How American of Us

All the kids in my neighborhood were vaccinated, and we would gladly show the little round scar in our upper arms to prove it.

Inoculation to ward off smallpox had been practiced for more than two hundred years. That is what “vaccination” meant in the 1950s. 

Today, “vaccination” means many things. It means different things to different people. Not everybody likes it. But at this moment in our history, we mainly think of vaccination as a tool we wish we had against COVID-19. It is not in our toolkit yet and won’t be for quite a while. We tap our feet impatiently. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?

#

Odd and unexpected are the prophets who may speak to us in these confused days.

Benedict Arnold. Copy of engraving by H. B. Hall after John Trumbull. Public Domain.

Benedict Arnold is known primarily as a traitor. A bold, charismatic leader of troops in our war for Independence, Arnold changed sides and became a secret agent for the British. He worked to give them the American fortifications at West Point, New York. 

His treason was found out, and he fled for his life. On October 7, 1780, a few days after he reached safety behind British lines, Arnold published an open letter defending his actions, titled “Address to the American People.” In that egocentric display of self-justification, the erratic Benedict Arnold—half a century before Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous visit and commentary—penned the definitive remark about Americans:

“The private judgment of any individual citizen of this country is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”

It was a true saying then, and it remains true 240 years later. Combined with the Puritan imprint on our public outlook and the indelible marks of our frontier experience, it explains a lot about our uniqueness as a people.

By “all conventional restraints,” I suppose Arnold meant the class-conscious pecking order of European society, as well as the customary appeals of king and country and the divine imperatives of Church potentates. 

To Americans all such guiding principles are merely advisory, both then and now. Each person must choose his or her own way. We are a nation of rugged individuals, most of all deep in our heads and hearts. We know we are right; if not for others, at least for ourselves and our families. We are self-willed, to a nearly anarchic extreme. 

Here, even the Magisterium of The Law “derive[s] its just powers from the consent of the governed” and, in practice, perches perilously on a wobbly base of voluntary compliance. “The private judgment of any individual citizen . . . is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”

We see this truth enacted in our present crisis. Compare the responses of other nations: 

  • The Chinese government, once it grasped the severity of the virus problem, sent in goon squads to round up the sufferers, burned the evidence, and put out some fake numbers to reassure the world.
  • The Swedes seem to be opting for a slow-rolling herd inoculation through gradual exposure of their citizens. This may possibly work in Sweden, where the surge of the virus will be dampened by the Swedes’ national impulse to work together as if they were, indeed, a herd.

Swedish-style cooperativeness is unthinkable here in the United States. Violators of even reasonable regulations would be legion, the loci of their intransigence unpredictable. Any forced imposition of rigid controls would backfire; people would rebel. Even the enforcers would rebel.

So the suggestion that we follow the Swedish model, though doubtless well-intentioned, is naïve and absurd. Americans, in general, won’t act like Swedes—even though some of them, like my wife, are Swedes. The results of relying on Swedish-style social cohesion from Americans would be disastrous in the short term.

But those who call for a unified national crackdown do not grasp the dimensions of the problem. The president, with all his minions, cannot command all Americans to do anything, any more than King Canute could turn back the tide. 

King Canute rebukes his courtiers as the tide rolls in, unblocked. Illustration by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville. Public Domain.

The governors have a slightly better chance of applying that nuanced mix of persuasion and compulsion that will work in their respective states. Even they will probably mis-calculate some of their edicts. What federal authorities can offer is material support to the states and the broad popular influence of national experts who speak with credibility.

#

Does all this add up to an imperfect response? Maybe so. 

Are other countries doing better? Who can say?

Will people die because our government has no magic wands to wave? Could be.

It is what it is. We are who we are, exercising our private judgments free of all conventional restraints. 

Let us seek to be wise, prudent, and kind in that exercise.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

To Fathom, or Not to Fathom?

4 April 2020, Day 25 of the Global Pandemic (According to WHO—or is it WHOM?):

My bandanna slips, baring my nostrils to the world. 

The knot behind my head is too loose; but it feels indecent, somehow, to untie and re-tie in public. So I shove the cloth up over my nose, clamp it there under my bifocals, snag a cart, and head into Hyvee. 

