Later On

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Archive for January 1st, 2021

American Death Cult: Why has the Republican response to the pandemic been so mind-bogglingly disastrous?

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Jonathan Chait wrote this back in July 2020 in New York. And just a reminder: the US as of today has seen 20 million cases and more than 346,000 deaths due to Covid-19.

Last October, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security compiled a ranking system to assess the preparedness of 195 countries for the next global pandemic. Twenty-one panel experts across the globe graded each country in 34 categories composed of 140 subindices. At the top of the rankings, peering down at 194 countries supposedly less equipped to withstand a pandemic, stood the United States of America.

It has since become horrifyingly clear that the experts missed something. The supposed world leader is in fact a viral petri dish of uncontained infection. By June, after most of the world had beaten back the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S., with 4 percent of the world’s population, accounted for 25 percent of its cases. Florida alone was seeing more new infections a week than China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, and the European Union combined.

During its long period of decline, the Ottoman Empire was called “the sick man of Europe.” The United States is now the sick man of the world, pitied by the same countries that once envied its pandemic preparedness — and, as recently as the 2014 Ebola outbreak, relied on its expertise to organize the global response.

Our former peer nations are now operating in a political context Americans would find unfathomable. Every other wealthy nation in the world has successfully beaten back the disease, at least significantly, and at least for now. New Zealand’s health minister was forced to resign after allowing two people who had tested positive for COVID-19 to attend a funeral. The Italian Parliament heckled Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte when he briefly attempted to remove his mask to deliver a speech. In May — around the time Trump cheered demonstrators into the streets to protest stay-at-home orders — Boris Johnson’s top adviser set off a massive national scandal, complete with multiple calls for his resignation, because he’d been caught driving to visit his parents during lockdown. If a Trump official had done the same, would any newspaper even have bothered to publish the story?

It is difficult for us Americans to imagine living in a country where violations so trivial (by our standards) provoke such an uproar. And if you’re tempted to see for yourself what it looks like, too bad — the E.U. has banned U.S. travelers for health reasons.

The distrust and open dismissal of expertise and authority may seem uniquely contemporary — a phenomenon of the Trump era, or the rise of online misinformation. But the president and his party are the products of a decades-long war against the functioning of good government, a collapse of trust in experts and empiricism, and the spread of a kind of magical thinking that flourishes in a hothouse atmosphere that can seal out reality. While it’s not exactly shocking to see a Republican administration be destroyed by incompetent management — it happened to the last one, after all — the willfulness of it is still mind-boggling and has led to the unnecessary sickness and death of hundreds of thousands of people and the torpedoing of the reelection prospects of the president himself. Like Stalin’s purge of 30,000 Red Army members right before World War II, the central government has perversely chosen to disable the very asset that was intended to carry it through the crisis. Only this failure of leadership and management took place in a supposedly advanced democracy whose leadership succumbed to a debilitating and ultimately deadly ideological pathology.

How did this happen? In 1973, Republicans trusted science more than religion, while Democrats trusted religion more than science. The reverse now holds true. In the meantime, working-class whites left the Democratic Party, which has increasingly taken on the outlook of the professional class with its trust in institutions and empiricism. The influx of working-class whites (especially religiously observant ones) has pushed Republicans toward increasingly paranoid varieties of populism.

This is the conventional history of right-wing populism — that it was a postwar backlash against the New Deal and the Republican Party’s inability or unwillingness to roll it back. The movement believed the government had been subverted, perhaps consciously, by conspirators seeking to impose some form of socialism, communism, or world government. Its “paranoid style,” so described by historian Richard Hofstadter, became warped with anti-intellectualism, reflecting a “conflict between businessmen of certain types and the New Deal bureaucracy, which has spilled over into a resentment of intellectuals and experts.” Its followers seemed prone to “a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission.” Perhaps this sounds like someone you’ve heard of.

