How do we win the fight against willful ignorance and stupidity?

There are so many overarching issues to deal with right now that it feels overwhelming. For me, one of the largest overarching issues is figuring out how to fight all the willful ignorance and stupidity that is going on pretty much everywhere in our country.

2020 had many appalling displays of it, and 2021 looks to be much more of the same. Regular stupidity is one thing, but exhibiting willful ignorance that could kill you in on a whole different plain. Behavior of this magnitude is unprecedented here in the United States.

For me, the magnitude of the problem was truly driven home last August when some 400,000 motorcyclists converged on Sturgis, South Dakota for their annual rally. They weren’t going to let catching covid-19 keep them from coming together. Most disdained masks, kept close quarters and dined largely indoors. For ten days people rubbed shoulders and revved their engines in the name of freedom. The rally led to a huge increase in covid-19 infections in South Dakota, and many infections elsewhere were directly attributed to the rally. It turned into probably the biggest super-spreader event of 2020, likely directly killing thousands of people.

It was preceded by many other events, starting most notably with Florida Spring Break in March 2020. Prior to it, you could number the total covid-19 infections in Florida to a hundred or so. A few weeks afterward, infections went through the roof, in Florida and most other states as students brought the disease home with them. And so it went, at numerous events including pretty much all Trump rallies. It is likely that the late pizza magnate Herman Cain acquired the disease at a Trump rally in Tulsa, and died from it. The stupidity extended into the White House itself, where Trump likely acquired the diseases, and at a subsequent event outdoors where people were tightly packed enough where it didn’t matter, allowing people like Hope Hicks to get it. All this willful ignorance was hardly without cost. 600,000 or so Americans are dead from covid-19, and the likely real figure is closer to one million people.

And yet still so many people don’t believe covid-19 is real, or that somehow they are special enough so that they won’t get it. Now there are highly effective vaccines available and some half of Republicans still won’t get the shots. It appears that to do so they must admit the obvious to themselves: that they and the people they listened to were wrong. The psychic cost of going there must be higher than their fear of getting the disease.

That’s some drug these people are on and many have paid the price, either in acquiring the disease or dying from it. But it’s really a mental illness because it’s an inability to acknowledge the undeniable reality that is right in front of you.

How do you stop this level of stupidity and hopefully reverse it? Thinking about it, I realize it’s complicated because so many people have this idea in their head that freedom means they can do whatever they want, damn the consequences. I’ll grant them the right to believe what they want, but I for one don’t grant them the right to let them get away with it without sanctions.

In the short term, they should not just be shunned, but society should make their lives difficult. Democrats control the government now. I would start by upping the ante on travel. If you are a legal adult and can’t prove you are immunized against covid-19, you should not be allowed to travel on any airplane or train. Full stop. No cruises for you either, although there is already a moratorium on cruising for ships leaving the United States. Oh, of course these people would whine, but they are already whining. Whining is not something they can control. So if they are going to whine anyhow, let’s at least keep these people away from the rest of us as much as possible.

I’d extend it to the schools. You want to attend classes inside a public school? You must be immunized. We’re not quite there yet because so far vaccines have not been approved for those aged 12 and under. Unless you have a doctor’s note saying you are immune-compromised if you can get a vaccine you must if you want to get in-person teaching. If not, or your parents won’t let you attend classes on line, and if this means throwing everyone into online classes, so be it. Those who do attend in person need to wear masks indoors until the CDC says its acceptable not to because infection rates are low enough.

Society needs to aggressively signal that these behaviors are unhealthy simply because (minimally) you could carry the disease, if not acquire it or die from it. You – yes, I’m speaking to you, you vaccinate-hesitant Americans — have an obligation to your fellow humans, and if you think you won’t do your civic duty, then you don’t get to play with the rest of us. This sort of willful ignorance if practiced by a parent is nothing less than child abuse. This policy is really the least that society should be doing. In a more just world, these parents would be hauled off to a detention facility until they see the light.

