Category Archives: Random Blogging

Facts Can Be So Pesky

Santayana supposedly said that people who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. I think the even truer saying–one for which I don’t have an attribution–is “what we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.”

Which brings me to “the Big Lie.”

The big lie was a term used by Adolf Hitler in his 1925 book, Mein Kampf. It was a propaganda technique: tell a lie so huge, so colossal, that no one would believe that anyone would have the gall to make it up.

The Saint Louis Post Dispatch recently took aim at Trump’s effort to use a “Big Lie” to escape responsibility for his incompetent response to Covid-19. 

It was all Obama’s fault.

I am not suggesting that Trump is strategic enough to intentionally employ a propaganda technique; given his grasp of history, I doubt he’s ever heard the term “Big Lie.” (Besides, he blames everything on Obama. His jealousy of Obama is such an obsession that if space aliens invaded, that would be Obama’s fault too.) I’m not even sure he is capable of telling the difference between the reality he prefers and the reality most of us inhabit.

That said, his constant attacks on Obama create a story that his base–still smarting from the outrage, the indignity, of living in a country with a highly competent and widely admired black President for 8 long years– desperately wants to believe.

Trump has repeatedly blamed Obama for his own administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming that “The last administration left us nothing.” But an investigation by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that Trump’s own budget documents show the opposite ― exposing what it called “a lie of colossal Trumpian proportions.”

The newspaper’s investigators found Trump administration testimony to Congress in which it justified its request for big budget cuts in pandemic preparedness programs by explaining that the Obama administration had left it with everything that would be needed should a pandemic emerge.

Trump’s 2020 budget asked Congress to cut the pandemic preparedness budget by $102.9 million, part of $595.5 million in requested cuts to public health preparedness and response outlay.

Think about that.

Trump has also blamed Obama for lack of personal protective equipment and testing supplies, saying “our cupboards were bare. We had very little in our stockpile.”

But a chart provided to Congress by the Trump administration as part of its budget requests showed that by 2016 ―which was Obama’s final year in office ― the nation’s public health emergency preparedness was at least 98% on every key measure. And that 98% was the Trump administration’s own assessment.

As the newspaper’s editorial board wrote,

We’ve taken the time to dissect Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budgets from the year before Obama left office all the way to the present. Trump can lie, but the numbers cannot. Obama left office with an unblemished record of building up the nation’s pandemic preparedness. Trump systematically sought to dismantle it.

Perhaps because of his experience with the 2015 Ebola outbreak, Obama sought to leave his successor fully prepared to confront future pandemics. He asked in his fiscal 2017 budget request to boost federal isolation and quarantine funding by $15 million, to $46.6 million. Congress approved $31.6 million. In Trump’s three years in office, he has not requested a dime more in funding.

Obama asked to nearly double his own $40 million outlay for epidemiology and laboratory capacity. Congress balked, but Obama left Trump with that $40 million as a starting point. What did Trump do? In his 2020 budget, he asked Congress to cut that number to: Zero. Zilch. Nothing.

Let me repeat the newspaper’s most damning discovery: in the 2019 fiscal year budget, Trump asked for a $595.5 million dollar cut to the overall public health preparedness and response efforts. 

The one thing we all know about the Big Liar in Chief is that nothing is ever–and can never be–his fault.

The one thing we don’t all know is how many of “We the People” will eagerly believe the Big Lie.

 

Facebook And False Equivalence

Is it just me, or do the months between now and November seem interminable?

In the run-up to what will be an existentially-important decision for America’s future, we are living through an inconsistent, contested and politicized quarantine, mammoth protests triggered by a series of racist police murders of unarmed black men, and their   cynical escalation into riots by advocates of race war, and daily displays of worsening insanity from the White House–including, but certainly not limited to, America’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic followed by a phone call in which our “eloquent” President called governors “weak” and “jerks” for not waging war on their own citizens.

And in the midst of it all, a pissing match between the Psychopath-in-Chief and Twitter, which has finally–belately–decided to label some of Trump’s incendiary and inaccurate tweets for what they are.

We can only hope this glimmer of responsibility from Twitter continues. The platform’s unwillingness to apply the same rules to Trump that they apply to other users hasn’t just been cowardly–it has given his constant lies a surface plausibility and normalized his bile. We should all applaud Twitter’s belated recognition of its responsibility.

Then, of course, there’s Facebook.

It isn’t that Mark Zuckerberg is unaware of the harms being caused by Facebooks current algorithms. Numerous media outlets have reported on the company’s internal investigations into the way those algorithms encourage division and distort political debate. In her column last Sunday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd reported

The Wall Street Journal had a chilling report a few days ago that Facebook’s own research in 2018 revealed that “our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness. If left unchecked,” Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

Mark Zuckerberg shelved the research.

