Socially Distant Without the Stir-Craziness

Sunset at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis (photo by John Daly)

Last week, my son and I saw our first movie at a theater in months, and boy was it a breath of fresh air. Of course, it wasn’t a typical theater… being that nearly all of those are still closed, and it wasn’t a new movie… being that production companies aren’t currently releasing anything outside of digital and streaming services. In fact, the aforementioned fresh air was of the literal sense, flowing through our open car windows at a drive-in theater about 45 minutes from our house.

Yes, there are still some operating drive-ins in this country, and they’ve even seen a surge in popularity in the socially-distant era of COVID-19. After all, they’re outside (where the virus has a harder time spreading) and it’s easy to stagger parking spots to give each car about 10 feet of separation.

At the Holiday Twin in Fort Collins, CO, we watched one of our all-time favorites, Jaws (which incidentally turned 45 years old this year).

The ambiance was really pretty special, and it went well beyond the nostalgia and timeless aura of the film (which ironically displays some remarkable parallels with today’s crisis, and how people are treating it). Just seeing folks enjoying and reacting to a shared summer experience from the back of pickups and hatchbacks was a treat. I’d even describe it as rejuvenating, which I suppose makes sense considering how socially limited we’ve become.

The restrictive nature of the coronavirus is something we’ve been grappling with as a nation since March, and as it lingers on and intensifies in some states, even those lucky enough to have kept their jobs and preserved their livelihoods have felt isolated and grown a bit stir-crazy from the monotony.

People need a break from the repetition, and a good remedy is to get outside and enjoy a change of scenery. It’s summertime after all, and with the season comes opportunities that didn’t exist in the early days and weeks of the health crisis.

A drive-in movie is a great distraction (which I highly recommend), and in downtown areas across the country, restaurants are being allowed to extend their dining areas to sidewalks and even roped off streets in front of their buildings. These are good (and relatively safe) escapes, but a longer more sustainable kind comes compliments of nature itself.

Weeks ago, when my family recognized that flying out of state and staying in a hotel probably wouldn’t be a viable vacation option this year, we took a step back and finally pulled the trigger on buying a pop-up camper. The one we found (on Craigslist) wasn’t anything fancy. It was over 20 years old, and had some expected wear and tear, but it was nothing we couldn’t live with. Over a few weekends, we spruced it up, and made our maiden voyage in early June with a simple, socially-distant overnight in Colorado’s high country.

Things went well (that’s another way of saying nothing broke and no one got hurt), so we got back on the road this week (packing some extra masks), and headed for the rugged, dryer, southern part of the state for a few nights. We set up camp near the Royal Gorge, a deep canyon of the Arkansas River that supports the highest bridge in the United States. Since it’s a suspension bridge, it rocks a bit from the wind as you walk across it (which I wont lie, was a little unnerving).

 

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We then headed farther south to a little-known place called Bishop’s Castle. This amazing, one-man, lifelong project (started in the 1960s) is surrounded by the mountains of the San Isabel National Forest. It’s an unorthodox, artistic, housing-code-violating, true testament to power of individualism and personal dedication. And frankly, standing in the wind on top of its highest, uneven tower (which can’t be more than 8 feet in diameter) was more breathtaking than peering over the railing at the Royal Gorge Bridge.

Making our way east, we spent a night at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve, which I’d heard a lot about as a kid, but had never been to. Immersing ourselves in such a surreal, middle-of-nowhere landscape (nearly 30 square miles of tall dunes) was an experience we’ll never forget. The sunset alone (pictured up top) may have been worth the trip.

And since the area down south is also known for its extraordinary number of unidentified flying objects, we of course felt obligated to check out the “world famous” UFO Watchtower (which I’m still trying to make sense of).

 

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There’s more I could share, but the point I’m trying to make is that it was a cheap getaway, it made for a much-needed scenic change, it was good exercise, and I can count on one hand the number of times we came within 6 feet of another person.

In other words, you can stay safe without letting COVID-19 call all the shots.

