Against conspiracy thinking

I have come to realize that conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking are as dangerous to us as any virus or any politician.

I say to epidemiology conspiracists and deniers the same thing I say to climate conspiracists and deniers: What if 98% of the scientists who’ve spent their entire professional lives studying this are right, and you are wrong? What would be the implications of that? What would be your moral responsibility?

“Questioning” is an inherent good only if you are prepared to carefully assess the answers. And in the case of epidemiology, that requires detailed knowledge most of us don’t have.

There is nothing more seductive than the notion that “Anyone with common sense can see [x]… and since the professionals don’t see it, they must be part of some conspiracy.”

But your “common sense” isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. Common sense tells you the sun travels around the Earth: all you have to do is look!

Just because someone’s been thrown out of the medical or scientific establishment, that does not mean ipso facto that they are a brave truth teller.

It might conceivably mean that. It’s certainly happened that way on occasion.

But far more often it has meant they were just incompetent, or dishonest, or wrong, or self-deluded.

Implanting goat gonads did not restore guys’ sexual potency.

Laetrile did not cure cancer.

Even though a doctor said so. And even though the medical establishment disagreed.

There are scores of cases like this that have just faded into history. People forgot them. So people didn’t learn the lesson that a lot of “fringe” ideas are just “bad.”

So, too, not everything that happens is the result of a conspiracy. And people who choose a scientific or medical career that requires them to spend a lifetime working on problems that are wickedly hard don’t usually do it either for profit or secret power.

There would be way easier ways for smart people to achieve those goals than as CDC pandemic researchers or as NOAA climate researchers.


Most people don’t want to die. But parties occasionally commit suicide

I’m beginning to think something politically cataclysmic may be happening out there.

It’s easy to look around and see huge turning points everywhere. Usually they don’t turn out to be quite so transformative. Political events that look enormous while they’re happening often don’t seem quite so important a few years later.

But right this moment, I think older Americans might just be weakening their attachment to Donald Trump and perhaps the Republican Party as a whole. And that would herald a titanic shift in American politics.

Perhaps I am making too large a claim based on too little data. I especially worry because I know the power of motivated reasoning. I think the Fox News/Alex Jones-driven modern incarnation of the Republican Party has been a profoundly destructive force in American life. I desperately want it to lose, badly and repeatedly, until it either reforms or disappears. That gives me plenty of reasons to succumb to wishful thinking. Especially since the Republican Party’s dark resilience has repeatedly stunned a whole lot of smart people.

But consider this:

In mid-March, seniors were more supportive of Trump than any other age group (plus-19 net approval). Now, their net approval of the president has dropped 20 points and is lower than any age group outside of the youngest Americans.”

“Those findings were matched by a new NBC/WSJ poll, which tested the presidential matchup between Trump and Joe Biden. Among seniors 65 and older, Biden led Trump by 9 points, 52 to 43 percent. That’s a dramatic 16-point swing from Hillary Clinton’s showing in the 2016 election; she lost seniors by 7 points to Trump (52-45 percent).

What is going on here? I think it is as simple and primal as it gets. People don’t want to die.

Older people have come to realize that they are, by far, at the highest risk of dying from coronavirus. By now, they’ve seen the statistics. They are, many of them, well aware of their own personal comorbidities and risk factors. For them, more than for many other Americans, coronavirus is profoundly personal and frightening.

I know full well that millions of Americans over 65 still work. But, even now, 80% don’t. They know, intellectually, that lots of people are struggling mightily because they aren’t earning income right now. But, in judging the balance between reopening the economy and protecting human life, they balance the equities rather differently. By a six to one margin, they want life and health prioritized over the economy. Whether they’re right or wrong, they’re human: how could they not?

They are watching closely. They know Trump didn’t take coronavirus seriously enough upfront. They might have forgiven him for that, recognizing that lots of people didn’t take it seriously, and even leaders who did have suffered serious human losses (though some have done way better than the United States).

But they’re watching and they don’t think he’s taking it seriously enough now.

They can see he’s just raring to get the economy running again. To a lot of them, he looks like a guy who understands (and cares about) money, and doesn’t understand (or care about) health, even if he thinks he’s some kind of medical genius.

And they also know the loudest voices in the Republican Party and conservative movement are pushing him even harder in the same direction. Some of them are even organizing rallies to break quarantine and violate stay-at-home orders.

Trump’s LIBERATE MICHIGAN LIBERATE MINNESOTA LIBERATE VIRGINIA tweets got noticed – and not in the way Trump would have liked. The flagrant indifference and occasionally stunning ignorance served up by Trump-friendly Republican governors like Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp is getting noticed nationwide. Older voters are hearing a lot more from the ascendant parts of the Republican Party that are furthest out of the mainstream, and a lot less from the thoughtful, cautious DeWines and Hogans. And they don’t like what they’re hearing.

People don’t want to die. Is that so complicated?

Sarah Palin and the Republican Party understood this brilliantly a decade ago when they conjured up Politifact’s “Lie of the Year”: that Obamacare was going to create mandatory death panels for seniors. It was, of course, garbage. But it drove millions of older Americans hard to the right, and it had a lot to do with the Democrats’ catastrophic 2010 election results, in which Republicans grabbed Congress and state legislatures, letting them gerrymander districts in ways that radically overrepresent Republicans even today.

