Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Dishonor System

There was an excellent op-ed in today's newspaper on mask-wearing as the COVID pandemic starts to wind down.  I say it's excellent, of course, because it largely agrees with me, especially this bit:

I am astonished that the CDC and local and state health departments are explicitly depending on the honor system for unvaccinated people to continue mask wearing. When did personal responsibility become an effective public health strategy? Public health officials have never relied on people to act responsibly or prudently. That’s why we have public health regulations.

The people most eager to get rid of masks and to attack vaccination requirements are people without honor: people who produce fake vaccination cards, people who make fake legal arguments about discrimination, people who harass and even assault workers in businesses that require masks, people who tried to force the country to re-open even at the peak of cases last year, people who wanted to force others back to work without safety requirements in jobs that were heavily hit by the pandemic.  In my state, Indiana, they included Republican legislators who tried -- ultimately successfully -- to hobble public health measures, and who now want to cut short extra unemployment benefits in order to force (or so they hope) reluctant workers back to low-paid, unsafe jobs.  And, of course, there's considerable overlap between this stance and the claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

Many people, including me, drew analogies to other public health measures, such as the regulation and inspection of food establishments.  As it happens, a South Bend restaurant was recently closed by the board of health after longstanding multiple violations of the health code, culminating in two cases of food poisoning.  It emerged, however, that over the past couple of years the board of health had cut back on inspections and largely stopped public hearings on businesses with major violations.  The rationale was that they wanted not to subject the offenders to bad publicity that might hurt their business - which is, of course, the whole point of public hearings.  Despite all their fine talk of "choice," this policy had the effect of preventing the public from making informed choices.  It might have been defensible if the board quietly brought the offenders to compliance, but as this case showed, they quietly let the offenders continue to disregard the health of their customers.  It's not certain whether this case, emblazoned on the front page of the paper, will produce a return to transparency.  What is certain is that the push to eliminate public health protections isn't limited to infectious diseases.

As low as my opinion is of such people, I admit that I find their positions baffling.  We know that many of them remained steadfast in their denial of the seriousness of COVID-19 even when they got sick themselves -- even when they died of it, or when people close to them died.  But no matter.  Those who claim that they're entitled to disregard the health of others are wrong, both morally and legally.  They don't have the right to lie about their vaccination status.  They don't have the right to spread infection.

Myself, I still put on a mask when I enter businesses and other enclosed spaces, even though I've been vaccinated.  The more infectious, more virulent Delta variant of COVID-19 has been found in 37 states so far.  If we don't get another big wave of infections, wearing a mask won't hurt me and it won't hurt other people either.  As other people have observed, wearing a mask will probably also protect against the routine illnesses -- colds, flu -- that tend to spread in the fall and winter; it's why many people in East Asia have routinely worn masks for years.  The pandemic isn't over yet, but it's not all we have to worry about: the right-wing attacks on the public health system are partly meant to ensure unpreparedness for the next pandemic, but they aren't just about COVID,

Friday, June 11, 2021

Your Department of Redundancy Department

Someone put this headline on a syndicated column in an area newspaper today.  I got used to such gaffes from the student paper at Indiana University, but thanks to venture capitalists cutting costs, professional journalism seems to me to exhibit them more and more.

It happens on TV and radio too.  In particular I've noticed what I think of as wandering adverbs, where modifiers stray from where they weirdly ought to be, to my inner ear anyway.  (My placement of "weirdly" is meant as an example of the tendency.)  Maybe it's just a case of language changing; I don't know.

In the same issue of today's paper, there was a story about sexual harassment in the Fire Department.  Several women firefighters sent a letter to their administration, declaring:

We come to work expecting a workplace free of harassment and violence, yet when it occurs it is treated like a slap on the wrist, even when the accused captain freely admits to the actions ... and this was his first offense!

This probably is a case of language changing, where the writer doesn't really think about the cliche she's using; if enough people make this mistake, it may become the standard form.  I presume the writer meant that the offense is punished with a slap on the wrist.  And I'm not judging -- I've garbled a figure of speech or two in my day.  But when it appears in print, it's especially jarring.  

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The End Times May Be Upon Us

Ah, NPR, you even make Pete Buttigieg look good.  Today Morning Edition had him talking about the end of Biden's negotiations on an infrastructure bill with Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito.  The only real information that emerged is that other Republicans are stepping up to negotiate in her stead; from the headlines I see, you'd think it was totally over.  But host Rachel Martin and Buttigieg kept referring to the Republicans as "bipartisan," as if there were more than one party in the GOP.  You could make a case, I suppose, that the party is divided between moderate Republicans and the Trump fanatics, but that would be mere propaganda at best; and anyway, it is still one party.  So far.

Buttigieg impressed me mildly today, though.  Not enough that I'd ever vote for him, but as a party apparatchik he's improved.  He stayed on message with none of his usual tone-deaf platitudes, and -- something I can't remember having heard anyone do before -- every time Martin tried to interrupt, he bulldozed smoothly over her before she could get a full word out.  The transcript isn't up yet, but I doubt it will show her inchoate starts and stops, so I commend the audio for your pleasure.

Martin finally managed to get out the question she seemed to think most important: Will Congressional Democrats resort to reconciliation to get the bill through the Senate?  Buttigieg seemed to think it was important too, because he refused to simply say Yes, though that was the upshot of his reply: It's got to be done.  He might have borne down harder on the fact that Biden's programs are popular, and supported by a majority of voters in both parties.  I've seen a number of notices like this one, reminding us that numerous important bills passed without bipartisan support; it's sad, perhaps, but partisan obstruction is never an excuse.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

My Five-year-old Could Do Better Than That!; or, Don't Be A Dick, Dawkins!