In the longer term, it’s clear that most students these days are getting substandard civics education, if they are getting it at all. They are also apparently missing a lot of science basics, particularly the lessons that describe the scientific process used to discern knowledge. A robust mastery of how science knowledge is learned and how government works should be required for any diploma or GED.

Government can also help by elevating scientists and researchers that make advancements in science. These people should be admired and put on pedestals. There should be lavish prizes awarded to citizens who contribute the most to improving our understanding of reality and make major advancements in basic and applied sciences. The government should provide tuition free scholarships to students showing exceptional aptitude in these skills, so they can be applied sooner for the benefit of all humanity.

Obviously there are huge problems with our voting laws, which I have addressed in numerous other blog posts. I won’t revisit them in this post. These problems are longstanding and very hard to address. But where Democrats can require change, they should.

My modest proposals may rankle many as anti-American somehow, but not only are they necessary, they are legal and morally necessary. Public health law is a thing in the United States, even if many would like to pretend otherwise. We can’t “promote the general welfare”, as we say we want to do in the U.S. Constitution, if we allow such counterproductive ignorance to remain unchecked.

I am deeply grateful to those who solved our covid-19 pandemic

We went out for dinner the other day. This is not exactly a first since the pandemic, but the difference this time was that we dined indoors. All three of us (this includes my daughter, who paid a quick visit) were fully immunized, all with the Moderna vaccine.

With the mask mandate guidance lifted, even in interior spaces for us fully vaccinated, while it seemed safe to dine in, it still gave us a bit of concern. Not wearing a mask may send the wrong signal: that it’s okay to not wear a mask if you are not fully immunized too. So while we ate indoors, and we kept our mask on, except when we were eating. So did the other patrons, what there were of them. There were strict quotas on the number of inside diners.

It wasn’t quite the same experience. This Chinese restaurant was still operating partly in pandemic mode. There was a table near the entrance with brown stapled bags of takeout, which now forms the bulk of their business. China seemed to be out: we got paper plates and cups, though the disposable chopsticks were there as always at our table. The food was just as good as we remembered but the visual experience felt cheapened somehow.

In our state, most mask mandates don’t come off until next weekend. As a practical matter, most are off already. Those running the park across the street decided that masks were no longer necessary. The prohibition always struck me as overkill, particularly when it was figured out that covid-19 was acquired almost always through breathing it in, so it required closed spaces. For someone fully vaccinated like me, masking is becoming something more to fit in and signal the right social values. Outdoors, I noticed that kids are masking but most everyone else isn’t. In public indoor spaces, masking still remains the rule, even when not technically required, such as during my Friday trip to a Trader Joe’s.

It’s largely unappreciated just how quick and effective the vaccine response has been. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines began development literally within days after China released the virus’s genome. Their success was arguably greased by tons of government money, which also encouraged Pfizer and Moderna to develop vaccines based on messenger RNA technology. There were some shortcuts that may have compromised safety: limited and parallel trials, for example, as well as emergency use authorizations. A certain amount of suspicion about their efficacy was warranted, even if they proved baseless.

This contrasted with the often dismal efforts to prevent the transmission of the disease here within the United States, leading to at least 600,000 deaths from the disease so far. I’ve drawn the conclusion that there was a far more rampant “disease” running rampant at the same time: the arguably viral obstinacy by so many Americans that: it was a fake disease, that various quack treatments would work if you did get it, that I’m too special to get it, and that it’s all part of some grand conspiracy to bring about left-wing government. There are still legions of these people out there. 600,000 deaths have taught them nothing. Whereas people like me (who believe in science) persisted by simply following recommendations and best practices, which evolved over time.

