“God may forgive you, but I don’t”: On Forgiveness

Posted by Sappho on December 7th, 2022 filed in Blogwatch

I think that conversation on forgiveness gets confused when people confound at least three different meanings of “forgiveness”:

The first form of “forgiveness” that people talk about is the “forgiveness” that means “stop ruminating about the wrong someone else did you.” It is, I think, what people mean when they talk about how not forgiving someone is “like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Because obviously, if you can stop ruminating about bad things, you’ll be better off!

For this reason, it’s the one kind of “forgiveness” that you may want to be capable of, even if the other person isn’t the least bit sorry and doesn’t deserve your forgiveness at all. It’s not about them; it’s about you.

OTOH, precisely because it’s not about them, but about you, it strikes me as a form of forgiveness that can’t possibly be owed anyone. Because even if, perhaps because of a past trauma, you’re ruminating way more than another person would, and way more than the other person perhaps deserves, feelings aren’t as much under our control as actions are.

The second form of “forgiveness” is the one that comes when you stop trying to get back at someone. That’s the kind of forgiveness that may indeed be owed, sometimes, to someone else. I, for instance, think I’d be churlish if I didn’t forgive the children who bullied me in grade school – they, like me, were only children then, and as long as they grew up no longer to be bullies, that’s all I ask of them. For this reason, I don’t, for example, name or identify these grade school bullies – they don’t deserve any shame for things done as small children.

There’s another form of “forgiveness” that goes farther. This final meaning of “forgiveness” is “trust again.” This is the one that the wayward husband is asking for, in the song “God may forgive you, but I won’t,” and this is the kind that the wife refuses to give. He wants her to take him back, because he is, he says, a new man. She’s not buying.

You say that you’re born again, cleansed of your former sins, say you want me to forgive and forget. But you’ve done too much to me.

Trust can’t be owed the minute someone apologizes or claims to be reformed – that way lies disaster. The wife, in this case, has every right to turn down her husband’s appeal for cheap grace.

And this is where I get to my links.

David French, in Remembering What Repentance Looks Like, talks about the problem of abusers who “repent” and, restored to their positions of trust, continue their abuse, and concludes

I’d like to suggest an alternative approach, one that doesn’t ask churches or pastors to peer into the hearts of men who’ve gone astray. Here’s the idea: Repentance doesn’t look like “restoration,” it looks like resignation. The best thing that a minister or a leader with a “changed heart” can do is to go away.

He gives an example of what that kind of repentance looks like: the actions of John Profumo after he resigned in disgrace.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, in her On Repentance Book Club, considers forgiveness.

What are a few different ways to understand what forgiveness is, or entails?

What does a good apology require?  Why do so many apologies fall short?  

What is the role of apology in the work of repentance?

Is the person who is harmed obligated to forgive the harmdoer? Even if they apologize multiple times, sincerely?

Do you agree with Maimonides that refusing forgiveness after multiple sincere apologies constitutes a sin or harm of its own?

How has cultural pressure to grant forgiveness affected your own interactions with people who caused you harm? With those you have harmed?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel responds to the question of forgiving a Nazi for Holocaust atrocities by saying that “no one can forgive crimes committed against other people.” How might we think about the work of repentance when the victim(s) of harm is/are no longer alive?

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On Free Speech

Posted by Sappho on December 4th, 2022 filed in Blogwatch, Democracy, News and Commentary

At the Atlantic, David French writes that Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson Don’t Understand the First Amendment

Taibbi’s documents provided further evidence demonstrating what Twitter’s critics (including me) have long argued—that the decision to suppress [discussion of the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop] was both incoherent and inconsistent. Twitter suppressed the information based on its so-called hacked-materials policy, but the application of that policy was hardly clear in this instance, especially given that the platform had, at the time, just permitted widespread sharing of New York Times stories about Donald Trump’s leaked tax information.

Musk and Carlson are both profoundly wrong; the documents released so far show no such thing. In October 2020, when the laptop story broke, Joe Biden was not president. The Democratic National Committee (which also asked for Twitter to review tweets) is not an arm of the government. It’s a private political party. Twitter is not an arm of the government; it is a private company.

French draws the line in the right place in judging Twitter’s decision – deleting pornographic pictures of Hunter Biden was the right call (as Marcy Wheeler explains further, while also reiterating the point that Biden was a private citizen at the time he made any requests of Twitter, while Trump was the one with governmental power), and that suppressing the New York Post story about the laptop was less defensible. But more important, as he says, “they were Twitter’s decisions to make, and no amount of misguided rhetoric can transform a Twitter story into a government scandal.”

The same thing is true now, when Elon Musk bans Chad Loder from Twitter at the request of Andy Ngo. Bad call? Yes! A reason to vote with your feet and head to Mastodon or Post? You decide. But a call that’s Musk’s right to make. Whether he’s banning Ye for posting a swastika (good call) or Chad Loder for who knows what (bad call), Musk gets to call the shots on Twitter’s content moderation policy. He can be consistent (ban all bots) or inconsistent (ban only the bots amplifying things he doesn’t want amplified), and either way, it’s his right.

But I want to talk more broadly about free speech, because this is an issue that goes beyond current Twitter drama or Hunter Biden’s troubled struggle with alcohol and drug abuse. It’s not just the case that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restraining speech and says nothing about private organizations doing so. It’s also the case that we should treat government actions constraining speech as different from decisions by private organizations, or social pressure of kinds that we may find illiberal. And that reason is the fact that there’s a huge difference between the use of force and other ways of constraining speech.

You can see the difference in the one case where private individuals actually do violate others’ freedom of speech or of worship or of association: when violent mobs or terrorist individuals act to constrain others.

Consider the fact that an armed fascist group terrorized a Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbus, Ohio, forcing a drag queen story hour to shut down in the light of lackluster police involvement in security. I take this personally. My own Quaker meeting now rents space at a UU Church which, like many UU Churches, prominently displays a rainbow flag. I have no reason to believe that violent fascists who shut down drag queen story hours will stop with drag queen story hour. After all, this isn’t the first time someone who hates religious liberals has targeted a UU church for violence.

If I don’t like Musk’s moderation policies, I can go to Mastodon, or Counter.social, or Facebook, or Reddit, or Post when it opens up. And yes, I still care if a large public forum has a screwed up moderation policy, because that messes up public discourse. But it’s not at all the same thing as actually shutting down speech. If, on the other hand, someone shows up with guns at the place where I worship, where am I to run?

This is why we take actual mob violence seriously, and treat it as a very different thing from social pressure “mobs,” even bad ones. It’s why we should care if we have government leaders who actually incite mobs, or any prospect of selective law enforcement or weaponized pardons emboldening such mobs, seriously.

It’s also why, though the government is justified in acting narrowly against forms of speech that are actual imminent incitement of violence, or plotting of illegal acts, we don’t want the government’s authority to regulate speech to extend much beyond that – because the government has force at its command that no social media company, not even a very large one, has.

To support a former president who actually directed a mob at the Capitol that he knew had weapons, and refrained for hours from doing anything to call off his mob or assist the besieged legislators, and who now says that the Constitution should be suspended to bring him back, on grounds that a social media company made a bad moderation call – well, that’s nothing like freedom.

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Substack links: Repentance, news from Turkey, COVID-19 in China, Seditious Conspiracy

Posted by Sappho on December 1st, 2022 filed in Blogwatch, News and Commentary, Theology

Katelyn Jetelina at Your Local Epidemiologist on COVID-19 in China and global concern

Benjamin Wittes on the recent Seditious Conspiracy Conviction

Turkey Recap breaks down the Turkish news cycle in Tabula Masa

Not all heroes wear capes, but some wear takkes. Meet Kald?r?m Man, aka Syrian refugee Osama Shafie, who walks around Diyarbak?r with hand tools and fixes “nails, screws and other stuff protruding from pavements.” A friend of toes. The man of heel.

Thus begins a news round up that covers the travails of the Turkish Medical Association, the constitutional proposals of the Turkish opposition alliance, Turkey and Syria, and Turkey and Sweden.

Ottomans and Zionists applies The Spiderman Standard to the new Israeli government.

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Substack and blog links: DNA

Posted by Sappho on December 1st, 2022 filed in Blogwatch, DNA, Genealogy

DNA tests have long been part of cyber sales at this time of the year. Razib Khan discusses So you want to test your DNA , now not just direct-to-consumer genotyping, but much more affordable than they used to be whole genome tests. (No, still not affordable for me this year, because unexpectedly large dental and medical bills – I’m insured, and not at the GoFundMe level, but definitely at the “I can’t spare the money for a whole genome test this year” level. But they may be affordable for you.)

DNA Explained has a good introductory post on Chromosomes and Genealogy

23andMe’s blog: Five Tips for Talking with Relatives about Family History

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Substack links: David French on fundamentalism

Posted by Sappho on November 29th, 2022 filed in Blogwatch

I want to talk next about David French’s How Fundamentalism Fails

By “fundamentalism,” I’m not referring to any specific theology. Fundamentalism instead refers to a mindset, a kind of fierce existential certainty that’s echoed in the old religious maxim, “Error has no rights.” And as I’ve argued before, you can’t truly understand our contentious times unless you have experience with or knowledge of fundamentalist movements and fundamentalist faiths.

French is talking about the effects of that “fierce existential certainty” wherever it pops up, left or right. Now, obviously, for several reasons, I think that extremism on the right is a way bigger danger in the US, right now, than extremism on the left – there’s no left wing equivalent to the January 6 insurrection, no left wing equivalent to an ex-president so unwilling to show basic respect for democracy when he loses. (And no, it doesn’t even matter whether he somehow managed to gaslight himself into disbelieving the ample evidence he got, from his own advisors, that yes he had lost, or whether, as I think more likely, he knew and knows damn well that he lost.)

But the phenomenon of asymmetric polarization in the US is, I think, not so much about a difference in human nature among the left and right as about structural incentives that make it easier for Democrats to pick people who swing to the center (think Biden) and Republicans to pick people who satisfy their base’s desire to own the libs. This affects everything from presidential nominees (Biden vs. Trump) to who’s described as the “extreme” members in Congress (no, whatever you can say of Ilhan Omar, there’s no real equivalence between her and Marjorie Taylor Greene).

And so, when it comes to the human tendency to get sucked into the old religious maxim, “Error has no rights,” it’s good to have words to describe the phenomenon that don’t immediately announce that they’re talking about one side of the political spectrum and make it easy to pretend that what French calls “fundamentalism” only happens there. This is one of the things that I liked about Shel’s post on Lashon Hara which I linked yesterday. Lashon Hara, or “recreational shit-talking” can, as Shel points out, be part of “call-out culture” on the left (and she gives examples of the kinds of “recreational shit-talking” that serve no good purpose, and how it can hurt communities, such as her experience with “Paul” in the trans community). But Lashon Hara as a broader concept isn’t a left or right phenomenon, or necessarily bound to politics at all. Politics is just one of the ways that people can dress up bad and destructive personal relationships as good and righteous.

Now, French has another word, in one of his examples about fundamentalism, which I think has similar usefulness as a term that can be divorced from which group it’s happening in, because it’s one of the broader ways that humans of several stripes go wrong, when they decide that “error has no rights.”

When fundamentalism arises in your own community, it can be profoundly painful and disorienting. People who were friends will call you enemies. They’ll warn others not to associate with you. In the church tradition I grew up in, there was even a practice called “chain disfellowshipping.” It worked like this: If I believed the right things but did not end my friendship with an apostate in the church, then I could face my own church discipline.

“Chain disfellowshipping” may be the formal practice of specific churches, but it’s also something people do to each other more broadly. Obviously, as with “lashon hara” (which shouldn’t, as Shel points out, be taken to include needed warnings about people who are “beyond rebuke”), there are cases where one should demand a certain “disfellowshipping” and punish those who won’t break ties (think of a politician who publicly meets with, and solicits support from, a Holocaust denier). But ordinary folks who are friends with apostates from your faith shouldn’t face that sanction. So I’m glad to have a word for it.

French goes on to reflect about the value of compassion, grace, and humility. It’s a good post. And since I’ve written at length about this one, I’ll wait till tomorrow to give a shorter linky post about some of the other substacks that I have been reading.

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Links: China street protests, Lashon Hara, Ory Okolloh’s Sunday reads

Posted by Sappho on November 27th, 2022 filed in Blogwatch

I’m going to focus on link posts this week, as I’m checking out new blogs and substacks, and would prefer to talk about a few of them at a time, rather than all of them at once.

Filip Noubel at Global Voices on Rare street protests across China: Is Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy turning people against their government?

Following a fire on November 25 in a high-rise in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang in western China, that saw the death of several victims, possibly due to drastic lockdown of buildings and streets across China as a result of Xi Jinping’s ‘Zero-Covid” policy, residents of the city – both Uyghurs and Han Chinese, took to the streets to demand less crippling sanitary measures.

More at the link, including a lot of context from Vivian Wu, a native of Beijing who is currently based in New York.

Shel at Dog with a Blog on Lashon Hara — Director’s Cut HD Remaster

Lashon Hara is to speak ill of somebody in a way which is true and for no good reason. The classic example is to tell people about a misdeed someone had commit in the past for which they already atoned for; or to talk about something bad someone did with no intention of holding them accountable or causing them to change.

One good translation may be “recreational shit-talking.”

The Chofetz Chaim says that one is forbidden to speak publicly of another’s misdeeds until someone has tried to privately confront the person causing harm about their behavior, or implored someone closer to them to confront them. If, after being confronted, the person causing harm refuses to change, or if for some reason it is impossible to confront them (for instance, if they are a politician), then the Chofetz Chaim considers them “beyond rebuke” and the laws of Lashon Hara no longer apply. Specifically, it is that speaking publicly can be an effective way to protect others from danger, or to rally others to intervene. If they heed the confrontation and atone properly, then you are forbidden from bringing the incident up again so long as the person who has caused harm does not relapse into harmful behavior again. The matter is resolved, and they (and we) must be permitted to move on.

More at the link about lashon hara, how it differs from libel (false, so obviously worse), warning someone about a “broken stair” (not lashon hara in the case where it’s providing necessary protection from someone who is “beyond rebuke”), and why, in general, “recreational shit-talking” is bad and to be avoided, even when framed as righteous.

Ory Okolloh’s Sunday Reads

Ory Okolloh is a Kenyan activist, lawyer, and blogger. Among other things, she’d the co-creator of Ushahidi. One of her regular Substack posts is a weekly Sunday Reads. For instance, in the one that I linked, one of the Sunday Reads is:
Read #1. How Swahili became Africa’s most spoken language.

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“Let me tell you about the very rich.”

Posted by Sappho on November 12th, 2022 filed in News and Commentary

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them …” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Hemingway suggested that Fitzgerald glamourized the rich (“They have more money”); to me, though, neither this quote nor the portrayal of rich Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby are exactly glamourous. Not to be admired, anyway.

There’s another common view of the rich – that they are “different from you and me” in a way that we can envy and admire – smarter, more competent. After all, if they weren’t smarter, would they be so rich?

I’m reminded of the dangers of that mistake as I watch Elon Musk fumble his way through his acquisition of Twitter, laying off half the company on almost no notice, losing key executives with a cavalier attitude to the FTC, and making a wreck of the Twitter verification system with a botched roll out of the sale of blue checks that has led to impersonation of major corporations.

Chris Sacca, in a Twitter thread that moves between admiration of Musk and dismay at his current decisions, writes first “

“One of the biggest risks of wealth/power is no longer having anyone around you who can push back, give candid feedback, suggest alternatives, or just simply let you know you’re wrong.

“A shrinking worldview combined with intellectual isolation leads to out-of-touch shit.”

but then has to add

“I’ve known Elon a long time. I’ve admired his thinking & ambition. His ability to note and question the assumptions implicit in the rest of our thinking is a rare type of genius I’ve only seen in the greatest minds. His success to date is not an accident. Tesla is world positive.”

I suspect that Sacca is still overrating Musk. I’m not convinced that he’s “a rare type of genius” seen only “in the greatest minds.” He was, after all, like many very rich people, born in third base, in his case the son of an emerald miner. And besides, there are many brilliant people who aren’t all that rich because being super rich isn’t the goal to which they’ve applied their minds.

Still, Musk is probably smarter than he looks when he’s making his stupidest decisions. Compare him with other people who were born to a similar level of wealth, and he seems often (though not this week) to be good both at increasing that wealth as he wants, and at doing what he wants with the money (if less good at maintaining the family relationships he might have liked). And I haven’t heard that he had anyone else taking his tests, or any family donation buying his way, at the excellent schools to which he got admitted. So I think that Sacca may be onto something about the ways in which wealth/power make it harder to get the frank feedback you need when you’re making a wrong move.

There’s a story that circulates in the mental health community about Ted Turner and his bipolar disorder; Turner is said to have said that, when he was manic, people didn’t tend to check him, because, “I’m Ted Turner.” I can’t find a reference to prove the story, so take it as rumor, but whether it’s true or not about Turner, it does, I think, describe how rich people can be unmoored from checks on their bad decisions.

David Austin Walsh tweets

“Elon Musk isn’t managing Twitter any differently than any other company he’s managed.

“It’s just that the entire world has a front-row seat to his disastrously megalomaniacal management style in real time with Twitter.”

I’m not sure whether to believe this either – surely the effects of Musk’s management of Twitter are more rapidly unraveling than anything that has happened at Tesla; must that not mean, at the very least, that he’s leaning into the bad side of his management style more here? But there are stories from his other companies that at least point to some similar failings – this isn’t the first time he’s tried to overwork his employees, or fired people on short notice, or done a layoff in a way that treats employees as adversaries.

And that gets to the second problem, for me, of glamourizing the rich too much – it’s not just that people sometimes make the rich out to be more brilliant than they are, but that they sometimes speak as if the rich CEO or entrepreneur is the only Player Character in the story. He isn’t. The Twitter board who made the deal with Musk and held him to it are also player characters. The advertisers who stay or leave – also player characters. And all the employees – also player characters.

You tell me that, once Musk owns a company, he can do what he likes with it? True to a point, but only to a point. He doesn’t get to say whether developers can or will self-certify their FTC compliance. And a 40 hour week was a hard won victory. It can be won again.

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“I’m gonna punch him out.”

Posted by Sappho on October 14th, 2022 filed in News and Commentary

“I’m gonna punch him out, I’m gonna go to jail and I’m gonna be happy.”

We got a glimpse of what Nancy Pelosi looks like when she fears for her life, when she knows a mob is coming for her that may kill her. And part of what she looks like is: mad as hell at the man who sicced the mob on her. Mad enough that little Nancy Pelosi, all of 114 pounds, wants to punch out a man easily more than twice her weight.

Anger is fear, and clearly Nancy is someone who, when her life is in danger, can find her fight-or-flight response quickly turning to fight. That part of her response is simply ordinary and human.

It’s the rest of her response that’s impressive: the way she keeps calling to organize help. One moment she’s cajoling the governor of Virginia, and another moment she’s calling the bluff of someone who appears to be slow walking assistance:

“Just pretend for a moment that it was the Pentagon or the White House or some other entity that was under siege,” she says.

If that moment where she threatens to punch Trump out shows her emotion, her relentless effort to get the Capitol cleared, to organize help when the President refused to do his job, shows her cool under pressure. It turns out that what Nancy Pelosi looks like, when she fears for her life, is a woman who won’t quit till all her people are safe.

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Posted by Sappho on October 9th, 2022 filed in Blogwatch

David French: The Spiritual Lessons of a Christian Nationalist Military Defeat. Power corrupts, Christendom clashes with Christianity, and brutality isn’t strength.

Caitlin Rivers: This week in outbreaks. Ebola, monkeypox and influenza like illness.

Katelyn Jetelina from Your Local Epidemiologist: Paxlovid update: Effectiveness, rebounding, drug interactions.

Eric Topol: The marked difference in pandemic outcomes between Japan and the US.

A bit belatedly: In Remembrance and Honor of Nichelle Nichols.

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Round up: Mostly Russia/Ukraine with some COVID, Timothy Leary, and Music

Posted by Sappho on October 1st, 2022 filed in Blogwatch, Music, News and Commentary

Ed Yong at the Atlantic: The Pandemic’s Legacy Is Already Clear.
All of this will happen again.

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Russia-Ukraine Update

Cheryl Rofer at Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Baltic Sea Breaches in Nordstream 1 and 2 Pipelines

Johan Maurer at Can you believe? Russia: Beautiful future or dead end?

Radley Balko has been let go from the WaPo and has a new substack that may prove interesting.

Susie Bright: The 5th and Final Anniversary of the Timothy Leary Memorial

A few of my new favorite songs:

Zoe Mulford: One Damn Thing

Rich Mullins: If I Stand

Carrie Newcomer: You Can Do This Hard Thing

An old/new favorite: Rhiannon Giddens’ rendition of American Tune

Nefesh Mountain: A Mighty Roar

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Woman, Mother, Italian, Catholic

Posted by Sappho on September 26th, 2022 filed in News and Commentary

I put #Meloni into Twitter search last night, looking for an escape clause. Was Premier Meloni a done deal? Or might the exit polls still be wrong? Or a coalition elude her?

Among the laments and cheers about her victory, one tweet caught my eye. Is this extreme? the tweet asked, in a rhetorical question style that suggested that the speech link was self-evidently not extreme. I clicked, and saw a much viewed speech, of Meloni claiming that she’s being denied the right to call herself woman and mother, reduced to a number by some shadowy economic elite.

My first reaction was, yes, of course this is extreme. No one has ever told me I can’t call myself a woman, and that includes my left of center self-identified non-binary friends. No one has said I can’t call my mother a mother. When I hear this kind of thing, to me it’s a dog whistle that LGBTQIA+ folks are a threat in themselves – they’re not stopping you from being yourself. And in that context, references to economic elites that control things – well, are we talking “(((globalist)))”? A dog whistle about Jews’ supposed influence?

My second reaction was – all the same, it’s easier for me to understand voting for Meloni than for Trump. Because, look at that speech. She doesn’t spend any of it talking about how much more wonderful she is than everyone else. She doesn’t spend any of it attacking people for being mean to her, or suggesting that people who have criticized her are traitors or deserve to be locked up. Instead she talks about “we,” and the “we” of her speech are defined by things that are, in themselves, good. Woman, Mother, Italian, Catholic – what is there to dislike in that identity?

Unless you’re also someone just trying to live your life, and you’re the most obvious candidate to be part of the group trying to prevent Meloni from calling herself woman and mother.

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Link round up: The Queen, genomics, Putin, and Qatar

Posted by Sappho on September 11th, 2022 filed in Blogwatch

Two different takes on the Queen’s death:

What the queen’s death means to Britain’s former colonies

Queen Elizabeth and Power That Transcends Politics

Eric Topol writes about Human genomics vs clinical genomics

Cheryl Rofer on Would Vladimir Putin Use Nuclear Weapons

The Qatar Crisis Ends … In the Most Boring Way Possible (on the value of boring things in international relations)

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COVID and how I decide who to read

Posted by Sappho on September 5th, 2022 filed in Health and Medicine, News and Commentary

Some people feel this is the worst time of the pandemic. Others talk of the pandemic in the past tense. I’m somewhere in between.

This is the year I finally got COVID, after dodging it for years. It’s the time when, even as we’re coming off a surge, it seems I always know at least one person who has COVID, or who just recovered from COVID. And “like a cold” way overstates the mildness of it. I almost fainted, one day, when I had COVID. I was in the ER, 6 weeks after my positive test, for heart palpitations that, the cardiologist I saw for follow up told me, are likely an after effect of my bout with COVID.

But also, I didn’t die, or wind up in the ICU. Without my vaccination, my odds of winding up hospitalized would have been much worse.

I’m not seeing the desperate accounts of emergency rooms flooded with COVID patients that I saw in 2020. We’re getting a high case rate while out and about, while earlier we saw cases rising even as state governments desperately locked us down, out of other options. I don’t feel this is the worst of times. Nor do I see Biden’s or the CDC’s sometimes good and sometimes flawed attempts to balance different considerations in coming up with a COVID policy as at all comparable to Trump’s self-interested neglect of the COVID pandemic, that burned up so much time early when we could have done much better, and left us with a higher death rate than other countries.

Still, I think I understand the few that feel it’s the worst of times. They feel this because they don’t believe they’re out of danger yet, but believe they’re now in a world where no one else still cares.

It was in this context that I looked at a Twitter thread someone posted, of “COVID minimizers” that I don’t think are, in fact, COVID minimizers. Michael Mina. Angela Rasmussen.

So I’m going to explain why I read who I read. Obviously, part of it is looking for expertise. I want to hear from doctors and immunologists, and the occasional person from another field who has particular expertise that’s relevant: Joseph G. Allen, healthy buildings expert, on ventilation, or Zeynep Tufekci, who writes intelligently about the intersection of sociology and technology (or, in this case, the intersection of sociology and medicine).

But I do, like the person who posted the thread about COVID minimizers, have my lines, where I decide a particular person, or group of people, is enough outside of the medical mainstream on some point that I’m not going to listen to that person. Some of the people I follow, such as Eric Feigl-Ding, are currently more of COVID hawks than others, such as Bob Wachter. But Bob Wachter still wears a mask if he boards an airplane.

Some of the lines:

Is this person anti-vax? Or does this person think COVID vaccines should only be promoted for people who are higher risk? I get why, in the face of angry protests and courts that were willing to throw vaccine mandates out (and pause them while they made their way through the courts in preparation for getting thrown out), we have only limited vaccine mandates in the US, and don’t even have vaccine mandates for COVID in public schools, where vaccine mandates are normal. I even get where people might decide, well, given that we don’t have a sterilizing vaccine, I’m not willing to die on the hill of vaccine mandates in public schools. But it’s still the case that getting COVID is higher risk, even for children, than getting the vaccine, and so when someone actively enlists on the side of fighting vaccine mandates, that’s a bad sign. When I saw that the Urgency of Normal had “lobby not to have vaccine mandates in public schools” as part of their program, I concluded that they had jumped the shark.

Does this person acknowledge that masks are a pain in the butt, can fog your glasses, are uncomfortable to wear all day if you’re wearing the kind (N-95 or KN95) that actually work well? Or wildly understate the degree to which masks prevent spread while wildly overstating the harm (you’re hurting children’s mental health! preventing them from learning to talk!). If the latter, I stop listening. No, we do not have strong evidence that masks delay language development in schoolchildren and weak evidence that masks provide protection against a disease with aerosol contagion.

Has this person always, throughout the pandemic, argued that we should only protect the high risk, and everyone else should be left to get infected? Then I don’t listen.

That leaves a lot of people to listen to, and they’re people with a range of views about how we should respond to COVID now, as we have more contagion than ever, better tools to deal with COVID now, and a lot of unevenness in access to those tools. (“Don’t let Evusheld become Evushelf,” as a virus podcast that I follow says every week, of the prophylactic for immune compromised people that is still woefully underused.) And that’s where I look at where people have special knowledge. Who knows about rapid tests, and who about ventilation? Whose research on a nasal vaccine do I want to keep track of? Who is a good source of information on progress in treatment of long COVID?

In other words, I pick the people I follow on COVID in a similar way to how I pick the people I follow on any topic. Look at the Three Gates: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful?” and adjust them. Is this person truthful and does this person fairly represent science? (Yes, people will differ, but there’s a difference between Boulware submitting an EUA application for fluvoxamine and the FDA saying no and some quack who says none of the FDA approved treatments work and all of the ones that the FDA rejects do.) Does this person want to do something useful about a disease that’s still killing many and leaving many with long term disability – that’s the “kind” part and it’s why I evaluate an argument to loosen some COVID rules in schools that comes from Joseph G Allen, who is doing plenty to promote ventilation, differently from someone who only talks about the things we should stop doing about COVID, and not the things we should do instead. And does this person have useful expertise, on a topic where I want to be informed?

Whether I’m deciding to follow Akiko Iwasaki on COVID or Cheryl Rofer on nuclear issues, it’s a set of questions that serves me well.

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Posted by Sappho on August 28th, 2022 filed in Health and Medicine, News and Commentary

I remember when we first learned the news about AIDS. The first Pride that I attended, in San Francisco, one lonely organization raised the alarm about Kaposi sarcoma. The next year, the whole Pride promoted AIDS education and condoms.

Something changed, permanently, with AIDS. When I arrived at college, condoms were not common. All the important STDs could be treated with antibiotics, and for birth control there was the Pill. Now, decades after the arrival of AIDS, and even after the arrival of effective treatments, condoms are a much bigger part of people’s lives.

That’s what it means for a disease to become endemic. It means that, unlike plague, which we avoid like the plague and therefore confine to very small outbreaks, the illness is a permanent feature of life, and so are the adjustments. Condoms. Bed nets. Whatever it takes for people to reduce the risk to a level they can tolerate.

That doesn’t mean that people quit doing everything that other people think risky. When AIDS hit, some people who had more casual sex reduced their number of partners. That didn’t last, once we had treatments – now there are certainly some people who have few and carefully chosen sex partners, but no more than there were before AIDS. But condoms did last, not for everyone, but as a much more widespread feature of life than they were right before AIDS.

Some of what comes as a permanent feature of life, when a disease becomes endemic, is that we adjust to more death and disability. COVID is milder than it was, now that most of us are vaccinated and many of us are boosted, but it’s still highly contagious. We may be stuck with a worse disease burden than a bad flu season (COVID and flu combined), every year for years.

But some of what comes is behavior change. We’re fighting now over what that behavior change will prove to be. I’m holding out hope that improved ventilation will be part of it. Time will tell.

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Liz Cheney

Posted by Sappho on August 21st, 2022 filed in News and Commentary

Character matters.

Could I imagine voting for Liz Cheney, hypothetically? Sure, if I imagine a scenario in which the Democrats nominate the left wing version of Trump, an authoritarian populist Democrat who won’t accept election results if they go against him or her. The principle of “If You Don’t Like Who’s In There, Vote ‘Em Out” matters – that’s why Liz Cheney’s brave stand for that principle is so important.

In the real world, of course, there is no viable candidate in the Democratic Party who poses that kind of threat, and, even purely on “defense of democracy” grounds, Biden and any other Democrat likely to get the nomination in the foreseeable future is going to be better than Cheney (voter rights). And I disagree with her on a ton of stuff that I’d agree with the Democrat on, and, well, character matters, but issues matter, too.

So, yay, Cheney for President now is hardly, for any Democrat, the point. Still, as a one time psychology major, I know my Milgram experiment well, and when someone stands up for what’s right when nearly everyone else in their group caves, as far as I’m concerned, respect is due. If Liz Cheney is determined enough to see justice for January 6 that she’ll pursue Trump to the gates of hell, go get him, Liz Cheney!

