Republicans: freedom isn’t what you think it is

Dr. Anthony Fauci is a model civil servant, simply telling the truth about infectious diseases as best he can, most recently of course about our covid-19 pandemic. Yet he is constantly being sniped at by Republicans, today by Rep. Jim (“Gym”) Jordan (R-Ohio). Rep. Jordon grilled Dr. Fauci, asking him when Americans will get their freedom back. He wants to take his mask off! If he can’t, his freedom is being violated!

Freedom. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Jordan seems to think that freedom means doing anything you want whenever you want, damn the consequences. Of course most of us spend much of our day abiding by various rules that limit his definition of “freedom.”

For example, you put on your seat belt before driving your car. You avoid driving through red lights and stop signs. Most likely you buy an auto insurance policy before driving your car so if you are at fault in an accident, the victim can at least be compensated. Laws are constraints on unrestrained freedom that we agree are reasonable and must be obeyed. Of course, you are free to violate the law, but you face the likelihood of paying a penalty if you do. We have the freedom to do things that aren’t against the law whenever we want without worry that we’ll be arrested for it. Well, unless you are a black driver and a cop pulls you over for having an air freshener blocking your rearview mirror, and you end up dead when he freaks out and supposedly mistakes his pistol for a taser.

Most likely Jordan is free to walk outside of the Capitol and if he is not within six feet of another human doff his mask. He is also free to resign from Congress. Staying home all the time, he’s free to live mask free inside of his house.

But Congress, like state and local governments, have its laws and rules too, rules you agree to as a condition of winning office. In most communities, public health officials, mayors or governors are allowed to make people wear masks as public safety measures. Obviously, some of them like Governor Ron DeSantis agree with Jordan’s idea of freedom. In many cases, this freedom to walk around maskless allows someone to pass on covid-19. This inconveniently takes away their freedom to be free of covid-19. It’s for this reason that I generally wear a mask outdoors, but certainly anytime I’m around people other than my wife.

Freedom of course is not free. It’s not free for the person who inadvertently acquired covid-19, and someone exercising their idea of freedom might cost someone their life. Are you free if dead? Well, you are free of the disease, but true freedom requires being alive as a precondition. If you are dead, you aren’t controlling anything, except perhaps how well the grass grows above your plot.

During the smoking wars, we nonsmokers thought it was perfectly reasonable that we should not have to breathe in toxins of nearby smokers. It took decades to change the law and smokers grudgingly gave up their freedom. I remember a time about forty years ago when I didn’t have this freedom. In the office nearby workers smoked openly even though I asked them not to. I came home reeking of tobacco.

So far I haven’t gotten lung cancer, so I am probably safe. But if I had spent all forty years of my career forced to breathe in secondhand smoke, I might very well have lung cancer. The law eventually came to my rescue.

For the most part, masking requirements are settled law too. The right officials can require you to wear masks in many situations, but only for the duration of the pandemic. When the public health emergency goes away, or dies to the point where it is a very minor risk, that’s when you get your freedom to go unmasked back again. So the best thing Jordan can do to get his freedom back as quickly as possible is to wear his damned mask!

You would think you wouldn’t have to tell this to a lawmaker. By definition, a lawmaker should at least understand what laws are and why they are necessary. Rep. Jordan though is hardly alone, or hardly the only one. Republicans you see claim the right to define freedom selectively: they’re free to do something when they decide they want to.

The law doesn’t work that way. That’s the very definition of the law. Any law is a real or potential restraint on someone’s freedom. Otherwise there would be no reason for having laws in the first place. Rather than have a government, we’d just have anarchy.

The correct response to Rep. Jordan was exactly what Rep. Maxine Waters told Jordan at the end of his tirade: ”Your time expired, sir. You need to respect the chair and shut your mouth.”

Getting half way back to before

A year ago this week we were scrambling to find masks. So was everyone else, which meant what masks there were had been largely spoken for. Overnight people began constructing their own masks, if they were lucky enough to find material, had a pattern and had a sewing machine or a set of steady hands.

For some of the part-time seamstresses on our hill, mask making became a pandemic preoccupation for a while. Generous neighbors provided a few to get us started. We frequently wore them wrong and we often wondered what the point was since we (thought) we didn’t have covid-19. I wiped lots of inside surfaces, probably unnecessarily. For a month or two became fanatic about washing my hands, which now seems to have been largely unnecessary since the covid-19 seems to be transmitted almost always through the air. I still took daily walks for the most part but routinely gave broad berth to strangers, often walking on the other side of the street. It was all new and more than a little scary. Staying home, if you were so fortunate, seemed the only safe option.

My daughter wondered how this pandemic compared to the Cold War. I must have been traumatized she thought, growing up in the Cold War age. But I never had a “duck and cover” exercise. And I was a kid for much of it, not understanding until I was nearly a teen that a nuclear barrage could end life (including my life) as we know it quickly. I was too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest we came to actual nuclear war. So I didn’t think about it. Covid-19 though is different. Nuclear annihilation was an abstract worry. Covid-19 though could easily be acquired and could kill you. No wonder most of us tried to be careful.

Today I went walking, one covid-19 shot in my arm doing its thing, and another scheduled for May 1. I still wear a mask outdoors, at least if I’m within fifty feet of encountering someone else. Our masks now mostly have adjustable straps over the ears, making them easy to don and doff without ever really leaving your head. People still regularly wear masks outside, but it’s becoming less common. Some people are openly flouting the rules, which I’ve never seen enforced. But it’s looking that at least outdoors there is little risk of acquiring covid-19 from a passing stranger, particularly if there is a steady breeze.