That these recommendations evolved seems to infuriate a lot of those who refused the vaccine. It seems they cannot inhabit a world where there is ambiguity: if any guidance changes over time, it must have been inherently wrong in the first place! The reason covid-19 was so easily transmissible and deadly was because it was novel: it hadn’t been seen before. We weren’t going to know what works best until we had experienced it and tried stuff, hence the high mortality rate toward the start of the pandemic.

There was concern that you could pick it up if you touched surfaces that had the virus. So I hyper-cleaned surfaces too, until the science came in that it was virtually impossible to pick it up this way, at which point I relaxed. Surviving covid-19 became pretty simple: live an isolated life if you could, work remotely if you could, and use effective masking if you couldn’t and were in public spaces. It wasn’t fun, but it could have been much worse and much more hassle. Effective vaccines took less than a year to develop. Now the challenge is to get them into the arms of people mostly in third-world countries that can’t afford to pay for them. It’s incumbent on rich countries like ours to do our utmost to help out.

It’s also remarkable that these vaccines are both so highly effective and seem to also work against the many covid-19 variants out there. There is virtually no evidence so far that once vaccinated you can pass on the disease as a passive carrier. So I shouldn’t feel guilty walking around unmasked because I am properly immunized. At worst there is a tiny five to 10% chance that I could still acquire the disease, but its symptoms would be mild. If I get it, I shouldn’t require hospitalization and it won’t kill me. Maybe that itself if a reason to mask up, but since I’m not immuno-compromised, it’s not a compelling reason to do so.

So I’m very grateful to those who created such effective vaccines in so short a time, and even for our somewhat dysfunctional government which at least could throw gobs of money at the problem, all while making the actual pandemic here exponentially worse. The vaccine makers though were but the tip of the spear. Hundreds of thousands of epidemiologists largely gave up their other work, or worked unpaid overtime, to advance research, help mitigate its spread and develop best practices. Our health care workers dealt with enormous stress and excessive amounts of jackasses to do their best in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. All these people, and many more, have my gratitude, and should get accolades from our government for their tenacity, curiosity and intelligence they exercised to solve this public health crisis.

Needless to say, I am breathing easier.

Cryptocurrencies and true financial value

Until recently you could buy a Tesla with BitCoin. Elon Musk though recently changed his mind because it was an environmentally unfriendly currency, since newer mined BitCoins are mined using tons of servers, many of which use electricity generated by fossil fuels. So Musk is going toward more environmentally benign cryptocurrencies. There’s a lot of them out there and anyone with the right software and hardware can create their own. To use a cryptocurrency though you have to convince others to buy, use and accept them.

To say the least, cryptocurrencies are highly speculative. Coins most often mentioned in the media seem to do the best, and these include BitCoin, Ethereum and a literal joke currency, Dogecoin. With Elon Musk going all in for cryptocurrencies, the rest of us are left scratching our heads wondering if we’re missing something. Maybe we need to start buying cryptocurrencies too.

I had a customer recently who wanted to pay me in BitCoin. I told him no thanks, but he thought I was foolish because BitCoin’s price was likely to keep going higher. Maybe he’s right. All fiat currencies are speculative too. The U.S. dollar depends on the full faith and credit of the U.S. government and nothing else. Given how fragile our democracy is at the moment, maybe I should be trading dollars for BitCoin, Ethereum and Dogecoin.

Governments seem to be accepting the inevitable. I noticed on my tax return I had to answer some questions about cryptocurrencies, to make sure they were appropriately taxed. Cryptocurrencies seem to be settling in as a thing.

With the exception of real coins, all money is an abstraction and a shared delusion. It solved the messy problem of exchanging goods and services conveniently. BitCoin is not convenient, given the time and hassle it takes to exchange them, although it is getting easier. Others may be more convenient for transacting business where they are accepted, but the general market remains a long way from generally embracing cryptocurrencies.

