• Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 5/8/20

Dear friends,

Today I want to write about my concern that we are moving forward based less on the opinions of scientists and public health officials and more on popular opinions of the few. Then I promise next week to focus only on happy thoughts…!



The United States has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic. New predictions of the daily death toll by month’s end hit 3,000; and the total anticipated death toll from this first wave of infections has been estimated by the President at between 80,000 and 100,000 (when he said this, we were in striking distance already), while credible third party experts predict over 135,000 and some predictions are higher still.

With the loosening of restrictions on social interactions, absent a significant weakening of the virus in warmer months, we can expect a surge in patients and fatalities in May and June. I suppose we will be able to see by late this month how the easing of social distancing and the early “re-openings” in some states have done. It’s all troubling.


A COALITION OF TROUBLEMAKERS Notwithstanding the overwhelming support of the majority of Americans for continued restrictions on social interactions, there are pockets of vocal minorities resisting these restrictions and calling for the premature opening of businesses. And many politicians are heeding their messages. Strange times bring strange bedfellows, to wit: • The economically harmed. This is the group for whom we should have the greatest empathy. People out of jobs and cooped up at home have real financial concerns. The several early stimulus packages have softened the blow on most, but continued support will be required. These people don’t want just money, but jobs and purpose. I still think a new Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation Corps should be considered. Why not employ people, provide them healthcare, and turn to infrastructure improvements that most politicians claim to support yet still can’t get passed. • The President’s supporters. There is a phalanx of conservatives who have taken the airwaves and the op-ed pages to suggest that this is all an over-reaction or an anti-Trump hoax being overemphasized for political gain. The politicization of the virus has begun. Curiously, because shelter-in-place has been reasonably effective in slowing the spread of the virus, the better data is being used by these folks to support “this is all an overreaction.” It’s somewhat warped to use the very system that saved lives to argue that continuation of that strategy is not important. • The armed right wing. The protests around the country, particularly those in Michigan, have been led by a mixed bag of anti-gun control advocates, alt-right groups, and self-deputized militia. The argument that the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag should be brought out of retirement to protect their liberties is sophistry and dissembling at its finest. This is not about liberty; it’s about safety and survival. • The anti-vaxxers. It was only a matter of time before this fringe group of amateur scientists, powered by a single discredited (and retracted) study and a cadre of celebrities and “influencers,” would enter the fray. As the world’s scientists are working overtime toward hopefully immunizing a population against a disease that could kill millions—for the collective good of the population—there emerges a group of ruggedly individualistic college educated, socio-economically advantaged helicopter parents who find conspiracy and risk at every turn. Here’s a Washington Post article describing the movement’s activity in fighting a vaccine: How does one reconcile these seemingly disparate groups, all lining up to resist the scientists, physicians, and political leaders to argue—in the face of mounting deaths—that their issues outweigh those of society as a whole?


HAS OUR GREATEST STRENGTH BECOME OUR GREATEST WEAKNESS? America has prided itself on legal, political and economic systems that for centuries have created an environment that values the individual and unleashes those with creativity to pursue innovation. Its systems have been mindful of the tyranny of the majority, with checks and balances and limitations on government that (most of the time) seem to work. But it is this sense of “rugged individualism” that has given rise to three dangerous trends: • The tyranny of the minority. Just as the framers were concerned about the tyranny of the majority, they were as concerned with the formation of factions that could drive society toward extremes. Elections used to be based upon developing a platform that appeals to the “middle,” reconciling different beliefs into a coherent governing coalition. Now elections are focused on “bringing out the base” and motivating single issue interest groups. To these people, compromise is not an option—it’s failure. • An incorrect understanding of freedom of speech. In part as a result of our abysmal performance in teaching civics to our children, people now think freedom of speech means, “not only am I entitled to say whatever I want, but I deserve a microphone and appearance on 24 hour cable news.” The first amendment ensures that government will not infringe on freedom of speech. It does not require CNN to air the views of every crackpot who shows up, without attempting to call out unserious or dangerous positions for what they are. What we once called the “marketplace of ideas,” where ideas would be aired, debated and gain traction based upon reason and the (relatively) neutral analysis of journalists, has become a “flea market of ideas,” where everything gets equal play. The idea that the anti-vaxxers continue to receive coverage for universally discredited and dangerous views that expose themselves and the rest of us to the ravages of disease is ridiculous. • Multiple views of facts (and equal weighing of their merit)—including scientific facts. All views do not deserve equal play in the public square. Facts are facts. There is a difference between scientifically proven facts and the random ideas of John Q. Public. While there are those who may still believe the earth is flat, that evolution never happened, or the Earth is merely 5800 years old, these ideas have been debunked by scientific theories (not guesses—theories supported by the observed world). All views—regardless of their credibility, logic, or scientific backing, are afforded seemingly equal coverage in the news. It seems we have lost our sense of critical analysis and a healthy skepticism of conspiratorial claptrap and unsubstantiated “news.” What has distinguished America for over 200 years has been an atmosphere that everything is possible, that good ideas will get a platform, and that inventors and innovators will have the tools to benefit society and profit for themselves. But that same individualism has swung to the extreme, where that individualism has given way to selfishness and lack of communitarian impulses. We are blowing through all projections for spread of the virus, hospitalizations and deaths because, after our leaders downplayed the risk and didn’t take early action, we have succumbed to the desires of the minority and pursued half measures. Here in California we have a “soft lockdown.” That’s better than the shortened, elective, lockdowns in some States. Yet we have those who still want to gather in groups, ignore distancing requirements, fail to wear masks and engage in other dangerous behaviors. That we have swimmers, surfers and tanners in Ventura and Orange Counties who seem to feel it is their God given right to pursue their elective activities at the beach, irrespective of the needs of the many, is unbelievable. Rugged individualism or out-of-control selfishness? Sadly, I fear we will suffer through the results of serial errors and an unwillingness of our government to speak frankly and clearly, in the pursuit of electoral gain and in order to placate the few who don’t seem to understand that sacrifice was always a key to getting through this. Have a good day, Glenn

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