Pandemic Polemic

May you live in interesting times. Not, it seems, an “old Chinese curse,” but a curse no less. The article linked above has a good quote from an 1898 speech delivered by Joseph Chamberlain, father of Neville Chamberlain:

I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. (Hear, hear.) I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety. (Hear, hear.)

Seems fairly apropos today. We are dealing with a polarized electorate, due at least in part (I mean, it’s always been somewhat polarized) to the intentional creation of right-wing media outlets, purportedly to counter a “liberal bias” in the media at large. We are living under a presidency that is the natural outcome of that. A surprisingly substantial percentage of the population of the U.S. has been brainwashed to believe that the sole sources of truth are Fox News and the president himself. Woe to those who’ve bought into that fallacy, as it’s exceedingly difficult to extract people from cults. Common sense should tell you that a single source of news is dangerous, especially when that news source is in league with the government, but you know what they (Voltaire) say about common sense.

While I consider myself liberal and progressive, I do not believe in a “my way or the highway” approach to governing, as the Tea Party movement of the GOP does, who advocate for a no compromise approach to governing — all conservative, all the time. I believe that governing necessarily requires compromise. America is a large and diverse country, and to believe that either party, which earns the sympathy of about half the population, should rule over the nation in the way they see fit just seems wrong.

So add to this our current COVID-19 pandemic. Even given a (hypothetical) thoughtful and organized response to this challenge, it would have been difficult. But this president and his “news” network chose to minimize the danger, chose to politicize this struggle that does and will affect Americans of all stripes, and given the choice would opt for hypothetical short term economic gains over American lives. If you previously thought the president’s mendacity and ignorance were somehow harmless, it should be abundantly clear by now that they are quite literally harmful.

I’m not at all sure I can claim to be hopeful, but I do believe there are opportunities for some positive things to come out of this terrible time. If people could take the following to heart, then something positive could come out of the coronavirus pandemic.

1 People should realize that facts are supremely important. We need to be able to agree on facts. Not alternative facts, not Liberal facts or Conservative facts. Without that, we are adrift in a stormy sea of opinion and feelings. There is a place for both of those things, but they don’t take the place of facts.

2 The news must be a place for facts. There cannot be be Right Wing news or Left Wing news. Having a Free Press has been vital to this country. The press cannot be an extension of the government, as Fox News is with the current administration. You don’t have to look far to see the evils that state sponsored media allow.

3 Science is the rigorous process of seeking truth and facts. While it is not perfect, it is the best way that humans have come up with to discover fundamental truth. Science must not be politicized, and scientists must not be silenced to further any particular political agenda. The truth must come first; politics only comes after the truth is known. But again, science is a process for getting to the truth. Our understanding of truth improves over time by the use of science. Pointing out the errors of science only proves that the process works.

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

Susan and I are fans of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. We can’t always stay up late enough to watch both, but we often at least watch the Daily Show. And those we miss, we often catch in re-runs, given how frequent their vacations are. (On a side note, as I told a friend recently, I find it ironic that a show that’s on 4/7 days, and which regularly takes 2 week breaks, calls itself the Daily Show).

Jon Stewart’s announcement of a rally in DC for people who don’t go to rallies, but who feel that this country’s political ‘discourse’ has devolved into a shouting match, struck a nerve with me. My consumption of news typically involves listening to NPR on my commutes, catching the headlines on Google News throughout the day, and watching the Daily Show. Stewart’s presentation of the events of the day, and his coverage of the coverage of the events of the day, are refreshingly thoughtful and honest at the same time they are bitingly sarcastic and humorous.

In a world filled with disposable sound bytes, the Daily Show instead stores up those sound bytes and recycles them later to expose plainly the dis-ingenuousness of politicians and pundits. This is a regular feature on the Daily Show: playing a sound bite from today’s news, showing some pol being indignant at something the other side said or did, followed by countless examples of the same person doing or saying just what he was indignant about. Certainly, it does nothing to reduce the level of cynicism in the country, but it does reveal just what political creatures our politicians are, by and large. As if that should surprise us.

Stewart usually has interesting guests, both from the entertainment and political worlds, and his interviews are often hard-hitting and substantive. He is rarely deferential, though aside from his habit of interrupting his guests, he is generally respectful. His interview of President Obama was, I thought, quite good and meaty. At the same time it was amusing to see how painful it was for Stewart to not interrupt Obama!

So I was looking forward to hearing about the rally, or even watching part of it. I felt it would be a great contrast to Glenn Beck’s “Rally to Restore Honor.” To me, Beck personifies dis-honor. He is an actor; a snake-oil salesman playing his audience for all they’re worth, all the while claiming to to be fighting the good fight. It saddens me to realize how easily a significant portion of the electorate is fooled into buying what Beck, Sarah Palin, and others of their ilk are selling.

When Susan suggested I should actually take Emma (also a fan of Stewart and Colbert) to the Rally, I was immediately dismissive of the idea. But somehow the thought stayed with me, and I later ended up looking into transportation costs. Flights cost way too much, and much to my disappointment Amtrak (especially the Accela) was even more expensive than the cheapest flights! I had just about given up when I looked at Southwest, and found an early flight there and a late flight home that cost $39/leg BOS to BWI and back, so I pounced. Slightly less than $200 for transportation, and no need for a hotel. We could have driven, but that would have required a night in a hotel or an insane amount of driving in a single day. In short, flying Southwest was the only economically viable option.

When we arrived at BWI, we took the shuttle bus to the train station and were surprised to learn that the commuter trains didn’t run on Saturday. Amtrak added some extra trains to handle the crowds, and we were able to take a train in, but it cost the two of us $34.50 instead of the $12 I was expecting. Oh well. The trains back to the airport at the end of the day, however, were sold out. We would have to find another way back.

We arrived downtown at perhaps 10:30 or so, and simply followed the throng to the National Mall. People were streaming in from all directions, and the Mall was already absolutely packed. We squeezed in at the first break in the barriers, but couldn’t get anywhere that Emma could actually see over enough heads to see one of the JumboTrons. So we walked back out (which was a challenge!) to Madison Dr. NW, then down to 7th St. where we hung out for a bit, but ultimately we decided to try to get closer and walked up Jefferson Dr. SW. We ended up in a spot near Jefferson Dr. between the walkway and 7th St.

We essentially stood in that spot for about 4 hours, from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., moving only to let people through. If I didn’t say it before, the Mall was packed!

There were speeches, musicians, awards, entertainers, and at the end, Stewart gave a heartfelt speech that you should give a listen to, if you haven’t already.

All in all, Emma and I shared a great day in DC. The weather was perfect, and we were as close to Stewart and Colbert as most people ever get, even if they looked far away. I take great comfort that the only scientific crowd size estimates for Beck’s and Stewart’s rallies document Stewart’s as the larger by far. The Right will tell you that the media has a known Liberal bias, while “we” like to say that the Truth has a Liberal bias. Truthiness, ironically, is a Conservative value.

After the rally, Emma and I walked around DC a bit because she wanted to see the White House. So, we walked down the Mall to the Washington Monument, then up 15th St. to Pennsylvania Ave. to the White House. Then I took us the long way back to the subway, passing by other stops to get back to Union Station, which was a mistake. I could write a whole post on my errors in navigating public transportation in DC, but I will resist the urge. In a minor miracle, we managed to get back to the airport about 40 minutes before our flight departed, breezed through security, and unexpectedly ran into our former tenants at the gate waiting for the same flight!

Here are some pictures from our brief visit: