Tomorrow’s Front Page

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Quote:

Numbers alone cannot possibly measure the impact of the coronavirus on America… As the country nears a grim milestone of 100,000 deaths attributed to the virus, the New York Times scoured obituaries and death notices of the victims. The 1,000 people here reflect just one percent of the toll. None were mere numbers.

Patricia Dowd, 57, San Jose, Calif., auditor in Silicon Valley.
Marion Krueger, 83, Kirkland, Wash., great-grandmother with an easy laugh.
Jermaine Farrow, 77, Lee County, Fla., wife with little time to enjoy a new marriage….

From Joe Biden:

36,000 Americans could be alive today if President T—– had acted sooner.

The hard truth is D—– T—– ignored the warnings of health experts and intelligence agencies, downplayed the threat COVID-19 posed, and failed to take the action needed to combat the outbreak. It’s one of the greatest failures of presidential leadership in our history.

We all need to vote for every Democrat in November and damage that other party for decades to come.

Nobody Knows

I’ve been avoiding predictions about the world to come. It’s all speculation. Mark Lilla of Columbia University agrees:

The public square is thick today with augurs and prophets claiming to foresee the post-Covid world to come. I, myself, who find sundown something of a surprise every evening, have been pursued by foreign journalists asking what the pandemic will mean for the American presidential election, populism, the prospects of socialism, race relations, economic growth, higher education, New York City politics and more. And they seem awfully put out when I say I have no idea. You know your lines, just say them.

I understand their position. With daily life frozen, there are fewer newsworthy events to be reported on and debated. Yet columns must be written, and the 24/7 cable news machine must be fed. Only so much time can be spent on the day’s (hair-raising) news conferences or laying blame for decisions made in the past or sentimental stories on how people are coping. So journalists’ attention turns toward the future.

But the post-Covid future doesn’t exist. It will exist only after we have made it. Religious prophecy is rational, on the assumption that the future is in the gods’ hands, not ours. Believers can be confident that what the gods say through the oracles’ mouth or inscribe in offal will come to pass, independent of our actions. But if we don’t believe in such deities, we have no reason to ask what will happen to us. We should ask only what we want to happen, and how to make it happen, given the constraints of the moment.

Apart from the actual biology of the coronavirus — which we are only beginning to understand — nothing is predestined. How many people fall ill with it depends on how they behave, how we test them, how we treat them and how lucky we are in developing a vaccine. The result of those decisions will then limit the choices about reopening that employers, mayors, university presidents and sports club owners are facing. Their decisions will then feed back into our own decisions, including whom we choose for president this November. And the results of that election will have the largest impact on what the next four years will hold.

The pandemic has brought home just how great a responsibility we bear toward the future, and also how inadequate our knowledge is for making wise decisions and anticipating consequences. Perhaps that is why our prophets and augurs can’t keep up with the demand for foresight. At some level, people must be thinking that the more they learn about what is predetermined, the more control they will have. This is an illusion. Human beings want to feel that they are on a power walk into the future, when in fact we are always just tapping our canes on the pavement in the fog.

A dose of humility would do us good in the present moment. It might also help reconcile us to the radical uncertainty in which we are always living. Let us retire our prophets and augurs. And let us stop asking health specialists and public officials for confident projections they are in no position to make — and stop being disappointed when the ones we force out of them turn out to be wrong. (A shift from daily to weekly news conferences and reports would be a small step toward sobriety.)

It is bad enough living with a president who refuses to recognize reality. We worsen the situation by focusing our attention on litigating the past and demanding certainty about the future. We must accept what we are, in any case, condemned to do in life: tap and step, tap and step, tap and step….

She’s Voting for Biden Regardless

Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, America’s oldest politically progressive magazine, is voting for Joe Biden:

I would vote for Joe Biden if he boiled babies and ate them. He wasn’t my candidate, but taking back the White House is that important. Four more years of T—- will replace what remains of our democracy with unchecked rule by kleptocrats, fascists, religious fanatics, gun nuts, and know-nothings. The environment? Education? Public health? The rights of voters, workers, immigrants, people of color, and yes, women? Forget them. And not just for the next four years: A T—- victory will lock down the courts for decades. I cannot believe that a rational person can grasp the disaster that is Donald T—- and withhold their support from Biden because of Tara Reade.

I would say this even if I had no problems with Reade’s account—after all, Biden will be running against T—-, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 25 women….(I’ll leave it to others to explain why the writer E. Jean Carroll’s claim last summer that T—- raped her in a department store dressing room in the mid-1990s was a one-day story, while Reade has been all over the news for weeks.)

