Category Archives: Commentary

Texas, the Handmaid State

Texas, through its legislature, has now made unmistakably clear that women are not equal to men. It is no exaggeration to say that Texas has moved from being the Lone Star State to being the Handmaid State. The reference, for the small number of people who don’t know, is to The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which women in a theocratic authoritarian society are forced into what amounts to sexual slavery for the benefit of the men who run the country.

The headlines about the adoption of SB 8 by Texas are still fresh and resonating around the country and the world. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to enjoin the enforcement of the law while its constitutionality is considered on the merits. Thus, Texas, proud Texas, has become the leader in subordination of women. Through the back door in Texas, a Republican (53%)/male (73%)/aged (67% over 49/14% over 69)-dominated state legislature has introduced a version of Sharia Law to the United States.

There are, of course, significant reasons to believe that SB 8 is unconstitutional under both the Texas Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. Whether Texas likes it or not, the established federal constitutional principles of the Fourteenth Amendment “equal protection of the laws” and “due process” still apply to the states:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court’s astonishing back-handed approval of the Texas maneuver say as much. If the Court’s current view of the law stands, states will be encouraged to adopt similar laws on other subjects, insulating such laws from judicial review. That, as with the current case, is simply unsustainable and would undermine the separation of powers, among other things.

It’s important to understand that Texas thinks it’s been very clever in crafting this statute so that it will escape meaningful judicial review on the merits. It had the audacity to represent to the Supreme Court that it was entirely realistic to believe that the entire elaborate text of SB 8 would have been enacted but that no one would take up the opportunity to earn a quick $10,000 (the minimum statutory damages). In perhaps the most ridiculous legal position I have seen in years, the Texas Attorney General told the Supreme Court, “This Court cannot expunge the law itself. Rather, it can enjoin only enforcement of the law.” He argued since government officials “explicitly do not enforce the law,” the abortion providers “have not shown that they will be personally harmed by a bill that may never be enforced against them by anyone.”

Thus, Texas would have us believe that it passed a law giving private citizens standing to bring lawsuits against other citizens with a minimum payoff of $10,000 plus attorneys’ fees and costs, with zero risk of having to pay fees & costs for the defendant if the suit were judged frivolous, but no one will bother to file suit under the law. That’s a whopper even by Texas standard.

There are a multitude of serious substantive problems with SB 8. Here are just a few of the big ones:

    • The medical premise for the law is not scientifically accurate;
    • The essence of the statute is to confer “standing” on the entire civilian population of Texas to bring actions to sue physicians who perform abortions in conflict with the many non-medical details of the statutory scheme and to sue any person or entity that aids and abets the violation, with the assured award of not-less-than $10,000 in damages for each successful case brought, plus reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and costs incurred;
    • Plaintiffs may not be assessed attorney’s fee and costs even if the suit is thrown out because the statute is ruled unconstitutional, so the millions of potential plaintiffs incur no risk in bringing such suits;
    • Being an aider or abettor is determined without regard to the actor’s knowledge of the legality of the procedure;
    • Relying on some unspecified mind meld, the law authorizes suits against aiders/abettors who merely “intend” to assist forbidden abortions;
    • The clear intent of the legislation is to stack the legal deck against people who would help a woman with an abortion and thereby prevent abortions from being performed in Texas;
    • The statute in the words of Justice Sotomayor, “a breathtaking act of defiance—of the Constitution, of this Court’s precedents, and of the rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas,” dissenting from the Court’s decision to allow the Texas law to be effective Sept. 1 without appellate review;
    • The Supreme Court’s decision to allow SB 8 to become effective was based on a complete distortion of the holding in California v. Texas, a 2021 case addressing whether injunctive relief could be had against a statute whose key operative provision had been removed by Congress. The Court there said, “to find standing here to attack an unenforceable statutory provision would allow a federal court to issue what would amount to “an advisory opinion without the possibility of any judicial relief.” That is plainly not the case with the Texas statute which is not only enforceable but is drafted precisely to induce massive enforcement by citizen bounty-hunters. The fact that enforcement may occur at the hands of private persons inspired and enabled by a state law does not affect the impact of the law on its targets. Further, the cause of action created by the statute is fully effective and ready to be used, totally different than the tax provision removed from the law at issue in California v Texas.
    • Texas devoted much legislative language trying to (a) prevent federal court review of the statute and (b) control the nature and effect of the review. The very obvious goal was to have the law continue to apply to everyone who had not yet been sued, even if judicial review held the law facially unconstitutional in one case. Texas-sized hubris here, trying to tell the federal courts what they can and can’t do. Texas has decided to simply ignore the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.

