When There’s Disunity About Unity

President Biden spoke a lot about unity in his inaugural address:

Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now. . . . To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity. . . .

Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the common foes we face: Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness.

With unity we can do great things. Important things. . . .

I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. . . . Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured.

Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, . . . enough of us came together to carry all of us forward. And, we can do so now. History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity.

We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.

For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.

In a phrase, I’d say he was asking that we work together for the common good.

Tom Malinowski, the Democrat who represents New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, put it this way:

Unity doesn’t mean Republicans must become Democrats, or vice versa. We just need unity around telling the truth, respecting the law, defending democratic outcomes, rejecting violence — and restoring some sense of shame and accountability for those who refuse.

The Washington Post editorial board offered their opinion:

The nation’s political system is designed to manage and channel disagreement peacefully and, ideally, with a level of respect and decorum. . . . That system ensures that no one gets everything they want and everyone has a fair chance to appeal to the people.

Unity in such a system requires, first, that the actors within it recognize that one can disagree in good faith. Those with different views are not the enemy of the people, and they should be listened to seriously. Second, unity requires that politicians prioritize achieving things for the country over ruining their political opponents. They should look for win-win scenarios. Third, it requires respect for the process. Leaders should refrain from abusing the system to rout the other side, either when wielding power or obstructing its use.

Mr. Biden appears to be teeing up big initiatives that should appeal to many Republicans, if they intend to meet the president’s calls for unity with good faith. These include further Covid-19 relief, historic investment in U.S. infrastructure and bipartisan immigration reform. . . . 

Republicans should allow Mr. Biden to exercise the usual powers of the presidency without accusations that he is promoting disunity by advancing policies he campaigned on. They can note principled disagreements without resorting to divisive invective. Then they should seek to have their views represented in Covid, infrastructure, immigration and other bills through good-faith negotiation. That’s what unity, in a democracy, should look like.

That all sounds reasonable. But there’s this from Sahil Kapur of NBC News:

When President Joe Biden seeks to fulfill his urgent plea for unity, he will confront a dissonance between the two parties’ definitions of the word . . . Republican leaders have pitched a vision of unity in which Biden refrains from actions that antagonize their base of voters, who, polls say, falsely doubt the legitimacy of his election, give [the former president] high approval ratings and want their leaders to resist Biden’s agenda [or the caricature of Biden’s agenda as “far left” delivered by Fox News]. . .

A poll by the Pew Research Center taken this month captures the asymmetry. Democrats said by a 25-point margin that Biden should work with Republicans to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some of his voters. But Republicans said the opposite: By a 21-point margin, they said GOP leaders should “stand up to Biden” on big issues even if that makes it harder to tackle critical problems.

“Republicans are saying, ‘We can’t do anything with you if you’re radioactive with our base, so please don’t say anything that makes you radioactive to our base,'” said Republican consultant Michael Steel, a former House leadership aide.

As an example, after Biden lifted the ban on transgender troops imposed by his predecessor, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas gave a sarcastic response:

Another “unifying” move by the new Administration?

To which Kyle Griffin of MSNBC responded:

The senator is confused. Or uninformed.

Gallup 2019: In U.S., 71% Support Transgender People Serving in Military.

Military Times: Two-thirds of troops support allowing transgender service members in the military, Pentagon study finds.

We have a new president who believes in unity, by which he means working together for the common good. That can be understood to some extent as embracing policies preferred by a majority of Americans (e.g. raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the rich, protecting the environment, less military spending, not putting children in cages, and so on).

We also have a cohort of Republican politicians who define “the common good” as whatever pleases their most radical supporters, a minority who wanted four more years like the last four and keep pushing their party further and further to the right.

Nobody said this would be easy, but it would help a lot if we could first unify around a common definition of “unity”. Since the odds are strongly against that, Biden and the Democrats need to constantly and quickly work for the common good, even when that makes Fox News’s audience unhappy.

It’s Getting Better All the Time: A List

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post celebrates 50 changes since Biden arrived less than a week ago (it’s a good list, not a perfect list): 

1. You can ignore Twitter

2. The White House briefing room is not an Orwellian nightmare of lies

3. We are now confronting white domestic terrorism

4. We are not paying for golf trips

5. There are no presidential relatives in government

6. The tenor of hearings is sober and serious

7. Qualified and knowledgeable nominees have been selected for senior spots

8. We have a first lady who engages with the public

9. We have not heard a word from presidential children

10. We are now tough on Russian human rights abuses

11. We get normal readouts of sane conversations between the president and foreign leaders

12. The White House philosophy is to underpromise and overdeliver, not the other way around

13. Manners are in, bullying is out

14. You feel calmer after hearing the president

15. Fact-checkers are not overworked

16. Quality entertainers want to perform for the White House

17. We have seen the president’s tax records

18. The president is able to articulate policy details, coherently even

19. The worst the press can come up with is the president’s watch

20. We have a White House staff that looks like America

21. We have a national covid-19 plan

22. Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony S. Fauci is liberated, sounds happy and even looks younger

23. Fauci, not the president, briefs on the science of covid-19 and efficacy of vaccines

24. Masks and social distancing in the White House

25. The White House has policy initiatives and proposals, not merely leaving it all to Congress

26. The administration is committed to releasing information, not covering it up, on the slaughter of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

27. The Muslim ban is gone

28. It is the Republicans not the Democrats who are in disarray

29. The national security adviser has not been fired for lying to the FBI

30. No Soviet-style fawning over the president by his subordinates

31. The president takes daily, in-person intelligence briefings

32. The president does not care about Air Force One colors

33. We have a president familiar with the Constitution

34. Real cable news outlets get high ratings, others not so much

35. President Andrew Jackson is out of the Oval Office, Benjamin Franklin is in

36. Voice of America is back in the hands of actual journalists

37. We get memes about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), not crowd size

38. We are back in the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization

39. Instead of running it like a business, the new administration will try running government competently

40. We have a president who doesn’t think military service is for “suckers” and who doesn’t send his “love” to people assaulting law enforcement

41. The secretary of treasury nominee has her own Hamilton lyrics

42. Amanda Gorman is a household name

43. More than two-thirds of Americans approve of the White House covid-19 approach.

44. No more work-free “executive time” in the presidential living quarters

45. We have a churchgoing president “who has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices.”

46. We have first dogs

47. The vice president’s spouse does not teach at a school that bars LGBTQ students

48. The White House takes the Hatch Act seriously

49. The administration wants as many people as possible to vote

50. The president will talk more to our allies than to Russian President Vladimir Putin

Hazardous to Public Health and National Security

Margaret Sullivan, former public editor of The New York Times, now writes about the media for The Washington Post. Today, she unloads on Fox News and suggests a corporate boycott. Her column is called “Fox News is a hazard to our democracy. It’s time to take the fight to the Murdochs”: 

I happened to be watching Fox News on election night when the network startled the political world by calling Arizona for Joe Biden.

It was a weird moment, without the fanfare that usually accompanied the announcement that a state was being put in one column or another. A few hours later, the Associated Press made the same call.

But many other news organizations, including The Washington Post, took days to reach that daring conclusion. For them, Arizona’s vote count simply remained far too close. . . .

And Txxxxworld was enraged. Losing the traditionally red state would make it that much harder to proclaim that the election was so close that it must in fact have been stolen by the Democrats. It would disrupt the Big Lie narrative. Former president Donald Txxxx’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, even called Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch to complain. But Fox News stood behind the call, which turned out to be correct.

But a lot has changed since then. Last week, two key members of Fox News’s decision desk abruptly departed the network. One was laid off, the other has retired, and some insiders are calling it a “purge.”

Apparently, at a network that specializes in spreading lies, there was a price to pay for getting it right. (“Fox News isn’t a newsgathering organization,” surmised press critic Eric Boehlert, arguing in response to the purge that its White House credentials should be revoked.)

In recent days, Fox has taken a sharp turn toward a more extreme approach as it confronts a post-Txxxx ratings dip — the result of some of its farthest-right viewers moving to outlets such as Newsmax and One America News and some middle-of-the-roaders apparently finding CNN or MSNBC more to their liking.

With profit as the one true religion at Fox, something had to change. Ninety-year-old Rupert Murdoch, according to a number of reports, has stepped in to call the shots directly. Most notably, the network has decided to add an hour of opinion programming to its prime-time offerings. The 7 p.m. hour will no longer be nominally news but straight-up outrage production.

Why? Because that’s where the ratings are.

And in a move that should be shocking but isn’t, one of those who will rotate through the tryouts for that coveted spot will be Maria Bartiromo, whose Txxxx sycophancy during the campaign may well have been unparalleled. She was among those . . . recently forced under threat of a lawsuit to air a video that debunked repeated false claims on her show that corrupt voting software had given millions of Txxxx votes to Biden.

