In 1995 I was 27 years old, and making regular trips to Aguascalientes, Mexico for my job.
I really enjoyed Mexico. And Aguascalientes was a wonderful place in those heady post-NAFTA days.
While I was in Mexico, I often heard the music of an American—Tejano— singer, Selena Quintanilla Perez (mostly known by her first name, Selena).
Selena’s songs were on FM radio in the United States a lot, too. Pop with a Latin flair. Not bad. But there was another reason why I remembered Selena.
At that time, I was constantly, obsessively studying Spanish. I had studied the language for two years in high school and one year in college. I spent hours going over my homemade Spanish vocabulary flashcards, and my dog-eared Spanish grammar book.
I like languages, and mastering Spanish became a point of pride for me.
I recall hearing that Selena was sometimes criticized because her Spanish…wasn’t that fluent, even though she was Mexican American. Some of her lyrics were in Spanish, but she apparently struggled to speak the language when interviewed by the Spanish-language press.
I also recall wondering, sometimes, if my Spanish was better than Selena’s yet.(I’m competitive that way; silly, I know.)
Then on March 30, 1995 (I was coming back from Mexico that day, as chance would have it), I heard an announcement on the news. Selena, age 23, had been murdered by an older woman who was the manager of her fan club.
I never knew Selena, obviously; and it has never been my habit to closely identify with celebrities. Selena’s death, tragic though it was, did not profoundly sadden me. But I did remember the event, and it did make me reflect on my own mortality. At 52 I am acutely aware that life doesn’t go on forever; but at 27—not so much.
It isn’t only the old who die. Sometimes it is the young and up-and-coming, those who seem to have their entire lives ahead of them. Until something unexpected happens.
And all of us in between, of course. Life is short, and we need to make the most of every day.
I watch a fair amount of television every week: Chicago PD, Blue Bloods, Deputy, and others. (Yes, I have a thing for cop shows.)
The episodes that I have seen so far have not yet accounted for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not doubt the creative folks at all the major television studios are pondering that matter right now. How to incorporate the much-changed world of coronavirus into scripts and storylines?
And then there’s the fact that real-life actors will be concerned about social distancing.
Many showrunners, I’m sure, will have a strong desire to completely ignore COVID-19. After all, television shows take place in a parallel world, anyway.
But that will be difficult to do, given the health concerns. A TV kiss is now fraught with risks, isn’t it?
But—on the other hand, social distancing is going to make the mechanics of most TV plots much more difficult to pull of, in myriad ways. Dramatic dialogue and group dynamics aren’t quite the same when all communications take place via conference call or Skype.
Your favorite TV shows: yet one more thing that has become infinitely more complicated, and probably not as much fun, thanks to the pandemic.
Like a lot of readers in recent days, I’ve been seized by a sudden (and arguably masochistic) urge to reread The Stand. This is Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel of a “super-flu” called Captain Trips. In the novel, at least, the super-flu wipes out civilization and leaves few survivors.
So I went ahead and ordered it from Amazon the other day.
The premise of The Stand is obviously topical now. But this is also a book populated with some of Stephen King’s most memorable characters: Stu Redman, Franni Goldsmith, Mother Abigail, etc. It is a long book, but it is not a slow book.
The Stand is the most common favorite of longtime Stephen King readers, a fact which has caused the author a certain amount of chagrin over the years. In at least one interview, King wondered aloud why so many readers give their highest rating to a book that he wrote while still in his early 30s. But that’s the way it goes with art sometimes.
I read this book for the first time in 1984. I was in high school then, and those were simpler times. That isn’t just my nostalgic side speaking. Heck, last year was simpler times.
Like a lot of you, I’ve been feeling a little bit like a character in The Stand of late, and I want this movie to end, already. The good news is that coronavirus is not nearly as deadly as Captain Trips, nor should a cure or a vaccine indefinitely elude researchers.
But yes, these are unsettling days, and we all need the catharsis of a good story—even one we’ve read before, a long time ago.
Before the coronavirus hit and made everything else in America borderline irrelevant, the main preoccupation of the nation was the upcoming 2020 election. Specifically, we all were waiting to see which bumbling Democrat would be tapped to challenge Donald Trump come November.
And how did that go? Suffice it to say that the Democrats’ selection process didn’t exactly raise the best and the brightest to the top. When the COVID-19 Great Pause put the country on hold, the Democrats were weighing the relative merits of:
a.) a cantankerous septuagenarian socialist who doesn’t understand how modern economies function, and
b.) a cantankerous septuagenarian Washington insider with obvious memory problems.
I’m talking about Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, of course.
Let’s start with Bernie.
Bernie Sanders waxes adulatory when talking about the communist revolution in Cuba. That was the great Caribbean bloodbath where Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and friends put thousands of men, women, and children before firing squads. The Cuban communist revolution was followed by years of oppression and misery, which persists on the island to this day.
Really, Bern? You admire that?
Our best guess is that Bernie Sanders wants to try the more recent “Venezuelan plan” in America. That turned Venezuela, once the shining star of Latin America, into a hellhole where they no long have coffins to bury the dead.
But Bernie assures us that the same plan would work just fine here. “Democratic Socialism”—an oxymoron if ever there was one.
Sure, Bernie, we’ll get back to you on that!
Joe Biden probably has better intentions; but he’s reached a state where he’d be incapable of throttling the more radical elements in his party—which are many and worrisome.
Joe Biden, as noted above, has obvious memory problems. He also has a tendency to call Democratic voters things like “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” when they ask him uncomfortable questions at campaign events.
The Democrats seemed poised to hold their collective breath, and rally behind Biden as a figurehead. Biden would be an outwardly moderate Trojan Horse who might be able to smuggle the Democratic hard left into power.
That was the game plan, anyway. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was the plan that the Democrats seemed poised to go with.
And then the world went to hell in the proverbial handbasket.
So now Joe Biden has yet another problem. It’s the same one that all of us are dealing with. The COVID-19 pandemic has made Joe Biden suddenly peripheral to the nation’s affairs.
Biden is the presumptive but unofficial nominee of the 2020 Democratic ticket. He should have something to say about all of this. But when friendly journalists have given him a chance to weigh in on the crisis, he’s been capable of little more than stumbling non-sequiturs.
At this rate, Donald Trump is going to have a cakewalk on Election Day.
The Democrats are going to be roadkill.
Some Democrats are starting to rally around another candidate. This one didn’t participate in the tragicomic Democratic primary debates earlier this year.
I’m referring to Andrew Cuomo, whom no one was considering for president even a month ago. But the “draft Cuomo” movement is now gaining momentum.
Even though I’m a Republican, I can honestly claim that I saw this coming last week. I was listening to Governor Cuomo deliver one of his daily press conferences on the COVID-19 outbreak. I thought to myself, “Hey, this guy is a Democrat, and he sounds pretty reasonable and intelligent. Why are the Democrats so stuck on moonbats and loons, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? Why don’t they run this guy?”
America’s governor? Maybe.
New York has become the epicenter (and in many ways, the symbol) of America’s coronavirus emergency. Through his daily television briefings, Andrew Cuomo has become “America’s governor”, in much the same way that Rudolph Giuliani became “America’s mayor” in the wake of 9/11.
Again, I’m a Republican. But as an outsider to Democratic Party culture, I can see where Cuomo has much to recommend him. Not only does he demonstrate himself to be a level-headed manager in an unprecedented national crisis, he also comes across as a moderate.
