Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Adam Schiff On The Peril Of Our Time

 


When Trump emerged, we awaited eagerly the demise of the uncouth fool. We're still waiting. For every month that goes by, the question of “who's the fool” is batting itself around like a beach ball in the stands of a ball game.

It's one thing for the largely ignorant but massively resentful “base” to keep the ignorant, uncouth fool alive, but who would have believed the constant resuscitation by a thoroughly transformed and disfigured Republican party? Former believers in Republican cant have felt the scales fall from their eyes as Republican politicians desert their professed principles and kowtow to Trump. Despite my viewing Republicans in congress better described as paid agents of large corporations rather than as true representatives of the people, I have to admit, it's a shock.



Stuart Steven's book title captures it succinctly: It Was All A Lie. But the surprise is not only Republican. In his terrific new book, Midnight in Washington, Adam Schiff recounts his shock, as Republicans he liked and even admired so readily shed their professed beliefs like the snakes they apparently are. Rather than believing Lord Acton's saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Schiff prefers Robert Caro's formulation that power doesn't corrupt so much as it reveals. He could also have quoted Lincoln, who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

As he told Kara Swisher last Thursday:

Most of my Republican colleagues do not believe the big lie. They know it’s a big lie. And yet they push it because they’re afraid of Trump, because they’re afraid of a primary, because they want to advance to the Senate or maybe they want a cabinet appointment in another Trump administration. And it turns out nothing is quite as important as that. Not their oath, not their ideology, not what the party used to stand for. And that was a terrible realization for me.”

In any case, his blinders removed, Adam Schiff has found himself in the ring contending with the largest revolt against our constitution in 170 years, and he is well aware of it. As one of the most thoughtful and articulate of the resisters, he is well worth paying heed to as he recounts his trials and tribulations and thoughts and fears.

My thought is, what a hero Schiff has been, especially leading the first Trump impeachment, especially standing so strong against the Republican lies and all their mishigas! So when I was invited to a breakfast fundraiser last Friday for Adam (I'm going to call him Adam, because he did call me “Budd” at the fundraiser, so why not?) at my friend Doug Goldman's house, I was thrilled to go. I wanted to see if he had anything new to say to the small breakfast group, or at least to see him in the flesh and get him to inscribe my copy of his book, which I was lucky enough to get on the first day before they ran out at East Bay Booksellers. Going to see a hero in a small group is not a small thing!

So, as I got ready to go to the breakfast, I had to think through the subject at hand. Of course, it's no news that a slow coup attempt is under way, even the late adopters see it now. The major popular theoretical texts are Levitsky and Ziblatt's How Democracies Die, and Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny, I guess. Then, filling out the theory with events, the autocratic-leaning steps that Trumpists and Republicans are taking are being documented by a spate of books by participants, including Strzok's book I reviewed, Leonnig and Rucker's book, Woodward and Costa's Peril, and now Adam's book as well. (Mary Trump's book, tracing what it takes to be world class sociopath, which I reviewed, is also first class in many ways.)

It's one thing to understand and describe what's going on, but it's another thing to act. What is the country, led by the Democrats, going to do about it? At this point, it isn't clear, at least to me. Of course they will try to win the midterm elections next year and, contrary to historical pattern, increase their slim margins in House and Senate. Adam says that they actually will have a chance at that, because the Democratic majority is not a bloated one, since Biden had no coattails. But, the question is, how exactly are they going to do that? By passing excellent and transformational legislation, thus earning the votes of right-thinking and grateful Americans? By having excellent candidates to run on kitchen table issues, similar to the “preexisting conditions” campaigns of the recent past? Or will they break that pattern and nationalize the elections, trying not to run on what a good guy Biden is and how well he has done and what more he can do with a good majority, but instead run against Trump and Trumpism? Or maybe do both?

And underlying that question of strategy, what are they going to do with the blatant and defiant attempts of Republicans to corrupt the process of elections, the state gerrymandering and voter suppression legislation, the substitution of legislators for impartial officials to supervise the elections, and the attempted installation of fifth columnists ready and eager to declare slate of electors invalid and to install their own? Add to that the physical intimidation of honest officials trying to do their jobs, and traditional election strategizing seems passé.

So, these are questions I've had in my mind, and I wondered if I could get any insight into them at this hour long breakfast. I kind of doubted it – I expected the “here's what we are going to say to our supporters” talk from Adam. But anyway, because I'm not particularly fast on my feet orally and I'm not a great questioner who can follow up well, I figured I might give it a try by writing down a question or two. As Tom Lehrer advised, Be Prepared!

I started by writing down a bunch of questions, and then I culled it down to one long question that I would hope to ask. Here are the questions I started with, and then the one I decided on.

The Danger of Subversion Within The Ranks Of Law Enforcement

Make all the laws you want, if they are not obeyed, they then need to be enforced. Can we be sure of enforcement? Police departments are full of right wingers, prejudice, and rebellion under the leadership of openly defiant police unions. Even if formal leaders are in line, will the troops follow their orders, or follow Trumps on their own volition? ICE and CBP have shown authoritarian, prejudicial tendencies. Where did the un-badged enforcement troops come from in Portland and Lafayette Square? The military does seem to be OK. Not sure about the courts with all the Trump appointees, many openly advocating rebellion against Roe vs. Wade, for instance.

