Covid19 goes to church

St. Paul, in urging more-or-less faithful Jewish Christians, reminded them (Hebrews 10:25) “to stir up each other in love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.” That’s evolved in practice to mean no less frequently than on Sundays. In a Biblical “book” written later, the apostle/tax collector Mathew quoted Jesus defining a quasi-judicial process that ended by assuring the faithful that (Matthew 18:20) “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

It is no wonder, then, that Christian churches are quite serious about at least one “worship service” on Sunday (some meet for other reasons and times as well). But the opportunity—symbolically—to be with Jesus is losing its charm. Religion has weakened, as reflected in the 2007-2018/19 survey of the U.S. by the Pew Research Center. Pew’s analysis found that 63% of Americans identified as either Protestant or Catholic (down from 75% in 2007), while 26% identified as atheists, agnostics, or just non-religious (up from 16%). However, although these data reveal a drop in religious versus secular identification, they do not reveal the degree of personal engagement in the chosen identification.

Consequently, Pew questioned those who claimed religious participation thusly: “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services? More than once a week, once a week, once or twice a month, a few times a year, seldom, or never?” The results were telling. The proportion of U.S. adults who said they attend religious services a net monthly or more was 45% (down from 54% in 2007). The proportion who claimed to attend no more than a few times a year was 54% (up from 45%). Those who profess Christianity had become less invested in religious services. Interestingly, “born again/evangelicals” constituted 59% of all Protestants (up from 56%), whereas not born again/evangelicals made up 41% (down from 44%). In summary, though, during the 2007 to 2018-2019 period, those who attended religious services infrequently had begun to outnumber those who attended regularly, though the more fundamentalists among Protestants held their own or rose slightly.

I note these things now due to 2020’s extreme, worldwide jeopardy from a deadly virus. Mere propinquity threatens any but the smallest groups, far more if they are touching, speaking, or singing. Not only are these actions to be found in abundance in religious gatherings like church or mosque services, but the age distribution therein is tilted toward the most vulnerable older adults, therefore overlapping those with poor health. Further, fundamentalist churches are likely not only to justify their meetings with literally interpreted scriptural references, but even as tests of their faith that heaven will protect them from illness or death.

Because of what we know about the exponential rate of spread of Covid19, participants’ danger to themselves is only the start of a multiplying spread of the virus. Thus, large groups are choosing not just to increase their own susceptibility but that of their fellow Americans as well. While others not of their faith might accept the free choice of self-endangerment, it is hardly our duty to allow them to imperil the health or even life of others. (Less fundamentalist churches deserve credit for their willingness to suspend in-person gathering by using creative tactics like Zoom™, outdoor meetings, and other variants of traditional, in-person togetherness that fundamentalists seem more inclined to find unacceptable.)

As of a few days ago, churches and churchgoers have filed legal challenges against stay-at-home orders in at least 19 states despite the tragic record already obvious. Here are just a few reports from various sources: “One worshipper later found to have the coronavirus, who had defied California’s order to attend a religious service on Mother’s Day, exposed 180 other people.” “In Sacramento County in April, 71 people connected to a single church were infected.” “Two persons with COVID-19 unknowingly spread the virus to more than 30 people during church gatherings in early March in Arkansas before any case was diagnosed in that state.” “On March 17, a member of a church choir in Skagit County, Wash., spread the coronavirus, resulting in 32 confirmed cases, 20 other likely infections, three hospitalizations and two deaths.” And on and on.

Foreign experience is similar. We’ve heard glowingly about South Korea’s rapid response to the virus, but less about, for example, 51 Covid19 cases at River of Grace Church in Seongnam, more than 24 cases tied to a separate pair of churches in the same province, and others related to large religious gatherings in cramped spaces.

It is not difficult to make the case that despite religion’s assumed social benefits, churches have no more claim to others’ safety than do groups of reckless merrymaking by either young revelers at large pool parties or a politician choosing to pack an enormous conference center for his own aggrandizement. Largely, though, as to the acceptability of large groups, the relevant variable appears to be whether piety is used as justification. The motivation to gather and spread their viral load is excused based on the longstanding philosophical hegemony this country has granted religion. That preferred treatment occurs even in small ways—e.g., Sunday traffic and parking of church crowds tends to be less strictly policed than that unrelated to religious services.

