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Today’s Edition: “Begging is not a strategy.”
August 30, 2021
Tens of millions of Americans are feeling the effects of Hurricane Ida. It is clear that the southern and eastern states will suffer greatly, although the full extent of that suffering will not be clear for days or weeks. Storm surges, power outages, and torrential rains will continue to inflict injury and damage. It is too early to assess the extent of damage or the state of preparedness before the storm. But early indications suggest that fortifications to levees in New Orleans prevented a repeat of the widespread tragedy of Hurricane Katrina—which made landfall sixteen years ago today.
Reinforcing levees to contain the Mississippi River was a project of massive scale and ambition, one that required the combined resources of the United States of America to complete. The effort apparently worked (at least as of Sunday evening). See NYTimes, “In New Orleans, Anxiously Watching the Levees As Hurricane Ida Arrives.” Today, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the damage could have been immensely worse but for the foresight and planning of the federal government. As we survey the destruction of Hurricane Ida, it is the destruction of Hurricane Katrina that sets the benchmark for measuring the success of our response. Amidst a natural disaster, we can see the tangible benefits of working together for the common good. It is a simple but powerful lesson that should not be overlooked.
President Biden stood silently on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base as the caskets bearing the bodies of thirteen U.S. soldiers arrived on American soil. Biden spoke privately to the families of the soldiers killed battle. The reporters at the Washington Post intruded on the families in their moment of grief, asking for comment on their meeting with Biden—and were rewarded for their callous insensitivity with statements from two family members blaming Biden for their loss. The reporters got the soundbite they were seeking—to their everlasting disgrace. The New York Times devoted most of its front page to pictures of the sad homecoming of the thirteen soldiers, a fitting tribute that the Times overlooked with respect to the other 2,500 Americans killed in Afghanistan.
The unrelenting efforts by the media in general—and The Washington Post in particular—to find every opportunity to blame Biden has led to frustration and anger among people who usually look to The Post for some semblance of objectivity. One reader sent a note to me on Saturday saying he had unsubscribed from The Washington Post because it was impossible to distinguish between news articles about Afghanistan and opinion pieces masquerading as news articles.
I agree that The Post and other mainstream media outlets have surrendered any sense of objectivity over the Afghanistan story. Other members of the media agree with the reader (and me). For example, even among the pages of The Washington Post, it is easy to find criticism of the media’s coverage of Afghanistan. Jennifer Rubin authored an op-ed in The Post over the weekend that is worth your attention if you are dismayed by the media’s coverage of Biden and Afghanistan. See Jennifer Rubin, Biden tells some hard truths few want to hear.”
Rubin takes on the various substantive criticisms of Biden over the withdrawal, but then turns to the media:
Everything is reduced to a partisan question. (Is Biden in crisis? Is this a boost for Republicans?) The media, it seems, does not know how to cover a tragedy without viewing it through the lens of horse-race politics. It is so much easier to pronounce the exit a “disaster” than to consider if one’s advocacy over 20 years contributed to the groupthink that sent young men and women to die.
Rubin goes on to note:
A week ago, many in the media were lecturing the administration for abandoning Afghans. Now, after we evacuated about 120,000 people at the cost of 13 American lives, reporters wanted to know why we were keeping troops at the airport.
In other words, in the media’s eyes, Biden is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. A free press is essential to holding the president accountable, so the fact that leading outlets are criticizing Biden is no ground for criticizing them. But if they are inconsistent, lazy, or biased in their coverage, it is our right to criticize their journalism.
To be clear, Rubin criticizes Biden in her essay, but says we must engage in “sober reflection” that is beyond the grasp of the media and a political culture “that are not serious or attentive enough” to engage in that task. If we have any hope of avoiding the mistakes of Afghanistan in the future, America deserves better from the press and politicians than it is currently being offered.
