNORANCE

Ignorance is bliss.

Or so the saying goes.

But for longer than I can remember, I have thought the precise opposite.

Knowledge is power. 

The truth shall set you free. 

Thanks to the scientific method, we have discovered more and learned more than any humans who came before.  From the wheel to the internet, travelling first the highways and by-ways of cleared paths and wooden planks, then of cobblestones and macadam, and ultimately of mere ether, we've been able to produce more and exchange more and communicate more and  know more . . . than any before.

Things that would, and in fact did, lay prior generations low have been discarded in the dustbin of history.  The microscope gave us germ theory and made soap and water, basic sanitation, our first and often most effective defense against disease.  The telescope gave us the laws of gravity and then of relativity, which more or less explains light and electromagnetism and, if that's too abstract for you, allows satellites to take us home. 

That's right.

The GPS in your car could not exist without Einstein.

Ignorance, the absence of knowledge, often the intention to never pursue it, is horror, the horror that stokes fear and  famine, abuse and neglect, suffering and pain . . . 

And death.

Yet it persists.

It has to be, it seems to me, more than an inherent disposition.  It's certainly not the case that we humans are omniscient, so arrogance in the wake of the accomplishments made possible by science is not the right attitude.  Even the scientific method abhors that.  In fact, it demands the precise opposite, a rational skepticism that makes all hypotheses testable and disprovable. The idea, in other words, is not to turn the Newtons and Einsteins . . . and Dr. Faucis . . . into modern day gods. If a claim is tested and rebutted, no PhD can make it true.

And people know this. 

Right?

So what is Donald doing?

Every day now, generally between the hours of 5 and 6 pm, the doors to the White House briefing room swing open and the President of the United States enters with a supporting cast and holds forth for upwards of two hours.  These press briefings are themselves the product of cornonavirus.  Before the pandemic, Trump's go to venue was the "rally", where a swarm of like-minded Trumpists were regaled for  hours by a stream of consciousness chest-thumping and litany of insults against all opponents, perceived and real; at his last two, on February 28 and March 2, Trump called coronavirus the new Democratic "hoax" during the first and falsely claimed he had always taken the disease "seriously" at the second.  Once the rallies became  impossible,  Trump took to the briefing room, where he has otherwise been more than scarce for the last three years.

At these briefings, all the usual Trump-tics are on display.  Questions he dislikes become vehicles for attacks, often vicious, on the press.  Pre-written statements are read, generally in a way (i) that makes it clear he is reading them for the first time and (ii) with odd pauses (and an allergy to punctuation) that allow him to insert random editorial comment. 

Sometimes what he says is accurate.  On Sunday, for example,  he reported that the available models suggested the next two weeks would be the worst. Other times, however, he is in a la-la land located somewhere between denial and displeasure.  The former is in evidence as he (falsely but repeatedly) proclaims the test shortage solved (today he even falsely claimed that anyone coming off a plane is being tested), the latter as he waffles from hyping the need to get back to work lest the cure be worse than the disease to admitting that we are in this for the long haul.  Easter has been mentioned so often as a target (or aspirational) re-open for business date that comedians now confess surprise he hasn't decided to just move the holiday and take it up with Jesus (or His Dad) later.

There's also a Wizard of Oz element to these events.  The strings in this case are members of his supporting cast, there to prop-up the man behind the curtain (or presidential seal).  A la Toto, however, the curtain/seal is often pulled back as various interlocutors reveal the reality behind it.  Often times, Dr. Fauci comes forward to either deliver hard scientific facts or take the edge off one of Trump's more ludicrous pronouncements (it was Fauci, for example, who turned Trump's Easter rising into a mere "aspiration", quelling the nerves of millions who thought April 12 might end the world as we know it). 

Last week, again lifitng the Oz-like curtain, Trump's guy Friday, Jared Kushner,  proclaimed that the  federal stockpile of medical equipment (ventilators, masks, gowns and drugs) was "our stockpile" and not "the states'" for them to "use".  And yesterday, after again suggesting the use of hydroxychloroquine to combat the virus, but no doubt wary of one behind-the-curtain scene too many, Trump himself refused to allow Dr. Fauci to be asked about the drug's efficacy.

Both Kushner's comment and Trump's suppression were astounding.

The former revealed a stunning lack of either knowlege of or appreciation for the purpose of any federal stockpile of medical supplies. Contra Jared, it is to be used precisely in situations like this, where states are confronted with a crisis, the scope and cause of which extends far beyond their borders and for which they lack sufficient capacity.  

Neither Trump nor Kushner have retracted the statement, all of which has convinced the commentariat that the President's politcal plan here is to blame the states for the country's overall lack of preparedness.

Good luck with that.

Especially when the virus hits the states that voted for him.

As it now has. 

In droves.

As to the silencing of Dr. Fauci, it is a warning light blinking red.