That last item is trivial, to be sure, but is indicative of the “get out of jail free” attitude wherein we’ve countenanced illegal or unethical instances of the profane when it’s juxtaposed with the “sacred,” like we coddled priests and clergy who not only broke laws but offended common decency. Another such halo effect has frequently led to slack enforcement of, say, child safety requirements for Protestant church-sponsored children’s day care or harsh discipline in Catholic orphanages. I’ll not list more of the abundant further instances, but will point out that equating church, religion, religious service or even piety itself with “good,” “humane,” or “benevolent” can actually be—and frequently has been—damaging, even deadly. What someone or some group believes to be theological truth or error is neither validation nor invalidation for receiving exceptional protection at the cost to others from their viral spread.

Muddying the matter is an argument that religious services should not be subjected to the same limits imposed on nonreligious persons and organizations, for that would be a violation of their Constitutional rights to freedom of religion. Yet freedom of religion has never been unlimited. Never has it meant people can in the name of religious liberty do anything they want to do. Court decisions, including those of the U. S. Supreme Court, have established that there are other matters that can trump unbridled liberty of religion. I will not address those limits here. A particularly relevant summary, however, in one sentence addresses the encompassing issue: The government may limit religious liberty when it has a “compelling interest” to do so in order to protect the common good and limit people’s ability to harm others. That powerful phrasing is pointedly relevant to the issues I’ve raised.

Within the last few days, President Trump declared churches “essential,” and ordered governors to exempt them from state requirements to keep their doors closed. He justified his order by explaining that states “need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now.” The Justice Department, in accord with Attorney General Barr, voiced official support for church gatherings during the pandemic shutdown. Trump, as is his wont, shows no evident understanding of the Constitutional First Amendment with regard to the relationship between religion and government. A major feat of America’s founders, the Constitutional framework, can be expounded simply, to wit: Politics and Government should stay out of Religion and Churches. Religion and Churches should stay out of Politics and Government.

President Trump earlier decided to leave shutdowns to governors. Confounding prearranged roles by a change of mind is de facto aimed largely for the benefit of fundamentalist Christians, who not incidentally, are the most committed and energetic of his base. That renders President Trump’s unexpected move impulsive on its face, not only discombobulating, but more driven by politics than by public health.

[This post underemphasizes Muslim, Hebrew, Baha’i, and other religious groups due to insufficient access to relevant information.]

Posted in Atheism and other freethought, Church and state, Liberty | Leave a comment

Our *Toddler-in-Chief embarrasses America . . . again

We Americans are often accused of being uninterested in anything outside our borders except vacation travel. Curiously, though, our “citizens of the world” credentials may be enhanced by the global nature of Covid-19. However much we botch our pandemic response, we can’t help but be largely in the same boat as most of the world. Our behavior in the boat, though, may also demonstrate our discomfort in being there, partly due to the current spat between us and the World Health Organization. WHO has its problems including bureaucratic inflexibility, but still is a significant international actor against disease and poverty. If WHO is more favorable to China than the U.S. president finds acceptable, that is regrettable. Still, WHO is a major source of help for countries around the world.

Against that backdrop, President Trump withdrew American revenues—said to be about half of WHO’s budget, claiming that WHO has been “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” that “the organization is overly influenced by China, and was too trusting of China, particularly in the early phase of the outbreak,” and that “it had delayed raising the alarm on the threat posed by the new coronavirus.” WHO claims, however, the virus was “identified on January 7th” and “shared [with the world] on the 12th.”

Some—this includes me—say by attacking WHO, Trump is seeking to deflect blame away from his own administration’s problems in containing the virus. We the general public don’t know the truth yet. We know statements by Trump can never be assumed to be true, and his paranoia can be overwhelming, with or without supportive facts. We know he engages his schoolyard vengeance even at the cost of inattention to more important issues. We know he’s proud of punching back harder than he’s been punched. Any Trump engagement must be scanned for these distractions.

Of course, those childish characteristics do not mean that what he contends is untrue, just that we can’t tell until later, if we ever know at all. If he is right, there’s time later to take whatever action is called for. But if he is wrong, his angry, toddler-ish thoughtlessness would make America look not only like overreacting idiots but show once again—in bullying Trumpian fashion—that America has little use for the rest of the world.

 

*I am indebted to Daniel W. Drezner for borrowing part of the title of his March 2020 book, The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us about the Modern Presidency.

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Narcissistic sociopath in the White House

Millions of Americans are deluded enough—for either political or religious reasons—to have decided Donald Trump is a gift from God, though a gift unhampered by ethics, logic, lawfulness, and competence. The disconcerting topic I chose for this post has been with us for some time, though persons licensed to render a diagnosis generally refrain due to rules of ethics and licensing. Recognizing the combination of narcissism and sociopathy are consistent with insights I learned in doctoral training (then later as a licensed clinical psychologist prior to retiring). Donald Trump’s behavior, however, is so starkly associated with these conditions that even lay observers can see him clearly in numerous Google descriptions.

There are a number of publications by qualified mental health professionals that lay out the pathology behind Trump’s bizarre behavior: incessant lying, mean-spiritedness, vengeance, blaming, reckless handling of crucial information, irresponsibility, abusive definition (and demands) of personal loyalty, and cowardly “punching down.” A longer discussion of Trump’s behavior and its underlying psychopathy was published in The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, edited 2017 by Bandy X. Lee, MD, MDiv, Organizer of the Yale “Duty to Warn” Conference.

While his devotees will disagree, Trump’s conduct concerning rule of law, lack of a sense of justice, and bullying other officials constitute severe damage to interpersonal functioning and even American constitutional government. I recommend reading the various depictions of narcissistic sociopathy. Be prepared for parallel terms such as “malignant narcissist with sociopathic tendencies,” one of those used in The Dangerous Case . . .

Just a few excerpted sentences from several of the co-authors: “Delusional levels of grandiosity, impulsivity, and the compulsions of mental impairment, when combined with an authoritarian cult of personality and contempt for the rule of law, are a toxic mix.” “[We are required] to recognize the urgency of the situation in which the most powerful man in the world is also the bearer of profound instability and untruth.” “Power not only corrupts but also magnifies existing psychopathologies, even as it creates new ones. Fostered by the flattery of underlings and the chants of crowds, a political leader’s grandiosity may morph into grotesque delusions of grandeur.” “Sociopathic traits may be amplified as the leader discovers that he can violate the norms of civil society and even commit crimes with impunity.” “His presidency is a grave risk to our country.”

The authors explain their reasons for deviating from Section 7.3, page 6, of the 2013 American Psychiatric Association code of ethics, citing and defending “a duty to warn.” The relevant APA rule states: “It is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion [on a public figure] unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.” Although the foregoing code applies only to psychiatrists, ethics of clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, and analogous professions are similar.

Recently, Donald Trump decided to claim he is a wartime president, though it’s unclear whose side he’s own. At times, it seems that he and the federal stockpiles are at war against states. He enigmatically claims that crucial Covid-19 equipment is “ours” (federal vs states), that anti-virus strategy is best pursued in fifty parts instead of one. His political favoritism repeats itself, appalling under the current emergency conditions. Others who dare must continually push him away from his short term horizon. Further, woe to the subordinate or associate who forgets to render sufficient sycophantic pandering or, far worse, disagrees. Not new, of course, since we’ve watched this man-child for a long time, but now national health is on the line and prospects for economic recovery as well. Behavior not to his liking might engender a rebuke, a sharp criticism, or firing.

That’s enough for this post. It’s time to relax; I must get back to 1984.

 

Stay safe. Explore new ways to redefine togetherness.

 

Posted in Life, living, and death, Politics | Leave a comment

Fighting COVID-19 with prayer

About three weeks ago President Trump appeared at a campaign event in a Miami megachurch where congregants had been urged to attend by their “Apostle” Guillermo Maldonado. Like a number of fundamentalist churches across America, official White House warnings against gathering in large groups were not only ignored but defied. Apostle Maldonado challenged, “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house [in person] to be contagious with the virus? Of course not.” Such gatherings and such arousing expressions of faith are not uncommon. They occur even in unconstitutional pronouncements from officials representing government, like governors, legislators, and school boards. Although the Constitution prohibits governments from taking sides on matters of religious faith, protection of public safety is a legitimate governmental power. When religious groups protest that their “freedom of religion” is thus violated, they misunderstand—sometimes intentionally—what Constitutional religious liberty covers.

When a judge, police officer, or public school teacher identifies officially with a specific religion or religion in general, he or she is violating others’ Constitutional rights in that governmental support is thus being differentially bestowed. Religionists often wrongly reverse that point by complaining that, e.g., it is actually the teacher’s religious freedom being violated. (They, especially those in relatively lowly positions forget that each of them is an arm of the governmental unit they work for.) Consider a photo like that below, clearly linking with a specific sect not a private citizen, but a sitting president and candidate for continued office. How would Christians react if that sect were Muslim or atheist? That official’s behavior—as is this one—would be the “taking sides” that courts have ruled unconstitutional. In fact, a president or teacher can openly and loudly stand for freedom of religion (constitutional) but not endorse as part of his or her public role a specific religion or religion in general (unconstitutional).

With a virus spread pattern like that of coronavirus, we all risk damage to others, hence our behavior is subject to governmental control, as long as it is no more stringent than necessary to achieve the government’s obligation of protection. For example, this might allow a large group like Maldonado’s, no matter how large, to worship via electronic togetherness or with clever individual spacing. In fact, quite a few religious groups have found creative ways to do just that.

It may lend clarity to such arrangements and in general the limits to religious freedom to consider the “rights” that religion and specific religions do not have. They do not have a right of access to the public purse or to special governmental favors. They do not have claim on public resources or endorsement carried on public property including police cars, sheriff’s offices, courtrooms, and public land. They do not have a right to freedom from peaceful and non-disruptive opposition. They do not have freedom from taxation beyond what is available to non-religious nonprofits. There is much in this issue to sustain a long argument, of course. But for now, I want to consider how religion began as a useful paradigm for how the world works, then became a danger to thoughtful discourse and even a danger to injury and life.

Since time immemorial, planning, problem-solving, and finding truth involved belief, coincidence, astronomical events, ghosts, revered men, and inspiration. That began to be surpassed only a few centuries ago. A highly disciplined way of thinking emerged that allowed a high bar to be declared between facts and beliefs, no matter what the subject matter. For example, does blood letting cause faster recovery from illness than praying, does the sun revolve around the earth, is there a god who distinguishes one “holy” book from another, does prayer protect us from drought or lightning?

You can settle such quandaries either way—by using the newly developed methods or not, e.g., by math and geometry or by the teachings of a historic figure whose reputed wisdom is considered proof enough. Guided by philosophers, the former won out in increasing subject areas. The latter came to be seen as the problem-solving of children, the former of intelligent adults. A similar advance was used to examine and decide upon systems of government, prediction of weather, and calming of epidemics, every step along the way replacing decisions and plans with those yet to be improved with the newer truth-finding principles. Emerging from emotion and ancient beliefs to reason and what came to be called science produced the Age of Enlightenment and with it, new freedoms. It became OK to question the divine right of kings, the doctrinal purity of unquestioned Catholic hegemony, and the separation of state and church. We are still learning how to separate reason from faith.

When the coronavirus came along, most people in the developed world turned to the tools of science (including medicine and epidemiology) with very little sidetracking to amulets, talismans, rosaries, and prayer (each leftovers from pre-Enlightenment with its gods, psalms, witches, and signs of faith). Much of the world came to understand that further is the best remedy for science too immature to have yet brought results. That was most of the first world, though not all. Apostle Maldonado believes God protects believers from Covid-19. President Trump believes or pretends to believe the same…maybe. Historian and author Jon Meacham finds pre-science thinking in this case to be a waste of valuable time.

One effect of Enlightenment is that Maldonado and Jon Meacham have rights to their beliefs. But neither Maldonado, his flock, nor Meacham has the right to speak for the rest of us, for except in specific ways our Constitution took that right from “whole of us” and left it to the “you and I” of us as individuals. Meacham points out, and I agree, that in the present United States “the Enlightenment is on trial.” We are living, he argues, in “a partisan pandemic” in which one’s understanding of this threat “depends on which television channels you watch.” He laments that useful understanding must be communicated “coherently and truthfully.” Picture President Trump trying to explain federal handling of the pandemic: guesses presented as facts, lies presented as truth, with hypersensitivity and narcissism clouding every judgment. Consequently, worries Meacham, a focus on “facts and data that shape human decisions [that are] objectively true are under assault.” “And that begins at the top [italics mine, JC].”

Trump has a need to constantly remind us he has done everything right (on a scale from 1 to 10, he grades himself a 10), that he bears no responsibility for anything that comes out wrong, and he always knows who is to blame for those that fail (viz., Obama, Democrats, Schumer, Clinton, the Times and Post). His vengeance against those who disagree with him creates yes-men/women from journalists, to White House staff, to Department Secretaries, to almost the entire Senate. He has piece by piece taken over the highest decision system in a way that clearly approaches despotism, a path protected and endorsed by the former Republican Party. Meanwhile his ranting seduction of his base mixes “fact, fiction, and hyperbole” (James Carville’s words), though less of the fact portion. He has taught Americans who cannot or choose not to think intelligently to believe and cheer anything he says, including about loyalty to Trump rather than country. Thus is democracy lost and authoritarianism/dictatorship installed as the new normal.

I actually don’t mean to single out the Apostle for endangering his congregation. I is not actually so rare that persons and organizations, religious or otherwise, seeking exemption from social distancing requesting to risk the health and lives of every other member of the community. Just a few examples: Florida’s Gov. DeSantis exempted those “attending religious services conducted in churches” from protective measures against the pandemic, even though doing so endangered the lives of many. By the way, his action unconstitutionally privileged either one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

In Sacramento County (California) Reuters reported “Around one-third of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been tied to church gatherings.” In South Korea, announced Reuters, a surge of thousands of coronavirus cases in only a few days in late February “centered mostly around one main cluster from a church in Daegu.” In the U.S., Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for violating local COVID-19 orders. He’d called the pandemic a “phantom plague” and claimed that the virus could be killed by 13 machines available in his church. Finally, a similar assembly occurred just north of my wife’s and my home in North Georgia within the past few months, causing an extensive spread of coronavirus. In each case that the faithful were unwittingly exposed, just think of all the others whom they then infected.

   –     –     –     –     –     –     –

My position with regard to religious liberty is actually more supportive of persons’ freedom of philosophy and religion than that of a great many religious people. Individuals are and should be free to believe anything they think right. However, religious people are frequently unwilling to extend that consideration to persons in religions other than their own. But being committed to that that liberty does not include allowing it to controlling others’ beliefs and practices; freedom of religion does not mean freedom to tell others what to do. Further, freedom of religion does not extend to appropriating either the power or the approbation of government, whether that action is by a mayor, police officer, public school teacher . . . or national president.

In closing, this post is not intended to focus on President Trump himself, though I’ve used some of his behaviors to make the larger points. Out of 218 posts (essays) since mid-2013, there have already been 41 chiefly aimed at Trump and his erratic, mean-spirited, untruthful, incompetent behavior. Those 41 can be accessed by month or by topic using the lists to the right and below. [As a further note, I am not an attorney. Nothing in this or any JohnJustThinking posts or other material is to be construed as legal advice.]

 

Posts that more specifically deal with Donald Trump:

  1. “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016.
  2. “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016.
  3. “Please, Mr. President Elect,” Nov. 15, 2016.
  4. “What does a proto despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016.
  5. “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017.
  6. “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017.
  7. “Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017.
  8. “Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017.
  9. “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017.
  10. “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017.
  11. “Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017.
  12. “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017.
  13. “Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017.
  14. “Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018.
  15. “A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018.
  16. “Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018.
  17. “Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018.
  18. “Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018.
  19. “Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018.
  20. “Risking America,” Jan. 3, 2019.
  21. “The great wall of Cyrus,” Jan. 10, 2019.
  22. “A plea to my United States Senator,” Jan 26, 2019.
  23. “That wall between us,” Feb. 7, 2019.
  24. “Political philosophy, political behavior,” Mar. 18, 2019.
  25. “Mueller and beyond,” Mar. 25th, 2019.
  26. “The shaming of America,” Apr. 18, 2019.
  27. “Republicans light just one little candle,” Apr. 21, 2019.
  28. “Vehicle versus destination,” May 22, 2019.
  29. “America’s risk of autocracy,” May 27, 2019.
  30. “America after Trump,” July 19, 2019.
  31. “The Republican conspiracy,” Aug. 27, 2019.
  32. “Red caps to tin pot,” Oct. 17, 2019.
  33. “Lying for god and party,” Sep. 1, 2019.
  34. “Lemmings, not leaders,” Oct. 24, 2019.
  35. “The president is above the law,” Dec. 19, 2020.
  36. “Decline of American governance and homo sapiens,” Jan. 13, 2020.
  37. “The Senate has failed,” Feb. 3, 2020.
  38. “Dishonorable presidency, disgraceful enablers,” Feb. 11, 2020.
  39. When large problems meet small minds,” Feb. 28, 2020.
  40. “Saving Americans despite their president,” Mar. 7, 2020.
  41. “Trump’s viral alternate facts,” Mar. 19, 2020.
Posted in Church and state, Liberty | Leave a comment

