Monthly Archives: August 2021

An Uncensored View of Facebook “Censorship”

I have no problem with a social media platform that, having given the multitudes free rein to publish their views for others to see, has finally decided to address the use of the platform for promoting false information about, among other things, public health, politics, public policy issues (guns, for example). The attempt to prevent the use of these generally free platforms to spread disinformation is not subject to “free speech” principles under the First Amendment that only relates to government action. In fact, and in law, attempts to have the government interfere with the content-control policies of private platforms are themselves, in most cases, in conflict with the First Amendment.

The issues are complex, obviously. To some of us, there are some “opinions” that simply are based on false ideas and platforms do not have to serve as passive instruments for the spreading of such information. Examples abound but certainly include the QAnon conspiracy theory, the claim that the 2020 election was rife with fraud and the claim that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was not actually Trump supporters but was BLM and other left-wing groups pretending to be Trump supporters.

On that latter issue, I cannot fail to note the “reasoning” behind the Trumpers’ argument that the winners of the election, disguised as Trump supporters, tried to stop the certification of the Biden victory and install the person those left-wing groups despise the most as president and dictator. As one Twitter meme notes, to believe that takes a special kind of stupid.  Nevertheless, it appears that many Americans have convinced themselves that the claim is true. Facebook, in my view, has no obligation to allow the propagation of such nonsense by permitting postings containing that claim.

Now, considering what I’m about to tell you, you may chuckle to yourself and think, “well, wise guy, you got hoisted by your own petard,” because Facebook has “censored” one of your posts. Ha ha ha.

It is true that Facebook “unpublished” one of my posts. It was this one: Time for Strong Action Against Unruly Air Travelers, https://bit.ly/38m76Zb Facebook said the post violated its Community Standards because it was “spam.” Facebook defines “spam” this way:

We don’t allow people to get likes, follows, shares or video views in a way that’s misleading to others.

We define spam as things like:

·      Repeating the same comment

·      Getting fake likes, follows, shares or video views

·      Coordinating likes and shares to mislead others about the popularity of something

At that point in the Facebook process, you are given two choices: Back or Continue. Choose Continue and you get this gem:

You disagreed with the decision

We usually offer the chance to request a review, and follow up if we got decisions wrong

We have fewer reviewers available right now because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. We’re trying hard to prioritize reviewing content with the most potential for harm.

This means we may not be able to follow up with you, though your feedback helps us do better in the future.

Thank you for understanding.

Here you have one “choice:” Close.

So, Facebook has blocked the post but has no process by which to question that action. But, hey, thanks for understanding.

There are many aspects to this. First, the post was placed on my blog on May 25 and was placed on Facebook manually by me that same day per my usual practice. The notice from Facebook announcing my “violation” arrived August 26. I have no idea when the public’s view of the post was blocked. Facebook doesn’t know, doesn’t care.

Second, there is no plausible way that Facebook’s “system” could rationally conclude that the post in question was a repeat comment (I post each blog post manually on Facebook in two distinct places – my timeline and, if and only if relevant to the purposes of the group, to a private group of which I am a member; I have done this dozens of times and never been challenged by Facebook for duplicate postings).

Third, the post in question was simply placed on Facebook by inserting the link to it. No rational inference could be drawn that doing so was for the purpose of “Getting fake likes, follows, shares or video views,” whatever that means.

Fourth, there is no evidence, because it did not happen, that I tried “coordinating likes and shares to mislead others about the popularity of something.” I would have no idea how to do that even if I wanted to. And I don’t. The item was posted to be read by those interested.

It is a fact, however, that the post about unruly air passengers is the third most-read post since I started the blog. The explanation for that is simple: air travel is a popular subject, many of my followers are in the travel industry and … never mind, it’s just too obvious.

So, what are we left with as the explanation for Facebook’s delayed “decision” to “unpublish” my post is one thing: INCOMPETENCE. The so-called artificial intelligence that manages the Facebook censorship process is simply unable to do its job properly.

Is this better or worse than the purposes attributed to Facebook by many on the political right and the political left who claim every day that Facebook is engaged in some pernicious politically motivated campaign to stifle the views of the [insert ‘right’ or ‘left’ here]? I don’t know.

It’s dangerous, of course, to generalize from a single experience, but the Facebook action to bury my post seems blatantly unreasonable and downright stupid. It would be silly to think that Facebook’s algorithms were written to promote dangerous behavior on airplanes. Not even the most dedicated QAnon believer would …. well, those people might believe it but no one else would.

The action could not be the product of conscious thought by a rational person or “reviewer” as Facebook calls them. The post related to a public policy problem – a growing number of air travelers refusing to comply with flight crew instructions and airline policies regarding, among other things, wearing of masks to combat the spread of COVID. The passengers in question have engaged in various acts of violence that have, among other things, threatened the safety of aircraft in flight. Serious stuff. Some of them are being visited by huge fines for their misconduct. My argument was that the government should crack down even harder on that behavior. I proposed several additional policy actions that could help.

For some inexplicable reason, Facebook rates that as “spam.”

The most disturbing aspect of this, beyond the plain stupidity of it, is that Facebook has essentially said, “we’re too short-handed here to review your objection to our action, so… get lost. Thanks for understanding.” Not a chance.

Facebook’s financial statements for 2020 show more than $85 billion in Gross Revenue, an increase of 22 percent over 2019; Income from Operations up 36%; Operating Margin of 38%; Net Income up 58% and Provision for Income Taxes -58%. That’s right. Taxes down 58% with income up 58%.

If it chose to do so, Facebook can afford to hire more reviewers so that it’s “decisions” to block content are not merely arbitrary and capricious, yet it chooses to say, “so sorry, we’re short-handed so drop dead.” This strategy may work in the short term – it is in fact working now – but I question whether it’s viable in the long-term. On the other hand, this approach to business has worked for many giant companies in the past for extended periods. See Climate Change. Until, usually, competition did them in or forced major changes in how they do business. See American Automobile Companies. Time will tell about Facebook.

Meanwhile, yes, I am posting this post on Facebook. We’ll see what happens.

Farm Markets

Back in my motorcycle riding days especially (Harley Dyna Wide Glide), we grew fond of visits to local farm markets, mainly in the nearby Virginia countryside. Sadly, farm markets that stock the production of local farmers or their own home-grown items are disappearing at a frightening pace. The process began before the pandemic struck and likely has accelerated since then.

The worst case of which we are aware is the closing of Westmoreland Berry Farm to public visits. It’s far away – a good 3.5 hour drive – but was a wonderland of fresh fruits, vegetables and had a kitchen that served both authentic chili dogs and fantastic sundaes laden with fresh fruits and syrups. Westmoreland had a goat tower and more, but, alas, it is no more.

But there are thriving survivors. We set out last weekend to visit a few.

We chose this place near Berryville, VA as our main destination.

That choice was heavily influenced by the continued presence on Route 7 Westbound of the Hill High Orchard market, a past source of fantastic pie and passable coffee on motorcycle and car trips alike.

We had not visited Hill High for some years and were concerned, needlessly it turned out, that it would be drastically diminished. The reality was the opposite: it now includes outdoor seating, an art gallery and shop and more. The parking areas were almost full. The pies are still there in abundance, by the slice and whole, and the coffee has much improved.

Inside, High Hill features what must be one of the largest collections of canned beverages for sale anywhere:

We will return to Hill High for pie and coffee again soon.

[First, an aside from the past. On a years-ago motorcycle ride with a friend in back, we stopped at Hill High. The “system” then was that you ordered your pie, got your coffee from an urn and, on the honor system, paid on your way out. On this trip, I thought my companion had paid and she thought I had. We ate pie inside and drank our coffees. Then we drove away and were many miles toward home when we realized what had happened.

Some weeks later, I rode alone back the 50+ miles to Hill High to settle up my debt. I explained what had happened to the young man staffing the cash register. His response: “Aw, that’s ok, don’t worry about it. It happens all the time.”

That news made me more determined than ever to square the debt, so I insisted he take the money. You can’t keep a business going without getting paid. Thankfully, High High is still there and apparently prospering.]

The next stop was Macintosh itself. It also was full of surprises. I will just let the photos tells the story – most of it.

 

The flowers are there to be picked by visitors, but we chose to take only photos with us. The pick-your-own fruit seemed like a major hit with visitors who set out with wagons and boxes for the well-marked rows of various fruits in season.

Now for the fun part. Look at this photo closely. Do you see it?

OK, it’s not easy. Can you see it now?

Still no?

Well, here’s “it.”

You saw it, right?

We think it’s probably an American Goldfinch. The bird hung around for a long time, fearlessly taking nectar from the flowers in front of us and was eventually joined by a friend who escaped my lens. It was a delight to watch such a beautiful creature going about its business in its natural habitat.

We departed with full stomachs and bags of fruit and condiments.

Final stop: Nalls Farm Market that sits just off Route 7 Eastbound, also claiming a Berryville address. Nalls is a smaller operation and being already well stocked, we didn’t stay long.

If you’re out that way looking for firewood, however, Nalls has plenty:

All in all, good food, memories refreshed and a beautiful bird to watch among spectacular flowers. A fine days’ pleasure. Highly recommended.

Final Note:

When we arrived back in DC, we decided to buy a car. We settled on a Ford Titanium Escape Hybrid. We had driven an Escape in our prior time in the area, with good results on maintenance, and, despite the added cost, we went for the Hybrid version.

This may seem hard to believe, but it’s not our first time with this experience. Macintosh Farms is about 70 miles from our apartment. With added miles for driving through Berryville and the stop at Nalls Farm Market, I estimate we drove about 150 miles total roundtrip.

Our hybrid vehicle includes a “total energy onboard” icon that tells you how far you can expect to drive on the combination of gas and electricity stored on the car. Since braking, among other things, transfers energy back to the battery, you can experience, as we did this time (not making this up), a trip on which you have more miles of driving left on the tank after the trip than you did before you left. Truth. It is also not uncommon for us to get 50+ and even 60+ miles per gallon overall on some drives. Buy a hybrid. Save the world.

 

 

 

WAPO Undermines Public Health Confidence – Again

I understand that the Washington Post and other so-called mainstream media think they have some obligation to report both (or many) sides to news matters of public interest. A lot is happening all the time so there is the difficult problem of triage – what do you choose to report and how much coverage do you give the chosen subjects?

In the latest problematic example, I am mystified as to the thinking behind the choice to devote 1,930 words to an item with the click-bait headline, “Biden team tries to get ahead of the virus — and maybe the science — with decision on booster shots.” https://wapo.st/2UChWHg The byline for this piece shows four names, all senior writers for WAPO with some degree of specialization in health policy.

To make the point of why this type of “journalism,” if that’s what it is, is so concerning, I am going to analyze the piece in some detail. Bear with me if you can.

The opening lines state the subject matter and point of view of the article:

President Biden vowed to “follow the science” in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, but some scientists say his decision to recommend widespread coronavirus vaccine booster shots relies on incomplete data and will put pressure on regulators yet to approve the plan.

You understand right off that the message is that the President has not lived up to his word, that “some scientists” think he’s made a major public health mistake in the fight against COVID-19 and is mixing politics with health science to get inappropriate approval from government health experts.

To support that thesis, WAPO quotes Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University that the data thus far do not support the need for a COVID booster shot. I checked out Prof. Racanciello. He is a major figure in virus science. He sided with Dr. Fauci in his fight with Moron Sen. Rand Paul about whether Chinese researchers were doing “gain of function” research with bats that led to COVID-19. He is not, therefore, one of those random “doctors” who are dredged up by right-wing media to contradict whatever the CDC and other important health authorities have said.

Prof. Racaniello has tweeted his position on the sustaining power of COVID vaccines thus:

Science tells us that most Americans do not need a COVID-19 vaccine booster 1. With time, vaccine-induced antibodies wane but the same happens with all vaccines and infections. 2. It is not correct to conclude that COVID vaccine efficiency is waning. What is going down is protection against infection. Most human vaccines do not prevent infection. Results of studies have shown that despite waning antibody levels, most fully vaccinated people are protected against severe disease, hospitalization, and death. What we need to do is get everyone fully vaccinated!

The delta variant is NOT in itself causing cases to surge in the US. That is being driven by unvaccinated people, failure to mask, and a return to physical interactions. ANY SARS-CoV-2 variant would behave in the same way.

Those messages were met with considerable hostility by many Twitterfolk – this is a sensitive subject in which nuances of language can have huge emotional effects.

Returning then to WAPO, the article noted that,

While Biden acknowledged the plan was “pending approval” from the Food and Drug Administration and experts who advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the president mostly portrayed it as a done deal, saying that tens of millions of booster shots would become available the week of Sept. 20.

Thus, while the President expressly acknowledged that health policymakers’ approval was needed, WAPO’s writers assert that the President is dissembling. But then the article notes that he was not dissembling:

The president’s top science and medical advisers — including senior CDC and FDA officials — concluded last weekend that widespread booster shots were necessary, drawing on an array of data from the United States and Israel that suggested immunity from a two-dose regimen of coronavirus vaccine declined over time and that greater protection might be needed against the highly contagious delta variant.

Based on the rest of the article and on many other sources, the “dispute,” if there is one, is about whether to announce the booster program ahead of the surging infection numbers or wait until “more data” is available. Biden’s approach is supported by multiple health experts, including

  • Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes for Health, and
  • Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers

But, WAPO goes on, “a number of outside experts faulted Biden’s timing and said the White House was acting prematurely based on the latest vaccination data.”