It’s been a few years since I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, so my memory could be slightly off, but I believe he makes the point in the novel that the ability to travel is its own form of personal property — something that others can’t take away from you, not in a country like the United States. Of course, there are limits to this, especially in the modern era, but generally speaking McCarthy has a point.

Travel isn’t a luxury only afforded to rich people. A tent, some food and water, a little extra time on your hands, and the means to get from one place to another is really all it takes. There’s ownership in that.

Right now, in this troublesome era we’re slogging through, getting outdoors and going somewhere new (as long as you can do it safely) is perhaps one of the more liberating experiences you’ll find.

It sure was for my family.

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A Political Rant About Numbers

One thing that aggravates me about today’s political landscape is the way in which we choose to look at data, specifically numbers. We live in an era where our capacity to collect data, identify trends, and predict likely outcomes has never been better, yet we often tend to latch onto the figures that aren’t particularly important, while ignoring the stuff that is actually a pretty big deal.

I realize that importance is a subjective term, and that a figure that’s important to one person understandably may not be important to someone else. But I do think, from a societal perspective, that some numbers should be widely recognized as being far more important than others.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about, in the context of some current events:

On Twitter the other day, Stefan Rahmstorf posted this chart of new, confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, India, Brazil, and the United States:

Rahmstorf is a German oceanographer and climatologist, and I believe that the data he posted was accurate. But his “Without words” analysis doesn’t do the information justice, nor does it bolster the full narrative I think he was going for (or at least the narrative than many took from it).

Since comparative health data like this is something the American media pays a lot of attention to, it’s good to understand what it means.

A number that matters: new COVID-19 cases

As our country works to balance the mitigation of COVID-19 with the re-opening of our economy, it’s all the more important that we pay close attention to the number of new cases (including hospitalizations and deaths), and where they’re happening. The more data we have, the more effectively states and other communities can identify hot-spots, warn of increased risks, and address medical capacity issues.

Testing is a crucially important part of this process. The more testing of people, the better the data. The better the data, the safer Americans will ultimately be.

Somewhat conversely, President Trump has described the uptick in testing as a “double-edged sword,” because it adds to the number of confirmed U.S. cases, and therefore reflects poorly on him (from a purely political perspective). He has even claimed that he ordered officials to slow down the testing for that very reason. And despite members of his administration insisting he was just joking, Trump later confirmed that he was being serious.

Of course, the president’s rhetoric here is foolish (and let’s hope rhetoric is all it is). What’s important is that our testing capacity has gotten much better in the U.S. And while that accounts for some of the upward trajectory in that chart above, it doesn’t account for most of it. In other words, Houston, we have a problem.

A number that doesn’t matter: U.S. COVID-19 cases compared to other countries

When gauging how successful the United States has been at combating the coronavirus — in comparison to the rest of the world — the important figure is not the raw number of infections, hospitalizations, or even deaths. There are a few reasons for that, the most important (and simple) one being that more people live in the United States than in most of those other countries.

Many people in the U.S. media don’t seem to get this, or perhaps they’re just pretending not to get it for the purpose of handing the Democrats a perceived political advantage over President Trump. Rather than comparing the raw numbers (which are always going to suggest that we have a disproportionately high number of coronavirus cases here in the United States), they should be comparing the per capita numbers.

There’s good reason to be concerned with how many cases we’re seeing here, but this defeatist narrative that we’ve navigated through this crisis far worse than nearly every other nation on the planet is a bit over the top.

A number that matters: election polling numbers

Contrary to popular belief, the 2016 election did not discredit major polling organizations. In fact, as I’ve written in the past, the national polls four years ago ended up being surprisingly accurate. It was some local polling in a couple of key swing-states that got it wrong.

While national polling doesn’t necessarily reflect the nuances of the electoral college, it’s a pretty darned good indicator of national sentiment. And right now, the Real Clear Politics national average of polls shows Joe Biden with a whopping 10-point lead over Donald Trump. Other polls show Biden leading Trump in six out of seven key battleground states (though again, local polling has proven less reliable).

None of this is good news for President Trump. Does it mean the election is over? No.

