Birx and Redfield, Equivocal Leaders

Birx stung by first public attack from Trump

C.D.C.’s Dr. Robert Redfield Confronts Coronavirus, and Anger

 CDC director: COVID-19 reporting change was made without agency’s input

Two medical doctors with military backgrounds are uncomfortably serving the Trump administration on its Coronavirus Task Force. Both have good reputations as physicians, but they continue to flounder through the political flak that Trump creates.

I keep wondering why they don’t quit. But it’s obvious they’ve got important jobs and so feel the need to eat a little Trumpshit to maintain them. Dr. Birx is now getting it from both Trump and Pelosi, so her situation gets hotter. Dr. Redfield just wants to be a good researcher yet doesn’t seem capable of heading the once-world-renowned-now-faltering CDC.

Both these folks are out of their depth, as are so many of Trump’s appointees. It’s not stretching things to say that the country’s response to COVID-19 has suffered because of their limitations. Learning to play politics with health care is not something either appears to have signed up for.

Dr. Birx, the scarf lady, is famous for sitting on her hands when Trump floated disinfectant and UV light as a cure. She can’t decide which side of the fence she’s on, so she’s taking it from both sides. Most recently Trump called her “pathetic,” then went on to praise her. Speaker Pelosi also let her have it last week:

“Deborah Birx is the worst. Wow, what horrible hands you’re in,” she is quoted as saying [in a meeting with Mnuchin and Meadows]. She also described Dr Fauci as a “hero.”

There’s your reward for having an office in the West Wing.

Redfield’s problems began with the still unresolved testing debacle at the CDC at the beginning of the viral crisis. He has still not accounted for what happened, but something bad did and as a result the country is way behind on any significant testing.

Last week he was blocked from giving testimony to a Congressional committee on school openings. The week before that, the administration pulled the rug out from under him by ordering all patient data on COVID to bypass the CDC and go directly to HHS. Hospitals now claim chaos in reporting, and the data of course are ripe for political massaging. Redfield’s comments were a study in milquetoast response.

Birx and Redfield are both trying to do their jobs under most difficult circumstances. We give them that. But both are operating under impossibly conflicting demands—speaking the truth as leaders or keeping their jobs as toadies. Each finally has to determine, one way or another, to stand up to Trump, whose political position now I think is too weak to fire them. Well, does either have the guts to do this? I’m not betting on them.

The Maskless Ones

A Detailed Map of Who Is Wearing Masks in the U.S.

Texas ‘wide open for business’ despite surge in Covid-19 cases

Rep. Louie Gohmert, and the rest of the anti-maskers, are beyond irrational

The band struck up “Louie Louie.”

We pretty well know why Trump goes maskless. One reason is his vanity; the other is political: if he masked up, his persistent denial of the virus would be in jeopardy. Lordy, if he would only test positive, it could change the course of the disease. His toadies might just rethink their maskless lunacy.

Masking only works if a great majority wears them. The way things are going now in the U.S. we are in for a long onslaught of plague. Obviously, the virus numbers grow as the fools unmask and gather in bars, etc. Texas is the prime example. Despite a mandatory mask order, people continue flocking to “bars, restaurants, movie theaters and shopping malls” because Republican Governor Greg Abbott called them “wide-open for business” back in May. Interesting, isn’t it, that Republican governors have been responsible for most of this confusion nationwide.

This past week that wise old dog, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert, tested positive and cheers went up from Democrats everywhere. Gohmert has consistently gone unmasked in the halls of Congress, spraying droplets everywhere and pissing off everyone from Pelosi on down. Meanwhile the band struck up “Louie Louie.” Remember that one?

And Republicans, not just Trump followers, form the overwhelming majority of the maskless. It’s their protest, not against science, but against reason—of which they have a bare minimum. Some of them chant, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Said Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: “there are more important things than living. And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.” He noted he’d rather die than see the economy destroyed. Well, Dan, you are in line for the first Louie Gohmert Viral Dysfunction Award.