They might have been able to do it again this year, by claiming that Democrats’ Medicare for All would undermine conventional Medicare.

But they can’t do that now. They have powerfully rebranded themselves as a party that is far too friendly to death, and far too willing to sacrifice seniors – not in the abstract, but right now.

My old friend Mark is likely right that we can’t keep printing and borrowing money forever. At some point, we’ll probably have to allow Republicans to kill more people like myself and my wife. At some point, it may be necessary to save what’s left of the economy, and prevent other deaths of despair along the lines of what happened in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The question is: when have we reached that point? Right or wrong, most Americans – and especially most older Americans – don’t think we’re anywhere close right now. And a lot of them are pretty horrified at just how eager Republicans seem to be to endanger them sooner than necessary.

Purely from a political standpoint, I think this is pretty amazing. But in the Trump era, Republicans have gotten awfully careless about their coalition.

They don’t hesitate to position coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” even if Asian Americans experience more hate crimes as a result. It’s as if they don’t think they need any Asian-American votes.

They don’t hesitate to welcome state bankruptcies or the demise of the post office. It’s as if they don’t think they need any votes from retired public workers who’ll lose their pensions. It’s as if they think they can afford to lose votes from rural communities who’ll never be served as well by FedEx as the USPS serves them today.

They don’t hesitate to permit the collapse of whatever remaining walls exist between the official Republican Party and right-wing militias, gun absolutists, and white nationalists. It’s as if they don’t think they need any votes from upscale suburban women.

Trump has made them think there’s an endless supply of non-college white males and conservative white evangelicals; between that and voter suppression, they can keep winning that way.

Well, maybe they’re right. On the other hand, though, parties do commit suicide. The Democrats did it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They have paid dearly; they are paying even now.

At some point, Republicans will knock one too many Jenga blocks out of their coalition, and it will fall. For the Republican Party, older voters are the biggest Jenga block of all. And I think that just might be happening.

John Prine helped make me a better man

John Prine died this evening. Complications from coronavirus.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, I may as well write it now. Have you ever heard a song that made you a better human being? Or at least gave you a fighting chance and a stronger motivation to become one?

In my late teens and early 20s, I heard a few songs like that, and they’ve stuck with me all my life.

One is John Prine’s: Angel from Montgomery. Like a lot of people, I first heard Bonnie Raitt’s version. But the lyrics, written from the point of view of an older woman with the fiercest of longings and regrets: how could a man, and one as young as Prine was then, have ever written a song like this? It’s as if it was one of those pieces of art channeled through the artist by something supernatural:

…And there’s flies in the kitchen

I can hear all their buzzin’

And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today

How the hell can a person

Go to work in the morning

Come home in the evening

And have nothing to say


Make me an angel

That flies from Montgomery

Make me a poster

Of an old rodeo

Just give me one thing

That I can hold on to

To believe in this livin’

Is just a hard way to go

I had no idea, none, how horrible it would be to be in a marriage with someone who just wasn’t there. To wait for someone to come home and then get nothing from him.

Until I heard that song.

And the moment I heard it, I knew instantly: that guy she is singing about could be me. I had it in me to do that to someone. If I was ever fortunate enough to find the right woman who would marry me, I was going to have to work really hard, constantly, to overcome the parts of me that would come home in the evening and have nothing to say.

I do not know if I have succeeded. Well, I sort of do know. I haven’t succeeded nearly as well as I should have. But I would have been a whole lot worse if I had never heard John Prine’s song. So, John, Godspeed tonight — and, John, thank you.

The second song I believe made me better: John Fogerty’s Someday Never Comes. It was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s very last single, when that great band was falling apart. I sometimes fear this song has mostly been forgotten. But not, not ever, by me.

Fogerty sings of a young boy whose father left him, with no reason that made any sense:

First thing I remember was asking papa, why,

For there were many things I didn’t know.

And daddy always smiled and took me by the hand,

Saying, someday you’ll understand…


…Well, time and tears went by and I collected dust.

For there were many things I didn’t know.

When daddy went away, he said, try to be a man,

And someday you’ll understand.


Then the singer tells us he has his own son. And he, too, leaves:

…Think it was September, the year I went away,

For there were many things I didn’t know.

And still I see him standing, tryin’ to be a man,

I said, someday you’ll understand.


Well, I’m here to tell you now, each and every mother’s son,

That you better learn it fast, you better learn it young,

‘Cause someday never comes.

That song came out when I was 16 1/2 years old. I was blessed to grow up with parents in a good and stable and loving marriage. But I also grew up in the early 1970s, when marriages left and right were falling apart, and that was no longer going to be a given for myself or the people around me.

John Fogerty’s song made me know, really know, for the first time, what it would be like to be that child whose father was going to go far away, for reasons that could never be fathomed. For the first time I thought about how one man’s personal decision could ripple through the generations and hurt people who weren’t even born yet, and wondered what had made him do what he did.

And as soon as I heard it I knew I was going to have to do the very best I ever could never to be that father in that song.

The third song is a bit more popular and maybe more familiar, at least to people of my generation: Desperado, by Don Henley and Glenn Frey:

…Now, it seems to me some fine things

Have been laid upon your table

But you only want the ones that you can’t get


Desperado, oh, you ain’t gettin’ no younger

Your pain and your hunger, they’re drivin’ you home

And freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talkin’

Your prison is walking through this world all alone


…Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?

