Waiting for GoDo-vid

The alarm goes off at 5:35AM. I don’t bother to get dressed. I just roll out of bed and into the kitchen. Ok I don’t roll, but I sure don’t rock at that hour. The dog wonders in as the coffee is brewing. He yawns, then follows me into the living room. He collapses on the floor as I collapse on the couch, laptop on my lap, iPhone by my side.

By 5:55 I am on the vaccine website, waiting for it to allow new visitors. At precisely 6:00AM, the screen changes, telling me the website is full, but the page will refresh in 60 seconds. I scroll down to see a list of counties and the number of vaccination slots available. 

The screen counts down from 60 to 2. (Maybe…, Yes, this might be it!…) It freezes. The 2 changes to 60. It starts again. Cool! Another chance!

And again. And again. And again. Each time it shows fewer slots.  

After a few minutes of staring at the screen, my mind begins to wander. I wonder if there’s some supervisor in some office somewhere watching the screen, too, although not in hopes of a vaccine; they’re hoping the servers don’t crash.

That person(s?) has no idea who I am or anything about the thousands of other 65 and older people, healthcare workers, or other types, that are staring at computers.

We are only numbers…well, not even numbers, just parts of an algorithm, a combination of numbers that need to align perfectly in order for just one person to get in line for that life affirming shot.

Maybe those at the other end of my computer are drinking coffee too. Maybe they’re yawning. Maybe they, too, are looking out the window as dark turns to day. Hey, we might have a lot in common!

I wonder if I can make more coffee before 60 turns to 2 again… 

The dog sits in front of me, an expectant look on his face. (No way, Buddy. You’re just going to have to hold it. We’re talking Covid here!)

Or maybe there is no “they” at all. Maybe at the other end of my computer is … just another computer. 

(He lies down again and lets out a sigh)

60, 59, 58, 57…

Or maybe I’m one of hundreds of thousands of excited over-65 year olds, seconds away from a screen that will allow me to apply for a vaccine slot.

60, 59, 58, 57…

Exactly 84 minutes later the number of slots is a big fat zero. A message says to try again in two days. Darn!… Oh well, two days is better than two weeks!

I look up, bleary-eyed. The sun is up.  The dog is too. 

“Hey! Henry! Outside! Please!”

I quickly take him outside because, well, when you gotta’ go you gotta’ go. 

We walk under birds sunning themselves on telephone wires, squirrels chasing each other up trees, clouds hurrying across a blue sky.  The dog casually waters a few bushes, which don’t seem to mind. Then it’s back to work.

At exactly 9:00, I try another approach. This time, per other web instructions, I phone a county vaccine number. It’s just like before, only instead of watching numbers counting down on a screen, I listen to a busy signal… followed by a click and a dial tone…then call again. 

Zzzz, click, dial tone…. Zzzz, click, dial tone.… Zzzz, click, dial tone…..

At first I imagine a bank of hurried switchboard operators like something out of a 50’s movie. It’s a nice image, but soon replaced by one more realistic: a bank of servers driven by an unseen algorithm, not a person in the frame.

I pace around the house with the phone, wishing I could throttle Trump for pushing this onto the states and wishing I could throttle all those governors who had a year to prepare for the vaccines’ arrivals, a year to set up some way of simply signing up and getting in line, and did nothing. 

After around 25 minutes, I get a recording saying there are no more vaccines, to try again in two days. 

Darn! I enter it in my calendar. Then,.. Hey! Better than two weeks! Right?

I look at the dog who has retired to his favorite corner for a mid-morning nap. He again opens one eye at me for a few seconds, then closes it with a sigh. 

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Would I lie to you?

I don’t know how to answer that. If you’re asking me how you look today, I might lie and say “Great”. Or I might tell the truth and say, “Great!” 

If I’m good, you’ll never know which it is.

Most of us never want to be lied to, except for “Yep! Lookin’ good, pal!” And most of us don’t like to lie, because it can cause trouble, from losing a friendship to going to jail. 

Politicians lie all the time, generally with half-truths. “I met with Putin and we had a very robust conversation” might mean they got along well or they used the F-Bomb to threaten the A-Bomb. That’s why the call it the “Art” of politics.

Lying requires far more brains than I have and a much better memory. 

For example: “Why didn’t you pay the electric bill, Henry?” 

“I was going to, but the lights went out just as I was writing the check”. (See, even I wouldn’t believe that one).

“You said that last month”. (Oh yeah. Forgot)

When I was a teenager, guys would lie about girls. “Oh yeah! She’s really into me. Don’t even ask what we did before we got to the dance!” That led to big reputations. Until the girls found out and stopped talking to them.

