Almost Inconceivable

I can’t believe this could have happened a few years ago. But then our politics was infected by a dangerously demented narcissist. From Susan Glasser of The New Yorker:

[President Biden] came into office promising an end to the pandemic and a return to competent, commonsense governance. . . . . But his first nine months in office have shown pretty conclusively that it is not possible to beat covid in a political environment that has arguably gotten worse, not better, since January.

Consider the news that now one in five hundred Americans has died in the pandemic; total deaths in the country approach seven hundred thousand. What’s worse, covid deaths—the vast majority of them preventable, avoidable deaths, now that science and the federal government have provided us with free vaccines—are continuing to rise across large swaths of vaccine-resistant T____ country.

This is not a tragic mistake but a calculated choice by many Republicans who have made vaccine resistance synonymous with resistance to Biden and the Democrats. The current average of more than nineteen hundred dead a day means that a 9/11’s worth of Americans are perishing from covid roughly every thirty-eight hours. To my mind, this is the biggest news of the Biden Presidency so far, and it has nothing to do with Afghanistan, or the fate of the budget-reconciliation bill, or Bob Woodward’s new book.

America spent twenty years fighting wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East because of 9/11. The 2001 attacks reordered American foreign-policy and national-security thinking for a generation. Does anyone believe that something comparable will happen as a result of the pandemic’s catastrophic death toll, which is far vaster than that of any other crisis in the modern era? It’s hard to imagine, especially because the continuing loss of life is a result of [Republican] political strategies that intentionally undermine the success of Biden’s policies. How can this President, or any President, reset from that?

Biden’s challenge seems all the more clear to me after spending a few weeks away from the daily noise of politics to work on a book about his divisive predecessor. T____ is out of office, but T____-style politics have decisively won over the Republican Party. A new CNN poll this week found that seventy-eight per cent of Republicans subscribe to T____’s Big Lie that Biden was not legitimately elected—more than in some polls in the immediate aftermath of T____’s traumatic exit. . . . [although I wonder how many of them really believe that vs. choosing to tell the pollsters that and thereby spread the lie further].

The partisan split has also translated into a deadly divide in vaccination rates—a tragedy given that vaccines are, for now, the only real way out of this mess. And no wonder this divide persists. It is not an accident or an immutable fact of American political life; it’s a fire built and stoked by T____ and his supporters.

Among the top stories on Fox News’ home page [last week], I could not find a single reference to the pandemic, and little sense that covid even existed, beyond a link to a video headlined “Liberal host torched for labeling GOP ‘COVID-loving death cult’ in bizarre rant.” As I was writing this column, I received an e-mail from one D____ J. T____. The subject was “Biden’s vaccine mandate.” “I totally OPPOSE this liberal overreach that requires Americans to be vaccinated,” T____ wrote. “The Left is working overtime to CONTROL you, Friend,” he warned. Biden, he added, “doesn’t care about you or your freedoms.”

As a matter of politics, of course, this is not necessarily a winning strategy for the Republicans. In California on Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom defeated a Republican effort to recall him by running a campaign painting the G.O.P. candidate as a T____-loving extremist who would undo public-health measures to fight the pandemic. . . . Then again, California is consistently among the most Democratic of Democratic states. . . .

The tragic triumph of T____ism is not that he has persuaded all Americans, or even a majority of Americans, to reject their way out of the pandemic; it’s that he has persuaded just enough of them to keep the disease wreaking havoc on the country.

The [Republican Party’s] desire to see Biden fail has become a willingness to let the country fail. Nine months into Biden’s Presidency, the bottom line is that the Republican war on Biden’s legitimacy and the war on Biden’s covid policies are now inextricably linked. The consequences of this are so hard to contemplate that we often do not do so: a politics so broken that it is now killing Americans on an industrial scale.

Unquote. 

It’s hard to find a lighter note on this topic. However:

photo_2021-09-22_12-03-01

“Shamelessness Is Their Superpower”

That’s a quote from Paul Krugman. Read these few paragraphs and see (1) who it refers to and (2) if it’s true. From Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times:

President Barack Obama promised unity. In his 2008 campaign, he said he would heal the nation’s political divides and end more than a decade of partisan rancor.

To keep this promise, Obama needed allies, or at least partners, in the Republican Party. But they said no. If they could block Obama — if they could withhold support on anything significant he planned to do — then they could make him break his promise. Republicans would obstruct and Obama would get the blame. Which, you might remember, is what happened. By the 2010 midterm elections, Obama was a divisive president.

Joe Biden, in his 2020 campaign for president, promised to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. With additional aid to working families and free distribution of multiple effective vaccines, he would lead the United States out of its ongoing public health crisis.

I think you can see where this is going.