But for all the virulence of conservative paranoia in American life, without the sanction of a major party exploiting and profiting from paranoia, and thereby encouraging its growth, the worldview remained relatively fringe. Some of the far right’s more colorful adherents, especially the 100,000 reactionaries who joined the John Birch Society, suspected the (then-novel, now-uncontroversial) practice of adding small amounts of fluoride to water supplies to improve dental health was, in fact, a communist plot intended to weaken the populace. Still, the far right lacked power. Republican leaders held Joe McCarthy at arm’s length; Goldwater captured the nomination but went down in a landslide defeat. In the era of Sputnik, science was hardly a countercultural institution. “In the early Cold War period, science was associated with the military,” says sociologist Timothy O’Brien who, along with Shiri Noy, has studied the transformation. “When people thought about scientists, they thought about the Manhattan Project.” The scientist was calculating, cold, heartless, an authority figure against whom the caring, feeling liberal might rebel. Radicals in the ’60s often directed their protests against the scientists or laboratories that worked with the Pentagon.

But this began to change in the 1960s, along with everything else in American political and cultural life. New issues arose that tended to pit scientists against conservatives. Goldwater’s insouciant attitude toward the prospect of nuclear war with the Soviets provoked scientists to explain the impossibility of surviving atomic fallout and the formation of Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey. New research by Rachel Carson about pollution and by Ralph Nader on the dangers of cars and other consumer products made science the linchpin of a vast new regulatory state. Business owners quickly grasped that stopping the advance of big government meant blunting the cultural and political authority of scientists. Expertise came to look like tyranny — or at least it was sold that way.

One tobacco company conceded privately in 1969 that it could not directly challenge the evidence of tobacco’s dangers but could make people wonder how solid the evidence really was. “Doubt,” the memo explained, “is our product.” In 1977, the conservative intellectual Irving Kristol urged business leaders to steer their donations away from public-interest causes and toward the burgeoning network of pro-business foundations. “Corporate philanthropy,” he wrote, “should not be, cannot be, disinterested.” The conservative think-tank scene exploded with reports questioning whether pollution, smoking, driving, and other profitable aspects of American capitalism were really as dangerous as the scientists said.

The Republican Party’s turn against science was slow and jagged, as most party-identity changes tend to be. The Environmental Protection Agency had been created under Richard Nixon, and its former administrator, Russell Train, once recalled President Gerald Ford promising to support whatever auto-emissions guidelines his staff deemed necessary. “I want you to be totally comfortable in the fact that no effort whatsoever will be made to try to change your position in any way,” said Ford — a pledge that would be unimaginable for a contemporary Republican president to make. Not until Ronald Reagan did Republican presidents begin letting business interests overrule experts, as when his EPA used a “hit list” of scientists flagged by industry as hostile. And even Reagan toggled between giving business a free hand and listening to his advisers (as he did when he signed a landmark 1987 agreement to phase out substances that were depleting the ozone layer and a plan the next year to curtail acid rain).

The party’s rightward tilt accelerated in the 1990s. “With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cold Warriors looked for another great threat,” wrote science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. “They found it in environmentalism,” viewing climate change as a pretext to impose government control over the whole economy. Since the 1990s was also the decade in which scientific consensus solidified that greenhouse-gas emissions were permanently increasing temperatures, the political stakes of environmentalism soared.

The number of books criticizing environmentalism increased fivefold over the previous decade, and more than 90 percent cited evidence produced by right-wing foundations. Many of these tracts coursed with the same lurid paranoia as their McCarthy-era counterparts. This was when the conspiracy theory that is currently conventional wisdom on the right — that scientists across the globe conspired to exaggerate or falsify global warming data in order to increase their own power — first took root.

This is not just a story about elites. About a decade after business leaders launched their attack on science from above, a new front opened from below: Starting in the late 1970s,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 January 2021 at 4:55 pm

How To Get Away with Murder: Live in ancient Rome

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Emma Souton writes in History Today:

In 176 BC a strange but revealing murder case came before the Roman praetor, M. Popillius Laenas. A woman, unnamed in the sources, was brought before the court on the charge of murdering her mother by bludgeoning her with a club. The woman happily confessed to the monstrous act of matricide. Her fate, then, seemed sealed when she entered Laenas’ court; but she introduced a defence that was as irrefutable as the wickedness of the killing of a parent. She claimed that the deed had been a crime of grief-fuelled vengeance resulting from the deaths of her own children. They, she said, had been deliberately poisoned by her mother simply to spite her and her own actions were therefore justified.

