Media: Crossfire Hurricane

An occasional theme of this blog is: can we trust the media to tell us about the world in an accurate and balanced way? The example in this post involves presidential elections.

All news sources have biases. The takeaway from this example is that perhaps we should get our news from a variety of sources.

Crossfire Hurricane was the name of the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into possible improper links between the 2016 Trump campaign, and later the Trump administration, and Russia. The investigation was opened on July 31, 2016 and continued until May 17, 2017 when it was taken over by the Mueller investigation.

On Tuesday, October 6, 2020 the Trump administration declassified two documents related to Crossfire Hurricane, both involving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA):

  • Handwritten notes by then-CIA Director John Brennan in late July 2016 about a briefing that he gave to President Obama and other senior officials about “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on 26 July of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to villify (sic) Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security services.” (link)
  • A memo from the CIA to the director of the FBI dated September 7, 2016 about “US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning US presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering US elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.” (link)

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. On October 7 he wrote on his blog about this news and he made the following points:

  • Whether true or not, this is big news. If true, it would indicate that the highest levels of the Obama administration knew well before the 2016 election about efforts to invent Russian scandals implicating the Trump campaign. If false, “it would show a breathtaking effort [by the Trump administration] to lie to the voters before the [2020] election.”
  • Yet according to Professor Turley there is an “utter blackout on the story” by major news outlets.

Let’s do a survey. I subscribe to four national newspapers. Did they cover this story?

Three of the national newspapers to which I subscribe are well known: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. The fourth newspaper is not well known: the Epoch Times. I wrote about the Epoch Times in April (here) where I noted that they dislike Communist China and they are “more supportive of President Trump than my other newspapers, so I will read their reporting skeptically.”

With that background in mind, following are comments about the reporting in these four newspapers of the declassification of the two documents discussed above. My comments are ranked (in my view) from worst coverage (#4) to best (#1):

#4. New York Times, October 9: John Ratcliffe Pledged to Stay Apolitical. Then He Began Serving Trump’s Political Agenda. This is several days after the declassification. There is no mention of  the declassified documents. This article is an attempt to generally discredit Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe, who declassified the documents.

#3. Washington Post, October 8: DNI Ratcliffe has broken his promise to keep politics out of intelligence, intelligence veterans say. This article is one day earlier than the NYT article, so it is more timely. This article has the same major theme as the NYT article, an attempt to generally discredit Mr. Ratcliffe, but the two declassified documents identified above are briefly mentioned beginning in the 7th paragraph.

#2. Wall Street Journal, October 7: Trump’s Intelligence Chief Releases More Than 1,000 Pages of Documents. This article is one day earlier than the WaPo article, so it is even more timely. But this article covers two different news stories. On October 6, DNI Ratcliffe released to the public the two documents identified above. On October 7, he announced that he had released to the Department of Justice nearly 1,000 pages of other documents; he did not release those documents to the public. This WSJ article is primarily about the second release. The first release is briefly mentioned beginning in the 10th paragraph.

While the Wall Street Journal news pages did not do a great job covering this story, there was further discussion in the editorial pages. See James Comey Can’t Recall on October 7.

#1. Epoch Times, October 7: Former CIA Director Says Trump Admin Declassified Agency Records for Political Gain. This is the best coverage of these four newspapers. It is timely. It is specifically about the two declassified documents identified above, especially Mr. Brennan’s handwritten notes. The article gives Mr. Brennan’s side of the story. And it links to the actual documents that were released. The two documents are linked above, so you can see them for yourself. I got the documents from this Epoch Times article.

The Epoch Times covered the release of 1,000 pages of documents to the Department of Justice (not the public) in a separate article: DNI Releases 1,000 Pages of Material to Durham Investigators. Both articles in the Epoch Times were by the same reporter (Ivan Pentchoukov) on the same day (October 7). But unlike the WSJ, the Epoch Times didn’t bury the disclosure of the two documents identified above in an article primarily about a different disclosure.

Further, the Epoch Times had a good editorial on October 8 that put the disclosure of the two documents identified above in perspective: The American Public Deserves to Know. This editorial makes the point that the documents that were declassified were heavily redacted, so we are unable to truly assess their significance – and that this is a matter of considerable significance to our country:

The American people deserve to have full transparency and accountability for the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation of a presidential campaign, which in turn will be a key remedy to restore the broken trust tens of millions have in the system.

By “the system” the Epoch Times means institutions of government such as the FBI and CIA. There is also a need “to restore the broken trust” in the media. That was part of the message of Professor Turley’s column. In the present example, I was disappointed in the subpar reporting by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the news pages of the Wall Street Journal. The Epoch Times is not a perfect news source either, as noted above, but in this instance they had the best reporting. Perhaps we should all get our news from a variety of sources.