Polls are still a snapshot of time. Lots of things can happen between now and November. But the polls do matter, because they tell campaigns how their candidates are doing with the American people. They identify areas of strength and weakness, and help the campaigns decide when it’s time to perhaps try a new strategy or promote a new message. And right now, what Trump and his team are doing simply isn’t working.

A number that doesn’t matter: election rally sizes

Many of President Trump’s critics had fun mocking the low turnout for his much-hyped campaign rally last Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I wasn’t among them.

In fact, I was somewhat relieved to see those images of an arena only a third full. It signified that while Trump himself may not care all that much about his most loyal fans potentially spreading a deadly virus during a global pandemic, a lot of Oklahomans do care. They put public safety before politics by staying home.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand where the mockery is coming from. Few things matter more to Trump than being cheered by large crowds, and boasting about the level of support he has. That’s why his campaign followed through with the reckless, indoor event. Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale bragged earlier in the week that more than one million tickets had been requested for the event.

In the end, just 6,200 people showed up. It was a big blow to Trump’s ego, and everyone knew it. But it means nothing in regard to Trump’s popularity with the base, nor his chances of winning in November.

On a related note, it sure would be nice to see some consistency from some of Trump’s critics. While it was absolutely irresponsible for the president and his campaign to put together an event that defied many of the administration’s own health-crisis guidelines, it was also careless for other politicians, media figures, an even some epidemiologists to give their blessing to the massive, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder, George Floyd protests across the nation.

Simply put, COVID-19 doesn’t care about anyone’s political or cultural views. Righteous indignation is not an inoculant against the virus

A number that matters: the national debt

Our national debt recently surpassed $26 trillion. That’s nearly $80 thousand per American citizen, and well over $200 thousand per U.S. taxpayer. Like the Democratic Party, the GOP has lost all interest in addressing the issue. The party no longer even pretends to care about the most predictable major crisis in our nation’s history, which is particularly disheartening being that Republicans absolutely hammered President Obama and the Democrats on this issue for eight straight years. And they were right to. After all, a whopping $9 trillion was added to the national debt during that time.

But amazingly, almost $8 trillion is projected to be added to the debt by the end of Trump’s first term alone. Yes, the recession caused by the coronavirus spurred a big spike in spending. But even before the health crisis came along, during a time when we were seeing unprecedented economic growth and unprecedented tax revenue, Trump was already on pace to outspend Obama.

Every American should care about this, but next to no one still does. The fiscal burden being placed on our children and grandchildren is not only astronomical. It’s also immoral.

A number that doesn’t matter: ratings, clicks, and social media followers

Performative politics have been part of our news-media culture for some time, but the situation has never been as bad as it is right now. The format of nearly every political commentary show on television (and on the Internet) directly caters to one political tribe or another. The goal is no longer to inform or broaden the horizons of viewers, nor is it to present a contest of ideas. It’s to piggyback off of people’s political passion, in order to generate the largest audience possible. This is done by satisfying people’s partisan hunger with hours of angry, animated, confirmation bias.

The same is true of news websites — the ones that publish mostly commentary, anyway. The endless pursuit of web-clicks has led to an extraordinary number of outrageous headlines and ridiculously slanted “stories.” The type of junk that used to be confined to fringe blog sites is now published at the top of major web-outlets whose writers regularly appear as guests on the television programs described above.

Far too many members of Congress are also in on the act, seemingly spending more time showboating on cable news and social media — peddling sycophantism, partisan angst, and maybe even a new book — than they do engaging in anything that resembles a legislative process. The goal for some of these folks, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Matt Gaetz, seems not to represent their constituents, but rather to be celebrities.

Purely from a business standpoint, ratings, clicks, and social media followers do matter. They also clearly matter to the egos of people like President Trump.

But to regular folks, none of this stuff amounts to a hill of beans. And if it does, it shouldn’t.

Because political thought-leadership has been effectively replaced with performative politics, people’s minds aren’t being changed. There are next to no voices of influence left on these media platforms to persuade individuals (including elected officials) to venture outside of their comfort zones, and look at an issue differently than how the leader of their political tribe wants them to look at.