Trump’s viral alternate facts

Before our very eyes, America’s would-be “Dear Leader” has again demonstrated how one “truth” can be replaced by another, though there are no data to explain the gap’s jump. His secret, of course, is that it wasn’t data that supported the first, nor for him is it data that support the second. Some alternative facts are simply more conducive to his needs than others. It was his need, not facts, that made COVID-19 just a hoax perpetrated by Democrats and “experts” (the latter being untrustworthy, of course, as experts are). His base understood how right he was to start with, a type of evidence that in itself proved him right.

But unlike his inauguration crowd, things were changing fast. Most Americans became convinced and worried about the experts’ facts but Trump’s base was also attracted to Trump’s comforting variation on those facts (Yes, he said, the pandemic is real, but it’s under control and will likely vanish in warmer weather.) But Trump’s self-praised concoctions and make-believe solutions stood up less and less to experts’ fact-based explanations. Consequently, the personal needs on which Trump needed to focus began to shift. Reality—which is to say in Trump’s world the more personally fulfilling set of alternative facts—could be changed, for the first set of alternative facts was no longer serving his needs as well.

There was an embarrassing period when he bellowed one version of reality at excited disciples attending the we’ll-believe-anything rallies and his emerging new version when face to face with scientists. His demeanor and language in the first matched “hoaxes,” and “fake news,” while in the second appeared words like “social distancing,” “epidemiology,” and “risk analysis.” Two factors made that incompatibility easy for him. First, Trump’s embarrassment gene is as nonexistent as his empathy and consistency genes. Second, alternative facts can be exchanged for other alternative facts with little effort, as I said above.

He doesn’t even necessarily have to believe what scientists say, but his brand new perception of facts can be aligned with the experts, particularly if the needs he focuses on could be the newly proclaimed, heroic wartime presidency. This new role and persona called for getting in front of the parade and leading—or seeming to lead—the experts, at least those on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force (look who started leading the sessions)!

Granted, it would be difficult for most of us to pull off such a shift in realities. It more often suits us to keep belief systems consistent. Except for those deluded enough—for either political or religious reasons—to have decided Trump is a gift from God, most of us expect ourselves and other humans to have difficulty being faithful to one reality Monday and its opposite Tuesday.

For example, on January 22, Trump was asked, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” His reply was, “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Then, among other claims, he changed history to this: “I’ve always known this is real—this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” It was so declared by WHO on March 11. Any number of such denials are scattered throughout Trump’s history, so we can expect it to be repeated, a reason no one should ever trust his “facts” or his promises, for he lies so routinely as to be frightening.

One Trump incompetence that is shared with other presidents in American history is the distinction between “I didn’t do that” and “I’m accountable for everything.” Truman’s phrase, “The Buck Stops Here,” captures only part of the managerial principles involved. Few presidents (or CEOs in other settings) would be so irresponsible about where the buck stops as Trump is regularly.

Within the past week, Trump was asked by a reporter if he took responsibility for disbanding the White House pandemic team as early as 2016. That small team had been established by Obama after lessons learned from the H1N1 virus experience. It had been charged with monitoring and reacting to potential pandemics including our readiness for national action should one appear. American readiness is still coming up short even this week with further news of virus exam kits, hospital bed availability, and so on.

Trump could have easily left that function in office to keep the country and appropriate parts of government up to date on possible pandemics, status of available beds, readiness of kits, and whatever else is appropriate (all altered as needed by the Trump Administration). It was a holdover from Obama (that may be the reason for discarding it—a stupid reason, but one not out of keeping with other Trump childishness.) One wonders if we would be in an entirely different and happier place now. I’m not blaming the virus on Trump, but I am saying he has definitely extended the social pain of this virus.

