Sunday, October 25, 2020

Yes, calling it 'the Chinese virus' is racist and you don't have to be polite about it

There are still people who defend a gleeful propensity for referring to SARS-CoV-2 as "the China virus," emulating language frequently used by President Donald Trump. 

The defense of this language is that in the past, scientists have used geographical location as a reference in naming viruses, as with the Spanish flu, Ebola, Lyme disease, and other examples. 

They tend not to mention the fact that the World Health Organization issued guidance in 2015 to avoid naming infectious diseases for places where people live. 

The assistant director-general for health security at the time, Keiji Fukuda, stated that "the use of names such as 'swine flu' and 'Middle East Respiratory Syndrome' has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors. This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We've seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for people's lives and livelihoods." 

The scientists who identified the virus EBOV in 1976 initially thought to name the virus after a village, but even then they considered the danger of stigmatizing people who lived there, as had happened with past infectious diseases. Instead, as Live Science reported, they decided to name it for a nearby river: Ebola. 

There is inequity even in the stigmatization. Most people are likely unaware that Lyme disease is named for a town in Connecticut, and the name has certainly not led to harassment and assault upon people from that state. It is not colloquially known as "the Connecticut bacterium." 

There is no equivalence between this and the labeling of SARS-CoV-2 as "the China virus" and similar epithets.

"In the months since the coronavirus pandemic began, thousands of Asians in the U.S. have become targets of harassment and assault," National Geographic reported. "The racist incidents began as the first cases of coronavirus spread across China last December and disinformation reigned. As infections appeared in the U.S., President Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the 'China virus' and 'Chinese flu,' and pushed a disproved theory that it had originated in a Chinese lab. By April an IPSOS poll found that three in 10 Americans blamed China or Chinese people for the virus." 

Today, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows stated in a television interview that the administration's strategy was to "defeat" the novel coronavirus "because we're Americans." This inane nationalism treats COVID-19 like a proxy war waged against the U.S. by China. 

Viruses do not have ethnic identity, and neither do antibodies. Yet people of Asian descent have been harassed and assaulted in the United States for months because of the willful association of COVID-19 with ethnicity. 

Those who cite the "Spanish flu" and "German measles" and Lyme disease with amused innocence are being disingenuous and denying ongoing harm to people by the use of such language. 

When they insist that it is necessary to assign Chinese identity to the coronavirus, they should be accountable for their reasons. They should be asked whether the use of that sobriquet illuminates anything about the disease, how it spreads and what it does to human bodies. They should be asked, by their friends and colleagues, to explain what the value of that language is compared to stigmatizing and harming human beings who bear no culpability for an epidemiological crisis. 

And we should not pretend that harassment is not the apparent intent behind the insistent use of racial slurs to identify the virus.

The objection "BuT iT cAmE fRoM cHiNa" does not have to be taken in good faith in a discussion because it willfully ignores history, documented instances of ethnic stigmatization and harm to human beings. 

The expression is racist in sentiment and effect, and merits the scorn of a humane society. 


This blog has been largely inactive for a long time as I have a busy life writing news and columns every day for the Las Cruces Sun-News.

This originated as a Twitter thread. I also occasionally express myself on Facebook, which is sadly phasing out its "Notes" feature that resembled a blog and served nicely for longer efforts at self-expression. 

And I continue to write the Desert Sage column for the Sun-News, which no longer appears in the Deming Headlight but in the Sunday edition of the Las Cruces paper. 

In today's edition and online, Desert Sage calls for unseating the Commission on Presidential Debates's monopoly control over presidential arguments, arguing that its bipartisanship is the problem, not a virtue. Click here if you'd like to give that a read. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

On opinion pages, and Desert Sage

We woke up this morning to an unusual March snow shower in Deming, befitting a day much earlier in the winter. I ventured out to the post office and book shop down the road in order to give myself a taste of a weekend before retreating to my garage workspace to prepare for a long day tomorrow, covering the 30th memorial Bataan Death March.

