New Year Musings

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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2020 will be remembered in the US for three things: the Covid-19 pandemic; racial unrest, rioting, looting, and vandalism across a number of American cities; and the defeat of Donald Trump by Joe Biden in the US presidential race. Beyond their qualities as spectacle, notable enough in their own right, these events revealed things about our society that should be sources of great concern.

It will be no surprise, then, that this year’s New Year Musings are devoted to these developments. Given their significance and scope, my entries will be fewer and lengthier than those in previous installments of New Year Musings.

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[1] The combination of Covid-19 and the rioting, looting, and civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police confronted the nation with a level of imminent crisis that we haven’t seen since the late 1960’s-early 1970’s. And given the death toll of Covid-19, one could argue that its nearest precedent is the Second World War.

All of this coincided with the presidency of Donald Trump, whose handling of both crises can only be described as catastrophic. There was little to no Federal coordination of Covid-19 mitigation strategies across the country and no effort to prevent the virus from spreading from heavily infected states to sparsely infected ones. Rather than assuage racial resentments and reassure the angry and frightened residents of cities erupting into looting and violence, Trump stoked public passions and provoked conflicts amongst the citizenry and between citizens and law enforcement. Presidential communications, as they were, had the effect of misinforming and demoralizing the country rather than informing and bolstering it.

For many people, voting for Trump was a way of expressing resentment at and frustration with an increasingly out-of-touch, insular, and self-important class of people who belong mainly to the information economy and dwell in the country’s major metropolitan areas. To a great degree, I sympathize with these resentments and frustrations, and I even think that there are times when a “Fuck you!” gesture is appropriate in politics. But what these crises should have taught us – what they must teach us – is that such a gesture can never be the basis for electing the head of state of an enormous, complex, and great country like the US. Too much is at stake, and the cost of failure is too high.

[2] The end of Trump’s presidency will see the end of the current manifestation of the Republican Party, which has been around since the Gingrich revolution in the 1990’s. Republican support of this president has always shamed and compromised the party, but its support of the president’s ongoing efforts at sedition, in the time that has passed since the election, will doom it. Such a level of complicity in political degeneracy and lawlessness will not be forgiven.

[3] The most dangerous development in the last year has been the ideological and political compromising of essential institutions, especially public health and medical authorities and print and television news outlets. Probably the most egregious example of this was back in June, at a time when Covid-19 was spiking and racially fueled rioting and looting was flaring up in cities across the US, some thousand plus public health officials presented an open letter in which they told the nation that racism was a public health threat as big as the virus and that mass protests inspired by the George Floyd killing should continue, despite the pandemic. An excerpt from this reckless and cynical open letter:

[W]e wanted to present a narrative that prioritizes opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response. We believe that the way forward is not to suppress protests in the name of public health but to respond to protesters demands in the name of public health.†

The year also saw virtually every legacy journalistic outlet, from the New York Times to CNN, adopt the partisan modus operandi of Fox News, only from the opposite side, the consequence being that there no longer are substantial, professional sources of information that enjoy the public’s trust.

An advanced, science- and technology-driven society can only survive and flourish if its citizens (a) generally can trust experts, and (b) have commonly accepted sources of information. While death and destruction may be the most terrible things about the past year, this complete abdication of responsibility on the part of those public authorities whose job it is to inform us and to keep us alive will likely be the most damaging long-term legacy of 2020.

[4] One thing that the pandemic forced into our faces – and something we really should have known already – is that a country cannot have so little by way of a manufacturing sector that it must rely on other countries for essential goods. That a country which was able to harness its industry to fight a global war 80 years ago [the US produced 40 percent of the world’s munitions in 1940, not long after we had experienced a crippling economic Depression] now, in the 21st century, finds itself unable to obtain a sufficient number of N-95 masks, because so many of our supply chains depend on international sources, should be a national scandal. Given that Covid-19’s primary mode of transmission is via aerosols, widescale availability of N-95 masks in the early days of the pandemic may have saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives in the US.‡

Of course, this suggests industrial protectionism – at a minimum, some sort of robust, national industrial strategy – but this is something we are going to have to confront soon anyway, regardless of Covid-19. Between automation and globalization, large numbers of Americans are going to find themselves with no capacity to earn a living. A Universal Basic Income is fantastical and won’t work, coercive population control is inconsistent with our core values, and there are limits to how many of the people I am talking about can be brought into the information economy. The Trump presidency, which to a good extent channeled the fears and resentments of this portion of the American electorate, should be a warning that we ignore this problem to our peril

[5] Another thing revealed by the pandemic is that we seem incapable of or unwilling to evaluate relative costs across axiological categories. Worse, we seem incapable of or unwilling to evaluate relative costs, within a single axiological category, but separated by time. Lockdown and mass quarantine protect the well-being of the elderly and infirm, while undermining the well-being of the young and healthy, whether with respect to their education, their emotional and social development, or their capacity to experience life-changing events. Covid-19 mitigation also has entailed postponing millions of medical screenings, not to mention routine visits to health care providers. [I was informed by my physician that my delayed colon cancer screening would be delayed even further, once Springfield medical personnel have all been vaccinated, as there now is a backlog of some six to eight months.]

