Thursday, March 26, 2020

School's In Session

My next newspaper column:
This coronavirus is becoming a great teacher, exposing the falsehood of Republican shibboleths handed down through the decades, starting with Ronald Reagan, and still believed. For example, their Senators’ first-attempt bailout package was “trickle-down” at its worst, unregulated gifting of the wealthy, crumbs for the needy. Democrats managed to make it somewhat better.
Equally important, the virus is confirming the vulnerabilities of human nature. 
Regarding the first, it’s possible, seeing the lack of preparedness and initial governmental inaction, the Republican party will finally regain its sanity. Till then, it’s easy to show how “modern” Republican philosophy has brought us here. Writing from the inside, a few lifelong conservatives have done just that. Here’s an excellent example, presented to edify Trumpists.   
The linked article spells out the roots of their current national leadership failures. If we’re to handle things better next time around, today’s Republican leaders must retire their disregard for science, expertise, education, international cooperation, and good government. Then, improbably, they might even apply it to the more existentially devastating and economically challenging threat of climate change. 
Unlikely. Even now, they cling.    
Which brings us to the other viral unmasking: the blindness of half of humanity. With eons of evolution behind it, that may never change. Something fundamental separates humans into two very different world-views: for simplicity, call them liberal and Trumpic. Responses to the corona crisis make the distinction visible from blocks away. People maintaining separation in lines: liberal. People ignoring it: Trumpic. The latter is the equivalent of idiots in pickup trucks coal-rolling people in electric cars. 
Humans separate along willingness to accept difficult challenges and deal with them, versus the desire for easy answers and pretense. What better demonstration is there than Trump’s “news” conferences and campaign rallies, rife with fake news and false promises? It explains why, despite the damage he’s doing, supporters eat up everything Trump says, including his claim that “no one could see this coming.” Except for the intelligence warnings he’d been receiving and ignoring for months, and despite which DHS ended its preparedness program. Trump’s half of humanity wants to be lied to. Which tells us who the real “snowflakes” are.  
Trump’s predictably pathological first response to Covid-19 was to pretend it away; just Democrats and “fake news” trying to take him down (because everything is always about him.) Trumpists were happy to believe. Similarly, his response to the climate crisis is to say it’s a hoax and, in order to prove it, to take actions that are making it worse. Trumpists love that, too. God gave us Trump, Trump says not to worry, turn off brain. Same with his rallies: Easy answers, gut reactions, thought not required. It’s a dangerous, but effective, positive feedback loop. 
That cerebral software is pre-loaded, and has been exploited by demagogues like Trump throughout history: make people distrust expertise and education, provide scapegoats, and they’ll demand to be fed pabulum. The more of it they consume, the more they’ll reject truth-tellers and follow the liars. 
Worried about the effects of sheltering on his reelection, Trump, who, even in crisis, can’t stop his infantile tweeting, is ready to have us return to dangerous behavior. Other Republican leaders, too, arguing, because they’re only about money, that people should be willing to die for the economy. 
Unconcerned for the people he’d put at risk, Trump wants the country “opened up” by Easter. Experts don’t. Intelligent governors, concerned for their citizens and not themselves, don’t. Will Trump try to convince people to ignore their local leaders? And if they do – in red states, one assumes, and the red parts of blue states – and if some get sick and die, will he tell us again, “I take no responsibility”? For them, or the Colorado man who killed himself taking Trump’s touted cure?  
Covid-19 has turned America into a massive social experiment; a test to determine whether liberalism or Trumpism is our future, and what that future will look like. Red state governors and their like-minded citizens are ignoring the warnings of science. Laughing them off. Coal-rolling themselves. Blue states and the thoughtful among their citizens are paying attention, for their own and for the greater good. 
Liberalism vs. Trumpism. Cuomo and Inslee vs. Trump and Rand Paul. In the next few months, we’ll learn about ourselves, about our national sense of community, and in what direction “American exceptionalism” is headed. Especially those who survive the culling. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Good News/Bad News

My next newspaper column:
First, the bad news: Trump is still president. Two months after lying that everything was “under control,” finally acknowledging the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis, which he’s now calling “the Chinese virus” because he never misses an opportunity, he’s still getting it wrong. Focusing first on the stock market, for continuing the Obama recovery of which he took unwarranted credit, and which has lost all post-election gains, he wanted spending where it’s least needed. 
What if his first economic move had been getting money to people losing jobs, small businesses losing customers, hospitals running out of protective gear and beds. What if he’d listened to experts, instead of Jared Kushner? Imagine him having the leadership instincts of this man 
Trump still looks for people to blame (Obama, the Chinese) and credit to take. On a scale of one to ten, he awards his initially irresponsible, belated, and inadequate response a ten. Now he’s saying “I always knew” how serious it was. Then why did he waste weeks saying otherwise? Incredible. 
The words by which history will remember this “president” are those he uttered when asked what responsibility he takes for the lack of testing and other missteps: “I take no responsibility.” That’s Trump, encased in his own words like Han Solo in carbonite. It’s his “Ask not what your country can do for you…;” his “… of the people, by the people, and for the people…,” and his “… a day that will live in infamy.” Plaster it on billboards and write it large: “I take no responsibility.”  
Oh, but now, like George Bush, he says he's a "wartime president." How'd that last one work out? 
Suddenly socialist, Trump is okay with giving struggling Americans a thousand bucks or two. Consider again that $1.5 trillion to bolster stock markets. Divide it by the number of Americans who are and who’ll be in need, and get it to them. There’s the economic horse we need, not the cart Trump put before it. The stock gains about which Trump had baselessly bragged are wiped out. Lies aren’t soothing markets, nor are the incompetents and yes-men with whom Trump has surrounded himself.  
More bad news: Moscow Mitch McConnell is still Majority Leader. While Nancy Pelosi worked out a rescue package with Trump’s people, Mitch left town. When the plan was made known, he dismissed it as a “liberal wish-list,” and engineered severe dilution of paid sick leave. Now, as even Republicans are agreeing to massive critical spending, the stupidity of Trump’s unnecessary tax cuts and trillion-dollar deficits in a time of prosperity, emptying the treasury, becomes obvious. This is the time for deficit spending, not then. The price will be enormous. 
The good news: Fox “news” screamers flipped like a switch when Trump finally woke up, never acknowledging their prior politicized attacks. Maybe their viewers will realize they’ve always been lied to. Also, people like Alex Jones and Jim Bakker, soulless scammers of bogus cures, are being told to shut up.  
The best news: notwithstanding examples of the worst, we’re also seeing humanity at its finest. For everyone selfishly hoarding goods, fighting over remainders; for every scalper, every paranoid deplorable buying guns and ammo, there are hundreds looking out for their neighbors, shopping for them, sharing what they have. 
If the corporations Trump wants to bail out (socialism!) are refusing to provide help for their employees, many small business are; and they’re finding ways to supply their customers at a distance. A distillery in Portland (hippie libtards!) created a hand sanitizer and is giving it away. Zoos and museums and teaching institutions (educated elitists!) are offering free online teaching. Celebrities (Hollywood liberals!) are giving free online concerts and donating money. Conservatives, too. 
People are hosting video gatherings to help parents do creative, fun, and educational activities with homebound kids. Shuttered schools are still providing meals to students who’ve counted on them.  
Hilarious videos of dealing with social isolation are being posted online. Around our country, governors have filled the federal leadership vacuum with reality-based, tough-but-wise directions which, except where ignored by Trumpists who can’t believe Trump finally told the truth, will help curtail the spread. Generous countries are donating supplies to others.  
Humor, community, and creativity will get us through. Now, perhaps, people will see that “government is the problem” only when people like Trump and McConnell are running it; and that ignoring the least of us endangers us all. Maybe they’ll even resume appreciating reporters who pursue important stories despite being called enemies of the state. 
[Image source]

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Incompetence Is At Last Undeniable

My next column in The Everett Herald:
Dr. Robert Redfield, Trump’s head of the CDC, is a virologist, which is good. One investigated for questionable research, which isn’t. Called AIDS God’s judgment on gays; opposed, on religious grounds, providing needle exchanges and condoms to at-risk people. Has no management experience. Also not good. He’s the guy smiling lovingly as Trump brags about his aptitude for science, lauding him on cue, laughing appreciatively when Trump called our governor “a snake.” Might Redfield’s Trump-fluffing have something to do with CDC’s tardy, disjointed response to Covid-19?