Dawkins strikes again!  I feel guilty for giving this tweet attention, but I'm procrastinating very hard on a more serious post, so I beg your indulgence.


Worse yet, Dawkins is deliberately trolling here, just trying to get a rise out of people like me: it's a mistake to take his remarks seriously enough to rebut them. 

I'll begin by saying that (to my shame) I have not yet read Kafka's "Metamorphosis."  That means I have no stake in defending its excellence, but then I don't think anyone could get a rise out of me by attacking the value of any work of art, even those I know and love very well.  You disagree that such and such a work is great?  Fine, go be somewhere else now.

I imagine that Dawkins has somewhere told us which works of literature he considers great, and I'd bet they're unrelentingly middlebrow.  His reference to Animal Farm here is all I have to go on.  I'm very fond of Animal Farm, which I first read on my own in fifth or sixth grade, but I don't consider it a great or "major" work; I'm not sure what those words mean in this context, but I think it's a minor work, very teachable, and the sort of story that people who don't care about literature are apt to like.  People love to find correspondences and secret messages in art, from biblical apocalypses to Dylanologists and those who believe that the Beatles' later work is full of coded references to the death of Paul McCartney to The Da Vinci Code to The Lord of the Rings.

The same might be true of "Metamorphosis."  It's reasonable that the premise - an ordinary man wakes up one morning to find he's been transformed into a giant bug -- would grab the ordinary reader's imagination. It's hard to see why even Dawkins would miss that.  Some commenters on his tweet replied that it's an allegory of a low-level clerk's life, which is a fair guess from what I've heard.  Even if that's true, however it doesn't confer greatness on the tale.  And pardon me for not believing that Dawkins has put much effort into understanding the "scholarly answers."

It happens that I just finished reading David Lodge's novel Nice Work (1988), about a feminist literary scholar and a Thatcherite businessman who are thrown together and learn to look beyond their respective fields.  Like the previous two novels I've read by Lodge, it's characterized by a humane generosity that is conspicuously absent from the writings of Richard Dawkins. I'm also working my way slowly through John Rodden's The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of 'St. George' Orwell (1989), of which I may have more to say later.  So far Rodden is summarizing the often contradictory meanings people have found in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, and in the word "Orwellian," which he notes "constitutes a supremely ironic instance of doublespeak" (34).  That's less because of Orwell's literary brilliance than his nose for the Zeitgeist, but maybe that's what makes a literary work "major."

So far it doesn't appear that Dawkins has posted again to scold Twitter for failing to understand the "obvious" intention that he hid very well in the original Tweet.  It's always entertaining to watch him digging himself in deeper.  Don't let me down, Dick!

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Lesser-Evilism in Peru

NPR continues to wake me up in the mornings with predictably skewed "news" coverage.  Today Morning Edition's summaries twice claimed that in Peru's upcoming presidential election, voters must choose between "two unpopular candidates."  That was all: they didn't even name the offenders.  I suppose they are saving real coverage for the coup that will surely ensue if the left-wing guy wins.  It's odd, though, because NPR, like US mainstream news in general, prefers to report on what hasn't happened yet; why aren't Steve Inskeep and Noel King asking some corporate think-tanker "what we can expect" in Peru if the Commie is elected?

Left-wing guy?  C'mon, it was obvious: left-wing candidates and (worse) winners have been troubling the sleep of US and Latin American elites for some time now.  And when I looked it up, sure enough, the current front-runners in Peru are Keiko Fujimori, the far-right-wing daughter of a famously corrupt former President -- think of her as the Ivanka Trump of Peru -- and Pedro Castillo, a former schoolteacher who "attained prominence as a leading figure in the 2017 teacher strike in Peru" according to Wikipedia.

Fujimori and Castillo emerged as the front-runners in a field of seven, which included a member of Opus Dei who scourges "himself daily to repress sexual desire" and "a former goalkeeper for the Alianza Lima football club".  Castillo came in first on April 11, but without a majority, hence the runoff.

NPR's characterization of Fujimori and Castillo as "unpopular" is dubious at best.  It may accurately describe Fujimori, with her baggage as the scion of a vicious right-winger, but Castillo came more or less out of nowhere, from only about 2% in the polls in March to the front-runner, ahead of candidates with a lot more name recognition.  (That Fujimori only made it to the second round with 13% of the vote confirms that she, at least, really is unpopular.)  According to Jacobin's article, he didn't even have a Twitter account, and "So unlikely was Castillo’s first round triumph that CNN failed to locate a photo of the candidate in time to announce his victory."

Unfortunately, like many on the Latin American left, Castillo embraces a "pronounced social conservatism".

Castillo opposes the legalization of abortion, same-sex marriage, and policies promoting gender equality — a stance unremarkable on its face given those same positions, in one form or another, are common to many of the region’s progressive leaders.

But Peru is also, along with Brazil, one of the Latin American countries where religious fundamentalism has made the biggest inroads into national politics. Rafael L√≥pez Aliaga of the Popular Renewal party almost made it into the second round by branding himself the “Peruvian Bolsonaro,” and Peru is home base for the “Con mi hijo no te metas” campaign, a continent-wide propaganda movement that incites hatred against women and the LGBT community.

This is not good.  (Remember, though, that US liberals and progressives rallied deliriously around an antigay Democrat in 2008.)  Read the whole Jacobin article for details and nuance; it's much better than the usual suspects.  Even if you're not sympathetic to the left, left-wing media tend to do a better job of covering the news than the respectable corporate media.

"Two unpopular candidates" is what I'd expect from NPR.  Aside from the probably unconscious echo of the 2016 presidential race in the US, what it means is that Castillo is unpopular among those who really matter: wealthy Peruvians and US political and media elites.  I'm not sure why they wouldn't like Fujimori, though.