Justice Sotomayor’s eloquent dissent in Whole Woman’s Health v Austin Reeve Jackson, Judge, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan, said everything that should have been needed to stop the law in its tracks:

The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.

It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.

… the Court has re- warded the State’s effort to delay federal review of a plainly unconstitutional statute, enacted in disregard of the Court’s precedents, through procedural entanglements of the State’s own creation

I am going to go out on a limb here and predict that after further briefing and argument, a majority on the Supreme Court will find its way back to reality and reason by rejecting the Texas law on multiple constitutional grounds . Meanwhile, the women of Texas will have to live with the white hoods of handmaidens under the thumb of their totalitarian masters.

*****

For those with the interest and fortitude to understand the details of this astounding act of legislative hubris, here is an unfortunately long explanation of exactly what SB 8 purports to do.

The key scientific idea on which the law is based is that the presence of a fetal heartbeat “has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.” Texas tries to tie this idea to a further finding that “the pregnant woman has a compelling interest in knowing the likelihood of her unborn child surviving to full-term birth based on the presence of cardiac activity.” Based on my limited review, those “findings” are of limited relevance, since there are other significant predictors of ultimate viability and nothing in the law specifically addresses the communication of this specific information to the pregnant woman considering an abortion.

Instead, absent a “medical emergency,” the statute bans abortions after the mere detection of a fetal heartbeat and nothing more. Adding to the pretextual nature of this, the statute conveniently fails to define “medical emergency,” thereby creating a condition in which both the physician and the pregnant woman can never be certain that later litigation will not reject the physician’s determination and expose the physician to an intolerable financial risk.

It’s important to understand that the statute does not directly expose the pregnant woman to lawsuits – the targets of the legislative scheme are the doctors, clinics and anyone else who,

Knowingly engages in conduct that aids and abets the performance or inducement of an [prohibited] abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an [prohibited] abortion through insurance or otherwise … regardless of whether the person knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation of this chapter….

The sweep of this language encompasses every imaginable form of support for the abortion process and is plainly designed to intimidate medical personnel, insurance companies as well as friends and family of the pregnant woman.

But that’s not all. The statute authorizes civil damage suits against any person who “intends to engage” in forbidden aiding and abetting of a prohibited abortion. No, I’m not making this up. We are in the land of science fiction, popularized by the movie Minority Report in which a special police force is authorized to arrest murderers before they commit their crimes. In Texas’ case, the “offense” is civil, not criminal but the penalties are large enough to deal a death blow to the finances of many people (minimum statutory damages of $10,000 plus costs and attorneys’ fees).

The damage provisions apply to every forbidden abortion the defendant performed or aided/abetted. If multiple parties are sued for aiding and abetting a single abortion, it appears the plaintiff stands to collect the minimum damages against each one.

Under the special statute of limitations applied by Texas, the specter of being sued will hang over potential aiders/abettors for six years.

The drafters anticipated that there might be other defenses presented to courts in the civil cases and have preemptively eliminated them. Thus, the following are rejected as possible defenses: a good faith belief in the unconstitutional nature of the law, reliance on court decisions that are later overruled or reliance on federal court decisions that are “not binding” on the state court where suit is brought.

These provisions are designed to prevent judicial review by federal courts of the state’s statutory law as written and as applied. Texas has, apparently seceded from the U.S. Constitution, or at least thinks it has.

In a cynical twist, Texas added a provision that seems at first look to mitigate the intimidation created by the rest of the statute: it provided an “affirmative defense” for those sued under the statute if (1) the defendant conducts a “reasonable investigation” and (2) then “reasonably believes” that the abortion physician “had complied” or “would comply” or “will comply” with the statute. I say this is cynical because the Texas legislators may be presumed to understand that that whatever a “reasonable investigation” means, an aider/abettor trying to conduct such an investigation will almost certainly be stymied by the privacy provisions of HIPAA (the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), not to mention the natural distaste any doctor will have to being embroiled in a lawsuit. The burden of proving an “affirmative defense” is on the person asserting it, so this looks like a Texas head-fake.