At the same time, Sean Hannity, who likes to blast Biden as “cognitively struggling,” and Tucker Carlson, who tries to sow doubt about the prevalence of White supremacy, have become even more outlandish as they try to gin up anti-Biden rage within their audiences.

Even James Murdoch, while not naming names, blasted the harm that his family’s media empire has done. “The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very much so,” he told the Financial Times. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.”

But it’s his father and his brother, Lachlan, who run Fox, not James.

How to get the Fox News monster under control? I do not believe the government should have any role in regulating what can and can’t be said on the air, although I often hear that proposed. That would be a cure worse than the disease. But let’s not count on the hope that the Fox-controlling Murdochs will develop a conscience.

No, the only answer is to speak the language that the bigwigs at Fox will understand: Ratings. Advertising dollars. Profit.

Corporations that advertise on Fox News [such as Procter & Gamble, Amazon, Kraft Heinz and Verizon] should walk away, and citizens who care about the truth should demand that they do so (in addition to trying to steer their friends and relatives away from the network).

Big companies would never do that, you say? Don’t be so sure.

The Post reported last week that the 147 Republican lawmakers who opposed certification of the presidential election have lost the support of many of their largest corporate backers. General Electric, AT&T, Comcast, Honeywell, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG and Verizon all said they would suspend donations to members of Congress who voted against certifying Joe Biden as president.

This shows, at the very least, that there is a growing understanding that lying to the public matters, that it’s harmful — or “insidious,” in the words of James Murdoch. And that some corporations don’t want to be a part of that.

When you think about Fox News’s role in the 400,000 lives lost to the pandemic and in the disastrous attack of Jan. 6, it’s even fair to call it deadly.

So if reality-based America wants to communicate clearly with Fox News leadership, they’ll have to do it in a language they understand. The language of money.

Unquote.

Sullivan later called attention to an additional point of attack:

Your cable/satellite TV provider pays subscriber fee to carry @foxnews. That cost is passed directly to YOU. Typical household pays #FoxNews $2 per monthh = $20 per year via their cable satellite provider, regardless whether they watch it. DEMAND @comcast @Xfinity #UNFOXMYCABLEBOX.

It wouldn’t hurt if the rich and famous who appear on the Fox Network or rub elbows with the Murdoch clan or serve on their boards of directors began to exert pressure too. Unfortunately, for the most part, such people consistently ignore my suggestions. 

Where We Stand with the Vaccinations

The vaccine is out there. It’s not being administered fast enough. But now there’s a plan. From The New York Times [with commentary included]:

President Biden’s promise to administer 100 million vaccines by his 100th day in office is no longer a lofty goal; it is attainable at the current pace at which shots are going into arms. In fact, some experts have suggested that the president’s ambition is far too modest. [His ambition is to get the whole country vaccinated; his promise was to do 100 million by late April.]

Federal data shows that the United States is already administering about one million doses a day, and even doubling that rate would not cause the country to fall short of distribution capacity or supply. . . . 

Mr. Biden made the 100-day pledge in early December, before any vaccine had been authorized for use in the United States. At the time, experts called the goal “optimistic” given their concerns about manufacturing and distribution capacity.

Since then, two vaccines have been approved and the United States has secured contracts for deliveries of doses through July. And while some jurisdictions have said that they are running out of doses, states and U.S. territories are using only about half of the shots that the federal government has shipped to them, on average. . . .

Pfizer and Moderna have pledged to deliver a combined 200 million doses by the end of March, with an additional 200 million doses to be delivered by the end of July.

Under those circumstances, it is feasible that up to two million doses could be given per day, and Mr. Biden’s goal of 100 million shots could be reached by early March.

But ramping up vaccinations will not be easy. And national supply and distribution figures do not reflect the often complicated local realities.

“The complexity of administering vaccines may grow over the coming weeks as we open up a lot of new provider sites,” said Dr. Julie Swann, an industrial and systems engineering professor at North Carolina State University who was an adviser to the C.D.C. during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Getting shots in arms has already been hard, Dr. Swann noted. Providers get little notice of how much vaccine they will receive, making it difficult to plan and set up appointments. Estimating demand can be tricky too, which means that vaccines may be used more quickly in some locations than others, leading to wasted doses.