Fortunately, I may not have to sacrifice morality to political necessity. When I started writing this piece too many long days ago, T—- [lovers], Berners, and many feminists alike supported Reade’s allegation, first made public on March 25 …, that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 when she was a staffer in his Senate office. I was on the fence. I wrote, “I’d like to know more” on Twitter and Facebook and was reviled as a feminist hypocrite—interestingly enough, mostly by men. It was also mostly men who demanded that I sign on immediately to #IBelieveTara.

I take women’s accusations very seriously, but there have always been reasons to be skeptical about this one. To believe Reade, you have to believe that Biden put her up against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers on the spur of the moment in a hallway in the Capitol complex, where she says she was looking for him to give him his gym bag. This corridor, which she can’t precisely identify, is a public space. (Her lawyer said he assaulted her in “a semi-private area like an alcove.”) Indeed, Reade told Megyn Kelly that before she caught up with Biden, he was talking to another person. It was the middle of a workday. To believe Reade, you have to believe Biden would take that risk.

Pollitt goes on to discuss other reasons for doubting the allegation. She says Reade’s story has changed “over and over” (“Reade’s claim of supposed “retaliation” by Biden’s office exists in so many versions I got a headache trying to keep them straight”). She calls Reade’s account of filing a sexual harassment complaint “similarly bewildering”. She questions the credibility of people who say they heard about the assault years ago. Pollitt also points out that Reade has written approvingly of Vladimir Putin and is a Sanders supporter who made her allegation at an opportune moment in the campaign. Pollitt concludes:

Do plenty of famous, powerful men molest less-powerful women? Of course. #MeToo has made us all aware of that. Many studies show that most women who say they have been sexually assaulted are telling the truth. However, when you’re dealing with actual individuals, it isn’t good enough to go with generalities…. Otherwise, you get arguments like those of the feminist philosopher Kate Manne, who writes in The Nation that Biden is “the type” of man who would sexually assault Reade, because he has “a demonstrated history of handsiness.” That’s like saying a man accused of armed robbery is “the type” because he was in the habit of shoplifting. Touching women, invading their space, commenting on their bodies, looking them up and down are all regrettably common, especially among men of Biden’s generation; impulsively assaulting a staffer in a public hallway, not so much.

… Her supporters compare her favorably to Christine Blasey Ford, who waited even longer to come forward with her accusation that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party when they were both in high school. Democrats believed Ford, they say, and doubt Reade for political reasons…. it may even be true that some find Ford more credible because, unlike Reade, she has led a solidly middle-class life of professional accomplishment and respectability. But it’s also true that Ford did not change her story, testified under oath, took a polygraph test, and had four sworn affidavits from people she told about the incident plus her therapist’s notes.

As I write, Reade’s story seems to be falling apart. PBS NewsHour has posted an article based on interviews with 74 Biden staffers, who spoke highly of their boss and his respectful and enlightened behavior toward women. One staffer, who had worked with Reade, said her office problems had to do with her poor performance at the task they shared, answering mail from constituents…. NewsHour reporters investigated the hallway where the assault is alleged to have happened and determined that there was no “semi-private area like an alcove,” as her lawyer claimed, where Biden could have assaulted Reade unseen.

An article in Politico portrays Reade as a manipulative, dishonest user who exploited acquaintances and kind people who tried to help her over the years, and who always spoke proudly of her time working for Biden. Of course, liars can be raped, users can be raped, people who skip out on the rent can be raped. But it is an intentional misreading to say, as some have claimed, that the article slams Reade for being poor. Very few poor people trick veterinarians into billing others for medical care for their pet horse.

We may never get to the bottom of this to everyone’s satisfaction. I certainly won’t be holding my breath waiting for the journalists who ran with this story on very little evidence to climb down, let alone apologize. On Twitter, Biden is still a rapist, and perhaps always will be. Meanwhile, Reade and her supporters have made it harder for the next woman who claims to have been sexually harassed, assaulted or raped. False claims are rare, as I mentioned earlier, but they loom large in the public imagination. People still remember Tawana Brawley, who was not, as she claimed, raped by a gang of white men, including police officers, over four days in the woods in upstate New York—and that was 33 years ago.

Here’s what I do know: Whether or not you believe Tara Reade—and I’m betting that the case for believing her is going to get weaker rather than stronger as the weeks go by—you should vote for Joe Biden if he is the nominee. And he is almost sure to be the nominee, despite the best efforts of some Sanders supporters to use Reade to force Biden to step aside. Moreover, there is nothing hypocritical about feminists supporting Biden. We have a perfect right to support the candidate who will be better for women and their rights than the one who will send us back to the 1950s. It is the only intelligent thing to do. Not only is Tara Reade’s claim far from proven, weighing the personal against the political is what voters do all the time….