Without the influence of independent thought, political viewership, listenership, and readership most often amount to little more than fandom. Having lot of fans doesn’t make an individual credible or wise. It doesn’t even make them particularly smart. It just means that they are, to some extent, famous.

So, when one of these “famous” folks suggests that he or she is of particular political or societal importance because of their popularity, the appropriate response is a chuckle and maybe an eye-roll.

That said, if any of you choose to follow me on social media, I will not object.

Thanks for sticking with me through this inordinately long piece. This concludes my political rant about numbers.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!

 




All the Damn Vampires

In the final scene of 1987’s The Lost Boys, divorced mother Lucy (played by Dianne Wiest) finds herself in a perilous situation. She has just discovered that Max, the mild-mannered video-store owner she’s been dating, is a monster. And I don’t mean that in the figurative sense. He’s literally a monster — a vampire to be precise.

To make matters worse, he’s not just some run of the mill vampire. He’s the head vampire — the patriarch of a group of teenaged vampires who he sees as his sons. As it turns out, his efforts to court Lucy throughout the film were part of a secret plan to integrate her and her own teenaged sons into one big family of the undead, forming what one character colorfully describes as “the blood-sucking Brady Bunch.”

But things didn’t go exactly as Max had hoped. To spare themselves from being turned into creatures of the night, Lucy’s sons (with some help) killed the teen vamps, compelling Max to finally reveal his true self and put forth one last-ditch effort to make Lucy his eternal bride. He grabs her youngest son, Sam (Corey Haim), and threatens to break his neck unless Lucy agrees to join him.

“Don’t fight, Lucy,” Max says as he extends his hand. “It’s so much better if you don’t fight.”

Sam pleads with his mother not to give in, but after a few seconds of thought, and no rescue in sight, she chooses to sacrifice herself to save her son’s life. She warily lowers her head and offers Max her hand.

I won’t give away what happens next, though I’m sure just about everyone has seen the movie (and if you haven’t, shame on you). Let’s just say that any “Okay Boomer” type thoughts the audience had throughout the film are suddenly sent packing.

Anyway, the scene carries with it some real-life relevance in the realm of today’s presidential politics. Both sides no longer seem all that interested in earning the support of voters. Each instead tries to scare the holy hell out of voters by portraying the electoral choice not as a contest of competing visions, but essentially as a matter of life and death.

If you want the country to live, vote for my candidate. If you want its neck broken, don’t.

How’s that for nuance?

That’s not to say that the choice isn’t a consequential one. It is on many levels. But presenting every election as a hostage situation, in which the very survival of the country is dangled in front of a desperate electorate, is unhealthy for representative democracy. It removes the burdens traditionally (and appropriately) carried by candidates and their campaigns, and places them directly on the shoulders of the voters. In other words, it effectively takes all considerations of a candidate’s fitness, record, and even ideas off the table. This is about survival, after all. Everything else is a luxury we simply can’t afford.

It’s a deeply disingenuous premise and it grossly exaggerates the power and authority of the presidency in our nation’s system of government. But it’s easy and often effective to just scare people. So that’s why it’s done.

Don’t get me wrong. There are things about our country and its future that voters absolutely should be scared about. One that immediately comes to mind is our national debt, which recently shot past $26 trillion. The size of our debt will, with 100% certainty, lead to a national catastrophe. But both parties have effectively abandoned the issues of limited government and fiscal conservatism, and a president can’t fix the problem on his own, even if he or she wanted to.

Instead, we hear about hypotheticals.

In 2012, when the economy was still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, Vice President (and current presumed Democratic presidential nominee) Joe Biden famously told an African American audience that the GOP presidential ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan was going to put them “back in chains.” This was just days after a liberal group re-ran a controversial ad in swing-states depicting Ryan pushing an elderly woman in a wheel chair (portrayed as a Medicare recipient) off of a cliff… literally.

In 2016, the case from Trump supporters was that Hillary Clinton would flood the Supreme Court with liberal, abortion-without-restrictions justices that would change the fabric of our nation forever. Hillary Clinton supporters argued that Trump would not only destroy the U.S. economy, but probably even get us into a nuclear war.

