Our COVID Data Is Inaccurate, And It’s Going to be Spun

The Daily Escape:

Sand Harbor State Park, Lake Tahoe, CA – 2020 photo by debarnec

Happy belated tax day! Two disturbing articles about both the accuracy and reliability of COVID-19 data were in the NYT yesterday.

First, the collection and reporting of data is increasingly reliant on outdated technology to deliver test results:

“Health departments track the virus’s spread with a distinctly American patchwork: a reporting system in which some test results arrive via smooth data feeds but others come by phone, email, physical mail or fax, a technology retained because it complies with digital privacy standards for health information.”

The problems are compounded by human error:

“These reports often come in duplicate, go to the wrong health department, or are missing crucial information such as a patient’s phone number or address.”

Before the pandemic, nearly 90% of laboratory test results for diseases tracked by public health departments were transmitted digitally. But the need for substantially greater Coronavirus testing has brought many more players into the public health arena, including companies that usually run employment screening tests, and small clinics that usually test for diseases like the flu and strep throat.

This has increased the share of lab tests coming to public health departments via fax and phone.

The result is unreliable information. The Times quotes Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Nationally, about 80% percent of coronavirus test results are missing demographic information, and half do not have addresses…”

Hard to trace an infected person without an address. America’s health system is a jumble of old and new technology that make it difficult to track what’s really going on with the COVID pandemic.

Also, the Trump administration’s guidelines on demographic data haven’t taken effect yet. In June, they required laboratories to report a patients’ age, race and ethnicity, so public health officials could better understand the demographics of the Coronavirus pandemic. But, those rules won’t take effect until August, and they only state that laboratories “should” provide patients’ addresses and phone numbers. They do not mandate it.

Dr. Frieden, former CDC director says:

 “You’ve got hundreds of laboratories and thousands of tests. Nothing is interoperable because they haven’t been mandated to do that.”

Other countries have a unique number identifier for each patient, something that Congress refuses to provide in the US. Instead, data often come to public health authorities using only the information that laboratories need to track the record, not the details that public health officials need to help manage the disease.

Anyone who has healthcare knows that patients routinely fill out the same information on multiple forms in multiple offices. The need for doctors and testing services to use fax machines betrays the fundamental lack of modern technology in some health care settings.

And remember, it’s not for lack of money: There’s plenty of money in the US health care system.

The second item regarding COVID data is more troubling. The NYT reports that: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“The Trump administration has ordered hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, beginning on Wednesday, send all coronavirus patient information to a central database in Washington — a move that has alarmed public health experts who fear the data will be distorted for political gain.”

From now on, HHS, and not the CDC, will collect daily reports about the patients that each hospital is treating, how many beds and ventilators are available, and other information vital to tracking the pandemic.

This is seen as an inherently political move by outside public health experts. The NYT quotes Nicole Lurie, who served as assistant secretary for preparedness and response under former President Obama:

“Centralizing control of all data under the umbrella of an inherently political apparatus is dangerous and breeds distrust….It appears to cut off the ability of agencies like C.D.C. to do its basic job.”

This is more disturbing than finding out that the data are terrible. Alex Azar, who runs HHS, is a Trump crony and has clearly used his position to be helpful to Trump’s re-election campaign.

If there ever was any hope for a dispassionate, reasoned, and scientific FEDERAL response from Trump, it is certain that these two problems, one with the quality of the data, and the second with how it will be spun as it is reported, show we’re doomed.

How many health care workers will have to die? How many people living in states run by Trump’s personal bootlickers will get the treatment that they need?

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Monday Wake Up Call – Voter Registration Edition, July 13, 2020

The Daily Escape:

The comet Neowise, as seen from Heart Lake over Mt. Shasta, CA – 4:10am July 10 photo by smi77y_OG.

Democrats need to slow their victory lap according to Politico, who reports that Democrats are lagging Republicans in new voter registrations in swing states since the start of the pandemic.

A report from the Democratic-leaning data firm TargetSmart found people who are registering are older, whiter, and less Democratic:

“The study from TargetSmart was especially alarming for Democrats because it spotlighted not only falling registrations, but which party was damaged most in battleground states. In a majority of 10 states TargetSmart studied, registrations skewed older and whiter than before the pandemic.

TargetSmart finds Republican registrations edging Democrats’ in Florida, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. All of which adds another uncertainty to an election cycle that already is loaded with them.