Which, of course, I am further postponing by blowing the dust off this blog, but only for a brief announcement.

The Gannett company, which owns the Deming Headlight and Las Cruces Sun-News, is giving opinion pages a re-think, mainly of reducing them drastically. That includes editorials, which give a community's newspaper its voice. Some papers are eliminating these entirely.

For now, the Desert Sage column has a space on the shrinking iceberg, but the melt is underway.

To review, Desert Sage is an opinion column that originated on the Deming Headlight's opinion page in July of 2001. The author was Win Mott, a local Anglican bishop who lived and pastored in Luna and Grant counties before retiring and moving to Canada.

Win aimed for a slower, more thoughtful read, including philosophical and occasionally pastoral takes on the news of the day, and local news in particular. He wrote weekly until 2013, when he began sharing the column with a few other locals: Lynn Olson, Richard Thatcher, and me. From time to time there were other "pinch hitters" for the column,  like Paul Bringman. I handed in 1-2 columns a month.

Late in the summer of 2014, Win and Headlight editor Bill Armendariz invited me to take over the weekly deadline, Win moved on, and the Headlight began paying me. It was in 2017 that I got hired on as a news reporter, and I have kept the column going.

Under my byline, Desert Sage has turned more to state and national affairs, but maintains the tone of an amused, if often disappointed, desert denizen who reads, writes, and thinks. (And uses Oxford commas on his own time.)

It is hard to assess how large an audience the column has, but in the online universe that is Gannett's focus, its reach is small.

There are exceptions. Most recently, after my county joined other New Mexico counties in jumping in with the "constitutional sheriff" movement, my message of disapproval got some traffic and attracted more hate mail than usual. So did my caution about a large oil and gas discovery in the Permian Basin.

In 2018, USA Today gave a major boost to two of my columns, one about the U.S. Supreme Court and the other about detention center profiteering.

Other times, I write about humanities-based topics, like handwriting or writing letters, local theatre or education. These usually vanish into the louder streams of the worldwide web but they are very much part of the column's unique approach. It is my view that the crazy headline-grabbing stories follow from a culture that approaches education, the humanities, and the arts as it does.

In any case, it continues for now as a weekly print column and I have just begun, with KRWG Public Media, a weekly audio version. The first one aired last week and is available on KRWG's website.

My column this week, about the strange presidential announcement by Beto O'Rourke via Vanity Fair magazine, will be heard and posted sometime next week, one week behind publication in the Sun-News.

It also still appears in the Deming Headlight, of course, where Desert Sage began nearly 18 years ago.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Punching left is anti-democratic and aids fascism

Garrison flag flying over downtown Las Cruces, 21 September 2018

You're still seeing comments like this, and so am I:
This is the preferred narrative of "what happened" among supporters of the major party that lost the election as well as most political columnists working in dominant news media. Selfish voters who exercised their freedom of their choice to vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton. 

This is the "punching left" narrative.

We are weeks away from the 2018 elections and it might be time to stop indulging this narrative. It presents a poor analysis of what happened, or none at all.

Data: Some 35 million people voted for Trump. An even greater number voted for Hillary Clinton, but she lost the electoral vote in a few crucial states. Democratic operatives in two of those states (Michigan and Wisconsin) have spoken to press about how the campaign neglected their states because the campaign and party presumed they were in the bag. 

Still another factor neglected in the "left-punching" analysis is the number of voters who did not vote (or were prevented from voting). Pew Research did excellent work on this. In fairness, the tweet quoted above does include non-voters in its derision, but implies no interest in why people aren't voting. (They're just idiots.) The non-voter played a much greater factor in the election result than the much smaller number who voted for neither the Republican or Democratic candidates.

From a partisan standpoint, I suppose I understand the purpose of this narrative: punch the left, marginalize them and bully the rest into voting for the party. This is still preferred by a plurality to engaging in politics with them, incorporating their concerns into a successful platform and in choice of candidates - which, in fairness to the Democrats, they attempted to do during the platform phase of the 2016 campaign, when Bernie Sanders was ascendant.