Taking a step back, both Trump and Clinton were unapologetically corrupt individuals. Both were terrible candidates, and gave persuadable voters no reason to believe they’d become better, more dignified people once in office. But because the choice was a matter of life and death, they didn’t really even have to try and make that case.

The campaign slogans might as well have been, “Submit to me and how I do things, or suffer the consequences,” and, “Whether you love me or hate me, you’ve got to vote for me.”

That second quote is a real one. It came from President Trump at a rally last year as he highlighted the strength of the economy, and declared that it will all come crashing to the ground if he isn’t re-elected.

Of course, the economy has since gone into recession. You can’t exactly pin that on Trump (the global pandemic would have found its way to America regardless of who was president), but one would think that the altered dynamics would effectively put an end to this notion that the fate of American prosperity sits squarely in the hands of a specific individual occupying the White House.

Even Obama, who made all kinds of mistakes on the U.S. economy during his tenure, managed to hand off a rather strong one to President Trump. Things got even better after Trump okayed the GOP tax bill put together by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Supporters (and the president himself) like to portray Trump is some kind of savior for the results, but the truth is that he stayed out of the legislative process almost entirely, his sole contribution being a promise to sign whatever Ryan and McConnell put on his desk. He certainly kept that promise, but who knows if he ever even bothered to read the bill.

Yet, the life and death stuff is again the popular narrative for this year’s election, which of course means we still can’t afford the consideration of the candidates having to earn our vote. We just need to suck it up and hand over our support to prevent the apocalypse. Newt Gingrich, a reliable Trump defender, wrote as much in a recent op-ed:

“Our choice in November will not be between President Trump and President Perfection. It will be between President Trump and a nightmare that would end America as we have known it.”

And to hit home his point, Newt added this:

“Expect virtually every significant Trump executive order to be repealed in the first 90 days. Every liberal think tank and activist group is building a list of executive orders to be repealed, and my guess is that Obama administration alumni who have drafted executive orders in the past would actually have the draft orders completed by a potential Biden inaugural.”

There’s an obvious problem with Newt’s logic. If the repeal of Trump’s executive orders signifies the end of America as we have known it, that’s a direct failure of the president himself for sidestepping Congress (doing much of it at a time when his party held majorities in both the House and Senate) and governing so often by executive fiat (which is purely a temporary measure).

In other words, the shallow nature of those “victories” is indicative of Trump’s lack of foresight, or perhaps his failure as the “master negotiator” he promised to be. But under the life and death narrative, his negligence is actually a perceived advantage because it portrays Trump as indispensable.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it with these electoral doomsday ultimatums, and wish on them the same ultimate fate as the head vampire from The Lost Boys. If our country’s two major political parties are so incredibly weak that they can’t put forth minimally acceptable candidates who can make the case for themselves, and who don’t treat voters like objects of fearful desperation who have no real choice, my consent will not be theirs for the taking.

But I will consent to watching The Lost Boys again, maybe even this weekend. It really is a great flick.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!

 




Never Letting a Trivial Detail Go to Waste

It’s been one of those weeks where all kinds of disheartening stories have leapt, in rapid succession, to the front of the national news cycle. Included have been acts of police brutality, rioting and looting that are destroying people’s lives and livelihoods, and multiple counts of shameless political theater put on by our “leaders” in government (as everything burns to the ground behind them). And oh yeah, did you forget about that global pandemic that’s still going on?

In other words, there are plenty of topics for a political columnist to delve into. But frankly, it’s been a trying week for me personally, topped off by my elderly parents getting into a car accident up in the mountains the other day. Don’t worry, they’re okay other than some scrapes and soreness (thank God), but I’ve had a tough time focusing on writing this week. So, today, instead of getting into a terribly serious topic, I figured I’d wrap up some thoughts I’d been jotting down on a strain of today’s political discourse that I’ve been seeing more and more examples lately.

I’ll begin… with a metaphor.

One of my all-time favorite television shows is NYPD Blue. The 1990’s police drama was edgy, extremely well written and acted, and well ahead of its time. Those who’ve read my novels may have even picked up on some influences from the show.