What do I mean by “moderate” exactly? Simple: not a socialist, and not obsessed with screechy identity politics debates. Cuomo has repeatedly expressed a need to get the private economy going as soon as possible. He is no glassy-eyed cuckoo of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ilk.
I won’t lie to you: I probably wouldn’t end up voting for him. In fact, I almost certainly wouldn’t. But if he won the White House in November, I also probably wouldn’t fret too much about the country being in capable hands. A Cuomo presidency wouldn’t be the Bernpocalypse. It would be more like the Bill Clinton years, which (let’s be honest here) weren’t too bad, whatever your political affiliation.
But there’s a problem, you see: Many rank-and-file Democrats will dislike Cuomo for the very reasons that he vaguely appeals to me. Andrew Cuomo is a moderate, not a sputtering leftwing ideologue.
Joe Biden is a moderate, too, arguably. But Andrew Cuomo is a moderate who couldn’t be manipulated by the likes of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
In choosing Joe Biden, the Democrats have chosen an easily manipulated Trojan Horse for the radicals. Andrew Cuomo would mark a shift back to the days when the Democratic Party was more mainstream. A return to serious adults and serious adult ideas. That might not sit well with the Bernie Bros and the “Resistance” crackpots on Twitter.
I knew it was only a matter of time before this question came up. And this question is unlikely to go away.
I don’t have a dog directly in this fight. First of all, I’m not a parent. Homeschooling, moreover, wasn’t really a thing during my youth in the 1970s and 1980s. I attended a mix of both public and parochial schools (though mostly the latter). I have generally fond memories of my teachers and classmates. All in all, it was a good experience for me.
But I completed my K~12 education between 1973 and 1986. So my experiences are obviously dated, aren’t they?
At present, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the American system of public education. This comes both from within and from without.
Teachers—based on what I see in my Facebook feed, and in the news—are dissatisfied with their lot in life. They generally don’t believe they’re being paid enough. (Teacher pay varies greatly by state, and then by location within each state.) They complain about unsupportive parents, unruly children, and administrative morass.
Most parents don’t seem happy with what they’re getting, either. Otherwise, there wouldn’t already be a movement toward homeschooling, which has thrived and expanded since the late 1990s.
Taxpayers, meanwhile, are hesitant to pour more money into a system that they see as dysfunctional, bureaucratic, and wasteful. (Also, in much of the country, the public school system is now ideologically skewed toward various leftwing hobbyhorses.)
And now the coronavirus pandemic has made teaching and the public school system much, much more unworkable. Schools in most of the country have been closed for the rest of the academic year—possibly the rest of the calendar year.
Therefore, this might be the time to rethink the current system.
Public education as we now know it in America developed between the 1870s and the 1930s. It was roughly between 1920 and 1939 that the “industrial model” of mass public education in large facilities replaced the one-room schoolhouse of yore. (My grandfather, who was born in 1921, attended a one-room schoolhouse for grades 1 through 8, and a modern high school after that.)
Might this not be a convenient (and perhaps a necessary?) juncture to rethink a century-old system that doesn’t work well for teachers, parents, children, or taxpayers?
These are strange times, indeed. I was driving down the main stretch of road in my corner of suburban Cincinnati, and I thought I had been transported back to the 1990s. Gasoline was only $1.68 per gallon. (I’m not 100% certain; but I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been that cheap in this century.)
The streets, meanwhile, were not exactly deserted; but they were peopled at levels I remember from sometime during the last decade of the last century. This side of Cincinnati has really become overpopulated in the past 20 years.
The people haven’t left, of course. And no—they haven’t died of coronavirus, either. My county, Clermont, has only five cases of COVID-19 at the time of this writing, none of them fatal. The people are hunkered indoors, like most people throughout the country. Governor DeWine closed down more or less everything in the Buckeye State on March 16. So even with all that cheap gas, there is nowhere to go and nowhere to drive to. Therefore, people aren’t buying much gasoline.
What are they buying?
Well, according to the latest news reports, they’re buying eggs, of all things. Eggs are the targets of the latest hoarding wave.
First it was surgical masks and disinfectant. Then it was toilet paper. After that, oats and breakfast cereals. Now it’s eggs. Wholesale egg prices have risen 180% in recent days, even as gas stations struggle to give their product away. (There has been talk of negative oil prices; I’m not sure how that’s even possible; but I digress.)
The hoarding of eggs makes absolutely no sense, on multiple levels. Toilet paper, at least, has an unlimited shelf life as long as it is properly stored. A container of Quaker Oats is good for at least a year unopened. But eggs are perishable. And there is nothing you’re likely to find in your kitchen that is quite so foul as a spoiled egg.
Can eggs be frozen? I wouldn’t want to try it. Liquid expands when it’s frozen, and that would probably crack the shells. Thawing would be problematic, more trouble than it would be worth.
Moreover, it is completely pointless. Not even the most dour pessimists have suggested that America’s food supply is in jeopardy. Eggs, moreover (unlike toilet paper) are something that family farms and smalltime operators can produce if necessary. When my father was a boy, my grandparents had a backyard chicken coop. The backyard chicken coop is now mostly a thing of the past. But small-scale egg production wouldn’t be difficult to mobilize, if it were ever necessary.
I like eggs; but eggs aren’t a food that I would want to eat more than once per day. Eggs are one of those good things that easily become too much of a good thing. Even I can’t eat them every single day; and I like them. I have plenty of friends who don’t like eggs at all.
So please, if you’re reading this: don’t hoard eggs. Hoard canned asparagus or raisins instead. How about deviled ham? Have you thought about sardines?
The hoarding of eggs, again, makes no sense. But much of the public and private response to the coronavirus pandemic has been nonsensical and counterintuitive. We should not be surprised.
The American Civil War is an obsession for some history buffs. While you won’t catch me passing my time on the weekend participating in any Civil War reenactments, I do enjoy reading about the conflict and its aftermath—that period in American history known as Reconstruction.
I like to read novels that a short, economical, and fast-moving. By contrast,I love big, thick history books.
I’m talking doorstops. I like history books with maps, and generous photo sections in the center. History books in the 500- to 800-page range.
Working my way through a thick history book provides a certain kind of satisfaction. It makes me feel like a college student again.
There is one history text, however, that even I found formidable for a long time, because of its scope. I’m talking about Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. This three-volume set is almost 2,600 pages long. Shelby Foote (1916 – 2005) began writing it in 1954. The first volume in the set was published in 1958. The third volume came out in 1974. So this gargantuan project consumed two decades of Shelby Foote’s life.
I first became aware of The Civil War around 1995. I was on a flight from Atlanta to Cincinnati,. The passenger in the seat next to me was reading the third of the three volumes. Since I have long been inquisitive about other people’s reading habits, I asked him about it. My fellow passenger spent the next fifteen minutes rhapsodizing about Foote and his writing. Then he went back to his reading. I left him alone for the rest of the flight.
I didn’t purchase the books right away, but they remained in my mind. Then I bought the three-volume set on Amazon about a decade ago.
I kept putting off reading the books, however, because I was concerned that reading them would require two decades of my life.
I’m exaggerating, of course. Nevertheless, a three-volume, 2,600-page text does represent a major time commitment. Also, there is an opportunity cost involved. In the time that it would take me to read a 2,600-page work, I could read as many as six or seven shorter books.
Nevertheless, Shelby Foote’s Civil War books had been mocking me, all these years, from their place in my home library. Now that I’m quarantined (along with the rest of the country), I recently decided to start reading the first volume, at long last.