On Tuesday I had a virtual physical (which is something of an oxymoron). My doctor said she doesn’t usually mask up outside. Of course, she is fully vaccinated and got her first shot in January. She’s starting to eat at restaurants again, at least when they offer outdoor dining. She said there are still risks, but for the vaccinated they are pretty minor. It’s fine to hang out with other fully vaccinated people. It’s fine to go traveling if you follow standard precautions.

She encouraged me to live life again, and I plan to starting on May 15. But even with one shot inside of me I am feeling less anxious. One of my major concerns now is whether I might be an asymptomatic carrier. Studies are underway to find out, but so far it looks promising. It’s likely that the Moderna vaccine I got will keep me from being an inadvertent virus spreader.

So hope is in the air. The United States did a wretched job of controlling the spread of covid-19, and in many states largely Republican governors are arguably pushing a fourth wave. But twenty percent of our country is now fully vaccinated – a remarkable number that few other countries can match. As I documented, getting the vaccine was a hassle but every day it’s becoming less of one. It’s likely that children will soon be eligible too. Soon it will only be the dogmatically stupid who won’t be protected from the virus.

We’re not quite making plans, but we are penciling stuff in. Last year my family decided to cancel a planned reunion at Acadia National Park in Maine in August. This year it is still off, mainly due to scheduling conflicts. Some of us hope to meet in the autumn, perhaps in Virginia’s Tidewater area where my sister has a house. My wife has plans to attend a convention in Las Vegas that same month if it looks like it will gel.

Many Americans are waiting for the other shoe to fall. It could be a covid-19 variant that triggers another round. The Pfizer vaccine looks like it will handle the emerging strains. It’s still  question on the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. But the good news is that vaccine manufacturers can quickly tune their vaccines to work with emerging variants. So there are likely to be booster vaccines to let us continue to live a more normal feeling life.

But the shoe could wait a year or two before dropping. While the vaccination campaign here in the United States seems largely successful, much of the rest of the world is still struggling to even acquire a vaccine, in some cases because the countries cannot afford it. The United States will have far more vaccine than it can use, so it should give it away. The Trump Administration’s contracts specifically disallowed this, but perhaps this can be reversed. It’s not entirely humanitarian to do so, because if new strains emerge and get large enough it could start what will feel like a Phase 2 of the pandemic. It’s in everyone’s interest to get everyone vaccinated if possible.

Life though is unlikely to return to what it was. Some aspects of our post-covid world will look a lot like they never left. There will probably be periods when we’ll be told to wear a mask. Going to the office may remain purely optional for many. Once businesses discover the cost savings of downsizing  their office space, others will have to follow to maintain their competitive edge too. Telework will probably become the default if it can be used. Reliable municipal networks will become the norm. Telework will bring other benefits: presumably more free time and less pollution from less commuting, and fewer people travelling to work.

For a year we’ve been forced to innovate. It was not usually fun and in some cases it was very stressful. But in some ways this adaption is good: we are fitting in better to a changing environment that we largely changed. Both we and nature may ultimately prosper from this yearlong game of musical chairs.

Give me a mask, please

So after months of waiting, I get my first covid-19 shot tomorrow.

I’d like to say it was easy, but it was just the opposite. I did discover that if you are determined enough, it is possible. It just meant some compromises. In my case, it meant compromising my sleep. I’m still on the waiting list for the Massachusetts mass vaccination sites, but there are a limited number of CVS drug stores where you can get the shot. The problem is if you go to their website to book an appointment, it will always say there are no appointments available. But from friends and neighbors I learned that they open up new appointments between 3 AM and 3:30 AM. It’s not all CVS stores.

Here’s where it helps to be an older male. Our prostates will naturally wake us up in the middle of the night anyhow. Of course at 3 AM while awake, you are not generally able to focus on a task more complicated than emptying your bladder. But with my tablet computer while sitting on the john, I could scan the list of CVS sites provided by the state. Since my wife has two co-morbidity symptoms, she had priority. After fifteen minutes of trial and error I found a CVS in Chicopee and got her an appointment there. The next night I tried again for myself with no luck. But the third night was the charm. Tomorrow at 11 AM I expect to get the first dose of the Moderno vaccine at this same CVS in Chicopee, about a half hour drive in Hampden County. Welcome to our modern world.

But it may be the beginning of the end of this madness. Just today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that traveling is fine two weeks after your second shot. I doubt I’ll be on the first plane to Hawaii, but maybe the second one. Living in Hampshire County is fine but at this point I … want … out … of … here!

But I have the feeling that we’re still quite far from the end of this. You would think after three waves of covid-19 people might have learned something from it all. But, no, we’re Americans, which means huge portions of us are either too desperately poor to do much about it or, most likely, figure they are immortal. It’s often the young people that are the most reckless, so of course they flocked to Miami Beach and rubbed a lot of shoulders, and now a fourth wave is building across the country, which seems to be affecting younger people more this time. The stupid compounds on the stupid. About a fourth of the country says they won’t get a shot. If they’re serious, that means we can kiss the idea of herd immunity goodbye … and that’s the very reason a lot of these people were out maskless in the first place … supposedly to bring about herd immunity!

It sure appears they’d like to get there via unnecessary deaths than through vaccinations. That’s because at least some of them are anti-vaxxers, which essentially means they refuse to believe in science. Others are convinced tiny microchips from Bill Gates are in the serum, so the government can track us or make us communist or something. It all doesn’t make any sense, but to these people the very fact that it doesn’t make any logical sense means they are probably right. America: the land where freedom means you have the right to be as stupid as you want and where civic virtues does not extend to doing your part to keep preventable illnesses from spreading.

Indeed, the evidence is pretty widespread that American is rapidly dumbing down. Sixty years ago we were anxious to down sugar cubes to avoid polio. Vaccine exemptions were not a thing; parents could go to jail if they didn’t get their kids vaccinated. Sixty years ago science was cool and patriotic. We looked up to scientists. Now we don’t accept any science that conflicts with our biases and political philosophies. The only good thing from all this vaccine hesitancy is that those with this trait are self-selecting themselves to be wiped out. Darwin would be amazed that people would choose their own natural selection.

Well, not all of us. I’m the product of a nurse and an engineer. My Dad was left-brained to the max, my Mom spent a lot of time scrubbing with disinfectants and tracking our vaccinations to make sure we survived to adulthood. It naturally rubbed off on me and my siblings. The mere idea of not following the recommendations of medical professionals and scientists was not only absurd, but was obvious lunacy. We knew medicine was not an exact science and were comfortable with advice evolving at covid-19 was better understood. The virus continues to evolve, making it likely that we’ll be getting annual booster shots, at least.

Unsurprisingly, the virus unfolded largely the way the experts predicted. Trump scoffed at the idea of a half million Americans dead of covid-19. We passed the milestone and have hardly tallied the last casualty. We endured more than a year of stupid leadership by stupid people. Unsurprisingly, about the time we got rid of the last president, things started to improve in a meaningful way. After four years of doing pretty much everything completely counterproductively, we have a government determined to work with nature and reality rather than deny it.

At least some Americans are waking up from their dogmatic stupors. Vaccination rates are rising and the number of people saying they will never get a vaccination is declining. I’m quite confident Bill Gates won’t be controlling me via a tiny microchip after my vaccination tomorrow.

The second shot is scheduled for May 1, which means on May 15 I’m largely out of covid-19 jail. I still won’t be able to do everything. There is maybe a ten percent chance I can still acquire the disease, but it won’t hospitalize me or kill me. It’s possible one of the variants could sneak in somehow. As I said, there is no guarantee. There are simply improving probabilities that it can be avoided or its impact lessened if acquired. I’ll probably still wear a mask a lot of the time I am in public. We may start eating in restaurants again, but we’ll keep the masks on until the food is served and put them on shortly afterward.

I’ve come to appreciate the value of the low-tech mask. If Americans had brains, they would use this opportunity to use masks routinely during the cold and flu season. The flu largely didn’t happen this year, thanks to all the masking. While I was aware a lot of illness was transmitted in the air, I can now clearly see the link and the virtues of wearing masks. It’s no longer that big a deal.

I just wish most Americans could embrace the idea that rather than limiting freedom, using masks allows freedom not just for you, but for everyone else too.

Now Republicans no longer believe in republicanism

I can understand if Republicans have an issue with the democracy thing. True democracy is direct rule by the people, which you can still find here in many towns here in New England. Those who show up at the town meeting get to vote on pressing local issues, which around here include weighty matters like whether to buy a new backhoe for the Town of Hadley.

Democracy won’t work on the national level, so our government was formed as a republican (representative) democracy. In a republic, democracy becomes indirect. You elect someone who reflects the will of the majority of voters (or a plurality, in some cases) in the district or state.

Democracy and republicanism are so fundamental to our country that our two major parties are the Democrats and the Republicans. Based on many egregious actions by state houses in Republican-controlled states though, the Republican Party no longer believes in its presumably founding principle: the virtue of a republican government.

Granted there’s been plenty of evidence this is true for many decades. It’s resulted in voter suppression laws and gerrymandered districts. All have one aim: to minimize the number of people Republicans don’t want voting and the power they could wield.

In Georgia though Republicans went crazy. A new law signed in by their Republican governor includes these way over-the-top voter suppression efforts:

  • It’s now illegal to give food and water to voters waiting to vote, a practice only made necessary because the state reduced polling places in minority precincts
  • It allows unlimited challenges to voter registrations
  • Mail in voting requires attaching a copy of your driver’s license or other state issued ID
  • It’s against the law for any group to mail you an absentee ballot application
  • Mobile voting sites are illegal
  • Voting out of precinct is illegal before 5 PM on voting day
  • Vote drop boxes must be inside facilities, not outside them
  • Their secretary of state no longer chairs the state’s election board
  • The same board can temporarily suspend county election directors if they feel their elections need review. That way the counts can be added up “correctly”.

Georgia is but the most egregious and latest example of extremely alarming changes to voting rules by Republican-controlled states. These changes are actually signed into law now, while queues of other restrictive voting laws are being introduced in other states.

One state legislator in Arizona filed a bill that would have allowed the state to appoint its own electors to the Electoral College, which decides who will be president. Fortunately that was dropped, but a total of nineteen changes are being considered. In Pennsylvania, at least fourteen voting changes have been proposed that amount to new Jim Crow laws. The same is true in Michigan and many other states.

In short, Republicans are fine with people voting, as long as they can guarantee they will be elected. And if they can’t be, at least some Republican states are exploring allowing their legislatures to overturn the will of the voters, at least when it comes to who will receive their state’s electoral votes.

The animus of all this is hardly new: racism. Here it is 2021 and in these states they are still freaking out that people of color have voting rights! Moving toward the political center is apparently out of the question. They must have their cake and eat it too. They cannot compromise.

I fear where all this is heading. The long overdue response to all this is H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which Democrats have introduced. It would outlaw most of these voter suppression and gerrymandering tactics, and set uniform voting standards across the various states. It would in effect enable true republicanism, something that is increasingly anathema to actual Republicans! If this becomes law, it’s not hard to see what some states will prefer instead: open insurrection and a new civil war.

The bill is a five-alarm fire for the Republican Party. No wonder Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is sweating bullets over possibly getting rid of the Senate filibuster. For more than a hundred years, the primary use of the filibuster has been to control people of color and make sure they have fewer privileges than the rest of us. It appears the thing that Republicans fear most is not those they don’t like getting power, but having to compromise their racist principles in order to get power.