“The administration needs to be both fighting immediate fires and putting in the infrastructure to make this work better, too,” Dr. Swann said [which is what the president and his staff are doing, three days after the inauguration].

Unquote.

The new administration has issued a “National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness”. This is the summary of the plan to “mount a safe, effective, comprehensive vaccination campaign”:

The United States will spare no effort to ensure Americans can get vaccinated quickly, effectively, and equitably. The federal government will execute an aggressive vaccination strategy, focusing on the immediate actions necessary to convert vaccines into vaccinations, including improving allocation, distribution, administration, and tracking. Central to this effort will be additional support and funding for state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments — and improved line of sight into supply — to ensure that they are best prepared to mount local vaccination programs. At the same time, the federal government will mount an unprecedented public campaign that builds trust around vaccination and communicates the importance of maintaining public health measures such as masking, physical distancing, testing, and contact tracing even as people receive safe and effective vaccinations. To mount a safe, effective, comprehensive vaccination campaign, the United States will:

  1. Ensure the availability of safe, effective vaccines for the American public.
  2. Accelerate getting shots into arms and get vaccines to the communities that need them most.
  3. Create as many venues as needed for people to be vaccinated.
  4. Focus on hard-to-reach and high-risk populations.
  5. Fairly compensate providers, and states and local governments for the cost of administering vaccinations.
  6. Drive equity throughout the vaccination campaign and broader pandemic response. Launch a national vaccinations public education campaign.
  7. Bolster data systems and transparency for vaccinations.
  8. Monitor vaccine safety and efficacy. Surge the health care workforce to support the vaccination effort.

The plan is only 200 pages long.

Yeah, we’re finally getting an administration that’s competent and wants the government to work. Patience is a virtue.

Members of Congress Want Action from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter

Below is a press release from my congressman. It contains links to letters he and another member of Congress sent to the CEOs of three social media behemoths. The letters represent the view of dozens of representatives. Each letter is worth looking at, since each one highlights specific problems relating to the company in question:

Today, in the aftermath of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, Congressman Tom Malinowski (NJ-7) and Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18) sent letters to the CEOs of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter urging the companies to address the fundamental design features of their social networks that facilitate the spread of extreme, radicalizing content to their users.

Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo, along with dozens of their colleagues, called on the companies to reexamine their policy maximizing user engagement as the basis for algorithmic sorting and promotion of news and information, and to make permanent and platform-wide design changes to limit the spread of harmful, conspiratorial content. 

The lawmakers note that the rioters who attacked the Capitol earlier this month were radicalized in part in digital echo chambers that these platforms designed, built, and maintained, and that the platforms are partially responsible for undermining our shared sense of objective reality, for intensifying fringe political beliefs, for facilitating connections between extremists, leading some of them to commit real-world, physical violence.

To view the full text of the letters and their respective signers click on the links below.

  • Letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook 
  • Letter to Susan Wojcicki and Sundar Pichai, YouTube; Alphabet/Google 
  • Letter to Jack Dorsey, Twitter 

“Social media platforms’ algorithms are designed to feed each of us increasingly hateful versions of what we already hate, and fearful versions of what we already fear, so that we stay glued to our screens for as long as possible. In this way, they regularly promote and recommend white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-government, and other conspiracy-oriented material to the very people who are most susceptible to it — some of whom just attacked our Capitol,” said Rep. Malinowski. “We are urging the CEOs of these large social media companies to make permanent and platform-wide changes to limit the frictionless spread of extreme, radicalizing content – something they’ve shown they are capable of doing but are consciously choosing not to.” 

“For years social media companies have allowed harmful disinformation to spread through their platforms, polluting the minds of the American people. Online disinformation is not just about removing bad content. I see it as largely a product design issue. The algorithmic amplification and recommendation systems that platforms employ spread content that’s evocative over what’s true,” said Rep. Eshoo. “The horrific damage to our democracy wrought on January 6th demonstrated how these social media platforms played a role in radicalizing and emboldening terrorists to attack our Capitol. These American companies must fundamentally rethink algorithmic systems that are at odds with democracy.”

Last Fall, Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo introduced the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, legislation to hold large social media platforms accountable for their algorithmic amplification of harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence.

Rep. Malinowski represents New Jersey’s 7th congressional district. . . .Rep. Eshoo represents California’s 18th congressional district, which includes much of Silicon Valley. . . .