The maskless are making their statements not just in Texas and the U.S. but around the world. Russia, the U.K., Germany, the Scandinavian countries—they’re all opening up. The reasons for this behavior vary, of course, “But some might be to show defiance, to make a political statement, to somehow express or feel like they are free and can do whatever they want.” Add to that a general distrust of government.

Such behavior is basically childish, and one of the prime examples is the Mexican president, López Obrador. He takes pride in going maskless, like Bolsonaro and Trump. He recently said, “I am going to put on a mask, you know when? When there is no corruption anymore, then I will put on my mask.” Mexico now has the third highest death toll in the world and corruption is more than ever a fact of life.

Asking people to grow up is certainly a fool’s errand. But how many will have to die before they wake up? Said Virginia Heffernan, LA Times writer, “Refusing to wear a mask is like supporting the fire against the fire department. It’s like openly sneezing into a packed elevator. It’s stupid. It’s also kind of disgusting.”

Going Out for Butter: A Break from Mexican Solitude

One of life’s necessities is having butter for your morning toast. Without that you have to resort to jam or some dumb substitute like cream cheese. Toast without butter is like Washington without the Redskins. Excuse me, it’s now the Washington Football Team.

So, after some hesitation this morning I fired up the car and drove to the supermarket. (There are no butter stores nearby.) I did pause out of concern for the climate. Driving to the store would involve burning gasoline, polluting the atmosphere (if slightly) and making an “unnecessary” trip. Butter won out, naturally, and I salved my conscience by deciding to make other culinary purchases so as to prolong the time before the next trip.

At the store I donned my ill-fitting mask and walked up the nonfunctioning escalera móvil. The butter selection at the store was, as usual, disappointing: a whole lot of tasteless Mexican mantequilla and none of the stuff I like, Danish Lurpak or French Président. They used to carry those brands off and on, but no more. I had to settle on something called Lynncott unsalted, which is not too bad.

Completing the rest of my purchases (I forgot the milk) and heading to checkout, I reflected that settling for second-rate butter was God’s punishment for a) being so choosy and b) making a self-indulgent trip to buy it. While I was there, I thought I’d check out the gin and found Boodles on sale for thirty percent off! God was smiling after all. Gin and butter, nothing better.

So the trip was a success after all. A break in the viral solitude is worth a lot, and even something as mundane as going to the supermarket is a welcome diversion. You get to see other people in ill-fitting masks, driving their carts fast to get in the shortest possible checkout line. You see the checkout clerk, patient behind her face shield while a customer badgers her for a few more pesos discount. Like cattle we wait to get through the line and out to pasture. Human nature in the supermarket is worth watching.

On Race

Miles Davis beaten by New York cops, 1959

In one of his better bits, Lenny Bruce imagines a prison movie with a Black guy on death row: “Fried chicken and watermelon,” the guy sings, “fried chicken and watermelon. Well, boss, you don’t mind dyin’ if you’ve got a natural sense of rhythm.”

In the 1960s I learned a lot from comedians about how ludicrous racism was. Then came Richard Pryor. In one of his lighter moments he reported being stopped by a cop: “I. Am Reaching. Into. My. Pocket. For. My License.” Pryor’s standup routines were often a lot more obscene and stinging. Then came Dave Chappelle and others who went on from there.

Comedy turns the light on racism, but it’s never enough. The laughter diffuses any guilt or shame on the part of the audience. You can laugh when the comic says “nigger” because you’d never use that term. It’s easy to recognize racism if it’s not your own. But if it’s your own, it’s often hidden beneath the cultural veneer that covers all of us.

Recent events have burst the bubble that liberals are somehow exempt, that they’ve beaten the rap. I grew up in one of those liberal environments where mild racism was tolerated if not approved. As a high school kid I worked summers in a Shell service station in Wilmette, Illinois, with a big jovial Black man named George. At lunchtime we’d sit in his old Packard where he kept a pint of Southern Comfort in the glove compartment. And we’d have a tot.

