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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 12/30/20

Good morning!

I received a couple of email blasts this morning titled “2020—the Year in Review.” It made me laugh. Really? We need someone to remind us what happened?

Today, a potpourri of thoughts…


We all know the adage “figures never lie but liars figure.” True enough; smart people can manipulate data to serve their purposes. But there is a reliance on “data” these days that is simply deceptive and will seem to the less numerically agile as plausible. Yesterday I commented about how many Trump supporters can’t see how counting the number of counties won by a candidate is a misleading statistic. The canard is that because Biden won fewer counties than Obama, the election must be fraudulent. These people are aware that counties come in different sizes, right? Loving County, Texas, had 169 residents in 2019, while Los Angeles County had over 10,039,000 residents during the same period. Los Angeles Country represents approximately 59,171 Loving Counties. All counties are not equal.


In response to my musings about words that define 2020, my cousin Chris Cook suggested “f**kers” (used by President-elect Biden’s incoming Deputy Chief of Staff in describing the Republican leadership).

Actor Bradley Whitford had something to say about cacophony of Trump-supporters’ “indignation” over the use of this term:

“Swear words aren’t obscene. Economic injustice, racism, homophobia, tearing innocent children from their mothers, lack of access to healthcare, treating the planet with contempt, undermining democracy, and 3000 unfuckingnecessary deaths a day is obscene.”


Supporters of our government’s response will point out that the flaw of Mr. Whitford’s comment. Of course, it is ridiculous to claim that 3,000 deaths a day are the fault of this administration. I think we all can agree that there would have been death and suffering regardless of the government’s response. We can all quibble about the amount by which Mr. Trump’s preoccupation in the early days with “keeping the numbers down,” the repeated disinformation coming from the White House, the minimizing of the danger, and the open defiance of the advice of health care officials increased the suffering. But it clearly has. Maybe looking at some statistics in comparison to other countries can shed some light:

Last week we passed the mark of 1 in 1,000 Americans dying as a result of this virus. That’s a staggering rate of death that puts things in perspective. But what is more staggering, and emblematic of our failure, is when it is compared with the experience of other countries:

Japan, 1 per 41,000

Germany, 1 in 2842

South Korea, 1 is 64,000

The countries that are ahead of us in death rate per capita are Belgium, Peru, Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Slovenia, Spain, Moldova and the U.K.

With only 4% of the world’s population, we are at 20% of recorded deaths. According to Eric Topol, cardiologist and scientist, there have been 1,759,000 global deaths. Had the rest of the world responded as did the United States, 7,834,000 would have died. We are performing at six times the death rate experienced by the rest of the world.


I wrote a while back that we are seeing played out today the failure to educate secondary students about the distinction between assertions of opinion and objectively provable facts. Renee Marlin says it’s worse than that. She says we need to teach elementary students how to recognize evidence (and its quality), argument (and its logic), assertion, and other elements of rhetoric. She says that in her childhood (mine too), we were taught how to recognize evidence, argument, logic, and other elements of rhetoric. In querying younger people, they say they never had any instruction in recognizing the difference between empirically verifiable truths and falsehoods; arguments that are well-structured and those that are not; and evidence that actually supports the argument, and that which does not. She points out:

“When I was in 5th grade, we had a Language Arts unit on advertising and propaganda that was designed to make us more thoughtful little consumers. I still remember two of the logical fallacies that were introduced: Bandwagoning (“Cause if I were a Oscar Mayer weiner, everyone would be in love with me”) and Appeal to authority (“4 out of 5 dentists recommend…”). It was a great lesson plan that had us searching through magazines for examples of the fallacies we were learning about.”


“E pluribus unum” is our nation’s motto. Loosely translated, it means “out of many, one.” In the history that prevailed through my childhood, this was interpreted as a focus that one put together all these various people of different ethnicities, religions and experiences and, through the “melting pot” of America, forged a singular “one.” Expressed as an algebraic word problem, “if you add together a + b + c + d, you get z.”

Perhaps it’s not an algebraic problem. Perhaps it’s a chemistry experiment, “the only way you can get to z is if you have all the essential elements that will interact with each other in a way that yields the product one seeks.”

Before the pandemic, economic calamity and global climate change, people argued that we were engaged in “cultural warfare.” I don’t quite see it like that. More like “cultural redefinition.” There are those who believe we must see each other as discrete subgroups that must be studied for the wrongs committed against their forebears over the years. All pluribus.

There are others who see the American story as having little place to discuss the various peoples that make up the nation. White supremacists would be the more extreme example, but many in the Trump-voter camp have little patience for understanding the various subsets of American society. All unum.

California has been engaged in a debate about its proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. As I’ve stated in the past, I believe we are swinging from an absence of focus to a focus on victimhood and all the catastrophes that have been visited on minority groups throughout the years (my own included). There is no question that we must study these stains on our history and how many of these injustices persist. My concern is that, in an effort to show how poorly some groups have been treated, we miss the essential value of studying the rich contributions these cultures have contributed to our country. We need to celebrate all that these groups have brought to create our rich and diverse culture.

To borrow once more the symbolism of mathematics, “E pluribus unum” does not have a “greater than” or “lesser than” sign in the middle. It is an “equals” sign. Our ethnic identity is not greater than the American idea, nor it less than these ideals. They are equal, and out of one comes the other. And the equation works both forward and backward, to wit, our diversity taken together makes us stronger and one. And our one-ness and strengths should allow us to acknowledge and value the diversities that make us who we are.


Continuing to share some of the “six words of thanks” that the New York Times solicited, here are some uplifting words of thanks for our system and our country:

To be a United States citizen

Americans waited in line to vote

Thanks for voting, Americans—Immigrant scientist

Gritty becoming an icon for democracy

Once again, my Black vote matters.

Best, Glenn

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