This defence caused the entire system to grind to a halt. The situation was an appalling paradox. In Roman culture, parricide was a crime that provoked a unique horror; there was nothing worse than murdering a parent. The typical punishment was a bizarre form of the death penalty, which involved the perpetrator being sewn into a sack with a monkey, a snake, a dog and a chicken and then thrown into the Tiber to drown. The purpose of the animals is unclear; the purpose of the sack was to deprive the murderer of the air and water, and prevent their bones from touching and defiling the earth. It was impossible to imagine a confessed parricide being left unpunished. Rome, however, had a predominantly self-help justice system, where private families and individuals investigated and punished slights against themselves. It was not the role of the state, particularly during the time of the Republic (510-27 BC), to interfere with such private matters as a vengeance killing within the family. The right independently to enact justice, especially when avenging the death of your own children, was central to the Roman conception of a just world. It was, therefore, equally impossible to imagine such a killing being punished.

For Laenas, the situation was a nightmare. For most of Republican history there was no formal law criminalising homicide: the Roman government was so deliberately decentralised that it did not see itself as a state which was harmed by private homicide. The murder of a private person did not affect the various magistrates’ power, and therefore the state need not interfere.

Therefore, if he punished a woman who had acted, in the depths of her grief for her children, to justly avenge their murder, then he would be passing judgment on all such killings and suggesting that vengeance killings were criminal. This could not be countenanced.

There was, however, one major exception to this rule:  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 January 2021 at 3:11 pm

Recommended free book(s)

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Some time back I blogged about how truly excellent E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle is, and how I was able to download a copy from the Gutenberg project and use Calibre to convert it to Amazon Kindle and move it to the device.

Today I saw that StandardEblooks.org has that title (and that’s where the link above takes you), along with some more Edith Nesbit’s books. And indeed, their library of free well-edited books grows apace. I don’t make many donations, but I did donate to this effort.

Since Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway comes into the public domain this year, I’m hoping we’ll see that. (They already offer two Woolf novels.

I’ve already suggested Scaramouche, so I’ll mention it again. It’s free and fun. Could you ask for more?

Well, of course you could. How about a nice serving of Charles Dickens? or Jane Austen? or Anthony Trollope? or Rudyard Kipling? ….  and they are a great many more.

As I’ve previously noted, the (free) program Calibre is extremely useful in managing your ebook library. I wouldn’t be without it.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 January 2021 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

The weight-loss program that got better with time

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New Year’s Day is a time of resolutions and resets, so I thought this brief video would be of interest.https://youtu.be/PzcYvQHpHlE

Written by LeisureGuy

1 January 2021 at 12:40 pm

Violet to start the year, and a commitment to Progress

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A late start, as seems appropriate for New Year’s Day. Some sleeping in, but then some tending to tasks: rotate the mattress, for one. (I alternate rotating and flipping the mattress each calendar quarter). Then reading my email sent 1/1/2020 that arrived this morning (using FutureMe.org), and writing a letter to FutureMe that will be delivered 1/1/2022: goals, predictions, current situation, and whatnot.

I also reviewed my budget, taking a look at actual expenditures over the past year and planning for the coming year. I have a Google Sheets workbook, based on my Within Your Means budget idea but adapted as needed. (See: “My Implicit Spending Almost Did Me In.” The spreadsheet described in the article can be downloaded in Exel format, which also works in Google Sheets and Apple Numbers.) I tinkered with the spreadsheet some, adding some running totals to better track and control day-to-day and week-to-week spending.

The Eldest recommended the book Atomic Habits, which seems just the ticket for a time of year when we are reconsidering our habits and thinking of improvements we might make. The reader reviews are impressive (especially the one that provides a detailed outline of the book), and it’s currently in my shopping cart. I’ll probably buy it next week.

So I’ve had a busy morning, and I rewarded myself with a pleasurable shave. Violet is a wonderful floral fragrance, and the lather from Jabonman’s Eufros shaving soap seemed especially good today in all respects. The Progress is my favorite adjustable, and it generally is well behaved, but I did get some nicks on the upper lip today. My Nik Is Sealed took care of that quite handily.

A small splash of the Vanille Violette EDT as an aftershave, and the new year is looking pretty good.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 January 2021 at 11:59 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Shaving

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