What will happen if insurgents in states and localities take control fraudulently? Courts order, maybe – there are bad judges – and then what? Who's really minding the people with actual physical force? Consent of the governed is fine, but behind that consent is the state monopoly on violence. What will happen if that monopoly breaks down?

In short, it would appear we have every reason to be worried about enforcement. Is anything being done?

DOJ Avidity To Prosecute

Many people (including me) wonder where Merrick Garland is on the question of conspiracy to subvert the 2020 election after the vote, and on high-level leadership that led to January 6. Publicly available evidence seems clearly to indicate that Trump and others worked together to subvert democracy. Shouldn't the DOJ be working very hard to investigate this case? Are they waiting for the House committee? Is there reason to wait? Could a lot be happening there that we don't know about? Are you concerned that they will place a higher priority on making DOJ look “impartial” than on saving democracy from subversion by Trump and Republicans?

Why are recommended sentences for capitol assaulters so light? Because all they have is “trespassing?” Is it true that DOJ has 3 levels: those who were there, those who attacked police, and those who planned? Are those who flipped indicating higher ups, of whom some could be prominent? What about inciters speaking to group before they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue?

I posted this on Twitter and got interest:

What is behind these "take it easy on them" recommended sentences for assaulting the capitol? I guess the law doesn't cover intended insurrection well? Just get them on "trespassing?" A puzzle to me.”

Do you think DOJ is actually prioritizing the capitol assault and the plot against America, and we just don't see it yet? I'm going to fundraiser with Adam Schiff on Friday, hoping to get chance to ask him. Looking for nod and wink.What is your level of confidence that the DOJ will be acting decisively? Is it above level 5 out of 10?

The Problem Of Widespread Treason

It's pretty clear that many high officials are guilty of treason. Indeed, you could say the whole Republican party falls into that description. Ziblatt and Levitsky currently comment:

“We did not expect that the entire Republican Party would evolve into an anti-democratic force, and that’s where they are today,” he said. “The entire Republican leadership, with a small handful of exceptions, is now no longer willing to accept electoral defeat.”

What is the preferred course of action? What do you do when it stopped short of armed insurrection, in the main, but there is widespread unarmed insurrection? Cheating and stealing elections is insurrection, isn't it? Truthfully, every senator and representative who voted against certification were treasonous. Some did much more than that. You could say that a public official's failing now to support the validity of the presidential election certainly violates their oaths to support the constitution. At the very least they should be barred from holding public office for ten years.

These are the kinds of things one contemplates after an armed insurrection has been put down. But what we are facing is unarmed insurrection, with some exceptions. What is to be done?

Public Understanding Of The Stakes, Of What Fascism Is

Adam Schiff's TV appearances have emphasized his confidence that the good sense of the American people will assert itself eventually in rejecting Trumpism. Of course, we have thought this for six years now. What is Rep. Schiff's strategy of reassurance here? Is he secure in what is being done? We need the “time will come” to come pretty damn fast.

Do you think the people of America don't understand our current constitutional danger, or officials? Or the Democratic party? So many are saying, don't you realize how dangerous this is? And yet those same talkers, what are they doing? Lawyers lawyer, talkers talk.

When faced with possible insurrection by a highly motivated minority, the alertness and alarm of the majority, and the majority leaders, is crucial. How does one alert and inform the public? The media are important, but unreliable, and are not sufficient. Greg Sargent in the Washington Post says:

'The White House, too, must lean into the threats to democracy to keep the media from losing interest. Failing to educate the public about the concerted effort to overthrow our democracy and ignoring the connection between election subversion laws and the threat of future coup attempts would be a gross dereliction of duty. Let’s hope the media understand that “fairness”and “objectivity” do not mean helping make Republicans look less crazed and dangerous than they truly are.'

The “good sense” of Americans needs some help. The decline if civics teaching has helped people to know nothing at all about our government as well as foreign governments. The details of fascism escape us. How will people find out, so that they can assert their good judgement based on facts? They need to be told and shown – who will do this work?

My suggestion is this: We need TV specials, perhaps Ken Burns style, or inspired by How Democracies Die by Harvard's Levitsky and Ziblatt, or On Tyranny by Yale's Tim Snyder. This is what fascism looks like, the thugism and the repression, and here are the steps other countries took in getting there.

(Personally, I would also encourage a special bipartisan commission addressing itself exclusively to the issue of democracy, and not considering the substantive political issues (immigration, wealth distribution, etc.), whose mission would be exclusively to educate the public to this vital issue.)

The Possible Progression of Events – What Could Happen

What do you think will happen if there is actually a steal, or if Trump actually wins and starts to institute fascism? Who won't recognize Trump Part II? Will taxpayers refuse the IRS? There will be organized resistance – what then? The “unthinkable” should be made thinkable now. It could happen.

The Responsibility of Democrats

Finally, to the Dems this issue of Trumpism is the kind of thing companies commonly face: Trumpism isn't your fault, but it is your problem. And maybe it is somewhat your fault – haven't stood up sufficiently against wars, deindustrialization, and other social maladies that have helped to fuel resentments. But the underlying problem of undoing racism and the change of power from an ethnic group that is resentful (“I might be poor, but at least I'm white”), that's what makes Trumpism so powerful and dangerous, and that's the Democrats' burden, but not their fault.

