On the lying of the President, by Robert Bly, in 1973

The ministers lie, the professors lie, the television lies,
the priests lie. . . .
These lies mean that the country wants to die.
Lie after lie starts out into the prairie grass,
like enormous caravans of Conestoga wagons. . . .
And a long desire for death flows out, guiding the
enormous caravans from beneath,
stringing together the vague and foolish words.
It is a desire to eat death,
to gobble it down,
to rush on it like a cobra with mouth open
It’s a desire to take death inside,
to feel it burning inside, pushing out velvety hairs,
like a clothes brush in the intestines –
This is the thrill that leads the President on to lie

From Robert Bly’s The Teeth Mother Naked at Last

“Now the Chief Executive enters, the press conference begins” — Robert Bly on Presidential Liars

From Robert Bly‘s The Teeth Mother Naked At Last

Now the Chief Executive enters; the press
conference begins:
First the President lies about the date the Appalachian
Mountains rose.
Then he lies about the population of Chicago, then he lies
about the weight of the adult eagle, then about the
acreage of the Everglades
He lies about the number of fish taken every year in the
Arctic, he has private information about which city is
the capital of Wyoming, he lies about the birthplace of
Attila the Hun.
He lies about the composition of the amniotic fluid, and
he insists that Luther was never a German, and that
only the Protestants sold indulgences,
That Pope Leo X zuanted to reform the church, but the
“liberal elements” prevented him,
that the Peasants’ War was fomented by Italians from
the North.
And the Attorney General lies about the time the
sun sets.

From 1973. Could he have described the tone of presidential address today more accurately? I doubt it.

How humanity fought infectious disease before vaccination

Siddartha Mukherjee, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the magisterial “The Emperor of All Maladies,” a history of cancer, wrote in The New Yorker last month about the history of our ability to control infectious disease. The answer for one plague came came from the East, from an era before doctors and medical science. It’s a remarkable story. Mukherjee, an oncologist, explains:

As early as 1100, medical healers in China had realized that those who survived smallpox did not catch the illness again (survivors of the disease were enlisted to take care of new victims), and inferred that the exposure of the body to an illness protected it from future instances of that illness. Chinese doctors would grind smallpox scabs into a powder and insufflate it into a child’s nostril with a long silver pipe.

the novel coronavirus (image from Science Alert)

Vaccination with live virus was a tightrope walk: if the amount of viral inoculum in the powder was too great, the child would succumb to a full-fledged version of the disease—a disaster that occurred perhaps one in a hundred times. If all went well, the child would have a mild experience of the disease, and be immunized for life. By the seventeen-hundreds, the practice had spread throughout the Arab world. In the seventeen-sixties, women in Sudan practiced tishteree el jidderee (“buying the pox”): one mother haggling with another over how many of a sick child’s ripe pustules she would buy for her own son or daughter. It was an exquisitely measured art: the most astute traditional healers recognized the lesions that were likely to yield just enough viral material, but not too much. […]

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British Ambassador to Constantinople, had herself been stricken by the disease, in 1715, leaving her perfect skin pitted with scars. Later, in the Turkish countryside, she witnessed the practice of [inoculation against smallpox] and wrote to her friends in wonder, describing the work of one specialist: “The old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened,” whereupon she “puts into the vein as much matter as can lie upon the head of her needle.” Patients retired to bed for a couple of days with a fever, and, Lady Montagu noted, emerged remarkably unscathed. “They have very rarely above twenty or thirty [pox] in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days’ time they are as well as before their illness.”

She reported that thousands safely underwent the operation every year, and that the disease had largely been contained in the region. “You may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment,” she added, “since I intend to try it on my dear little son.” Her son never got the pox.

In short, long before what we know today as ‘Western medicine,” clever humans discovered the power of inoculation, by which our immune system is given the tools to recognize and target a particular pathogen. This method, standardized and updated scientifically, is the means by which we humans eliminated smallpox from the earth. A great achievement that has saved countless lives. It’s the same basic method — without using risky live viruses — by which medicine today hopes to foil COVID-19.