The reasons are both depressing and ironic: in addition to concerns that less vitriol might mean users spending less time on the site, Zuckerberg understands that reducing the spread of untrue, divisive content would require eliminating substantially more material from the right than the left, opening the company to accusations of bias against conservatives.

Similar fears are said to be behind Facebook’s unwillingness to police political speech in advertisements and posts.

Think about it: Facebook knows that its platform is enormously influential. It know that the Right trades in conspiracy theories and intentional misinformation to a much greater extent than the Left, skewing the information landscape in dangerous ways. But for whatever reason– in order to insulate the company from regulation, or to curry favor with wealthy investors, or to escape the anger of the Breitbarts and Limbaughs–not to mention Trump–it has chosen to “allow people to make their own decisions.”

The ubiquity of social media presents lawmakers with significant challenges. Despite all the blather from the White House and the uninformed hysteria of ideologues, the issue isn’t censorship or freedom of speech–as anyone who has taken elementary civics knows, the Bill of Rights prohibits government from censoring communication. Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites aren’t government. For that matter, under current law, they aren’t even considered “publishers” who could be held accountable for whatever inaccurate drivel a user posts.

That means social media companies have the right to dictate their own terms of use. There is no legal impediment to Facebook or Twitter “censoring” posts they consider vile, obscene or untrue. (Granted, there are significant practical and marketing concerns involved in such an effort.) On Monday, reports emerged that Facebook’s own employees–including several in management–are clamoring for the platform to emulate Twitter’s new approach.

There have always been cranks and liars, racists and political propagandists. There haven’t always been easily accessible, worldwide platforms through which they could connect with similarly twisted individuals and spread their poisons. One of the many challenges of our technological age is devising constitutionally-appropriate ways to regulate those platforms.

If Mark Zuckerberg is unwilling to make FaceBook at least a minimally-responsible overseer of our national conversation–if he and his board cannot make and enforce reasonable rules about veracity in posts, a future government will undoubtedly do it for them–something that could set a dangerous precedent.

Refusing to be responsible– supporting a false equivalency that is tearing the country apart– is a much riskier strategy than Zuckerberg seems to recognize.

On the other hand, it finally seems to be dawning on Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, that (as Dowd put it in her column)”Trump and Twitter were a match made in hell.”

 

The Country Is Burning And Our Sad Little “Emperor” Is Hiding

Our would-be “Emperor” has no clothes.

While the nation is being torn apart, those who are (nominally) in charge are playing “duck and cover.” As protestors massed in front of the White House, Trump turned off the lights, reminding the writer of the linked Raw Story of Halloween nights when neighbors who’ve run out of candy turn off their lights and pretend no one’s home.

Not exactly a profile in courage. Or leadership.

The would-be autocrat, the lover of military parades, the bullying issuer of bluster and threats spent an hour last Friday night in the White House underground bunker.  Multiple media outlets have shared leaks from GOP insiders who report that Trump is worried for his safety, and that he’s been frightened by the size and venom of the crowds.

Heather Cox Richardson shared a stunning–and telling– paragraph from an  AP story:

 As cities burned night after night and images of violence dominated television coverage, Trump’s advisers discussed the prospect of an Oval Office address in an attempt to ease tensions. The notion was quickly scrapped for lack of policy proposals and the president’s own seeming disinterest in delivering a message of unity.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden was out in the streets talking to protesters.

Raw Story described the act of turning off the White House lights as “a metaphor for President Donald Trump’s leadership,” and shared the sentiments of multiple Twitter users, who weighed in using the hashtag “Bunker Trump”–“stoke the hate, then run…how pathetic,” “Lights out at #WhiteHouse is a powerful symbol. Total lack of leadership from @realDonaldTrump.” And another tweet that was particularly on point:

Like all other strong men, Donald Trump is a coward and soft and terrified. Hiding in the White House and turning off the lights is all on brand. These are insecure, sad little men who build themselves up with the iconography of fascism to hide their fear.

It has become abundantly clear that Trump’s tweeted insults are examples of projection.( A recent, telling example: In a telephone conversation yesterday with a number of governors, Trump reportedly accused them of being weak.)

The Guardian called the President “the destroyer.”

Not even Trump’s harshest critics can blame him for a virus believed to have come from a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, nor for an attendant economic collapse, nor for four centuries of slavery, segregation, police brutality and racial injustice.

But they can, and do, point to how he made a bad situation so much worse. The story of Trump’s presidency was arguably always leading to this moment, with its toxic mix of weak moral leadership, racial divisiveness, crass and vulgar rhetoric and an erosion of norms, institutions and trust in traditional information sources. Taken together, these ingredients created a tinderbox poised to explode when crises came.

The Guardian–voicing the obvious–notes that Trump, who was “uniquely ill-qualified”for the Presidency, is ignoring crises he has no competence or desire to address, and meeting unrest in dozens of cities with authoritarian language: “thugs”, “vicious dogs” and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The nation waits in vain for a speech that might heal wounds, find a common sense of purpose and acknowledge the generational trauma of African Americans. That would require deep reading, cultural sensitivity and human empathy – none of which are known to be among personal attributes of Trump, who defines himself in opposition to Barack Obama.

A spokesperson for Black Lives Matter was quoted putting into words an opinion held by most thinking Americans since 2016:

He doesn’t have a clue. He’s a TV personality. He has a cult following that’s centred around this white power broker persona rooted in white supremacy and racism. Wherever he goes, he carries that role and that kind of persona, but ultimately right now with what we’re looking for in this country is real leadership. He is incapable of providing that because that’s not who he is.

A civil rights leader also quoted in the Guardian article noted that, while Trump didn’t create hostility and division, he incites it and thrives on it.” And in words that echo many of the comments that have been posted to this blog since 2016, he added:

The problem here is that we can focus this simply on Trump or we can also focus on all of those folks that have enabled Trump: the Republican leadership, the corporation that may make statements in support of this work but, on the other hand, do all sorts of things to prop up, support, donate to Donald Trump. You don’t get Trump and Trumpism without a whole host of institutions and individuals that support and enable him.”

We don’t just need a “blue wave.” We need a blue tsunami.

 

Why Cities Matter

The weather finally–finally!–got warm and pleasant, and I was able to walk around my downtown neighborhood. It was a welcome break from what my husband and I have come to call “house arrest,” and it gave me the opportunity to see who had planted flowers, whose house had been painted, and who else was out walking–with or without a dog.

I’ve written before about how, in the forty years we’ve lived downtown, the center of the city has dramatically changed. Dilapidated structures have been restored, new construction is everywhere, bars and restaurants are too numerous to count. I’m a very urban person, and I have rejoiced in it all.

Now, I fear what the pandemic will do to cities–including mine.

Will fear of density cause people to opt for the suburbs or exurbs? Now that many businesses have seen the virtues of a remote workforce, the cost and hassle of commuting may diminish, making outward migration more appealing. On the other hand, an article from the Conversation reports that density is not the negative we tend to think it is.

Yet while dense major cities are more likely entry points for disease, history shows suburbs and rural areas fare worse during airborne pandemics – and after.

According to the Princeton evolutionary biologist Andrew Dobson, when there are fewer potential hosts – that is, people – the deadliest strains of a pathogen have better chances of being passed on.

This “selection pressure” theory explains partly why rural villages were hardest hit during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Per capita, more people died of Spanish flu in Alaska than anywhere else in the country.

Lower-density areas may also suffer more during pandemics because they have fewer, smaller and less well-equipped hospitals. And because they are not as economically resilient as large cities, post-crisis economic recovery takes longer.

Given the degree to which facts have become meaningless in today’s America, I doubt many people will base their decisions on these findings. As a recent New York Times column began 

To the extent that cities can be said to possess “a brand,” history suggests that pandemics, from the Black Death to smallpox, have not been very good for it. The coronavirus is no exception: According to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of adults living in cities have begun to consider moving to less populated areas because of the outbreak. In New York, where I live, roughly 5 percent of the population — or about 420,000 people — have already left.

The urge to flee urban “caldrons of contagion” is a very old one, dating at least to the 14th century. Its resurgence now has been described as “temporary,” but so was the war in Afghanistan. Will the coronavirus really set off a mass exit from cities, and, if so, what will they look like on the other side of the pandemic?

The author echoed the findings published by the Conversation, pointing out that a number of “hyperdense” cities in East Asia contained their outbreaks, and that even in New York, Manhattan, the densest borough, has the lowest rates of infection, while Staten Island, which is the most spread-out, has some of the highest. Density isn’t the problem–it’s household overcrowding, poverty, racialized economic segregation and the nature of one’s participation in the work force.

The real threat is that the pandemic will eviscerate all the things that make cities attractive. If it wipes out the restaurants, bars, museums and theaters that make urban living so richly rewarding–and if rents stay sky high–all bets are off.

That said, the column ended on a positive note; the coronavirus “could herald an urban rebirth instead of an urban decline…. After all, the very idea of abandoning cities is a luxury reserved only for those who have the resources to pick up and move.”

Cities matter because they are incubators of creativity. When diverse people come together to work and play, they generate new ideas, new ways of doing things. They see new connections. They are nurtured by living in neighborhoods where they are close enough to know each other, where the sidewalks go somewhere, and where people are acutely aware of their interdependence.

In the wake of this pandemic, America’s cities may experience a few years of stasis or population decline. But history tells us that cities are too attractive and too necessary to abandon or neglect for long.

Job number 2 will be to ensure that cities emerge healthier, more equitable and even more vibrant than they were before Covid-19. Job number 1, of course, is to save America from  Trump, his administration and his base.

 

The End Won’t Be Televised…Or Reported

In January, the New Yorker ran an article focusing on one of the (many) issues that keep me awake at night–the disappearance of local news media.The title was: “What Happens When the News is Gone?”

I’ve shared the statistics before, and they’re grim–and getting grimmer. Last Tuesday, Axios  reported 155 layoffs at Vice, 80 at Quartz, 90 at the Economist, and 100 at Condé Nast , with furloughs at others. And that’s just at national publications, which continue to be comparatively healthy.

Cities and towns, however, continue to bleed the sources of information that are absolutely essential to local self-governance and the sense of community. The linked article begins with an anecdote that is all too telling: at a public meeting in the small town of Pollocksville, North Carolina, the subject was a proposed flood-damage ordinance. The mayor asked if anyone in the audience would like to comment on it.

Alice Strayhorn, a hairdresser in her late sixties who has lived in Pollocksville most of her adult life, raised her hand. “This flood-damage-prevention order,” she said. “How are we supposed to know about that? You can’t make a comment on something you don’t know about.”

Pollocksville’s newspaper was one of the estimated 25% of newspapers America has lost in the past few years, so the mayor had posted a notice in the New Bern Sun Journal, based in a neighboring county. Few people in Pollocksville read it. Surrounding counties with newspapers that do continue to publish–there are three around Pollocksville–are what the article called “ghost papers,” owned by the Gannett Company. Gannett (which also publishes what is left of the Indianapolis Star) controls more than two hundred publications nationwide.

The remainder of the New Yorker article focused upon the consequences of that news desert in Pollocksville, and the various attitudes about that lack of journalism expressed by the locals. (The mayor wasn’t exactly a fan of what we call “investigative journalism,” and tended to dismiss his constituents’ complaints about the difficulty of finding out what local government was doing.)

It would be difficult to overstate the effects of the last quarter-century’s dramatic changes to the way Americans get their information. The ability to occupy “filter bubbles” in which we consume only news that feeds our pre-existing prejudices–and the corresponding lack of trust in outlets reporting things we don’t want to know or believe–is only the most obvious of those consequences. The current media environment increases political polarization, exacerbates class and regional conflicts, and makes negotiation and compromise–essential for workable governance–incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Those consequences are broadly recognized.

Less well understood is the way that the absence of common sources of information have fractured local communities and eroded the ability of city and town governments to function properly.

The problem isn’t the lack of information, exactly–it’s the fragmented nature of the sources of that information. Bubbles aren’t just an online phenomenon.

In Indianapolis, people who want to know what’s happening in education go to Chalkbeat; people who live downtown access the Urban Times; African-Americans subscribe to the Recorder; businesspeople and professionals read the Indianapolis Business Journal. There are several other specialized sources–papers for various neighborhoods and ethnic groups, websites devoted to the arts, etc. A great deal of information is available–to interested parties willing and able to seek it out.

The effect of this fragmentation– on politics, on government’s ability to communicate effectively with constituents, to any sense of community– is anything but positive.

As I have brooded about this, I’ve come up with an analogy: imagine that you live in a city with roughly equal numbers of citizens speaking fifty different languages, where each language group communicates primarily, if not exclusively, with others in that group, and where a third of the population doesn’t speak at all.

How do you communicate across those barriers? How do you connect to the others with whom you share an urban space?

Even in its heyday, The Indianapolis Star was hardly a symbol of great journalism; if we’re honest, we have to admit it was never a particularly good newspaper. It was, however, far, far better than it is under Gannett (it actually had reporters)–and the mere fact that it provided a common source of information to a significant proportion of the population was incredibly important–more important than most of us understood.

We once occupied a common information environment. Now, we don’t.

We were, as Mayor Bill Hudnut used to say, “citizens of no mean city.” Now, we just occupy adjacent real estate.