Wow. Foote’s nonfiction historical writing reads like a novel. You fall into it, and you don’t want to come up for air.
When Foote began writing his magnum opus in 1954, television was still a novelty. When the last volume came out in 1974, there was no Internet, and still no cable television as we know it today. (I don’t think VCRs were even common yet in 1974.)
Attention spans were longer. People still liked to sink their teeth into big, thick books with plenty of meat on the pages.
Foote’s writing has meat. Every page is filled with little nuggets and asides that you’re unlikely to find in shorter texts. If you are ready to immerse yourself in the American Civil War, these are the books for you.
Shelby Foote has become a subtly controversial character in this era of political orthodoxies. He was born in Mississippi and he died in Tennessee. Foote was a Southerner through and through.
It isn’t inaccurate to call him a Confederate sympathizer. In fact, he called himself a Confederate sympathizer. In 1997 he told an interviewer:
“…I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding about the Confederacy, the Confederate flag, slavery, the whole thing. The political correctness of today is no way to look at the middle of the 19th century. The Confederates fought for some substantially good things. States’ rights is not just a theoretical excuse for oppressing people. You have to understand that the raggedy Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and probably couldn’t even read the Constitution, let alone understand it, when he was captured by Union soldiers and asked, ‘What are you fighting for?’ replied, ‘I’m fighting because you’re down here.’ So I certainly would have fought to keep people from invading my native state.”
I’m about two hundred pages in, and I don’t detect any real Southern bias. If it’s there, you would really have to look for it. (This is mostly a military history, not a history of the causes behind the Civil War.) But in this regard, Foote parts ways with McPherson and Foner, whose pro-Union sentiments are apparent even in the titles of their books.
I should also reemphasize (as if it weren’t clear already) that this is not The Civil War for Dummies. Likewise, if you’re looking for a book to “cram” for an American history final that covers the conflict, this is not your book—or books.
In fact, I would recommend Shelby Foote’s 3-volume set only for the reader who is already somewhat familiar with the names and events of the war. By this I don’t mean only Grant and Lee (everyone knows them!), but also John Bell Hood, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Jubal Early. When you hear the names Chancellorsville and Shiloh, do you immediately think of Civil War battles? If that’s you, then you’ll enjoy these books. Otherwise, you might want to start with the McPherson text—which, though long enough, is a bit more accessible.
The Civil War: A Narrative, is history for history lovers. And if you love history, you don’t want “just the facts”. You want a narrative, and a deep, richly woven one—which is exactly what Shelby Foote spent twenty years of his life creating. Now, fifteen years after his death, history lovers continue to appreciate the fruits of his long labors.
Just a friendly reminder to all of you: If it is within your means, please support your local restaurants with carryout.
This means family-run, “mom-and-pop” restaurants, of course. But also remember that local branded restaurants (like the Outback in the above photo) are usually owned by local franchisees. The McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Steak-n-Shake down the street is, in all likelihood, a family business.
All manner of businesses have been hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Restaurants have been hit especially hard, though, because they were among the first establishments to be closed by state orders. (Governor DeWine closed all restaurants and bars in Ohio on March 16, or thereabouts.)
Restaurants typically operate on low margins. Almost all of them will incur substantial losses as a result of the Great Shutdown of 2020.
Speaking of Outback: I plan to order carryout from the Outback near my home today, on the east side of Cincinnati. If there is a restaurant near you that continues to offer carryout and/or delivery, consider doing the same. We want these businesses to survive the shutdown, and we want them to continue to be there for us when it all ends.
I discovered Aaron Shepard’s Sales Rank Express about thirteen years ago, give or take. Here was a website that allowed you to check the Amazon sales rank, reviews, and other data for books based on author, publisher, title, etc.
For authors who nervously check their hourly sales and review data, Sales Rank Express was a blessing. (Not that I’m that kind of author, mind you….but I know that some authors are like that.)
Sales Rank Express was always a free tool. Aaron Shepard never charged for access to it, so far as I know. All he asked was that users view ads for his books on writing and publishing. These ads were always small, and placed unobtrusively at the bottom of the page.
Sales Rank Express seemed to work well for everyone. It provided Aaron Shepard with a low-friction advertising platform for his books targeted at authors. Authors loved the site, too. A win-win all around.
But Amazon has made yet another change to its code, and Sales Rank Express no longer works. It now returns an error message with each query.
Inundated with emails about the error codes, Shepard has posted a message on the homepage of Sales Rank Express, indicating that the site is down, “probably for good”. The query fields and buttons are gone, too.
A shame. I’ll miss the site. But I’m grateful that we had it for so long. Nothing good, they say, lasts forever…especially on the Internet.
For the rest of you: I’ve marked down most of my fiction titles to a maximum price of $3.99. They’ll stay there for the duration of this crisis. I know that money is tight. I can’t make every title free, but I’m going to make every title as cheap as I possibly can. (And you can read most of my Amazon titles for FREE as part of your Kindle Unlimitedmembership, anyway .)
Here’s my advice: Don’t immerse yourself in the news too much. It can become a rabbit hole that you can’t pull out of. Don’t drift over to Twitter (that cesspool of negativity), and don’t spend all of your time scrolling through mindless updates on Facebook. Say hi to everyone once per day, and then get off Mark Zuckerberg’s manipulative, privacy-invading platform.
Go for a walk. Demonstrate support and affection for your friends and family (from a safe distance, of course). Count your blessings.
Oh, and keep checking back here. Because I’ll be putting lots more content up to help you pass the time while the world is on pause.
Over the past week, a new narrative has emerged in the mainstream media: President Trump has finally, belatedly gotten serious about combatting the coronavirus, or COVID-19. A few brave correspondents at CNN.com—heretofore the mainstream media headquarters of the Resistance—have penned editorials of cautious praise.
Journalists aren’t the only ones. Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, one of Trump’s most implacable archenemies in Congress, openly praised the president’s ‘incredible’ response to the pandemic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has had nice things to say about President Trump in recent days. In the face of this unprecedented national crisis, the lion and the lamb are lying down together—albeit at a safe social distance of six feet.
But such newfound respect for the president is by no means unalloyed. The other side of the narrative is that Trump should have known better; he should have acted sooner.
There is evidence, after all, that the intelligence community warned the president about the true dangers of coronavirus back in February—even January. And while President Trump did place early restrictions on travel to and from China, the full mobilization of the Americanhomeland didn’t really get underway until around the Ides of March, give or take a few days.
This brings up an obvious question, the one posed by the title of this piece: Should the president have acted sooner?
Let’s not beat around the bush about the answer: Of course the president should have acted sooner. Most of the rest of us should have acted sooner, too. Speaking of the Ides of March: On Sunday, March 15, I exercised at my fitness center in suburban Cincinnati. I was still half-convinced that I was going to be able to continue working out in a public gym, just like I always have.
But I was wrong. The very next day, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine shut down all bars, restaurants, movie theaters…and health clubs.
I failed to take COVID-19 seriously at first for the same reason that President Trump probably failed to take it seriously. We’ve seen this movie multiple times before, and it has always ended fine for Americans.
No, I’m not talking about the 2011 pandemic film, Contagion. I’m referring to events in the real world. How many times since the beginning of this century have we seen a new flu arise out ofsome distant corner of the world, only to dissipate before it reaches American shores?
There have been global outbreaks of H1N1, the avian flu, SARS. None of them seriously impacted daily life in America.
We all make future predictions based on past events. Why should it have been any different this time?
The experts warned President Trump about COVID-19 in January and February of this year. That seems almost indisputable now. But those same warnings, if more generalized, were out there during the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. They did nothing, either…so long as they didn’t absolutely have to.
Yes, Bush and Obama were both warned. Over the past fifteen years, I have heard and read multiple warnings from epidemiologists. They repeatedly said that the emergence of a truly global, society-altering pandemic was a question of when, not if.
If I knew that, as a private citizen, then Presidents Bush and Obama also knew. We should have been stockpiling protective masks, ventilators, and hand sanitizer, in the same way that we stockpile petroleum. Imagine how much more prepared we’d be now, if we’d started such actions in 2012, or 2006?
The coronavirus wasn’t the only existential threat that we might have seen coming. What about sentient human threats, like stateless Islamic terrorism?
At the beginning of this century, the cataclysmic black swan event was 9/11. As most readers will know, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were behind that.
The dangers of Osama bin Laden were known to President Bill Clinton. President Clinton had at least one clear chance to take him out with a missile strike. Clinton didn’t act decisively, though, for fear of the political consequences.
And what of Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush? Bush believed that he was going to be a domestic policy president. Shortly after taking office, Bush deprioritized the work of the CIA’s “sisterhood”—a group of mostly female analysts who were then closing in on the Saudi terrorist.
Less than a year into Bush’s first term, 9/11 occurred. How’s that for lack of foresight?
President Reagan, the hero of my Republican youth, played a pivotal role in bankrupting the Soviet Union with an expensive arms race that a Marxist economy simply couldn’t win. During the 1980s, American aid to the Afghan mujahideen helped turn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan into the USSR’s Vietnam. That effort not only drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, it also contributed to the collapse of the USSR itself.
What Reagan didn’t foresee, however, was that a decade later, Afghanistan would become the home base of the Taliban. And one of the Arab mujahideen—that same Osama bin Laden—would eventually stop killing commies and start killing everyone else, most of all Americans.
Oh, and President Reagan also didn’t foresee that after the fall of the USSR, Russia was going to turn into something that is arguably worse. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is preferable to Stalin’s USSR; but Mikhail Gorbachev’s USSR might have been preferable to this new incarnation of czarist Russia.
Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, also failed to act when he really needed to. Carter should have recognized by 1977 that the Pahlavi regime in Iran was tottering. When the Shah of Iran visited the White House in November of that year, tear gas marred the state visit, as Iranian students studying in the US clashed with riot police. CIA analysts and State Department officials based in Iran (which was then a US ally) warned Carter that something bad was coming over there.
But Carter ignored the warnings. Or at least he didn’t act decisively on them. Fifty-two American hostages spent more than a year of captivity in Iran. And for forty years now, Iran has been not a US ally, but our most persistent and troublesome foe.
I grew up Catholic during the 1970s. In those days, the administration of John F. Kennedy, America’s sainted Roman Catholic commander in chief, was still very much a part of recent memory. Portraits of the fallen president hung in at least one of my primary school homerooms. We memorized passages of Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address like we memorized passages of Catholic Church catechism. (I can still recite entire paragraphs of it from memory.)
Nevertheless, I can also see where Kennedy failed to heed warnings from his advisors, from history, and from common sense. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) was a disaster from the planning stage. Castro’s forces outnumbered the American-backed anti-communist guerrillas by at least 10-to-1.
Kennedy should have known that the Bay of Pigs wasn’t going to be a success. Members of the “deep state”, moreover, advised him not to proceed. But Kennedy went with his gut, and greenlighted the debacle.
The following year, Kennedy narrowly pulled us out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But every historian will acknowledge that we could have just as easily been incinerated.
Why didn’t Kennedy foresee that the Soviets would put nuclear missiles in Cuba? After all, we had already put nuclear missiles on their doorstep, in Turkey. What the Soviets did was a logical escalation.
What was JFK thinking?
When presidents fail to heed the warnings of advisors and circumstances, the result is often a raft of conspiracy theories. There are Americans who believe that FDR deliberately sacrificed over 2,400 American lives on December 7, 1941, so that the isolationist American public would finally consent to join the war against the Axis powers.
By 1941, after all, FDR had ample evidence that a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent. Relations between the United States and the Empire of Japan were already near the breaking point. For years, a final exam question at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy was, “How would you carry out an attack on Pearl Harbor?”
The Japanese had also tipped their hand with their prior actions. Thirty-seven years before Pearl Harbor, Japan carried out a similar surprise attack on a different enemy. The Russo-Japanese War began in February 1904, when Japanese forces suddenly and without provocation bombarded the Russian naval base at Port Arthur, on the Chinese mainland.
Japan made an official declaration of war three hours later.
Did President Roosevelt knowingly immolate 2,403 Americans on the altar of geopolitics on December 7, 1941? If you believe that, then you essentially believe that FDR was a homicidal sociopath. I don’t believe that.
It’s possible, sure. But the far more likely explanation is that FDR, like so many US presidents before and after him, lacked a perfect insight regarding which dangers required an immediate response, and which could simply be monitored. For no president can respond with urgency to every potential danger.
Hindsight, moreover, is always 20-20. This is as true in our private lives as it is in the fates of nations. ICU units throughout the country are filled with terminal patients whose lifestyle diseases were entirely—or almost entirely—avoidable.
They were informed, ad nauseam, about the dangers of smoking. Their physician warned them to lose weight, to get more exercise. Watch that blood sugar, they were told. Your blood pressure is too high.
They had years to turn their situations around, to avoid disaster. And yet they still wound up in those ICU beds.
Why? They probably weren’t suicidal. But something else was always more urgent—more pressing. Who has time to worry about a heart attack that might strike you ten years in the future, when there is so much that demands your attention right now?
And so it goes with presidents. When you’re President of the United States, you’re constantly bombarded with warnings about short-term and long-term dangers to America. The Chinese are expanding their blue-water navy, with the aim of threatening the American heartland with nukes. Iranian and North Korean hackers are trying to take down our electrical grid. There’s also a new disease in Wuhan, China; you really ought to take a look at that.
On occasion, presidents overreact to a threat. (President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was a recent, textbook example of such an overreaction.) But most of the time, their mistake is to not recognize a potential threat until it becomes an actual, existential threat.
We can certainly make the case that President Trump fell into that trap in January and February of this year. He should have acted sooner and more decisively in a critical moment. He didn’t. But the same can be said of FDR, Clinton, Carter, Bush, and others.
President Trump is a polarizing figure. This statement doesn’t, in itself, mean that he’s objectively good or bad. It means what you already know: You can’t say his name in a group of people without eliciting strong reactions.
Americans tend to either love him or hate him. If you’re on the left, President Trump is horrible, evil—worse than Hitler, even. Worse than anyone or anything imaginable. Orange Satan.
If you’re on the right, meanwhile, President Trump is the nearly mythical figure of his political rallies (which won’t be resuming anytime soon, thanks to coronavirus). He’s The Art of the Deal, the charismatic host of The Apprentice. He’s the man who is going to Make America Great Again.
Perhaps Trump fits neither of those partisan hyperboles. Perhaps he’s simply yet another American president whose crystal ball was imperfect at a critical moment. And now, as a result, both the president and America find themselves behind the eight ball.
Notice how you don’t hear as much about the upcoming election in November in recent days. Oh yeah, that. We’ll certainly get around to it…provided we can all make it to the polls without having to don hazmat suits.
At the moment, most of us would be happy to simply see an America that is free of coronavirus. Let’s hope that President Trump, and our more conscientious leaders in both parties, get us there soon. There will be plenty of time to play Monday morning quarterback afterward, after the present crisis ends.
This one has a unique angle: how Shakespeare’s plays have a different significance for Americans, versus the reading public in the United Kingdom.
I listened to a podcast interview of Professor Shapiro over the weekend, during which he talked about his book (BBC’s History Extra podcast).
Shakespeare’s plays run deep through the American DNA, often in ironic ways. Consider the case of Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president.
During his period of self-education on the frontier, Abraham Lincoln spent hours immersed in a reader that was heavy on Shakespeare.
Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, also had connections to Shakespeare. Not only was Booth a thespian, his father was the noted British Shakespearean actor, Junius Brutus Booth. Booth’s older brother, Edwin Booth, was also a Shakespearean actor.
Immediately after Booth shot Lincoln, he reportedly called out a line from Julius Caesar: “Sic semper tyrannis.” (“Thus always to tyrants.”)
This is all good stuff, if you’re a history and literature nerd. Shapiro, however, definitely has a political agenda. He is plainly obsessed with issues of race and gender. (A contemporary American academic obsessed with “woke” identity politics? Never!) During his discussion with the BBC interviewer, Shapiro couldn’t resist saying the word “Trump” every few minutes, almost from the beginning of the interview. That was the first warning sign.
Shapiro spoke extensively about Othello, in particular. According to the professor, Othello exposes the historical American fear of interracial sex and marriage (especially between African American men and white women). Shapiro wants you to know how horrified he is by this.
Shapiro’s thesis wasn’t completely unreasonable, but he overplayed it. This seemed to be yet another example of academe’s ongoing attempt to shoehorn the great books into 21st-century identity politics. Race in America is a perfectly valid topic of discussion, but not everything has to be about that—or should be about that. When he penned Othello in 1603, Shakespeare clearly wasn’t thinking about racial debates in America, four centuries hence.
While discussing Othello, though, Professor. Shapiro did mention that the young Ulysses S. Grant once appeared as Desdemona in a soldiers’ staging of the play. That tidbit was worth sitting through all the good professor’s virtue-signaling.
I will almost certainly get around to reading Shakespeare in a Divided America. (It is already in my Amazon shopping cart, in fact.) Shakespeare is a lifelong interest of mine; and James Shapiro clearly knows a lot about Shakespeare and his plays.
Browne’s book, published in 2009, had previously been languishing somewhere in the midlist (which is expected for a book published a decade ago).
Now it’s #2 on Amazon’s nonfiction chart.
How did that happen? Well, isn’t it obvious—the coronavirus pandemic.
But wait: It gets better. Apparently, End of Days contains a prediction that bears an uncomfortable similarity to the current COVID-19 global outbreak:
“In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments,” it said. “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
Silvia Browne claims that she began receiving premonitions at the age of 5. Make of that what you will.
It is worth noting that Browne’s book isn’t the only old title to become the target of renewed interest in recent days. A 1981 novel by Dean Koontz also contains plot elements that are eerily similar to the coronavirus outbreak. (Koontz’s book even mentions “Wuhan”. Creepy, huh?) And what about Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic novel of the “superflu”, aka “Captain Trips”? The Stand, originally published in 1978, is now #13 in fiction in the Amazon Kindle Store. Meanwhile, the 2011 movie Contagion, a film about–you guessed it—a civilization-destroying flu, is the most watched movie on Amazon.
King, Koontz, and the makers of Contagion never claimed to be prophets, of course. Nevertheless, in times like these, the End of the World is on people’s minds, and so there is an appetite for such fare. And where there is demand, there is eventually supply. Mark my words: Before this is over, some YouTube preacher or psychic will gain 15 minutes of fame for loudly predicting that the coronavirus is the death knell of civilization.
The problems with predictions
There are problems with such predictions, of course. First of all, the pandemic is nothing new. Civilization has been through many pandemics, dating all the way back to ancient times. An unnamed pandemic threw the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian into disarray. (Justinian himself caught the plague, but he recovered.)
Plague also battered the Romans, and before that, the Ancient Greeks. A plague in Athens was a major factor in one phase of the Peloponnesian War.
There was the Black Death in the 13oos in Western Europe, but that wasn’t the only plague to strike pre-modern Europe. Shakespeare wrote several of his most famous works while…quarantined for the plague.
Shakespeare’s business model was also disrupted by plague. For long periods in the early 1600s, London authorities closed the playhouses—William Shakespeare’s bread and butter.
Early American history is marked with outbreaks, too: typhoid, cholera, smallpox. More Civil War soldiers, on both sides, died from communicable diseases than from battlefield wounds.
There have been no such pandemics in living memory, but there was a catastrophic one in the 20th century, barely a hundred years ago. The Spanish Flu (H1N1) pandemic of 1918-1919 killed 50 million people worldwide. That same pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States.
This would mean deaths of over 2 million in terms of today’s US population. No one in the scientific community is predicting a coronavirus death toll even close to that number.
But what about Silvia Browne’s seemingly on-target prediction of “a severe pneumonia-like illness” that sweeps the globe “in around 2020?” Browne made that prediction in 2009, I’ll remind the reader.
Here’s a guess: Perhaps Browne read Dean Koontz’s 1981 novel, which reportedly has a similar plot line. (That actually isn’t as unlikely as you might think; Dean Koontz has sold a lot of books over the years.)
Let me give you some inside baseball here—which will help put your mind at ease regarding all these prophesies of doom, and their eerie semblance to current events.
I write fiction, both thrillers and horror. Every time I sit down to write a new novel or short story, I try to be as original as I can. (I succeed, most of the time, I think.) But I know that certain story elements tend to be common over certain genres.
For example, every romantic film or novel follows a familiar plot: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Sound familiar?
Now suppose that you’re going to write a story (or make a prediction) about the End of the World.
Here, too, you have some obvious elements to work with. Without resorting to supernatural or extraterrestrial causes, your end-of-it-all plot is probably going to involve one of the following:
Are there any others? Not that I can readily think of. Zombies? No, that’s supernatural. What about a collapse of the Internet or the power grid? That would certainly be disruptive, and some people would die as a result, but it wouldn’t be apocalyptic.
Also remember that there were some viral outbreaks in the 2000s, that were points of serious concern for a while, but which eventually went away, like the Avian flu outbreaks of 2003~5.
So, to have predicted in 2009 that a “pneumonia-like illness” would baffle scientists and take thousands of lives ten years hence would not necessarily have required psychic powers. That’s all I’m saying.
If you’ve ever read your horoscope, or maybe the little slips of paper inside Chinese fortune cookies, you’ll notice a trend: Most purportedly psychic predictions of the future rely on general, widely applicable statements (“You are coping with a broken heart,”) or extrapolations based on past data.
Finally, I should note that I am not one of those snide, debunking New Atheist types. I believe in God…also in an afterlife. I’m open to elements of the paranormal. (Hey, I wrote a novel about a haunted road in rural Ohio, after all.)
But I believe that faith, or the openness to possibilities, must be tempered with healthy skepticism. I was raised Roman Catholic. But if someone tells me that the image of the Virgin Mary can be discerned in the mold on their shower curtain, I’m going to require a lot of evidence before I declare it a miracle.
And so should you maintain your skepticism, when prophets of doom predict the end of the world. Especially in times like these.
Kenny Rogers passed away yesterday. The singer was 81 years old.
Kenny Rogers had his heyday as I came of age. He was a country western singer; and in the early 1980s, no self-respecting suburban adolescent male would have admitted to a liking for country music. But I liked Kenny Rogers, nonetheless.
His best songs were fine examples of lyric storytelling. “Coward of the County”, “The Gambler”, “Long Arm of the Law”, and “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille”. Each one of these songs creates a little movie in your head, when you listen to it.
As noted above, Kenny Rogers’s music was ubiquitous in the early 1980s. We heard less from him in the new century, and he retired for good in 2015.
He’ll be missed, but his music lives on, of course.
Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Ali-Reza Raeesi expressed readiness to help the US to control coronavirus outbreak there and said Washington should remove anti-Iran sanctions if its sincere with its claim of helping Iran.
Speaking in a press conference on Thursday, Raeesi further advised the US to improve and strengthen its healthcare and medical system if it wishes to contain the coronavirus.
Referring to claims made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with regard to helping Iran, he said it would be better for an American medical official to comment on the issue as Pompeo is no expert in healthcare matters.
He added that US’ health and medical system is incapable of controlling COVID19 pandemic.
US President Donald Trump has restricted information system on coronavirus to government and no one is allowed to report with this regard, he noted.
There is no doubt that the president is going out of his way to refer to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus”.
Before it became a global pandemic, COVID-19 was almost universally known as the “Wuhan virus”.
But the president isn’t sticking with Wuhan virus; he’s calling it “the Chinese virus” or the “China virus”. These are new terms.
Is this good? Bad? Misleading? Or a case of necessary bluntness?
Here are some items to consider:
On one hand…
1.) Yes, the virus originated in Wuhan, China.
2.) Yes, the Chinese Communist Party initially withheld information about the virus that could have saved lives—especially in Italy, but elsewhere, as well.
3.) This entire situation has shown that we need to reduce our economic dependence on China, and we need to reduce China-dependent supply chains. This is something that many GOP members of Congress (and to be fair, also some Democrats) are starting to realize. Hopefully the American business community will realize it, too.
1.) President Trump’s deliberate, repeated (and somewhat contrived) use of the term “Chinese virus” injects an unnecessary element of politics into daily discussions about the pandemic.
2.) Many Americans are of Chinese descent. So maybe call it, “the Chinese Communist Party virus”, or “the Mao Zedong virus” instead?
3.) Or maybe just call it by the more technically accurate and universally recognized, “coronavirus” or “COVID-19”.
1.) The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sucks. For decades now, American businesses have foolishly moved key R&D, and key elements of their supply chains, to China. We’ve encouraged China to underwrite American debt. And since China is a one-party dictatorship, this means that we’ve done all that with the CCP.
2.) But, at this critical time in America, the last thing we need is yet another mind-numbing, nitpicking, repetitive, and highly distracting debate about “what is racist?” (Groan!)
3.) Call it COVID-19 or coronavirus for now, Mr. President. When the pandemic is contained and the dust has cleared, then we can reassess our relationship with China. But for now, keep distractions to a minimum. And calling it “the Chinese virus” creates a counterproductive and unnecessary distraction at this point.
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Let me present the following to you…This is a true story…
A previously unknown, deadly virus arises out of a part of the globe that most Americans regard as remote and exotic.
The virus spreads throughout the world…including to the West.
The disease is particularly deadly among certain demographics, and in particular countries.
A Republican US president is accused of dragging his feet in the fight against the disease.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is deeply involved in the fight against the disease.
Tom Hanks becomes a symbol of the disease.
There are dire predictions that the disease will decimate the United States.
The media reports on the disease nonstop.
A number of famous people get the disease, giving the media even more material.
The disease takes thousands of lives. There are genuinely tragic stories…many of them.
Because of the disease, Americans have to change some practices that they never gave much thought to before. New precautions are required.
By and large, though, life goes on, though life is never quite the same.
Another time, another pandemic
I’m not talking about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. I’m talking about AIDS and HIV.
I remember how, in the early 1980s, we first began hearing sporadic stories about a “gay cancer”. Then a few years later, we learned that Americans had a new, fatal, viral disease to contend with: AIDS, which was caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
The disease spread especially fast among gay men and intravenous drug users. It decimated parts of Africa, in the so-called “AIDS belt”.
A long list of famous Americans caught AIDS. Some died from AIDS, or AIDS-related complications: Rock Hudson, Liberace, Freddy Mercury, Arthur Ashe. Also Robert Reed—whom Americans of a certain age will remember as the father on The Brady Bunch.
Other famous Americans—Magic Johnson, Greg Louganis, and Charlie Sheen among them—continue to live with HIV.
There were also tragic cases of ordinary HIV-infected Americans, whose situations, for one reason or another, became widely known: Ryan White (1971-1990) was an Indiana teen who acquired HIV from a blood transfusion. Kimberly Bergalis (1968-1991) was young Florida woman who was infected by her dentist. Both White and Bergalis died from AIDS.
Ronald Reagan—not the current occupant of the White House—was the Republican president whom many believed to be slow to accept the reality of AIDS and HIV.
Dr. Anthony Fauci was prominently involved in the initial fight against AIDS and HIV, just as he is now front and center in the fight against COVID-19.
Tom Hanks became a symbol of the human side of COVID-19, when he and his wife were infected in Australia. History repeats itself here, too: Tom Hanks became a symbol of the human side of AIDS, when he starred in the 1993 movie Philadelphia. This was a film about a gay attorney who contracts AIDS, and then sues his law firm for wrongful termination. Groundbreaking for its time, Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream films to frankly portray the topics of AIDS and homosexuality.
The end of civilization?
Anyone who was alive in the late 1980s and old enough to be aware of the news (I was), will recall the impact of AIDS on the American psyche. By 1985, most Americans believed that in wealthy, Western countries like the United States, deadly communicable diseases were a problem of the distant past. AIDS was therefore a rude awakening.
There were dire predictions about the inevitable course of AIDS in the United States. Look at what happened in Uganda, after all.
I recall a book commercial that aired frequently in 1989. It featured a skull on the TV screen, and the tagline: AIDS: The End of Civilization. (This was also the title of the book, by William Campbell Douglass.)
I was in my early twenties in 1989. I remember hearing at least a few people my age (both men and women) state that they were going to forgo any romantic involvements, for fear of getting AIDS. One young man, I recall, said that he was going to “wait until they straighten this all out.” He never specified who “they” were. Nor did he suggest a timeline for “them” to straighten it all out.
How we adjusted to AIDS
As most readers will know, there is still no definitive cure for AIDS/HIV. Nor is there a vaccine.
Many aspects of American life changed forever as a result of AIDS. I’m not just talking about sex. Our clinical fear of blood, and bodily fluids, largely didn’t exist prior to AIDS and HIV.
Many of the changes implemented in response to the AIDS epidemic (including some from the top down) were reasonable and justified. The city of San Francisco closed the infamous bathhouses, which were sources of mass infection for gay men. All donated blood is now tested for HIV, and has been since the 1980s. Health professionals all wear gloves today, whenever they interact with patients, because of the AIDS epidemic (even if AIDS is not a specific fear in each case). I recall going to the doctor prior to AIDS: The doctor usually didn’t bother to put on gloves if he/she was merely examining you.
And, of course, there were changes to sex. During the 1970s (I was still a kid then, but I’ve heard the stories), the widespread availability of the pill combined with looser social mores to create a wild west approach to sex. The 1980s wasn’t the 1950s; but AIDS brought about a much needed reexamination of the sexual revolution.
But AIDS didn’t bring about the end of civilization, as that 1989 book predicted. You still hear about AIDS on the news, but nothing like you did in the late 1980s, when the disease was new, and on the mind of every journalist.
Many late-1980s reactions to AIDS seem like overreactions today, in retrospect. Consider those young people who were so afraid of AIDS that they temporarily became social and sexual hermits.
Few young people today would even think about forgoing the normal process of meeting someone special, dating, getting married and having children because they might get AIDS in the process. (And most young people of the late 1980s snapped out of that, too, after the initial panic subsided.)
That’s a good thing, because otherwise, there would today be no people under the age of about thirty-five. An overreaction to AIDS might have brought civilization to a standstill, even if the disease itself didn’t wipe us out.
Yet another time, and yet another strange, deadly, viral disease
This brings us to what you’re really concerned about right now: not AIDS, but the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
AIDS and COVID-19 are very different, of course. AIDS is far deadlier than coronavirus (if you get HIV), but far less contagious. You can’t get HIV from casual contact.
But AIDS and COVID-19 are also similar, in terms of the public reaction that history will record them both as causing in their initial heydays.
Many of the early, dire predictions about AIDS turned out to be wrong.
Is it blasphemous to suggest that the same might be true about COVID-19, too?
These are immoderate times. (Just look at the political environment in the United States.) And the reaction to COVID-19 has been correspondingly extreme. What has occurred in recent days in the United States is, in many ways, an outright panic: the hoarding, the incessant media coverage, the constant chatter and rumormongering on Twitter and Facebook.
But most of all: We have witnessed something unprecedented in modern times—and possibly even in pre-modern times—the complete shutdown of American life. (This didn’t occur in response to AIDS.)
Over the past week, our state, local, and national governments have ordered everything to come to a complete standstill.
We’re hearing talk not just of a recession—but of a depression.
Unemployment as high as 20%.
Everyone confined to their homes for weeks, months, or even longer.
Risk, mortality, and the human condition
The shutdown, of course, is intended to eliminate risks. Postmodern Americans are uncomfortable with risks. And we’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with risks in recent decades.
When I was a kid (in the 1970s), Americans still regularly drove without seat belts. My entire childhood, I rode a bike without a helmet. No one even thought about it. Today, you will almost never see an American child in an American suburb riding a bicycle without a helmet. And if you try to drive without a seatbelt, your car dings and beeps until you put it on.
Eliminating risks is not a bad thing, of course. I’m all for seat belts and bicycle helmets.
But here’s another fact of life, that most Americans don’t want to accept: There is no way to eliminate all the risks of any activity. Risks—of death, disease, accident—are realities that we have to accept, in order to live at all, with or without COVID-19.
Since 1948, at least 30,000 people have died each year in automobile accidents. Thousands more suffer life-changing injuries. (Is there a single person among us who hasn’t lost a friend or loved one to the modern addiction to cars?)
So why don’t we simply ban them? Declare an automotive quarantine? After all, automobiles aren’t strictly necessary. Human civilization existed for thousands of years without motor vehicles. And we already know, based on seven decades of data, that they will kill 30,000 people in the US alone.
Every single year.
The inevitability of death
In early 2015, I faced a common, though extremely unpleasant, reality: the death of a parent.
The physicians told me, in no uncertain terms, that my mother was going to die within the next 72 hours from heart failure.
They turned out to be right.
I still miss my mother every day, but I also realize that nobody’s mother lives forever.
Come to think of it, neither does anyone else. Death—from accidents, from communicable diseases, from old age—is an inextricable part of the human condition.
We don’t like to think about that, though. Death has become the taboo subject that sex once was.
Any celebrity who is sufficiently famous has probably talked about their sex life for eager journalists. And it’s all on the Internet. We now know, for example, that Will Smith and his wife of many years, Jada Pinkett Smith, make use of sex toys in their marriage. We know that actor Ethan Hawke is a proponent of “open marriage” arrangements.
That kind of talk barely warrants a raised eyebrow nowadays, in all but the most staid settings. But try raising the subject of death (something we will all face, at some point), and gage the reactions. State that you believe in an afterlife—or that you don’t. Watch the people around you squirm.
The reality of death, the ubiquity of death, doesn’t jibe with a society that believes every problem or unfulfilled need will be fixed by the next gadget or scientific discovery.
Some Americans even believe in imminent transhumanism—the notion that we will soon be dramatically enhanced from our vulnerable, mortal states by fusions of our bodies with technology. A new utopia of almost unlimited longevity, brought to you by the gods of science.
But it’s been almost forty years since the first cases of AIDS were identified, and we still don’t have a cure for AIDS…or cancer. How about we cure the basic diseases before we think about becoming immortal cyborgs?
Death is real for all of us, our two hundred-plus cable channels and iPhones notwithstanding. Older Americans are going to die today. American adults in their prime, mothers and fathers, are going to die today, too. So are some children.
Should we bring all social and economic activity to a halt in order to avoid COVID-19 deaths? Well, let me ask you a similar question: Why have we continued to drive for the past 70-odd years, with an annual traffic death toll above 30,000?
Pandemics and tradeoffs
But all that talk about death isn’t purely metaphysical. It also relates to the economic concept of tradeoffs. Everything that you do, or don’t do, has an opportunity cost.
To get right to the point here: Twenty-first-century Americans aren’t prepared for post-apocalyptic levels of isolation. You’ve probably seen The Walking Dead. If The Walking Dead were real, the show’s protagonists would have died from starvation long before they were eaten by zombies.
In a world without functioning factories and grocery stores, the zombies would know what to eat. The living people wouldn’t. Twenty-first century Americans don’t grow our own food. We don’t get water from our wells, or power from the horses in our barns, either.
The facts of modern life don’t support a shutdown
We rely on all kinds of modern institutions, both public and private:
Yes, grocery stores and pharmacies…
But also the factories that make the goods that fill the shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies.
Also, the automobile companies that make the vehicles that transport the employees of those companies to work.
And the insurance companies that cover those employees’ vehicles, and…
The banks that enable those employees to get paid, and…
You see what I mean?
We can’t simply shut all of that down, indefinitely, in order to avoid the COVID-19 virus. If we mitigate the COVID-19 virus but cause mass starvation in the process, then we haven’t really gained much, have we?
Trust the experts?
Yes, we should trust the experts within their fields of expertise. This is no time for Wikipedia virology, or Reddit epidemiologists.
But we should also remember something else: Blindly trusting the experts—including medical experts—can occasionally have dire consequences.
Before COVID-19 made the news, the opioid crisis was our major public health concern.
Trust the experts! That was what you said when your doctor prescribed four weeks of oxycontin for your knee pain. A year later, you’re an opioid addict trying to buy heroin in the bad part of town.
Experts like Anthony Fauci should be telling us what the risks of COVID-19 are. They should not necessarily be deciding what risks we as Americans decide to take. Nor should they decide what we are willing to give up, over the long haul, as tradeoffs.
Trust the government?
Well, to a point.
The government is in a panic mode at present. They want businesses to shutter their operations, and citizens to stay in their homes.
That isn’t sustainable.
It might be better if the government focused on finding ways to keep the economy going while taking preventative measures.