The pandemic closures and stay-at-home orders have been a perfect storm for reducing voter registrations. Voter registration is normally a face-to-face, person-to-person activity. In this summer of COVID-19, there are no voter registration volunteers with clipboards registering voters at outdoor events because they have been cancelled. No one is camped out at downtown street corners on the weekends. DMV closures, stay-at-home orders and restrictions on large gatherings limit opportunities for new registrations.

In a report on the decline last month, the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research (ERIC) concluded that:

“…the steep decline in new registrations may prove to be a sizable obstacle to what was set, pre-pandemic, to be a record election for turnout.”

People of color and other marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and that’s undercutting registration efforts, and undercutting people’s ability to get registered, despite the energy that was created in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.

Tom Bonier, TargetSmart’s CEO, says overall new registration numbers have been so low during the pandemic that Republican gains during the period have been too small to offset the pre-pandemic Democratic advances. He thinks that Republicans although still behind, “got a couple of extra steps” closer to the Democrats.

But Politico says Republicans are pointing to their improved standing in registrations compared to 2016 in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, all states Trump won that year, despite Democrats holding a wider registration advantage than they do now. So, that’s a worry for Democrats.

OTOH, this is the first year that Republicans have fallen behind both Democrats and independent voters in registration in the 32 states and the District of Columbia that register voters by party, according to Ballot Access News, which tracks voter registrations.

If Trump has any chance of catching Biden by November 3, it will likely take registering and turning out more white, noncollege-educated voters, than in 2016. It’s a real question if they exist in large enough numbers to make a difference.

An interesting and positive (for Democrats) report from the Bulwark concludes that Trump has stopped trying to win the presidency. By analyzing his current direct marketing campaign, they conclude that he is instead focusing on building his list of followers for his post-presidency:

“My working theory is that Trump’s ads are telling us what that next scheme is. He’s tying himself more completely to the base of his base so that he can integrate them into Trump TV or Trumpstagram or whatever venture he’s planning for January 21, 2021.

After all, he’s got an installed user base of probably 30 million people he can start milking the minute he’s out of office. That puts him halfway to Disney Plus. At say, $9.95 a month, you’re talking about very real money.”

So there seems to be real questions about whether Democrats should be worried about Trump being re-elected. Democratic registrations should be the true measure of concern, not some media pundit’s speculation about Trump TV.

So, wake up America! There are less than four months to register more Democratic voters. Help out if you can. To help you wake up, here’s a throwback tune from 1983, “Vamos a la Playa(Let’s go to the beach) by the Italian disco group, Righeira. This was a huge hit in Europe in 1983. Despite its innocuous beach theme, the song actually talks about the explosion of an atomic bomb. And they’re singing in Spanish, but they’re Italians. And they appear to be wearing the Apple watch before it was invented:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Turkey Reclaims Museum as a Mosque

Happy Saturday, fellow disease vectors! The Saturday Soother is on break this week. So today, we’re moving far afield from the horrors of the Trump administration and COVID to talk Turkey.

From the WaPo:

“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Friday that Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia would become a mosque once again, brushing aside a legacy of Turkey’s secularizing modern founder, who converted the site to a museum more than eight decades ago.”

The Sophia represents the intersection of two of the world’s religions. The Sophia was built by the Romans in 360. The dome visible in the photo below was added in 537. Constantine made it the home of the Roman church (and named the city, Constantinople). It was an Eastern Orthodox Church for a short period. And from 1453 to 1931, it was a mosque. Here is a photo of the Hagia Sophia taken by Wrongo in 2013:

 

Since 1935, the Sophia has been a museum, neither a church nor a mosque. This was the solution devised by Kemal Ataturk, one of the 20th century’s great statesmen, to resolve competing claims by the Muslim and Christian communities in Turkey and neighboring countries.

The Sophia shows both additions and subtractions as its religion changed from Christian to Islam. Following the building’s conversion into a mosque in 1453, the minarets were added. Many of its Christian mosaics were whitewashed, due to Islam’s ban on representational imagery. The images were partially rescued by a team of archeologists from Edinburgh University between 1958 and 1962. Since then, there has been a continuing effort to restore and maintain some of the Christian provenance of the building:

2013 photo by Wrongo

Since Islam does not permit Christian-style depictions, it remains unclear whether this uncovered iconography will now be hidden once again. Here is a photo taken inside the Sophia that demonstrates the multi-cultural history of the building:

2013 photo by Wrongo

The medallion on the right above represents Allah, while the medallion on the left is for Mohammad. Behind the medallions is the nave of the original church, with the middle window pointing towards Jerusalem. The lighted arch in the nave was added when the building became a mosque. It points toward Mecca.