The For the People Act is not necessarily great news for the Democratic Party either. By outlawing gerrymandering, it could end up actually serving the aim of Republicans to put Democrats in the minority. What it is likely to do though is to break the gridlock by electing slews of moderates who are now largely locked out of Congress. This act could actually make government work again.

That’s a price this Democrat is happy to pay.

The Atlanta shootings and why pornography may be a good thing

Robert Aaron Long went on a shooting spree in Atlanta last Tuesday. When he was done an hour later, the twenty-one year old man left eight people dead, six of them Asian women who worked at three different area health spas.

Long was caught by police fleeing to Florida after having earlier been kicked out of his house by his parents. Of course, living in the Deep South, Long had no problem buying a gun shortly before committing these murders. But he seemed to have retained enough his wits after his arrest to claim he was a victim.

He was a sex addict, you see, and he was driven in part by the dichotomy between his high sex drive and what he learned at Crabapple First Baptist Church. An evangelical church, Crabapple Baptist taught Long to avoid sexual temptation and pornography. Long reportedly told police he was trying to stamp out sin. Kill these temptresses, he was probably thinking, and you can stamp out these sins of the flesh.

Of course, it was quickly noticed that he targeted mostly Asian Americans, and mostly women of Korean ancestry. It was hard not to infer that his crimes were motivated by ethnic hate and probably misogyny as well. At his church he learned that women were not supposed to draw men into temptation by, you know, dressing provocatively and such. Apparently in the Atlanta area if you need to press a little female flesh as a business transaction, you do so at “spas” where women of predominantly Asian ancestry may provide the services high-hormone young men like Long naturally felt he needed.

Focus on the Family leader James Dobson said that Long’s addiction to pornography fueled his crime. It’s unclear how much pornography Long actually consumed, but it’s clear that any he consumed left him feeling guilty and sinful.

I wish that Long had viewed a whole lot more pornography. I am sure that for some men pornography makes their sexual feelings worse, not more, manageable, particularly as a lot of pornography these days seems to be catering to men into violent power fantasies. That may be the case with Long.

For most men though pornography provides a literal release for their natural sexual urges that would have a hard time being released otherwise. Viewing pornography, typically accompanied by masturbation to orgasm, provides that release. Your hormones subside, at least for a time and that allows you to think more clearly. If you don’t release those hormones in some reasonably safe way, well, maybe you end up buying a gun and killing eight people in a regional rampage instead. It’s likely a lot easier to do something so awful if your religion teaches you that sinful behavior must not be tolerated.

I remember being twenty one too, and I can state confidently that I was at my hormone peak. So I have an inkling what Long was feeling and I can attest it can feel overwhelming. Unlike Long though I had broken free from my own faith of origin (Catholicism) and its teachings on women, pornography and masturbation. By that age I had figured out that pornography was probably helpful for me. Like most men, I was not the big man on campus. Mostly women ignored me and mostly I was too shy to express my interest in those I came across. For me, breaking away from Catholicism, much of it which I saw as hurtful, was a necessary and healing part in growing up.

I’m guessing though that my fairly deep Catholicism wasn’t quite as far down the religious rabbit hole as Long experienced at Crabapple First Baptist Church. I don’t remember the priests and lay ministers dwelling on sins of the flesh in particular, but it seems to have been a feature at Crabapple First Baptist Church. From my reading, it’s something of a feature at evangelical churches and perhaps Southern Baptist congregations in particular.

Most denominations require their pastors to be credentialed at seminaries. Becoming a minister at a Southern Baptist church does not necessarily require credentialing. You just have to convince a congregation that you have a calling from God. After all, John the Baptist never went to a rabbinical school. Given my druthers, I’d much rather have a minister with some credentials. Much of the basis of a particular faith may be bunk (which was true for my opinion about Catholic teachings, for the most part) but at least it should be consistent. Stray too much from its teachings and you are defrocked.

It does seem true that Baptist and evangelical churches in particular seem to dwell excessively on sins of the flesh, hyping these sins where perhaps more latitude would be helpful. If you believe yourself to be born again, it should be possible through the power of Christ to surmount your feelings of the flesh.

It should be, but it’s clear that, much like gay conversion therapy, it’s very unlikely to happen. If you believe in God, then you have to believe that God gave us hormones for a reason. Maybe it was to test our character, or maybe it was for a more pragmatic reason, like to ensure the survival of the species. In the past, most human lives were short and brutal. Procreating sooner rather than later was probably necessary. It’s only today with modern medicine, education and human rights where it gets hard. These days, to live a good life it helps to get educated and vested in a well-paying career first. Pornography may facilitate that.

Asian women, particularly those working in spas and massage parlors though are easy targets. You can decide that their culture allows them to be “looser” and therefore more sinful, when of course that’s not true. It’s probably the opposite, in most cases.

But it is harder for Asian Americans to fit in, particularly in much of the Deep South with its history of racial prejudice. This leads to diminished job opportunities. It’s not too surprising then that massage parlors are filled with predominantly Asian women. It’s likely that a lot of these women work very long hours for measly pay, or it’s one of two or three jobs they juggle trying to get by.

I obviously hope no jury buys into Long’s excuses. But I do suspect that if Long had gotten a lot less religion and spent a lot more time online watching pornography, eight people in the Atlanta area would still be alive.

Buddy, can you spare some vaccine?

Basically, I’m waiting to be let out of home confinement.

Okay, I’m not actually confined. I can leave any time I want to, but do I want to? Yes I do, but practically I can’t. Going anywhere in the covid age entails risk, but a lot less risk if you are inoculated against the covid virus.