Ishmael, meet Queequeg: the estranged genius of Melville

In a dazzling essay on the true story behind “Moby Dick,” Carl Safina reminds us of the opening of that great novel, in which the seafarer Ishmael meets Queequeg, a sailor of “cannibalistic” heritage. They are thrown into bed together, much to Ishmael’s discomfort, but he ends up respecting Queequeg all the more, after sleeping with him. It’s as great an introduction of a character as I can recall in American literature.

From Safina:

When Ishmael finds himself compelled to share a blanket at the sold-out Spouter Inn, he declares, “No man prefers to sleep two in a bed.” But he settles in, waiting for his mysterious South Seas roommate who, he’s informed, is peddling a shrunken head on the streets of New Bedford. Queequeg’s appearance terrifies Ishmael mute. But after things equilibrate, Ishmael reconsiders: “For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal … a human being just as I am. … Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

In the morning Ishmael wakes to find Queequeg’s arm “thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Now there’s no panic. Eventually Queequeg rouses and, by signs and sounds, makes Ishmael understand that he’ll dress and leave. “The truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy,” Ishmael editorializes. “It is marvelous how essentially polite they are. … So much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness.” Reflecting on Queequeg’s tatted visage, he concludes: “Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face — at least to my taste — his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. … Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”

Mates now for life, they find a ship…

Fauci leads: Trump flails

From Michael Spector in The New Yorker, How Anthony Fauci became America’s Doctor, three weeks ago today:

“Just before midnight on March 22nd, the President of the United States prepared to tweet. Millions of Americans, in the hope of safeguarding their health and fighting the rapidly escalating spread of covid-19, had already begun to follow the sober recommendation of Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious disease. Fauci had warned Americans to “hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

Donald Trump disagreed. “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he tweeted.”

Today, May 11, 2020, let me post an update. This evening Dr. Fauci revealed in a New York Times story that he intends to warn that opening up the country now would cost lives and court disaster.

“The major message that I wish to convey to the Senate HLP committee tomorrow is the danger of trying to open the country prematurely,” he wrote. “If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to: ‘Open America Again,’ then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country. This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”

Dr. Fauci was referring to a three-phase White House plan, Opening Up America Again, that lays out guidelines for state officials considering reopening their economies. Among its recommendations: states should have a “downward trajectory of positive tests” or a “downward trajectory of documented cases” of coronavirus over two weeks, while conducting robust contact tracing and “sentinel surveillance” testing of asymptomatic people in vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes.

But many states are reopening without meeting those guidelines, seeking to ease the pain as millions of working people and small-business owners are facing economic ruin while sheltering at home.” (said the Times story)

Of course Fauci has called bullshit on Trump statements (such as calling testing “a failure”) before. One wonders if there’s a reason this statement was published the night before his testimony with three other experts before the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

And from the President of the United States, we have this extraordinary inability to answer any question asked by a woman in the White House press corps.

How any American women can support this man? I cannot imagine. Ignore the commentary below if you like and focus on the well-staged president vs press confrontation. This clip is classic late capitalism:

“Hello, Walls” — the song of the pandemic

Willie Nelson’s first-ever hit, now a classic country song. Performed here by Willie himself on Colbert, with his sons Micah and Lukas. Finale slightly rewritten for the moment:

We got to all stick together
Or else we’ll lose our minds
I got a feeling — we’re going to be here
A long long time

The Grim Reaper on the Florida beach

Inspired apparently by a 2017 anti-drowning public health campaign in New Zealand, an attorney and comic in Florida has launched a campaign for social distancing on Florida beaches. The particular and phenomenal work of living art above comes from the New Zealand campaign, but the similarly themed Grim Reaper tour is on now in Florida, and has raised over $5k so far for Democratic candidates.