Come down from your fences, open the gate

It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you

You better let somebody love you (let somebody love you)

You better let somebody love you

Before it’s too late

I heard that song at a very lonely time in my life. And it crystallized for me the changes I was going to have to make if I was going to survive. And it took me a long time and it was very hard, but I did, and I have. And I do truly believe that song helped me get there.

It’s obvious that all three of these songs were about the same thing. Connecting with other human beings, being there with all of yourself, no matter how hard that seems. It didn’t come naturally for me, and like all of us, I’m still very much a work in progress, with a long way to go and not enough time to get there. I guess I always will be. But I’ve had a lot of help. You. Mom. Other people around me.

And, yes, also, the powerful gifts of those three songs, given to me when I most needed and could benefit from them.

I wish you songs like that.

On naming viruses in America

As if we needed any more evidence as to how divided we are, here is the President of the United States taking a Sharpie to his March 19, 2020 briefing notes to make 100% sure he calls it the “Chinese virus” rather than the “coronavirus”:

trump sharpie

We all know people who think this isn’t just perfectly appropriate but imperative. While other people – like me, and most of the global public health community – object pretty strongly to that choice of language.

Trump and his supporters see those objections as nothing more than political correctness. And a great deal of unproductive yelling typically ensues. So I want to explore this in a bit more depth – but no, I don’t pretend to be at all dispassionate about it.

To the extent that one could be dispassionate at a time like this, one would probably start by comparing the reasons to avoid the term with the reasons to use it. Then one could make a judgment about whose set of reasons are more compelling.

So, let’s begin with the reasons to avoid the phrase.

First: we’ve already seen physical violence and verbal abuse against Asians based on the raving imaginations of idiots who blame them for the spread of the virus here. It seems likely that the wider use of the phrase “Chinese virus” will make those kinds of events more common, just as there’s some evidence that the president’s ascendancy and approach to his job may have promoted increased incivility and bullying in schools.

For many of us, this is more than enough reason to stick with coronavirus or COVID-19. Others, admittedly, seem far less troubled by real or potential bigotry against America’s 3.8 million citizens of Asian descent, or against other Asians who happen to live and work here. I’m more accustomed to the indifference of many of my fellow citizens to bigotry than I was four years ago. But I don’t like it one bit more than I did the day Trump first rolled down his escalator.

If the encouragement of bigotry weren’t enough, there are also the concerns of global health professionals, whose experience tells them that linking a disease to an ethnic group makes it harder to achieve the cross-cultural and international cooperation needed to end any pandemic. These public health experts worry that more people will die: even people who aren’t Asians being stomped by xenophobes.

Precisely how does stoking ethnic resentment help us end this pandemic and get life back to normal? Who does it help to have lunatic Americans blaming secret Chinese military labs near Wuhan and lunatic Chinese blaming secret U.S. Army labs? Cui bono?

So we have at least two reasons not to use the phrase. Once again, for some of us, even the first reason was sufficient. Taken together, they seem compelling to me.

As an aside, it’s not as if anyone’s focused on the name at the expense of other issues. Like, for example, Why are we so far behind in testing? Or Why did the President think it was smart to eliminate his pandemic response coordination team? We can pay attention to more than one thing at a time. But these seem like reasonable answers to the question “It’s just a name. Why does it bother you?”

Obviously Trump and some other folks see it differently. So let’s turn the question around and try to figure out “Why is calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ so important to them that it overrides these other concerns and values?”

As is so often the case, people are rarely explicit about their reasons. We have to do some inferring based on what they do say. We’ll do the best we can, knowing we won’t be perfect (and admitting that 3+ years into the Trump era, we’ve formed some unfortunate preconceptions about some of our fellow citizens that are difficult to put aside).

Let’s first dispose of (what seems to me) the silliest argument: “It came from China! Nobody objected when the 1918 influenza pandemic was called the Spanish flu!”

Actually, while we’re still not 100% certain, it’s unlikely that the Spanish flu actually started in Spain. As a neutral nation in World War I, Spain didn’t censor press reports about the outbreak, while combatant nations like France and Germany did. So it looked like Spain was the source because everyone else was hiding the information from their adversaries. But it was apparently an unfair accusation. (That happens: see Black Death.)

And the Spanish did object, loudly and repeatedly. From Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World:

Not surprisingly, this label almost never appears in contemporary Spanish sources. Practically the only exception is when Spanish authors write to complain about it. “Let it be stated that, as a good Spaniard, I protest this notion of the ‘Spanish fever,'” railed a doctor named Garcia Troviño in a Hispanic medical journal. Many in Spain saw the name as just the latest manifestation of the ‘Black Legend’, anti-Spanish propaganda that grew out of rivalry between the European empires in the sixteenth century, and that depicted the conquistadors as even more brutal than they were…

OK, what about the broader “educational” claim? “By using that name, we’ll teach people where it came from.”

You basically get to use a virus’s name to teach people one fact about it. Calling it “coronavirus” would tell people something about its shape and the family of viruses it’s part of. (We’ve done that before; see rotavirus.) If you were interested in science, that might be interesting or even useful.