The Sophia was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, and receivers 3+million annual visitors. It has been an example of tolerance and pluralism in a world that is rapidly moving away from these concepts.

There is no shortage of mosques in Istanbul. From Reuters: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“For those who don’t know, really near to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Turks built the Blue Mosque, which is newer and big enough for all the Muslims in the area (and then some). Erdogan is just trying to provoke Christians and show to Muslims worldwide he is their leader.”

Until a few years ago, Turkey was held up as an example that Islam is perfectly compatible with multi-party democracy, a pro-Western foreign policy, and healthy economic growth.

Most of that has been weakened under Erdogan, and re-converting the Sophia to a mosque should make many Western countries rethink their alliances with Turkey.

The timing of the conversion is clearly political. Erdogan’s popularity has been sagging under the weight of a damaged economy. His AKP party lost control of Istanbul and Ankara to the opposition in the last elections. Their prospects for the upcoming elections are not very good either, so this current gambit is an attempt to strengthen Erdogan’s chances.

Some Turkish clerics are saying they are ready to whitewash the faces of the Seraphim that surround the dome. Here’s what they look like now:

2013 photo by Wrongo

It was a massive amount of work to uncover them, and it would be a tragedy if they are again covered up.

First prayers at the Hagia Sophia mosque are planned for July 24. This date is highly symbolic, as that is also the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, when Turkey gave up all claims to the remainder of the Ottoman Empire.

The artwork, now over 1500 years old, will most likely be lost again. Once more religious triumphalism will rear its ugly head. Once again, one group can rub another group’s face in the dirt.

The Sophia should keep all of its artwork, and remain open to all.

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We’re Not a Failed State, We’re a Failed Society

The Daily Escape:

Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, CO – photo by exposurebydjk. These are the highest dunes in North America.

Wrongo has written quite a bit lately about America’s fracturing social cohesion, and increasing white grievance as the greatest threats to our democracy. Here’s Wrongo on social cohesion:

“In the past, we had a set of unwritten expectations that members of our society were expected to comply with, like voting, paying taxes, and displaying tolerance for others. Even those deminimus expectations are fraying today.”

The COVID pandemic has many here and abroad saying the US is a failed state. George Packer argued this recently in the Atlantic. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says calling America a failed state is:

“…not only wrong, it’s irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst…. So stop saying that.

Ok DHS, the US isn’t a failed state, but we may be a failed society. We seem to have decided that while we have the means to succeed, we no longer want to try. From Duck of Minerva:

“Failed states lack the resources, equipment, and government capacity to provide public safety and public services. States like Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen fit this description. The governments of these countries can often barely project authority beyond the walls of their government buildings.”

This doesn’t describe America. We are the wealthiest, most powerful country on earth. We’re home to more Nobel laureates than any country. Our universities are the envy of the world. Our technology sector is the world’s most dynamic.

We’ve lost the will to use our vast strengths to make America a better place for its citizens. If America had the will, we would have blunted the COVID-19 threat, as have New Zealand, South Korea and Germany. Those countries all have far more social cohesion than the US.

And while it’s true that Trump has failed the country, our society no longer feels that we have responsibilities to each other, or to the nation. We have lost the willingness to make personal sacrifices for the good of the community.

Individualism is a crucial part of our national ethos, but it has morphed into selfishness precisely when we need to see ourselves as all in this together. The result is that we’ve shown that we’re incapable of mobilizing the capacity to address the worst threat to public safety of the 21st century.

COVID is the just the third major crisis in the 21st century.

The first was 9/11. Back then, rural America didn’t see New York City as filled with immigrants and liberals who deserved their fate, but as a place that had taken a hit for the rest of us. America’s reflex was to mourn, and mobilize to help. The ensuing Iraq War and partisan politics erased much of that sense of national unity, and fed a bitterness toward the political class that hasn’t faded.

The second crisis was the Great Recession. Starting out, Congress passed a bipartisan bailout bill that saved the financial system. Outgoing Bush administration officials largely cooperated with incoming Obama administration officials. The lasting economic pain of the Great Recession was felt only by people who had lost their jobs, homes, and retirement savings. Many have never recovered, and inequality has grown worse.