One of the most famous liars was Adolf Hitler. His PR guy (Goebbels) gave him the idea of the Big Lie – that Jews were responsible for Germany’s problems after WWI.  Then they got his buddies to repeat it over and over until people thought “Wow. If I’m hearing that from so many people, it must be true”.

Lying is OK for dictators because no-one dares call them on it. (”Hey Putin! That’s a lie!” “Poison him!”)

And it’s OK for cult leaders because they are, by definition, truth tellers – to their followers. (“Try the kool-aid, It’s delicious!”)

Lies cause trouble for democracies, because democracies depend on an informed citizenry. Without true facts, people can’t make good choices on whom to vote for. When the facts are a bunch of lies, people can vote the wrong leaders into office.

That’s why you promise in court to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there.

Advertisers and merchandizers lie all the time, but legally. They’re like politicians only more so.  

I just got a notice from Comcast offering internet for $20 a month. “Cool”, I thought, I can cut my Comcast bill in more than half. Then I saw the fine print – only for new customers.

Pharmaceutical ads are really clever. They show happy people taking powerful drugs, while lovely music nearly buries an announcer giving legal warnings about how the drugs might maim or kill you. That’s clever because studies show people respond to visuals much more readily than voices, especially voices wrapped in music.

The best advertising of all time was for M&M’s. “M&M’s melt in your mouth and not your hands” was one of the longest running slogans ever – from the 1930’s to the 20-teens. In a 2014 study by Texas Tech University, it was ranked as the most popular advertising slogan. I wonder if part of its popularity was its truthfulness. 

The best liar in my lifetime was our recent President. The Washington Post has kept count and, as of January 17, 2021, cited 30,534 lies over four years.

He’s really smart. He knows it only takes a few seconds to tell a lie, but days or months to disprove one. That kept “Fact Checking” sites active and “Fact Checkers” gainfully employed. When he promised to create lots of jobs, he wasn’t kidding.

He also ginned up profits for Fox News and other far right organizations as they echoed and amplified his lies, not to mention the Main Stream Media for disproving those lies,.. well trying. 

Remembering his lies wasn’t a problem for him. He would just lie about the lies and lie about those lies and so on. For truth-sayers, it was like slogging through mud after a seagull. 

Sometimes, though, too much of a good thing can cause problems, even for him. As any good liar knows, you have to tell the truth once in awhile, because like the high school guy, if you get a reputation for lying, you don’t get the girl. 

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A Time to Object

The riot at the Capitol last week brought to mind the Martin Niemöller poem, First They Came, about Germany in the 1930’s. For example, in the first lines below, substitute “Black” for “Communist”.

They came for the Communists, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t

a Communist;

The Civil War freed slaves and gave black men voting rights. Taking advantage of Lincoln’s death, Southern white supremacists took just a few years to undo those advances. As a result, the fight for black equality has continued ever since, from Jim Crow laws, to school desegregation, to voter suppression, to a racist Justice System, to rioters – almost all white – at the Capitol last week shouting white supremacy slogans.

They came for the Socialists, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Socialist;

In spite of the rioters’ aversion to socialism, this country is no stranger to it. We’ve had public schools since the 1800’s. We’ve had Social Security since the 1930’s. Eisenhower proposed national health insurance in the 1950’s (the head of GM at the time told him it was unnecessary). In the 60’s Johnson added Medicare.

Most of those who fear socialism mistake it for communism which, in today’s world, is really dictatorship. Which the right extremists abhor even as they follow a man who dictates.

They came for the labor leaders, and I

didn’t object – For I wasn’t a labor leader;

Republican administrations, along with corporations, have worked to weaken unions since Herbert Hoover. The Trump administration touts support for unions, but has further weakened them. Over the last 50 years union membership has shrunk from a third of the workforce to a tenth of the workforce. Workers at the country’s largest employer, Walmart, for example, have no union and qualify for Food Stamps. 

They came for the Jews, and I didn’t

object – For I wasn’t a Jew;

At the riot last week “The Proud Boys”, part of the white evangelical movement, stopped to kneel in the street and pray for God to restore their “value systems”, after which their leader told the media to “get the hell out of my way” as they moved on to assault the Capitol building and Congress.

Anti-semitism has been a theme of White Supremacists since, well, forever. It was a rallying cry of the Charlottesville violence, at the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and at the Capitol last week with the “Camp Auschwitz”  hoodie and anti-semitic T-shirts.

Then they came for me –

And there was no one left to object.