It seems clear that few if any of the relevant players have entertained questions like: What matters more? Whether a 90-year-old makes it to 91 or whether a 13-year-old is emotionally and socially damaged? Or whether a person dies of Covid-19 now or of an undetected cancer later? How about when we mess with the scales?  What’s worse, if X number of people die of Covid-19 now, or X-squared number of people from undetected conditions later? How much does imminence with respect to cost compare with the scale of that cost?

No such public conversations have taken place, and if they have occurred amongst public officials behind closed doors, the rest of us have not been let in on them. However, our mitigation strategies indicate that we are operating on the assumption that (a) material and (b) imminent costs should be prioritized above all else. One result has been that we have ruthlessly and callously fucked over our young. That it has been done in the name of an uncritical, unreflective, undiscussed mercy not only does not make it better, but may make it even worse.

[6]  The year’s civil unrest has demonstrated the utter bankruptcy of a significant portion of the so-called “Social Justice” movement. From members of the progressive intelligencia explicitly praising looting and rioting [journalist Vicky Osterweill published a book entitled “In Defense of Looting,” and Nikole Hannah-Jones, head of the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning “1619 Project,” said she would be proud for the summer’s riots to be called “The 1619 Riots”] to Left-leaning members of Congress engaging in a vomitous photo opportunity in which they fell to their knees, draped in Kente cloth, to activists trying to tear down statues of Abraham Lincoln, it has become quite clear to everyone who can see and think straight that a good number of our most progressive countrymen and women loathe our country and its history; worse, that there is no amount of violence or destruction of property that they will not countenance and rationalize for the sake of what they conceive of as social justice. That their brand of social justice is either phony or stupid is demonstrated by the fact that the rioting they are doing on its behalf – not to mention their efforts to “abolish the police” – overwhelmingly damages the people for whose social justice they are supposed to be fighting.

[7] In a year as fraught as 2020 has been, the capacity to engage in vigorous public discussion and debate is absolutely essential for the well-being of a liberal democracy like ours, and one would expect that the availability of online social media platforms would expand and facilitate such public discourse. Yet, the opposite has been the case. Social media companies are run and staffed by people belonging to the insular, self-important information classes to which I referred earlier and who are overwhelmingly invested in the kind of social justice activism just described. Consequently, these institutions are ideologically and politically captured, and they express this this by actively advantaging those who speak and write on their platforms with whom they agree and disadvantaging those who try to do so, with whom they disagree.  Gender critical feminists, lockdown skeptics, Black Lives Matter critics; all have been consistently censored, banned, and otherwise de-platformed across Facebook, Twitter, and other major social media.

The trouble is that these social media platforms have become the American public square. They are the venues in which our public discourse takes place and from which, increasingly, our news organs get their news. They are, in effect, public utilities, but behave like partisan entities.

Not only is this dangerous and unacceptable in a democracy, it directly contributes to the siloing of public discourse.  Conservatives and others who deviate from the metro-progressive orthodoxy enforced by social media companies form their own outlets, which are equally partisan, but in the opposite direction, and the more this happens, the more public discourse will disintegrate into a disconnected mess of insular, ideological-clique discourses.  For a system of government that depends on being able to develop consensus on any number of crucial issues, this is an unmitigated disaster and can only resolved by substantial regulation.

https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/05/health/health-care-open-letter-protests-coronavirus-trnd/index.html

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/07/01/slow-covid-19-more-americans-need-wear-n-95-masks-indoors-column/3278779001/

[Full disclosure: one of the authors, Pierre Kory, is my cousin.]

41 comments

  1. Thanks for your musings, Dan! I do hope that you are right about this: “Republican support of this president has always shamed and compromised the party, but its support of the president’s ongoing efforts at sedition, in the time that has passed since the election, will doom it. Such a level of complicity in political degeneracy and lawlessness will not be forgiven.”

    I’m not sure I get your drift here. Could you say a little bit more? “No such public conversations have taken place, and if they have occurred amongst public officials, the rest of us have not been let in on them. However, our mitigation strategies indicate that we are operating on the assumption that (a) material and (b) imminent costs should be prioritized above all else [???]. One result has been that we have ruthlessly and callously fucked over our young [In what way?]. That it has been done in the name of an uncritical, unreflective, undiscussed mercy [for whom?] does not make it better, but perhaps, even worse.”
    Happy new year!

    1. I’m sorry if this was unclear. I hadn’t thought it was. Our Covid mitigation strategy — i.e. ubiquitous lockdown and mass quarantine — is based on two assumptions: (a) that imminent costs are worse than long-term ones; (b) that material well being matters more than anything else. We have not had any kind of public conversation about these assumptions, and they are highly dubious. Their result, alas, has been a mitigation strategy that has screwed young people. Royally.

  2. As Trump’s body count surpasses 350,000 https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries
    we can easily agree that his response to the pandemic was nothing short of disastrous. While no country handled the pandemic with flying colors, many countries did better than others. The countries with the best records (China, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, etc.) undertook lockdowns early and hard, followed up with rigorous contact tracing. Australia was late locking down, but now seems to have the virus under control. On the other hand, South Korea has had a recent setback with surging cases, while New Zealand is all but virus free. Meanwhile, the famous Swedish model turned out to be less effective than proponents thought: https://www.wsj.com/articles/scientist-behind-swedens-no-lockdown-policy-says-it-wasnt-strict-enough-11591196353 and many countries like the UK have now also had to lockdown amid a virulent second wave.

    I agree with most of the other points made in this essay, I’ll just conclude with the following response to one….

    6) It’s perfectly understandable that a country founded on rioting and looting (Boston Tea Party), violence, slavery, and genocide, would find itself conflicted over rioting, looting, and violence in 2020. The members of Congress in that photo are definitely NOT “left leaning”. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and that ilk, were doing performative virtue-signaling theater in their Kente cloth costume play, while doing absolutely nothing about criminal justice reform. Biden has even vowed to increase police funding. They are among the most conservative members of Congress (they fast-tracked Trump’s SCOTUS appointments). Nobody on the actual left considers them an ally or representative of anyone or anything other than elite, wealthy, corporate interests. In 2020, America discovered that what is truly phony is the pretense of liberal democracy, enlightenment values, blind justice, equality before the law, or any sort of moral progress. When the mask slipped (again) this year, what we saw was not a democratic republic, but what we’ve known or suspected all along to be a corporate police state. And it wasn’t just social justice critics who were censored on Facebook, Twitter, Google, Youtube, etc., it was social justice activists. There is nothing “progressive” about these social media giants, as they have now become thoroughly intertwined with the military industrial intelligence community.

    Nearly all trust in institutions is gone. As an aging empire, all the signs and every indicator point to the US being on the verge of total collapse, in the same way the Soviet Union was in the late 1980s.

  3. Dan,
    To be honest, there is much that I disagree with here. First, Covid 19: My eldest niece Lorraine died three weeks ago of Covid; she was 50 years old. Her 20 year old son Josh brought it home from a party. They got him to the hospital, it was too late for her. The question in an epidemic is not who dies, but who spreads it; because as it is spread, so people die (Typhoid Mary did not die of typhoid.). My grand-nephew certainly has ‘enjoyed’ a “life-changing event.” I can’t agree with your argument concerning Covid.

    There is a bit of nostalgia in it, isn’t there? The young have had it remarkably well-off in the US since WWII. Before then, and in other parts of the world, not so much. I personally don’t think we’re getting back to ‘normal’ anytime soon. No, I think a ‘new normal’ is now dawning upon us. (I also think it’s time to rethink buzz-words like ‘normal’ or ‘new normal,’ and how they may mislead us in our expectations.)

    (Truly, “(a) that imminent costs are worse than long-term ones; (b) that material well being matters more than anything else,” are topics worthy of discussion; but they would be, Covid or no.)

    “The end of Trump’s presidency will see the end of the current manifestation of the Republican Party, which has been around since the Gingrich revolution in the 1990’s.” Nope. This is the completion of the Gingrich project, and as such begins a generational political struggle we haven’t seen since before the Civil War. It is unclear what it’s primary focus will be (the way slavery was the focus of the pre-Civil War era) but my suspicion is that the pressure on the right will be for a single party state. Democrats will delude themselves about bi-partisanship for a while to come, and they should remain, in the coming conflict, the “big tent party,” and accept the need to include conscientious conservatives. But eventually they will have to decide that their “big tent’ is big enough to necessitate the Democratic Party becoming achieving single-party hegemony of the government, at least for a time.

    The Republican Party is not a “conservative’ party anymore; it is a far-right party, and those who have previously voted Republican because they ‘always have’ or because their families ‘always have,’ are going to have to be persuaded to recognize that the Party they previously supported has become something else. The Democratic Party needs much stronger voices than it has produced for the past thirty years or so, no doubt. I have long said we need a Roosevelt, Teddy or FDR, both were visionary in their own way, both were magnificent rallying rhetoricians and political sluggers. And lately I’ve been wondering that we could even do with a new Huey Long, someone who rouses the rabble and fights dirty behind closed doors.

    For that reason, of course I am sympathetic to your complaints concerning progressive excesses, including childish rioting and the spread of ‘cancel culture.’ I think progressives are going to have to face the fact that the country has taken a giant step backward, and that liberal-left concerns are going to need to be re-aligned accordingly. The weakening of industrial production you rightfully complain of obviously needs redress that current progressives have no answer for beyond throwing money at the masses, when really what people need is meaningful employment. On the other hand, the hard-right bent of the Republican Party, and the coming struggle for single-party hegemony, leads me to be 1) less concerned over the political bifurcation in the media than you, since history shows this is inevitable in such a power struggle; and 2) more concerned over looming violence from the right. My experience with Black culture (including with several members of my extended family of African heritage) makes me more sympathetic with Black Lives Matter and with the complex (some-times joyous, sometimes self-defeating) struggles over Black identity in a White dominated society. Well-organized peaceful protests can be healthy, if they are engaged observing health-protocols – which is how I read that health-care-professionals open letter, by the way, although I do think they over do it. At any rate, race and racism have no easy solutions as far as I can see; and that is what makes the threat on the right all the more dangerous, because they conceive of the problem as somehow already solved.

    I fear that the coming year will look even worse than 2020 has; nothing has been resolved, and it has been in the interest of some that no resolutions are forthcoming. I think that may very well prove the new normal – just one bad year after another.

    1. EJ, a few things. First, I don’t believe that Donald Trump is Right Wing. Indeed, I don’t think he has any determinate political orientation. He is an opportunist and a con-artist, that’s all. As for the people who voted for him, certainly, there are a bunch of hardcore racists and right wing nationalists who voted for him, but there is also a large number of people who voted for him, who also voted for Obama in earlier elections. So, I stand by my analysis.

      Re: Covid-19, it’s become pretty clear that our mitigation efforts themselves have had a huge cost, one that will only get larger as time passes and the effects of these efforts become visible. You tell a story of someone who might have been saved by virtue of even more stringent mitigation, but I can tell the story of people who are dying *because of* stringent mitigation. Notice that I did not suggest that we shouldn’t have done some or all of what we’ve done. I’ve only observed that we seem incapable of or willing to have the kinds of conversations that we must have when confronted with terrible, difficult situations like these. Loss of livelihood has direct implications for physical and mental health. Loss of socialization at a very young age has devastating psychological costs. Extended isolation for those with Dementia accelerates and worsens the condition. These sorts of things *must* be discussed in comparison with one another and with regard to whatever it is we are trying to stop or prevent or mitigate.

      For what it’s worth, I think we should have changed strategies halfway through: moved from mass lockdown to targeted quarantining of particularly vulnerable populations. Lockdown and quarantine were originally pitched as measures necessary to prevent hospital overload. Remember “Flatten the curve”? At some point it morphed into something that would be necessary until universal vaccination, perhaps the most punishing bait-and-switch I could imagine. Without any discussion or consideration or opportunity for the public to weigh in, my 90+ year old parents were suddenly condemned to indefinite isolation; my daughter was deprived of her high school graduation, prom, and her first year of college will have been spent all-online. People have lost their jobs, businesses, and other sources of income. Routine medical screenings and testing were postponed in perpetuity.

      1. Dan,
        well we’ll have to ‘agree to disagree’ on a number of issues obviously. The only other thing to remark re.: Covid is that ‘woulda, shoulda, couldas’ on our responses this past year (yours or mine) are somewhat shaded by the fact that we lacked any unified national leadership on the matter, about which I think we can agree.

        Just a clarification. I agree with your characterization of Trump; but I was remarking the Republican Party going forward. Trump may still exert influence on it; but even without him, post-election shenanigans have revealed the core ideology of the Republican Party as, simply, “the only legitimate leadership of the American government comes through the Republican Party.” This over-rides any economic policy, foreign policy, domestic political-structural policy… even social policy. The Republican Party is a power-clique, pure and simple. That is Fascist by nature. That suggests a politics that, while rearing its ugly head in states and municipalities until the 1970s, we have not seen nationally since Reconstruction.

        One other historical reminder here, concerning our various news media: Although I don’t agree that ‘legacy journalism’ has swung as far to the left as you say, even if I allow this, I remark that the “objective reporting’ standard that you and I grew up with has not been the historic norm but rather a happy aberration, developing in the economic crises of the late ’20s and early ’30s. In most times in most nations, politically charged media has been the norm, and where there has been an electorate, there has always been the need of potential voters to sift information through the filter of the biases of publishers and editors.

        I miss that ‘objective reporting’ standard – have, ever since it began slipping away through the Reagan and Clinton eras – conservative pressure from Reagan’s White House, deregulation by Clinton, commercialization of news programing and transition to 24/7 ‘infotainment’ channels. But the only use in complaining about the loss of ‘objective reporting’ is in keeping alive the hope that we may one day see the return of it some day…. Nah, not if Murdoch’s people have anything to do with it! (Hint: it looks like politics, it’s really about money.)

      2. Dan, few if any people have died from “stringent mitigation”. There was never any official national mass lockdown order in the US, only a patchwork of various state and local lockdowns. If anyone has died from these, it would not have been from the lockdown itself, but from the lack of adequate financial assistance to people and businesses in support of such measures. Most other countries implemented some form of adequate financial support. The US did not. Instead it threw trillions of dollars at Wall Street.

        Also, in a pandemic, you cannot effectively target vulnerable populations for quarantining. As EJ pointed out, viruses with a high R-0 factor (like corona) will spread from healthy to unhealthy populations easily and are extremely difficult to contain.

        I hope your dad is doing okay.

        Best to you and yours in 2021. (enjoyed your recent video with Megan Fritts).

        1. Dan, few if any people have died from “stringent mitigation”.

          = = = = =

          This is false. And if we go from “died” to “severely harmed” it looms even larger. When you include calculations as to the health impact of loss of livelihood, etc., the situation becomes catastrophic. It simply is indisputable that the harm caused by extended lockdown and quarantine *at least* rivals the harm being caused by the pandemic.

          With the new strain that has appeared, I can already get a whiff of new and extended lockdown talk going on. Not going to happen. People will not tolerate it. We are going to need to learn to live with this, as we used to do before we had vaccines for anything. We no longer have a realistic or even sober conception of risk. An unsurprising consequence of unprecedented well being and long life we have enjoyed now for decades.

          1. You’re going to need to cite evidence for your claim. And I don’t know what you mean by “severely harmed”. Loss of livelihood falls under lack of financial support in lieu of lockdown.

          2. I think that is the wrong way to look at it. If one *knows* there is zero chance *in reality* of government paying people for their lost income/employment, for months or years on end, then the health impact of lost livelihood *is* an effect of Covid-19 mitigation.

            We have to make decisions on the basis of the world we actually live in, not the one we wish we lived in. And in the world we actually live, Covid-19 mitigation at this point is causing *at least* as much harm as the virus itself. Especially when you make cross-category value comparisons.

          3. “Covid mitigation is causing at least as much harm as the virus itself.”

            Would you say that if you were 20 or 30 years older?

          4. Yes. My parents are.

            I believe that all other things being equal, the interests of the young should be prioritized over that of the old. Again *all other things being equal.*

          5. And I’m old enough with enough risk factors to have skin in the game.

            If my university had said “Rather than ruin our students’ experience, we’re going to ask faculty over 50 to take early retirement,” I would have accepted.

          6. Ok.

            In my limited experience, mostly here in Chile, the view that the restrictions are too severe is almost universally expressed by those under 40 and almost never, if ever, expressed by those over 65, even if they still work and have
            lost their main support of income due to the restrictions.

            You’re in the in-between group.

            The fear of death concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully.

          7. That or it causes one to become grasping and selfish and desperate; to try and take the turn of those who haven’t had their turn yet.

            My father is 92. He’s more than had his turn. My daughter just turned 18. She’s barely started hers.

          8. If there’s only one intensive care unit in the hospital available and there are two patients with risk of death, one 18 and the other 92, then if the 92 year-old patient demands the unit for him or herself, I agree that he or she is grasping and/or selfish.

            In most other cases, the problem is complicated and I’m not at all sure what would be selfish and what wouldn’t be selfish.

          9. Well yes, it’s profoundly difficult. Which is why I think it is so important that we learn to have productive discussions about competing values, both across category and across time.

            There is little I wouldn’t sacrifice in order to insure that my daughter has *at least* as good a youth as I did. If it’s between everyone being locked up and just me being locked up, I’d choose me in a second.

          10. Your claim: “It simply is indisputable that the harm caused by extended lockdown and quarantine *at least* rivals the harm being caused by the pandemic.”

            Without any evidence, this is very disputable.

            We have evidence and can quantify the harm done by the virus itself: 350,000 dead. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries
            102,132 hospitalized. Millions with less severe or no symptoms. https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/covidnet/COVID19_5.html

            Please provide evidence of “at least as much harm” done by “extended lockdown and quarantine” as the virus itself.

            If one *knows* there is zero chance *in reality* of government paying people for their lost income/employment, for months or years on end, then the health impact of lost livelihood *is* an effect of Covid-19 mitigation.”

            This is sophistry and you know it. You’re merely deflecting from your claim.

            Please provide evidence of equivalent harm (i.e. death) done by “strict mitigation” measures such as lockdowns, as per your claim.

            I’ll wait…

          11. This is absurd. People will react to a pandemic whether there is a lockdown or not. Even before lockdown many stores were reporting severe loss of revenue and laying staff off. The idea that you have to choose between loss of livelihood or lockdown is silly and demonstrably wrong. Likewise the idea that overloaded health services will just carry on treating people with other diseases with 100% effectiveness.

            As for your precious Princesses’ school dance. What do you plan to do about the cleaners, caterers and other low wage workers you need to put something like that? Coerce them financially into risking their own health and the health of their families?

  4. I’ve been reading the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Atlantic, and not once in these outlets have I read anything that supported rioting and the destruction of property. Sympathizing with the BLM protesters does not imply sympathy for rioting. There is no equivalence between the mainstream press and Fox news. Fox news was nothing but a propaganda outlet for Trump until the reality of Trump’s loss became too obvious even for Fox to deny. The mainstream press rightly criticized Trump because he made terrible decisions, and criticized the Republicans for enabling his worst, treasonous acts. The press was doing its job, and was constantly attacked by Trump and his delightful family for doing its job. Trump has now shown the way for Republicans to systematically cheat, suppress the vote and corrupt the legal system. I think it’s an open question whether or not the Trumpist Republican party is headed for oblivion. It could just as easily survive and strengthen under new leadership. Next time could be far worse if Republicans succeed in their attempt to undermine the Biden administration, furthering mass unrest. On the left, the “Woke” Brigade is not a powerful force, it is more of a joke. The real danger is Christian Nationalism which is already taken over the Republican party and helped to create a huge group of fanatical followers who are absolutely impervious to facts. They all doubled down in their support of Trump in 2020 and they are a huge pool of easy suckers for the next con-man that comes down the line.

      1. Happy New Year Dan! “If consensus were the gold standard for truth and conversation, then we would all eventually shut up.” – John Caputo

    1. “I’ve been reading the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Atlantic, and not once in these outlets have I read anything that supported rioting and the destruction of property.”

      My experience has been similar, Charles. And I find it interesting that folks who complain that the legacy media has generally endorsed or supported rioting and the like never seem to cite examples of their doing so. A book publisher published a book by someone who supports rioting. That’s about as much as I’ve seen.

      I’d only amend what you say here a bit: while I haven’t seen the legacy media support or condone rioting, I have also not generally seen them condemn it, and have seen what I think is arguably their attempts to minimize or downplay it (in scope and significance) in their reporting. They are often at great pains to say things like “the mostly peaceful protests” and when they do cover the riots, they often do so only with sympathy toward the rioters and not those destroyed by riots. But no, that is not quite the same as saying that the media has been supporting riots and looting.

        1. Not accusing you of anything. But I think is is fair to say that summer folks do exaggerate the prevalence of the medians alleged championing of riots and looting. To be fair, your claim was only that “members” of the “progressive intelligentsia” endorse rioting and for that to be printed on a strict sense, you must have at least two examples. You’ve provided those, but three isn’t enough to indicate any real trend. For that, you’d need a pretty significant number.

          My point in response to Charles is that I think folks often either give vague it sparse examples as if it indicate a broader trend. Because that’s just what people seen to do when confronted with a problem that validates their priors: exaggerate it. And, yes, that’s what I suspect you are doing

          1. Well, I don’t think the exaggeration is deliberate, and if it isn’t, I am not sure you’d be a reliable guide to whether you are. They’re seems to be a quite human tendency to exaggerate problems based on data more limited then what would support the generalization.

            Of course, it is also possible, for similar reasons, that I could be UNDERestimating a trend. But my own experience is more similar to Charles’s then yours on this score.

  5. All the best to you and Electric Agora for 2021, Dan. As an Englishman, none too happy about the state of my own country at the moment, it certainly makes a refreshing change reading about the problems of someone else’s. What an effort it is to get a synoptic grip on events at the moment.

  6. I’m looking at the readily available statistics for deaths per million in the last week from covid for various countries.
    Belgium: 50, Italy: 62, Slovenia: 119, U.S.A. 43, U.K. 35, Switzerland: 64, Croatia: 101, Austria: 66, Lithuania: 57, Sweden:36, Ireland: 6 (severe lockdown), France: 35

    Trump could have used some help to get up his death rate. Switzerland: 64!! Statista.com is my source.

    There has definitely been an increase in deaths i.e. excess deaths, over the expected average. Whether that is just a harvesting effect only the next few years will tell.

    In other news. My new terrier pup goes by the style and title of Li’l Ruby. Toilet training command to be decided.

  7. Prof. Kaufman,
    I assume you are making a descriptive claim when you say social media platforms have become the public square. I think this is correct, but I think the fact remains that like newspapers, these platforms are privately-owned and operated, and thus can set their own rules (and I agree with you the rules may not be fair, and certainly are not consistently or fairly enforced). As a newspaper editor, I chose which columns and letters to the editor I ran; Fox News or MSNBC decides what to report, and how (with egregious lies thrown in for good measure). This boils my blood as a former journalist, but I don’t know what is to be done about it.
    I don’t think social media platforms *should* be the public square, as unrealistic as that is. You can protest on the legislature steps; you can’t on my front lawn. In online terms, to me, social media is the tech companies’ front lawn and the government’s website is the steps of the legislature.I don’t like it at all, but I think that is the reality, sans regulation.
    I think the answer is that for media and social media to change, the requirement is like that for language – it has to come from the bottom up, as McWhorter has argued. White elites demanding everyone use “Latinx” won’t catch on. In Canada, just in the last couple decades, our Indigenous peoples have gone from “Indians” to “First Nations” to aboriginal peoples” to “Indigenous.” This was a bottom-up change from the people themselves. In other words, there won’t be better media and social media until the people demand it.
    And I doubt this will ever happen. In the Internet age, people want their content free, they want it now, and they want it tailored to them – to reinforce their cognitive biases, to dunk on and cancel their ideological opponents, etc. I suspect with us both Being Gen Xers, you also find this entitled, childish, stupid, and dangerous.
    I think a lot of cancel culture and the decline of discourse around politics and social issues can be placed squarely at the feet of social media.Youth today decry the “gatekeepers” of legacy media, but at one time, it was actually considered a public service to do good journalism. That’s all but been abandoned in the chase for eyeballs, which are more and more are focused on the latest Twitter car crash. Now it’s a public service to dunk on Trump, or Sanders, or get that neo-Nazi or TERF fired and shunned from society.
    I’m sympathetic to the idea that Facebook, Google, and Twitter may be natural monopolies, and thus excellent candidates for regulation. I think most people, when they think of regulation, think of government restriction, I very badly want *someone or something* to step in an fix all the garbage, but it’s a dangerous road to go down. An authoritarian government or a woke human rights tribunal can very much impact free speech (especially outside the U.S., where our speech is more restricted).
    But I wonder if when you mention regulation, you mean restrictions on what platforms may or may not do, not on what speech is allowed, as many of us think of when we think of regulation.In other words, would you favour regulation restricting restrictions? “You shall not remove content or users except in these very strictly and narrowly defined cases?”
    I would favour that, if those regulations stuck to the laws of the country in question – i.e., anything goes unless it breaches criminal, libel, copyright, or human rights laws. This would still leave awful content, but I think that is unavoidable without either a) pre-moderation (which will never happen and is fallible anyway) or full-blown government censorship. People will be awful, online and off.
    I’d love to hear more about how you think social media can and should be regulated. Your answer to the question of whether it should be or not is clearly yes. I think so too (most of the time; sometimes I want to throw up my hands and say “the hell with it; let it be the Wild West”), but I’m really at a loss as to what can be done.

    Thanks to you and all the contributors for another year of EA. I love it, especially when I disagree, Forces me to think harder. Happy New Year!

      1. Despite the disagreements Dan and I have had on this particular topic, I think we agree on the following:

        Social media companies cannot, but are trying to, have it both ways. EITHER they are a neutral public forum that is not a publisher in which case they should be unable to censor the content conveyed on their forums in any substantial way, OR they are NOT a public forum and reserve the right to so censor in which case they must forfeit all immunity that shields them from the types of suits publishers are susceptible to.

        They are trying to occupy this cute little middle space that is becoming transparently a bullshit move on their part. And I think they should not be allowed to continue playing both sides.

  8. Thanks for this synoptic take on the year, Professor Kaufman. You’ve provided much to think through.

    “Gender critical feminists, lockdown skeptics, Black Lives Matter critics; all have been consistently censored, banned, and otherwise de-platformed across Facebook, Twitter, and other major social media.”

    Do you have some references I could chase in support of this claim? I ask not because I’m antecedently skeptical; indeed, the way I’ve seen things moving, my instinct tells me it’s true. I ask, rather, to make sure my instinct isn’t way off.

  9. To me, one of the biggest stories has three parts: (1) the failure of our regulatory state; (2) the almost complete lack of concern about (1) on the part of our media institutions and public officials; and (3) the shocking amount of distrust among members of the public of public health initiatives.

    Re: (1), we had (a) a CDC that forbade Americans’ use of a WHO test to see whether one was positive for COVID-19, on the grounds that they, the CDC, could make a better test; (b) that same CDC made a test that didn’t work; (c) even after they learned that their test didn’t work, they still forbade private companies from making tests; (d) it took them about a month to make a test that did work. This basically cost us a month in figuring out how widespread COVID-19 was, and where it was.

    Going on with (1): (e) when private companies wanted to make easy-to-use, at-home tests, they were forbidden from doing so, on the grounds that if people had access to such tests, it would make it impossible to engage in test-and-trace; and yet, (f) we have very little test-and-trace. In other words, the regulatory institutions at hand were basically saying, “we will prevent you from being able to assess how risky it is for you to go out; but then we also won’t devote enough time or money to test and trace; and if you go out anyway, because you can’t figure out whether or not you’re spreading the disease, YOU’RE being irresponsible.”

    Going on with (1): (g) we were told, early on in the pandemic, not to wear masks, because (g.i) we dumb members of the public couldn’t understand how to use them; (g.ii) wearing masks doesn’t actually make us safer; (g.iii) we need to save the masks for public health professionals, because they need to wear masks, to make them safer. Then we were told that (g.iv) actually they do make us safer. Some people (e.g., me) saw that (g.ii) was in tension was (g.iii). I know I’m not the only one.

    Going on with (1): (h) Fauci originally said that herd immunity was 60%; as time passed, he gradually increased the number to 90%. When it was pointed out to him that his number had floated from 60% to 90%, he admitted that he thought it was 90% the whole time, but if he had said that, it would have scared the public.

    It’s one thing to lie to the public to prevent them from doing stupid stuff. What I don’t get is when you lie to the public and then regularly tell the public you lie to them. Doesn’t admitting that you regularly lie to encourage certain kinds of public behavior undermine your ability to effectively lie?

    Going on with (1)(!), we had data that showed that a vaccine was safe by November 3, if I’m not mistaken. (i) Why the hell did the FDA have to wait until December 10 to meet to approve the vaccine? How many people died during that time? There is just a disturbing lack of imagination in our regulatory institutions. (j) Why not consider human challenge trials early on? Sure, some volunteers may have died, and that’s not nothing, but how many thousands and thousands of people died because it took us as long as it did to get a vaccine? Also (k) why not try a single dose approach? Why does everyone have to be vaccinated twice so that they can have only a 10% chance of getting the virus, when if you vaccinated people once you could not only vaccinate lots more people, but also much more rapidly reach herd immunity? Don’t say this is impossible — they’re doing it in Canada and the UK.

    Finally, our lockdown strategy simply makes no sense. It doesn’t make sense to close elementary schools, given that they are demonstrably not large vectors of transmission. It doesn’t make sense to close parks given that places outside are not vectors of transmission. It doesn’t make sense to continue wiping everything down when we have known for a while that fomites aren’t really vectors of transmission. Also, people say we can’t have a targeted closure approach. Why the hell not? It is that hard to imagine a different way of doing the lockdown from what we did? It seems to me that if you were going to do a lockdown, do it right: have drones flying around tracking people who leave their apartments or houses without permission; have police fining people who they catch outside their houses without the right permission. If you’re not going to do that, then our lockdown strategy is just dopey.

    Now, I thought of all those things just off the top of my head. I imagine there are a ton more things that I haven’t even thought of, and I’m sure that the way I phrased them leaves some room for objections. But this still gets to (2): why wasn’t there much more coverage of them by the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.? Why is almost all the coverage I got of these things from Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution? The failure of our regulatory institutions is at least as great a failure as the failure of the world’s intelligence apparatus after the Iraq war.

    Finally, I’m reading stories about 60% of people working in nursing homes refusing to take vaccines. I’m not even sure this is irrational anymore. Why would you trust the assurances of our public health experts that these vaccines won’t have large side effects given all the rest of their lies and failures? Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take the vaccine when I’m allowed. I think, for the mast majority of people, that it’s, overall, unreasonable not to take the vaccine. But when the same people who are giving out the vaccine say that we should give it to “essential workers”–a class that includes 87 million people, many of whom are manifestly not “essential”–because essential workers are not as white, even though this means, not only that more people will die, but that more *black* people will die–I don’t begrudge the potential recipients their skepticism.

  10. “For a system of government that depends on being able to develop consensus on any number of crucial issues, this is an unmitigated disaster and can only resolved by substantial regulation.”

    I agree that the problems of social (and general) media which Dan is pointing to are real and need to be dealt with. But social fragmentation and political division run deep. The damage has been done — not caused, but certainly exacerbated by big tech and media.

    Maybe these trends can be slowed or mitigated by regulatory change.

    Even so, the prospects of “consensus on … crucial issues” (a prerequisite for any functioning democracy) are not good.

  11. Chile, where I live, had much stricter anti-Covid measures than the U.S. For over 4 months they closed all non-essential services (everything but supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, government offices, etc.) and we could only leave our homes to buy food or go to the bank twice a week with permission from the police obtained online. No permissions for taking a walk or a bike ride. Those measures brought down the Covid rate, but when they relaxed those measures, the rate of infection soared again because people did and do not observe basic sanitary measures such as wearing masks and keeping a 2 meter distance from one another.

    People have no faith in the authorities. President Piñera has a 7% popularity rating and few politicians or public figures do much better. Thus, since people distrust authorities, they pay no attention to their urging us to wear masks and keep a 2 meter distance. Most people don’t seem to have the intellectual criteria necessary to distinguish between areas where politicians and public figures almost always lie (we’re going to stamp out crime, we’re going to create new better-paying jobs) and areas where most of them (except Trump) generally are truthful, for example, urging us to use alcohol gel and masks.

    That loss of faith in authorities seem to have occurred in the U.S. too. And once faith in authority has gone, it does not come back easily.

    In any case, happy new year to all of you!!

  12. The remarks of Joe Smith and Bunsen Burner are expressions of precisely the unwillingness or inability to entertain the notion of competing values across category and time. And they presume precisely the two assumptions that I explained must be up for questioning.

    As the discussion has become abusive, however, and in the case of Bunsen, abusive of my daughter, I am closing comments.

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