This second crisis drove a wedge between Americans: Between the upper and lower classes, between Republicans and Democrats, metropolitan and rural people, the native-born and immigrants, ordinary people and their leaders. Social bonds had been under growing strain for several decades, and now they began to tear. The lasting effect was increased polarization and discredited governmental authority.

Self-pity turned to anger. Anger at Muslims or Mexicans or gays or fancy-pants city folks (or all of them mashed together) offset by a group identity of white grievance. America’s tone changed to defiant anger and hostility.

This was the American landscape that the Coronavirus found: In the cities and suburbs, globally connected desk workers were dependent on the essentials, a class of precarious and invisible service workers. In rural America, it found hollowed-out towns in revolt against the cities. In Washington, Corona found a government that had lost its ability to rally, or work together for the common good.

In America’s president, Corona happily found Donald Trump, the perfect fit for this decaying society. When a corrupt minority rules a dissatisfied majority, there are consequences.

We have literally fallen on our asses. So much damage in a relatively short period of time. Our republic is much flimsier than we thought.

We need a second period of reconstruction in America. The first reconstruction failed because our society failed it. The second reconstruction must fix our failed society.

It will be long and difficult.

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What’s Behind Refusing to Wear a Mask?

The Daily Escape:

Hideaway Beach, Kauai, HI – photo by alohabaltimore

The message from health officials and local governments seems simple enough: Wear a mask in public to help control the spread of the Coronavirus; and the majority of Americans do. But a recent Pew survey showed that 15% only wear masks sometimes, while 20% said they don’t wear masks at all.

When the virus hit, we scared everybody into staying home. Then, we worried about the impact on the economy, so we pushed our governments to reopen too early. Finally, we decided that wearing masks would protect us from the virus after saying they weren’t that effective.

Most people want to do the right thing, but far from everyone. We’re no longer a “can do” country. Now we’ve become more like: “won’t do”.

Mask wearing has become a tribal badge. Trump mocked mask wearers for appearing weak. He’s said wearing a mask is a political statement against him, so it’s no surprise that mask refusers are more likely to be politically conservative. That’s an ominous trend when new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are increasing steeply in some red states, the very states where mask-wearing mandates are least likely to be adopted.

The mask refusers have also allied with the anti-vaxx’ers in a “you’re not the boss of me” stance versus the government.  As Kris Kristofferson said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, but with Coronavirus, that freedom to not mask up gives you plenty to lose.

And it gives the country plenty to lose as well. Wrongo wears masks in accordance with his state’s laws. Apparently, that makes Wrongo a liberal.

This story from Oregon shows the depth of the problem. A trooper of the Oregon State Police refused to wear a mask while patronizing a coffee shop, despite a mandatory order by the state’s governor, Kate Brown, that masks were to be worn in all public indoor spaces throughout Oregon.

The shop’s assistant manager told the trooper that he needed to wear a mask. The Statesman Journal reports that the trooper said:

 “Governor Brown has no authority to take our civil liberties. We aren’t going to wear masks.”

The manager recalled that the trooper then placed his order, offering this foul-mouthed retort to the governor’s mandate:

“He said, F— Kate Brown”.

This story carries a lot of baggage. First, the trooper is one of America’s anointed class of cops, for whom there is little consequence for bad behavior. Second, the trooper is a man. Men are more likely to opt out of wearing masks, even though men are at higher risk than women of dying from coronavirus infection. Third, Governor Brown is a Democrat, and a bisexual woman, so it’s unlikely that the trooper was a fan.

FWIW, the trooper was fired.

Most people understand that a mask protects you while offering real protection to other people. The message seems to have gotten across that masks are mainly about protecting others, but those troopers in Oregon, and many other people across America, are simply choosing not to participate in their own, or in your protection.

The recent increases in confirmed Coronavirus cases across the US South and West are being driven by young people who are not social distancing. The young are also least likely to wear masks.

We compel all sorts of behaviors. Seat belts while driving. No smoking in restaurants. No t-shirts with inappropriate text in high schools. But compelling mask-wearing for safety? That’s a bridge too far.

Here’s the thing: Encouraging people to wear masks hasn’t worked. Shaming people who won’t wear masks hasn’t worked. Reassuring people that masks are not a political statement hasn’t worked. Informing people about the serious health consequences of COVID-19 hasn’t worked. Reminding people they aren’t invincible, that the Coronavirus has killed young, healthy people hasn’t worked.

Begging people to wear masks, if not to protect themselves, then to protect others, hasn’t worked.

