The False Controversy of Vote by Mail

*Image credit: Chris Phan of himself using a vote-by-mail dropbox (a stamp-free alternative to USPS), via Wikipedia Commons,.

Yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order converting California’s November election entirely to vote-by-mail.

It’s a politically controversial decision, almost guaranteed to be contested in the courts.

It has also been described by CNN, Vox, and probably others as making California the first state to automatically send mail-in ballots to all registered voters.

Apparently, these news outlets never heard of Oregon. We’ve been conducting all of our elections this way for 20 years. In fact, one of my next projects is working my way through our spring ballot, which is crammed not only with primary campaigns, but important local issues.

The only thing that’s different about California’s vote-by-mail program is that Newsom did it by executive order. We did it by a voter-approved initiative all the way back in 1998.

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The Corruption of Critical Thinking

This post is not directly about politics or COVID-19. But it should be, which is why I’ve tagged it for both.

When I was teaching at California State University, Sacramento in the late 1980s, the Cal State system was trying to increase the focus on classes that emphasized critical thinking.

If there was an official definition, I never saw it, but my department made it clear that the environmental studies law-and-public-policy classes I taught were exactly what they wanted.

I ran these classes not as lectures, but as discussions based on assigned readings, and my biggest goal was to challenge the students to think about the readings’ implications, rather than just taking them at face value.

One of my favorite moments was a discussion in which one of the students flipped whatever I was saying at the time back on itself and pointed out something I’d overlooked. “That’s what you taught us to do,” he said, when he realized how well he’d hoisted me by my own petard.

I don’t remember what grade he got for the course, but for that day, he definitely got an A+.

Since then, however, I’ve found that critical thinking is all too often replaced by shorthand substitutes.

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Scylla, Charybdis & COVID-19

In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters guarding opposite sides of the narrow strait between Italy and Sicily. Chart a course too close to one side, and Scylla grabs you. Try to steer clear of Scylla and you fall prey to Charybdis.

It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the modern moment.

Except…in the Greek lore, the two monsters acted independently. Now, it’s more like each isn’t so much trying to snare you for itself as to drive you into the other’s clutches. And it’s something we seem to be doing our level best to assist.

Let me elaborate.

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Rick Lovett’s Spicy Split Pea Stew

Like the spicy spaghetti recipe (link) I posted here a few weeks ago, this is another old favorite, easily adaptable to coronavirus isolation. And yes, this too is spicy. I view most foods as an excuse for jalapenos or dried red peppers.

Ingredients:

  •             1/2 can split pea soup. (See below for alternatives.)
  •             1 onion
  •             1-2 jalapenos, dried red peppers, or hot sauce
  •             Baby carrots
  •             Sweet red pepper
  •             Snap peas
  •             2 ounces pasta
  •             1-2 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese (optional)
  •             1-2 ounces precooked honey ham (optional)
  •             Pepper
  •             Water
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White House Daily Briefings: A reporter’s view

Over the weeks, I’ve been unduly drawn to the daily drama of the White House’s coronavirus briefings. In part, it’s the fascination of watching a train wreck—and not just any train wreck, but the same one, day after day after day. (Art credit: 1920 Portland, Oregon train wreck, public domain.)

But I’ve also wondered how I’d react if I were one of the reporters in those briefings.

I’ve attended hundreds of press conferences. Mostly as a science writer, but also as a medical writer, and as sports writer. I’ve even done it in the politically charged arenas of environmental, food safety, or public health, three times with U.S. Cabinet Secretaries.

There’s a way in which reporters expect these things to play out.

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Living in IndigNation

We live in a culture awash with outrage. Whether it’s liberals versus conservatives, feminists versus “old white guys,” or almost anything else, it seems that everyone is doing everything possible to generate outrage against people on the other side of the aisle. (Image: Charles Le Brun, Wikimedia, courtesy of Wellcome Collection.)

Not that this is anything new. In a 2009 article in The Washington Post, Rick Perlstein listed examples going all the way back to the 1920s. “[T]he similarities across decades are uncanny,” he wrote, adding:

“My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union.”

Perlstein was directing his criticism toward purveyors of right-wing outrage, but it’s not one-sided. When I started this paragraph, I hit up rightwingwatch.org, and found that only minutes before, it had posted the trailer to an upcoming conservative documentary whose poster featured a cartoon of Obama waving an American flag while concealing a hammer and sickle behind his back. Obama supporters, I was sure, would find this outrageous. But is it any worse than a 2006 left-wing political cartoon in which someone Photoshopped Elvish script onto George W. Bush’s wedding band, under the header “Frodo Failed. Bush has the Ring.”

Not that this drumbeat of outrage confined to politics. But what I’m interested in is a much more underlying issue: our culture’s insistence on substituting demonization for debate, outrage for self-examination.

Blogger Fred Clark, who publishes under the name Slacktivist, has a name for this state of perpetual outrage. He calls it “IndigNation” and views it as a type of addiction: an emotional drug that makes people “intoxicated by finding or manufacturing reasons to self-righteously puff themselves up with artificial umbrage.”

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MLK and COVID-19 Politics

This afternoon, reading a book written long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, I stumbled across a 60-year old quote that was so extraordinarily relevant to today’s situation it made me gasp.

I’d already been toying with blogging about the anti-quarantine protests that have been popping up around the country, inspired in part by a Facebook fiend’s wise comment about how to react to them (more about that in moment).

Most people I know are incensed that these protests are not only wrong-headed, scientifically, but have a strong chance of producing clusters of new cases that could extend the need for quarantine, endanger health workers, produce needless deaths, and do unnecessary damage to the economy.

Let me be very clear: I agree with that assessment. I also understand the temptation to call the protesters a bunch of names, much as I’m sure they are calling me and my friends libtards, or worse.

Then I read this quote, from Martin Luther King, Jr., reported by Robert Coles in his 1993 book The Call of Service (slightly condensed to avoid tl:dr)

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COVID Polarization

If you ask friends from overseas what they think of America’s COVID-19 crisis, their most likely response will be to tell you it’s political.

They find it baffling, because to them, this is a public health crisis in which what matters is finding how to chart a course in a world of uncertain information. Most recently, for example, a study from Stanford found that the infection rate in one California County (Santa Clara) was 50 to 80 times higher than previously estimated—i.e., that for every case severe enough to be detected by normal testing, there were 50-80 more mild enough to have flown under the radar.

If that holds true on a larger scale, that is an enormous discovery, vastly affecting models of how the disease might spread in the next few months.

But in American corona-politics, it’s not clear what that will mean.

Everyone knows that the country is divided into two, roughly equal camps, neither willing to believe a word the other is saying, each thinking the other is bending the truth to suit its political purposes.

Dealing with that type of thing has never been my forte. My Ph.D. set me up to be a policy-wonk. My goal wasn’t to figure out which tribe would triumph in any situation (or how to make them win), but to find the optimum way to solve problems for the overall good.

Right now, we have two camps with two views on what to do about COVID-19.

One is worried about minimizing the public-health effects of the pandemic.  That means extending social distancing, etc., as long as possible, in order to cut disease transmission to the utmost.

The other is concerned about the economy. People are suffering from things other than the illness, and if we extend the shutdown too long, there will come a point where it is hard to climb back out of it.

Each tends to demonize the other. But the reality is that both are right. It’s a trade-off, in which we have to determine not which camp is right, but how to balance their two concerns.

That is not the same thing as winning a partisan, fight. The sooner we, as a country, figure that out, the sooner we will find a true solution to this crisis.

Rick Lovett 15 minute spicy coronavirus survival dinner

I’m not a cook, but I’ve been forced to stay at home, and here’s my favorite dinner recipe.

  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-6 bagged sweet peppers (red, yellow, orange), or 1 large red pepper
  • 1 cup chopped fresh or frozen broccoli
  • 5-6 snap peas or snow peas, broken into pieces (if available)
  • 3-4 large chopped mushrooms (if available)
  • ½ cup jarred spaghetti sauce (brand of your choice)
  • ½ to 2 large jalapenos (depending on spiciness, which varies with the season)
  • 1 Tablespoon Siracha sauce
  • 2 ounces pre-cooked meat (anything from ham to turkey or even, in these times, canned chicken)
  • 1/3 can black, kidney, or pinto beans
  • 1 ounce sliced mozzarella cheese (or one stick, string cheese)
  • salt, pepper, and dried mustard, to taste
  • 2 ounces whole wheat pasta
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Motivation and Humiliation

The Alberto Salazar/Mary Cain story is very much a moving target, as was revealed today in Sport’s Illustrated’s detailed feature.

What I want to do here is address a small piece of it. In a prior post, I wrote:

“A friend … once told me that male coaches who started out with boys tend to mis-coach women….With guys, my friend says, it’s possible to motivate by humiliation. With women, she says (after admitting it’s a stereotype), that simply doesn’t work.”

Most people agreed, but I also got feedback suggesting that humiliation isn’t the optimum motivator for boys either.

Let me start by saying that I concur. What my friend (and I) were saying was simply that boys can be motivated in that manner.

I know, because it happened to me.

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