Worth Fussing About in this Pandemic

March 24, 2020

I don’t want to talk about topic no. 1. I thought talking about politics might provide comic relief. But what’s funny about that? Politics is deadly serious, precisely because people’s lives depend on how elected officials take care of the rest of us, or whether they’re focused only on optics.

Doctors and nurses are being forced to make tragic choices about priorities for medical equipment and facilities in short supply. In this kind of situation there’s always a risk of decisions being corrupted by unexamined prejudices, and that needs to be avoided. But I know that if I get the coronavirus, my treatment will depend on how overwhelmed the facilities are. The usual question is how many lives can be saved. Wherever that would put me on line is reasonable.

But this country, which constantly boasts about being the best, deserves criticism for losing a full two months by comparison to many other countries dealing with the virus. That delay meant we’ll face many more cases and lose many more people than we should have. We refused the World Health Organization’s offer of a test used across much of the globe, while the White House boaster-in-chief treated the pandemic as a hoax. That, and the fact that our health care system still doesn’t take care of everyone, even when everyone’s health depends on everyone else’s, justifies deep disappointment.

Trump repeatedly minimized and mocked the pandemic, describing it as a Democratic “hoax.” It took Fox News host Tucker Carlson to go to a party at Mar-O-Lago and tell Trump this was a serious pandemic before Trump paid attention. It took Sen. Schumer to tell Trump to activate the Defense Production Act when the man in the White House hadn’t bothered.

Now of course he’s playing catch-up, bragging constantly while the governors, mayors, and the professionals at the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control are doing the real work, as he well knows.

But let me pull back from the current details. For years we eliminated “surplus” hospital beds, everything not in regular use. This president continued, cutting “extras,” like those at the CDC whose jobs were to plan ahead to prevent epidemics, or the office at the Security Council meant to coordinate responses to global pandemics. With such efficiencies, nothing’s left when we need it now.

This country has long been so focused on efficiency and not crossing so-called bridges before we get there, that we refuse to plan ahead, and wait for problems to become crises. We’ve turned the notion of freedom into a justification for selfishness instead of an opportunity to push politicians to behave like statesmen pursuing the public interest. We’ve reached a point where civil servants, people who have spent their lives and careers on our behalf, can be maligned as the “deep state,” instead of thanking them for their service. We’ve lost a notion of the public interest and a notion that teamwork has been a great virtue of American economic and political culture. We need a balance of teamwork and independence. The combination defines the moral fiber that we have been losing and paying dearly for.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on March 24, 2020.


Happy New Year

December 31, 2019

I’ve been recording commentary on WAMC for approximately 15 years. Christmas and New Year’s are always different. It doesn’t feel like a time for argument, for praising some and condemning others. So I and many in similar positions usually talk about the joys of the holiday season and individual plans for the New Year. I tend to do it a bit multi-culturally but it really doesn’t matter; we all share the same dreams.

In reality, though, I realize that those who govern us have an enormous impact on our health and happiness – whether we’ll die on a war front, as refugees from battle or other disaster, or for lack of roads, doctors or access to health care. So I want to address my hopes for the New Year to those who have those powers.

It’s hard to read or hear the news without finding more evidence that power corrupts. George Mason, a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and a slave-owner himself, told his colleagues, on August 22, 1787, that “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.”[1] Talking about lessons from slavery seems extreme to some except that we see frequent examples of masters taking cruel, often deadly, advantage of those who are called employees or are otherwise vulnerable. Let us not sire petty tyrants.

The promise of America goes well beyond class, race or religion. Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania congressman and a Republican leader in the fight for the 14th Amendment, expressed the American dream when he told the House that he dreamed of the day when “no distinction would be tolerated in this purified republic but what arose from merit and conduct.”[2]  Our Constitution makes no other distinction. If you’re here you are protected. It protects not only citizens but residents, travelers, visitors, everyone. It does that by using broad terms, “people,” “persons,” without limitation. That’s one of the great features of our Constitution. Our country pioneered the concept of human rights, guaranteed for everyone.

Paul Finkelman, an old friend and former colleague, now a college president, showed me a draft he’s been writing on the point. He goes through each Amendment which make up what we call the Bill of Rights and the language of who gets those rights. The 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th and 10th Amendments are directed to “the people.” The 5th protects “any person.” The 6th protects “the accused.” Otherwise the Bill of Rights simply prohibits government from infringing rights and the language is again universal. Attacks on people and their rights which depend on where they come from conflict with the great principle which this country pioneered – universal human rights.

The late, great, vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, broadened the point at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, on November 1, 1977, saying “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”[3] That we may treat each other well are my wishes for the coming year. And, as Pete Seeger sang, “Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!” which spells peace in many languages, and in some it also means good health. Happy New Year.

[1] 2 Max Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 370.

[2] Cong. Globe,  39th Cong., 1st sess. 3148  (1866) (June 13, 1866).

[3] Congressional Record, November 4, 1977, vol 123, p. 37287, available at https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Hubert_Humphrey.


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