If we can’t convince anti-maskers to care about their own health, then we certainly won’t convince them to care about other people. It didn’t have to be this way: Pandemic, death, and depression. Things getting worse because we argue and won’t work together.

People are saying, we quarantined for three months, that’s enough. If your boat capsized, and you swam for three minutes, would you say that’s enough, you’ll stop swimming and drown, even though you can see the shore?

The solution isn’t elusive, but it requires more social cohesion and less faux grievance about freedom.

You want kids back in schools? You want the economy to restart? Wear a mask!

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What’s Up With All the Fireworks?

The Daily Escape:

Temple of Luxor, Luxor, Egypt – photo by Hossam Abbas. The temple dates from 1400 BCE. It has been a Roman church and remains a mosque today.

Over the past month, every city, town, and village has been lit up with fireworks. This happens every year: Some neighborhood yahoo will buy firecrackers and more, often travelling out of state to get what they want. Then for a few days up to and including July 4, they are fired off as dusk settles on your town.

But this year is different. We saw well beyond the usual, including professional-size explosives being detonated every night. Watch this video shot by a drone over Los Angles on July 4:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIvdcdogC6k

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

In most ways, these are actually more impressive than a professional fireworks display, since it is spontaneous, and performed so broadly by so many people. Is this the silent majority being heard? If so, what are they saying to the rest of us? Is this simply what people feel they need at the moment?

For the past few months, life has obviously been difficult. So lighting up fireworks to let off steam with a few family and/or friends while having a fun time may be all the explanation that we need.

OTOH, people on the right are calling it a nationwide protest by average people to the authoritarian effort to keep hard working Americans at home as part of the COVID pandemic. The comments on the above YouTube video tend to be like these:

  • A beautiful display of the middle finger to the authoritarian scum trying to squeeze the life out of America. Ain’t gonna happen.
  • American Patriots giving the deep state a big F-You!
  • The silent majority sure were loud this evening.

Theories range from coordinated efforts to blame those protesting police brutality, to bored people blowing off steam following coronavirus lockdowns. The trend, paired with a lack of clear information and a growing climate of distrust in institutions, has sparked some extreme theories, including that the various police departments are encouraging them as a type of civil disobedience.

Since most states allow at least some types of consumer fireworks, it’s difficult to prevent them from showing up in places like New York City where they’re banned. For years, people have been willing to drive a couple of hours away where they can be purchased legally.

According to MarketWatch, Retail aerial fireworks are capped at under 2 inches in diameter and burst at just under 200 feet, while professional fireworks are larger, and can explode hundreds of feet higher.

Perhaps the municipal cancellations of fireworks shows are the culprit: The fireworks business has gone bust from the coronavirus. At Pyroshows, a company that wholesales fireworks, 2020 sales are down almost 80%. A sales rep reported:

“Well, it’s been extreme. A lot of communities have had to cancel their events, therefore they had to cancel their fireworks…”

That means fireworks companies are dumping their products to the public at deep discounts.

So, on this Fourth of July holiday, Americans were out walking around. They had fun with the pretty lights. No cities were burned. They celebrated a 3-day weekend together. Let’s not make too much of it.

People, not the authorities, were in control. And except for dog owners and those who were kept up late by local yahoos, the fireworks displays, along with the Hamilton movie, gave America a much-needed spectacular.

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Saturday Soother, July 3, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Blue Camas bloom, Missoula MT – June 2020 photo by Kurt Kohn. Camas is a plant in the asparagus family, and its bulb was a food staple for Indigenous peoples in the American West.

(Wrongo is taking a break for the July 4th holiday. Blogging will resume on Tuesday 7/7.)

Good morning fellow disease vectors! Welcome to the holiday weekend.

The legal separation of the 13 Colonies from Great Britain occurred on July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence that had been proposed in June by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, declaring the United States independent from Great Britain.

After voting for independence, the Continental Congress created a Committee of Five  to write a Declaration of Independence, with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. Congress debated and revised the wording of the Declaration, approving it on July 4. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival… “

Adams’s prediction was off by two days. From the outset, Americans celebrated independence on July 4, the date the resolution of independence was approved in a closed session of Congress, rather than on July 2.

Coincidentally, both Adams and Jefferson, the only signers of the Declaration of Independence who later served as US presidents, died on the same day: July 4, 1826. James Monroe, a founder, but not a signatory of the Declaration, became the third president to die on July 4th in 1831.

Yale Historian David Blight had a short audio piece on NPR on Friday talking about Frederick Douglass. Blight won a 2019 Pulitzer for his book, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”

In his NPR talk, Blight recalls a speech by Douglass in July, 1852 to about 600 abolitionists gathered in Rochester, NY. Douglass had been born enslaved. He’d secretly taught himself to read and write. He became one of the best-known abolitionists and thinkers in the world. The speech that Douglass gave before that crowd in Rochester was called “What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?”

Blight says it was one of Douglass’s most riveting and compelling speeches. He goes on to quote from it:

“The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice. I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand, illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”

Blight closes by saying that today, we may be seeing the third great reckoning about race in our history: (brackets by Wrongo)

“The first was the Civil War and Reconstruction. The second was the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. And now we’re probably having a third one – whatever we’re going to end up calling this…..And he’d [Douglass] warn us that the whole world is watching to see whether this thing called an American republic can really survive.”

Blight also has a series of video lectures on the Civil War that you can watch for free as part of the Open Yale program. Wrongo highly recommends them.

Here’s a fantastic and touching video in which five young descendants of Frederick Douglass read excerpts of Douglass’s famous speech. You can’t do better today than to listen to these young kids speak the words of their famous ancestor.

Time to let go of the world of politics, economics and policy for a few days. We all want a slice of normalcy: A cold beverage, burgers on the grill, fireflies after dark, and family and friends nearby. Although we want all of that right now, we’ll most likely have to settle for just some of it.

Let’s begin the Saturday Soother by brewing up a Cafe Del Sol Cold Brew Coffee ($15.99/12oz.) from San Diego CA’s Bird Rock Coffee Roasters.

Now, settle back at an appropriate physical distance and listen to Mickey Guyton’s new song, “Black Like Me”. Guyton is a young black female country music singer/songwriter, one of the very few succeeding in the country music idiom. She’s decided to speak out about the subject of racism. That takes courage, even in today’s Nashville scene. Highly recommend the video, which contains the lyrics of her song:

Sample Lyric:

If you think we live in the land of the free
You should try to be black like me

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Roberts Returns to the Dark Side

The Daily Escape:

Lake Blanche, Upper Cottonwood Canyon, UT – 2020 Galaxy S10 photo by criked

On Tuesday, the Supremes issued another opinion. This one narrows the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, was a 5-4 decision, with the five conservative justices in the majority, and the four liberal justices dissenting.

From Slate: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“The Montana Constitution contains a “no-aid” provision that bars the state from providing public funds to religious institutions, as do 37 other state constitutions. To work around this rule, the Legislature granted tax credits to residents who donate money to Big Sky Scholarships, which pays for students to attend private schools, both secular and sectarian. (Montana’s demographics ensure that the only sectarian schools that participate are Christian.) In other words, residents get money from the state when they help children obtain a private education, including religious indoctrination. In 2018, the Montana Supreme Court found that this program violated the state constitution’s no-aid clause. But instead of excluding sectarian schools, the court struck down the whole scheme for all private education.”

Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion revived Montana’s tax credit scheme when he announced a new Constitutional principle: Once a state funds private education, “it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico all provide tax credits or vouchers to families that send their children to private schools. Under Espinoza, they must now extend these programs to private religious schools. More from Slate:

“This decision flips the First Amendment on its head. The amendment’s free exercise clause protects religious liberty, while its establishment clause commands that the government make no law ‘respecting an establishment of religion’.”

In essence, Roberts is now saying that the Establishment Clause supersedes the Free Exercise Clause.

Some background: In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court ruled that, under the Establishment Clause, states were allowed to fund private schools through vouchers or tax credits. Now the court has declared that, under the Free Exercise clause, most states are compelled to fund private religious schools.

Over the past 18 years, the Court’s conservative majority has revolutionized church-state law.

How did the court do this? The barrier between church and state took a hit when five justices permitted state financing of sectarian schools in Zelman. It nearly collapsed when the court expanded religious institutions’ access to taxpayer money in 2017’s Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which held that states cannot deny public benefits to religious institutions simply because they are religious.

The court claimed that their new rule was actually hidden in the meaning of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause—even though, as Justice Sotomayor pointed out at the time, separating church and state does not limit anyone’s ability to exercise their religion.

More from Slate. Roberts, from the Espinoza opinion: (italics are in the quote)

“A state violates free exercise…when it “discriminate[s] against schools” based on “the religious character of the school.” The government, Roberts explained, has no compelling interest in preserving the separation of church and state beyond what the First Amendment requires. Nor does the government have any interest in protecting taxpayers’ right not to fund religious exercise that infringes upon their own beliefs.”