Had Dr. Fauci been allowed to speak, he undoubtedly would have repeated what he has often said in the past.  As an anti-viral treatment for this case, hydroxychloroquine has not been fully tested, has not been proven effective even against other viruses like the flu, is known to have potentially fatal side effects, especially for those with heart problems, and has to remain available to treat diseases against which it is efficacious.  The notion, as Trump puts it, that we "have nothing to lose" if the drug is used here is not remotely accurate.  There may be a lot to lose, especially if it is given to the wrong patient, and testing protocols are literally the only way that prospect can be avoided. 

This does not mean the drug should be side-lined until a years-long approval process is completed.  It does mean, however, that the President should shut up and let medical professionals do their job.  They can decide if and when to take the extraordinary step of recommending the drug for a coronavirus patient.

What Trump doesn't get, and has never gotten, is that -- whether they should or shouldn’t, even now, and even after three years experience -- his words matter.  This isn't a TV show.  It's real.  A lot of people (still) think they can rely on the President.  The couple in Arizona who self-administered an apparent variety of hydroxychloroquine certainly thought so; indeed, one of them said so.

The other is dead.

As are many who heard Trump tell them in January and February that this whole Covid-19 thing was much ado about nothing, a political "hoax". 

Back then, he said we'd all "be fine", that the virus could go away "miraculously" in April when the weather warmed a bit. 

Now, having failed to do the early testing, identifying and quarantining that could have contained the crisis in ways no longer possible,  we are living a latter-day version of Eliot's Waste Land, where hundeds of thousands are expected to die and April truly is "the cruelest month".

The notion that "ignorance is bliss" was actually borne from a poem by Thomas Gray, an 18th century English poet.  In his "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College", Gray recounts the innocent pleasures of childhood and contrasts them with the inevitable pain of much that lies ahead.  In that world, the child's world, where "ignorance is bliss/'Tis folly to be wise".

That is the world of Donald Trump, our man-child president.

And, ironically, it is also the  defense he and his seconds mount against attacks on his most outrageous nostrums. 

When asked why he persisted in painting a rosy picture of Covid-19 back in January and February, or why he constantly mentions the idea of an earlier return to normal, his recurring Easter-vision as it were, or even why he shut up Dr. Fauci yesterday, some version of Gray's bliss is always embraced. 

On the early comments, say his defenders, he was trying to convey optimism in the midst of uncertainty, a sort of  Alice-like move where saying so either makes it so or at least takes the edge off.  On the Easter re-opening, it "would be a beautiful thing", said Trump,  hundreds packed into churches scattered throughout the land living a veritable second resurrection in celebration of the first. And on silencing Fauci yesterday,  the President basically argued that -- in  answering the hydroxychloroquine question for, as Trump put it, "the fifteenth time"-- the doctor would have turned the bliss of  hoped-for cure into the  bane of uncertain reality.

The irony here  is that Trumpists would flirt with anything suggesting a juvenile disposition. Babies, afterall, do whine and kids often lie.  Nevertheless, in Trump's world, "ignorance" really "is bliss" and it really is "folly to be wise".  For the rest of us, who actually grew up, it's just folly.

One would have thought that the Founders, those illuminati who gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and who otherwise had such a clear-eyed view of the foibles of human nature, would have created some sort of protection on this front. 

And in truth they tried. 

They required that anyone be at least thirty-five years old to qualify for the presidency.  Back then, when the life expectancy of an average male was forty-seven, this was a reasonably safe age to pick, old enough to be wise but young enough to last.  Most of the Founders, moreover, were pretty young  themselves.  The average age of the signers of the Declararion was forty-four and a dozen were younger than thirty-five.  And ten years later, when they wrote the Constitution, they hadn't turned into wizened gray heads (and any whose were had likely been powdered).

In Federalist No. 64, John Jay explained that the Founders wanted as President only those who "have become the most distinguished by their abilitites and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence."  He claimed that "The Constitution manifests very particular attention to this object", and then explained that by "excluding men under the age of thirty-five . . .  it  confines the electors to men . . .  with respect to whom they will not be liable to be deceived by those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle."

Oh well, no one in the 18th century could have known that their era's transient meteor would be  our era's television reality show host with an unbridled twitter feed.  In fairness, moreover, the Founders, according to Jay, also thought that limiting the presidency to those over thirty-five would insure that "the people have had time to form a judgment" about those running for President, that in having been given enough time to be  forewarned, they would necessarily be forearmed.  We, of course,  had more than twice the time they prescribed  to take in the Donald so . . .

Nothing's perfect.

And, by the same token, ignorance sometimes is bliss.  Children should be protected. At the expense of maturation or development or, worse yet, parental love, it is always folly to make them wise. 

Even for adults, ignorance can be, if not blissful, at least useful. The renowned Harvard philospher John Rawls suggested his famous "veil of ignorance" as a way for us to objectively think about distributional justice.  What would you suggest as a fair distribution of the world's goodies, Rawls asks,  if you couldn't assume you'd be who you are, born when you were, to whom and with whatever they had and could provide?  What kind of society would you create if you did not know, and could not assume,  your own place in it?

Maybe Trump should try that on.

Rawls's veil of ignorance.  

Something the President could use to think.

Rather than hide behind.

He'd at least have to tell Jared to cut out the "his" stockpile crap.