There’s a particular episode I sometimes think about when observing today’s political debates. It guest-starred actor Zack Ward. Ward’s name wouldn’t ring a bell for most people, but you’ve almost assuredly seen (and enjoyed) at least a little bit of his work. As a youngster, he played the red-haired, raccoon-hat wearing school bully who torments Ralphie and his friends in the film classic, A Christmas Story.

In NYPD Blue, a grown-up Ward portrays a not-so-bright guy named Jerry. In the episode, Jerry gets upset with a buddy of his named Howie over an unpaid debt. Specifically, Howie lost a bet to him and didn’t pay up. The bet was over how long Howie’s petite girlfriend could last inside one of those big laundromat dryers… while it’s running.

Howie’s a real catch, ladies.

Anyway, the girlfriend didn’t hold up as well as Howie had hoped. After just a couple minutes, she could no longer bear the heat and her body being tossed around in circles. She demanded to be let out, and the contest ended. Howie lost. But again, he refused to settle up with Jerry.

Well, this ticked off Jerry — so much that he quickly went home, grabbed his gun, returned to the laundromat, and fired a shot at Howie. Only, the bullet missed Howie and hit someone else inside the laundromat… who ended up dying from the wound.

It wasn’t a great day for anyone, when think about it. And everyone involved in the incident fled the scene… Well, everyone except the girlfriend who was still too dizzy and sick to pull off an effective getaway.

Enter pop-culture icon Andy Sipowicz (played by the great Dennis Franz). Once he and other Precinct 15 detectives figured out what had happened (the girlfriend wasn’t particularly helpful), they snatched up Jerry and brought him down to the station to be interrogated. To their surprise, Jerry was pretty upfront about what happened. Only, according to him, there was a much bigger fish to fry than the issue of a dead man on a laundromat floor.

Jerry said that the man detectives should really be looking at was Howie. After all, Howie was the guy who “welshed” on the bet, and put the entire series of events in motion. So it was Howie, not Jerry, who should be going to prison.

To be clear, Jerry’s defense wasn’t just some lame, Hail Mary pass to save his own rear. He genuinely believed that he was making a compelling point, that he was in the right, and that the detectives — once they understood that details — would kick him loose.

Jerry clearly didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the situation he was in, nor the glaring asymmetry in his argument. To him, the key issue everyone should have been focused on was the monetary debt that hadn’t been paid. Even after Jerry was arrested for murder, and was being taken away, he spotted Howie at the police station and scolded him for being a welsher.

Needless to say, Jerry’s reasoning was absurd (albeit entertaining). It was indicative of an individual who lacks moral perspective, and has a very warped sense of societal accountability.

But I’m not convinced that would be the general take among observers in the realm of today’s politics. Because, truth be told, Jerry is actually quite representative of our political discourse, whether it be on cable-news, the Internet, or even in casual discussion.

Whenever there’s a controversial, incontrovertible issue or incident that draws national headlines and challenges (or reflects poorly on) the inclinations of a political tribe, a certain defense mechanism kicks in. Members of that tribe quickly focus on some minute detail of the story, and accept and promote it not only as the conclusive takeaway, but also as a wholesale discrediting of the larger controversy.

We saw this a few weeks ago when President Trump strongly implied that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (non-coincidentally a prominent Trump critic) murdered a former aide. The young woman, in reality, died after fainting and hitting her head. Trump’s accusation was a big story, as it should be when a sitting president advances a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that desecrates the memory of an innocent woman, while bringing needless pain and suffering to her family. By any objective standard of decency, what the president did was an utter disgrace.

But no so fast… Trump defenders (including the White House Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany) latched onto an old radio interview Scarborough did with Don Imus. It took place a couple years after the aide’s untimely death. In the last few seconds of that interview (which was lighthearted and jovial), Imus — a shock jock — said something shocking. He made a distasteful joke about Scarborough sleeping with an intern and then killing her. Scarborough laughed off the comment, and kind of rolled with it as the interview ended.

Somehow, in the minds of the Trump faithful, this hurried, seconds-long exchange from 17 years ago became the real story. As far as they were concerned, it not only negated Trump’s controversial statements and put the burden on Scarborough to have to answer for his insensitivity, but even bolstered Trump’s case that police investigators should be looking into Scarborough.