Say there, Pardners, hands in the air! And give us all your yeast and toilet paper. (And lupines, don’t forget lupines.)

Just a quick in-and-out, to pick up a few essentials. I push the cart into the liquor department, heading for the red wines. OOPS! Blue arrows have been taped on the floor, making each aisle a one-way street. Of course. This is so shoppers won’t accidentally come within six feet of each other. 

In nautical terms, they want us to be unfathomable.

A very sensible precaution, in my view. I push my cart down the wrong aisle, all the way  to the back of the store, then swing around an end-cap, and voilà! Red wine. 

Is it the same instinct that impels so many fellow citizens to stock up on toilet paper, which has reduced us to drinking cheap wine? I  pick up a couple of ten-dollar red blends for those special, romantic dinners (take-out beef bourguignon in a plastic tray, with baguette, from La Brioche) and a gallon jug of burgundy for all other occasions. With bottles rattling in my cart, I follow the blue arrows up the aisle to exit the liquor department. OOOPS! A man stands there, buying beer at the liquor department register. He must not need any dry groceries. 

No Fathoming Allowed

A big, round sticker on the floor says, “MAINTAIN 6-FT DISTANCE.” There is not room to go around the man, whose large purchase may take some time to ring up. I reverse course, go the wrong way down the red wine aisle, wrap two aisles over to the next outbound lane, and then full steam ahead. 

But, soft! What light down yonder brandy aisle breaks? It is a twenty-something woman, idling, eenymeenying between Korbel and Christian Brothers. Will it be this one, or that? She picks up a bottle, shifts her weight from one hip to the other, puts it back. Maybe . . . another brand entirely?

Back down the aisle the wrong way again, two more aisles over, and I gallop out of the liquor department to freedom. It’s a good thing liquor stores in this state have plenty of aisles.

I head for the main part of the supermarket. OOOOPS! My bandanna slips down again. Why is this so tough? If a moron like Liberty Valance could do this, certainly I can get the hang of it. I shove the gaudy rag back over my nose and clamp it even firmer with my glasses. For good measure, I twist the knot in back once and tuck it under itself. That’ll do it, I’m almost sure.

Now for the groceries. This store has a complex floor layout; even with its extravagant overhead signs, I often struggle to find what I am seeking. Today, that struggle is squared, or maybe cubed, by the blue arrows on the floor. Two or three times I find myself going the wrong way. It’s hard to remember not to just turn up, or down, the aisle where you suspect your item may have been hidden.

The Precious Fathom

I console myself by noting that half of the many shoppers seem to be entirely unaware of the blue arrows. Or maybe they just don’t care. Half of the shoppers, like me, conscientiously struggle to maintain that precious fathom of clearance. 

When you are in an aisle, you don’t want to take much time picking out your item. Other people are piling up behind you. Nobody wants to be responsible for squeezing past someone else and maybe exhaling at point-blank range. So you move fast, to prevent pile-ups.

I loop back around and skim the bakery needs aisle again, looking for yeast. It seems there is none to be had. Yeast is one of those things, like toilet paper, that new-minted survivalists feel compelled to hoard. 

OOOOOPS! My face covering slips again. Even the dim-witted Billy the Kid passed Bandanna 101 in Outlaw School. Why can’t I make it work? Quite a few people wear a scarf, handkerchief, or bandanna over nose and mouth. None of their face coverings fall down. What’s the matter with me? 

A few people wear manufactured-looking masks. They’d better not be hogging those special N-95s that all the medical people need. Are these people too good to wrap a sock or muffler around their head, like the rest of us? 

Quite a few people still wear no face covering at all. Just a day or two ago, that was me; but now I’m hip. Not that my bandanna will protect me from the virus; it’s meant to keep me from giving other people the virus. Not that I have the virus. How could I? I hardly go anywhere. But the good doctors on TV are now saying we should wear them. I’m not really infectious, but one should set a good example for others.