Not content to stack the deck against women, their physicians and their families and friends, Texas has added a provision barring absolutely the award of attorneys’ fees and costs against a defendant. This means that the most egregious unfounded lawsuits brought by damage-hunting lawyers and others can be brought with impunity. Which is, of course, exactly what Texas wants – a legal unchallengeable in terrorem regime that will force Texas women to take significant health risks and/or incur staggering expenses to get an abortion regardless of the reason or need. The statute also enables bounty-hunting plaintiffs to bring suits where they live against defendants who live across the state, with the proviso that venue can only be changed if the plaintiff agrees.

The statute also immunizes the state of Texas and its officers from any legal challenge to the statute and further provides that if a court finds the statute unconstitutional in its application to one person, the statute may still be enforced against everyone else. This is an obvious attempt to deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction to adjudicate the constitutionality of the statute as written and not just “as applied.” The courts of Texas may stand for such a violation of the separation of powers, but it is hard to imagine that the federal courts will accept it.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of SB 8 is the provision that purports to instruct the courts in the nature and scope of their decisions and in the meaning of “unconstitutional:”

No court may decline to enforce the severability requirements … on the ground that severance would rewrite the statute or involve the court in legislative or lawmaking activity. A court that declines to enforce or enjoins a state official from enforcing a statutory provision does not rewrite a statute, as the statute continues to contain the same words as before the court’s decision. A Judicial injunction or declaration of unconstitutionality: (1) is nothing more than an edict prohibiting enforcement that may subsequently be vacated by a later court if that court has a different understanding of the requirements of the Texas Constitution or United States Constitution.

This is Texas-size hubris that banks on the willingness of the Supreme Court of the United States to permit a state to decide for itself the nature, scope and effect of the Court’s decisions as regards the U.S. Constitution. Maybe the current Court will buy that nonsense, but I will be surprised as it would seem to overturn the very foundations of the federal system and the separation of powers, among other things.

Texas gives prevailing parties in any constitutional or other challenge to the abortion law three years to file for award of attorneys’ fees and costs. This opportunity applies even if the plaintiff in such suit wins the case on grounds that the severability provisions are unconstitutional or preempted by federal law!

It appears that the desperation of the Texas legislators to insulate SB 8 from federal court review has led them to a strange and untenable place. The statute contains a confused and obtuse section that appears to say that even if a court finds the statute facially unconstitutional, the statute shall still be severed, and the “unconstitutional applications” shall remain enforceable. Further, in such case the statute “shall be interpreted as if containing language limited the statute’s application to the persons, group of persons, or circumstances for which the statute’s application will not violate the United States Constitution and Texas Constitution.

That seems like an overt invitation for the courts to rewrite the legislation to help the Texas legislature save it. There may be precedent for such an astonishing approach, but I am not aware of it. That is, I believe, precisely what courts don’t, and should not, undertake. If the legislature writes an unconstitutional statute, it is the responsibility of the legislature to rewrite the law to repair the damage, unless some form of severance is possible that satisfies the court that it is not in fact just rewriting the law.

The legislation forces the physician to try to talk the woman out of going through with an abortion. This occurs through a series of compulsory disclosures and medical advice that the law declares, ipso facto, to be medically accurate and sound without any specific knowledge of the health condition of the woman in question.

The law addresses the issue of rape/incest and developmental abnormalities by exempting the woman from being forced to hear an explanation of the sonogram images, but rape/incest/developmental abnormalities, and, for that matter, threats to the woman’s life, are not otherwise treated as relevant to the process by which the woman gives consent to the abortion.

Finally, note that the Texas Constitution includes the following:

Sec. 3. EQUAL RIGHTS. All free men, when they form a social compact, have equal rights, and no man, or set of men, is entitled to exclusive separate public emoluments, or privileges, but in consideration of public services.

But it also includes this:

Sec. 3a. EQUALITY UNDER THE LAW. Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed, or national origin. This amendment is self‑operative. (Added Nov. 7, 1972.)

But also this:

Sec. 32. MARRIAGE. (a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.(b) This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage. (Added Nov. 8, 2005.)