But the “shut it all down” administrative zeitgeist has acquired a life and momentum of its own.
And it isn’t sustainable.
So what should we do?
We’re still early in all of this. It was just last week that various governments ordered everything shut down. Like most of you, I’m abiding by the quarantine procedures. That’s my plan for the immediate future. I’m not suggesting that the time has come for any sort of civil obedience or protests. For now, our focus should be on working together to contain the spread of COVID-19. Let the doctors, nurses, and public health officials do their jobs.
But what’s the long-term game here? No one in government seems to know.
We’ve been told that that the next fifteen days are crucial.
But what if the results of this 15-day quarantine are inconclusive? What if the result falls somewhere in between complete success and complete disaster? What are the criteria for going back to normal (or inching our way back to normal)?
What are we going to do over the long haul?
According to the latest information, a reliable, commercially available COVID-19 vaccine is still a year away.
We can’t shut everything down for a year. Not unless each of us moves to a plot of farmland, and learns to grow our own food.
Conclusions: risks we (may) need to live with
We can’t freeze all economic activity indefinitely. We just can’t.
This means that if the results of this initial quarantine period are inconclusive (as will likely be the case), then we may need to learn to live with COVID-19.
This sounds radical, I know. But you already live with myriad other risks.
You drive to the grocery store (provided the coronavirus hoarders have left something on the shelves), even though you might die in an automobile accident on the way. You might even kill someone else in an automobile accident, for that matter.
We don’t expect young people to take lifetime vows of chastity, even though some of them will acquire STDs, be murdered by abusive spouses, and die in childbirth. (Yes, women still die in childbirth, even in the United States.)
And here’s another point to ponder: At the time of this writing, the death toll from the seasonal flu has already reached 22,000. One hundred forty-four of the dead were children.
I know: COVID-19 isn’t the flu, any more than COVID-19 is AIDS, or automobile accidents.
But we have learned to live with the risks of AIDS, automobile accidents, and the flu. And—yes—we’ve learned to live with the sad but inevitable fact that some of us will die from those things.
Not all of us are going to make it.
That’s sad. But that’s also life on earth.
Sooner or later, we’ll need to restart the world. That world may be a different one–perhaps a more perilous one– but it has to start moving again.
One of the natural questions to arise from all of this is: Have we been here before? Have we even been close to here before?
Can we find anything that compares to the coronavirus crisis, without going back to the 19th century (they say the Civil War was pretty disruptive), or at least to World War II?
I was born in 1968. So while I’m not the oldest of old-timers, I’m no longer young, either. I’ll be 52 my next birthday.
Here are the disasters and major disruptions to American life that I can remember, starting with the 1970s:
Energy crises (1970s)
Throughout the 1970s there was anxiety about gasoline. This was mostly owing to events in the Middle East.
Twice–in 1973 and in 1979—these crises became acute. The proximate cause of the 1973 crisis was the Yom Kuppur War. The Iranian Revolution caused the 1979 crisis.
To be honest, I was still in kindergarten in 1973, and I don’t remember that crisis well.
I do, however, vividly recall the energy crisis of 1979. There were long gas lines, and there was concern about the availability of other fossil fuels, as well. Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time, famously encouraged everyone to turn down the heat and wear sweaters. (Yes, really.)
Blizzards of 1977 and 1978
I was in grade school when these occurred, and I remember them well, too. During those two consecutive winters, we had weeks of record snow and cold. The Ohio River here in Cincinnati froze solid. I was off school for days at a stretch. (And there was no e-learning back then.)
The Blizzards of 1977 and 1978 were disruptive for many Americans, and many businesses. To be honest, though, they became some of the more pleasant memories of my childhood. All that time off school!
Savings and Loan crisis (1985)
There were various savings and loan crises throughout the 1980s. There was one I remember in particular, though: the collapse of the Cincinnati-based Home State Savings Bank.
In March 1985, the collapse of Home State Savings was imminent and more or less public knowledge. There was a run on branches of Home State Savings (as well as other S&Ls) as nervous account holders rushed to get their money out.
I was in high school then. I remember seeing the long lines at the savings and loan near my house. Ohio Governor Dick Celeste ordered all S&Ls in Ohio closed.
The resolution of the S&L crisis—in Ohio and elsewhere—lasted well into the 1990s.
Waco, the LA riots, the first World Trade Center Bombing, and Oklahoma City (1992-1995)
Between 1992 and 1995, there were multiple events of mass violence that made the news. These were not widely disruptive beyond the places where they occurred, but they did create national anxiety.
In 1992, there were several days of looting and rioting in Los Angeles, in response to the verdict in the Rodney King trial. There were concerns that the race-related violence would spread beyond Los Angeles. To the best of my knowledge, this did not happen to any significant degree. But parts of Los Angeles would take years to rebuild.
On February 26, 1993, a Muslim extremist named Ramzi Yousef detonated an improvised bomb in the World Trade Center in New York City. There were only a few casualties, and the WTC remained structurally sound.
In April 1993, several branches of federal law enforcement raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, resulting in multiple civilian deaths, including the deaths of many children.
In April 1995, a rightwing extremist named Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 168 Americans died as a result. Timothy McVeigh was captured, tried, and convicted. He was executed in 2001.
I was an adult by 1992; and I can recall watching live, or almost-live, footage of all of these events on television. They made me anxious. (The Oklahoma City bombing made me particularly sad.) But they did not interfere with my day-to-day life in any significant way.
I was at my corporate home base in Cincinnati when 9/11 began on the morning of September 11, 2001. My father, however, was still working at the time; and he was in Las Vegas for a trade show.
He had flown into Las Vegas the previous weekend. (9/11 occurred on a Tuesday.) So he wasn’t flying that day. But there was some anxiety about him getting home. For a while, all flights were grounded. After a minor ordeal in the Las Vegas airport, my dad and his companions found seats on a flight to Cincinnati.
On the afternoon of 9/11, there were some gas lines. But the run on gasoline was short-lived, when everyone realized that the terrorist attacks posed no threat to America’s oil supplies.
Those are the bad/disruptive events that occurred in my lifetime within the United States.
Many of the above were tragic. (Even the Blizzards of 1977 and 1978 caused some loss of life.) They resulted not only in deaths, but in economic disruptions.
None of these, however, was remotely comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. All of the above-described disturbances were relatively finite. Suicide bombers, as horrible as their work can be, can only bomb you once. No one believed that the Los Angeles riots of 1992 were going to continue for six months.
In other words, we don’t really have a living-memory benchmark to the COVID-19 pandemic. As everyone keeps saying, this really is uncharted territory.
Bernie Sanders is not the first “share the wealth” populist to come along, and he almost certainly won’t be the last.
Around the turn of the 20th century, a socialist named Eugene V. Debs ran for president multiple times (not as a Democrat, but explicitly as a socialist). In the election of 1912, Debs won 6% of the popular vote.
And then there was Huey Long, the so-called “Kingfish”.
Huey Long came from a poor part of the country (rural Louisiana), though his family was well-off relative to his neighbors. Huey Long was egotistical, power-hungry, bombastic, and extremely divisive.
Unlike Bernie Sanders, Huey Long explicitly disavowed Marxism. What Long seemed to want (other than his own political power and self-aggrandizement) was a more robust form of the New Deal welfare state, which was in its infancy in Long’s day. (Long was killed by an assassin in 1935.)
I’m presently reading Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard D. White. This is a very readable biography; and I highly recommend it if you’re interested American history and/or economics.