Soon after Donald “Chinese-hoax-windmill-cancer-virus-will-disappear-like-magic” Trump revealed he hadn’t known people died from influenza, he claimed “a natural instinct for science.” Nearly seven-hundred-thousand Americans died in the flu pandemic of 1918, and our “president” didn’t know. Previously, he’d asked why the flu vaccine wouldn’t work on Covid-19, and expected a vaccine in two months. For him, that’s natural, all right, but instinct it’s not. It illuminates, however, how he bankrupted six businesses before becoming "president." 
In 2016, Republicans overlooked Trump’s prior failures. Now, like those businesses, we’re imperiled by a person convinced he knows more about everything than anyone. Who ignores expert advice. Who’s more devoted to protecting his image than fellow Americans, fabricating lies to maintain it. Who, visiting the CDC, presumably to appear in charge, instead let loose an astounding string of falsehoods, self-congratulation, and gibberish. His unfit leadership was writ large as the gilded name on his hotels. Then he absconded to Mar-a-Lago, compounding the hundred-thirty-one-million in taxpayer dollars for his golfing -- not including hundreds of thousands in inflated prices his properties charge the Secret Service.

Issues like climate change, budget deficits, capitalism-destroying disregard for middle- and lower-class Americans while enriching the already-wealthy, are too removed, too arcane to concern hardcore Trumpists. Nobody who’s much beyond voting age is likely to die anytime soon from those things. And if some will die from such destructive policies, his supporters figure it’ll be people they never cared much about in the first place. Like minorities and the post-born.

But this virus thing? People ARE dying. Now. Close to home. Not just poor people. Parents. Grandparents. The impacts are universal. Countries are shutting down, and, God help us, Costco ran out of toilet paper. 
By now, isn’t the danger of a “president” like Trump obvious? If not to the “Trump was sent by God” people, then to hypothetical supporters who retain a toehold on reality? Isn’t it disquieting that Trump tweets infantile, fact-free vitriol and baseless braggadocio in the middle of a crisis, heads off to golf, tells infected people it’s okay to go to work? Expert advisers afraid to be candid, complicit henchfolk saying the virus is “contained,” even as cases – and deaths -- mount? Are no Trump voters wishing for a leader in whose words and competence they could believe? Who had experience in rational problem-solving rather than getting bailed out or leaving employees and contractors in the lurch?

Have none considered the benefits of having a “president” who didn’t squelch government scientists, wasn’t holding presumably political coronavirus meetings that excluded experts, hadn’t disbanded our pandemic response team; whose advisors were chosen for expertise rather than sycophancy? One who didn’t fire people for acknowledging truths he denies, who’d act on facts, rather than dismiss them or lie about them or sue news organizations over revealing them? Assuming he could tell the difference? 
Knowledgeable people are admitting they’re having to sneak truth into the conversation in ways that won’t anger Trump. How did being honest with a “president” become something risky? Who’s not endangered when professionals are deferring to Trump’s pathological self-regard and fantastical thinking? Are there no supporters on whom it’s dawning that we’re living in a Lewis Carroll novel?

On Wednesday, trying to appear serious, attacking the EU for who-knows-why, Trump, in his usual monotone, announced travel restrictions which do nothing about the biggest issue -- community spread. He completely ignored testing and the growing prospects of hospitals becoming overwhelmed. Immediately, the White House said he misspoke. But he’s still shaking hands. This isn’t leadership. It’s nuts. And it’s the opposite of reassuring. 
Trump and rightwing media claim it’s Democrats trying to take him down. It isn’t. It’s Trump taking himself down. After decades of getting away with cheating and fakery, never held to account, he hasn’t the tools of a competent leader. He never has. Now, the bill is coming due, and, once again, Trump has gone bankrupt. This time, though, he’s bankrupting us all.
[Image source]