At home my parents lived in something approaching the grand manner. We had three resident, live-in domestics, none of whom were Black. And yet in 1950 mom and dad threw a blowout party featuring Louis Armstrong’s band. This, to be sure, was entertainment, not atonement. George would have been welcome but not as a guest.

In my college years and later I became a diehard jazz fan, soon to meet and form friendships with Black musicians, later to write about them as a critic and reviewer. Some, like Charles Mingus and Thad Jones, became good friends. The relationship was reciprocal: I wrote about them; they taught me about music and Black culture. We had a connection.

For a time I got to thinking about jazz in a Crow-Jim way—that only Blacks could access and play the authentic music. Well, that’s not true, of course, and the idea was an outgrowth of racism. But by living and working in New York in the 1960s it was easy to think you had escaped the curse of racism.

We’ve learned recently that no one escapes that curse. In the 1968 election I voted for Dick Gregory and felt virtuous about it. But no one is beyond the curse. The Washington Post just told us that John Muir, the environmental icon and founder of the Sierra Club, was a straight-up racist. Colin Kaepernick—the great quarterback who lost his career by taking the knee against police brutality—has been rejected by all the NFL teams who refused to sign him. It would have been “bad for business.”

Racism is so embedded in our society that it’s always been part of how America does business. The story of Fred Trump and his exclusion of Black renters is hardly unique. I’ve come to think that racism is part and parcel of that other American characteristic, exceptionalism. The common notion that America is in many ways superior to other nations and peoples is still widespread, and not just among Trump supporters. It’s only one step from exceptionalism to chauvinism. And, unless the protests can take hold, that’s where we are today. Still, it’s pretty clear that the American century is over.

Maybe our recent turmoils and protests are a hopeful sign. But I’m too old to march, and my contacts with Black people are now limited by where I live. Mexico offers its own homegrown varieties of racism and prejudice. It sometimes makes you think these attitudes are irreversible and built in to every culture.

Conrad’s Passing

I lost one of my best friends the other day. Some of you knew him, and those who didn’t should have. Conrad LaRiviere was a fixture of our expat life in Oaxaca while he lived here. He moved back to the U.S. nearly six years ago, settled into Phoenix, and we had an interesting email correspondence, some of it too foul for publication.

We planned to do a joint book on geezers that never came off. At one point he wrote, “Please god, send these two aging geezers interesting, attractive women. We’d appreciate it!”

I seem incapable of writing the standard tribute here. So let me give you a piece of fiction about Conrad that I recently published in Moot Testimonies, a pseudo memoir in the form of a journal. For Conrad I wrote some words pertaining to our relationship as follows:

I assisted in John’s apostasy from American life in more ways than one. He and I have been good friends, buddies, since his arrival when we both took part in Maestra Laura Olachea’s Spanish classes. We were a bunch of American castaways and misfits endeavoring, for various reasons, to start over. They foolishly thought that learning Spanish would give them entré into Mexican life and culture. JG and I knew better.

But the classes were fun and Laura was a great teacher. We had group presentations—like a Christmas play that some of us wrote and performed in. John was the Little Drummer Boy, and as we sang along he tapped out “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum” on his little tambor and the crowd greeted this with gusto. Laura’s group really did give us gringos a foothold into Mexico and became a happy shelter for many. Goodman and I dropped out after we had totally corrupted the group, and of course our Spanish suffered.

Before leaving the U.S. I had traveled a lot, bouncing around the country, and at one point held a soft kind of job, teaching audiology at the University of Maine-Bangor, and so Goods and I had the Maine connection in common plus the hapless circumstances of academic life—like tenured colleagues who couldn’t teach, and rambling, boring departmental meetings. We were linked together by our views on politics, religion, government, wine and pot. I drank a lot of box wine out of cheapness, and JG always had a comment on that. I have this fine pad in Jalatlaco with a big roof garden where in fine weather we would repair to smoke dope and consider the follies and glories of mankind.

Last year we hosted a notable Christmas party on the roof to honor not Jesus but Christopher Hitchens, one of our heroes, who had passed on in December three years before. I read from his works, highlighting his vigorous comments on renouncing all religion, and then we sang Christmas carols. Oaxaca embraces all types.