But there’s also this:

ARTICLE II

THE POWERS OF GOVERNMENT

Sec. 1. SEPARATION OF POWERS OF GOVERNMENT AMONG THREEDEPARTMENTS. The powers of the Government of the State of Texas shall be divided into three distinct departments, each of which shall be confided to a separate body of magistracy, to wit: Those which are Legislative to one; those which are Executive to another, and those which are Judicial to another; and no person, or collection of persons, being of one of these departments, shall exercise any power properly attached to either of the others, except in the instances herein expressly permitted.

I predict the ACLU and other entities that are going to challenge SB 8 are going to have a field day with these contradictory provisions, some of which are inconsistent with existing Supreme Court precedent and, of course, the U.S. Constitution.

American Ignorance is Killing Us

Dr. Anita Sircar, an infectious disease physician and clinical instructor of health sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, has published an opinion piece in the LA Times, “As a doctor in a COVID unit, I’m running out of compassion for the unvaccinated.” https://lat.ms/2W9yrLp

I’m with Dr. Sircar.

Conditions continue to deteriorate in Florida and other states of the former Confederate States of America. The Governor of Florida continues to act like Donald Trump – basically taking the position that this virus is no more than a common cold. He preaches that some vague idea of “freedom” is more important than stopping the worst pandemic in modern history that is now, once again, ravaging the country. #DeathSantis, as he is often called on Twitter, claims that parents should be able to make all decisions regarding the health of their children, just because they’re parents, without regard to their knowledge or the impact their decisions may have on others.

Florida seems to have adopted as its unofficial motto: “my body, my choice,” a favorite mantra of the anti-vaccination mob. Ironically, Texas simultaneously has placed into law SB8 that effectively bans abortions regardless of rape, incest and so on. So much for “my body, my choice.” But that’s for another time.

Here I want to address the widespread ignorance that has left the United States and much of the world in a position of failing to stop a deadly viral pandemic even though the means to do so is readily available and free. I readily confess up front that at my late stage in life I am profoundly resentful of the arrogant and ignorant decisions being made by people that have effectively stolen two years of my life and threaten to continue doing so indefinitely.

Dr. Sircar’s op-ed tells a gruesome story of a patient under age 50, normally in good health (just some mild blood pressure issues). He tested positive 10 days before, began coughing with severe fatigue 8 days before and, after doctor-prescribed antibiotics did nothing, turned to … hydroxychloroquine, the drug promoted by Donald Trump and multiple medical quacks despite compelling evidence of its ineffectiveness against COVID. That, of course, also failed. As his health continued to decline, he was, Dr. Sircar reports, a “shell of his former self.” By the time he arrived at the clinic, treatment with monoclonal antibodies also failed.

He finally ended up in the ER with dangerously low oxygen levels, exceedingly high inflammatory markers and patchy areas of infection all over his lungs. Nothing had helped. He was getting worse. He could not breathe. His wife and two young children were at home, all infected with COVID. He and his wife had decided not to get vaccinated. [emphasis added]

Dr. Sircar goes on,

Last year, a case like this would have flattened me. I would have wrestled with the sadness and how unfair life was. Battled with the angst of how unlucky he was. This year, I struggled to find sympathy. It was August 2021, not 2020. The vaccine had been widely available for months in the U.S., free to anyone who wanted it, even offered in drugstores and supermarkets. Cutting-edge, revolutionary, mind-blowing, lifesaving vaccines were available where people shopped for groceries, and they still didn’t want them.

Outside his hospital door, I took a deep breath — battening down my anger and frustration — and went in. I had been working the COVID units for 17 months straight, all day, every day. I had cared for hundreds of COVID patients. We all had, without being able to take breaks long enough to help us recover from this unending ordeal. Compassion fatigue was setting in. For those of us who hadn’t left after the hardest year of our professional lives, even hope was now in short supply.

The man claimed not to be anti-vaxxer.

I was just waiting for the FDA to approve the vaccine first. I didn’t want to take anything experimental. I didn’t want to be the government’s guinea pig, and I don’t trust that it’s safe.

Dr. Sircar, notes that,

The only proven lifesaver we’ve had in this pandemic is a vaccine that many people don’t want. A vaccine we give away to other countries because supply overwhelms demand in the U.S. A vaccine people in other countries stand in line for hours to receive, if they can get it at all.

Dr. Sircar turned to remdesivir, explained its status among approved treatments with long-term side-effects unknown:

“Do you still want me to give it to you?”

“Yes” he responded, “Whatever it takes to save my life.”

It did not work.

 Dr. Sircar concludes the story:

My patient died nine days later from a fatal stroke. We, the care team, reconciled this loss by telling ourselves: He made a personal choice not to get vaccinated, not to protect himself or his family. We did everything we could with what we had to save him. This year, this tragedy, this unnecessary, entirely preventable loss, was on him.

She is exactly right about that. The op-ed goes on to lay out the likely outcomes for the unvaccinated going forward. If you, or members of your family, are like the patient described here, read the full story at the link above.

We are headed swiftly back into the abyss of a raging out-of-control pandemic, widespread deaths and long-term impairments, loss of businesses, collapse of the economy, failure of the education system and more. Many parts of the world are declining again to admit Americans. The travel industry, among many others, is reeling as business disappears.

The CDC has just issued another warning about Labor Day travel, asking the unvaccinated not to travel this weekend and suggesting that even vaccinated individuals carefully reassess the risks of travel.

Here are the reported facts, per CNN’s summary [https://cnn.it/3kIudDh]:

US is surpassing an average of 160,000 new Covid-19 cases a day

38.6% of eligible people (everyone 12 or older) are not yet fully vaccinated

Hospitalization rates for unvaccinated are 16 times higher than for vaccinated people

180 new COVID cases were traced to a multi-night church camp and a men’s conference, neither of which complied with CDC recommendations

More than 200,000 kids test positive in a week – infection rates in children are increasing exponentially

Less than half of children 12 to 15 are vaccinated with even one dose

More than 200,000 children tested positive for Covid-19 in the last week, a five-fold increase from a month ago, with corresponding increases in hospitalizations

Between August 20 and 26, an average of 330 children were admitted to hospitals every day with Covid-19 — highest rate of new Covid-19 hospitalizations among children in more than a year

Hospitals and staff are again being overwhelmed and some are running out of oxygen

If the virus had a personality, it would be laughing out loud at the folly of humans who are so able and willing to ignore reality in favor of conspiracy theories and myths perpetrated by other humans who have no credentials or other authenticity as authorities on health decisions. What else is there to say?

Well, here’s something. A respiratory therapist, Karen Gallardo, described the Seven Stages of Severe COVID in a Los Angeles Times article at https://lat.ms/3yzlGan. It’s not pretty. Heavily summarized, they look like this:

Stage 1: Debilitating breathing problems force you to the ER

Stage 2: You’re drowning. Transfer to ICU

Stage 3: Breathing is worse. You are put on a “positive pressure ventilator” velcroed tightly to your face

Stage 4: In preparation for full intubation, from which most patients never recover, you are advised to call your loved ones, likely for the last time. Then,

You are sedated and paralyzed, fed through a feeding tube, hooked to a Foley catheter and a rectal tube. We turn your limp body regularly, so you don’t develop pressure ulcers — bed sores. We bathe you and keep you clean. We flip you onto your stomach to allow for better oxygenation. We will try experimental therapeutics.

Stage 5: If you’re not one of the few Stage 4 survivors, you may need special machine that bypasses your lungs and oxygenates your blood, if your hospital has one.

Stage 6 (Ready?):

The pressure required to open your lungs is so high that air can leak into your chest cavity, so we insert tubes to clear it out. Your kidneys fail to filter the byproducts from the drugs we continuously give you. Despite diuretics, your entire body swells from fluid retention, and you require dialysis to help with your renal function.

The long hospital stay and your depressed immune system make you susceptible to infections. A chest X-ray shows fluid accumulating in your lung sacs. A blood clot may show up, too. We can’t prevent these complications at this point; we treat them as they present.

If your blood pressure drops critically, we will administer vasopressors to bring it up, but your heart may stop anyway. After several rounds of CPR, we’ll get your pulse and circulation back. But soon, your family will need to make a difficult decision.

Stage 7 (End Game):

After several meetings with the palliative care team, your family decides to withdraw care. We extubate you, turning off the breathing machinery. We set up a final FaceTime call with your loved ones. As we work in your room, we hear crying and loving goodbyes. We cry, too, and we hold your hand until your last natural breath.

The End

Fix Stupid

Position of Republican Governors who fight to prevent implementation of strong, sensible public health measures recommended by federal and other health experts:

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.”