Friday, March 6, 2020


My next column in The Everett Herald:
By now, Trump’s response to Covid-19 has gone viral: incomprehension of the science, contradicting the CDC, making up numbers, blaming President Obama, blaming Democrats, blaming the press, making it all about him, taking unwarranted credit: stopping flights from China, for example, which never fully stopped. His incoherence is revelatory, as is his greater concern for how it makes him look than for public health. There’s little to add. Happily, smarter people are still doing their jobs.  
So let’s talk more generally about viruses, which are actually pretty interesting; potentially able, someday, to save more lives than they take. To appreciate them, it helps to know basic genetics and to recognize that evolution is a thing; which doesn’t describe Mike Pence, Trump’s choice to wrangle America’s coronavirus response. But God chose Trump and Trump chose Pence, so let’s move on. 
Fact: in the way recipes are not food, viruses are not alive. Unlike bacteria, which are, they have no metabolism, can’t reproduce on their own, don’t, in fact, “do” anything. That’s because they’re nothing but protein-wrapped bits of DNA or RNA, the molecules responsible for speciation, reproduction, and evolution. There’s disagreement on how viruses came to be. Based on medical school facts and personal extrapolations, this is my concept:  
Those delicate, helical strands of genetic information are fragile. In the process of replication during cell division, sometimes pieces break off. And sometimes DNA mis-reproduces the strands they’re in the business of copying, causing mutations. 
Stuff happens. There are, in fact, areas of DNA in our chromosomes that don’t appear to do anything. Just stuck there after some mistake or other, doing neither harm nor creating an evolutionarily-impactful change. Since we have countless combinations of nucleotides (the “building blocks” of DNA), and since these events occur comparatively often, some broken-off chunks occasionally are the sort that can code the production of a protein. Which is what DNA and RNA are there to do: produce proteins. Useful ones, ideally. 
If, by happenstance, those broken-off bits contain codes for proteins that are inclined to enwrap them, you have genetic material wrapped in a protein shell: a virus. If the protein capsule is attachable to a living cell, human or otherwise, and if, in attaching, it’s able to be incorporated into the cell, wholly or just its DNA or RNA, you have a potential pathogen. Mathematically, highly unlikely. But, given billions of events, it’s enough.  
The acquired material might just sit there. Or – another improbable coincidence – the original breakup may have included preexisting coded instructions to the cell’s reproductive organelles, causing that cell to start replicating viral DNA/RNA rather than its own. It all depends on the nature of those detached pieces. Presumably, most of the time, nothing of that happens. Rarely, it creates advantageous mutations. (Most mutations happen to DNA randomly or from non-viral influences.) 
When it turns a cell’s machinery into a manufacturing plant gone wild, a gazillion virus copies burst out of the cell, invade and kill other specifically receptive cells. Without intention, you might say. Because they’re not alive. Nevertheless, until your immune system figures it out (sometimes antivirals help) you’re sick.  
Scientists (people like those Trump eliminated from government before Covid-19 showed up, and whom he’s been mostly ignoring and mischaracterizing since) are using viruses, the kind that attach to chromosomes and sit there, to treat genetic diseases: by attaching “good” genes to them and turning them loose to replace “bad” ones inside human cells. There’s potential for preventing some cancers, too. Science: a good thing. Including climate science. Who knew, right?  
In summary, viruses may result from the processes that led to the formation, behavior, and fragility of DNA and RNA, which then led to those molecules acquiring the ability to code and produce proteins, which led to combinations of proteins that have the ability to harness energy and reproduce: life. 
That the process is imperfect, making unexpected combinations randomly, is what leads to changes which, when of survival benefit, fuel evolution. If those random events are useless, nothing happens; or, as we’ve seen, sometimes they become what we know as viruses.  
Hopefully it won’t matter that Trump doesn’t understand and Pence doesn’t believe any of this, as long as some on his team, and governors like ours, do.  
One more thing, off topic but timely: Let’s hope Trump’s already-iffy Taliban peace deal holds. If so, good for him. Two words to keep in mind, though: North Korea. 
[Image source]

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