So Hitler won. 

Martin Niemöller’s poem describes the apathy many Germans had toward Hitler’s fascists. It was as though a Boa Constrictor had surreptitiously encircled the German soul and Germans had no idea until it was too late.

The scenes last week of rioters with assault rifles, knives, Molotov cocktails, and pipe bombs, searching for elected leaders who could only hunker down, recalled the black and white images I was shown as a kid, during history lessons on Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, and WWII. But that history has faded and is rarely taught today. A big mistake.

Has “I didn’t object” happened here? Not this week. In fact most of the country has objected at the top of our lungs. But for several thousand anti-semitic incidents over the last four years, from Charlottesville to numerous other venues, we haven’t objected loudly or forcefully enough, because the rate and intensity has grown every year.

There are also clear differences between Germany then and the US now. Our population isn’t penniless and furious at having to pay reparations for the last fifteen years. It has been dealing with a recession, but not a world-wide depression. More fundamentally, we have a culture and heritage deeply rooted in democracy and capitalism.

Which brings up another irony. Donald Trump, the rioters, and Conservatives in general, want less regulation, less government, and more emphasis on “letting the market decide,” because private enterprise is quicker to react and more innovative. 

Guess what happened after Trump’s riot? While the House, the Senate, and VP Pence were discussing the pros and cons of impeachment vs the 25th Amendment, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,  and Amazon simply locked the Inciter-In-Chief out of the Internet. The PGA, Deutsch Bank, Signature Bank, Marriott, and others refused to do business with him. Multiple other companies will no longer donate to Trump or the 147 Republicans who tried to stop the vote count. The market decided – quickly and innovatively.

Now the rest of us need to follow their lead: stand up to thugs, insist on truth over lies, and object, object, object!

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Trump Enters, Stage Right

Act One: He is raised by father who teaches him one goal (winning), one value (loyalty), and one god, himself. His father sets an example of paying off power brokers and building a business that rolls over the poor, non-whites, and anyone else in his way.  

Act Two: He follows the rubric that power trumps righteousness, lies trump truth, and he is the most important person in any room. He declares bankruptcy six times, each time leaving with more money for himself and zilch for others. He builds a career based on lies, broken promises, and corruption.

He runs for President from the right on a platform of arrogance, white supremacy, and lies.

“They say I have the most loyal people — did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” he said .“It’s like incredible.”  

Normal people scoff, but white supremacists and fascists cheer. He insults a national war hero. “Tisk. Tsk” say Republican as they leave the hero behind. His next opponent – equally arrogant, but more disconnected – calls his followers “Deplorables”, which only galvanizes them. He fakes Republican orthodoxy and patriotism, sucking in legitimately conservative Republicans.  He lies. He ridicules the disabled, women, non-Christians. 

His slogan, “Make America Great Again”, is brilliant not for what it says, but for its hidden promise – a return of white supremacy. Racists swoon. Fascists roar. Dictators reach out in camaraderie.  He is elected President.  

As the curtain falls, America shudders.

Act Three: Republicans nationwide support and encourage each act of infamy as he sweeps experienced, qualified members from the government like scattered trash: National Security Adviser H.R McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohen, White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter and so many more. He replaces them with sycophants and shysters. 

He weaponizes the web. He applies Hitler’s and Goebbels’ “Big Lie” strategy – tell a lie so outrageous, no-one will believe it’s a lie; then repeat, repeat, repeat.  The press – all but Fox News – becomes Fake News. His attacks are relentless.

His fans buy into his Big Lie. Republican Senators and Representatives applaud each move, in abject displays of loyalty to him, but also in pursuit of their personal goal: to keep and grow their power. McConnell single-handedly rebuilds the Justice system to his design. Racist state leaders continue suppressing minority votes. Crooked politicians line their pockets with inside trading as he lines his with hotel rentals to foreign and local leaders and his kids’ with sweetheart business deals.

Institutions crack at the edges and more. The EPA is neutered, the CDC weakened and politicized, the FBI brought to heel, the State Department undercut. Allies are insulted, alliances broken. 

When the 100 year pandemic arrives, carefully laid plans for it have been tossed, experts dismissed. Instead of leading the struggle, he focusses on re-election. States are left on their own like lifeboats from the Titanic.  He turns health safety measures into political statements; his faithful reject facemasks, social distancing, and personal hygiene out of loyalty, endangering everyone else.

20 million sick, 360,000 deaths – and mounting. 30 million out of work.   

His small lie count passes 10,000.

When he loses to Biden, he turns to another Big Lie: the election was stolen from him.

