A Few Thoughts About Twitter

People often say Twitter is a virtual hellhole. That may be true for people who are well-known and write about controversial subjects. I’ve been off and on the site for a few years and found it a nice way to stay informed about current events, mainly politics, and occasionally read something funny. It all depends on who you to choose to follow and interact with. I recommend Paul Waldman of The Washington Post (for politics), Paul Krugman of The New York Times (for politics and economics), Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (for politics and news if you can tolerate an occasional Wordle tweet), David Roberts (for politics and climate if you don’t mind your blood pressure going up) and Conan O’Brien (for humor and relatively few plugs for his podcast). 

Today I read an article by a philosophy professor named Justin Smith that’s mainly about Twitter and the way negative comments often pile up (getting a lot of comments usually means they’re negative). He thinks some famous people and big organizations like lots of negative comments because it shows they’re important.

One thing I’ve noticed about Twitter is that a popular way to dismiss someone’s “tweet” (I wish it was called something else) is to point out how few followers they have, as in “Why would I respond to someone who only has 12 followers?” It’s a classic ad hominem attack (for other examples, see this).

What I found is that the best way for an average person to acquire followers – and thereby appear significant – is to follow them. They often reciprocate and follow you. But that creates a problem. The more people you follow, the more tweets appear in your feed or timeline. Prof. Justin Smith follows 141 accounts. A journalist I follow follows 800. Another journalist follows 3,392. There is no way to keep up with tweets from that many people.

When I eventually acquired 50 or so mostly reciprocal followers (only 50!), I quickly realized it was necessary to mute most of them. That meant I’d still be their follower but not see any of their tweets. I expect that’s what being a follower means for many on Twitter, especially for those who “follow” a lot of people. They “follow” but don’t really.

Prof. Smith says nobody is on Twitter “for dialogue”. But I’ve found that following a few insightful, clever people and occasionally leaving a comment is the most satisfying way for me to use the site. Yesterday, for example, I read a NY Times article (that I won’t link to) about the US Senate that suggested Sen. Krysten Sinema (“Democrat” of Arizona) had an unanswerable argument for keeping the filibuster just the way it is. I found the reporter on Twitter and left a comment, disagreeing with her view. Last time I checked, it was the only comment she received. Perhaps she read it. Although it’s less likely it will change her mind about Sen. Sinema’s arguments, there’s no harm in giving feedback to a reporter.

I myself am following 13 Twitter accounts and am “followed” by 12. Sen. Sinema doesn’t fall into either category. (The Arizona Democratic Party, a major contributor to getting Sen. Sinema elected, has censured her because of her failure to protect voting rights.)

I just realized that I’ve said something positive about five white men and something negative about two white women. I don’t recommend following me.

Virus Update

First, the bad news:

The United States surpassed its record for covid-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday, with no end in sight to skyrocketing case loads, falling staff levels and the struggles of a medical system trying to provide care amid an unprecedented surge of the coronavirus.

Tuesday’s total of 145,982 people in U.S. hospitals with covid-19 . . . passed the record of 142,273 set on Jan. 14, 2021, during the previous peak of the pandemic in this country.

But the highly transmissible omicron variant threatens to obliterate that benchmark. If models of omicron’s spread prove accurate — even the researchers who produce them admit forecasts are difficult during a pandemic — current numbers may seem small in just a few weeks. Disease modelers are predicting total hospitalizations in the 275,000 to 300,000 range when the peak is reached, probably later this month.

As of Monday, Colorado, Oregon, Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia had declared public health emergencies or authorized crisis standards of care, which allow hospitals and ambulances to restrict treatment when they cannot meet demand [The Washington Post].

In the U.S., 840,000 confirmed deaths and 1,700 every day (almost all of whom are unvaccinated). However:

Scientists are seeing signals that COVID-19′s alarming omicron wave may have peaked in Britain and is about to do the same in the U.S., at which point cases may start dropping off dramatically.

The reason: The variant has proved so wildly contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after it was first detected in South Africa.

At the same time, experts warn that much is still uncertain about how the next phase of the pandemic might unfold. . . . And weeks or months of misery still lie ahead for patients and overwhelmed hospitals even if the drop-off comes to pass.

“There are still a lot of people who will get infected as we descend the slope on the backside,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which predicts that reported cases will peak within the week.

The University of Washington’s own highly influential model projects that the number of daily reported cases in the U.S. will crest at 1.2 million by Jan. 19 and will then fall sharply “simply because everybody who could be infected will be infected,” according to Mokdad [ABC News].

What’s happened in South Africa, with omicron as the latest spike: 

Finally, a note from France [The Washington Post]:

In an interview with France’s Le Parisien newspaper, [French President Emmanuel] Macron shared his thoughts about France’s unvaccinated population. He did not mince his words. “The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” Macron said. “And so, we’re going to continue doing so until the end. That’s the strategy.”