Then – what was a practical question I could ask Adam if I got the chance? Here's what I came up with:

I'm halfway through the book and I'm really enjoying it. I especially like the humor and warmth – sitting with Dick Gephardt and realizing that Adam and Eve are sitting with Dick and Jane, and your irrepressible son, and the love of your family and friends. I can see you don't take this gift for granted.

You are unbelievably eloquent when you need to come up with spontaneous reflection. In the House when challenged by Republicans who think you should quit, you perorate with a listing of the transgressions and say, “I don't think that's OK.” And the brilliant summary of the First Impeachment when you say, yes, he's guilty, but is it sufficient reason to remove him? So moving and brilliant.

My question is this, however – when does a strength become a weakness. Lawyers lawyer, and brilliant talkers talk brilliantly, but sometimes using words is not enough, sometimes using words is bringing a knife to a gun fight. There are people out there who are thugs, and thuggery is the essence of fascism, and that's our threat. And we know from Ziblatt and Levitsky that the highest conditions of threat to democracy is when the dominance of an ethnic group is threatened. So even though I don't think that we have essentially revolutionary conditions in the country, it might be closer than we think.

So my question is, while you are confident that the American people will wake up and assert their essential goodness and belief in democracy, how sure are you? Are you sure that the people really understand the gift of democracy? Are you sure that when you and Marc Elias win in court, that the police, riven with right wingers, will enforce the courts' orders? That there won't be a mobilization of the same troops who appeared unbadged in Portland and Lafayette Square won't reappear all over? Are you sure that right will conquer might?

Since I was coming from the East Bay going to Pacific Heights in San Francisco and didn't know what traffic would be like, I got there early. The breakfast was being held on the generous-sized patio just below Doug's front door with about 10 small high tables, and since Adam was right on time, I got a chance to talk to him, have him engrave my copy of his book, and to give him my typed out question. What luck! 


 

He took some time reading it closely, and I apologized for it's being long, but he said, no, you have really thought about it. And then his main answer was this: He trusts that the American people will come to their senses, that they won't throw democracy away. Interestingly, this is pretty much what Leon Panetta said at the Goldman School of Public Policy conference on my paper about Post Trump Reforms – at the end of the day, he doesn't see Americans trading in 230 years of democracy for this schmuck Trump.

I was animated in responding to his confidence (that's a problem when I question or comment with high ranking people, I get animated.) I protested that the American people don't know enough about fascism, they don't know civics, or history, and what we need is something like a Ken Burn's documentary about fascism in Argentina, Turkey, etc. - not just the Nazi's – and something on How Democracies Die and On Tyranny. Adam looked at me and my animation, and didn't really reply. Maybe he was thinking about what I said. I don't know. I mean, if you trust the American people and then reflect on what they know, there might be a disconnect. I do know what he thinks about this, though, because here is what he said the day before our breakfast in an interview with Kara Swisher:

Well, I think part of what resonated for people is — in the last 30 to 40 years, the middle class has become increasingly at risk of falling apart. And people are most willing to rebel, to bring about a revolution, not when they are most impoverished, but when they feel they are most exposed to losing what they have. And he saw around the country millions and millions of people who had had a Bush as president, and their life didn’t change. And they had a Clinton as president and their life hadn’t changed. And he said, I’m going to break everything. And they were ready for somebody to break everything. And they didn’t necessarily believe he was going to improve their lives. But at least he was sticking it to those that they thought were responsible for their circumstances. So I think that was part of the appeal. And an enormous part of what my party needs to do. We need to show that the democracy can work and can deliver for everyone. We could create an economy that works for everyone. Which is why the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better bill are not somehow separate and distinct from promotion of democracy.

He did that they knew who the unbadged law enforcers were in Portland and Lafayette Square, but I didn't follow up to get the specific answer. It's kind of amazing that that whole subject has dropped from new coverage, don't you think?

Then he tri-folded my question and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket. I was kind of surprised and quite pleased; I guess I had expected he would just hand it back to me.

Then he gave his graceful talk to this very small and highly Jewish crowd, reflecting that Doug and he shared a background in the schmata trade (“schmata” means “rag,” as in, “I like your dress.” “This schmata?”) – Doug's family was Levi-Strauss, Adam's was Farah (at the management level), and one of the great embarrassments of his teenage life was having to wear Farah jeans while all the other kids wore Levi-Strauss. Then he made his pitch that we are under great strain, and that don't worry, the Bipartisan infrastruture bill and the Reconciliation Build Back Better bills would both get passed, and it's important to realize that three really big bills are being passed in Biden's first year and that's totally amazing, and who would have thought that Biden would be so progressive. And as for the midterms and beyond, we just have to get out there and organize and vote, and it's important to realize that this problem will pass, that it's just a phase, and we need to be optimistic because optimism is warranted.

I did get to ask one more question in the open question period – Adam really wanted to get someone else to question, I think, but at first mine was the only hand up – and I asked him, when he had obviously spent so much effort, even under the horrible Trump years, in trying to be accommodating and respectful to the Republicans even as they lied and allowed themselves to be seduced by corruption and moral malignancy, how is he changing his behavior now that he must realize that they cannot be regarded as opponents, but that they are enemies?

He didn't like it when I used the word “enemy.” I was actually using it in a rather technical way – see my post on The Four Freedom's Plus Two that explains why they are so out of the mainstream that they can't be compromised with – but you could see that the word almost made him wince. His answer, though, was interesting. He said that when led the prosecution of the first impeachment before the Senate, he didn't know many of the senators, but that he thought that when he finished there (he didn't gloat about how brilliant his performance had been, really one for the ages), he thought that there were a fair number of Republican senators, maybe most, who didn't think of him anymore as an enemy. But then he went on and in a low key way did say that the Republicans can't be compromised with on the basic issues in question, but would have to be beaten. Which he also said to Kara Swisher:

And right now as long as the Republican Party is a cult around the former president. They just need to be beaten. The most corrosive thing that Donald Trump did over four years was this relentless attack on the truth.”

And if you can persuade someone, however falsely, that the other side looks down on you, you will never win over their support. And so I think Donald Trump gave a daily dose of poison into the body politic.”

And Donald Trump couldn’t do this on his own. He had a lot of enablers. The enablers that I frankly hold most responsible are the men and women I served with in Congress who surrendered everything they cared about, everything they professed to believe in, to uphold this deeply unethical man who was tearing at the fabric of our democracy. So before members of Congress point fingers, we need to do our own introspection. Had leaders in the G.O.P. stood up to Trump instead of so readily capitulated, we would have avoided this.”

So he agrees with the basic point, he just doesn't like the word “enemy.” I think that's a fair point, it really is a toxic word, however accurate, and it has a sense to permanence to it, perhaps, when we know that many of those who are currently enemies are just weak (or bought), and can switch back to being opponents, just as the recent New York Times profile of some of the worst rioters on January 6 indicates that they were reflecting crowd behavior, a weakness of character, rather than just the evil that it seemed to be, and was.

I really wonder if there are plans I'm not aware of to beat back this Trumpist coup – there must be, of course there are. And if there are such plans, it would make sense for the Democratic officials to tell their constituencies, be confident, and concentrate on turnout.

So, I came away little the wiser on Democratic policies, but I did get a sense of Adam the person, and I'm quite sure he is a really good and very smart person. It was great to meet him in person.

But the larger set of questions I had prepared still stand. They are worth thinking and worrying about.

So this guy Adam Schiff is really impressive. Who knows what his future will bring? Speaker, AG, SCOTUS? Whatever, we're lucky to have him there in leadership now. I do worry that he is too much the lawyer and not enough the man directing action, but I have no doubt that, when the need arises, he will meet it.

I'd like to be as optimistic as he says that he is, and it really is hard to think how an entire nation can be so deluded and disillusioned and devoid of true hopes for the future as these awful Trumpists are. How can the worst come to rule? But, the unthinkable has happened before, and what we think we know always has to be approached with humility. How often do we not know what we think we know? In the end we do our best and try our hardest and hope. What else can one do?

But I have to say, I hope the plans of our leaders extend must further than we are given to see. The nice lady I was sitting with at the breakfast, Beth, said she was afraid that the knife the Democrats are bringing to a knife fight is a butter knife. I'd say that's a pretty widely held sentiment.


Budd Shenkin


Saturday, October 16, 2021

We Take What Life Gives Us

 

We take what life gives us,

Because we have no choice.


We work with what we have.

We build and we alter and we plan.

We complain and we praise and we give thanks.

We take what we can get.


We deny and we get angry,

We bargain and we get sad,

And in the end we have no choice but to accept.


We take what life gives us,

We really have no choice.


Is it good? Is it bad? Is it fair?

Who knows?

It doesn't matter.

It just is.

Until it isn't.


We live in the memory of others,

And then not even that.


So we might as well laugh.

I mean, what the fuck?


Budd Shenkin

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Opponents Or Enemies? Defining Trumpism

 [This is a summary of the longer article which can be found at: https://buddshenkin.blogspot.com/2021/07/americas-six-freedoms-guide-to-our.html]

A major task of politics is to decide if the party you are struggling against is an opponent or an enemy. Opponents agree on basic issues and values; enemies don't. Now that Trumpism appears to have overtaken the Republican party, it is especially important for non-Trumpists to define whether Trumpists are opponents who should be negotiated with and compromised with,  or if the gulf is so wide that seeking to destroy Trumpism is the only viable option.

In 1941, seeking to define the difference between traditional Western civilization and the threatening fascist forces, Franklin Roosevelt enunciated the Four Freedoms as essential to our values: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. This summary of basic values has endured.

In the 80 years since FDR's speech, two other freedoms have come to be essential to us: Freedom from Discrimination, and Freedom of Fair Elections. That gives us Six Freedoms to tally our scorecard. Does Trumpism agree with these values, or threaten them? This six-fold test finds Trumpian Republicans pretty far outside the bounds of the Six Freedoms:


  • Free speech: Trumpist Republicans irresponsibly abuse free speech by using it to foster the Big Lie as a conscious matter of policy, a basic abuse that essentially negates the basic right.

  • Freedom of religion: Trumpist Republicans repeatedly press positions that place religious beliefs over civic laws, and Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices increasingly support these positions, with possible reversal of Roe vs. Wade pending.

  • Freedom from want: Trumpist Republicans support the new enhanced levels of economic inequality, as particularly evidenced with tax cuts, and continually seek to pare back safety net programs.

  • Freedom from fear: Trumpist Republicans obstruct reform of discriminatory policing, support freedom to carry weapons of war, and defend and encourage armed militias who march with torches, assault the Capitol with gallows erected, and chant “they will not replace us.”

  • Freedom from discrimination: Trumpist Republicans are strongly anti-civil rights, catering to perceived grievances of whites, often supporting white supremacy.

  • Freedom of free and fair elections: Trumpist Republicans have supported Russian interference with elections, support rejection of honest election results, and support voter suppression legislation across the country that even includes legislation and candidates that will serve to disrupt electoral mechanics. 

     

A fair reading of these positions reveals such serious dissent with traditionally held values that it is impossible to present them as positions of opponents rather than positions of enemies.

In fact, a strong case can be made that this outline of beliefs and practices reveals Trumpism to be in its essence a fascist movement.



Budd Shenkin

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Ads For Democrats -- The Medium Is Still The Message

So far as I can see, the Democratic party's idea of conveying a message is mired in the past. “Paint a picture in words!”  “I can see it now!  “Let me explain it to you!”  “Major speech is coming!”

Really? In the age of the mini-series? This is what passes for political discourse, explanations of policies? Occasionally whipping out a chart? Give me a break.

Oh, yes, there are the ads, 30 seconds or a minute of high-intensity here's what you need to do? Some of the small candidates here and there do a nice job, I guess working with small agencies. I personally like the Lincoln Project ads, making points with imagination. But otherwise, political ads are nuance-ain't-us.

Here are the Democrats, with policies that are so well thought out, so popular if explained, languishing and taking cover from ignorant potshots which focus on the supposed costs. A simple number makes for good viewing, it seems, according to the media whipping up a story. If the Democrats are calling for a brighter, more imaginative future, why can't they use techniques that illustrate a future, or even a present, instead of a past? If the medium is the message, the Democrats seem to be selling the past. If E. J. Dionne is right, as I think he is, that right now Biden needs to go on offense and say, hey, Republicans, I'm for this, why are you against it, is EJ suggesting, what, a few more speeches?

The thing is, it might be a dated concept, so dated that it was even in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, but the medium is the message. How are you going to present it? If it's the same old way, most of the people are hearing, subliminally, more of the same.

What about this:

Imagine a screen with a right and a left panel. On the left is Infrastructure, on the right is Build Back Better. At the beginning, both are black and white, dull and plodding, in the muck.

“If you pass just the infrastructure bill, which we induced 10 Republican senators to cosponsor, you get (flash the images!)”:

  • $110 billion for roads and bridges.

  • $66 billion for railroads.

  • $65 billion for the power grid.

  • $65 billion for broadband.

  • $55 billion for water infrastructure.

  • $47 billion for cybersecurity and climate change.

  • $39 billion for public transit.

  • $25 billion for airports.

  • $21 billion for the environment. 

  • $17 billion for ports.

  • $11 billion for safety.

  • $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.

  • $7.5 bill for electric vehicle charging stations.

  • $7.5 billion for electric school buses.

Flash those pictures, quick, on the left screen, in color. The images are the important things. Then say “– or, if you want to have the Republicans in charge, you get … nothing. And the screen goes a dull gray again. We need this, it's our present and our future, we can afford it, and we can't afford not to have it.”


Then you start on the right screen. You introduce it by saying, “infrastructure isn't just things, the real power of America is its people. We need to invest in our people. Here's what Democrats want for our people.” The right screen goes into color, and we see pictures flash by of what it would be, with the text that no one will remember, because what we remember is images, so let's see those images:

  • $1.8 trillion for investments in working families, the elderly, and the environment. It includes a tax cut for Americans making less than $400,000 a year, lowering the price of prescription drugs, and ensuring the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share of taxes.

  • $726 billion for universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, childcare for working families, tuition-free community college, funding for historically black colleges and universities, and an expansion of the Pell Grant for higher education.

  • $37 billion to electrify the federal vehicle fleet, electrify and rehab federal buildings, improve cybersecurity infrastructure, reinforce border management, invest in green-materials procurement, and invest in resilience. 

  • $135 billion for forest fires prevention, reduce carbon emissions, and drought amelioration.

  • $332 billion for public housing, housing affordability, and equity and community land trusts.

  • $198 billion for clean energy.

  • $67 billion for low-income solar and other climate-friendly technologies.

  • $107 billion to establish "lawful permanent status for qualified immigrants."

  • $20.5 billion for the Indian Affairs enhancements of Native American health and education.

  • $25 billion for small business access to credit, investment, and markets.

  • $18 billion to upgrade veterans facilities.

  • $83 billion for investments in technology, transportation, research, manufacturing, and economic development. It provides funding for coastal resiliency, healthy oceans investments, including the National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund and the National Science Foundation research and technology directorate.


OK, truthfully, the structure and contents of the Build Back Better programs come from various committees in Congress, each of which put in their own wish list. I don't think I'd put that up in an ad at this time, wait until the paring back occurs. Manchin probably has a point here.

But still the point holds. How are you going to present this, aggressively, making the point, creating visuals in digestible bites, distinguishing yourself and your programs? Are you going to give a speech and bring on some charts, 1980 style? Or are you going to be just a little modern, show that the future is now?