From an analytical standpoint, punching left (or punching libertarians, wherever you place them) seems to ignore much larger factors in what happened. From a democratic standpoint, it seems to be demonizing people for exercising their right to make their own choice about for whom to vote.

I don't need the logic of strategic voting explained to me. I understand it fully well, I just consider it anti-democratic and a symptom of an unjust system that requires change. I'm not willing to call people names who actually do their job, show up at a polling place, and cast a ballot. Besides which, clearly a significant number of voters were responding to "strategic voting" by choosing third-party or - in far greater numbers - refusing to participate.

There is a tendency to think, due to the strategic voting issue, that Democrats are entitled to everybody's vote who is not a GOP supporter. The data suggests to me that party would be wise to reconsider that attitude, and start listening to the younger generation of voters.

There may very well be a backlash in 2018 that favors Democrats, but relying on duopolistic entitlement isn't going to carry them in 2020 - if that election even happens. 

And no, truly, I don't take a 2020 election for granted on this day in 2018. A very dangerous person occupies the presidency, and the party holding a majority is clearly pledged to protect him and its own power. I have heard him plainly lay out an argument for delegitimizing federal elections and test popular support for delaying them

We are an effective two-party system and neither party is responding aptly to our present crisis.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Journalism 1010101010101......

Interviewing an elementary school student in Las Cruces

Well, I'm still at it.

Yesterday, I put in a little Saturday overtime at the Las Cruces Sun News to finish up a story and participate in an editorial board interview with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich. When I plugged my laptop into the docking station and attempted to sign in, I got a message saying, "Your account has been disabled."

My initial reaction was a sensation of dropping calmly into my gut: There it is, I've been fired.

Congenitally unable to earn a paycheck in any profession where I am secure, it was the first and most obvious theory to explain my inability to log on. It was soon followed by a phone call to the Gannett company's tech support assuring me that this was a widespread problem that day, to hold tight, and I'd be reconciled to the USA Today network systems in a jiffy. And so I was.

It has been more than 17 months since I was offered a job as a news reporter, having no background in journalism. As odd as that is, it also makes sense by certain measures. I can write, and enjoy writing; I am curious, which encourages me to check things out. And I am obviously unafraid of entering insecure and unpopular professions.

After a year at the Deming Headlight, I got tapped to go and report at the Sun News, another Gannett property. I have been there since June, reporting mainly on local businesses and public education while continuing to write the "Desert Sage" column. I have also done some government reporting and other stories.

And technical problems notwithstanding, I have yet to be fired. My theatrical activity has been drastically curtailed and I now earn my bacon, surprisingly, by writing - which I've always thought of as my father's game.

I don't trust there is any job security but as long as I'm here I'm trying to figure out how to do it well and do some good before my account is disabled on purpose. There will be occasional theatrical performances, perhaps, but these will be more rare.

At least, until I get laid off again.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Imagining Memorial Day

What does "patriotism" mean? What does it look like? How do we "do" it? 
It's Memorial Day and just feet from my study there is an American Legion post. There have already been services today in Deming, in honor of those we have sent to war, those who fell, those who were injured, those who lost dear ones in war.
Attendance at these services is not compulsory, but there are things we are expected to say or assent to in silence; and there are things we cannot say.
We are expected to state or silently assent to the notion that all of America's wars are fought in defense of "our freedoms." I can understand this pressure, because it is obscene to think that our young men and women who devote themselves to military service and promise to say yes to their government's orders would ever be misused.
It is taboo to state that we might honor combat veterans by reducing our military aggression, deploying them on more peaceful missions, and sending far fewer people into harm's way.
I will not be accused of disloyalty or disrespect for the troops in saying that I would like a patriotism that is about building community, addressing past wrongs (as a country built on displacement and extermination of indigenous peoples and human bondage - a legacy that is indelible), and building a viable society whose holidays, anthems, and social customs all reinforce an expansive commitment to justice, humane regard for all, and to leaving a beautiful place for coming generations.
Likewise I would like one day to see Memorial Day as a day that remembers a time when America evolved from a country that sent its children to wage wars of American dominance generation after generation, until a new generation redefined America's mission and purpose in the world.
It begins with our ability to imagine. So my Desert Sagey advice this morning is, whether you take a moment to thank a veteran (a very good thing to do any day of the year) or salute a flag or whatnot, to imagine what else might be possible, what more, what better.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Lonely Americans