Even as late as today, he issued information that had not been considered by the expert task force. I see no reason to think he was lying, but he does jump too quickly often enough that his recommendations unless validated through those familiar with the medical/scientific issues. One expert had to correct Trump’s statement. For anyone in the employ of the federal government, that is a good way to get fired. Trump is more interested in being the fount of all truth than that Americans get the scientifically valid information.

Trump’s excuse for having insufficient personnel to prepare for COVID-19 was that he doesn’t “want thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” an absolutely ridiculous point for him to make inasmuch as he had been asked if he takes responsibility for discarding the pandemic office, a handful of persons addressing ongoing pandemic possibilities and government readiness. Having received no discernable answer to her question about accountability, the journalist continued, “You said you don’t want people around when you don’t need them, but you did disband the White House pandemic office.

Trump dressed her down, charging in a snarky voice, that she had raised a “nasty” question, leaving no doubt he should not be held accountable. He said he didn’t personally close the office and get rid of the pandemic personnel. “I didn’t do it. I don’t know anything about it. . . . and what we’ve done is to…save thousands of lives because of the [quick . . . results].” The CEO’s thin skin and childish refusal to be responsible has a terrible effect in any organization.

In Trump’s flawed version of managing through many layers of organization, the “buck” seems not to stop with him, though he is quick to claim successes. Whatever his real estate or debt skills, Trump is not a skilled manager, is thoroughly incompetent in the art of multi-tiered management, nor does he have the first idea of how to incorporate a sense of responsibility. He should—as he likes to say of others—go back to school.

If enough American voters find Trump’s attitude and performance to be acceptable, we deserve what we get.

 

Posted in Politics, Science and society | 1 Comment

Saving Americans despite their president

Our uncanny, national experience with Donald Trump and his indulgent supporters has subjected Americans to an inside view of how autocracy can grow from deterioration of a constitutional democracy. There are ways to describe the disturbing phenomenon, many of which I’ve cited in previous posts. A simple query occurred to me last week as the coronavirus threatened our health while enlightening us in the way Trump behaves. It is this: is there anything Trump supporters would find embarrassing about this unfit president?

Anything? Apparently, his uninformed statements, mean-spirited pronouncements, trigger-happy reactions, trust of hunches over science, mistreatment of long time friends and allies, and disregard for the Constitution seem not to bother them. Like parents who coddle whatever misbehavior their unruly child inflicts on the neighbors, all Republican senators except one openly exhibited their irresponsibility in the impeachment acquittal. Unspoken was American senators’ sacrifice of the country to avoid Trump’s vengeance by tweets and payback in the next election.

On a happier note, I’ve carefully watched the daily presentations of the Pence task force and found it to have a more refreshingly credible, professional, and careful voice to come out of the White House in some time. Except for Pence’s obligatory slavish praise for Trump, this competent group seems focused on coronavirus facts rather than ways to blame Obama, on precision in what is conveyed, and on the backbone to contradict Trump’s continual misinformation. How encouraging it is to have grownups around the table!

They appear to know the secret to keeping their concentration on expertise, facts, and solutions rather than hunches and political blaming. Unlike Trump and most of the rest of us, they have a deep knowledge of the science and logistics involved. Further, they seem to have minimized how much the president makes the complicated matter more difficult and Americans more confused. Their best tactic going forward might be to keep Trump out of the room, away from microphones, and mute on giving advice.

His presidency is well-suited for the largely fact-free rallies that subject his equally fact-free bellowing base to unending campaigning. In that setting, he needn’t attend to facts, difficult decisions, or a presidential base that extends to an entire country, just simply to those more angry than informed. His type of campaigning offers him latitude for his untruthful and often frankly stupid behavior. It does not require the thoughtfulness so critical in his day job, so even massive disinformation in a rally ostensibly does less damage than if he were speaking from what he’s transformed into his Offal Office (forgive me; that’s not a typo).

Donald Trump, with the backing and protection of Mitch McConnell, Bill Barr, and most Republicans is not just a foolish and temporary irritant to the country and its carefully designed systems. As long as Trump is in office, he is already and will remain an existential threat to what most Americans want to preserve about America. The time is growing shorter for his supporters—particularly the elected officials among them—to reverse the appalling risks they’ve been enabling. The monster Republicans have birthed and developed is already winning.