The English translation hardly does the comment justice. In French, the verb he used is “emmerder,” which means, quite literally, to cover in excrement. The ire is difficult to translate, but in French it is crystal clear.

Actually, it’s quite easy to translate using the verb form of a different four-letter word — followed by “on them”.

PS: The Rittenhouse Case

Another observer, Kurt Eichenwald, makes a good point:

. . . the biggest villains here are the Kenosha police, who refused to protect protesters by treating right-wing, gun-toting civilians as adjuncts to law enforcement. THAT is where politics & white supremacy should be most condemned – it’s institutional and allowed the streets to be filled with thugs like Rittenhouse, whose mere presence created the potential for this. But the presence of these dangerous people was not a crime.

These Brief Words About the Rittenhouse Case Sound Right to Me

Seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, saying he wanted to protect private property. This was during unrest following an earlier incident in which a policeman repeatedly shot an unarmed black man. Confronted and pursued by demonstrators, Rittenhouse killed two and wounded another. He claimed his actions were self-defense.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo responded to Rittenhouse being found not guilty:

A few thoughts on this verdict. It’s probably obvious I think it was a bad verdict. But I think we have to look more broadly at the result. People disagree. Juries make bad decisions. There’s nothing new about that. But what we have in the country right now are three factors.

One is highly permissive self-defense laws. In some cases, the statutes are okay but they’re interpreted too heavily or entirely in the defendant’s subjective perception of danger. In other “stand your ground”-type cases, they’re just bad laws. But the upshot is similar.

You also have a situation where any yahoo is now allowed to bring a high capacity firearm into an already tense or potentially violent situation. Usually they come with a chip on their shoulder or a political agenda. Then if they get scared they can start shooting.

It didn’t get a lot of attention but the judge essentially threw out the law that bars minors from open carrying in Wisconsin. So literally a kid can now show up with an AR to “help” and that’s okay.

Finally we live today in a very polarized, very divided society in which some people’s lives and inner experiences count a lot more than other people’s. You can say that that really means white people’s count more. And that’s generally right. But it’s not only that.

As long as murder is okay as long as you were feeling the right thing at the moment you killed the other person, that makes something as foundational as killing wildly subjective and makes the decisions jurors make too dependent on their own private definitions of good guys and bad guys.

None of these factors are new exactly. But together they create something genuinely new in this political moment. Add in the increasingly public acceptability of political violence on the American Right and you’ve got a powder keg confluence of factors that will make resorts to violence and general murder safaris not only more common, but also acceptable under the law.


I’ll add two things. The first is that the extreme polarization in our society is the result of the right-wing’s descent into fantasy and authoritarianism. Countries with conservative political parties that are actually conservative, not insanely radical and not gun-crazy like the Republican Party, aren’t as polarized.

The second is that the judge dismissed the gun charge because the weapon Rittenhouse had wasn’t illegal, according to Wisconsin’s law. For whatever reason, “the law allows minors to possess shotguns and rifles as long as they’re not short-barreled. . . When [the prosecutor] acknowledged that Rittenhouse’s rifle’s barrel was longer than 16 inches, the minimum barrel length allowed under state law, [the judge] dismissed the charge (Associated Press). In other words, according to the letter of the law, it’s fine in Wisconsin for a minor to parade around with a dangerous weapon if its barrel is longer than 16 inches. The prosecutor could have appealed the judge’s decision, since it contradicted the spirit of the law, but didn’t bother. It wasn’t the prosecutor’s only mistake.

A Brief Note On Ending It All

Five years ago, according to The Guardian, the Dutch health and justice ministers sent a letter to parliament saying that people who “have a well-considered opinion that their life is complete, must, under strict and careful criteria, be allowed to finish that life in a manner dignified for them”. The law they proposed would only apply to the elderly (the age of 75 was mentioned). There would be “safety mechanisms, including third-party checks, reviews and supervision”. Presumably, an old person who decided to end it all would be helped to get their affairs in order (e.g. a will would be prepared or reviewed). Further down in the article, it’s suggested that the law would only apply to the terminally ill, regardless of whether they were in pain.

The author Kenan Malik referred to this proposal on his site and called it “calamitous”, without explaining why. I’m sure the nursing home industry would hate it. But speaking as one who has reached the age of three score and ten, I think it’s a great idea. And I don’t see why you’d need to be terminally ill to take advantage of such a law.

A person who’s lived a long life should have the right to make a graceful, well-planned exit when they feel they’ve seen and done enough. You shouldn’t be forced to hang on for dear life if you don’t think life is dear enough to hang onto anymore. It’s your life. You lived it. You should be able to decide when it ends.

According to its official government site (which is in English, at least for me), the Netherlands only allows people to request euthanasia if they are “experiencing unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement”. So that wise proposal from the health and justice ministers wasn’t adopted.

To sum up the official position, therefore, you were brought into this world without any choice in the matter. You should stay here until fate or the government says you can leave.