Of course, other steps are necessary to show Democratic dynamism. The inimitable Virginia farmer John Flannery says, go after the insurrectionist criminals, if you don't, you're missing the boat! Totally true. Once again, just think of the images. Is there talk, or is there action?

Anyway, that's my two cents. Dynamism sells, and you can't just talk, you have to show.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Vaxxing: Reason Won't Do It, But Moral Suasion and Requirements Will


I.

They can't stop saying, what do we have to do to get everyone vaccinated? Here is the current chart in California by county, comparing number of recent cases (blue bars) to percent vaccinated (green bars), as printed in the East Bay Times on September 25th. It's pretty obvious that the longer the green bar, the shorter the blue bar, and vice-versa. Vaccination works.

 



My friend John Swartzberg is quoted in the article:

'This demonstrates in a poignant way something we have always known,' said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley's school of public health. 'The fewer people vaccinated in a community correlates directly with the risk of getting COVID-19.

'If data presented like this will not change people's minds about getting vaccinated, I don't know what will.'”

Exactly, and of course. But that presupposes several things. One, John supposes that all people share an intellect at least within hailing distance of his own. Which, of course, is not true. Intelligence obeys the Gaussian Curve, and guess what, not only are 50% below the mean, 25% are in the lowest quartile, and let's not follow that reasoning any further down.

Two, thinking that this chart should be self-explanatory and definitive, as it is to John and to me and presumably to you, dear reader, presupposes that the chart will be accepted as truthful. “But they're all lying to us, they have nefarious purposes, they say these things to get you to take the shot that will shrivel or burst your balls.” So, there's that, belief that what we say is true. It is so sad to say that this is not a given. But there is so much lying in the world, so so so much lying, that it is understandable that the man and woman in the street, the man and woman who is destined to be in an ICU someday soon in a theater near you, or someone who this unbelieving and suspicious man or woman comes into contact with, it is understandable that they won't be able to distinguish the distinguished personage who tells the truth and the undistinguished lying scum who lies without conscience and who lies out of habit and who lies because he or she doesn't even really know how to tell the truth. Not all of these people are named Trump, which is too bad, because at least then they would be readily identifiable to everyone.

Or, as my internet friend Karim Emil Bitar quotes Carl Sagan today:

If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you never get it back.”

So, there's lack of ability to draw conclusions, and there is lack of ability to distinguish who is telling the truth.

Plus, there is the infectious nature of group behavior. It can be your neighbors, your workmates, your family, your political party, your tribe. Most people don't actually think for themselves, even those of us who are well-educated. It's pretty hard to reason out everything yourself, every time. Instead, you make your decisions efficiently, and the most efficient way of acting is doing what everyone else is doing, and then rationalizing it by thinking what everyone else is thinking. Thinking, actually, is most often making some sense of what you have just done, or are in the habit of doing, or are about to do because everyone else is doing it. Thinking is often an “afterwards function.”

Now, it does happen to be true that we sometimes actually think about things rationally, and make decisions based on evidence, and we are most likely to do that in the face of novel and threatening situations, although the “threatening” part has two divergent effects – it is alerting, so we are more likely to mobilize our critical thinking facility, but it is also alarming, and thus likely to impede our rationality by emotion. But we in medicine are used to that, so as medical professionals, we look at this simple but eloquent chart and say, “Yup! Makes all the sense in the world. What are those non-vaxxers thinking?”

And then there are the diverters, those who say “freedom!” Which is as full of shit an argument as we are likely to see in our lifetimes. There has been so much written about this fallacy and the intellectual corruption of its perpetrators, I won't go into it here, I'll just say, are you fucking kidding me? Freedom to die and make others die, a personal decision between me and my God? It's a diversion into intellectual mud and slime, so we'll let it rest there.

Finally, my profession of primary care pediatrician compels me to add: so many people “drawing their own conclusions” emphasizes once again how deficient our American system of primary medical care is. If we had decent primary care, if patients could easily access their trusted personal physicians when they needed him or her with few financial or administrative barriers, if you could ring up your doc for a chat – wouldn't people be swayed by that trusted advisor? If we are adding on a deck in the back of our house, do we really figure out all the engineering ourselves, or do we call on a qualified professional? Really, people. It's just another way our medical care system, for all its specialty strengths, has failed us. We turn to specialists to fix us after the fact, when an ounce of prevention administered by our personal primary care system and our public health system could have relaxed the requirements of having as many ICU beds and respirators and Regeneron as we now have.


II

So, if thinking that the eloquent simplicity of the California chart will clear minds and impel action is wrong, what is the alternative?

I have two alternatives. One is an action of the mind, the other is an action of the body politic.

First, the mind. Instead of appealing to reason, appeal to morality. I have outlined the case that non-vaxxing is murder before, in fact, this very month. If you recklessly endanger others, as when you drive drunk, and you have an accident and kill someone, that was a foreseeable consequence and, morally, you have committed murder. How is non-vaxxing different? Only in the ability to identify exactly who killed whom when – but that there was murder, and that the murder was committed by one non-vaxxer or another, is clear. Thou shalt not kill – clear enough?

We should have national campaigns that say – Thou Shalt Not Kill, Vax Now. Let them argue about that, let them deny it, let them obfuscate it, but they will now be playing on our turf – Is it murder, or isn't it? That's pretty good grounds to argue on, better than so-called personal freedom.