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“Act as if you had COVID”

Posted by Sappho on July 17th, 2022 filed in Daily Life, Health and Medicine, News and Commentary

I am just over a month out from testing positive for COVID. I got it despite being vaccinated, boosted, and wearing my N-95 mask everywhere indoors when I wasn’t at home. I also got it in a context of being in a COVID surge (still ongoing), in a situation where hardly anyone in my country, even the more COVID conscientious, masks indoors any more. And I probably got it because, despite my efforts, I was imperfect in wearing my N-95 mask. I removed it outdoors, and, distracted, forgot to put it on immediately when going back indoors. I removed it by pulling it down to hang around my neck; it’s possible that it was contaminated by the time I pulled it up again.

I am feeling well today, but also COVID was worse, and more fatiguing, than a cold. Still, what I want to talk about today is not that, but the degree to which we can, and should, act as if we have COVID, when we haven’t tested positive.

First, here’s what full on acting as if I had COVID meant, for me, when I actually did know I had COVID. I isolated from my husband in one room of the house. We couldn’t use separate bathrooms, because we’re in a one bathroom condo, but every time I came out of my isolation area I wore my N-95 mask. Often even when I was in my isolation area I wore my N-95 mask, and I slept in a cloth mask (as sleeping in any mask less comfortable than a cloth mask isn’t a viable option for me), in that isolation area, on the couch. I stayed home, of course, from work, and, since my job can be done from home, I even managed to negotiate that I’d be home till Day 14 after the positive test, and made sure I had two negative rapid tests before returning, going above and beyond CDC guidelines on isolation. I stayed in my isolation area within my home till Day 11 after the positive test (having two negative rapid tests before emerging).

Sometimes people talk about always acting as if you have COVID, since you never know that you don’t have it, asymptomatic. But obviously that’s not viable for the level of acting as if you have COVID that I just described (though it may literally be true that some people who live alone are always following the regimen that they’d follow if they actually had COVID). But at the same time, I never act as if I’m certain I didn’t have COVID. I always wear that N-95 mask indoors when outside the home. Since I’ve learned that the vaccines don’t provide sterilizing immunity, and since we keep getting waves of variants, I don’t see an alternative. I have a case count and test positivity set at which I’ll be willing to remove that mask. We haven’t reached that level, even right after the first omicron wave when numbers were relatively low. Someday, I still believe, we will, but that day, for me, may be years away. (Obviously, others have set a different standard of the level where they feel safe to remove masks.)

There are other times when I may want to act, to a greater degree, as if I have COVID, even without a positive test. A month ago, when I tested positive, I already knew I was a close contact, and was isolating for that reason. Because I can work from home, I managed to negotiate staying home while waiting for PCR confirmation of my negative rapid test, even though my only symptom at that time, sore shoulders, seemed more likely to be a result of sleeping on the couch than COVID (my first days after exposure were days when I was at home anyway, as I was exposed on a Friday, and had Monday and Tuesday as WFH days). I stayed in my isolation area and masked to protect my husband. In that sense, I was already acting as if I had COVID, and it may have saved others from infection – my husband never tested positive, and no one at work was exposed during my possibly infectious period.

Similarly, I and my coworkers have the understanding that, if we have COVID like symptoms, we are to stay home, even if testing negative, and return to work only if no fever and symptoms improving. In that sense, we act as if we have COVID even if not testing positive.

But there’s a whole protocol that goes into play if you do test positive, that doesn’t go into play if you don’t (but are still isolating because of respiratory symptoms, or fatigue, or fever). Close contacts are identified. Close contacts are obliged, if not vaccinated, to isolate for 5 days, and, whether vaccinated or not, to mask till 10 days after contact. If I know that a coworker is at home with COVID like symptoms, but testing negative, I still wear my N-95 mask, because I always wear my N-95 mask, but I don’t go to the isolation area in my home and stay away from my husband, because I act under the assumption that either the person doesn’t have COVID, or it’s likely the viral load is low enough that it didn’t overcome my vaccination, boost, and mask and get me sick. And because if I stay isolated from my husband ever time anyone in the office maybe has a cold, I might spend a lot more time isolated from my husband than I can bear.

If, on the other hand, I do have COVID – isolate, notify contacts without waiting for the contact tracer (because contact tracing may be overwhelmed in a surge), test before coming out of isolation. When we flew to a family gathering in April, I had a COVID plan. I took tests with me, and my plan if either of us tested positive was that we would cancel the flight back, rent a car and drive back, so that we could avoid exposing others as much as possible.

Because this illness is bad, and I don’t want to give it to anyone else if I can avoid it. If I can’t – and eventually I may get COVID again and pass it on to someone I didn’t want to give it to – I at least want to get COVID as infrequently as possible, and give it to as few people as possible.

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Source of information and the Three Gates

Posted by Sappho on June 9th, 2022 filed in News and Commentary

Why am I willing to credit an article in the Wall Street Journal, but not one in the Epoch Times or in Breitbart News? Why will I listen to what Jeremy Faust or Akiko Iwasaki has to say about the COVID pandemic, but not to Robert Kennedy Jr.? In this post, I discuss how I form my judgments, when I say, “Such-and-such isn’t a credible source.”

First, I want to make it clear that “I don’t consider X a credible source” does not mean “I have never read X” or even “I will never read X again.” I think I’m far more likely to learn something useful from Francis Fukuyama than from Ann Coulter, but I have checked out Ann Coulter’s then latest book in a bookstore, and occasionally looked at her Twitter feed, because there are two reasons to check someone out – one is to be informed, and the other is to understand – not sympathize with, but understand as one understands an obstacle – what that someone is about.

Second, I do find it useful to include, in the perspectives I check out, people with different points of view, but I want them to be credible people with different points of view.

Here’s how I would frame my use of something like the Three Gates, to explain how I choose who and what sources to follow. The Three Gates are: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful? Let me adjust them to sources:

Is it true? Is this person or source truthful? There are several parts to this: Does this source have a history of flat out lying? Does this source have a habit of being reckless with the facts, passing things on without checking them, or failing to retract when things are proven wrong? Does this source, when addressing opponents, habitually address straw men rather than the actual arguments being made? Is this source really bad at checking claims against the real world, for instance readily believing wild conspiracy theories?