I’ve been in covid jail for about a year now. About once a week, sometimes more often, I hit a store. I generally go early to avoid crowds, and I’m not too proud to use senior hours if they are offered. And of course I wear a mask, which was not true a year ago when we didn’t understand that covid-19 is principally spread through respiratory droplets in the air. If weather permits though, I do make it a point to walk outside every day, and that helps a lot. I should keep the mask on all the time but the truth is I often take it off, and don it when I am within fifty feet of someone else. After all this time, I still don’t like breathing in my own warm air.

Like most Americans I’m sick of this, but unlike a lot of Americans I’m not stupid enough to ignore the perfectly sensible precautions like limiting my exposure to crowds, wearing a tight-fitting mask and not dining in restaurants. Naturally introverted, I tend to like my own company better than someone else’s. Online social networks generally let me feel connected. I still meet people, including neighbors, but it’s almost always in a Zoom call.

But I want out of jail. What’s making it frustrating is that a number of my siblings are getting or have been vaccinated. My daughter is in public safety (911 operator) and completed her Moderna shots in late January. She’s only 31. I’m more than twice her age but I am waiting and more than a little jealous when others seem to be able to get their shot somehow but I can’t.

I almost qualify as a senior citizen. I’d need to be 65 but I don’t hit that milestone until next year. Perhaps if I were unhealthier, I could get it. I’m sure I’m overweight, but hopefully not obese. Obesity is one of two factors that usually win you a shot. But you also need something else. My wife qualifies. I won’t name her two factors, but one of them is an underlying medical condition. So she’s been trying to get a shot, so far with no success.

Frankly, Massachusetts is making quite a mess out of vaccine deployment. Citizens of the commonwealth give our governor Charlie Baker decent marks for his handling of the vaccine’s rollout, but I don’t know why. I think he’s messing it up pretty badly. There’s a state website but no way to register for a shot on it, though they do provide links to some places that may offer the shot. You learn about shots mostly from friends and since you don’t meet them in person anymore, you learn about it from your online friends. By the time my wife tries, the few slots are gone. Out here in western Massachusetts, there are few mass vaccination places and you can’t count on any appointment you do snag on being fulfilled. The doses mysteriously stop coming from the federal government. CVS is starting to offer shots, but they open their system once a week and they fill up almost instantly.

This shouldn’t last much longer. There is a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine now available, and President Biden has talked another vaccine manufacturer into producing the J&J vaccine. He wants all Americans to be eligible by May 1. This sounds like a worthy goal, but as we’ve discovered so far being eligible doesn’t mean you can actually get a vaccine appointment.

I’m not picky. I’ll take any one that’s available. The J&J vaccine is getting a bad rap. It’s simpler, being once and done. It doesn’t require super cold refrigeration. It’s also newer, so likelier to work against the newer covid variants. You have a higher likelihood of getting the disease anyhow, but your symptoms will be milder. You won’t go to the hospital. No one has been killed from the vaccines.

While being generally introverted, I do miss occasional socializing. It’s true when walking I can nod or say a quick high to some stranger, but it’s not quite socialization, particularly when you are behind masks and generally all you can see of their features is their eyes. Aside from my wife, there is only one other person I can say I am socializing with: my hair stylist every six weeks. We both wear masks and she cleans up before and after. It’s not quite enough.

Pre-pandemic, the men on the hill where I live would go out for a monthly dinner. That ritual ended a year ago. I’m in a 55+ community but I’m one of the youngest people here. I’m guessing about half of us here on the hill have had at least one covid shot. But not me or the spouse. I may be the last one to get one as I don’t have the necessary preconditions and I’m too young. Yes, too young at age 64!

While we’ve remained alive and healthy, staying so has been a hassle, just less than it is for many. There are no kids whose online learning we need to micromanage. I consult and can meet with clients virtually, and I won’t pick up the covid from working upstairs.

But a lot of the things that I took joy in are gone. No going to see movies, not that there are a lot of new movies to see. No travel anywhere. We see our daughter generally at least once a year, although she is 400 miles away. She moved recently. She had to do this “adulting” (as she calls it) all by herself. We’d probably have otherwise been down there to help out.

So we’re all learning self-reliance, which should I think make Republicans happy, but instead it seems to drive them insane. Socializing in person with their kind seems to be critically important. Most seem impervious to the risks they are taking. About a quarter of Republicans won’t even bother to get a covid shot. If 530,000 deaths in our country haven’t convinced them of their vulnerability, nothing will.

Meanwhile, I wait and increasingly feel put out. Covid-19 will probably never go away completely, so it’s something I’m going to have to live with. But I can at least look forward to mask-less encounters with others who get their shots … if I can manage to get the shot.

Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have done something amazing

The American Rescue Plan, expected to be signed into law shortly is, as Joe Biden would say, “a BFD”.

President Joe is of course too polite to articulate what the acronym means. What it means to me is that government is working for the people again. Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress are finally canceling Ronald Reagan (and, yes, even Bill Clinton) by declaring the government is not the problem. They are demonstrating the opposite: government in fact can be the solution. We literally haven’t seen this to this extent since before Ronald Reagan was president.


We’ve actually seen plenty of government working these last forty years, but it’s been working against the interests of the American people and for the companies that funded the campaigns of those in Congress. It’s no wonder then that Americans soured on government in general. The American Rescue Plan is amazing in that it gives literally nothing to the top one percent. It’s a bill focused on the people who have spent forty years trying to fend off poverty, with many failing at the task. It’s a huge step toward leveling the playing field between the haves and the have nots and boosting the income of working folk, through not only stimulus, but also through child tax credits, health care subsidies even to those making close to six figure income and covering the freight of Medicare for any states willing to allow it. Lose a job with health insurance? You won’t lose the latter and the government will pick up the COBRA premiums until you have a new one.