The faith in most cryptocurrencies is that they are either hard to manufacture or that their block chain technology helps instill some sense of trust. Dogecoins are relatively easy to create, but they sure don’t look like a hedge against inflation. Five billion new Dogecoins are created annually, which means 2.7 million new Dogecoins go into circulation every day. It hardly looks like a precious asset, but where they are accepted at least they should be easy to spend. You shouldn’t have to worry about running out of them. The U.S. dollar is backed up by the U.S. government. The U.S. government at least has people overseeing the management and distribution of dollars. The same can’t be said about many cryptocurrencies.

I notice that those most into cryptocurrencies tend to be those who are libertarian, at least in spirit. They want the best of both worlds: a currency that retains its worth over time but also has the advantage that money provides: an easy exchange of value. It’s highly debatable though whether a cryptocurrency can hold its value. The run up in cryptocurrency prices seems due to supply and demand: more people are buying into the idea/hype of cryptocurrencies, which drives up their prices. Cryptocurrencies strike me as speculative investments without any firm moorings. Much like the Dutch tulip mania of 1637 demonstrated, these currencies hold value as long as we agree with the illusion/delusion that they have value.

I can see investing in cryptocurrencies as a highly speculative way of reaping short term profits. If I believe that there are many more enthusiasts of cryptocurrencies out there to be persuaded, buying some of these and hoping their prices go up, then selling them when they reap a handsome profit, makes a certain amount of sense. I would look at any money invested this way as money I could live without if the tables on cryptocurrencies I bought turned. I would not bet the house on cryptocurrencies appreciating. I would view it more like going to Las Vegas and gambling $1000, but no more than $1000, just for the fun of it. I strongly suspect though that having this approach does not make me a good candidate for investing in cryptocurrencies. I suspect most of these investors are looking to become millionaires through this sort of investing. People like me don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.

As an asset though, I consider these decentralized cryptocurrencies fool’s gold. In that sense I think Elon Musk is being foolish, but as the world’s richest person he can afford to be foolish on a grand scale. That said, over time it may be that we will have no choice. Cryptocurrencies may gain such traction that they can’t be ignored. There may come a time when going to a foreign country might require buying a cryptocurrency, because it and the local currency will be the only currencies accepted.

If that happens though we may be in for a world of trouble. The U.S. dollar’s value is based on the full faith and credit of its government. But nothing is forever. The U.S. is likely not forever as well, so having most cash parked in U.S. dollars could be foolish if our government ultimately collapses. It’s just a safer best than most other non-cryptocurrencies out there, and that it is the de-facto cryptocurrency of the world makes it a reasonably safe harbor … for now.

Real assets though is tangible stuff you own. You don’t own your savings account. It seems like we do, but its value is wholly dependent on the institutions that oversee it. With cryptocurrencies there are generally no people regulating it. If there are, it doesn’t amount to the investment in people and resources that countries give to managing their own currencies. Inflation may be the penalty we pay to make sure our currency doesn’t collapse altogether, because if the U.S. dollar weren’t overseen and regulated, it would probably collapse pretty quickly.

The deed to my house and cars, the portions of my portfolio that represent a percent of ownership in various stocks and funds, these are real assets because they have true value. All forms of money have some risk associated with them. I think many drawn to cryptocurrencies are suffering from a shared delusion that they can take the risk out of money through computer algorithms. I think they are likely to be disappointed in time. I’d rather own currencies that are managed by people because as flawed as we are I trust economists managing currencies more than I trust a computer algorithm.

A real constitutional crisis is well underway

I was hoping Trump’s defeat would lead to the death of the Republican Party. Obviously that didn’t happen. It is fair to say that the Republican Party is basically the Trump Party now, so in that sense it is dead. Ronald Reagan, for example, would not recognize the party, although he did much to put it on its present course. Its mission now is to echo whatever Donald Trump says and to remove if possible the few remaining Republicans who dare to criticize him. It’s unstated but obvious mission is to end democracy in the United States leaving only Republicans in charge.