We saw something similar just a few days ago, after Trump’s widely panned photo-op in front St. John’s Episcopal Church. Protesters were cleared out of the area beforehand by U.S. Park Police and Secret Service who used, by their own admission, smoke canisters and pepper balls. Then, Trump and members of his cabinet walked to the nearby church, video crew in tote, where the president posed in front of the building holding up a Bible. They all then returned to the White House where the video was edited, dubbed with dramatic music, and posted on the White House’s social media accounts.

The stunt was pretty clearly designed to convey strength following some media heckling Trump took from his critics about “hiding out” in the White House bunker the night before, when vandals from a George Floyd protest set part of the church on fire.

The real story, by any objective standard, was protesters being forcibly removed with smoke and chemicals in order for a President of the United States to, as the American Conservative’s Ron Dreher editorialized, “stand in front of a church flashing a Bible like a gang sign to get conservative Christians in line.”

Those inclined to defend Trump, however, chose to focus on a specific detail in the media’s reporting of the incident: reporters’ use of the term “tear gas” in their descriptions of how the protesters were pushed back by authorities.

Media pro-Trumpers like The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway led the charge, insisting that tear gas was never used, and that the media was spreading “fake news.” Trump himself retweeted the piece and others like it, and soon that’s all anyone was talking about.

There’s just one problem: pepper spray (which the USPP admits they used on the crowd) is actually a form of tear gas (which is a colloquial term). Even if one is inclined to engage in a semantics battle over the type of eye-irritating chemical agents that were used against the crowd, that doesn’t change the fact that chemical agents were used against the crowd… to clear a path for a political photo op.

Of course, it’s not just the political right that employs this technique. But as I’ve written in the past, people on the left are far more inclined to commit an almost inverse offense: trivializing or even omitting important details of a story in order to bolster a much larger societal narrative that the facts themselves just don’t warrant. This too perverts our political discourse.

A good example came this week from NBC News and Vice News, where journalists tried to compare the killing of George Floyd to a transgender black man named Tony McDade who was shot and killed by police in Florida that same week.

The aim was clearly to shove the McDade shooting into the “Black Lives Matter” theme of police brutality, and callous police officers unjustly killing black suspects. The problem is that both outlets seriously downplayed, and in some cases entirely omitted, some key details of the incident:

  • McDade had just been released from prison
  • He killed his 21-year-old neighbor just 15 minutes before the confrontation with police
  • On Facebook earlier that day, he posted that he was planning to kill people, and then be killed himself to keep from going back to prison
  • He had a gun that he threatened the officer with, prior to being shot

These are details that obviously matter, and should effectively disqualify comparisons to what happened to George Floyd.

Both of these partisan practices constitute an abuse of details that focus angst in a direction unsupported by the stories themselves. It’s done purely (and instinctively) out of internalized tribal interest, and it’s unhealthy to our political discourse, as well as our capacity to interpret issues rationally and with perspective. So, when people (especially politicians and members of the media) play this game, they should be called out.

But unfortunately, I’m not convinced that calling it out would serve as a deterrent. It’s become too natural of a response for far too many people. In other words, there are just too many Jerrys out there.

 




Trump’s Conspiratorial Cruelty Reminds Us That Words Matter

On July 19th of 2001, and young woman named Lori Klausutis showed up to work in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. She told multiple people that day that she felt ill. She later collapsed, struck her head as she fell, and died. Her body was found the next morning.

The medical examiner concluded that Klausutis had lost consciousness due to a previously undiagnosed heart condition. The head injury was ruled as the cause of her death.

It was an unmistakable tragedy. Klausutis, who was known to friends and family as “Little Miss Mary Sunshine” for her positive attitude, was just 28 years and happily married. Here life was cut far too short.

It’s almost unfathomable to think that nearly two decades later, her widower would find himself in the desperate position of having to beg for an end to abhorrent attacks on his wife’s memory by the sitting President of the United States. But unfortunately, that’s what’s happening.