There was a fair amount of reflection in the press over the weekend regarding the pandemic. A good place to start is with Juliette Kayyem’s article in The Atlantic, “Vaccine Refusers Don't Get to Dictate Terms Anymore.” Kayyem’s thesis reflects the growing frustration vaccinated Americans with the unvaccinated. She posits that we should no longer defer to people who choose to forego vaccination under the guise of personal liberty or pseudo-science:
“Americans are entitled to make their own decisions, but their employers, health insurers, and fellow citizens are not required to accommodate them.”
Or, as Kayyem puts it, “Begging is not a strategy.” It is time to shift the costs of the recklessness of vaccine refusal from the vaccinated to the unvaccinated. Kayyem cites a study that highlights a particularly irksome fact—that vaccinated adults are more likely to wear masks in public than unvaccinated adults.
The tragic consequences of vaccine refusal abound. Hospitals in areas hit by Hurricane Ida are already filled with patients who refused vaccination. An unvaccinated teacher in California infected 12 students in her class when she removed her mask to read out loud despite showing symptoms of illness. (“Of the teacher’s 24 students, 12 tested positive; eight of them were seated in the first two rows of the classroom.”) An unemployed mother with three children has started a “GoFundMe” campaign after her unvaccinated husband, Caleb Wallace, died of Covid. Wallace gained prominence in Texas after he organized a “Freedom Rally” to protest mask mandates. Wallace urged his followers to forego masks, saying,
If you want to wear a mask, feel free to do so. I don’t choose to, and I shouldn’t wear one because it makes you feel better.
Wallace’s willful ignorance about the purpose of masks cost him his life, left his children fatherless, and his widow penniless. There is no cause for celebration or scorekeeping in Wallace’s death. It is a tragedy for his wife and children. But Wallace persuaded other Texans to forego masks. They should be informed of the consequences of his actions before it is too late for them. The media is right to report Covid deaths of people who have led anti-vaccination or anti-masking campaigns. It may serve as a wakeup call to their followers.
A reader suggested another approach to changing the minds of vaccine refusers. He sent a link to an article about an effort to involve psychoanalysts (and presumably other mental health professionals) in public messaging campaigns combatting the denialism underlying anti-vaccination and anti-masking. See Austin Ratner in Psychology Today, “When Denial Turns Deadly: A Psychoanalytic Perspective.” Ratner discusses the case of Covid-skeptic Phil Valentine, a radio host who continued his opposition to vaccines as he lay dying in his hospital bed, where he touted “some very effective alternatives to the vaccine.”
And then there is the approach of assigning responsibility for the deaths of people gullible enough to believe political leaders that masking infringes on personal liberty. See Charles M. Blow, in “Ron DeSantis, How Many Covid Deaths Are Enough?” Blow pulls no punches, noting that DeSantis is speaking to a national audience as he prepares for a presidential run. DeSantis doesn’t care if the news coverage of his deadly policies is negative, as long as he is part of the presidential conversation. Blow writes,
Yes, Florida, DeSantis is allowing you to choose death so that he can have a greater political life. . . . Some bodies must be sacrificed to appease the gods of partisan resistance.
The above merely scratches the surface of the conversation over vaccine resistance as the nation grapples with the Delta variant resurgence. Although it is painful and unnecessary that we should have reached this point, attitudes about vaccine refusal are changing fast. Good. We can contain the pandemic and fully reopen our economy—if we can convince another 30% of Americans that it is in our common good to reach herd immunity through vaccination. Failing that, the nation must shift the burdens of the ongoing pandemic to those who serve as incubators for its survival.
The California recall has pierced the national political consciousness. See The New Yorker, “California’s Recall Is a Blow to Democratic Change.” It is not too late to help defeat the recall effort. (Remember, vote “NO” on recall.) A reader sent a link to an event on September 2nd at 4:00 PM Pacific/7:00 PM Eastern. The event is a customized training on a technique called “VoteTripling.” As the reader notes, this will not be a fundraiser. Rather, this will be a training session, led by VoteTripling, regarding a relatively new campaign tactic that focuses on the power of personal connections to motivate turnout. VoteTripling is based on the premise that a non-voter is more likely to vote if a friend asks them to do so. To register for the Zoom meeting, click on this link: Focus for Democracy - Stop the Recall.
Talk to you tomorrow