Rather than work with him to vaccinate the country, Biden’s Republican opposition has, with only a few exceptions, done everything in its power to politicize the vaccine and make refusal to cooperate a test of partisan loyalty. The party is, for all practical purposes, pro-Covid. If it’s sincere, it is monstrous. And if it’s not, it is an unbelievably cynical and nihilistic strategy. Unfortunately for both Biden and the country, it appears to be working. . . . 

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected vaccine passports and launched an aggressive campaign against mandatory mask-wearing in schools. “It is very important that we say, unequivocally, no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates,” he told a gathering of conservative activists in Utah last month. DeSantis has suspended city and county emergency orders, put limits on future mitigation efforts, and signed a law that “shields nursing homes, hospitals and businesses from legal liability if employees and patrons contract the virus on their premises.”

All of this, even as the state has been ravaged by the Delta variant of the virus. Florida has been reporting more than 20,000 new infections a day and has averaged 262 Covid deaths — the most of any state, at least in absolute numbers. More than 16,000 people are hospitalized and thousands have been taken to intensive care units. Who does DeSantis blame for these outcomes? Biden.

“You know, he said he was going to end Covid. He hasn’t done that,” the Florida governor told the Fox News host Jesse Watters last week. “At the end of the day, he is trying to find a way to distract from the failures of his presidency.”

Getting It Right on Two Issues of the Day

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent for The Week. He’s worth reading. First on Afghanistan and then, farther down, on the virus:

There was a tragic suicide bombing at the Kabul airport on Thursday. At time of writing 169 people were confirmed killed, including 13 American soldiers.

This caused an instant frenzy of denunciation on cable news and from Republican neoconservatives. . . .

Yet these blood-crazed critics have no arguments or even suggestions that do not involve getting more American soldiers killed . . . Not a single one of these cretins has even bothered to outline a medium-term plan.

To re-state what is still completely undeniable, we just finished 20 years of occupation that categorically failed to create a viable Afghan government. That government is now gone. There is an agreement with the Taliban to get out at the end of the month, signed by President Trump and adhered to by Biden.

To renege on that agreement . . . would not only require putting more forces in to re-start the war, it would expose the troops there now protecting the evacuation to immediate attack on all sides . . .

The simple fact is the Kabul evacuation can’t help but be a dangerous business, and some attack or another was always a risk. Indeed, this is the first sacrifice of American soldiers in years that can be said to have actually accomplished anything worthwhile in Afghanistan. Over 2,400 of them died over the last 20 years in a war any fool could see was impossible to win by 2003 at the latest. Their lives were squandered — along with those of perhaps a quarter-million civilians — by three presidents who were too stupid or cowardly to look reality in the face, cut our losses, and get out of there.

These troops, by contrast, gave their lives protecting an evacuation that — while flawed in many ways — actually has done a great deal of good. Over 100,000 people have indeed been airlifted out at time of writing, and mass evacuations are still ongoing. Given the chaos of the initial collapse of Kabul, and the tense relationship with the Taliban, it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

These armchair generals don’t care about any of that. They don’t care about working out a viable plan to do anything in particular, or defending any conception of American interests, or respecting the sacrifice of Our Troops. They want to leverage the shock, horror, and pain of American soldiers getting killed to whip up a good old war frenzy, just like they did after 9/11, and get hundreds, or thousands, more troops injured and killed in the process of yet another madcap imperialist crusade. The American military is a plaything for these people in their crusade to seize domestic power by driving the citizenry into a frothing desire for vengeance. . . .

President Biden continuing to hold stubbornly to what is very obviously the only realistic course of action, despite a mindless frenzy of condemnation from the media and the GOP, and little support from his own party, is the strongest act of political courage I have seen from a president in my life.

Unquote.

Next on COVID-19:

Nine months after several highly effective coronavirus vaccines started to become available in America, and three to five months after they became available in pharmacies across the country, the pandemic is now as bad as it’s ever been in many states. In Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina, daily hospitalizations and deaths are at or near the March 2020 peak, while in Florida the previous records have been far surpassed.

At the same time, conservative elites are doing their level best to spread the virus as much as possible, even as COVID-19 is killing conservatives by the thousands. It’s willful, malign negligence on a mind-boggling scale.

I can barely keep up with the number of minor conservative figures who have died of COVID after refusing to take the vaccine. . . . And among the voting base, it’s total carnage.

Yet Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is still in a ferocious dispute with his state’s school districts about mask mandates, as his state’s pediatric ICU beds are swamped. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently issued an (almost certainly unconstitutional) order banning any institution receiving public funds from requiring vaccines. South Dakota recently held the Sturgis motorcycle rally again with the furious support of Gov. Kristi Noem — despite the fact that the state is trailing in vaccination and last year the rally created a pandemic charnel house. Unsurprisingly, cases there are once again shooting through the roof.

The story that might have fully broken my brain for good is the recent plague of conservatives poisoning themselves with veterinary deworming paste. The idea is to get a drug called ivermectin, which has been promoted as yet another coronavirus miracle cure by various fringe quacks. . . .

As Jef Rouner explains at Houston Press, the formula is simple and lucrative: raise fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the vaccines with complicated but false arguments that are hard for a layman to untangle, launder extreme claims by interviewing total lunatics, all while recommending unproven miracle remedies the shadowy Big Pharma conspiracy is supposedly suppressing. Then when you get in trouble for spreading antivaccine lies during a global pandemic, scream that you’re being “censored” to get more attention, and watch the subscription numbers jump. . . . .

In terms of science, the story is virtually identical to what happened with hydroxychloroquine — promising initial evidence that has crumbled on further scrutiny. One big study was retracted when it turned out much of the abstract was plagiarized and the data was faked. A meta-analysis examining 14 studies published late last month found highly equivocal results: “Overall, the reliable evidence available does not support the use [of] ivermectin for treatment or prevention of COVID-19 outside of well-designed randomized trials.”

. . . There are two reasons why it is a bad idea to trumpet the possibility of unproven miracle cures during a pandemic.

First, even the promising initial studies did not show ivermectin to be anywhere close to as protective as the vaccines, which are among the most-studied treatments in the history of medicine.

Second, spreading overheated rumors about miracle drugs before the evidence is in will lead credulous people to take it without knowledge of proper dosage or considering toxic interactions. Sure enough, deworming paste is flying off the shelves, some doctor in Arkansas is giving it to prisoners, and calls to poison control centers are skyrocketing across the South. Facebook groups are full of stories of poisoned people suffering severe diarrhea and expelling “rope worms,” which turn out to be almost certainly shreds of intestinal lining.

But in terms of politics, the horse paste saga is a perfect window in the conservative mindset that is currently the biggest force fueling the pandemic. The core behavior here is muleheaded, selfish spitefulness, adhered to even at great personal risk. “Freedom” for movement conservatives is entirely one-directional: They get to spray virus fog whenever and wherever they want, and they also get to force you or your kids to not wear a mask.

Because that behavior is so monstrous, there is a large incentive to make up comforting lies about how the pandemic is exaggerated or fake, or the vaccines don’t work — much facilitated by the fact that consuming right-wing media for very long tends to turn your brain into horse paste. Some right-wing voices pushing this line actually believe it . . . But others are just cynical — Gov. Abbott recently came down with COVID, but it turns out he had not only been vaccinated but also had already gotten a booster shot, and was getting daily tests, so had a very mild case.

Finally, because the financial engine of the conservative media complex is tricking gullible retired people into buying brain pills and reverse mortgages, conservatives are easy pickings for cynical and/or deluded grifters hawking snake oil remedies when they do contract COVID after coughing into each other’s face at the Cheesecake Factory to own the libs.

Yet another wave of completely pointless death seems to be motivating a lot of people to finally get vaccinated — but thus far the procrastinators, not the ideological, hard core antivaxxers. Even when D____ T____ tried to argue for the vaccine at a rally in Alabama recently, he was booed. It seems the pandemic will keep burning out of control until just about every conservative vaccine refusenik has gotten COVID. Another few months ought to do it.

Numbers

New Jersey (where I live) has had the most Covid cases and most deaths per capita of any state, mainly because it hit northern NJ and New York City hardest early on, when nobody had experience treating it and there were no vaccines.

12,200 cases per 100,000 residents

302 deaths per 100,000

Mississippi, home to lots of Republicans and poor people, is now in 2nd place with 278 deaths per capita, even though few people got it there early on. (Paul Krugman)

Far from New Jersey, the total evacuated by US/coalition partners since August 14: 111,900

When the effort began, US officials estimated there were 6,000 Americans and up to 65,000 Afghan allies they wanted to get out. (John Harwood/CNN)

The Problem Is Facebook and Twitter Themselves

From The Washington Post:

Facebook said Saturday evening that an article raising concerns that the coronavirus vaccine could lead to death was the top performing link in the United States on its platform from January through March of this year, acknowledging the widespread reach of such material for the first time. It also said another site that pushed covid-19 misinformation was also among the top 20 most visited pages on the platform.

In related news, the German Marshall Fund issued a study of interactions on Facebook. The study found that sites that share news in misleading ways attracted a record-level percentage of Facebook users:

More than 1 in 5 interactions — such as shares, likes or comments — with U.S. sites from April to June happened on “outlets that gather and present information irresponsibly,” according to [the study].

This includes outlets such as the Daily Wire, TMZ, the Epoch Times and Breitbart that researchers say “distort or misrepresent information to make an argument or report on a subject,” a metric determined by NewsGuard, a website cited in the study that rates the credibility of news sources. Researchers say these sources, which they argue spread subtler but still harmful forms of misinformation, are decidedly different from sites that publish overtly false news.

“These are the kinds of sites that will cherry pick anecdotes and are giving rise to vaccine hesitancy and other kinds of conspiracy theories,” said [the study’s director].

Researchers highlighted articles that they say “disproportionately amplify vaccine-hesitant voices over experts” and “fail to mention risks of not being vaccinated against covid-19″ . . .

While platforms have cracked down on black-and-white cases of fiction masquerading as fact, they are still grappling with how to handle murky yet wide-reaching cases that stop short of falsehood. . . . 

The ratio of misleading content marks a five-year high for Facebook, where “false content producers” have received a higher share of engagement in the past, according to the findings (The Washington Post).

Unquote.

What should we do about a company like Facebook that seems hell-bent on spreading harmful misinformation? One answer is to prosecute Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk as dangers to public health.

However, Vinay Prasad, a professor at the University of California medical school, suggests a more measured approach: we should deal with social media companies the way we dealt with tobacco companies thirty years ago. From Medpage Today

Many Americans, and especially healthcare providers, are frustrated as we watch yet another rise in COVID-19 cases. Severely ill and hospitalized patients are often unvaccinated, which is particularly disheartening, given the widespread availability — surplus — of mRNA vaccines in the U.S. . . .

One potential reason why a sizable fraction of Americans are reluctant to be vaccinated is the widespread availability of inaccurate, unbalanced, or irrational rhetoric. This speech falls across a spectrum from overtly delusional — vaccines contain microchips so Bill Gates can track you — to lesser degrees of pejorative and doubtful comments. . . .

[But] regulating or policing medical misinformation is doomed. It’s easy for most (sensible) people to recognize that mRNA vaccines do not contain microchips that allow Bill Gates to track you. But very quickly we find statements about vaccines that are unknown, disputed, and worthy of further dialogue. Lines between legitimate debate and misinformation become scientifically impossible to draw. . . .

Even on a social media website for medical professionals that restricts who can comment and regulates comments, as Doximity does, there are a number of erroneous statements, mis-statements and ill-informed comments, suggesting that regulating speakers is not an effective solution either. Some doctors may say incorrect things, and some lay people may be spot on. Policing speakers can’t solve the content issue.

. . . It is easy to feel that some erroneous views should not be permitted on social media, but the hard part is to define what should not be allowed. Notably, despite the Surgeon General’s report and much debate on the issue, no one has actually delineated what counts as misinformation. I suspect that it cannot be done. No one can create a rule book that separates black and white because the world we live in is only gray. You can’t outlaw what you can’t define.

The problem is Facebook and Twitter themselves.

In 50 years, social media in 2021 will look like the tobacco industry in 1960 — they knowingly offered an addictive product, and, worse, hid the damage the addiction caused, while actively tried to deepen the dependency. Social media companies try to keep you using the platform longer, baiting you with content to trigger your rage, disgust, lust, or hatred. These companies offer products that have been linked to anxiety and depression among users. . . .
When it comes to information, social media does three things.

First, it drives people into irrational poles. On one side are folks who think SARS-CoV-2 is not real or just another seasonal flu. These individuals are often suspicious of vaccination as a path out of the pandemic. On the other side are folks who believe we should lock down until there isn’t a single case of COVID left. . . . The very nature of social media drives individuals into further extreme positions, possibly aided by bots, sock-puppet accounts, or foreign intelligence agencies. The middle ground is lost.

Second, a good or bad idea on these platforms can reach millions of individuals. An anecdote (of dubious validity) of a vaccinated individual suffering a bizarre harm, or one of an unvaccinated person begging for vaccination before the endotracheal tube is placed . . . are both powerful psychological stories that reach millions. This is heroin of the mind.

Third, social media causes deterioration of discourse and harsh proposals. . . . We no longer see individuals with whom we have policy disagreements as people.

The solution is inevitable. Social media of 2021 must be dismantled and crippled like the tobacco industry. These digital tools have hijacked our neurotransmitters, just like tobacco. Denying the pernicious role of these platforms on our society is similar to those who denied the harms of tobacco. Just like tobacco, social media offers pleasures. But, just like tobacco, the industry that supports it has pushed too far, lusting for profits and domination.

. . . Our leaders offer toothless solutions like policing or removing information they view as particularly egregious. This introduces countless problems and immense potential for abuse. . . .

Instead, the platforms need to be crushed, broken up, and regulated. Rather than just censoring specific ideas, measuring attention and trying to capture more of it must be prohibited. . . . The platforms must be brought to their knees, just like Big Tobacco, while human ideas — good, bad, sublime, horrible, true, false, and everything in – between must be free.