Monday, April 27, 2020

Lockdown as prison or as prism

Laura Welsh has an interesting take on our current situation, together with keen observation of a great movie (2017's Darkest Hour):

"Human interaction on a grand scale is what fuels extroverts. Their natural ability to cope with challenges depends heavily on being in large groups of people. When removed from crowds and sequestered in place, extroverts lose their steam and their gut-instincts become harder to discern.  Grounded extroverts are not at the top of their game."

Meanwhile, in what amounts to providing covering fire for the deeply problematic WHO (World Health Organization), Bill Gates laments nationalist impulses around the globe as "unhelpful framing" of our current situation. His own bias mirrors that of multinational corporations, in that he seems more enthusiastic about being a "citizen of the world" than he is about his own American citizenship, very possibly because he's accepted the progressive lie that conflates patriotism with jingoism or even national socialism. Patriotism is neither of those things. A bigger dose of it in our ruling class would have helped, for example, the beleaguered medical device industy.

In a related issue, we now know that many political journalists don't understand federalism. (I don't want mainstream media figures to 'learn to code' -- I want them to remember how to decode our founding documents. It's not that hard. A little philosophy from somewhere other than the Frankfurt School won't hurt. Neither would a little honesty or humility).

Daniel Flynn of The American Spectator observed this morning that a Washington Post writer who scorned sheriffs refusing to enforce stay-at-home orders from their own governor was wrong to dismiss the lawmen in Washington state as being 'part of a nationwide group of sheriffs who feel beholden to no one but their voters.' Come again? Flynn asked, before wryly noting that the sheriffs "perhaps feel beholden to the law, including the Constitution."

In a similar vein, the felicitously named Tristan Justice has an essay up at The Federalist today: Saying Lockdowns Must Last Until Mass Testing or a Vaccine is Absurd.

Dear old dad, a retired police officer now in a senior living facility, refers to himself as one of the "inmates," not least because social distancing rules have closed the dining room at that facility, and its staff now leaves meals at residents' doors. Whatever their thoughts about one size fits all edicts from various levels of government, both dad and his minders understand that they're among a high-risk population as far as the Wuhan coronavirus is concerned. The same can't be said everywhere.

Maybe the biggest problem with extolling "world citizenship" absent an existential threat along the lines of the alien attacks in the movie Independence Day is that such lazy sentimental thinking a) violates the principle of subsidiarity, and b) sabotages the concept of 'family' by stretching it out of proportion to what individuals can logically and emotionally sustain.

Apart from the way it gratuitously obscures significant political and cultural differences between countries, "world citizenship" is not synonymous with "common humanity" for the same reason that government is not synonymous with theology or biology. "World citizenship" has fans in high places, but if it were ever to be implemented, it would inevitably trade "influence" for fealty to its temperamental cousin, coercion. As a concept, it carries the stench of the pride that a few generations ago tarred medieval times as the "Dark Ages," while ignoring how they laid the groundwork for the so-called Enlightenment.

People like Mother Teresa (d. 1997) and Albert Schweitzer (d. 1965) are recognized as great humanitarians not because they loved everyone everywhere, but because we can infer that from how they treated the people in their immediate circles of influence.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Straw men selling false choices

The original essays to which Barry Brownstein links from social media platforms such as LinkedIn usually bring more light than heat to issues of the day. He's a professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore, and he sounds like an uncle you'd take advice from. But in a March 24 essay at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), Brownstein tries to make a case for "Why We Should Love China, Not Fear It" -- and therein lies my problem: A straw man in a headline never travels alone, and Brownstein's plea for Sinophilia is thick with them.

Brownstein mounts an anti-Trump horse and goes to the whip hand right out of the gate, planting the idea that tariffs imposed on Chinese imports  are monstrously ill-advised. "FEE readers," he writes, "understand well the destructive effects of Trump's tariffs." 

It's an interesting way to start an essay that is not about tariffs, and it only makes sense if you see those economic tools as symptoms of a pathology that the president suffers from. One hopes readers on the FEE website also understand that tariffs have time limits. Consider the new trade agreement between the U.S and China that was announced in January: Other observers have concluded that it is "delivering despite coronavirus." That was the gist of a Fox Business story published the same week that Brownstein decried Donald Trump's allegedly "narcissistic" vision for America.

Straw men love adjectives in the same way that snipers love high ground. Busy reminiscing about the time he saw Trump's Tariffs open for Pandemic Overreaction, Brownstein skates right past the fact that "narcissistic vision" never signed a major label recording contract. Unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, his opponent in their battle of the bands, the "Make America Great Again" artist whom more than 62 million Americans voted for in 2016 was all about patriotic vision.

The current U.S.-China deal was made possible partly by tariffs, and -- according to MarketWatch -- it could "move the world closer to free trade and ultimately save the World Trade Organization." Increased exports and stronger protection for intellectual property are  good things, right?

The big picture would have been easier for Brownstein to see if he hadn't been enchanted by the work of a Harvard professor known for identifying sixteen different cases "in which an ascending power (like China) challenged an established power (like the United States)." In 12 of those 16 cases, challenger and champion made war on each other.

Clutching the memory of conflict between Athens and Sparta to his chest like a model of covid-19 influence that's too scarily impressive to revise in light of actual experience, Brownstein turns from straw men he's already used (tariffs as horrible weapons, America-first trade policy as narcissistic) to introduce yet another straw man, Mr. Specious Analogy: "Suppose Mississippi became a wealthy state," he wonders-- Would that gladden your heart, or would you "worry that Mississippians gained their wealth by ripping you off"? (Subtext: Are you a kind person or a xenophobe?)

China is not Mississippi, Brownstein admits, but he is at pains to remind us that "the tide of war will stay offshore when we add love to thick economic interdependence." We do that for people with whom we share a national identity, but we ought also to do it for people from other nations, he says.

As one reader noted in comments for his essay, Brownstein's notion of love between countries seems flexible enough to include capitulation. Moreover, he doesn't allow for the possibility that you can love China while simultaneously working to check the pernicious influence of its Communist leadership at every turn (or, indeed, love China precisely by doing that if you have the power to do so, and sometimes even if you don't -- as witness the Wuhan residents saying that coronavirus figures released by their government don't add up).

Brownstein echoes National Public Radio in suggesting that Donald Trump has a zero-sum view of the world where America cannot win unless China loses. He wants the rest of us to believe that Donald Trump is a hateful narcissist treating trade policy like a zero-sum game. Have we reached the point where calling for an end to illegal trade practices is considered warlike activity when performed by Republicans from Queens? Brownstein seems to think so, but based on what we've seen throughout his presidency so far, it's more accurate to think of Donald Trump as a shrewd patriot using every peaceful means at his disposal to broker win-win agreements internationally. 

Let me propose that to the extent that it exists, zero-sum thinking comes from Chinese communist leaders who used the covid-19 crisis they abetted to bulldoze temples and churches. When they appeal to national memory or world opinion, it's with a view toward retaining their own grip on power, rather than out of nostalgia for China as the fabled  "Middle Kingdom." [Sebastian Gorka is another commentator with a few things to say on this subject].

Another straw man deserving of a brotherly backhand is the idea that a worrisome number of Americans up to and including the president operate from an assumption of "national supremacy." 

Look: Ray Charles' version of "America the Beautiful" still brings tears to my eyes, but supremacy and self-sufficiency are two different things. If you can't be patriotic without flirting with national socialism or prudent without being dismissed as hopelessly parochial, then Brownstein must also be disappointed with Brazilians (Headline on an April 8 story about developments in their country: "Brazil Turns to Local Industry to Build Ventilators as China Orders Fall Through").

Faulty premises undergirding a misguided plea for tolerance  affection would not warrant rebuttal if they were uncommon, but Professor Brownstein's willingness to speculate about motive, cherry-pick examples, and give Premier Li Jingping more latitude than President Donald Trump are in line with prevailing bias in the mass media, and it's not a good look.

[UPDATE: an early version of this essay was also published by American Greatness on May  5]

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The energy argument

Q: How sustainable are so-called "renewable" energy sources?

A: Not necessarily as sustainable as their enthusiasts would like to think, it seems (Bllomberg News headline from February 5, 2020: "Wind Turbine Blades Can't Be Recycled, So They're Piling Up in Landfills")

Instapundit flagged this recent Forbes article by wondering when filmmaker Michael Moore (yes, that one) had been "red-pilled."

I don't trust Moore, whose last honest film in my opinion was Roger & Me (1989), but he may have had an epiphany:

"The main problem with biofuels—the land required—stems from their low power density. If the United States were to replace all of its gasoline with corn ethanol, it would need an area 50 percent larger than all of the current U.S. cropland.

Even the most efficient biofuels, like those made from soybeans, require 450 to 750 times more land than petroleum. The best performing biofuel, sugarcane ethanol, widely used in Brazil, requires 400 times more land to produce the same amount of energy as petroleum."

Columnists on pandemic implications

Conrad Black, writing in American Greatness:

"Every informed person has always known that there was no way of wiping the virus out until a vaccine is developed. There are about 600 coronavirus-related unemployed for every fatality to the disease. The economic consequences of the shutdown are unsustainable and already completely excessive in over 20 states. A partial return to work was bound to be necessary long before there was a vaccine and testing everyone is no answer—it isn’t possible in less than about six months and, in any event, a person could pass the test one day and be infected the next."

Another commentator worth hearing is Dennis Prager, (after noting that the New York metropolitan area currently has 52 percent of all the Wuhan coronavirus deaths in the U.S., and that 41 states put together have only 21% of the deaths):

"Now let us imagine that the reverse were true. Imagine that Georgia and North Carolina—two contiguous states that, like the New York metro area, have a combined total of 21 million people—had 18,690 COVID-19 deaths, while metro New York had 858 deaths (the number of deaths in North Carolina and Georgia combined).

Do you think the New York metro area would close its schools, stores, restaurants and small businesses? Would every citizen of the New York area, with the few exceptions of those engaged in absolutely necessary work, be locked in their homes for months? Would New Yorkers accept the decimation of their economic and social lives because North Carolina and Georgia (or, even more absurdly, Colorado, Montana or the rest of what most New Yorkers regard as “flyover” country) had 18,960 deaths, while they had a mere 858?"

Henry Grabar has related thoughts about the misplaced fatalism of New York City bureaucrats and their subsequent mismanagement of the municipal response to the Wuhan coronavirus.

(I wonder if Henry is husband to Mary Grabar? I've read more of her work than his, but they'd make a power couple).

Much depends on the news sources you trust, and what you choose to accept from those sources (Chinese journalists have it much tougher than their American counterparts).

Post-pandemic, there should be a national conversation about bogus models and statistics (although if you can't say anything about them in a climate change context, the Wuhan coronavirus "rules" probably won't be any different).

Let's not forget that Sweden is playing its coronavirus hand differently, either, or that conversations in the United States and any other freedom-loving enclaves ought to explore more than just the economic impacts of an interminable shutdown.

And -- last but not least -- PJ Media has a solid list of people who actually help the most in times like these, when Dairy Queen employees are wearing face shields and more than 400 commercial aircraft sit grounded on the tarmac of a decommissioned Air Force base in California. The only group missing from that list that should not be, I think, is clergymen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


"Limit your exposure to social media" -- That's one of the wiser pieces of advice I've read repeatedly in this past month of pandemic response, and it's usually offered by psychologists whose media bookings might suffer if they spoke as plainly as a Nigerian-American priest whom I admire does.

Better to take social media in small doses than to admit that a) too much screen time is bad for your eyes, and b) Twitter and Facebook are dumpster fires from which you can occasionally pull bon mots.

That said, I have favorite websites, just like everyone else does. And I'm not immune to "influencers."
  • Friend Jeff has been reading weekly wisdom from St. Francis de Sales (1567 to 1622) for awhile now, and those insightful paragraphs from the erstwhile Catholic bishop of Geneva still ring true.
  • Lisa the Wonderful and Emma her Apprentice have taught me how to season chicken properly.
  • Mollie Hemingway vouching for Carrie Severino was enough to get me to read their important 2019 book, Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court.
  • Friend Sean got me over an impasse between Jameson and Bushmills by suggesting that the go-to Irish whiskey might in fact be Tullamore Dew. He's a bartender with more sense than the one from New York now leading a "squad" through Congress, so that gave his opinion tie-breaking weight.
  • When First Lady Melania Trump had herself videotaped reading what she said was one of her favorite children's books, I decided to find Nicola Killen's The Little Rabbit as soon as local libraries reopen (are you listening, Governor Cooper?). The book seems like a well-chosen substitute for the "Easter Egg Roll" on the White House lawn that couldn't happen this year.
  • On the evidence of multiple YouTube videos, any guitarist with chops enough to play live with Tommy Emmanuel is worth hearing in his or her own right.
  • At least two people in my circle (Anna Marie and Chris) easily persuade me that map-reading is not a lost art.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

John Prine -- That's the Way the World goes Round

Rest in Peace, John Prine. You did good. And are missed, but also celebrated. Now you can sing with Bill Withers, who went (one hopes) to glory just a bit earlier this spring.

