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Plagues of Denial

Why can’t the leaders see the obvious problems as they come?

There are certain things we see coming, and, this being 2020, things we didn’t see coming. Until an event actually comes to pass, it’s easy enough to think it may or may not.

An example will help. The Civil War.

For the decades before the war, there was a lot of effort made on both sides of the horror of slavery. Slaves struggled and sometimes freed themselves. They were captured and sent back, or they kept their freedom and worked to free others. Some folks agitated for emancipation. Some manumitted in their wills, others upon inheritance.

But the talk of disunion wasn’t a novelty come the Civil War. It had been seen coming. But still, it did come.

For decades, then, you had the slave states seeing this thing coming. They chose to let it come, and indeed they inaugurated it in attempting to cast off the bond of the Union.

Another example. The Revolutionary War. Again, Britain surely saw that risk, and yet they continued to press with taxation, with bad choices.

I’m sure there are more unseen inevitabilities than seen, but these aren’t hiding. These governments and parties are buying advertising space on their own foreheads. The ads read: “I know it’s coming, but I’m pressing on.”

Denial doesn’t tell the whole story. They know what’s coming. They are the reason it’s coming. They are what creates the conditions. Yet they do not stop or change. We have enough reporting that they’re aware of what they’re doing on some level, so it’s not full denial.

It’s more of a socially-constructed denial. That appearing weak, or making any move to change the course or ease the transition, or to admit to themselves the reality, would… this is where I struggle. The most concise image still is that of Wile E. Coyote. They don’t want to look down. They don’t want to fall. But the farther they go past the cliff, the farther the drop. It’s quite disturbing to watch. The farther down the path the naked emperor parades, the more who see him naked, until that one boy pipes up.

Would it not be better to turn around at the gate of the palace, fire the tailors, put on some trousers? Would it not be better to admit to the inevitable, to change and get ahead of it to be able to smooth the transition?

There are those who did that. Who restored the dignity they or their forebearers had stolen from their fellow men. Who quit their redcoated loyalist ways to become unionists. And there are some in the various coming crises who also do work to mend first, rather than to wait for the forces of nature to rend.

Perhaps it is all in the design of those who seek leadership and power that they cannot lead in crisis. That’s the stuff of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—the notion that they in the established order cannot bring about anything but crises, and that those who rise up to meet the crisis will supplant them.

But I don’t believe that, not entirely. It lets them off too easily. They are positioned to do exactly what they believe they cannot: to lead.

The governors who opened too fast, who have failed to heed the obvious warnings, they are still in a position to lead. It is not that they are incapable. It’s that they won’t. The system wasn’t designed to, sure. But that they won’t change it as they see the world change before them, that’s a damn shame.

The best analogy that presents itself is that of machine learning. These face recognition systems, trained on biased data, cannot properly recognize some faces. It is the same with those in power, scientific and otherwise, and their failures. The machine learning system, were it articulate, would likely admit its limitations, though. It would seem that a first step toward change would be convincing those in leadership positions the need to look at the world differently than they have. But so far, the only way that happens is after a crisis, not while it is on the horizon.

(To be clear, the list is broad. It includes social media companies who dragged their feet on dealing with hardcore hatemongers on their platforms. It includes police departments and governments that too long ignored or promoted brutality. It includes the reckoning that will someday come for the real estate industry, not just for segregation, but for being a horrid, broken mess with all sorts of crime and misery at work. It includes the climate crisis, and pollution more broadly. The gun lobby. All these myriad problems in society, all known, all coming to heads on their own timelines, but few if any actually dealt with by those in the place to do so.)

Happy Independence Day! On a personal note, my book now has a lower price, at least for the month of July.

One Way or the Other.

This administration continues to lag behind in what we need to address this virus.

Successful leadership in a crisis requires trust and steady fact-based decisions. Trump was completely unstable at the best of times, and he had zero trust from anyone who pays attention.

After leadership, you have the logistics of handling a crisis. It’s not that difficult. You simply learn what steps are necessary, what materials needed, and you do the work. A computer could have done it, but not the Trump administration.

A computer would have taken input that said, “Need masks. Need ventilators. Need other PPE.” It would have put out requests to the proper channels to find out availability and begun the wheels of industry a-turnin’. It would have called for shutdowns and distancing. A computer.

The hard part of logistics in a crisis comes from the bad news. Trying to keep people going through it. Keeping focused. The decisions should be self-evident. You get the ventilators. You get the PPE. You close the beaches. You prepare for recovery.

Not Trump. First it was “magically disappear.” Then came “hoax” and “flu” and automobile fatalities. Only now, after a month-plus of fucking around, they’re saying 100 000, if all the right cards are dealt. They had an entire, color-coded plan and they didn’t even look at it!

Which is the whole point: this has never been a serious administration. There’s no commitment to governing. There’s just the fucking around, the schtick. There was never going to be success. There wasn’t any ability or thought to attempt success from. They didn’t just ignore warnings, but treated the warnings with contempt. Warnings are for people who might actually give a shit, who want to do the right thing.

And we’ve seen it downballot, with several prominent Republicans now under investigation for cashing out stocks on the warnings while they didn’t lift a finger to stop the actual mess.

The nation has a choice that it always has, that we all have: do the right thing or suffer the consequences. Either this administration finds the ability to handle the pandemic, and the pandemic runs one course, or they don’t, and it runs a much more costly course.

But let’s be clear on that choice, just as we should be clear about the election in 30 weeks: the choice isn’t even close. The economy will do better if the pandemic is handled properly from here forward. The lives saved will be far greater if the right choices are made, based on science and boring old logistics that a computer can do.

To fail, you have to try. Trump is the don’t bother president. The un-president. The lazy sod that wants to take credit if only 100 000 of our brothers and sisters die. He’s not responsible, whatever happens, because he’s not leading. He’s only there because he was elected, not because there’s a job to be done. Whatever work the administration does is incidental to Trump, or is done to fluff his ego.

Sure, they go through these indecent motions to have him sign off on decisions, but he’s not in charge other than as an obstacle to the various administration factions doing what they want to do. They are required to thank the president, to appreciate him in public. That’s not appreciation, if you’re coerced. Doesn’t matter to Trump, as long as people believe he gets credit for work that he doesn’t even care about.

There are a lot of people sick and dying because of this president’s inability to do his job. There are a ton more trying to patch around him, to keep things working despite Trump. The Republicans in the Senate took this risk, they bet against the nation, when they failed to hold a real trial and failed to convict him for his high crimes. This country owes itself to do better than these jackals.

If Biden were president today, the nation would be far better prepared, on top of which there would be an effort to ensure broad insurance coverage. He would have made healthcare improvements instead of a giant tax giveaway for the rich, and he would be doubling down on healthcare now. Trump never put forward a plan, and the only reason that millions have healthcare at all today is that Senator McCain told Trump to go fuck himself when it mattered most.

Biden would have a national purchase coordinator for masks, gloves, and gowns, with a proper distribution system. The rapidly-depleting stockpile—meant to be a stopgap to distribute to states and localities while production ramps up during a crisis—would have been properly maintained and properly used to get us to full production, which under Trump we’re nowhere near. There would be a much stronger testing capability, so that we could know not just if a sick person has the virus, but if it’s spreading undetected. What we have is so piecemeal as to likely make the pandemic worse in places that are undertesting. What we have in Trump is someone who still denies problems that are clear as day! They’re trying to cobble together blindspot data from community surveys and internet-of-things thermometers.

Joe Biden is not only better, he’s a thousand times better. He will not be a perfect president, but he won’t be incompetent. That’s something to be excited about: waking up to an American presidency that actually cares. Someone who won’t make a very silly bet with tens of thousands of lives, that the virus would just vanish by yesterday. That’s a big fucking deal.

If Biden were president, we would be in a much better position, not waiting to hear how many needless deaths Trump will inflict on our nation through his complete failure to lead.

But there’s another side to be told here. Terminally underfunding the federal government and state governments means we’re always playing catch-up on critical functions. Taxes need to go up. We need to pay for the country we want. That’s more necessary for states, but it’s true for both. That kind of partnership (Trump likes to harp on NATO allies for not spending enough; if he were consistent he would have been saying, for years, that states need to raise their revenues) is what is needed to meet these trials.

There is so much work to be done, and sooner or later the naysayers in the GOP will have to get out of the way of progress, or we’ll keep seeing people die and we’ll keep seeing inadequate governance. Biden can work to push them toward realistic funding and changes, but there has to be internal change among Republicans. They must recognize that failing to pay for government is the same as failing to govern.