It’s true that it doesn’t increase the federal minimum wage, but it’s essentially 95% of what Biden proposed and was somehow pushed through a deeply partisan Congress by the slimmest of majorities. While it attracted the support of zero Republicans in Congress, it is supported by nearly sixty percent of Republicans polled. The plan is what the long suffering American people need. It explains why Joe Biden’s approval rating is 59% while Trump struggled to get out of the low forties.

Oh, and it does a lot of obvious covid-19 relief. Testing, contract tracing and vaccine deployment are all covered. There’s money to allow schools to reopen, to allow restaurants and businesses to avoid bankruptcy, and to assist state and local governments whose tax revenues plunged during the recession, making helping people difficult. It keeps a lot of people from being evicted from their homes. It does some actual racial justice, with money going to black farmers. It provides substantial credits to families with children, and delivers these payments monthly, instead of through once-a-year tax credits, credits that will be hard not to make permanent once parents get used to them. It puts a lot more money into people’s pockets, most of who will turn around and quickly spend it. So it’s going to juice the economy like a rocket.

For a change, me and the missus will be spending our stimulus money. There was nothing to spend it on a year ago, but it’s safer to let people into the house now and they know to wear masks. We have a huge unfinished basement and the stimulus should cover painting the floors, ceilings and posts.

Ideally this would not happen with borrowed money, but interest charges on government debt right now are minuscule, making it a great time for the government to run up debt at minimal cost. Ideally while providing the relief that most of us needed for decades, we’d also be tapping the overstuffed kettles of the rich. We could start by repealing the trillion dollar tax cuts passed during the last administration.

But Joe Biden is quite pragmatic and tactical. I can see these ideas are on his mind too, but he’s smart enough to know “not yet.” Making government function again feels novel. In fact, it is novel for most of us because only us oldsters remember a time when government functioned in their interest.

With nearly five decades in public service, Biden knows how to make things happen. It’s true he’s gotten some lucky breaks. Picking up two Georgia Senate seats made this bill possible – thank you Georgia voters! The Trump administration did not deserve to be called an administration. Calling it an administration assumed it was competent. It never was. You can’t say that about Biden’s administration. What he’s doing is tactically smart. Moreover, Biden is focused and tenacious. Just about every day I see something important and tangible getting done. Today, it was getting 100 million new doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ordered. The current vaccine scarcity is soon not going to be a problem. Biden is systematically and carefully putting the pandemic behind us. He’s making government work.

This should rebound for the Democrats, but you never know. Biden is building a case for pragmatism over partisanship. It may turn into a majority and an enduring coalition. There are many forces though pushing against regular order. So far though Biden and his team seem to be one step ahead of them. He succeeds through intelligence, pragmatism, not getting on soap boxes and mostly by staying focused. It’s quite clear he wakes up every day thinking about what is most important to get done and spends his day on it. He adroitly greases the gears of government. It’s quite amazing to watch.

Quite frankly, Joe Biden has surprised me. He’s proving far more effective than Barack Obama, but a lot of this is due to a more favorable set of political cards. But it’s also because Biden plays a deft game of musical chairs and it seems forces allied against him just can’t keep up. He may be an old dog, but he’s got lots of tricks. He’s quite impressive. I keep expecting the other shoe to fall, but so far it hasn’t.

Joe Biden hasn’t forgotten his working class origins. His public school education, including his public university degree, are proving to be of much more use than any Ivy League degree. Joe is a man of practical action and much slicker than Bill Clinton ever was. You just don’t notice it behind his generous, every day man smile.

Keep me smiling, Joe. You’re surprising the heck out of me.

Republicans are inadvertently voting themselves off the island

Last I heard, today was revolution day, take two. The insurrection of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 failed but at the cost of a half dozen deaths.

Today is the day Trump is finally supposed to become president again somehow, or maybe it’s king. This appear to be the latest conspiracy theory going around the QAnon channels. This may be a crazy threat, but it was enough for the House of Representatives to decide to cancel its session today. Last I heard, the Senate hadn’t succumbed to fear.

Why March 4th? That’s because it was the date originally set for presidential inaugurations. Set at a time when it could take weeks or months to get across the nation, it made sense. The 20th Amendment though changed the date to January 20th. But I guess that’s not constitutional enough for some of these QAnon-ers. So today must be the day a “real” president would take office and that can’t be Joe Biden because Trump said the election was stolen from him. Case closed, or rather these minds closed.

I don’t expect Congress to be overrun today, unlike on January 6th when I did expect this. In fact, I blogged about it before the event. Unlike on January 6th, this time we now have a Congress that realizes these QAnon-ers may be crazy, but they at least now have a track record. Also, we have a new president. The last one helped foment the insurrection itself.

The Capitol is now something of a fortress. Anyhow it’s hard to get into and out of with all the temporary fencing and razor wire. In addition, there is still a National Guard presence at the Capitol; they never quite left. So there’s no ready soft target anymore. There are rumors that date has been moved to March 6th, presumably because it’s two months to the day since the insurrection. But that’s on a Saturday, so it doesn’t bode well for hanging Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi.

So I’m not losing sleep over what may happen today. But l am pretty disturbed (but not surprised) about how the post-Trump age is turning out. While insurrection may be out for the moment, it’s time for Republicans to dial it up to eleven on gerrymandering and voter suppression. Over three hundred bills have been introduced in state legislatures to make it harder for people, particularly people of color, to vote. There is good evidence that voter suppression tactics are counterproductive to Republican’s aims. For while it may make it harder for people of color to vote, it also makes it harder for rural Republicans to vote too. Many of them will prefer to sit out the next election, especially those less vested in the cult of Donald Trump. Also, many Republicans are leaving the party because of January 6th.

These Republican moves have a feeling of desperation about them. While covid-19 killed a lot of people of color, it also killed a lot of the Republican voting base: older white people, particularly the obese and non-mask wearing types. The party has become a party of White grievance, which is not a great platform for attracting others necessary to keep the party viable. In addition, the party is taking unpopular stances. Not a single House Republican voted for the latest covid-19 bill, even though a majority of Republicans polled support it.

Still, these efforts are enough to worry that our democracy is slipping away. Recent Supreme Court arguments on a case attacking the 1965 Civil Rights Act suggest a majority of the court is priming to make what’s left of the law unconstitutional.

So there is plenty of onus to enact the For the People Act through Congress. This bill would require congressional districts be drawn impartially, set national voting standards and require universal mail in voting. The Act has passed the House and has now moved to the Senate. Currently it would be subject to filibuster, which has many Democrats arguing it’s time to get rid of the filibuster altogether.

It’s a compelling argument, especially now, because if Democrats don’t then these new voting laws and redistricting would tilt the playing field even more toward the advantage of Republicans. It’s hard to understand the hesitancy of some wavering Democratic senators. The filibuster has been chipped away at for more than twenty years. Republicans have shown no hesitancy to chip away at it when they wielded power. Nor has it proven a method for brokering bipartisan compromise. Rather, it’s done just the opposite. It needs to die.

I often wish there were a way to keep people from believing insane stuff. Americans seem to love conspiracy theories but Donald Trump elevated them and made them mainstream. There doesn’t seem to be a way to put this genie back in its bottle. Because Trump supporters are not reality based, real life is bound to disproportionately impact them, as demonstrated by the many covid-19 victims among staunch Trump supporters. There are plenty of Herman Cains out there to serve as examples, but it doesn’t seem to move them back toward sanity.

We learned during CPAC that Donald Trump got covid-19 shots in January while still president. You would think that might wake up some of them to get the vaccine or at least put on a mask. Instead, we get Texas Governor Greg Abbott ending all masking requirements in the state, a stunningly premature act guaranteed to kill off more of his staunchest supporters. This was done probably to draw attention away from his gross mismanagement of Texas’s electricity infrastructure, which resulted in widespread power and water outages during a recent cold snap.

It increasingly looks to me the best case is actually the worst case: Republicans have voted themselves off the island by becoming victims of their own foolishness. We can only hope that those of us who remain are sensible. I know I am. I don’t want to die. But if I die from covid-19 and it’s because of one of these foolhardy people then I will die deservedly a bitter and angry man.

Two practical suggestions to meaningfully address racism

One of the few good things about 2020 was that Black Lives Matter officially became a thing. It had been a thing for years, but it seemed in 2020 that White Americans finally decided it should be a thing they cared about. Many of us showed up for Black Lives Matter protests. We helped put a somewhat White face on a problem that ordinarily attracts mostly protestors of color.

2020 was also something of a wakeup call for me. Like most White Americans, I kind of slept through my own White privilege. Over sixty plus years, I think I’ve been pulled over by a cop four times. Once I got a ticket for not fully stopping at a red light. Once I was gently warned that my headlights weren’t on after I pulled out of an underground theater parking lot. Once I was ordered to pull over because I didn’t know that in my state if a cop car is on the shoulder you have to move to the left lane (they were just running an outreach campaign). And once I was told, almost apologetically, that I had a brake light out. In that instance no ticket was written. I never went to jail and at most I paid $75 for a ticket. I’m sure this contrasts dramatically with non-White Americans out there for whom having a police car with its lights on pulling them over is more routine than not.

Most of us don’t want to be racists, and even most racists will claim they are not racists. But most of us White Americans probably are at least subconsciously racist to some extent. I grew up with no memory of even seeing a Black American until I was in my teens. I’d like to say I exhibited no racism when I finally started to interact with Black people, but the truth was I felt awkward feeling awkward. I was the same way with a gay cousin who liked to hit on me. I didn’t know how to react so I reacted awkwardly and warily. It is this newness of being in what appears to be a new and uncertain environment that I think is the cause of implicit racism and homophobia too.

Thankfully, life broadened me. It brought me to the Washington D.C. area. When you are inundated with people of color every day, soon you become wholly inured to it. You realize quickly that there’s very little different about you and them. One of the weirdest things about moving in retirement was to return to a place that was much whiter than the place I left. I didn’t think about it at the time. Despite living in a liberal area, it’s hardly diverse and is about 85% white. Still, in the five years we’ve been here it’s hard not to notice that the place is coloring up.

I’ve come to acknowledge that I carry some implicit racial bias. The question is whether I choose to do something more than attend occasional Black Lives Matter rallies and maybe put a BLM sign on my yard. My life is still pretty insular. Most of my friends are White. Most of the people I see and interact with are White too. How does a White guy like me make friends with more people of color? If I truly care about addressing racism, how can I tangibly make a difference? Showing up at a rally is nice, but I’m just one in crowd.

A couple ideas have come to mind. First, use what I know to help people of color. What I know is IT: Information Technology. I’d like to say it made me rich, but I’m not rich in the conventional sense, just rich in a general sense. And being retired, I’ve got time on my hands. There should be people of color around here with a bent toward IT that could use some mentorship. So I have in mind to reach out to the school system and see if I can find pockets of these people and make myself available, likely after the pandemic is behind us. A lot of what I do to make money probably won’t interest a lot of these people, once they see what it involves. But it may interest some of them and it may help them generate the skills and confidence to nurture their talents.