Or you could call it something like “bat virus” to identify the animal it may have jumped from – e.g., eastern equine encephalitis virus – also, potentially useful data. Or you might name it after its discoverer(s), like Epstein-Barr virus. Perhaps most helpful, you might choose a name that describes how it behaves — think: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). (Here’s a deeper look at the complexities and politics of virus nomenclature.)

From the public’s standpoint, though, once a virus has spread widely, it’s not obvious that the most useful data is the country (or ethnic group) which suffered from it first. Now that Lyme disease is widespread, how much do you benefit from knowing that it was first discovered in Lyme, Connecticut?

If not education, perhaps a geopolitical point is being made? Maybe we want to use the virus’s name to call out a government that used authoritarian methods to hide the virus from the world for the first few weeks, instead of providing full information to help us prepare? Maybe we want to call out a government whose market regulations are so weak that it permitted viruses to easily jump between animals and humans?

Somehow, though, I haven’t heard anyone call it the “Chinese Communist Party Virus.” Why not? Why instead attach the name indiscriminately to an entire ethnic group?

If this were about policy, why aren’t the same people demanding to get to the bottom of the report that the Trump administration classified key meetings on coronavirus and held them in places where key people without national security clearances couldn’t participate – thereby delaying an effective response? If that happened, it sounds like something the Chinese Communists might’ve done, no?

Why aren’t the same people objecting to the Trump administration’s rule changes that dramatically speed up chicken processing lines beyond the ability of any USDA inspector to protect us against pathogens – and eliminate those limits in some pork plants altogether? Or Trump’s attempt – continuing right now! – to let nursing homes get away with not having dedicated on-site infection control professionals? Even part-time?

If they’re really objecting to the irresponsibility of a government that doesn’t care enough about human health to put people ahead of profit, they’re doing one helluva lousy job of it.

Or maybe calling it the “Chinese virus” is a way of supporting the argument that the United States ought to shift the terms of trade with the People’s Republic of China? But someone will have to explain to me precisely how it supports that argument, because the logical connection between the name of a virus and America’s optimal trade policy completely eludes me.

Suffice to say, if these are the arguments intended to overcome the objection of bigotry and associated hate crimes, they seem pretty flimsy. I’m left with the idea that Trump sees stirring up bigotry as a positive good and a political opportunity (and that a lot of other folks think so, too.) Hey, if you can indiscriminately attack Mexicans, and American Muslims, and Somali refugees, and 40%+ of the American people still support you, why not attack Chinese people, too?

I don’t always buy slippery slope arguments. But here’s one I do buy. If you can indiscriminately and unfairly link the “Chinese” to this virus, why not the orthodox religious communities where it spread so widely in New Rochelle, New York and elsewhere? Bigots could just as easily decide, indiscriminately and unfairly, to name this (or the next) virus after a religious faith and its practitioners. Anyone who’s studied the Nazis will know exactly what that would sound like.

Or they could equally indiscriminately and unfairly name the virus after some other group of Americans that’s seemed relatively indifferent to safeguarding the rest of us against it. They could look at the Florida spring breakers and unfairly name it the “Gen Z Virus” or “Millennial Virus.” Or what about the evangelical Christian ministers who deliberately defied warnings about holding large services? As long as it’s OK to be recklessly unfair, why not call it the “Evangelical Virus”?

In each case you’d be irresponsibly generalizing about an entire group from the behavior of a few – or hardly any – or maybe none. See how it feels?

Or maybe we could look at the right-wing media figures and politicians who spent weeks calling coronavirus a hoax, or their followers who say they still haven’t changed their behavior even now. What if we called it the “Conservative Virus”?

See how that feels?

It’s irresponsible. It’s wrong. But we have a President who does stuff like that every single day. And that Sharpie picture tells you he’s even doing it now, in the midst of a pandemic.

It’s stirring the pot. It’s making us even angrier with each other. It’s what he’s so good at. It’s what he thinks will get him re-elected, just as it did the first time. But it doesn’t do a damn thing to get us safely out of our houses and back to work. It sure won’t help us live together when we finally do.

Trump has never had a majority and he doesn’t today. We have a job to do, whether we do it in person, by mail, online, or whatever. That job is to make sure we massively outvote him this November. It’s just a start on ending the era of bigotry he exemplifies and exacerbates. But without that start, life in America will only get worse. Social distancing may limit the spread of coronavirus, but Trump proves it has zero impact on the transmission of hatred.

Reflections on Super Tuesday

Some thoughts after Super Tuesday:

  1. Democratic Party voters are terrified of losing to Trump. Pants shittingly terrified. Primary turnout was significantly stronger than in 2016 when Democrats thought they were just picking a successor to Obama, not deciding the fate of the planet. Check out Virginia and Texas, in particular, with massive increases from their 2016 numbers.
  2. The speed with which the center-left of the party coalesced around Biden is stunning. I found it admirable that Buttigieg and Klobuchar were able to recognize they had no path, and support the candidate they believed had the best chance of winning. They put the interests of the party and the country ahead of their short term political interests. (Whether this actually was in the best interests of the party and country remains to be seen, but it’s clear that both candidates believed that.) If Republican primary candidates had behaved similarly four years ago, we might not have ended up with Trump.
  3. The Democratic Party is older, more traditional, and more ideologically diverse than progressives realize. Sanders did enormously well with young voters of all races but got crushed with voters 45 and over, a much larger part of the electorate. Plenty of Democratic voters still identify as moderates and conservatives. Many of these are African-American and among the Party’s most stalwart voters. They are not revolutionaries, and you can’t win a primary without them. Same with many of the liberals who supported Biden and Warren.
  4. There is a tendency among many people on the left, myself included, to focus so intensely on ideological cleavages in the party that we miss how non-ideological factors shape electoral coalitions. In a campaign, the best policy platform in the world is worth little compared to relationships and trust. With historically Democratic constituencies, especially black voters, Biden had built a foundation of trust as Obama’s VP, unrivaled by moderates with similarly problematic records on race, like Buttigieg and Klobuchar, and racially progressive candidates like Warren. Sanders, to his credit, recognized this problem as crucial to his 2016 loss, and put in years of work reaching out to those constituencies. He found success with Hispanics and younger black voters who, along with the liberal whites who powered his 2016 campaign, catapulted him to front-runner status. But his commitment to a revolution that would demolish the existing Democratic Party (and national economic system) makes many rank-and-file Democratic voters nervous, even ones who agree with much of his platform. His failure to mollify those concerns – perhaps by showcasing his fairly pragmatic legislative record and gaining endorsements from more middle-of-the-road Democrats (i.e. not just AOC types) — made it harder for a large number of Democrats to view him as electable.
  5. Progressives certainly have reason to be disappointed at these results, but as a progressive, I want to add some perspective. The Democratic Party of 2020 is significantly different from that of 2008. Joe Biden, a moderate, is running on a platform far to the left of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He supports a strong public option, which falls short of Medicare for All, but it is something progressives fought unsuccessfully to add in the ACA and would move us closer to universal health care than we’ve ever been. The same goes for Buttigieg, a favorite punching bag of the millennial left. Do they go as far I would like? No. But I’ll gladly take it over the alternative.
  6. This race is far from over. California has millions of ballots left count, and Sanders’s margins could help offset his losses in smaller Super Tuesday states. If Warren drops out, which is likely, Sanders could further consolidate the left and make it impossible for Biden to hit a majority of delegates, even with Bloomberg out. Biden has yet to prove himself to the part of Democratic base less enthused with his experience and conservative voting record: young people, especially those of color. As the nominee, Biden would need to balance his ticket with a progressive woman of color.
  7. One final thought: it’s easy to get caught up in the presidential race. It’s important, but we have a House to defend, Senate to take back, and a nation full of Republican legislatures primed and ready to gerrymander the shit out of their states for the next decade – unless we vote them out. That’s the ballgame, and if we lose sight of it, we’ve lost before we’ve even started playing.

Mitt Romney, Jeff Van Drew, John André, God, you, and me

Obviously it’s easier to recognize courage when an opponent breaks ranks and takes your side. I admit I didn’t love it when Jeff Van Drew abandoned my own party to stand with Trump.

But it must have taken enormous courage for Mitt Romney to stand in the Senate and say what he said, knowing that he ended his political career by saying it. He will never again be nominated by the Republican Party for any office. Far too many of his fellow party members will never forgive him. Moreover, for the next five years he will likely be a pariah in his own Republican caucus: shunned by some Senators who hate what he did, and by others who know they failed when they should have done the same.

Nor will he ever be nominated by the Democratic Party for any office, because he truly is a conservative. He has voted for Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, and Trump’s other judges; for the Republican tax bill; for Republican policies on healthcare; for most of what the Republican Party supports.

He no longer has a political home. For all his money and privilege, his life will be different, and harder. Trump will seek revenge. Everyone knows that; it’s what Trump does. (Trump himself has said so.) Even Romney’s own niece, Republican party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, will likely attack him again. In this day and age, he could even find himself in physical danger. Just ask the 13 public figures who received bombs from Cesar Sayoc because Trump didn’t like them. (Or, if you prefer, the Republican congressmen victimized by a gunman while practicing softball.)

That’s an awfully hard position to put yourself in, when you could have just kept your head down and come up with a garbage excuse like Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander did, knowing your choice would not change the outcome.

Can any of us be sure we would have done what Romney did, in his exact place? I’d like to think I would. But I’d be lying if I said I was sure. What about you?

So why did Romney do it? I watched his 8 minute speech to the Senate, and I cannot help but take him at his word. He took his oath deadly seriously. He believed he had promised God to offer impartial justice as he saw it. Mitt Romney, undoubtedly a religious man, would be intimately familiar with stories of biblical figures called upon by God to do things they desperately wished to avoid. (Jonah and Moses, to name two.)

What Romney did reminds me of something so old and quaint it seems almost forgotten: the idea that an oath to God is sacred. When combined with religious faith, oaths engendered a great deal of honorable and prosocial behavior that would not otherwise have occurred. I wonder, what adequate substitute has been found?

It seems to me Romney’s case is different from that of Van Drew, who clearly improved his chances of staying in Congress by switching parties. I recognize others may disagree with me in assessing Van Drew’s action as self-interested. But he’s unquestionably made some powerful new political friends who are doing all they can to clear his path to re-election, and may well succeed. Nobody’s going to clear Mitt’s path for anything.

Years ago, when I saw the monument to John André in Westminster Abbey in London — the British spy George Washington executed for helping Benedict Arnold betray his country — I realized that one man’s traitor is often another’s martyr. Even if one supports Trump, however, one should recognize that Romney did something principled at great personal cost.

I found it the greatest act of political courage I have seen in a very long time. I am sitting here struggling to remember the last one like it.

Sure, of course, I believe history will remember him well for this. But history is an abstraction. More to the point: I did not expect Mitt Romney (of all people) to become my role model if I’m someday asked to do something that hard, simply because it’s right. But he is.

How people liberate themselves to support atrocities

It seems to me that if you believe the following eight propositions, there’s no atrocity you won’t accept if it’s done in your name by a leader you trust:

  1. Anything you say or do is only the fault of who you say it about, or do it to. (Once you believe this, you can shift all your moral responsibility onto your victims. They forced you to behave that way.)
  2. Your ends are legitimate and must be achieved, and cruelty may be essential to achieving them. (This is critical: you’ve now transformed cruelty from a horror into your responsibility. You can even start perceiving yourself as noble for having the courage to meet it.)
  3. If cruelty doesn’t work, the solution is more cruelty. (Because nothing else could possibly work, and the threat is too great to risk trying.)
  4. Anyone who opposes you is by definition more dangerous than you could ever be. (Accordingly, there can be no limits on your actions.)
  5. Certain people deserve no rights at all: not even the rights traditionally accorded to non-citizens. (When you believe this, you have no obligation to them as fellow human beings.)
  6. Anyone on your side who doesn’t offer wholehearted support is a traitor to your cause. (So you can write them off and henceforth stop listening to them.)
  7. Anyone else who publicizes anything you don’t want to hear is lying or creating “fake news.” (Now, you needn’t do the hard work of evaluating what they’re telling you.)
  8. Anyone who objects on moral grounds is merely a “virtue signaling” hypocrite. (You’ve now ruled out the possibility that anyone could object to your actions on ethical grounds; since they are obviously motivated by something else, they, too, should be ignored.)

A lot of people seem to believe all 8 of those propositions these days. If you did believe them, what would stop you from supporting mass murder? Concentration camps? Holocausts? You’ve systematically eliminated all the internal and external constraints humans have crafted to deter themselves from committing atrocities.

Seriously: what would stop you? Your self-image as a decent human being? That didn’t stop people in other places and times, did it?

Someone else’s graduation day

Today I was in Manhattan for meetings, and when they ended I walked outside into an unexpectedly beautiful spring day. With almost two hours to kill before dinner, I thought I’d wander a bit. Mom and I were in the city just last weekend, but I can’t get enough of it in the springtime. And I’ve been binging on the amazing Bowery Boys podcast, so when I’m there these days, I’m a bit more alive to the history and context of what I’m seeing.

I headed down to Washington Square Park (which I now know was once the city’s Potter’s Field and still has 20,000 early New Yorkers buried beneath it). I couldn’t find the elm tree that’s claimed to be New York City’s oldest living thing. (The Boys say it’s an urban myth that criminals were once hung from its branches.) I thought maybe it was gone, but it appears I just missed it. I seem to miss a lot these days.

But I did find hundreds of mostly young people decked out in purple NYU caps and gowns. A quarter of a million dollars later, today was their graduation day. I sat and watched.

You’ll rarely see so many happy and relieved human beings in one place: the graduates, their families, smiling, hopping around, taking pictures of each other, taking selfies, finding friends, saying bittersweet goodbyes in their last moments before moving on, separately.

I was instantly reminded of just how global a university NYU is: there were so many foreign languages in the air. Mine isn’t the most educated ear, and I obviously can’t tell who’s a foreign student and who isn’t just by looking at them. But I heard a lot of Chinese and I doubt I’m wrong to believe some of those voices belonged to foreign students from the People’s Republic.

If you’re not among the graduates, you can’t have memories of their shared experiences as the Class of 2019. But you can still reflect on just how much has happened in the four years since they came to this big city.

I wondered how many of those foreign students might have chosen (and been permitted) to build their lives in the United States, but won’t now. They’ll have different children, different grandchildren, because a relative handful of Americans they’ll never meet, from some neighborhoods they’ll never visit, couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a certain older woman they too had never met.

Some of those NYU graduates will have better lives for not staying here; some worse; but those lives will be radically different.

Charles Dickens helped the Victorians (and us) to understand the many ways we touch distant strangers and they touch us. More recently, mathematicians and meteorologists have called our attention to butterfly effects. For some, such notions are now truisms: six degrees of Kevin Bacon, and all that. Others have never felt a need to wonder or care about the strange and invisible links among us; our quantum entanglements, so to speak.

The Chinese emphatically did not invent that apocryphal curse: May you live in interesting times. But the days in which ordinary people can hope to live their lives without regard to the whims of distant strangers seem to be coming to an end.

Of course, the ability to safely ignore the vagaries of politicians and militias and invaders and voters and unvaccinated conspiracy theorists was a rare luxury even in the “best of times.” Kings were a thing; so too Genghis Khan; so too the traffickers in African slaves, and the Spanish owners of the Potosí mines.

But most folks we knew had that luxury,. And others could increasingly aspire to it, along with dreams of steak and a car with an internal combustion engine.

It’s sometimes said of the Balkans that they’re cursed with too much history per square inch. I fear others are unknowingly training to catch up with the Serbs. All this is to say: graduations feel even more elegiac to me than they used to.

Remembering what voting felt like

(Reflections on election day, cross-posted on Facebook)

I voted this morning. As I waited online, I had a fleeting feeling, an emotion, I almost didn’t recognize at first. It took me a moment to realize what it was: the feeling of participating in a sacred, profoundly important ritual. For me, voting was always the moment when we all came together to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. E pluribus unum: out of many, one.

I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.

Even when my candidates lost — and believe me, they often have — it mattered to participate in that ritual. As the old saying goes (and it’s 100% true): people died to give me that right. But they also died to give me the responsibility to use my vote as thoughtfully and as well as I could. Not to vote out of anger, or fear, or pure self-interest, but to vote to build something better. To build on what our ancestors gave us, and leave our children — everyone’s — something a little better than we found it.

Today, people say voting doesn’t matter. They don’t care, won’t bother. We’re being taught to hate and fear each other. We are deeply cynical, increasingly isolated from each other. We’re looking for ways to detest rather than understand each other. Even when we’re among those who share our values, we jump to interpret any disagreement or failure as betrayal. We expect perfection of others and very little of ourselves. We see the deep flaws in our history either as something to be ignored, or as proof we can never improve.

But even when you find the individual candidates unimpressive, your vote matters. One will win, another will lose, and the winner will do very different things than the loser would have. Those differences will affect your life, your future, your family, other families. You just have to look at Washington, DC to see that. It’s just a fact.

People say: my vote doesn’t matter because the whole system is rigged around big money.

True, it is. What are you doing about it? The same was true in the late 19th century, and Americans did something about it. They voted for politicians who reformed the system to give ordinary people a fair shot again.

Do you believe Americans in 1900 or 1910 or 1920 were better than we are? Perhaps they were, but if so, the problem isn’t the politicians: it’s us. We can vote for people who promise to take the money out of politics, and then hold them accountable for doing so. We can demand to know who’s paying for the slanderous ads we see on Facebook or cable news.

Citizenship is about voting, but it’s about much more. It’s about really understanding the issues, and trying to figure out the best way forward. It’s about working together in good faith with our fellow citizens. It’s about realizing things aren’t always as simple as people on TV or the Internet say they are. It’s about checking whether the people you believe are telling you the truth, or just what you want to hear.

It’s about carefully watching your politicians between elections and ads, and rewarding those who enter the system and actually behave well. There are some. (If you don’t think so, run for office yourself.)

As soon as you say “they’re all alike” you abandon your responsibility as a citizen. It’s just plain lazy. It also eliminates any incentive for any politician to behave well. Why would they? Someone else will reward them for corruption and demagoguery, and you won’t reward them for the hard work of actually trying to govern well. What do you expect to happen?

No society has ever thrived with the level of cynicism and isolation we’re creating. And very few individuals have ever been happy and fulfilled when they’re told not to trust anyone, and the only value is “looking out for #1.”

This is the world we’re choosing to build. It’s as if we don’t care about our kids, or anyone else’s.

That can’t be true, can it?

So, vote. But whoever you vote for — school board candidate, town council, state legislator, governor, someday president — make that just the beginning of a renewal of citizenship.

“Citizenship.” Sounds old-fashioned. It is: the word goes back to ancient Rome. But it’s the glue that holds countries and societies together, keeps them from collapsing in fear and violence.

Societies don’t hold together by themselves: that only happens if we each pull our weight. So: Do we care enough? Do I? Do you?

One thing some Trump voters know (that is actually true)

I’ve spent the last several months arguing that people need to be morally accountable for the way they act as citizens. If they vote for someone as fundamentally evil as Donald Trump (a word I try not to use carelessly) then they share direct personal responsibility for what he does.

(And if I vote for Barack Obama and someone tells me he’s been indiscriminately sending drones to attack civilians in Pakistan, I’m responsible for taking that claim seriously. I need to determine if it’s true, assess the choices he had — including the choice of not doing anything at all — and if I conclude he behaved immorally, I’m responsible for speaking out.)

So heaven knows there’s plenty about Trump voters that I simply can’t abide. But this post is different.

It’s about something I think some Trump voters understood that I did not understand. Something, for once, that’s actually true.

In my “paying work,” I spent yesterday writing about the emergence of the Chinese renminbi as an international currency for transacting business and for foreign exchange trading. Among other things, China is establishing global financial infrastructure that makes it easier for people to do business in renminbi instead of dollars if they wish. Just last month they authorized the first bank inside the US to help businesses do that.

So, in my research, I came across this organization called “The Working Group on U.S. RMB Trading and Clearing.” In your dreams you couldn’t think up an organization more obscure than that, right? Gotta be run by some bank types you never heard of, right?

So I go to their website and who are the co-chairs? Michael Bloomberg. And Mary Schapiro, who ran the SEC for Barack Obama and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission for Bill Clinton. That’s who. They are, of course, thrilled by the renminbi’s progress.

Now you know damn few Trump voters have heard of the “The Working Group on U.S. RMB Trading and Clearing.” (I can think of one: Peter Navarro, the one U.S. economist engaged in a torrid mutual love affair with Donald Trump. When I heard Trump chose him as his economic advisor, I wasn’t a bit surprised: Navarro wrote this.)

But Trump stands up and says, quote: “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”

And he shows pictures of Jewish financiers… and me and the Anti-Defamation League and a whole lot of other people who know some 20th century history think to ourselves: That sounds just like what Hitler and Goebbels used to say. Donald Trump must’ve been surfing the Internet at 3 a.m. and came across the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the ur-text of modern anti-Semitism.

And every neo-Nazi in America says to himself, he gets it! Finally an American politician understands! It’s the Jews!

(And of course it isn’t the Jews. Co-chair Timothy Geithner (of course!)… his mother came over on the Mayflower.  Co-chair Henry Paulson (yeah, him too) was raised as a Christian Scientist. Co-chair Thomas Donohue, the guy that turned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce into one of the most powerful forces for right-wing politics in America, is as Irish as they come. I shouldn’t have to even tell you this — but, in America 2016, I do.)

I’m not even saying there shouldn’t be more renminbi trading. But when insanely busy people like Bloomberg and Schapiro prioritize this, it’s hard to believe they’re thinking much about American workers.

For the past 30 years there has been a global consensus in favor of open markets and free trade, and both parties have shared it. Republicans, because it raised profits and lowered worker incomes. “New” Democrats, exemplified by Bill Clinton, because they wanted to take America into the future. They were open to the world. They imagined they could spread liberal values: we’d build peaceful, market-oriented democracies that don’t fight each other.

Above all, they were confident that Americans were up to the challenge. Everyone would thrive.

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” Remember?

But it turned out we weren’t up to the challenge. The world is changing far faster and in more difficult ways that most Americans — probably most humans — can handle.

Fact is: the globalized, technology-driven free market no longer thinks many Americans are worth a living wage. It just doesn’t think they deserve enough money to raise their families.

Now, I actually believed (and to some extent still believe) the conventional economic notion that, overall, trade increases wealth. Globally, liberalization of markets has raised literally billions of people out of poverty. Capitalism has done for them what nothing else ever could. That’s a fact. (A new protectionism will hurt them badly. It’ll hurt a lot of people here, too, who now depend on exports. And at some point, it’ll probably hurt me: many of my clients are now global.)

But in America, globalization disadvantages millions of people in ways they just can’t overcome. It destroys — correction: has destroyed — their lives and communities. That’s a fact, too. Those wonderful little education and retraining programs Democrats squeezed through Congress were utterly helpless against the tsunami that was unleashed on those people.

About the only people who opposed it were the fading labor movement… and assorted cranks (Ross Perot) and America First paleo-bigots (Pat Buchanan). But, with the benefit of hindsight, once massive government-enforced downward redistribution of wealth was ruled out, what happened seems almost inevitable.

Today, globalization is pretty much done wreaking its havoc. The barn door has been open for decades. Forget even finding the horses.

But technology is just getting started. The number one job in probably half of America’s states is driving. Trucks. Cabs. Whatever. Four million Americans are paid to drive. Driving long-haul trucks is one of the best jobs still available for people without a four-year college education.

And the Obama administration spent the whole last year greasing the wheels for self-driving cars. For crying out loud, David Plouffe went to work for Uber, which is running self-driving cars all over Pittsburgh right now. How much you wanna bet Barack Obama will spend a whole lot of time in Silicon Valley after he leaves office?

Probably the best thing Trump could do to preserve American jobs would be to ban self-driving cars. But of course neither party would ever do that.

(In the technology community, an awful lot of the most interesting problems — the ones that attract the most venture capital and the smartest engineers — seem to coincide with putting lots of people out of work. Hardly anybody finds “helping the displaced” to be an especially interesting problem. Funny that.)

And there’s the point. Whether it’s globalization or technology, whether their intentions were noble or not, it’s pretty hard to tell someone in Allentown, Pennsylvania that America’s leaders and so-called meritocratic elites “have your good in mind.”

When I see Michael Bloomberg, I see a pretty benign guy who wants gun control and taxes on sugary soda, and put those cool red tables into Times Square, and likes bike lanes. I doubt that’s what a lot of Trump voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin see. Should they?

You wonder why some of them voted as they did? Maybe they’re thinking: I’ve done everything else I can think of, and nothing worked. (Maybe some of them would tell you: I even voted for a weird black guy named Hussein from Harvard and Kenya.)

For them, Trump is what Bill Clinton once was: he seems to authentically feel their pain.

Telling someone in that position that “Trump is a con man”… well, I know how I felt when Sarah Palin stood up and said, “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya’?”

They’re not hearing “Trump University,” and they’re certainly not hearing “Nazi.” They’re hearing “he gets my life.” That’s a powerful thing.

We all know Trump can’t bring giant steel mills back from China any more than Pacific Islanders could coax American pilots to return by building fake “cargo cult” landing strips after World War II. But I think, deep down, a lot of Trump’s voters know that, too. We all know that Trump is crazy or damn close (put politely: “he lacks the temperament to be President.”). Deep down, some of Trump’s voters know that too. They’re that desperate.

People are complicated. I know perfectly well there’s plenty of racial (and cultural and religious) resentment mixed in with all of this. It’s wicked hard, probably impossible, to tease out the proportions. Especially as Trump’s alt-right minions poison the Internet and relentlessly harass Jewish journalists who dare to criticize Der Amerikaführer. With sociopathic amorality, Trump has unleashed an epidemic of bigotry that is terrifying: “deplorable” doesn’t begin to describe it.

But if it was only that, Hillary Clinton would be drafting her inaugural address.

The question is: What are we going to do about it?