How did we get here? Well, it’s really not all that complicated.

Our president has a long, well-documented history of advancing thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories. It’s sort of a hobby of his. And because a conspiracy theory exists involving one of his frequent media critics, Trump has decided to use his platform as our nation’s top executive to draw maximum attention to it… no matter who is hurt in the process.

In this case, the victims are the family and legacy of Lori Klausutis.

You see, Klausutis was an aide to then U.S. Congressman, Joe Scarborough. She happened to be working in his district office at the time of her death. Despite the ruling by the medical examiner, and the fact that there was no sign of foul play, a left-winger named Markos Moulitsas (of the The Daily Kos) took it upon himself back then to start a rumor than Scarborough was actually having an affair with Klausutis, and that her “suspicious” death was directly linked to that relationship.

Scarborough was in Washington DC the day Klausutis died, but that didn’t stop Moulitsas from suggesting he was somehow responsible her death. Moulitsas was upset about the fallout from recent high-profile affairs involving Democratic leaders (Bill Clinton and Gary Condit), and appeared to be motivated by political revenge, being that Scarborough was a Republican.

These days, Scarborough is an MSNBC host. He’s also a prominent critic of President Trump. In turn, Trump has dredged back up this disgusting conspiracy theory, and has been strongly suggesting that Scarborough is indeed a murderer. Here’s a couple of examples:

To state the obvious, there is no “cold case” in regard to Klausutis’s death. The case was closed in 2001, and that will remain true no matter how many conspiracy sites our president links to.

Understandably, Klausutis’s family is mortified by what the president has been doing. Yet, they’ve been reluctant to speak out, fearing that they would be targeted with retaliation by online conspiracy nuts like the ones who’ve grotesquely harassed the parents of Sandy Hook victims.

But last week, Timothy Klausutis (Lori’s widower) wrote a letter to Jack Dorsey, pleading with the chief executive of Twitter to delete President Trump’s tweets about his late wife.

“Her passing is the single most painful thing that I have ever had to deal with in my 52 years and continues to haunt her parents and sister,” wrote Timothy. “I have mourned my wife every day since her passing. I have tried to honor her memory and our marriage. As her husband, I feel that one of my marital obligations is to protect her memory as I would have protected her in life.”

He explained that he has struggled to move forward with his life because of “the constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died,” which has since been added to by Donald Trump.

“These conspiracy theorists, including most recently the President of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on your platform disparaging the memory of my wife and our marriage. President Trump on Tuesday tweeted to his nearly 80 million followers alluding to the repeatedly debunked falsehood that my wife was murdered by her boss, former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough. The son of the president followed and more directly attacked my wife by tweeting to his followers as the means of spreading this vicious lie.”

To support his request that the president’s tweets be deleted, Timothy cited Twitter’s rules and terms of service: “The President’s tweet that suggests that Lori was murdered (without evidence and contrary to the official autopsy)—is a violation of Twitter’s community rules and terms of service. An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet but I am only asking that these tweets be removed.”

Timothy closed his letter with these heartfelt remarks: “I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong him — the memory of my dead wife and perverted it for perceived political gain. I would also ask that you consider Lori’s niece and two nephews who will eventually come across this filth in the future. They have never met their Aunt and it pains me to think they would ever have to ‘learn’ about her this way. My wife deserves better.”

Regardless of how one feels about Twitter’s policies, and when and how they should be enforced, it’s Trump himself who has added to the family’s pain with this disgraceful, indefensible display.

I hear often from Trump fans, in response to my criticisms of our president’s conduct, that we shouldn’t judge him by the words that come out of his mouth. “Actions, not words!” they parrot, extending a dirt-low standard to Trump that they wouldn’t even afford to a friend or family member, let alone a different U.S. president.

But as I often argue, when you’re the leader of the free world, your words are actions. They can have deep consequences. They have the power to inspire people. They have the power to comfort citizens, assure allies, and fend off threats from bad actors. They also have the power to personally and needlessly devastate people.

Far too often, this president’s words follow the latter path. And those who refuse to hold him accountable — or worse, defend his behavior — only embolden more of it.