Their own behavior, as is his, is not remotely ethical, much less patriotic, for it is devastatingly injurious to America and is, therefore, unambiguously un-American.

 

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When large problems meet small minds

Medical and public health authorities warn that America is destined to join worldwide exposure to COVID-19 (one of several coronaviruses). For years we’ve been told that the future holds any number of viral and other disease outbreaks. Pandemics call for widespread, expensive group action that transcends borders, disciplines, and politics, a forced engagement with socialism whether we like it or not. Individual actions alone are necessary but totally insufficient; the leadership of government is an essential component.

All levels of government will be involved, as will voluntary organizations like churches, companies, universities, nonprofits, and independent government agencies. The federal establishment has access to funds, enjoys a lawful reach, and maintains relationships with all levels. That means the White House and Congress are not only prominent, but ascendant in their respective realms. It would be unlikely that both these federal branches are operating perfectly at any given time, but we’ve much reason to believe the Executive Branch now is, to say the least, bungling, and the Senate inept or, at least, unpracticed at any serious governing activity.

Except for the Legislative Branch’s provision of funds and helpful alteration of laws as needed, we are left with the White House as the center of whatever national response is to be generated. Grave pity, for America is plagued with a White House known neither for competence nor candor.

Our president values employees’ loyalty to him, personally, more than to the country. Our president has stripped out layers of expertise, explaining that specialists and professionals can be rehired if needed, as if they are untrained day workers. Our president is pathologically narcissistic with no patience for correcting errors because doing so would acknowledge having made mistakes. Our president with regard to ethical standards and treatment of others has proven to be a moral midget. Our president is quick to rely on revenge and punishment rather than informed leadership to make corrections when they cannot be just covered up. Our president is so convinced of his professed perfection that even slight reference to an error he may have made brings denunciation of those he holds responsible.

The results of these proclivities and distressingly many others are legion and crucial. Information he dispenses and promises he makes can never be trusted. He repeatedly hires with effusive pride and fires with feigned righteous vengeance. He strips layers of personnel from vital governmental functions, celebrating the minimal cost savings while disregarding the skills lost, as if there is no cost of those losses. In terms of professional delegation skills, he exhibits less grasp than does a new first-line supervisor. He avoids deep bench development of competence in favor of his “deep state” paranoia. He has a need to play tough guy internationally and to approach even time-tested allies as if they are enemies. He has already destroyed faith in the United States where once was respect and trust.

His treatment even of his own party has taken advantage of its spinelessness, enabling him to run rough-shod over Constitutional roles and authority. The vaunted rule of law means nothing to him except as an impediment to his desires. His behavior has increasingly displayed the foreboding progress of dictatorship-in-the-making. Meanwhile, the weakened Republican Senate, indeed the whole Republican party, has evidently decided that autocracies aren’t such a bad form of government after all.

There is nothing new or overstated about the portrayals I’ve cited above, extreme as they would have seemed to all of us merely four years ago. But there is something new about COVID-19 and its anticipated rapid spread around the globe. And such a president and such an administration don’t automatically become more moral, more competent, nor more wise because the challenges have ballooned.

Nations are called to protect the human race from a deadly virus and to master the necessary defenses against its deadly attacks. That adds international political complexity to the difficulties of getting the science and implementation right. That science and accompanying strategies for fighting pandemics, the US has—or had—one of those deep bench capacities I referred to earlier. But the president thought he knew better, so has cut away some of our accumulated capability, most obviously in the CDC.

The characteristics I’ve noted risk interfering with marshalling appropriate resources, mounting a professional delegation process with its attendant accountability, avoiding the distraction of Trump’s ego needs, keeping Americans informed with facts not sifted through political considerations (as in Wuhan), and harnessing America’s immense power of scientific inquiry along with similar strengths of managerial and technical proficiency. (It’s a sad aside to note Trump chose now to punish the HHS whistle-blower and seems more interested in stock market effect on his campaign than on the potential illness of millions.)

Given the current, disturbing predictions, COVID-19 has either more pain in store for the world in general and America in particular, or perhaps less if we are fortunate. Which it is depends greatly on our management of scientific and political capabilities. We need the best understandings, tools, and wisdom—all often in short supply. Chance alone may impede the expected downsides, however we do know that when large, complex problems (think climate change) meet small, self-centered minds, we need all the solutions we can acquire and all the hope we can get.

 

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