Is it kind? This one’s tricky, because some policies may strike me as unkind that don’t seem unkind to those advocating them, and I don’t want to exclude too many people (I want to read varied points of view). But there’s a limit, and the way I’d define it is, “Are these people who act or speak as if they feel that there are some whom the law should protect but not bind, and others whom the law should bind but not protect?” If so, I’m sure I can get the same information from someone closer to my values. (This includes some conservatives! I don’t see David French as someone who feels
feel that there are some whom the law should protect but not bind, and others whom the law should bind but not protect.)

Is it useful? There are several parts to this: Am I looking at an issue where specialized knowledge is useful, and if so, does this person have specialized knowledge? (It’s really useful to know what epidemiologists are saying about COVID.) If I’m looking for general sources of news or generalist columnists, I want to know whether they have a useful ability to pick good sources, and assess what they know and what they don’t know.

Finally, I have my preferred form of consuming information. I like to read. There’s nothing wrong with podcasts! Some of my friends or family find them useful while walking, or driving, or doing housework. But that’s not what works best for me. I like to read. Once in while, I’ll listen to a podcast (my husband has turned me onto Legal Eagle), but if you want me to check out a point of view about which I might be doubtful, you’re more likely to get me to check out an article than a podcast.

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Published another short story, and announcement about a kickstarter campaign

Posted by Sappho on May 15th, 2022 filed in Fiction

Two announcements about my short story writing:

First, my short story CVE-2029-78385 is published in the current issued of Cathedral Canyon Review

Second, Air and Nothingness Press has started a kickstarter campaign for their new book Orpheus and Eurydice Unbound, which will include my short story “Snake Bite Day.”

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Update on short stories, and some Quaker links

Posted by Sappho on May 8th, 2022 filed in Fiction, Quaker Practice

I see that it has been way too long since I have posted to this blog. Let me catch you up.

I have been writing and submitting short stories, with a goal of reaching 100 rejections this year. I’m behind on that goal (though I have gotten plenty of rejections). But I did get a couple of short stories accepted. The first was to an upcoming anthology from Air and Nothingness Press, called Orpheus and Eurydice Unbound. The second was to an upcoming issue of Cathedral Canyon Review.

On a note completely unrelated to the short stories, a member of my Quaker meeting ran across, and pointed out to the rest of us, a blog post by a visitor to our meeting in 2015:

We have moved since then, from the office building in Irvine to renting from Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church (a move which allows great opportunities for cooperation between us and the UUs). And, of course, the past two years of pandemic have made some alterations in our meeting life (hybrid worship, masks in person). But the blog post is a good description of Quaker worship.

I’d also like to link this post by Quaker blogger Johan Maurer: https://blog.canyoubelieve.me/2022/05/abortion-and-cost-of-rhetoric-repost.html

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A COVID Retrospective

Posted by Sappho on February 5th, 2022 filed in Health and Medicine, News and Commentary, Vaccinations

It’s now two years since China shut down their major national holiday, the point when I realized that COVID was going to be awful. I didn’t, at the time, realize it would be awful for *us* – I thought it would, like SARS, happen in other countries, and we would stop it at the border. But it would be awful. Anyway, two years is enough time to reflect on the various COVID response measures that have been tried, and what was not done. I’m not going into what I’ve read of the science, in each case, because that would make this post way too long – I just want to be clear where I stand, in terms more nuanced than the way we often use *one* aspect of pandemic response (lockdowns or masks) to frame the debate.

1) Preparation: Not long ago, Facebook served me up a memory of some pandemic response getting shut down in 2018, with me remarking, “seems like a bad idea.” I hope we can agree now that having sufficient pandemic preparation in non-pandemic years is desirable.

2) Restricting movement in a global way (not based on testing for disease): Disease follows human contact, so, intuitively, it makes sense that restricting movement to prevent people from coming into contact will also limit the spread of disease. There are a couple of versions of this crude tool.

a) Travel bans: No, I don’t mean the “Muslim ban” type that we argued about throughout the Trump years. I mean the type that both Trump and Biden have done, more or less at the same time that every other country did the same: Barring people from a country where a novel disease, or variant, or outbreak is found from entering your country. On the one hand, blocking people at the border can be a tool to allow time to prepare response, and buying time is a useful thing. But there are a couple of pitfalls. First, for diseases where you *can* fairly effectively block your border (e.g., Ebola, where you don’t have tons of asymptomatic transmission), people may lock down borders *too* far, preventing needed medical assistance to the countries where the outbreak is taking place, and, besides being not especially fair to the countries where the outbreak is taking place, this can be short-sighted, as you can’t seal every border forever (borders are porous even when we try to make them otherwise), so you do want to help put out your neighbor’s fire before it spreads to you. Second, for an illness that is both very contagious and one that has a significant portion of people who can spread it without showing symptoms, you may find out that every time you close a border you closed it too late (which is pretty much what happened with COVID).

b) Lockdowns: By “lockdown” I mean not every possible COVID restriction, but specifically the ones that involve telling most of the population to stay home.During the pandemic, we saw, over and over, how even a couple of weeks of lockdown would cause the case rate to go down sharply.

And some portions of “lockdown” were almost pure gain. It was hard for companies to send their white collar workers home (and as one of the people whose job it was to make that possible, I know something of what it cost). But also, most of the white collar workers who were sent home, privileged though they might have been relative to many of the essential workers who didn’t get sent home, were also people who worked for a company at jobs they couldn’t afford to quit, had to do what the company said and work where the company said, and didn’t have unions that could speak up in an organized way and say, cases are spiking, we can work from home, please send us home. Absent executive orders from governors, a lot of people would have been out and about, increasing the risk of COVID spread, who really didn’t need to be.

But in other ways, lockdowns were *very* costly. Also, because they were *very* costly, they tended to start later than would have been optimal, in epidemiological terms. Sometimes (with the odd exception of school closures) they lifted when case rates were still quite high. And understandable resentment of lockdowns made it easier for resistance to other, less restrictive and more targeted measures, things that helped *avoid* lockdowns, to be treated as more of the same thing, or a slippery slope to lockdowns.

Finally, almost no one has any will left to go through lockdowns, now that vaccination is widespread. Vaccinated people don’t want to be locked down because others chose not to be vaccinated, and unvaccinated people aren’t *more* willing to lock down than they are to get vaccinated.

3) Happy talk: What, me worry? There’s no pandemic/We’ve got the pandemic totally licked. This proved to have a lot of support, but didn’t work very well.