Americans are lonely, reports health insurer Cigna.

10,000 people who responded - half of the survey - reported feelings of loneliness and isolation. 54 percent said they feel nobody knows them well. 2 out of 5 said they lack companionship and meaningful relationships. Previous studies have shown similar findings, and yet this one indicates that the problem is more severe with the younger generation.

There are some unsurprising correlations. People reporting more in-person interactions tend to score as less lonely. Work-life balance is also correlative: working too much or too little contributes to isolation, since many of our daily relationships reside in workplaces. Time spent on social media or staring at screens is associated with greater isolation.

There are cultural dimensions the study does not address.

We are, as Wendell Berry put it, a "footloose" culture, oriented around individualist models of progress and achievement, routinely moving away from family and friends to pursue personal opportunity. (Berry later revised his comment to say we are "wheel-loose.")

On one hand, we enjoy tremendous personal freedom. On the other hand, it is considered entirely normal to pick up and leave the people you love behind for months, years, or even forever, for a job or some other personal opportunity.

I've done this several times myself, and if you were to ask me, "Where are you from?" I would struggle to answer you. I am honestly not sure anymore. I know where I grew up, of course, but I left that place 18 years ago and have only paid rare, brief visits since, despite feeling like I miss it. I've lived in Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Deming. Where the heck do I belong? Couldn't tell ya.

If 54 percent of this one survey said "no one knows them well," a greater percentage than said they lack companionship or meaningful relationships, we are looking at a number of people who feel unknown even to what companions they have. They may even refer to some of these people, whom they say do not know them well, as "friends" in the casual manner we use the word.

On average, we move somewhere every few years: Americans average more than 11 moves in their lifetime. Tens of millions every year. That's a mass migration event every year.

There is also a medical reality here: social connection is related to better mental and physical health. If the conversation is primarily medical, however, we risk falling into a kind of scientism where we think about human connection as a treatment plan, with statistics and goals particular to improving some metric: "My social connection index didn't go up this month, I need to get out there and talk to somebody!" That wouldn't really be social connection.

We've done this with physical exercise: it's good to get out and walk or run or play with the kids and secondary to that it's good for your heart; if you're out for a walk or talking with your child and half of you is thinking about your heart rate or your cholesterol or your distance, half of you is not really doing what you're doing.

I even know someone who put her fitbit on a kid to help her meet her goal - saw saw the irony, but she did it. Because GOAL.

Anyway, what it boils down to is, a lot of people are unhappy, don't have the kind of friendships that can help them, and we barely even have a vocabulary allowing us to talk about it.

The picture that emerges is that a lot of us don't know where, or to whom, we belong, or even where and with whom we are now. How, then, would it be possible to know oneself?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The White House Correspondents' Dinner is a gruesome spectacle - let's end it

The annual mixer between the White House Correspondents Association, federal officials, high-profile journalists, and other celebrities is a gruesome spectacle and it would be well to retire it.

In a recurring pattern, the dinner was held last night, a comedian delivered a hard-hitting roast-style monologue, and the morning after the media is clucking about whether said comedian went too far.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's what a roast is. A roast is a series of jokes that go a bit too far. It isn't my cup of tea, either. Reading over comedian Michelle Wolf's routine, I see some jokes about the personal appearance of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. [EDIT: Strangely, the one that's getting the most attention, about "burning facts" and using the ash as eye makeup, isn't really a joke about her appearance - it's very clearly a joke about the administration's constant lying.]

I don't think I could attend a roast, even if I wasn't the one being roasted. My anxiety on behalf of the person being targeted would be overwhelming - unless it was clear they were in on the joke, but when they are in front of people being skewered the social pressure is to "be a sport" and take the beating, making it hard to judge whether they are truly all right. Here, again, the matter of consent.

On the other hand, where can we ground a discussion of personal cruelty, when this involves an administration that got itself elected on hate speech directed at Mexicans and Muslims, and an official who has repeatedly - routinely - misled the public about the administration that has exhibited pettiness and cruelty as a matter of routine? And to whom do we speak of decency, after 65 million Americans voted for such a person?

Anyway, I will never occupy this particular room myself, partly because of my station, but I would decline even if I were invited. (And you can hold me to that - I promise this post has NOT been written by a time-traveling hacker infiltrating my Blogger account.)

As a general principle, it would be incompatible with my public function as a journalist to be so chummy with the powerful. In my own local reporting, my relationships with elected officials are cordial, but there is a line I observe.

Beside that general principle, the White House Correspondents Dinner itself is a repulsive enterprise.

The first one was a small gathering of about 50 newspaper people and some aides to President Harding. With Coolidge, Presidents began attending, and the thing grew in size and prominence. There is a morning-of brunch for writers and participants that is seen as a high-status invite. The dinner is now a televised spectacle and part of a complex and deeply corrupt relationship between some of our top news organizations and the politically powerful.

First there is a spectacle of journalists yokking it up with the powerful people they are supposed to be reporting about, in a luxurious setting. Then a comedian gets up and roasts the President, other people present, and the media generally. Then the media criticizes the comedian over jokes that made anyone - especially the press - uncomfortable. Like this, from Stephen Colbert's famous monologue in 2006:
Over the last five years, you people were so good over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.
Yet I also remember Colbert as the comedian who made a cutesy video with Henry Kissinger - instead of placing the war criminal under a citizen's arrest. Maybe that would be a lot to ask. But how about not presenting Kissinger as a welcome, avuncular figure?

Or this, from Michelle Wolf last night:
You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn't sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He's helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you're profiting off of him. And if you're gonna profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money because he doesn't have any.

Predictably, this morning a lot of the media outlets present at the event are debating Wolf's "tone."

She closed her routine with a reminder that the city of Flint still doesn't have potable water for its populace. For whatever that's worth. A sad, defiant parting gesture toward one of many neglected travesties - neglected by both camps represented at this glitzy event. Flint is a disaster on the scale of a hurricane, and a political scandal that should have toppled Michigan's Governor. Instead, the Mayor of that city is filing lawsuits to get the state's attention. Moreover, the issue of lead infiltration into drinking water is widespread across the United States - a matter deserving of a great deal of attention, surely at least a tenth as much attention as the national media devotes to gossiping about what the Mueller investigation might dig up (and whether we will ever see the rumored piss video). But Flint might as well be in Yemen.

Anyway, back to last night's red-carpet affair.

One defense of the WHCD boils down to American exceptionalism. Isn't it great, some say (here's an example), that in our great country, we can mock our commander-in-chief and the comedian won't get beheaded? You won't see Putin or Erdogan putting up with that. God bless America.

According to my reading of the Declaration of Independence, that doesn't make us exceptional. The right to freedom of speech and to petition our leaders (or make jokes about them) is self-evident and not uniquely "American." It is, therefore, not exceptional. It is the floor.

Polls indicate public trust in news organizations and journalists is at a dismal low. It may not help to see journalists mixing it up in luxury with the ruling elite. Add to that, the fact that these dinners often give the podium to sitting Presidents or other officials who joke about their work - which involves mass deception and policies that cause human harm. We've had jokes about fruitless searches for weapons of mass destruction. We've had jokes about people suffering and dying. We've had jokes that punch down.

Why is anybody participating in that? Let's stick a silver-plated fork in this thing.