That's the moral argument. But even more effective than that is extending what is already happening – trading your decision to vaccinate for society's decision to let you roam free. School, dining, shopping, traveling – the works. Society takes the responsibility to protect the public against drunk drivers, we have an even more pressing public health mission to protect the public against carriers of the deadly virus. Let the resisters whine – pediatric practices have found that when you confront patients with the choice of vaccinating their children or leaving the practice, the great majority will choose to vaccinate and stay, and the great majority of those families who have vaccinated will be grateful for the stance the practice has taken. Just do it. United Airlines appears to be betting on that, and I believe they will win the bet. Let others follow, fully, enthusiastically, joining the virtuous crowd of businesses and associations who protect society and simultaneously protect their own interests.

The group consequence of these requirements will shortly emerge – non-vaxxers will relinquish the ill-given respect for individual choice they now sometimes receive. Let them be segregated. All the group dynamics of action will turn in favor of the majority, as is already happening. No shoes, no shirt, no vax, no school no service no nothing – want to do it yourself and exercise your personal freedom? Go ahead, just do it by yourself, or with other likeminded Northern Idaho Texan secessionists.


III

So, there it is. Reason will take us only so far. Moral suasion and shame need to be added. Then the force of law and independently required restrictions on action will make the tide irresistible. There will be muddy puddles here and there of the voluntarily segregated, where ICU personnel can renew their training and where coffin-makers can ply their trade at a higher level, but the ineluctable path to endemicity will become a highway rather than a windy road, and the rear view mirror will hold the horror, rather than the windshield.

I will trust in that hope.


Budd Shenkin





Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Not Vaccinating Is Committing Murder, Actually

Dial NON-VAXX For Murder

Is deciding to get or not to get vaccinated against COVID a collision of rights, as anti-vaxxers are claiming? Do they have the right not to get vaccinated, because it is a human right to decide what to do with one's own body?

Maybe so. But balancing rights is what a lot of our laws are about. Is the balancing of rights really difficult in this case?

I think not. I think the balancing of rights in this case is a rather open and shut case. The biggest problem is just visibility of the agent of injury.

If you drive drunk, it's pretty clear that you are a menace to others. When you have your accident and injure others (not to mention yourself), and it's clear that others suffer as a result of your inappropriate self-indulgence, then the cause and the victim are right there for all to see. You drank, you drove, you killed. It's not much of a leap for laws to be enacted to prevent these events by forbidding you to do something to your body – drink alcohol to excess – and then commit and act – driving – that may injure others. Note that it's a preventive law, that you “may” injure others. A certain percentage of the time, you will injure others, not every time, there's just a chance. The law weighs in on competing rights in favor of the potential victims, and there are few who will challenge that societal judgement.

Likewise, do you have the right to step outside your house and fire a gun wildly down the street? No, society says not. You must give up your right to do what you want because it may be injurious to others, possibly, some of the time, there's a chance.

In fact, some laws go even further than that. Motorists must wear seatbelts; motorcyclists and bicyclists must wear protective headgear. In these cases, the potential harm isn't to others, but to oneself. Society has judged that the universal law of seatbelts and helmets not only protects the individuals who are protecting themselves, but also protects others, who are influenced by the universality of the laws to follow the societal law-enforced custom. The law protects against the social influence of defiant self-absorption.

It has long been recognized that children must be vaccinated to attend school, and here in California we recently followed the example of West Virginia and Mississippi to strengthen that law. The anti-scientific, spurious reasoning, socially-defiant anti-vaxxers were defeated by reason. Once again, “violation of body” has been judged to be far-outweighed by the social good of resisting epidemic disease.

So, the point – is COVID vaccination different from these examples, or does it fall into the same pattern of other regulations of personal behavior in favor of public safety? The one technical difference, that the vaccines still have only “emergency approval,” was erased for the Pfizer vaccine and will soon be erased for the others, and hundreds of millions of doses have proved their safety.

No, the only difference between non-vaxxing and drunk driving is visibility, the ability to identify the culprit, the agent of death and disease. The arguments against mandatory COVID vaccination are not rational, they are rationalizing. The rationalizers treat the vaccinating decision as one of taste, choosing to support the A's or the Giants, not as a choice between reason and folly. That is sad.

Not vaccinating is like playing Russian Roulette with the gun pointed at someone else's head. It is not dictatorial to choose reason and public safety in COVID vaccinating, rather than prostrate ourselves before specious arguments. We need to mandate vaccinating for any public gathering, including schools and shopping, just as we mandate no driving while drunk.


Budd Shenkin


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, A Reappraisal

The other night Butch Cassidy was on TCM and I watched it and recorded it, and today I watched it again, this time with my wife and her caregiver, so I got to comment and even put some of my comments onto Twitter while I was sitting there, being my own contemporaneous commentator. It was fun! I enjoyed it so much I thought I'd reassess BCATSK here in writing. I'm not sure that my title is right, because I'm not sure I ever appraised it in the first place, except to give it an A+.