For instance, the administration focused on multiple research studies showing that vaccine effectiveness against mild to moderate illness wanes over time, while boosters ramp up antibodies tenfold or more. Most, although not all, of the recent data shows the vaccines continue to provide robust protection against severe disease….

Many prominent figures in the scientific and medical communities said that’s the key measure of vaccine success. The vaccines’ main purpose is not to prevent infection, so much as to keep people from getting severely ill or dying, they note, and recent concerns about breakthrough coronavirus infections have been overblown….

It may be that WAPO and the White House may be talking about two different things. As a matter of national emergency planning, the President is concerned about waiting until the resurgent virus (Delta Variant and possibly others) is even more widespread before beginning to boost resistance. The “dissenters” are making technical points about what the data shows right now about the continued strength of the vaccine.

“The metric that matters is the protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death among people vaccinated,” said David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He said the booster decision was premature and potentially misleading. “It tends to portray that we’ve lost confidence in the ability of this vaccine to prevent severe infection. And I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.

Given that case counts are surging in multiple states, vaccinations are lagging, and health resources are being overrun yet again in multiple states, why is this “conflict” being written about as if the President were being dishonest or has, like his predecessor, attempted to politicize national health policy?

WAPO cites efforts by Dr. Fauci and others to reassure health policy staff but then “some experts said the White House was backtracking on its pledge to allow regulators to shape coronavirus policy,” citing Biden/Harris’s criticism of Trump for “publicly pressuring regulators to approve the first coronavirus vaccines.”

Does WAPO really believe that disagreement over whether it’s timely to talk about a booster program is the same as Trump’s declaration that the virus is “their new hoax” or whether hydroxychloroquine is a real treatment for COVID?

WAPO keeps doing the dance, first stating why the White House wants to get ahead of the virus, then citing more people who think it should wait for more data and trying to equate the push for a booster program to the “pressure the Trump administration exerted on scientific agencies, like a threat to fire then-FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn if he didn’t move quickly to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.”

I can just imagine the reaction if a booster program becomes critical – “why didn’t the White House plan ahead and get on top of this instead of waiting until the catastrophe was obvious?”

WAPO continues both-sidesing this for many paragraphs, almost as if the authors were told they had to produce a certain volume of words. Granted, both sides are covered, but is this just a question of two honest differences of opinion when the political machinations of the prior administration are repeatedly injected into the discussion? Is WAPO really unaware of the differences between the Trump administration’s denial of the existence of a pandemic, and all that followed, versus the Biden administration’s effort to plan ahead and prepare for worst-case scenarios which are already present in places like Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana?

I have argued before that the main-stream press needs to be more cognizant of the effects of the words they use and how those words can be misused by people whose goal is not to protect the public but to score political points. WAPO seems intent upon feeding the misinformation media rather than focusing on critical issues of what is truth and what is not.

Afghanistan

Republicans are ecstatic that the mess in Afghanistan has given them another excuse for deflecting attention from the treasonous insurrection of January 6. Afghanistan is a mess, of course, and little that the White House can say about it is going to fix it in the near future, or ever. Understanding full well that the President is “responsible” for what happens on his watch, the sudden awakening of Republican and media angst over the plight of Afghan citizens is more than a little hypocritical and nonsensical.

That noted, I am not here to defend the seemingly failed planning by our military and intelligence people around the final departure of American and allied troops. I will just note before getting on with my points that the departure of Western troops from Afghanistan was never going to be met with the Taliban stepping back, popping some champagne, and waiting for the last troops and fleeing citizens to depart. The handwringing over this is, in my opinion, beyond absurd. And, after twenty years, it is simply ludicrous to suggest, as someone on CNN just did, that, ‘we promised them democracy – how can we just abandon them now?’ I will leave it to others to sort that out. Given the response so far, the media will have a lot to say about it.

My mission here is to place some context around the Afghanistan scenario, observations that some may find objectionable but which, I firmly believe, are reality.

Whatever the actual thinking was in sending American forces into Afghanistan, we were apparently trying to achieve two goals: (1) deny a base to Al Qaida-like terrorists, a task thought to be achievable by applying broad and constant military pressure against any “group” thinking of launching attacks against the United States in the vein of the September 11, 2001, and (2) while we were there, engage in some Western-style nation-building by promoting democratic political values and processes for adoption by the tribes and warlords that had dominated Afghan society for a very long time.

What could go wrong?

The one essential thing that went wrong, in my view, safely ensconced in my living room, is the same thing that went wrong in Vietnam, the first war officially “lost” by the United States since the country’s founding: we underestimated our adversaries. Déjà vu all over again.

Incidentally, “lost” in this setting doesn’t mean we were defeated. It means we didn’t win.

Americans have, I believe, been underestimating our adversaries since before the country was founded in 1787. The westward expansion from the original colonies followed the repression and subjugation of native populations east of the Mississippi River. Encounters with the Indians of the Western Plains met a formidable collection of adversaries, particularly the Comanche and Apache tribes. Underestimation of the native people, who were regarded as savages by white settlers and government/military alike, led to many deaths, until the white man’s superior firepower and ruthless violence finally overcame the natives’ resistance to expansion into their territory. Suggested reading: Empire of the Summer Moon.

The invincibility of the United States military was well-established in the American mind by the beginning of World War I and proved itself in World War II, albeit with many setbacks, not least of which was, of course, the Day of Infamy, the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led to our entering the war in the first place. Not long after WWII ended, and after renewed isolationism reduced our military capabilities, the U.S. was caught by surprise again by the invasion of North Korea into South Korea. We suffered huge setbacks in that conflict as well, basically fighting to a draw, but coming away with some sense of having prevailed. North Korea did not get South Korea. We didn’t win, but neither did they.

Then there was Vietnam. Undeterred by the dismal failure of France to overcome resistance to the continued colonization of the country, the United States crept its way into full-throated engagement against the army of “little men in black pajamas” (a common way at the time of denigrating the enemy that was, in truth, winning the war). South Vietnam ostensibly was critical to U.S. interests in preventing communism from “taking over” Southeast Asia, a continuation of the “red menace” thinking of the 1950s. Accustomed to “winning” and to maintain the myth of American fighting superiority against all enemies, the U.S. government lied its way into an impossible situation: an unwinnable jungle war in which superior technology (total air superiority, napalm, carpet bombing, Agent Orange and more) failed to break the will of the resistance.

In January 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese armies stunned the world with the Tet Offensive, launched country-wide on the Lunar New Year festival when many of the South Vietnamese forces were on holiday leave. https://bit.ly/3z0psuw While the battle(s) were ultimately won by Western forces, the cost was staggering. As the Wikipedia article notes,

The offensive had a strong effect on the U.S. government and shocked the U.S. public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the North Vietnamese were being defeated and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation; American public support for the war declined as a result of the Tet casualties and the ramping up of draft calls.

The war went on for seven long years more, leaving us with the Pentagon Papers and the now iconic scene of an American helicopter airlifting terrified Vietnamese from a building in Saigon (not the American embassy).

Much happened thereafter even before the 1991 Operation Desert Storm to drive Iraq back out of Kuwait. Most of the details are lost to memories, but you can review them here. https://bit.ly/3sE6UxR Prepare to be jolted. Desert Storm did not take long and “victory,” once again, belonged to the Western coalition led by the United States. We were once again winners.

The confidence of Americans was then shaken to the core by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The enemy, it seemed, was roaming free within the country and, armed with boarding passes and box cutters, was able to murder thousands in a few minutes. The furious response at yet another Day of Infamy was not short in coming.

Undeterred by history, and fully aware of the failure of Russia to subordinate the country, the United States entered Afghanistan in 2001 and in 2003 invaded Iraq. The U.S. left Iraq “officially” in 2011 but military engagements continued largely outside the interest of media and the public. See https://bit.ly/2W8W8nt for a short history.

We remained in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, and others, until President Trump, in what was to be his final year in office, negotiated an agreement with the Taliban (not including the Afghan government, our putative ally) to withdraw U.S. forces by May 1, 2021. President Biden, following up Trump’s prior decision and based on his own long-standing opposition to continuing a futile fight not strongly supported by the Afghan government or its people, decided to end the American military presence and ordered the final removal of U.S. troops. In about a week the Taliban launched a remarkable takeover of the country, leading to scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport as fleeing Afghans and Americans, who were warned of our imminent departure some time ago, tried to escape.

Chaos reigns in Afghanistan and the Republicans here have something new to cheer and deflect about. Officials in other countries are also quick to scoff at the “embarrassment” of a U.S. retreat in the face of the total collapse of the Afghan army that the U.S. spent 20 years training and funding and supplying. That’s not going to change.

The question remains — Why are we reliving, yet again, the tragic scenario of having fought a long and, in the end, futile war at staggering cost in treasure and, more importantly, human suffering?

There are, as always, many likely factors that contribute to the repetition of this behavior, but I believe there is one predominating force that drives the others. That is the core belief in American Exceptionalism.

Americans seem to have a compelling need for the myth of American Exceptionalism no matter what the evidence shows. It appears to be an essential element of national identity. The belief is reinforced regularly – in school lessons, in the celebration of July 4 Independence Day, in (at least in theory) Memorial Day celebrations and the formal ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington gets 3 million visitors a year; many of them witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb) and the periodic national obsession with domination of the Olympic Games medal count.

A critical component of American Exceptionalism is that the country is invulnerable to invasion by foreign troops. America is especially blessed, I was taught at an early age, by its geographical position on the planet. It is “protected” on the north by Canada and in the south by Mexico, neither of which is a threat as a haven for an invading army. Of course, the advent of the airplane and the aircraft carrier changed the threat scenario as we learned on December 7, 1941. The well-worn aphorism, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” became popular despite our unusual place in the world. https://bit.ly/3AX01dS During the 1950s period of the nuclear arms race, people in my generation were constantly reminded of the new peril to our very survival. We literally stood on the brink of nuclear holocaust in what became the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

We survived that threat, narrowly, and we “showed” the world in our response to the 9/11 attacks that the United States was still not to be trifled with. We were prepared to destroy entire countries and their civilizations to preserve our own.

But it was a shocking realization that we were not as secure as we thought, not as invulnerable to foreign or domestic threats after all and, after revelations like the torture in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, not as pure of heart as we had been told.  Nevertheless, the insecurity fostered by changes in the world situation enabling our enemies to reach us with horrifying violence, of which we had been convinced we were immune, actually reinforced the commitment to the idea of American Exceptionalism. The more vulnerable we became, the more determined we were to believe in and act out the mythology of American Exceptionalism. If we weren’t so great, after all, why would they keep coming after us?

If we are the “best” of people, the purest example of the success of the Enlightenment, the people most committed to the preservation of democracy around the world, leaders of the Free World, then it follows we are not only exceptional but also entitled to special deference because of “who we are.” We hear this in political speech, among many other places, all the time. This mind-set primed many Americans to believe in the Fortress America idea, that we are essentially alone, that our very salvation as a nation and culture depends on “America First.” We are so special, so powerful, we don’t need other nations; America can go it alone. Trumpism.

Except that it’s just not true. We don’t much like to hear about it, but the fact is that the country was formed by taking, through force and artifice, the land of the natives who were here before the “white man” arrived. The evolution of the body politic led to a national constitution that, as an essential condition to its creation, formally embraced the idea that some people, brought here against their will and whose labor was taken without compensation, were less than fully human.

That ugly compromise with colonies whose economies and lifestyles were dependent upon human slavery conflicted with the moral fabric that underlay the national idea and eventually led to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet I was “taught” in junior high school history class in the 1950s that the Civil War had nothing to do with enslaved people and we were not to discuss the subject in class. We now see that many Americans believe that the Confederacy was an honorable undertaking that gave rise to some abstract idea of “heritage” justifying, among other things, the continued display of the Confederate flag as a symbol equal, if not superior, to the Stars and Stripes of our national flag.

And while the war was won and the enslaved people technically freed, much of the country refused to accept the idea of equality. Jim Crow laws and decades of other forms of discrimination produced a huge and possibly permanent economic underclass. Recall that school desegregation was not officially ended in this country until 1954 and violent resistance to it continued long after.

The country has continued whistling by the graveyard, pretending to be something it is not, thereby preventing the national reckoning that, in the long run, could unite most of the population around a common set of principles. If you have not seen the marvelous scene from the TV series, The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels, playing the anchor man, appears on a panel discussion and is asked, “what makes America the greatest country in the world?,” you really owe it to yourself to watch it. You can see it here: https://bit.ly/3AUkQXt If you’ve seen it, watch it again.

It’s a bit out of date (2012) and a touch misogynist (though I suspect/hope the writers meant “men” to refer to humans) and some of the data has changed. Nevertheless, in many respects, it sounds in the present moment. It’s a powerful statement of reality that conflicts with the mythology that has built up around the history of the United States.

That truth is complicated, and complication is something the human mind tries to avoid. Myths are more attractive. They’re easy to articulate and easy to believe. You can read all about that in any good book on behavioral economics. You could start with Thinking, Fast & Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, one of the originators of the concept.

Lest you think this is apologia for Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, let me disabuse you now. That slogan presupposes something that is blatantly false and plays on fear: fear of losing, blaming others for the perceived loss while simultaneously giving the national treasure away to the already wealthy and to the corporations whose lust to consume at any cost our precious resources is boundless.

The MAGA slogan is a scam, perpetrated on the willing (74 million voted for Trump in 2020 despite everything known about his grift, incompetence, dishonesty and failure to be courageous when courage was the only currency that could have saved the country from more than 600,000 deaths to COVID-19). No, if you’ve read any of my prior posts in this blog, you should be clear that I am not about MAGA.

Let’s look at some facts. These are, like science, true whether you believe them or not.

The U.S. economy is large, with the highest Nominal GDP. https://bit.ly/3sEPzFa [all cited data is pre-pandemic; the economic and social devastation caused by COVID-19 is staggeringly large but not yet measured.] Our economic “system,” measured by GDP, is thus a huge success. But not without cost. The United States ranks second only to China in delivering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (we are fourth in per capita emissions). https://bit.ly/3B1NFB9 The United States is a prototype example of the Tragedy of the Commons on a global scale. We’re big but not the best.

And, before you start chanting “we’re No. 1, we’re No. 1,” recall that we don’t produce nearly as much stuff as we did in the good old days, while we consume enormous amounts of almost everything imaginable and then some. Much of that “stuff” comes from other countries, as we learned to our chagrin during the pandemic when many supply chains failed. Thus, while “the U.S. economy is at the forefront of technology in many industries … it faces rising threats in the form of economic inequality, rising healthcare and social safety net costs, and deteriorating infrastructure.” https://bit.ly/37VcSB5 Let’s review just a few details.

Based on the “the percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 64 who have completed some kind of tertiary education in the form of a two-year degree, four-year degree or vocational program,” the United States ranks only sixth. https://cnb.cx/3xWa2pW  We lead the world in persons incarcerated per 100,000 population [https://bit.ly/3z7HEm4] There are more guns in private hands in the U.S. than in the next 9 countries combined. https://bit.ly/3iZwc6d The U.S. literacy rate ranks 125th in the world. https://bit.ly/3svc8Me Of the 37 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD), the U.S. had the third highest poverty rate. https://bit.ly/3sB0rnh Finally, the U.S. ranks 15th on the U.N. Education Index. https://bit.ly/2WdIu2g

All that said, most people with some awareness of world affairs and conditions would not trade places with citizens of other countries. Viewed in its entirety and all things considered, the United States remains a pretty good place to live for most of its inhabitants, especially the white population. But we cannot have a realistic view of our place in the world, let alone within the country, if we have a glassy-eyed fantasy version of reality about the country, its values and what we can expect or demand of it. One can always say, “we could do better,” but the Afghanistan situation was a long-term losing proposition. Our chances of accomplishing the original goals were limited to non-existent and after twenty years of trying, there is no point to pretending otherwise.

Maybe we could have prepared better, but let’s not forget that the outgoing administration refused to cooperate with Biden’s transition team. We can’t know for sure what the implications of that non-cooperation were, but it’s not an unreasonable speculation that they had an effect. In any case, the idea that there was a clean simple way to exit Afghanistan is pure fantasy.

The Taliban weren’t going to let a power vacuum exist after we left. The speed of their advance through the country, facing little to no opposition from the Afghan government forces, is the clearest indication of the inevitability of the chaos that ensued. All the handwringing and political theater isn’t going to change that.

It’s curious indeed that Republicans who were all in on Trump’s desire to seal the U.S. borders to prevent immigrants from entering are now all about admitting huge numbers of Afghans fleeing the Taliban. Or are they just expecting other countries to take them? Politics and mythology can easily confuse one’s thinking. It would be interesting if Republicans applied their newly discovered empathy for Afghans to the COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging their states, overwhelming their healthcare systems and killing their children.

Afghanistan is lost. The central issue is not whether we could have done a better job with the exit of military forces. We could have. The real issue now is whether we will simply reinvent the history to say that we “won,” and continue the fantasy of American Exceptionalism while not actually doing much to make the fantasy a reality. How, for example, will the Western international community of nations relate to Afghanistan under Taliban control? What happens regarding the seemingly inevitable human rights issues that are going to arise immediately regarding women there? What will United States policy toward a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan be and how will it be enforced?

Everything reasonable that can be done to avoid unnecessary bloodshed during the continuing evacuation should, obviously, be done but the focus must now be on the future. That future is as uncertain as it has ever been. That’s not Joe Biden’s fault. It’s not even Donald Trump’s fault. At this point the idea of fault is beside the point. It falls to President Biden to try to fashion a workable answer in a country that still lives in a fantasy dream of who we are and what we can do in a modern world.

Mason Neck “State” Park

One of our former regular go-to outdoor places is Mason Neck State Park [https://bit.ly/3m3qFh8] which is technically in Lorton, VA, but for us is just a drive out Route 1 (Richmond Highway) and Gunston Road – total distance from our place is about an hour’s drive (40 minutes, in theory, for high risk drivers using I-395). “State” is in quotes because the Park is also the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, which means my National Parks Lifetime Senior Pass is accepted for entry.

We returned there a couple of weekends ago. We chose to walk the one-mile Bayview Trail this time and had a remarkable experience, spying a number of forest creatures and some interesting trees as well. We encountered one of the rangers near the end of our walk and had an interesting discussion with her about the natural inhabitants of the park.

Here is a sample from our short walk.

A final word about the tree with carved initials. PLEASE don’t desecrate the forest this  way. You could kill a tree by exposing its inner systems to disease and insect attacks. If you see someone doing this to a tree, anywhere, take their picture if you can and report them to the appropriate authorities. Let’s keep our natural places as natural as possible so that everyone can enjoy them.

 

Norwegian Cruise Line Fights the Right Fight Against Ignorance

The case is Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Ltd., et al. Plaintiffs, vs. Scott Rivkees, M.D., Defendant, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The opinion was written by U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen Williams acting on the Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction. The defendant is the Surgeon General of Florida and the head of the Florida Department of Health.

The lawsuit was brought to enable Norwegian to protect its customers to the maximum extent possible in the face of directives from the Republican “small government” Governor of Florida who has forbidden cruise lines operating there on international itineraries to require use of face masks, vaccinations and proof of vaccinations.

Judge Williams’ thorough and carefully crafted 59-page opinion grants the plaintiff’s motion. This allows Norwegian to establish its own COVID health protocols, including requiring proof of vaccination as a condition for cruising. The opinion skewers the defense for its failure to present evidence on key issues. While it’s always tempting to blame this on the lawyers, the reality in this case is that the evidence for the defense simply doesn’t exist. The state’s attempt to prevent cruise lines from adopting safe health standards is a political maneuver, not a rational health policy decision with demonstrable roots in local health needs or medical science.

Judge Williams’ opinion should stand up well in the appeal that Governor DeSantis, known on Twitter as #DeathSantis, has announced he will file. DeSantis’ statement about the case included this gem, “A prohibition on vaccine passports does not even implicate, let alone violate, anyone’s speech rights, and it furthers the substantial, local interest of preventing discrimination among customers based on private health information.”

That suggests the good governor did not read the District Judge’s opinion or lacks understanding of the legal principles involved. His lack of awareness extends to the growing public support for “vaccine passports,” and he is also unaware of federal ventilator resources sent to his state by the federal government to help relieve the crisis caused by the Delta Variant and his refusal to recognize the challenges it poses. Delta threatens to overwhelm the health facilities of multiple, mainly southern, states, including Florida, that have largely ignored the danger still posed by COVID-19. Florida’s governor is earning his moniker as #DeathSantis every day.

Norwegian Cruise Line is on the right side of health science, health policy and rational business behavior. Kudos to NCL’s management for standing up to the Florida Governor’s rejection of all of those as he plays to his right-wing political audience, the same base that thrives on adoration of Donald Trump (you remember him, speaking about Democrats: “the virus is their new hoax.”)

In an op-ed in TravelMarketReport, https://bit.ly/2VKcfri, way back in October 2020, long before anyone had heard of the Delta Variant, I argued that the path to travel industry recovery required restoration of consumer confidence but that the path then in play was more chaos than order. I suggested an approach that, in those troubled times, I thought might work:

I suggest that the atomization of the industry’s approach must be replaced with an across-the-board cooperative regime of joint decision-making to which individual firms commit to total compliance for a significant period into the future. For example, and as a great beginning, the cruise industry players (of which there are relatively few independent entities) have undertaken a collective effort to establish firm rules about how ships will be sanitized, how masking and social distancing will be applied and so on. Obviously, the science behind this is still evolving, but much is already known about how to manage indoor environments. I believe that the new rules should be vetted with a representative sample of cruise travelers to evaluate whether the rules are understandable, practical and reassuring. The likely outcome is not a return to full-on unlimited cruising and many economic challenges will remain. The concept is not a cure-all but an attempt to establish a common and trustable arrangement that will permit business to resume on some scale.

Call me a dreamer if you like. We are not close to what I had envisioned. Nowhere is this clearer than in the battle Norwegian Cruise Line is fighting, alone, with Florida. Downloadable CDC data for Florida, from August 6, paints a grim picture. https://bit.ly/3lU94rX This will not deter Florida’s governor from resisting science and common sense as he continues his efforts to stop the cruise lines from using the best defenses available to control the virus and resume safe cruising.

The chaos will thus continue for a while longer. I am confident Norwegian Cruise Line will continue the fight and hopefully will succeed, however long it takes.

 

 

 

A Walk in the Park

 

Having barely survived the restraints of the pandemic in New York City before returning to Washington, we crave the outdoors, subject, of course, to the constraints of the insufferable heat and humidity. Fortunately, the area writ large has much to offer. One of our favorites has been Huntley Meadows in Alexandria. We returned there a couple of times in recent weeks, following an earlier visit when the plants were still dormant and it was cold, very cold. If you go in winter, wear warm clothes.

The recent trips were a cornucopia of delights, some of which are revealed by these photos, a small sample. The lead-in from the parking lot is a nice flat stroll on a fine-gravel path winding through tall trees and swamp-like undergrowth, in which you may see an occasional bird, but the goods lie ahead — when you enter the boardwalk.

You must pay attention to the near and the far to catch some of the remarkable sights.

More on the beaver in a moment. The turtles that inhabit Huntley Meadows can grow to surprising size but are hard to spot among the dense vegetation that surrounds the boardwalk. So too are the frogs whose relentless chorus you may hear, especially near evening:

The entire acreage of Huntley Meadows is covered with Swamp Roses that resemble hibiscus:

There are, however, many other beautiful flowers, sometimes hidden among the more prominent species:

The biggest treat for us are the foraging birds, who grow to shocking sizes, and the beaver on the special occasions when they fearlessly go about their business:

We’ve never had a boring visit to Huntley Meadows. Highly recommended. Best to go early or late because the parking lot can get crowded. And please leave a dollar or two in the box provided. Keep the beauty going.

A Tale of Two Worlds

I love the New York Times. I hate the New York Times. It has the best stories.  It has the worst stories….

What?

Maybe that reminds you of the remarkable opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities that didn’t occur to me until I had penned the opening lines of this post:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens, writing in 1859, two years before the start of the American Civil War, was on to something fundamental. He could have been writing today.

I pretend no such comparison, of course. It’s just that as I read the New York Times Sunday Review “Guest Essay” by Christopher Caldwell, entitled, What if There Wasn’t a Coup Plot, General Milley? [https://nyti.ms/3fsvPPC], I experienced the cognitive dissonance that I wrote about in a prior post: Media Bias—Who Are the Victims? [https://bit.ly/2Vf7PIH] Caldwell is the author of a book, published in January 2020, that Amazon describes as explaining how the social justice “reforms of the past fifty years gave the country two incompatible political systems—and drove it toward conflict.” I haven’t read the book, but the description suggests, not surprisingly, that the liberal movement toward equality, educational opportunity and the rest are the root cause of Donald Trump’s appeals to racism and xenophobia. That’s an argument for another day, perhaps.

Here we are in August 2021, more than six months past the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol that killed police officers among many other outrages and Mr. Caldwell suggests that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, was hallucinating when he viewed Trump’s post-election assault on the Constitution as “some kind of coup.”  Caldwell is offended by Milley’s suggestion, reported in a new book, that a coup would fail because the military would step up to prevent it.

While some might greet such comments with relief, General Milley’s musings should give us pause. Americans have not usually looked to the military for help in regulating their civilian politics. And there is something grandiose about General Milley’s conception of his place in government. He told aides that a “retired military buddy” had called him on election night to say, “You represent the stability of this republic.” If there was not a coup underway, then General Milley’s comments may be cause more for worry than for relief.

Caldwell claims that Milley’s only evidence of a coup was the January 6 attack, and this is where the idea of Two Worlds comes in. Caldwell says, “that day’s events are ambiguous.”

Seriously? Ambiguous? This is better, I suppose, than the argument I encountered on LinkedIn recently in which a large number of Trumpers stated, I kid you not, that the January 6 attack did not happen and that the videos are “all lies.”

To be more than fair, Caldwell accepts the reality that,

On the one hand, it is hard to think of a more serious assault on democracy than a violent entry into a nation’s capitol to reverse the election of its chief executive. Five people died. Chanting protesters urged the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence, who had refused Mr. Trump’s call that he reject certain electoral votes cast for Joe Biden.

But then Caldwell dismisses the entire event as “something familiar: a political protest that got out of control.” Caldwell says that what he describes as merely “contesting the fairness of an election” and calling the election a “steal,” while “irresponsible” coming out of the mouth of a president, are mere hyperbole equal to “calling suboptimal employment and health laws a “war on women.”

Nor did the eventual violence necessarily discredit the demonstrators’ cause, any more than the July 2016 killing of five police officers at a rally in Dallas against police violence, for instance, invalidated the concerns of those marchers.