Said the Chief Justice:

“We do not see how the no-aid provision promotes religious freedom…”

In theory, states could abolish public funding of private schools entirely to avoid funding religious schools, but that’s what the Montana Supreme Court did. And Roberts just condemned that decision as “discrimination against religious schools”, because Montana had originally funded all private schools.

Roberts may be a master at minimizing losses (hits to the credibility or reputation of SCOTUS), while maximizing returns for his masters (conservative victories). In most of the cases where he has sided with the liberals, his opinion has basically boiled down to “lie better the next time.”

That was true in the abortion and DACA cases this term, and in the Census case last term.

So, based on this decision, religious entities (of the right sort) are not only eligible for government funding, they are entitled to it. That, and more equipment for the military.

This is what the America conservatives want. What could go wrong?

The state requires children to go to school. It also provides a school system for those children in order to meet that requirement. If you choose to send yours to a private, accredited/licensed school instead, that cost should be borne by you, not by the taxpayers.

Public funding for religious schools, along with tax-free status for churches, gives too much political power to religions.

That’s exactly why separation of Church and State is so crucial.

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Is Russia Paying to Have Our Soldiers Killed?

The Daily Escape:

Sunset at McWay Cove, Big Sur, CA – 2020 photo by maxfoster098. What’s the name of the red flowers?

The NYT reported that Russia’s intelligence agency offered bounties to the Taliban for US troops killed during our peace talks with Afghanistan. The report said US intelligence briefed Trump and his administration, but for months they did nothing about it, while Trump tried to get Putin accepted back into the G7.

Those reports were backed up by the WSJ, Fox, and the WaPo.

The NYT’s Charlie Savage got very specific, including dates, which would seem to indicate that some people in the Intelligence Community (IC) or in the White House have had enough.

Calling them “bounties” raises America’s emotional hackles. It’s a word that’s useful to Trump’s enemies, implying individual incentive pay for an individual death, something that’s really personal. That doesn’t seem likely or practical: How does an individual Taliban soldier prove he’s behind an individual US soldier’s death?

Most likely, any incentive pay would go to the group for coalition casualties confirmed in the aftermath of an attack.

Russia completely denies the story. The White House doesn’t deny that the IC reported it, but it denies that Trump was in the loop.

Press Secretary McEnany’s insistence that Trump didn’t know about it can be viewed as either a damning indictment, or a lie. Either way, it isn’t a good look for a guy running for president. And it appears that this is a serious leak of classified information from within the White House.

Was Trump kept in the dark by his National Security Advisor? Did he refuse to believe the IC reporting? Or did he decide to quietly confront Putin about this episode in the continuing shadow war?

That could be a reasonable response, assuming you think Trump had a game plan for Russia. Wrongo doesn’t think that, and the words of John Bolton and all the others who have exited the administration would say Trump has no plan.

Also, some history: During Charlie Wilson’s War, in the 1980s, we supported and supplied the Afghani Mujahedin with weapons to kill Soviet soldiers while they were in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Since we did it to Russia in the 1980s, it’s difficult for Wrongo to get worked up over this Russian ploy, assuming that it happened. Of course we paid wholesale for Russian casualties, while Putin is apparently paying retail for ours.

If it did happen, it shows that Russia isn’t America’s friend. It also shows that Putin is no longer trying to be Trump’s friend.

We don’t have to go to war with each other over this, but we should realize that our relationship will require sustained improvement across many years to be normalized. OTOH, when the Commander-in-Chief sends his troops into harm’s way, he has an affirmative duty to protect them.

Some think that the Russians fed the story to the US media to discredit Trump. Perhaps we should try to understand whether the Kremlin still wants Trump to be president.

From their POV, America’s instability will surely ramp up to a higher level if he is re-elected. That might be helpful to Putin. But, any thought that Trump will improve our relationship with Russia ended long ago. Russia may be thinking that the US Intelligence Community is the devil they know.

Some history about Afghanistan: In 1979, Brezhnev thought the Russian invasion of Afghanistan would be over in 6 weeks. Ten years later, minus 118 jets, 333 helicopters and a lot of dead Russians, they withdrew as had the British before them. The recipe for ruin in Afghanistan was/is:

  • Estimate the time and resources necessary to conquer and control the region
  • Double the estimate
  • Repeat as necessary until you lose

Then countries tumble to one of two exit strategies:

  • Withdraw after significant losses, as did the British and Russians
  • Leave an army of occupation as Alexander did, and as we have done

If we are going to get upset at US service members being killed by paid proxies, then we should ask, why are we still there? Why is this worth any more American lives and treasure?