60 judges rule against him. He repeats this Big Lie on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. They do virtually nothing to stop him. Even so, the country moves toward the new president.

So he commits treason.

He exhorts his followers to physically attack Congress and overturn the election on the very day it is certifying the votes. They storm the Capitol packing pipe bombs. They chase Senators and Representatives into hiding, replace the American flag with a Trump flag, and desecrate history. Four people die.

Yes, it is incredible. Really.

At first he hides in the White House and watches on TV. Then he tells his followers to stop even as he repeats the Big Lie. 

As the drama ends, the world’s brightest democracy struggles for breath. A few shreds of decency float around the Capitol grounds: Congress comes out of hiding and certifies Biden as the next President; faint voices are heard discussing the 25th Amendment or impeachment as a way of restoring dignity and credibility to the government. 

And the rest of us, trapped into this theater of the absurd, say in shock and dismay:

“Trump Exits, Stage Right. Forever.”

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It’s all about balance

Freedom of speech, not to mention democracy itself, has always been about balance. Someone says something stupid, like: “Trump didn’t lose the election, it was stolen”; I get to counter with “Where’s the evidence, Mr. Trump?”

We argue back and forth, presenting facts and beliefs. Hopefully, one wins the argument, the other admits it, and we go one with life. Freedom of speech only works if everyone has the freedom.

That’s balance.

Sometimes it involves deeply held beliefs. You’re a believer in Trumpism;  I’m a believer in Democracy. We argue, but never reach agreement. That’s OK. We are each allowed to say what we want, however stupid it might be.

If, on the other hand, you spread lies about me, there’s a consequence: I can sue you and we can debate it in court where a judge will decide.  The basic tenent: my speech is just as important as yours.

That’s balance.

The philosophy behind this is that it’s better to give contrary views the light of day, to allow them to be debated fully and openly, than to quash them or hide them in a dark place – like weird places on the internet.

The concept was cast in concrete in our Constitution. 

Actually, it was cast in ink, not concrete. Concrete wasn’t applied to freedom of speech until the Mafia used it to curtail the swimming ability of those whose freedom of speech they disliked. In the 1920’s Mussolini expanded that version of freedom of speech to all of Italy,.. which inspired Hitler in the 1930’s,.. which led to WWII,… which contributed to our involvement,… which ended up expanding freedom of speech to many other parts of the world.  

That’s balance in a different but larger context.

With the advent of the internet, freedom of speech met a new enemy, almost as powerful Mussolini, Hitler, and now Xi and Putin, specifically: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which said that internet platforms are not liable for content their users post.

It seemed like a good idea at the time because it prevented internet companies from controlling their users’ freedom of speech. But then came the giants: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Tic Tok, etc… They are now bigger and more powerful than  many countries. 

They reach millions, yet Section 230 frees them from the responsibility for content required of print, broadcast, and cable companies. The result: anyone can push lies on the internet with impunity. And the more followers, the more dangerous the lie.

That’s imbalance.

And yes, Section 230 is the law my least favorite demagogue is attacking; he’s angry that Twitter and others, while not deleting his lies, are posting warnings about them. (Even Lucifer has a point once in awhile). I think he’s right in this case, but for the wrong reason. In fact, I’d like to seeTwitter, Facebook, and the rest sued for not deleting the lies Trump has posted.)

By allowing a situation in which lies can be spread without consequence, Congress is also allowing these virtual monopolies to control freedom of speech.

I’m not supposing it would be easy for the internet giants to police content. It wouldn’t. But freedom of speech in which one voice drowns out all others is not freedom of speech. It’s a return to pre-Revolutionary times.

One recent example: Trump’s call to Georgia election officials in which he claimed election fraud and pressured them to change the election results in Georgia. “I just want to find 11,780 votes”, he told them, which would give him one more vote than Biden got.

It is worth noting that these officials, staunch Republicans all, said no – very courteously, but very firmly – to a guy with 70 million frothing followers. Yes, all you screaming Democrats, Republicans can have integrity too.  

The Washington Post posted the entire hour long phone call, knowing full well they can be sued to oblivion because they are not protected by Section 230.

Trump fans, on the other hand, can and do post false material on Facebook, Twitter, etc… every day of the week including all those  false claims of election fraud.

To be clear, the problem with Section 230 is not just political garbage. 60 Minutes just did a piece about an American woman who was falsely accused on the internet of having the first case of Covid 19 and carrying it to Wuhan. Between death threats and other attacks, her life is ruined. And she can’t do a thing about it.

It’s all about balance.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)