I’m thinking about leaving Mexico, however, to go back permanently to the U.S., a decision no one can understand. My friends all thought I’d become a fixture here, the life of the party. Well, there were a couple of disappointing, one could say unrequited, affairs of the heart that fell apart, and I began to think on the prospect of finally giving up on any serious female connection. I don’t need the tsuris, as Goods would say, and I’ve seen and done all Oaxaca has to offer. So part of me is just tired of being the house liberal, and I think Goods has felt the same way. Every progressive cause has its downside. Living in a liberal bubble like Oaxaca can get tiresome.

After all, we are the privileged caste, aren’t we?—the white folks who call ourselves expats, so unlike those Nicaraguan and Mexican “migrant workers.” I recently read a piece in The Guardian about this. Arabs, Latinos and Asians are immigrants; we and the Europeans are favored and called expats. Well, I can’t get too exercised about this linguistic snobbery, though many of my Oaxaca friends are always preaching from that liberal state of mind where every last kind of injustice must be called out as unfair, insupportable or immoral. I come from good French-Canadian stock, working class folks who had no money or time for such bullshit. Mainers by and large don’t put up with such bullshit. They can’t afford the indulgence.

Goodman gave up on the American Way, maybe for similar reasons. He was disheartened with his past relations with women, which had often ended unhappily, and he was broke besides. He could have continued on in the U.S. but why? Life is less indulgent here. For some of us, a change of scene is just a necessary part of life.

The Politics of Lunacy

  • On the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday, President Donald Trump talked about dishwashers, dryers, shower heads, and faucets. . .[while] the U.S. shattered its single-day record for new coronavirus infections on Thursday, reporting more than 77,000 thousand cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. —David Gilbert
  • Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp urged residents Friday to wear a face mask when in public, two days after blocking local cities from enforcing their own rules to further prevent the spread of Covid-19. —CNBC
  • In Maine, Republican Senator Susan Collins is fighting for survival. You may remember Collins as the self-styled brave independent moderate, who spends most of her working days caving in. —Gail Collins
  • It’s a little weird contemplating Sessions now. Trump’s treatment of him was outrageous, but if anybody’s going to suffer a political stab in the back, you have to be glad it’s the guy whose policies as attorney general ranged from keeping more people in prison longer to “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” —Gail Collins
  • [Arizona Governor Doug] Ducey several times said the increase in cases correlated with the increase in testing. But over the past two weeks, cases increased by 76% and tests increased by just 52%. —azcentral
  • Hardly any leaders even floated mask-wearing advisories until they were themselves neck-deep in a local pandemic crisis. They could not learn from others, only taking actions like these in a sort of last-gasp panic state. —David Wallace-Wells
  • “When you’re in show business, you meet people like Trump, you meet people who literally don’t exist in the same dimension as you; they’re just gone. And that’s what he’s like. He’s like Cosby in a way, these people who are completely deluded and they’ve been famous and all of their wishes are attended to—they lose complete touch with reality,” Apatow adds, calling Trump the “abusive parent to the country.” —Judd Apatow
  • “I don’t want to spend my time doing things that I don’t think are valuable enough to me personally,” [CNN’s Chris] Cuomo said in audio heard by the New York Post and CBS News. “I don’t value indulging irrationality, hyperpartisanship.”
    “I don’t like what I do professionally,” he said. “I don’t think it’s worth my time.” —Julia Reinstein
  • “I’ve never been in a better position professionally, I’ve never been more grateful, I’ve never been on a better team,” Cuomo said Tuesday [the next day] on his SiriusXM show. “I love where I am. I love the position that I’ve been given.” —Mark Kennedy
  • No one in the campaign can control him. No one in the White House even wants to. As CNN’s Jim Acosta put it after this latest disaster [the Tuesday Rose Garden briefing], “We are down to Kool-Aid drinkers and next of kin” at the Trump White House. No one there will stop him, because Trump has worn down every competent, sane person who would possibly imagine working in his White House. It’s the most thankless job in D.C., and rats notoriously leave sinking ships rather than board them. —Rick Wilson
  • In Britain, as in the United States, hooligans have been pulling down statues. And in Britain, as in the U.S., the media have absurdly tried to frame their vandalism as some sort of civil rights protest, as if all they wanted were equal treatment. —Dan Hannon
  • Kanye West is officially on the ballot as a presidential candidate in the state of Oklahoma. —Ben Jacobs

The World According to George

I have always been a fan of the manic nuttiness of George Carlin. I loved him because of the pointed language which just flowed from him, a bubbling spring of praise and put-downs. He drew attention to the verbal tics of contemporary language—like the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp” and euphemisms like “bathroom tissue” for “toilet paper.” More than that, he used common, often foul language to make us react and think.

George’s later years saw him become less of a stand-up comic and more of a hip philosopher—as this video (from 2007) demonstrates. He rails against our contemporary follies, but his words also project the long view of history and what the philosophers call quietism. As a friend of mine used to say, in the long run “it don’t mattah.”

With the present turmoil over social issues and commitment to causes, this may seem like heresy. Today we can’t be convinced that “the planet will heal.” But, finally, Carlin’s is an indictment of human society. He’s the man with the notebook, observing and commenting on the “freak show” we live in.

O Solitudo!

The morning is easy. I have my routines after waking—breakfast, then the computer for an hour or two, checking out email and the news sites. Besides the usual Trumpcrap, there are always a few uplifting pieces like “Unemployment, isolation and depression from COVID-19 may cause more ‘deaths of despair.’”

Solitude isn’t always bleak. I’ve been living alone for years, mostly liking it, but the virus has put a new dimension on it. Instead of filling up one’s down time with friends, amusements and travels, we are for the most part confined to quarters. My life was bound by solitude before this; now there is more of it and it’s enforced.

Things got more pressing after I finished writing and publishing Moot Testimonies a couple of months ago. Searching for another writing project made me anxious and uptight. I finally gave that over for small bouts of exercise, TV, reading, a lot of sleeping, and music—none of which has proved very satisfying. I couldn’t develop or keep to the routines which are necessary to flatten time.

Occasional Zooms with family and friends didn’t do it for me. Trips to the market I eagerly looked forward to: just give me some masked human contact, for Christ’s sake. Finally I remembered Thoreau, the king of solitude, and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It wasn’t despair that I felt but a nagging need to fill time with something productive or absorbing. I think we’ve all felt that.

I picked up Octavio Paz the other day, to reread The Labyrinth of Solitude and its search for Mexican identity. The book begins this way:

Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves. . . . It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work.

We do rely on games or work. In the COVID solitude we have to create them, and that is not easy. Yet if you face the prospect of solitude with some equanimity, you will beat it. We can import or create the routines and rituals that have sustained us, and perhaps they will flourish. What we bring to solitude is what grows there.

A Nation of Nutcases

A Plague of Willful Ignorance

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

Flight from Reason: How America Lost Its Mind

Sometime in or around 1970 I encountered Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Daitch Shopwell supermarket around the corner from where I lived in New York. You couldn’t miss him—a big tall red-faced guy—someone who became important to me in my later political life. Mostly from his famous statement, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

That sentiment has always stuck with me, its relevance never more obvious than right now. Moynihan wrote a paper in 1965 called ”The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which talked about the social pathology and disintegration of Black families. He said, prophetically, ”The principal challenge of the next phase of the Negro revolution is to make certain that equality of results will now follow. If we do not, there will be no social peace in the United States for generations.”

Moynihan was a complex, sometimes fractious man who embodied the best traditions of American public life. His statement about opinions and facts comes home to me especially now when fully a third of Americans (according to Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland) believe in cockeyed conspiracy theories, unproven fantasies of all kinds, and distrust science and reason generally. Climate change is a hoax put forward by “a conspiracy of scientists, government and journalists.”