Grocery Workers: Essential, Fathomless

It may be casually noted that no store employees wear face coverings of any kind. Also, they frequently violate the Six-Foot Rule. That’s because they’re trying, desperately, to get the shelves stocked. A valiant young man arrives with a whole cartload of eggs to put in the case just as I take the last dozen. He’s doing his best, but he has lost sight of Social Distancing. Well, of course, these folks are official store employees. So I guess that’s all right, then.

Okay, no yeast. No Fudgsicles either, but as I recall, Hyvee always had a hard time keeping those in stock, even back in Pre-Pandemic Days. I’ve got most of the other stuff, including a 31.5-pound bag of Purina for Lacey and Midnight. 

At this juncture I feel compelled to note, just for the record, Dear Reader, that if one really strictly followed the blue arrows on the floor, one would be forever enmeshed in a sort of medieval labyrinth—stuck forever, like Charlie on the MTA—with no way to traverse to the cash registers. 

Taking my heart in my hands, I jump the queue—or, at least, violate the blue arrows—skirting around the whole produce section, steering a wide berth from any other shoppers, and streaking into the clearly-marked lateral blue-arrow lane near the check-out aisles. 

Here, there is more surrealism at which to marvel. A sign says: “DO NOT PUT YOUR ITEMS ON THE CONVEYOR. WE SANITIZE BETWEEN CUSTOMERS.” Sure enough, after the preceding customer clears the lane at least two fathoms ahead of me, the young man at the register runs the conveyor clear around twice, swabbing it down with something he squirts out of a spray bottle. At last it is deemed sanitary enough, and he says, “Go ahead.” 

Nothing to Sneeze At

I plunk my items down on the conveyor, leaving my huge bag of dog food in the cart. The young man tries to scan the dog food with his hand-held scanner as usual, but OOOOOOPS! He can’t cantilever it out over the conveyor far enough. Its cord is hung up with a bunch of other cords. That’s because the bracket that holds the hand scanner is cramped by the newly-installed plexiglass shield that is meant to protect me and the checker-outer— from each other, presumably.

Oh, what a relief! I may now sneeze to my heart’s content. There’s a sheet of plexiglass to protect the essential grocery worker. I have half a mind to give it a good blast—but, alas! no sneeze in me yearns to break forth. Better luck next time.

Forty-five minutes after stopping for a quick in-and-out, I trundle my cart out of the store and OOOOOOOPS! my bandanna slips again. But no matter, I’m in the open air. 

Where are Jesse and Frank James, when a guy needs a lesson in kerchief-tying?

#

Something tells me we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re not even in Wisconsin anymore.

Be of good cheer, Dear Reader. Even this cannot last forever.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Pandemic Politics

“Pandemic” was an adjective before it was a noun.

It means, “prevalent over a whole area, country, etc.; universal, general . . . .” It is usually applied to disease, thus giving rise to its use as a noun, “a pandemic,” meaning, “a disease which is pandemic.” But it could really be used for almost anything that is widely distributed over the world. 

Politics is pandemic. As was oft remarked of Chickenman, “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!” 

No, Fair Reader, you can’t escape it; for, as Aristotle observed, “Man is a political animal.”

In the midst of our current angst over COVID-19, President Trump has been accused of downplaying the threat. Trump’s opponents have been accused of weaponizing the fear of a dread disease. Players on both sides of the line of scrimmage are ripping up the Astroturf, wailing, “Unfair! They are politicizing a national disaster!” 

So, what else is new? 

If you read this blog regularly—a Recommended Best Practice—you may wonder, “Whence comes this commentary on current events? Is not this blog supposed to be about ‘seeking fresh meanings in our common past’?”

Okay, Dear Reader. You asked for it:

It Was Ever Thus

Politicians have made political hay out of all things sacred since the moment after time started. Many earnest combatants believe that everything is political; that exploiting all events to advance one’s political agenda is the purest form of service. (“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”—Rahm Emanuel, 2008.)

Those who seek to serve society must understand the political context in which they operate. Military leaders, in particular, often feel that war should be exempt from politics. But they would be extremely foolish to suppose that it actually is.

General Promotions

Elihu B. Washburne U.S. Congressman, Secretary of State, Minister to France. Mathew Brady-Levi Corbin Handy photo. Public Domain.