I realize Democrats and those to their left care deeply about their principles. Al Franken was hustled out of the Senate, after all, on the basis of far less serious—but better attested—allegations than Reade’s. But this time we need to take a leaf from the evangelicals, who enthusiastically support D—- T—- and don’t give a hoot that 25 women have accused him of various kinds of misconduct or that he paid hush money to a porn star. They don’t care about his dishonest finances, either, or his still-unrevealed income taxes or indeed anything detrimental about him. What they care about is what D—- T—- will do for their issues: install Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, for starters.

Whether or not you feel in your bones that Tara Reade is telling the truth, the evidence is just not there. We do not have the luxury of sitting out the election to feel morally pure or send a message about sexual assault and #BelieveWomen. That will not help women at all. Or anyone else.

Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology — edited by Michael Krausz

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says relativism “has been, in its various guises, both one of the most popular and most reviled philosophical doctrines of our time”. I’d say of all time, at least since the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said “man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”. Plato strongly disagreed.

The encyclopedia offers this by way of introduction:

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them. More precisely, “relativism” covers views which maintain that—at a high level of abstraction—at least some class of things have the properties they have (e.g., beautiful, morally good, … justified) not simpliciter [or simply, in themselves], but only relative to a given framework of assessment (e.g., local cultural norms, individual standards), and correspondingly, that the truth of claims attributing these properties holds only once the relevant framework of assessment is specified or supplied. Relativists characteristically insist, furthermore, that if something is only relatively so, then there can be no framework-independent vantage point from which the matter of whether the thing in question is so can be established.

So we might ask whether helium atoms have two protons. Physicists and chemists would say yes, absolutely. A simple-minded relativist might say it depends on our way of thinking or our conception of the world.

Or we might ask if human sacrifice is and has always been morally wrong. Many of us would say yes, absolutely. A relativist, not being simple-minded at all, might say it depends on what culture we’re talking about. It wasn’t morally wrong for the Aztecs 500 years ago. They thought it was necessary to stop the world from ending. It should go without saying that we’re totally against it now.

Trying to understand relativism better, I read this 500-page collection of articles on the subject. More than thirty philosophy professors and a few scholars from other disciplines weigh in. The articles were mostly interesting and not too technical. However, the only conclusions I reached are that there are many kinds of relativism, some more plausible than others, and that I need to take some time and think about which kinds, if any, are plausible to me.

Headline: T— Accuses Obama of Being “Grossly Incompetent”

From political activist Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion:

If you’re a thief, accuse your enemies of thievery. If corrupt, accuse your rivals of corruption. If a coward, accuse others of cowardice. Evidence is irrelevant; the goal is to dilute the truth and the case against you with “everyone does it”.

T—-’s unfounded attacks on others of the things he is demonstrably guilty of aren’t mere projection. They are a tactic to lower the moral bar for all, to wave off his corruption and abuse as normal.

This has been the ploy of dictators for decades, to say that anyone accusing them of crimes is a hypocrite. Not to say they are good, but that we are all bad, that there is no good or evil, no truth, just power.

Unquote.

Although T—–, being a fool, takes it one step further. He brags that he is, for example, the most competent person in the world, making himself look ridiculous, in addition to monumentally dishonest.

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

I used to update another blog every time I finished a book. I’d summarize the book and offer an opinion or two. An Ingenious Device For Avoiding Thought is still out there, but I’m going to discuss the books here now.

Watchmen is a 1980s comic book/graphic novel that deals with a bunch of caped crusaders, similar to Batman, in an alternate timeline in which America won the war in Viet Nam and President Nixon never resigned. There is one character with actual superpowers, the result of a horrendous accident. Watchmen has a terrific reputation:

“A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium.”—Time Magazine

“WATCHMEN is peerless.”—Rolling Stone

“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of WATCHMEN have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review

“Groundbreaking.”—USA Today

It was adapted for a movie in 2009 and an HBO series last year. I saw the movie and some of the TV series and was interested enough to get a copy of 2013’s deluxe, hardcover edition. I would finally see what all the excitement has been about.

I’m sure Watchmen would have been more interesting if I’d read the original twelve comic books when they came out in the 80s. Its “costumed adventurers” or “masked vigilantes” and their violent exploits would have been more novel back then.

Reading it in 2020, I was disappointed. It was good enough to keep reading, but overall it was repetitious and sometimes boring. There are two interesting characters (the dangerous, extremely intense Rorschach and the naked blue superhero with godlike powers, Dr. Manhattan) but too much of it has the feeling of a soap opera. The artwork is decent but the only reason I finished it (aside from a bit of Puritan work ethic) was that I wanted to see what one of the characters — said to be the smartest man in the world — eventually does to New York City. Recurring characters who hang out at a newsstand, an extended parallel story involving 17th century pirates and a troubled mother-daughter relationship were especially tedious.

So, that’s Watchmen, an entry in Time‘s list of the 100 best novels written since 1923 and, according to someone at the BBC, “the moment comic books grew up”. I guess you had to be there.

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