Since Trump’s defeat, the party’s behavior has been truly appalling. They will leave no stone unturned in their quest to regain power, but it must be on their terms. They have tacitly conceded that they cannot win power fairly, so most of their effort is to ensure it is won unfairly.

Many of the prerequisites have been long in place, in particular the extreme right-wing bent of the federal courts. Most of their focus is on voter suppression of those they don’t want to vote. But many states are passing laws that make it impossible for election officials to do their job. Among these is to charge these officials with felonies if they send out an unsolicited absentee voter application or leave an absentee drop box unguarded. Georgia has given the state legislature permission to remove local election officials, or simply to overturn the results of the popular vote for the presidency if they don’t like the outcome. None of these actions are in the democratic spirit, but are signs of desperation for a party for whom losing power fairly is no longer an option.

January 6 should have been the acme of their awfulness. Now it appears to be the first true skirmish of our next civil war, like lobbing the first cannon ball at Fort Sumner. They appear willing to kill democracy to save it for themselves. Basically, it’s a party of traitors. Now the rest of us have to figure out what to do about it.

Legislatively, the answer is H.R. 1, the For the People Act. It would prohibit exactly the sorts of legislative excesses we are now seeing, including gerrymandering and voter suppression. Getting it enacted into law though is a very tough job for Democrats. It currently would need to pass cloture in the Senate, which means it would require sixty votes to end debate on it and bring it to a vote. With a 50/50 Senate, that won’t happen unless Democrats either find the spine to end the filibuster rule or make an exception in this case. Without it, the likelihood is that Republican election law changes in many states will give the party the wins they need to retake the House in 2022.

These other laws tilt the 2024 presidential election in their favor too, even more than it already is. Assuming President Biden runs for reelection, he would need a commanding victory. So far at least with his popularity at 62%, that at least seems plausible. Of course, a lot can happen in the interim, and you can count on Republicans in Congress to do just this. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said his focus is just to obstruct every Biden initiative.

None of this matters if you rig the system. If Republicans regain their House majority, the next January 6 (actually January 8, 2025) won’t require an insurrection for Republicans to get a Republican president regardless of the Electoral College vote. They simply have to stand united and refuse to certify the results, which then allows the House to decide who the next president will be. In this scenario, the representatives of each state cast one vote as a bloc, so if a majority of states have a majority of Republicans representing them in the U.S. House of Representatives, they get to overturn the Electoral College and the popular vote.

As for presidential elections in 2028, 2032 etc., simply repeat. This is clearly where the party is going. They don’t intend to ever lose again and if it kills democracy in the process, so be it.

To change the way a president is selected would require a constitutional amendment. Good luck getting that passed by three-quarters of the states. There is some hope if the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact get passed by enough states, but that has stalled in recent years. Perhaps Democrats should focus their effort there.

In short, this is a four-alarm fire for our democracy. If we weren’t in a constitutional crisis before, clearly we are now. Fixing the problem looks increasingly unlikely.

Covid-19 freedom feels fleeting

Saturday I got the second jab, that second dose of vaccine (Moderna) that has something like a ninety percent chance of keeping me from acquiring covid-19. Another drive to a CVS for the shot, this time in faraway Springfield, Massachusetts. But at least this time things felt more relaxed. The nurse that jabbed me even noted that the crush was over. They weren’t upset when a lady showed up an hour early for her appointment. A lot of their slots weren’t filled so jabbing her early was no problem.

Also no problem, at least for me, was any reaction to the second dose. My wife was not so fortunate and had about twenty four hours of side effects: principally headaches, muscle cramps and a mild fever from someone who never gets them. My arm hardly hurt a tad after the injection but otherwise I had no side effects. The following day I took out my bike and fully masked took it for a twelve mile ride, the first time in a year.

A year earlier the pandemic wave was just starting and for a while where I live (Massachusetts) was a hot spot. People at the time hadn’t gotten into the masking habit. I felt unsafe biking the trail as it was crowded with both bikers and pedestrians, so I stopped.

This time fully masked I realized it wasn’t that much different. But things had changed. For one thing, people like me were getting vaccinated. Despite my bitching, my state is the number two in the percent of people vaccinated. Most of New England makes the list of top vaccinated states, likely because we understand and respect science around here. I’m likely already immune from the disease, but I’ll stay likely masked outdoors until May 15 anyhow, at least when I’m near people. It’s unlikely I’ll get it, but the science is not in yet on whether I could pass it on to others. The science though is pretty clear that you can stay unmasked outdoors in most places, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) now agree.

The park across the street discreetly took down their outdoor masking requirement sign. Most of us walking around the park are still masked anyhow, because we’re used to it. I expect our city to follow through on all outdoor spaces public shortly, following CDC guidance. I’ll still carry a mask though. It’s possible I’ll be walking and need to dash into a store, and I would wear one then, even though it probably wouldn’t matter.

Like most Americans I want to feel like I’m back to the way things always used to be. These are truly extraordinary times. My mother was born in 1920, shortly after the end of the Spanish flu pandemic. She never had to live life behind a mask, except when she was a nurse assisting in surgery. Covid-19 though feels to me like we’ve crossed the Rubicon. I’m not convinced we’ll ever fully go back to before.

I’m not even convinced the pandemic won’t return in force. The pandemic has proven that we’ve become a remarkably brainless and self-centered country, with many of us perfectly willing to put “me” before “we”. During World War Two, we recycled scrap metal and lived with ration books. I can’t imagine our country doing this kind of national self-sacrifice anymore. Liberty now is interpreted as meaning that you can do pretty much anything you want and shouldn’t have to care about how your behavior could impact on others, and maybe even kill them. Freedom is all about “me me me” doing whatever I want when I want damn the consequences.

The result of all this self-centeredness, along with a bad global vaccine rollout and twenty to 30 percent of Americans who just refuse to take the shot, are increasingly more dangerous covid-19 variants. A shot is a pretty good bet that you won’t acquire one of these variants. But it’s not paranoid to think that one of these will get around the shots and we won’t get boosters in time to ward a variant off. In short, what’s now happening in India could very easily come back here again because we can’t get enough people vaccinated quickly enough, in part because so many of us will refused to get the vaccine. In a way, it’s still very much here, it’s just hitting younger people this time, mostly because they aren’t vaccinated. And the variants are much easier to acquire.

So give me a vacation quick, please. I need to get some wanderlust out of my system, just in case I can’t later. I need it because I am sick of sitting at home and while I could endure another year or two of this if I had to, I surely don’t want to. So a road trip or something is in order after May 15. Just an overnight or two perhaps, to get back into the groove again and test the water. Vermont is less than an hour away, and the Adirondacks are not too far away either. Maybe we’ll be eating mostly takeout. Maybe it won’t feel quite the same and disappoint. But I feel the need to try just in case … just in case we’re back in covid-19 hell again soon.

The Trump circus may be over

You wouldn’t know it from all the trepidation from elected Republicans, but it looks like Republicans are starting to move past Donald Trump. In a recent NBC News poll, when Republicans were asked which they supported more, Trump or their party, 44% said Trump and 50% said their party. The Party of Trump seems to be slowly de-Trumpifying.

Why then are Republican Party leaders so scared? It’s likely because Trump is a master bully. However, Trump simply doesn’t have the microphone he used to have. He’s largely banned from social media. He may make an occasional appearance on a conservative talk show, but even Fox News seems to be putting him in their rear view mirror.

Trump also seems to be losing interest in being at the center of attention. The pattern of daily life at Mar-a-Lago must be appealing to him: the daily eighteen holes of golf and his gold-leaf office in what used to be the wedding chapel. In any event, it used to be easy for him to command attention. He had Twitter. He was president. Now he largely stays at Mar-a-Lago and if he has something to say, even his supporters aren’t hearing much about it.