During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant showed a canny cognizance of the political winds which blew all around him. In that conflict, almost every general, North or South, was appointed and advanced politically. Even Grant, who demonstrated the highest ability, would never have received the opportunity to demonstrate that ability without the sponsorship of his local Congressman, Rep. Elihu Washburne. The Congressman put Grant in for a brigadier general’s star, immediately began thumping for his promotion to major general, and in every possible way championed Grant’s career.

In 1863, Grant was tasked with taking the city of Vicksburg, which President Abraham Lincoln saw as “the golden key” to unlock the Confederacy. Take Vicksburg from the rebels, and you re-open the Mississippi River to Union navigation. At the same time, you dreadfully complicate Confederate efforts to get men and materiel from the Trans-Mississippi West (Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas). Vicksburg in Union hands would be the beginning of the end of the rebellion.

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

Trouble was, Grant’s first try—aided by loyal subordinates Sherman and Macpherson and the ambitiously disloyal McClernand—had come to naught, for reasons beyond Grant’s control. “The strategical way according to the rule,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, “would have been to go back to Memphis; establish that as a base of supplies; fortify it so that the storehouses could be held by a small garrison, and move from there along the line of the railroad, repairing as we advanced, to the Yallabusha, or to Jackson, Mississippi.” 

However, “At this time the North had become very much discouraged. . . . It was my judgment at the time that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat, and that the draft would be resisted, desertions ensue, and the power to capture and punish deserters lost. There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory.

What Grant delicately omitted was that political powers in Washington wanted Grant removed and replaced with McClernand—an officer who, despite his loyalty to the Union, was unfit for high command. So long as Grant was actively campaigning against Vicksburg, it was not too hard for Lincoln to resist these demands for his scalp. But any movement that appeared to be a retreat—back to Memphis, for example—would  most likely seal his fate. I am not the first to suggest that if Grant had done anything other than what he did—go forward through the Mississippi lowlands with no established supply line, feeding his army off the land—he would have lost his job. So that’s exactly what he did.

Grant could not afford to ignore politics.

In the end, he found a way to win without losing his job.

So What?

How does this history apply to the present day? Simply in this: Those who wish to serve the country need to be entirely apolitical; but they cannot afford to ignore the politics of the situation.

There are a lot of players, political and otherwise. One is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, an interesting figure. He is on the opposite political team from the president—but neither of them can afford to make trouble with the other in facing the coronavirus challenge, both for political reasons, and for the sake of people’s health.

Cuomo, like any experienced governor, knows quite a bit about handling emergencies. I saw him on TV the other day, revealing one of the key things about emergencies—a lesson I learned years ago as a worker in Wisconsin’s state emergency operations. There are two things, Cuomo said—I’m loosely paraphrasing—two things: One is the objective state of things: the resources, the damage, the things that need to be repaired; or in the case of a pandemic disease, the infection rates, testing kits, all that operational stuff. The other thing is the public perception of the situation. The latter is what drives rumors, panics, compliance with relief plans or the lack of compliance, etc. Often, Cuomo said, that second factor, the public perception, gets to be a greater problem than the disaster scenario itself. 

Cuomo is dead accurate on that. (Your New Favorite Writer’s note to self: Write a blog post sometime about the 1996 Weyauwega, Wisconsin, train derailment.)

The only thing leaders can do about the second factor, the public perception, is to provide a steady flow of factual information from official sources. Credibility is key. People know when they’re being lied to, and it’s the kiss of death in handling an emergency.

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. NIAID photo, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Enter Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his sidekicks Dr. Deborah Brix, Admiral Brett Giroir, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams. These people are the key medical players on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. They are physicians with impeccable credentials and experienced public health leaders. Their usefulness on the task force is based on their ability to help move key decisions. But just as important is the straightness of their dialog with the American public as principal briefers of this ongoing emergency. 

What makes them useful is that they never say anything that is not factual. Their credibility is gilt-edged. It is a remarkable feat, day in and day out, to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, from the epicenter of a hurricane of fear, anxiety, and political games. 