Here is the link again to Professor Turley’s column: “A Means Of Distracting The Public”: Brennan Briefed Obama On Clinton “Plan” To Tie Trump To Russia.

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Memorial to Secoriea Turner

Secoriea Turner

This post is a memorial to Secoriea Turner. It is my personal Black Lives Matter protest. Secoriea’s life mattered.

Secoriea Turner was eight years old when she was shot in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 4. She was riding in a car with her mother and another adult. The driver pulled into a parking area near what used to be a Wendy’s restaurant, trying to turn around and leave. That Wendy’s restaurant had been burned and destroyed in a riot following the killing of Rayshard Brooks at that location on June 12, 2020.

Mr. Brooks had been shot by police because he was resisting arrest, had fought with the two officers trying to arrest him, had grabbed a Taser away from one of the officers, and had fired it at the officers. Subsequent to the burning of the Wendy’s, the location had been controlled by the rioters. At the direction of city government, police made no attempt to control the area. When that car pulled into the area on the evening of July 4, the rioters fired several shots into it, killing Secoriea.

On July 5, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant held an emotional news conference. CBS46 in Atlanta has posted most of that news conference online (APD means Atlanta Police Department):

APD holds presser on fatal shooting of 8-year-old near burned-out Wendy’s

It is well worth watching the entire 40 minutes posted at that link. The participation of Secoriea’s parents starting at about 8:20 is heartbreaking.

The Washington Post reported on these events at 3:50 AM on July 6: ‘You shot and killed a baby’: Atlanta mayor demands an end to violence after 8-year-old slain near where Rayshard Brooks died.

The New York Times published a brief news item about these events early on July 6, and then published this longer article later in the day: ‘It’s Got to Stop’: Atlanta’s Mayor Decries a Surge of Violence as a Girl Is Killed.

The photo above was featured in a poster by the Atlanta Police Department seeking information about the killing of Secoriea Turner. That poster was headed:

Murder
** $10,000.00 Reward **

I cannot find that poster online, but it is in the following article in the Epoch Times dated July 6: Father of 8-Year-Old Killed in Atlanta: ‘They Say Black Lives Matter—You Killed Your Own’. The photo above is from this article.

On September 3 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: 2 months later, police still searching for who killed 8-year-old Secoriea Turner.

Can we learn from this tragic event? Can we honor the lives of Secoriea Turner and other children like her, as well as adults, who have been killed in the riots that followed the death of George Floyd?

Can “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”? (source)

All of the following people are black: Secoriea Turner, her parents, Rayshard Brooks, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Rodney Bryant, George Floyd. Yet there are lessons here for all of us, of all races, even here in mostly white Vermont where we never heard of George Floyd or Rayshard Brooks or Secoriea Turner until their tragic deaths made the news.

In future posts I will write about some of the lessons that I believe we can learn. Lessons about protesting vs. violence, about policing, about leadership, about how we should think about each other to get past our history of racism. I will refer back to some of the links in this post, especially the video of the news conference.

I cannot find a Wikipedia entry for Secoriea Turner. The following comments about Secoriea are from her parents in the news conference, starting at about 8:20:

She would have been on TikTok dancing. And [on] her phone. Just got finished eating. … My baby didn’t mean no harm. … She just wanted to get home to see her cousins. That’s all she wanted to do. She just wanted to get home.

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Unmasking the cult of Stalin

Mr. Jones is a “must see” movie, as I wrote in Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”. A comment on that post led me to this article at Ukraine Today about a panel discussion with the writer and director of Mr. Jones. This post is about that panel discussion, which has deepened my understanding of, and appreciation for, the movie. The image above is a screenshot from that panel discussion, which was held via Zoom and is at this link:

Mr. Jones: Unmasking the cult of Stalin

The moderator (upper left) is Anne Applebaum: “an American journalist and historian. She has written extensively about Marxism–Leninism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe.” She wrote the 2017 book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, so she is a subject matter expert on the Holodomor, the focus of Mr. Jones.

The woman at the upper right is Andrea Chalupa, the scriptwriter of Mr. Jones. The woman at the bottom of the screen is Agnieszka Holland, the Polish director of the film.

The discussion was hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC-based think tank. The discussion was held on June 22, 2020, about the time that Mr. Jones, which debuted overseas in 2019, was made available on Amazon Prime Video. The discussion was introduced by John Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Following are three take-aways for me from this captivating panel discussion.