There are so many problems with this exercise in deflection and what-about-ism, it’s hard to know where to begin. Suffice to say, Mr. Caldwell has chosen to ignore the planning that we now are beginning to understand went into the January 6 attack. The “protest that just got out of hand” is a convenient intellectual ruse to plaster over the realities revealed by, for example, the New York Times’ video, “Day of Rage”. See https://nyti.ms/2VLfDSI

Caldwell is quite comfortable observing that Trump “ended his presidency as unfamiliar with its powers as with its responsibilities. That is, in a way, reassuring.” In effect, Caldwell seems to argue that Trump was too ignorant and incompetent to bring off a real coup. So, no need to worry.

Then, after noting that the few rational people in Trump’s administration left or were ousted, his claims of a stolen election inspired his followers. And, Caldwell hastens to declare,

Republicans had — and still have — legitimate grievances about how the last election was run. Pandemic conditions produced an electoral system more favorable to Democrats. Without the Covid-era advantage of expanded mail-in voting, Democrats might well have lost more elections at every level, including the presidential.

If you’re going to claim legitimacy for arguments of electoral unfairness arising from a public health crisis, then you must also address how that public health crisis unfolded. And there, my friends, is where we find Mr. Caldwell’s hero stuck in the sucking muck of his incompetence and indifference. Trump’s legendary and thoroughly documented mishandling of the pandemic is likely at the heart of his defeat, and he cannot have it both ways. If the pandemic was another “Democrat hoax,” it cannot be blamed for his defeat.

Mr. Caldwell continues his monologue lost in the illogic of his argument that what began as a perfectly rational, if not necessarily correct, dispute about election procedures spun out of control in the hands of an “infuriated and highly unrepresentative hard core.” That “hard core” was precisely the group of politicians and supporters that Trump turned to in his desperation. His one true skill, inspiring hatred and irrational behavior, rose to the occasion just when he needed it most. Trump urged the mob to go to the Capitol, told them he would be there with them – and they believed him. Many of them have argued in court that they could not have committed crimes because they were “invited” into the building by Trump himself.

Undeterred by reality, Caldwell says.

The result was not a coup. It was, instead, mayhem on behalf of what had started as a legitimate political position. Such mixtures of the defensible and indefensible occur in democracies more often than we care to admit. The question is whom we trust to untangle such ambiguities when they arise.

Caldwell assumes away the central issue by simply declaring the situation was ambiguous and that the debate about the election just got out of hand when the mob listened to Trump claiming that the nation would be destroyed if the election were allowed to stand.

Under the rules of logical reasoning, defects in the premise remain in the outcome of a logical progression from that premise. By January 6 there was no even superficial plausibility to the argument that the election was flawed by fraud and “stolen,” notwithstanding the absurd claims of Republican politicians that the mob was just a bunch of friendly tourists. It is therefore impossible to logically argue that a rational dispute about the validity of the election simply got out of hand and led to the vicious beating of police trying to protect Members of Congress carrying out explicit Constitutional responsibilities.

In the end, Caldwell’s argument is that January   6 was not a coup attempt because he says so. And, therefore, he concludes that military leaders should not have “any kind of role in judging civilian ones.”

Most thoughtful people who respect the Constitutional scheme, despite its flaws, would agree that in normal circumstances the military should stay out of politics. Trump’s aspiration to turn the US into a “banana republic” notwithstanding, we remain a democratic republic and our military is subordinate to civilian authority. However, the Trump crowd should not get the wrong idea about that. Recall that it was Trump who called out military forces against civilian demonstrators in Washington. Gen. Milley had every reason to be concerned that Trump’s disrespect for, and fundamental ignorance about, the Constitution and his oath of office might lead to an attempt to use the military to overturn the election. I, for one, am happy to hear the General say “hell, no, not now, not ever.”

Lost in Space

I am harping a bit about the failure of the mainstream media to recognize the peril in which the country, and the MSM itself, finds itself. This failure is reflected in numerous ways, the latest being the decision of favorite New York Times to publish on page 21 of Sunday’s edition a story about the astonishing direct efforts by Donald Trump to suborn the Department of Justice to support his unfounded claims that the 2020 election was invalidated by fraud. Not only is Trump guilty of this effort to subvert the election, but compelling evidence has been produced that he had secured the support and active cooperation of Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division. https://nyti.ms/3iy3Gsw

This story is related to the on-going attempts of Trump and his enablers in Congress and the Republican-controlled states to overturn the lawful election of Joe Biden for President. That is the most important story of our time, right up there with the pandemic. If Trump had succeeded (or succeeds in the future), the democratic republic known as the United States of America would be finished. Seriously, is there a more important story than that?

As usual, the key players at the Justice Department have gone dark, refusing to comment substantively. But the testimony of Jeffrey Rosen, who was Acting Attorney General at the time, indicates that despite being directed otherwise, Clark continued having private conversations with Trump while Trump was still president. Clark even “drafted a letter that he asked Mr. Rosen to send to Georgia state legislators, wrongly asserting that they should void Mr. Biden’s victory because the Justice Department was investigating accusations of voter fraud in the state.” The proposal was rejected but the apparent fact remains that Clark engaged in multiple violations of DOJ policy, and possibly federal law, in working collaboratively with Trump to overturn the election.

Clark has a spectacular resume. https://bit.ly/2VG7yi4 That fact does not mean that he was incapable of the acts to which Rosen, with a similar resume (https://bit.ly/37vlgqu), has testified. The story mentioned almost in passing the suggestion by one of Trump’s lawyers that Trump “might take some undisclosed legal action if congressional investigators sought “privileged information.” That is, of course, a huge issue, but privilege (executive or attorney-client or whatever) cannot be used to coverup conversations about the commission or attempt at commission of a crime.

I well understand that there are many other big stories afoot at the same time. The Times front page this morning covers some of those: the Cuomo scandal, Republicans supporting infrastructure legislation, problems attributable to children being denied in-classroom learning, restaurant struggles in New York City and, of course, the Olympics. But page 21 for the inside story of attempts to defeat the lawful transfer of power?

Meanwhile, my other favorite publication, the Washington Post, has once again elected (it clearly had a choice) to publish an op-ed that undermines the effort to rid the country of COVID-19 through vaccinations and other public health measures. https://wapo.st/3iwpgxx This piece was written by Drew Holden, a public affairs consultant in D.C. and a former Republican congressional staff member. There is no surprise, therefore, that he objects to the recently re-established mask mandate in Washington, including those already vaccinated. Typically, he downplays the significance of the Delta Variant that is sweeping the country and overwhelming medical resources in numerous states. He focused on a “slight uptick in local cases” and “only three deaths from the coronavirus in the past two weeks and with a positive test rate hovering around 1 percent.Only three dead in two weeks, so who cares?

The author’s data, however, is massively contradicted by the Center for Disease Control’s COVID Data Tracker, https://bit.ly/3Cs8qrt. And, of course, the author dredges up the usual Republican talking points about overbearing government (ignoring, for example, the new Red Hero, the Governor of Florida, who has worked around the clock to defeat public health measures in his state that might help control the virus — #DeathSantis doesn’t hesitate to overrule local officials and to prevent Florida jurisdictions from following CDC guidance). So much for the principle of limited government.