As Executive Branch employees, they work under the authority of President Donald J. Trump—a gargantuan figure and one who speaks in momentarily expedient approximations. Fauci ranks as a genius, saying what is true and correcting what is false, while affirming truths uttered by the president and never crossing swords with him over statements that may be less reliable. 

Without being himself a politician, Anthony Fauci knows how to survive in a tough political environment, giving good service and straight advice with an easy grace. 

He reminds me of Ulysses S. Grant, who made virtues of necessities and got the military job done without having to bother Abe Lincoln overmuch with messy details.

Funny how often parts of the present resemble parts of the past.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Wuhan that Aprille . . .

We’ll be having an unusual spring.

When vast public ills descend on us, usually we can pinpoint the moment, or the day, when they became manifest.

In the case of sudden events—the eruption of Vesuvius, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, etc.—the time of their occurrence, even to the second, is obvious to all.

John Martin’s 1821 painting Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Public Domain.

Other disasters roll out more slowly, and the precise moment we later remember is really an instant of realization, a time when the nature and dimensions of the threat suddenly crystallized. Thus it was at the Battle of Shiloh—April 6-7, 1862—when the emergence of forty thousand yipping rebels from the woods near a Tennessee River landing destroyed the wishful Northern hope that the Secession had almost run its course. Likewise, in the spring of 1965, the Students for a Democratic Society’s march on Washington served notice that the Vietnam War would not be, like previous wars, supported by most of the American public. 

The Slow Roll

So it is with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been raging, in China, since 1 December 2019. On 7 January 2020 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, relating to “the cluster of cases of pneumonia of an unknown etiology.” On 9 January the World Health Organization confirmed the existence of a “novel coronavirus,” and the first death occurred in China.

On 19 January, cases began appearing in areas of China outside Wuhan. 

On 21 January, the United States reported its first laboratory-confirmed case, in the state of Washington. 

Li Wenliang. Fair use.

On 28 January, China’s Supreme People’s Court ruled that whistleblower, Li Wenliang, had not committed the crime of spreading “rumors” when on 30 December 2019 he posted to a WeChat forum for medical school alumni that seven patients under his care appeared to have contracted SARS. In their ruling, the Supreme People’s Court stated, “If society had at the time believed those ‘rumors’. . . perhaps it would’ve meant we could better control the coronavirus today. Rumors end when there is openness.”

On 6 February, Dr. Li died of the coronavirus illness.

By that time, there were thousands of cases in China and many cases in other countries of the world and certain cruise ships at sea or quarantined in ports. 

Since then, we have had daily reports of new illness and deaths in many places around the world, and in the United States. America’s and the world’s financial markets have crashed as airlines, cruise lines, and many other business have seen their customer streams and supply chains badly affected.

Moment of Truth

Yesterday—Wednesday, 11 March 2020—is when this illness became real to most of us: 

Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. Photo by lakesbutta. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
  • Tom Hanks caught it. And his wife, Rita Wilson. They have been diagnosed in Australia, where they are making a film.
  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that their annual basketball tournament would be played with practically nobody in the stands. (Today, they canceled the event entirely.)
  • The World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic (as if we didn’t know already).
  • Donald J. Trump made a speech from the Oval Office. Whether you liked it or not probably depends on what you think of Trump generally.
  • Norway closed, for crying out loud!

Now that Tom Hanks, our national Everyman, has caught the corona bug, and now that one of our great national festivals, the NCAA Tournament, has been canceled—COVID-19, overnight, has become dire in a way it was not before.

The Upshot

Classes, events, gatherings everywhere are being canceled or rescheduled. My own life has been affected: The University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute, an event many of us look forward to all year long, is suddenly off the books. We await, with bated breath, the new dates.

It’s most frustrating. But it really is necessary. A full-court press, in the realm of what we now call “social distancing,” is probably the greatest weapon we have to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus. It will save lives—mine for sure, maybe yours, too.

I have no advice for you, Dear Reader, any better than what you can get elsewhere. As Abraham Lincoln said in a much different context, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.” 

Please do your best to stay healthy. I need all the devoted readers I can get. 

Blessings and best wishes for a long, long life,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer.