Archive for May, 2020

Hot fun in the almost summertime – 5/30/2020

May 30, 2020 1 comment
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Ageism, Unworthy Life, and the Pandemic – posted 5/25/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/1/2020

May 25, 2020 Leave a comment

As I write, the United States approaches the catastrophic number of 100,000 coronavirus deaths. Every one of those deaths was a person with a life story, family and friends. The level of tragedy is epic. So many lives snuffed out so quickly.

Yet President Trump says we have prevailed over the virus. This is undoubtedly his George W. Bush Mission Accomplished moment.

80% of the deaths were people over age 65, with many concentrated in nursing homes. Among the failings of the government response, I think we need to look at why so many in nursing homes have died. Our response seems weak and compromised by fatalism. Among the questions that need to be asked: did it have to be that way? Could we have better protected this population?

I am struck by the too-casual acceptance of these deaths, almost like the elderly are expendable. The cheerleaders in a rush to re-open the economy are ready for sacrifice – of others, especially older workers, minorities and the poor. The only thing that appears to matter to President Trump is his re-election which, in his estimation, demands reopening the economy at any price.

I think it is fair to say our leaders in the Trump Administration have a poor handle on what to expect next from the pandemic. Increasingly, the dominant perspective turns science and public health into an inconvenience. However, at this point, further disasters may be a more plausible scenario than any rapid recovery. Will there be a second wave? Nobody knows.

Who can forget Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick saying that there are more important things than living as a justification for re-opening the economy quickly. Really? There are more important things than living? I think I want a list.

Patrick, age 70, suggested he and other grandparents would be willing to risk their health and their lives to get the U.S. back to work. Is this a sacrifice for Wall Street?

Other right wingers like Glenn Beck seconded Patrick. On March 25, Beck said:

“I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep the economy going and working even if we all get sick. I’d rather die than kill the economy.”

Some younger folks on social media have joked about the pandemic as “boomer remover”. A journalist for the British newspaper the Telegraph suggested that the coronavirus could benefit the economy by disproportionately “culling” elderly people.

The lack of empathy demonstrated is impressive. What does it say about our society that some can think about older people so dismissively? I can appreciate anger and resentment that boomers have botched climate change and have promoted a grossly unequal economy screwing the young but this sentiment that older people should sacrifice themselves for that abstraction, the economy, is bizarre.

These attitudes are rooted in ageism and the devaluation of the lives of older people. Capitalism increasingly treats workers over age 50 as dead wood, to be scrap-piled. Even before the pandemic, getting a competitive job if you are over 50 was not easy, even for those highly competent with great resumes. The pandemic will make it even worse. Age discrimination is likely the ongoing normal.

Ageism became quite blatant in policies around whose lives should be saved if equipment or medical supplies became scarce. Who gets the ventilator or rationed life-saving equipment? Age-based triaging appears to be very much a part of the medical world although its legal and ethical underpinnings remain cloudy. There is some valuation of youth over age going on. How and why our public health system was so ill-prepared that we got to triaging remains an outstanding question.

I think readers might be surprised to learn the intellectual origins of the idea that some life is more valuable than other life. The idea did not come from nowhere. It is rooted in Nazi ideology, in the idea of “life unworthy of life”.

The German Nazis made distinctions about what segments of the population had no right to live. They targeted people with serious medical problems and those considered grossly inferior by their racial policies.

Among those deemed “unworthy life” were those who were incurably ill, large segments of the mentally ill, the feeble-minded and retarded and deformed children. The Nazis drew from the work of two German professors Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche who saw destroying “life unworthy of life” as a healthy, compassionate treatment. It was about protecting the integrity of the Volk, the collective. Categories of people were seen as “human ballast” or “useless eaters”.

Promoting the idea that the loss of thousands of older people (and many more to come) is an acceptable cost for re-opening the economy is morally debased. All lives are equally valuable and as should be obvious, following in a direction pioneered by Nazis would be a form of ageist exterminism. We all deserve a chance to live life to the fullest for as long as we can. I would not hesitate in saying I would like to see my grandchild grow up.

Reopening the economy is admittedly tricky but President Trump is now indulging in both minimizing and denying the extreme harm we have all witnessed. 100,000 deaths is nothing to be proud about.

The final disrespect to all the elderly folks who have died is that the Trump Administration has refused to authorize FEMA funds to help families cover the cost of burials. FEMA has helped pay for the burials of victims of past disasters like in Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Over 30 states have requested the funding but to no avail.

Older people deserve better. We are all in this together and public health must protect everybody and try to minimize all casualties, elderly included. That must remain a top priority goal indefinitely.

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Happy Memorial Day weekend! Posted 5/22/2020

May 22, 2020 2 comments
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An Unprecedented Record of Environmental Pollution – posted 5/17/2020

May 17, 2020 Leave a comment

Being over three years into the Trump Administration, it is a good time to do an accounting of how our environment has fared. The results are not pretty: fifty years of progress are being trashed. We are now going backward on clean air, clean water, endangered species and protected wilderness and habitat.

As a climate change denier, President Trump made the grievous mistake of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Still, I think the Trump Administration’s most tangible harm has been in the multiple rule changes of his EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency.

The cumulative picture is dark. Does anyone remember the Cayahuaga River on fire? Welcome back! This is the de-regulatory agenda to in the words of Grover Norquist shrink the federal government to “drown it in a bathtub”.

The Environmental Protection Network, a group of EPA alumni working to preserve the nations’s bipartisan progress on the environment, put together a long list of the Trump EPA’s rule changes and I wanted to highlight the most egregious:

  • Repeal of Obama clean power plan. In 2018, the EPA repealed a rule that limited harmful emissions from power plants. The new rule, the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, weakened air quality protection by increasing exposure to fine particles and ozone in the air. The rule change will hurt those with asthma and respiratory illness.
  • Mercury emissions. In April, the EPA withdrew findings by previous administrations that regulating emissions of mercury and other air pollutants was “appropriate and necessary”. Power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the U.S.. Mercury is a neurotoxin that damages the brain of developing fetuses. It also increases risk of heart attack for adults.
  • Methane. EPA proposed roll back of 2016 regulations that limited emissions for methane during oil and gas production and processing. They actually propose to entirely remove methane transmission and storage from regulation. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas worsening climate change.
  • Hydrofluorocarbons. In February, the EPA relieved businesses of the requirement to conduct leak inspection, repair leaks and keep records for refrigerator and air conditioning equipment containing hydrofluorocarbons or other “climate super pollutants”. Hydrofluorocarbons previously damaged the ozone layer and even by the EPA’s own analysis, the new rule will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Vehicle Fuel Efficiency. On March 31, the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rolled back successful clean air regulations and fuel economy standards that reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved air quality and increased fuel economy. The Obama fuel economy target was 54 miles per gallon by 2025 while the Trump EPA capped that target at 34 miles per gallon by 2021. The roll back worsens climate change and increases air pollution.
  • PFAS. In February 2019, the EPA proposed a wholly inadequate plan to prevent toxic PFAS or Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances from continuing to contaminate drinking water. The agency released a groundwater cleanup guidance that failed to set an emergency removal level and it has refused to develop drinking water health advisories for PFAS chemicals, leaving it up to the states.
  • Lead in drinking water. Flint, Michigan highlighted this problem and you might have expected progress. Unfortunately, in November 2019, the EPA proposed a rule that failed to lower the action level for lead in drinking water that triggers corrosion control and lead line replacement. Lead can damage the central nervous system, cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and lower IQs in children.
  • Superfund clean-up. Rather than increasing clean-ups at Superfund sites, the EPA has focused on the paperwork exercise of deleting previously cleaned-up sites from the Superfund National Priorities List.
  • Federal infrastructure projects. The National Environmental Policy Act had previously forced all federal infrastructure projects to take into account effects on the environment. Under new rules, builders of highways, pipelines (think Keystone XL) and other major infrastructure projects would no longer have to consider climate change.
  • Endangered species. New rules change the way the EPA will implement the Endangered Species Act, weakening protection for threatened species and critical habitat and making it harder to take future risks from climate change into effect.The EPA can now consider economic interests when deciding whether to list a species. This was previously forbidden.
  • Pesticide risk. New EPA rules released in March revised methods for assessing pesticide risks that will allow widespread harm to many of the nation’s most endangered plants and animals. The rules, requested by the pesticide industry, overlook and ignore many of the common ways that protected species are killed by pesticides such as downstream impacts of pesticides that runoff into streams and rivers.
  • EPA criminal enforcement. The EPA has turned into a toothless tiger that looks the other way at environmental violations. Criminal prosecutions are at a 30 year low and many violations that would have been prosecuted in the past are now negotiated with violating companies.
  • Pandemic. The EPA has weakened pollution reporting and compliance rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. Polluters can now operate against existing regulation and evade reporting their pollution levels. Nine states have filed suit to stop this. Self-reporting effectively de-claws oversight.

This partial list tells only part of the story. Each year since 2017, the Trump Administration has proposed major cuts in funding for EPA programs and the money it provides the states for grants and loans. The Trump budget requests in fiscal years 2017, 2018 and 2019 either zeroed out or greatly reduced all EPA programs. Congress has repeatedly ignored these budget requests but the requests send an unmistakeable message.

The Trump Administration has also used executive orders to achieve its anti-environmental goals. Trump issued an executive order that called for a 30 percent increase in logging on public lands. He also used an executive order to dramatically downsize two national monuments in Utah, the Bears Ear and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

When you add it up, there is a common thread. The Trump EPA has replaced any notion of a public interest with subservience to the private interests it was created to regulate. This is the very definition of corruption.

We all have an interest in a clean environment, regardless of political perspective. Clean air and water are not optional. We are so going the wrong way.

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Water Frolic – posted 5/16/2020

May 16, 2020 3 comments
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Carolyn Forché and How We Remember El Salvador – posted 5/10/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/23/2020

May 10, 2020 Leave a comment

I had not planned to write about El Salvador. But then I read Carolyn Forché’s memoir What You Have Heard is True. Forché’s book is a riveting account about her time in El Salvador in the late 1970’s when the country was on the verge of civil war.

The book is also about a young woman growing up as she learns about a world far different than anything she knew existed.

As a 27 year old student living in California, Forché is approached by a mysterious man, Leonel Gómez Vides, who shows up at her door. After three days of non-stop talk, Leonel persuades Forché to go to El Salvador to learn about life there. He knew war was coming to his country and he hoped Forché, as an aspiring poet and writer, could explain his country to the American people.

Leonel called what he was doing his “reverse Peace Corps”. Forché would be going to El Salvador not to help the Salvadoran people but to educate herself about Central American realities.

The realities Forché discovered were brutal. The overwhelming majority of the people were desperately poor. Houses were made of mud and twigs and things you would find in a dump. There was no decent sanitation. One in five children died before the age of five, mostly of dehydration caused by dysentery. Life expectancy was about 47 for men, a little higher for women.

Salvadorans typically worked from dawn until dusk but average household income was about $400 a year. On the other end of the spectrum, 30 or 40 super-rich families owned nearly everything in the country. They lived in a regal style, utterly disconnected from the lives of the majority. There was no middle class.

Once in El Salvador, Leonel took Forché all over the country, introducing her to people from all walks of life including high-ranking officials in the Salvadoran military. For Forché, it remained unclear who Leonel was and what he was up to. Leonel owned a small coffee farm, was an expert marksman, was a motorcycle racer and he had an interest in Formula-One racing cars. He knew people all over the country and was consistently warmly received.

Forché and many others wondered if Leonel was with the guerrillas or with the CIA. No one knew. Leonel cultivated mystery, explaining that El Salvador was “a symphony of illusions”.

Leonel taught that the cultivation of mystery was centrally important in such a dangerous place. Ambiguity about identity could save your life. Death squads disappeared many as Forché saw with her own eyes. She saw prisoners confined and tortured in small wooden boxes about the size of washing machines. She herself had to run on one occasion to escape from a death squad.

This was Forché’s education in oppression. During her time in the country, more and more Salvadorans were disappearing with mutilated bodies later found on road sides. The U.N. Truth Commission established as part of the peace accords after the war found that 85% of the killings, kidnappings and torture were the work of government forces including paramilitaries and death squads.

Forché learned about the role of the United States in supplying, supporting and training the Salvadoran military. Both Presidents Carter and Reagan poured billions of dollars into propping up a military dictatorship that misappropriated huge sums for its own corrupt purposes.

U.S. military advisors trained many Salvadoran officers in the methods of torture at the co-called School of the Americas. The role of the United States in training torturers remains little known. As Leonel told Forché:

“I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.”

The civil war that came claimed 75,000 lives with 8000 disappeared and it lasted over twelve years. 500,000 people were internally displaced and another 500,000 became refugees leaving El Salvador altogether. Within a week after Forché left El Salvador in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated.

In December 1981, soldiers from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion massacred 1200 civilians at El Mozote. Although the U.S. trained the troops that carried out this atrocity, no U.S. government official has ever apologized for our role. El Salvador was the largest U.S. counterinsurgency effort after Vietnam and before Iraq.

You might ask: why was the U.S. siding with a handful of oligarchs and their fascistic goon squads rather than the masses of poor peasants, students and workers?

Now 40 years later, we hear almost nothing about El Salvador. We evince little interest in countries outside America. We know Trump called it a “shithole country”. We know many families and individuals have tried to make the incredibly dangerous journey to the U.S. Sometimes we hear about MS-13 and the criminal gangs, born in U.S. jails, who got deported back.

No context is ever provided. All the Salvadoran refugees and asylum seekers can only be understood as a direct consequence of the war that ravaged El Salvador, a war the American government largely financed. Bad conditions were then further complicated by the devastating earthquake in 2001.

We Americans forget or remain uncomprehending of our responsibility in providing money, arms and training for the death squads who propped up Latin American authoritarian rulers. We were the imperial power behind the scenes, often calling the shots. We should at least understand that our country bears a high degree of responsibility for creating the circumstances that made it necessary for migrants to seek shelter here.

Carolyn Forché did not forget what she saw. To address immigration here, solutions must reduce poverty and inequality there. A wall on our southern border is a simpleton non-solution. Forché’s book exposes rot and it should force a re-examination of conventional assumptions both in our government and among the American people.

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May Day! – posted 5/1/2020

May 1, 2020 1 comment
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