Apparently no fan of logical consistency, Mr. Holden argues that while indoor mask mandates will reduce viral transmission, they will undermine the effort to persuade more people to vaccinate. He argues that more vaccinations are the “best way” to prevent more deaths, a view that most rational humans would accept, but Holden argues that vaccination is the only viable path forward, so the solution is to use the “best message” by repeating over and over again that vaccines are safe and effective.

Mandating masks even for the vaccinated sends a clear (if unintended) message to the contrary: Even when you have the vaccine, you aren’t really safe to yourself or others, even if we just told you the opposite was true. How can those already deservedly distrustful of the medical wisdom of the government overcome their skepticism if the government itself can’t seem to get the story straight?

Wow. If the author were really paying attention, he would understand that no one has claimed that vaccines were 100 percent security against COVID infection. This has been clear since the earliest public disclosures of the vaccines. The author also confuses mask requirements with other forms of incentive to vaccinate.

I could go on and on about this piece, but the real issue I want to raise is: why does the Washington Post continue to give credence and exposure to views like this? Is the Post’s commitment to truth tied to both-sides-ing issues of public health? Does the Post really believe that this type of message is essential to understanding the public health risks of another, and perhaps yet another, surge in COVID cases? If the Post is going to continue both-sides-ing COVID messaging, should it not explain its editorial policy to its readers?  If the issue were whether it is in the national interest to maintain a union of 50 states or whether we’d be better off as a nation by having multiple states secede, would the Post also both-sides that issue? How about smoking? Does the Post intend to publish both-sides commentary on the benefits and detriments of smoking tobacco? Wearing seat belts? How is this different?

Media Bias – Who Are the Victims?

“Conservatives,” or more accurately Trumpist sycophants, complain a lot about “media bias,” claiming they are being “censored” and otherwise discriminated against. They do this even though FOX “News,” OAN, Newsmax, Breitbart and others devote virtually their entire waking moments to spewing false and/or distorted information about elections, COVID-19 and other important public subjects, basically hewing to the Donald Trump fantasy line of the day.

A few days ago I was hunting online to determine how to watch President Biden’s speech regarding the new federal COVID—19 policy. I turned to Safari, the primary Mac search engine (I prefer Google but there are indications that it does not work well with the latest Apple OS) [Note for the record my sophisticated use of computer terminology – search engine, OS – some days I amaze myself]

I typed “time of Biden’s speech today.” And this is what I got.

I’m pretty sure this does not happen by random accident. I searched for specific news about President Biden and got a bunch of right-wing blather thrown in my face by Yahoo.

My curiosity piqued by this unexpected outcome, I did some digging. I turned to … search engines. Turns out Yahoo is owned by Verizon Communications. But wait, Yahoo is actually Microsoft’s Bing search engine. The plot thickens. Already, I know more about this than I think I want to know. But I plowed ahead.

I “learned” that Google, the search engine associated with the Chrome search engine, with a market share of 92+%, is bigger than all the other search engines combined. https://bit.ly/3C00spd Second in size is … Bing, with 8% share. The site cited above notes, “Unlike Google, Bing’s homepage always features a stunning image and news stories.” Hhmh … I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that photos of Dan Bongino and Marsha Blackburn are “stunning” except in the sense of “mind numbing.”

That aside, we must remember that “Google also powers other search engines – including Ask, which is the sixthlargest search engine in the world” and that Yahoo!’s search engine is really Bing and that Yahoo, as search engine, is the fourth largest search engine in the world. After that, the others listed on the ranking site are mostly country-specific with names like Baidu, Yandex, DuckDuckGo, Naver, Seznam, Ecosia (Bing again) and AOL (hahahahaha -AOL, yes, really, AOL).

ll this brings to mind the old Abbott & Costello routine, Who’s on First,” which as a very young child I thought was pretty funny. It now has its own Wikipedia page, https://bit.ly/2V7PWM2, and … well, enough about that. As applied to search engines, the Who’s on First is not very funny.

In the case of search engines, the answer seems to be Google but it’s hard to know who is actually providing you with search information at any one time. In the end, I suspect the real answer is that all the information you get from Internet searches is controlled by three or four people, about whom little is known except by doing Internet searches they control. You see the problem.

Frankly, madam, I don’t give much of a damn about these people. What I care about is the possibility that, contrary to what the Trumpists are claiming, the truth, yet again, is the opposite – that a nefarious process is under way in which I ask for information about the President of the United States and get promotional garbage about/from right-wing fools.

We are all, mostly, now aware of some of the principles of behavioral economics that emphasize how the order and manner of information presentation can control what we think. At the least, the Yahoo response to my query created cognitive dissonance when I realized what had happened (it might be worse if this occurred without my recognizing it!). Cognitive dissonance is explained this way by the folks at Psychology Today:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are averse to inconsistencies within their own minds. It offers one explanation for why people sometimes make an effort to adjust their thinking when their own thoughts, words, or behaviors seem to clash with each other.

When one learns new information that challenges a deeply held belief, for example, or acts in a way that seems to undercut a favorable self-image, that person may feel motivated to somehow resolve the negative feeling that results—to restore cognitive consonance. Though a person may not always resolve cognitive dissonance, the response to it may range from ignoring the source of it to changing one’s beliefs or behavior to eliminate the conflict. [https://bit.ly/3C0QeVK]

Given that, for example, Bing reportedly gets 1.3 billion visits per month, you wouldn’t have to succeed at altering thinking patterns of a large share to affect a huge number of people.

To be clear, I am not advocating content control, which would create a multitude of practical and legal problems. But if my experience with my Biden speech search is a frequent occurrence, there is cause for (1) alarm and (2) some form of investigation/exposure, including ultimately some form of mandatory disclosure/warnings about the practices being used to deliver information. Yes, yes, I get that there are First Amendment issues there too, but it is unclear to me whether the issue is being examined outside the near-hysterical drumbeat of right-wing whining about censorship (for which little to no evidence appears to exist).

The termination of Donald Trump’s access to Twitter and Facebook was based upon blatant and repeated violations of the Terms of Service. Trump’s posts involved demonstrable lies and misinformation about matters of vital public importance. He had many opportunities to stop but, if anything, he escalated his misconduct with his continuing false claims about election fraud.

The major Internet platforms are, in my opinion, making a huge mistake with their cavalier approach to Terms of Service and enforcement. I understand that at their scale of operations, there is no simple solution. But to understand what is being done, a process of analysis of how the systems could be improved must begin, leading ultimately to public pressure for positive change. This is an essential process for the preservation of democracy in this country. Just imagine what would happen if control of one of these behemoths were to fall into the wrong hands. Indeed, it may have already happened.