4) Movement restriction: Preventing super spreader events, while otherwise staying open (e.g. capacity restrictions). This measure can work well if you are also doing other things to bring case rates low. I, for one, am still willing to live with this level of restriction, any time ERs are overwhelmed, even if the ERs are mostly overwhelmed with unvaccinated people. I may wear masks to crowded events for a long while, whenever we are past global mask mandates. But, if less burdensome than lockdowns, it’s still more burdensome than some alternatives.

5) Test/trace/quarantine: Various versions of this have been tried. First, there’s the test/trace/quarantine model where you test and quarantines based on whomever contact tracers have been able to track. The countries that fared best, like South Korea, tended to be good at this. Countries that hit testing bottlenecks had more trouble – testing capacity is important, and even an imperfect test that more or less works is better than not testing. Also important, testing fast enough. If your turnaround is too slow, then people have spread the disease to others before they have been able to find out that they were exposed. Second, there’s regular rapid testing of large groups of people. This appears to work well in places like hospitals and schools where you can get rapid tests accurately reported, sometimes less well with politicians, some of whom don’t accurately report their own test results when they decide the incentives for being out and about are strong enough. Third, there are COVID apps. This potentially promising technology, despite Google and Apple generously supplying technology to do this in a way that preserves privacy, and the work of many open source volunteers, appears to have been useful in only a few places, because mostly there wasn’t a lot of uptake. Still, a few places is better than none. Fourth, there’s wastewater testing, which looks really promising, and which is a lesson I hope we can take from this pandemic.

6) Infection prevention: Preventing infection without locking people down is ideal, and we have several tools to do this. First, chronologically, came masks. Masks are a pain in the neck, especially if you are on the job and have to wear them all day. But they are *much* less of a pain in the neck than either getting COVID or being locked down. Masks FTW. Even cloth masks are significantly more effective than nothing, and double masking with cloth and surgical, or, as I do now, using N-95 or KN-95, can be highly effective. Second, vaccines – immunity derived from vaccines is better than immunity derived from disease for a simple reason – you didn’t have to get sick to get immune! The risk is way less than from the illness, and the intervention way less burdensome than lockdown or even masks. The downside is that it turns out that coronavirus immunity, of any kind, doesn’t last that long. But hey, I could live with an annual booster, maybe combined with our annual flu shots. Third, ventilation. This option is very promising; a lot of our disease decline in earlier generations came from changes in our water systems, and improved ventilation could similarly help with multiple respiratory diseases. Another form of ventilation is the “take everything outdoors when socializing during an outbreak” approach (don’t shame people for interacting outside!).

7) Treatments, both early and late: Scientists found multiple useful treatments quickly. Science, FTW! Here we have a couple of obstacles. In areas where trust in public health is low, some people’s faith in treatments is inversely correlated with the scientific evidence for the treatments. Second, sometimes we have good treatments that still aren’t available for many of the people who need them.

8) “Protect the vulnerable”: On the one hand, protecting just the vulnerable turned out to be an awful approach when case rates were high, vaccines not yet available, and even healthy people had a significant chance of suffering long term disability from an infection (even if said infection mostly killed people already vulnerable due to age or preconditions). Also, it’s hard to protect older people if the young people who interact with them aren’t protecting, and the level of lockdown that people had to go through in retirement homes was painful. But, as we move beyond the pandemic period, some level of “protect the vulnerable” is going to have to stay. Well before we had to show vaccine cards to attend events in Los Angeles County, even more conservative Orange County required vaccine cards to be presented to visit a hospital. We are not going to eliminate COVID – maybe we could have once, but that chance has long since flown out the window. Part of learning to live with COVID will be learning to live with the fact that some are immune deficient and can’t be protected with vaccines as well as the rest of us can, and that we need to take care of their safety as well.

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Of COVID and January 6

Posted by Sappho on January 4th, 2022 filed in News and Commentary

On January 6, 2021, I drove to San Diego for my first appointment in a vaccine trial. I went through my screening interview, received my first dose of what, as far as I knew then, could either be an experimental vaccine or placebo, and drove home. As I had taken the day off work, the first thing I did when I got home was to check Twitter. It was a swing from the best of humanity – people working to find a solution for a terrible pandemic – to the worst – a Big Lie inspiring a violent attempt to prevent the person who actually won the election from becoming president.

Trump was a horrible president for so many reasons, but two important ones were his selfish failure to address the COVID pandemic, and his selfish refusal to acknowledge that he lost the election.

The difference between Trump and Biden on COVID is clearcut, even as the case count rises again under Biden. Trump lied to us about things he knew at the time about the extent and danger of the pandemic. He made it clear that he didn’t care when states saw emergency rooms overwhelmed, if that happened in states that didn’t vote for him, and he tried to play “I would like a favor, though” with Democratic governors, making it clear that he expected assistance to those of us who lived in blue states to be conditioned on expressions of gratitude that he could use in his campaign. He undercut trust in public health by promoting quack cures and convincing his supporters that Fauci was a villain for differing with him. He made masks a symbol of subordination rather than care and fighting COVID a matter of machismo rather than science.

At the same time, the difference between Trump and Biden on COVID is far less clearcut than the fact that Trump lost the election. Biden won both a popular majority and the electoral vote. The election wasn’t especially close. The vote was counted and recounted. Trump got his day in court again and again and again, and lost over and over, because he had no evidence whatsoever of fraud. After all of that, he incited a mob, and then sat watching TV for hours while Congressional leaders pleaded with him to send help. It’s a dereliction of duty that I never expected to see from a president. And no, it doesn’t matter whether he knew he was lying (as I believe he did) or whether he gaslit himself into believing he won because he wanted to believe that so much. As President, you don’t get a mulligan on either. It is one of the most important jobs of a president, when he loses an election, to acknowledge that fact and to ensure a peaceful transition of power. This was our “please to remember the Fifth of November” moment, and it should never be forgotten.

And yet, for the most part, people who had supported Trump that far continued to insist that he had won, simply because he lied adamantly enough. Republican elected officials, for the most part, either went along with the Big Lie or chose to treat the Big Lie as a matter on which they and Trump could agree to disagree – sure, he still insists he won when he lost, but he lowered our taxes.

And this is why I don’t argue with Trump supporters about whether Trump or Biden handled COVID better. By comparison with the fact that Trump lost the election, this difference, clear though it is to me, is less clear.

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