Another one hit me recently: I could be a White guy who volunteers to walk with people of color when they are dealing with power situations. Power is usually controlled by White people. For example, you won’t find too many Black landlords, because fewer Blacks have the assets to acquire property and rent it out. I could simply volunteer to stand next to them when they are in these situations, and use the power of my Whiteness to see if it makes a difference. I have come to believe that this is a real thing. If I stand with a person of color when they petition a landlord or plea for public housing, it is likely that merely standing with them and advocating for them will affect the power dynamic. I’m retired so I have the time. I also have a car so if necessary I could pick them up and take them back to home or work. I can use the implicit power of my skin color so that, at the very least, they are likelier to be treated as kindly as I generally was as I navigated through life.

Perhaps this could become a thing that could go national. Create a website, say bringawhitey.org. It would allow people of color to connect with Whites who want to use our inherent power to mitigate racism. I imagine like any other social media site it would need some reputation management system, so people of color could feel assured their volunteer White person was genuinely antiracist. People could be matched based on location, need and availability. We White people might need some professional training first. We’d probably have to learn how to use our power correctly and be up on what was and wasn’t allowed. There would need to be clear boundaries by all parties. But I am willing to bet that if I walked up to an apartment rental office with a person of color and said, “My friend Brian here is looking to rent an apartment,” it would get a whole different response than if Brian went in by himself. And if I detected some implicit bias and gently called it out, I’m betting it would have a whole lot more effect than if I wasn’t there. There might be an implicit assumption that because I am assumed to be Brian’s friend, that he’s safe somehow.

Some of this is doubtless a gnawing feeling of my unearned privilege that now that I’m fully aware of it I feel needs some redress by me. As a teen I was aware of my implicit racism simply from my feeling of discomfort being around people of color. Even then I was ashamed of it.

Now though I am both aware of it and have spent so much time around people of color that racism makes me viscerally angry. Perhaps steps like these would allow me to move beyond anger and into doing something productive with this anger. It’s likely I’d expand my pool of friends of color in the process.

Don’t mess with Texas. They’re perfectly capable of messing things up for themselves.

I’ve noticed that Republicans, who seem to live primarily in southern latitudes, are happy to dish out criticism of us “libtards”, you know, those of us in blue states. They don’t get much bluer than where I live in Massachusetts. Yes, here the property taxes are high. Our $559,000 house was recently reassessed and our property taxes will soon be close to $10,000 a year. But unlike in Texas, you can’t buy a house in this state where the plumbing lines go along the outer, uninsulated side of the house. We have something called a “building code” around here.

Oh, I’m sure Texas has building codes too, it’s just that they aren’t very particular. It’s not a high bar to build a house to code in Texas, and it keeps the house prices low. It does have some downsides, such as in the recent arctic blast to hit the state. Pipes are freezing statewide, even down along the Mexican border. Electricity supply can’t keep up with demand on the Texas grid, leading to widespread blackouts and deathly cold. Texas’s electricity grid is cut off from the other states. This is very much in the spirit of “Don’t mess with Texas”.

The mayor of Colorado City, Texas told his constituents that no one owes them anything and they are just looking for handouts. He has since resigned. We may be paying nearly $10,000 a year in property taxes but I’m confident the gas heat and electricity will stay on around here. We have public service commissions that perform oversight to make sure these things don’t occur. There aren’t a huge number of windmills in the state, but unlike those in Texas, those we do have are winterized so they keep turning as long as there is wind. The natural gas pipelines are insulated too.

Of course we get real winter around here, so this wasn’t rocket science. The gas company never considered doing otherwise. In Texas though they opted to hope for the best and to ride out temporary inconveniences, like the dozens of people dead, from this unexpected cold snap.

In fact, they keep upping the building codes around here. In 2015 when our house was built they were already very high. We’ve even got insulation between our interior walls. Now the codes require basements to be insulated as well, no doubt adding a cost to the house. I don’t have to worry much about our pipes freezing. They are easy enough to see running along the walls and ceilings of our basement. The main waterline is at least three feet below the ground where the ground is unlikely to ever freeze. And because we are a newer development, power outages are rare; the power lines run underground.

Unlike in Texas, we don’t see government as the source of evil. We don’t subscribe to the idea that less government means better government. Power is pretty decentralized in this state: cities and towns generally control more than the state. But the state has certain standards. Most of our taxes goes to the City of Northampton, mostly in property taxes. State income taxes actually aren’t too bad. But if you live in Texas where there are no state income taxes, well, you doubtless save a lot of money.

But what do you give up? Apparently you have to worry about shoddy schools, shoddy houses and because you don’t believe in much regulation, a free-for-all energy market very good at maximizing corporate profits but not so good at ensuring service when they are needed the most. We here in the blue states notice that you do demand a bailout from Uncle Sam when a hurricane comes through and repeatedly floods homes constructed in flood zones, while whining about how mismanaged the federal government is. Yes, looking at you Ted Cruz.

Obviously, not all Texans subscribe to the government-is-evil mantra that a majority of voters in the state support (at least those who are not voter suppressed). Like Georgia, Texas is bluing up, just a bit more slowly. This latest real-life lesson in the costs of minimal government might persuade Texans that government is not evil. In fact, it’s necessary. If keeping society functioning with heat, water and electricity is not the job of government, then what you really are left with is anarchy that will sometimes catch up with you.

So while I’m sorry for all the Texans in cold, pain and who will be dealing with burst pipes when the temperatures warm up, I’m not that sorry. Your mindless adherence to the idea that government is the problem … well, that’s your problem. You should expect more from government and like us here in Massachusetts you shouldn’t be that upset when you have to pay for it. It will be just as cold here during this arctic blast, but the lights and heat will stay on.