Tbh, I think there is reason to open some beaches and parks, with health requirements, even in the midst of a pandemic, assuming a) a low level of disease in circulation, and b) confidence about that low level, c) public sanity. Plus, there is evidence that the virus is much less communicative outside. People need to be active to be healthy, as Public Health Officer Dr. Levin told me for a story on Covid in Ventura County today for VC Reporter.

“This is a time to control your co-morbidities, to get out there and walk and exercise and bicycle and do stuff and be active. Don’t use this quarantine to catch up on all the TV shows you’ve missed over the years.”

Ventura County Public Health Officer Rob Levin

Though many have criticized the county for this decision, to open Ventura county beaches for walking on a warm and beautiful day strikes me as an act of compassion and generosity. We are fortunate here. Let us share.

Another way to slice the county Covid data in CA

Yesterday I posted an interesting chart showing Ventura County at the bottom of a list of top 20 or so California counties for COVID-19 incidence and fatality rate. Today as a reporter I had the opportunity to speak to the designer of the web app, Dr. Chris Barker of UC Davis, about these numbers. He cautioned me on a couple of points, pointing out that for display reasons that chart was limited to the top 22 counties in California, so that Ventura County was certainly not at the bottom of the list of the state’s 57 counties.

I think you can see that more moderate assessment of the county’s success at suppressing the virus in this chart I found on the LA Times coronavirus data page.

At a glance, it’s clear from this graph that Ventura County is flattening the curve, reducing the rate of incidence. The rate of doubling is now 11.2 days, according to this same LA times web app. That is much better than for example Los Angeles, which is doubling every 7.8 days, and Santa Barbara. at every 8.3 days. Not to mention other Southern California counties such as Riverside, Orange, and San Diego. Hope to find a story here.

“Living in the future now”: science fiction vs. reality

“Our point of departure was, we’re at an inflection point. The future isn’t some place ahead of us; we’re living in the future at this moment.”

So said Tim Sexton, describing the process of writing the 2006 movie Children of Men with director Alfonso Cuaron, explaining the harsh realism of tone that Cuaron went for. (Though not a success in its time, it’s now considered”a dystopian masterpiece,” and quite rightly so.)

I bring this seemingly random example up because, first of all, this is not the first time a prominent thought leader has said to me in recent months that “we’re living in the future now.” But mostly it’s this idea itself that resonates.

“Living in the future now” seems more real than ever, now that we find ourselves living in a sci-fi movie called COVID-19.

“Children of Men” goes on to offer a moment from the future that quite neatly matches one of our own this month. The difference is that the movie’s vision of this ghastly idea has allure and enticement. The conversation in our public square about it — a kind of self-euthanasia for the sake of the economy — seems crude by comparison.

In the movie, we occasionally glimpse and are made aware of by advertising in the story a serenity-inducing product called Quietus, which in time turns out to be a package offering a painless suicide with benefits. A euthanasia for people without much purpose in life, in need of a graceful exit. This is what the ad looks like in the movie, courtesy of scifiinterfaces:

An advertisement for a self-euthanasia product from “Children of Men.”

It’s topical because just days ago the Lt. Governor of one of the largest states in the country blithely said that old people such as himself would be more than willing to risk their health for the prosperity of “the country.” ,

Explained NBC News:

“Dan Patrick, Texas’ Republican lieutenant governor, on Monday night suggested that he and other grandparents would be willing to risk their health and even lives in order for the United States to “get back to work” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” Patrick said on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.'”

At least with the advertised Quietus, the seniors who chose that fate were guaranteed a painless exit and a substantial-if-not-enormous-sum given to the heirs. Funeral arrangements were also part of the deal, I think.

Dignity was the offer. As opposed to a boot out the door.

In other words, the bluntly dystopian science fiction future of “Children of Men” is much kinder and gentler than the Republican Party of 2020, at least as we hear spoken by the Lt. Gov. of Texas. Think of that!