I have recurrent fantasies of being in a plane and sitting next to someone I don't know and finding out who they are and making a remark, which is a double fantasy, actually, first from sitting next to them, especially when the people I think of sitting next to would doubtless be flying on a private plane or at the very least traveling with someone, and second, from actually being able to say something, because my experience in the few situations where this has occurred is that I tend to get tongue-tied. But, if I had my fantasy and I was seated next to George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy, and I stayed collected, what I would say is, you are such a genius. There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

But then he would smile and I would want to elaborate. I would concentrate on Butch Cassidy, even though I loved The Sting, too. “Can I tell you what I liked about it?” I'd ask. “Sure,” he might reply, no matter his inner reservations. “Fans!” he might think, “What a bore!”

But what I would strive for wouldn't be to show him how smart I am – my default position, or you could say my fault position – but to relive it with him. And in the end, few people can resist hearing how great they are; I'd rely on that.

First, it's a mournful picture, because it's about time, and time always runs out. It's a nostalgic picture, nostalgia, from the Greek, nostos – return home, and algia – pain. The pain of returning home, or remembering how it was, memory. From the start, when we're told it's mostly true about these people and these deeds, and that they're all dead now. The musical theme that sustains the movie all the way through, especially plaintive at beginning and end, mournful but beautiful. The faux old movies of Butch and Sundance, black and white, speeded up, herky-jerky, the way movies were at the beginning of movies, which was roughly the time of Butch and Sundance.

And time is what's run out for them, we're told very directly. The marshal they visit in the midst of their flight from the hit squad Mr. E. H. Harriman has assembled to capture and/or kill them (we suspect the latter,) this marshal tells them they're doomed, that their time has passed. What can they do? They have to leave the West, because it's been modernized. They go to New York where we are treated to period music and faux sepia still pictures of Butch, Sundance, and Etta in the modernizing New York, where they can't stay, of course. They have to seek the past, which is Bolivia, for them, where the banks are old, the police are rudimentary, the jungle is old. They try to find a place where they can thrive, just as we see now with climate change, where plants and animals try to find a place to survive higher up the mountain until they run out of space.

Even the posse can't work out in this aging West, which Butch and Sundance observe from their second floor whorehouse of choice where they are honored guests, and the old time sheriff is displaced in his posse-talk by a salesman selling bicycles, “the future.” Of course, when the Butch, Sundance and Emma have to leave the West, the bicycle is left with its wheel spinning in a gulch and Butch tells the future it's not for him, he's off for reclaiming the past.

Emma is the only one who knows how to extract herself, although we don't know how she'll do it. But she just up and leaves them as she said she would, so she doesn't have to see them die. They don't have a way out, because they can't leave their charm behind, the charm she loves and we love. She's embedded with the guys, but not stuck with them.

The sensibility of the movie is exactly 1969, when it came out. They are self-conscious about the changes around them, and they exhibit grace under pressure. It's all going to end, but we'll be clever and appreciate every minute that remains, carpe diem. In 1969, of course, we couldn't see the future, but we could certainly see all the changes that had happened, and we were savoring every minute. I can't say we had the same foreboding that Butch and Sundance had, but there was Vietnam, there were nukes, and there was Nixon. Plus, with changing mores, having two guys and a girl wasn't so outlandish – sometimes it seems Butch and Sundance are really married, they bicker like it. How refreshing!

I love the craftsmanship of the movie. The distinct scenes, or segments, or whatever they're called. The card game, the Hole in the Wall leadership challenge, the first robbery, at Etta's place, the bicycle montage (no talking) with BJ Thomas's Raindrops and Etta's what if it were you and me Butch, the second train robbery where the money flies in the air and they laugh at themselves (look what we did! We are totally crazy!), the big chase where corporate interests are out to wipe them out, the big vistas of the Southwest and how little the people are but how intense vs. the immobile background, back at Etta's and definitive change under pressure with the packages and the buggy, New York as an interlude with sepia stills and contemporary-sounding music in the foreground (no talking), Bolivia, going straight and ironically only then killing people (Think Vietnam. In the movie the only killing is done by the corporate interests or the government, except when Butch and Sundance protect themselves), and realizing what Butch and Sundance are doing to Latin America as the Banditos Yanquis, even when they are charming. The use of music is just genius, Burt Bacharach – I hadn't realized it was him. That's what got me watching it for the second time, I realized I was humming it.

I don't know a lot of movie jargon; there must be a word to using film technique the way “painterly” portrays painting. But whatever the word is, Hill tells the story in movie technique that is native to the art. Music and pictures not words in New York and on the bike. Music as the leitmotif. Sepia vs. technicolor ( Kansas vs. Munchkinland.) It's so filmic.

So, what I'd say to George Roy Hill is, man, I just can't get over I'm sitting next to a genius. You really are, no matter what else you do, no matter who else you are, what a gift you have, and what a gift you have given. But it's not likely this will happen. GRH was born in 2021 and died in 2002 of Parkinson's. See how film cheats time? He's gone, but we still have Butch.

And, oh yeah, I should have added that, as my friend Bob mentions, "you could have at least nodded at William Goldman who wrote the damn thing.  All Hill had to do was point the cameras in the right direction."  Needless to say that Bob is a writer.  But if Goldman sat down next to me, I'd say the same thing, and ask him who did what.

OK, so this is not really a reappraisal, it's a recelebration, a resavoring, a reversion to my own past of hopes and dreams. I think I'll watch it again. Maybe tomorrow. As soon as I get through Season One of The Bridge. I guess not too much is going on in Shenkinland.


Budd Shenkin