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.

Good news/Bad News on COVID-19

Today was a big news day on COVID-19, with the news breaking that researchers at Harvard have published a study in Science finding that social distancing would need to remain in force all the way into 2022.

That, at least, was the dismaying headline.

Actually, the news wasn’t quite that bleak. The paper focused on “intermittent” social distancing, which is not the same thing as another two years of  the current “shelter in place.” https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/04/14/science.abb5793?rss=1 What it found was that because of the virus’s tendency to rebound, periodic distancing measures would be necessary to beat back future peaks, in order to avoid overwhelming the hospitals.

Bad enough, but it could be a lot worse.

The researchers also found that viruses of this type appear to be seasonal, which means a likely respite in the summer. In their model, the rebound from that respite tended to produce another big spike in early fall, with the need for a re-institution of social distancing measures.  That would be followed by a long series of spikes and respites—possibly as many as three year, lasting into 2022, and possibly as far into the future as 2025 until overall “herd immunity” has risen to a level to eventually damp out the virus.

But it’s a model, and with any model, a vital issue is the assumptions that went into it.

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