Since we have no strategy, most Americans barely know what we’re doing in Afghanistan. But that won’t stop our chicken hawk politicians from trying to gin up anger on the part of Americans.

Regardless of its truth, this story hits Trump where it hurts. He has to react.

The idea of four more years of this is terrifying.

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Monday Wake Up Call – Dixie Chicks Edition, June 29, 2020

The Daily Escape:

Delaware Water Gap, NJ – 2020 photo by Craig Conklin

OK, Wrongo was wrong, again. He said on Saturday that changing the name of the Dixie Chicks to the Chicks wasn’t going to do anything for them. Wrongo ignored the power of a great protest song, and what it can do for your career.

And the Chicks have such a protest song in the just-released “March March” which is featured below.

But first, a few words about the mostly-forgotten Dixie Chicks. They were country, but not the faux patriotic kind. Their name came from the song by Little Feat, “Dixie Chicken”. If you’ve never heard it, you’re in for a treat, so listen at the link above.

Despite the name, they were pretty progressive in their music and lyrics. And they got in trouble for it in the Bush II administration. From Wikipedia: (brackets by Wrongo)

“On March 10, 2003, nine days before the invasion of Iraq, the Dixie Chicks performed…in London, England. It was the first concert of their Top of the World tour in support of their sixth album, Home. Introducing their song “Travelin’ Soldier”, [Natalie] Maines told the audience the band did not support the upcoming Allied invasion of Iraq and were “ashamed” that President George W. Bush was from Texas.

Many American country music listeners supported the war, and Maines’s remark triggered a backlash in the United States. The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations, and the band members received death threats…”

This was a huge deal back then. The entire country music industry ostracized them. At roughly the same time as the Chicks were blacklisted, the House GOP pushed to rename french fries and french toast in their cafeteria to “freedom fries” and “freedom toast”. Freedumb!

But the Chicks were correct. It wasn’t simply the Iraq war, it was illegal torture, the rise of the unitary executive, the attacks on free speech, and the destruction of the Iraqi state, and how that destabilized the Middle East. The Dixie Chicks’ protest grew to include all of that.

Looking back, Nashville didn’t have a clue about how to respond after 9/11. In their simplistic view, we had WWII, a story about the good guys vs. the bad guys. We also had Vietnam’s multiple shades of gray. But from a marketing perspective, and based on their collective ideology, Nashville wanted Bush’s Iraq war to be perceived at the WWII end of the spectrum.

In retrospect, the Chicks were a lot closer to where most of America was on the Iraq war than their Nashville gatekeepers. If you have any doubts about their political bona fides, listen to their anti-Vietnam song, Travelin’ Soldier, written by Bruce Robison in 1996.

So onward to the Chicks’ new song. Watch it full screen, it’s worth it.

This is protest music at its best. There have been protest songs all along, but the last time they were truly relevant was in 1970, with the CSNY song “Ohio” memorializing the Kent State shootings.

In 2020, it’s taken a pandemic, a maliciously negligent government, and disgusting abuses of authority to maybe slap us wide awake. Time to wake up America! Listen to the Chicks do “March March”:

Full Lyrics:

 [Chorus]
March, march to my own drum
March, march to my own drum
Hey, hey, I’m an army of one
Oh, I’m an army of one
March, march to my own drum
March, march to my own drum
Hey, hey, I’m an army of one
Oh, I’m an army of one

[Verse 1]
Brenda’s packin’ heat ’cause she don’t like Mondays
Underpaid teacher policin’ the hallways
Print yourself a weapon and take it to the gun range
(Ah, cut the shit, you ain’t goin’ to the gun range)
Standin’ with Emma and our sons and daughters
Watchin’ our youth have to solve our problems
I’ll follow them, so who’s comin’ with me?
(Half of you love me, half already hate me)

[Chorus]

[Verse 2]
Tell the ol’ boys in the white bread lobby
What they can and can’t do with their bodies
Temperatures are risin’, cities are sinkin’
(Ah, cut the shit, you know your city is sinkin’)
Lies are truth and truth is fiction
Everybody’s talkin’, who’s gonna listen?
What the hell happened in Helsinki?

[Chorus]

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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