(Thanks to Jim Chambers for posting this song to YouTube)

See also Last Call with John Prine for an affectionate note about the singer/songwriter's fondness for  a cocktail he called "Handsome Johnny."

Friday, April 3, 2020

Wuhan coronavirus impacts (a personal and partial list)

A partial catalog of personal activity and observation brought to you by covid-19

Early on:
  • Missing live music on Saint Patrick's Day
  • Looking first in the toilet paper aisle on every trip to the grocery store
  • Social distancing
  • Morbid fascination with films like the 1995 movie, Outbreak
  • Recognizing the names of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx
  • Not being able to attend Mass in person
  • Looking at hand sanitizer with strange new respect
  • Saying goodbye to self-serve donuts at gas stations like Sheetz
  • Using a drive-through coffee window for the first time
  • Saying the rosary with friends on a porch rather than in a church outbuilding
  • Thankful that my parish got its Lenten Mission with this priest done before gatherings became problematic
Three weeks in:
  • Praying especially for waitresses, bartenders, hair stylists, baristas, nurses, and travel agents
  • Remembering that the drive to and from work used to be "decompression time"
  • Doing Camp Gladiator workouts over Zoom video
  • Sympathizing with truckers, musicians, and supply chain managers
  • Wondering how long dad's senior living complex will be in lockdown
  • Marveling at the companies now making ventilators and other necessities outside their usual bailiwicks
  • Buying bread from a deli that can no longer offer sit-down dining
  • Smiling ruefully at apocalyptic headlines in tabloids like The Globe
  • Pleased that my son and his girlfriend made it safely to Denver and back before air travel got exponentially more difficult
Four weeks in:
  • Sanitizing steering wheels with antibacterial wipes
  • Tracking covid-19 statistics on several different websites
  • Ordering more bratwurst than was strictly necessary to help the neighborhood pub pay bills
  • Commiserating with a teenager going through the most constrained spring break of her life
  • Noticing that even the library book drop is closed
  • Relieved that The Art of Manliness is still going strong
  • Wondering why people who say this is not the Wuhan coronavirus aren't scrubbing texts of  terms like "Spanish flu" and "German measles"
  • Watching musicians stream concerts from their living rooms
  • Re-reading Max Brooks' apocalyptic 2006 novel, World War Z partly because it was banned in China (where the zombie outbreak in that book started)
  • Trying to reach a friend from Nepal who'd been a movie theater usher
  • Speculating about whether J.R.R. Tolkien's "one ring to rule them all" was actually a roll of Charmin
Approaching the new normal:
  • Hearing from a doctor that his hospital is limited in the number of medical procedures it can perform because so many staffers have to stay home with their children
  • Dialing into a "chemotherapy education class" where I could not otherwise be a guest
  • Talking my daughter through an essay assignment over the phone
  • Hoping for a resurgence of drive-in movie theaters
  • Appreciating daily inspiration shared in text messages from the Regnum Christi movement
  • Studying the habits of neighborhood rabbits between video meetings and teleconferences
  • Learning from Fr. Z. that the Latin word for chickpea is "cicero"
  • Calling friends and relatives in other states to hear what they're going through
  • Enjoying Banana Chocolate Milano cookies when Target was conveniently out of other brands
  • Praying to stay strong for my immuno-compromised sweetheart
  • Learning how to be a better helpmate
  • Smiling at how Uncle Jim up the road continues to email links to stories in USA Today that he thinks I should read
  • Impressed by the literate way friend Alice brought the Donner Party into covid-19 conversation
  • Rolling my eyes at some of the crazy
  • Feeling protective of my adopted region, which isn't nearly as benighted as some people in New York and New England seem to think

A staff member with a temporal artery thermometer came to check Da's temperature while I was on the phone with him. Da's side of the conversation cracked me up:
"Come in!"
"Temperature? I don't have one. I died last week."