Paul Krugman recently talked about our partisan culture war in A Plague of Willful Ignorance. That war is expressed in the notion that wearing a mask has become a political symbol, an assault on individual liberty. Krugman finds that “there’s a longstanding anti-science, anti-expertise streak in American culture—the same streak that makes us uniquely unwilling to accept the reality of evolution or acknowledge the threat of climate change.” This used to be called anti-intellectualism.

The tradition goes back to the Know-Nothings of the 1850s and extends through H.L. Mencken’s prescient commentaries in the 1920s about the booboisie: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School pursues the tradition in a more sweeping vein with Flight from Reason: How America Lost Its Mind. The book explores the tribal politics of our time, tracking the unprecedented amount of false belief and misinformation that people continually embrace. From an excerpt:

Ironically, the misinformed think they’re highly informed. “Cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement” is how sociologist Todd Gitlin describes them. A study found, for example, that those who know the least about climate-change science are the ones who think they’re the best informed on the issue. Another study found that those who are the least knowledgeable about welfare benefits are the ones who claim to know the most about it.

The digital revolution in mass communications has made things worse. The need to cast blame outweighs the urge to discover the truth. There is so much misinformation abroad now that it has become institutionalized—and not just in the political parties. Patterson finds that TV hosts from Limbaugh to Maddow “traffic in outrage,” conveying the notion that they alone are the purveyors of truth.

Negotiation between the parties becomes fraught:

When Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree on the facts, they can negotiate their differences. It becomes harder when they can’t agree on the facts. As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once complained when negotiation over a bill broke down, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” Facts do not settle arguments, but they’re a necessary starting point. Recent debates on everything from foreign policy to climate change have fractured or sputtered because of factual disagreements.

But facts are facts, right? The kinds of disagreements about them that Patterson notes are usually bogus smokescreens for fixed opinions. Krugman had it right: “there’s a belligerent faction within our society that refuses to acknowledge inconvenient or uncomfortable facts, preferring to believe that experts are somehow conspiring against them.” The president is leading this parade.

Trump’s Heil Hitler Rally

I write this on Friday, the day before the big event in Tulsa. We are so looking forward to this gathering of the faithful. These idiots have to sign a release to hold harmless the Trump campaign if they get the virus. Some 19,000 jammed-in super-spreaders will foist their viruses on each other, hollering and spraying droplets. Masks are optional. And—who knows?—the population of Trump fans may take a big hit. Tulsa is presently having a surge in virus cases and the rally may soar them to a new record.

I have no sympathy for these people. Any empathy I may have had went out the window a long time ago. Their ignorance about the virus and its capability is matched only by their general mental incapacity. Why would anyone choose to cram together in an enclosed space to listen to the mouthings of the amoral charlatan revealed in Bolton’s book? It’s like a Wagnerian opera with Bolton writing the libretto. Or the Nuremberg rallies of 1933. Will they raise their right arms in salute?

Now Trump has threatened that anyone who shows up to protest will be fair game for the cops:

Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!

You lowlifes don’t know what you’re in for with the Tulsa cops. The city set a curfew (then rescinded it) for Friday and Saturday nights. The jails have emptied in anticipation of a host of new occupants. The tear gas and pepper guns are loaded.

The original date of the rally was Friday, “Juneteenth,” the holiday marking the freeing of the slaves in 1865. Who knows what genius in the campaign set that date? Was it to provoke more of the protests still billowing in waves across the country? The campaign finally changed the date to Saturday, which hasn’t cooled any tempers in the protest community. Nor has it helped defuse the still raw wound of the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa.

According to one account,

As the rally approaches, tensions in Tulsa are boiling. On Friday night, the Rev. Al Sharpton is planning to discuss the state of race and policing in the country. Other activists said they were dreading the weekend.

We’re all dreading it. Sharpton is scheduled to speak at a Black Lives Matter rally. Just what we need—another inflammatory speech by the grandstanding anti-Semite. Why can’t the Black community find another voice? This is one of the most painful times in U.S. history. Tensions like this will not be defused until Trump leaves office. But the anti-Black racism embodied in his administration won’t go out with him.