I’ll bet he’s still drinking a lot of Diet Coke, but probably resents having to pay for it. In any event, the nonstop tweeting must have been exhausting, even for Trump. Just because you have a narcissistic personality disorder doesn’t mean it’s an easy condition to deal with. Likely some part of him is glad to no longer be president and to have a much simpler life.

It may also be that Trump is running nervous. He doesn’t have the legal protections he used to. He incited the January 6th Capitol rioters. It would not be too hard a case to prove if a criminal or civil case was made of it. Civil cases are probably coming, but the criminal ones are doubtlessly more worrying. He may be heeding advice from counsel for a change to lie low.

Granted, it sure appears that even though Republicans may be de-Trumpifying, many still believe that his reelection was somehow stolen from him. Republicans in Arizona are trying to get possession of all the votes cast in Maricopa County to have them examined by their own forensics firm with no actual experience in forensics. One hopes saner heads will prevail because once they have access to the ballots with no open auditing of their process, they can be massaged any way that fits Arizona Republicans’ narrative. The votes have already been audited a number of times with no fraud found. They just didn’t give the results Trump and Republicans wanted.

It’s not too hard to figure out. Trump never was a popular president. His approval rating never got above the mid 40s. He left office with 40% approval and his approval level is now in the thirties. Trump’s election was something of a fluke, but four years of Trump never enamored him with the general public. If Trump is serious about running again in 2024, it’s hard to see how he could win without a huge amount of voter disenfranchisement, which Republican legislatures seem all too happy to implement. Trump has branded himself with Americans and they really despise his brand.

Or it could be that Republicans are slowly moving on. That doesn’t mean they haven’t embraced most of Donald Trump’s ideas, but hearing less from Trump means he’s not their constant focus of attention. Voter suppression to win elections is not a great strategy. Also not a great strategy: refusing to wear a mask. It just speeds up the process of reducing the number of Republicans out there.

I find Rep. Lynn Cheney (R-WY) pretty reprehensible, but she is one of the few Republicans in a position of power speaking out against Trump. So far at least she hasn’t lost her position in the Republican House leadership. Her fundraising seems to be steady. Fearlessly speaking out against Trump is risky but has a potential upside in that it distinguishes her in the future as someone willing to tell the truth. She is primed to benefit if Trump’s popularity proves fleeting.

Because even with voter suppression, Republicans who haven’t lost their minds know they don’t have a good hand, and Trump is weighing them down. They can’t do much to appeal to independents while Trump is controlling the party, simply because they don’t have an appealing message to independents, who tend to align more with Democrats and Joe Biden, perhaps in reaction to Trump.

Maybe even most Republicans are tired of the Trump show and want to move on. As one person polled by NBC News put it:

The best thing about Joe Biden (as president) is I don’t have to think about Joe Biden.

Amen, say most Americans, including, I suspect, now even a majority of Republicans.

It’s the end of times! Again!

There are lots of political and sociological theories going around about … well, what’s going around: current events. We are living through a pretty stressful time: covid-19, hyper-partisanship, so-called “fake news”, a climate crisis, a refugee crisis, police brutality against people of color … it all seems to be heaped on top of each other with seemingly no way out.

Okay, there are ways out of all this stuff, but it means persuading people and power brokers to act not in their immediate self-interest and, like the Grinch, let their hearts expand three sizes. Good luck with that.

One theory is that societies go through periods of great turbulence with some regularity and in a few years we’ll achieve some sort of new consensus where something like a new normal can resume. In this theory, President Joe Biden is the antidote to President Ronald Reagan. It was arguably Reagan who popularized “the government is bad” mantra and since that time, well, there’s been a lot of bad coming from government.

Some are hoping that by making government work again, Biden has the Reagan antidote. Except he’s a long way from that and his attempts to break partisanship likely won’t amount to anything. Our democracy feels very fragile at the moment, and there are few signs here in America in particular that we are rising toward our better selves.

Yet, it does seem like we’ve been through this before. Maybe the fever will break around 2030. This will be roughly two millennium since the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Or maybe in 2063, when I expect to be dead, two millennium since the Jewish Diaspora, at least the big one where the Romans retook Palestine, utterly destroyed Jerusalem and those few Jews they did not kill left the area permanently. In any event, reading the Muslim scholar and historian Reza Aslan’s book Zealot, about the lives and times of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s hard to escape that feeling of we’re reliving, at least in spirit, those turbulent days.

I’ve read many books about the historic Jesus of Nazareth, but Zealot fills in some important gaps. For one thing, when Jesus was alive Palestine was rife with messiah wannabees. Crucifixion, as horrible as it is, was pretty routine, at least for anyone that seemed to threaten order. This penalty did not seem to deter these potential messiahs. Indeed, Jesus’s death never made the headlines of the time. Only one reference from the time by Josephus alludes to Jesus, as the brother James. All other references come from the Bible.

Anyhow, the Jews were just one of many natives who fought occupations, and the Romans in 63 A.D. were just the latest. While the Jews were largely wiped out by the Romans (and later, the Nazis) the Jews also practiced genocide. That’s how ancient Israel was founded: not by routing non-Jews from Palestine, but killing the non-Jews living there. This is a matter of settled history and is commanded in the Old Testament. One of the wonders about the new state of Israel created in 1947 is they didn’t kill all the Palestinians living there as the Torah commands. But they killed plenty to again create a state by and for Jews.

It seems we just can’t abide comfortably with people too different from ourselves. These days it’s all seemingly coming to a head. Future shock has arrived and we’re not coping well. It feels something like being crammed into an elevator with too many people.

We refuse to cope with our new and more complex reality; we refuse to believe this is how it’s going to be. For Fox “News” commentator Tucker Carlson, it’s happening through “replacement theory”: we Democrats are supposedly trying to cancel the votes of whites by allowing too many non-whites into the country. Implicit in this theory is the idea that non-whites don’t deserve the same rights as the rest of us. To address their fears, they must do everything possible to marginalize the votes of non-white Americans; hence the many voter suppression laws emerging from the outcome of the 2020 election. Can ethnic cleansing be far behind?

Jesus of Nazareth believed the end of times was near. “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Luke 21:32) He was obviously wrong about that, unless we’ve had a new Methuselah around since he was alive. Similarly, many of today’s Christians believe the end of times is near. It seems they want to hasten it all along so the rapture can commence.

Two thousand years should teach us that no messiah is on its way to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. But by acting like the end of times is near, these people can certainly add to the chaos underway. Why care about the future if the end is near? Why take a covid-19 vaccine if you believe God will protect you from it anyhow, or rapture is imminent? Why use common sense when it’s easier to rely on gut feelings and prejudice? Why place hope in scientists when you don’t like what they are telling you?

Reading Zealot has affected me. It makes me angry that two thousand years after Jesus walked among us we are still mired in the same pointless conflicts and backwards thinking. What hope I can find is that more of us are just giving up religion. For the first time, a poll shows a majority of Americans are now unchurched. It may be in twenty years as this majority grows we will have a majority people who can act logically, rather than rely on a holy book.

If God exists, it works in mysterious ways. I can cite my wife, definitely unchurched but with Buddhist inclinations, as God at work in the real world. If God wants us to be loving, kind and create the Kingdom of God here on earth, she’s on the case by volunteering at a local survival center.

It’s her and others engaging in these largely thankless and necessary tasks of simply keeping people alive despite slim to no odds of solving these systemic problems. Her heart grows with compassion every time she volunteers.

I’m not convinced there’s much of this compassion within evangelical churches, except perhaps for people in their own congregation with that share their skin tone.

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.