The genesis of Mr. Jones

I had assumed that the movie was inspired by Agnieszka Holland. She is an eminent Polish filmmaker, known for several movies about the Holocaust, and she was frequently mentioned in reviews. But I was wrong. Mr. Jones was the brainchild of Andrea Chalupa.

Ms. Chalupa explained that her grandfather had lived in eastern Ukraine and survived the Holodomor. He told stories about it when she was growing up in northern California. When she was in college at the University of California at Davis, studying Russian history, she became interested in the memoir that he had written before he died.

At first she did not know about Gareth Jones. She did know from an early age about Walter Duranty, and she was fascinated by the question of how he could betray his profession. Later she learned about Gareth Jones, and Ms. Chalupa wrote the script to highlight the contrast between the older, established, and cynical Mr. Duranty and the younger, intrepid, and idealistic Mr. Jones. Even so, she said that Walter Duranty was an even sorrier excuse for a man than is depicted in the movie:

The real, historical Duranty was a monster.

(quoting Ms. Chalupa at 33:50)

Ms. Holland had to be persuaded to make the movie. At first she did not want to do another film about the emotionally draining topic of genocide, but she came to believe that Stalin needed to be “unmasked” and held to account for his crimes against humanity fully as much as Hitler:

There is something incredibly unjust in the fact that Stalin’s crimes and Communist crimes altogether didn’t enter the global conscience as much as the Nazi crimes are part of the memory of humanity. Communist crimes vanished somehow. Even with such great books like Solzhenitsyn, and your Gulag, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, and others. It was like forgotten and forgiven. And I find it very unjust and also dangerous.

(quoting Ms. Holland at 16:30)

It was inspiring to see the synergistic partnership between Ms. Holland, with her long and distinguished career, and the younger Ms. Chalupa. Mr. Jones is her first screenplay.

Why is George Orwell in the movie?

Several reviews of Mr. Jones have criticized the inclusion in the movie of scenes of George Orwell writing Animal Farm. The critique is that these scenes detract from the main theme of the film, which is about the reporting (or lack of reporting) of the Holodomor.

I had assumed that the reason for including these scenes was because Chapter VII in Animal Farm eerily parallels the Ukrainian famine, including the propaganda campaign to keep bad news hidden from the outside world. But there was no mention of this in the panel discussion.

I had also assumed that George Orwell and Gareth Jones knew each other, as depicted in the film. They were nearly the same age (two years difference), and the two men moved in similar circles in the British literary world. But, while it is entirely plausible that they might have met, it was noted in the panel discussion that there is no hard evidence that they personally knew each other.

The panel addresses the inclusion of Orwell starting at 34:45, and comes back to this question again at 52:45. A significant reason for the inclusion of Orwell is because he himself had difficulty publishing Animal Farm in 1945. From the 1930s through World War II, the Soviet Union was an ally, and there was extreme reluctance in Britain to publish anything critical of Stalin, whether it be Jones’ news articles about the Holodomor or Orwell’s satirical book Animal Farm where Stalin is represented by the pig Napoleon.

Orwell was bluntly critical of this self-censorship, and he wrote about his concerns in a proposed preface to Animal Farm titled “The Freedom of the Press.” Orwell did eventually find a publisher, but his essay was not included:

“The Freedom of the Press” … was not allowed to be the preface for Animal Farm because his publisher thought it might be controversial.

(quoting Ms. Chalupa at 53:10)

It was not until 1972, long after Orwell’s death in 1950, that this essay was discovered and published in the Times Literary Supplement. It is online here:

The Freedom of the Press

Should Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize be revoked?

Anne Applebaum is herself a 2004 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History, and she addresses this question starting at about 39:50 in the panel discussion. She explained that some years ago the Pulitzer Committee did consider revoking Duranty’s prize, and she was asked to submit material to the committee as an expert. She added:

They decided not to take it away, partly because they went back and looked at who else had won the Pulitzer Prize over the hundred or so years that it’s been given out, and there were so many other awful people that they thought, you know, if we start here we’ll never stop.

Both Ms. Chalupa and Ms. Holland smiled at that, and I suppose it is amusing in a way, but it also perfectly illustrates the point: We cannot blindly trust the news to give us an accurate and balanced view of the world, even if it is published in the New York Times and the writer won a Pulitzer Prize.

This is one of three posts about Mr. Jones:
1. The Holodomor
2. Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”
3. Unmasking the cult of Stalin (this post)

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Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”

By Source, Fair use, Link

I recommend the movie Mr. Jones, which has generated considerable buzz on the Internet this summer. At the end of this post I list 13 online commentaries about it that I have noticed. This 2019 movie became available on Amazon Prime Video in June.

As I wrote in my previous post The Holodomor, Mr. Jones is about an event that few people know much about, that occurred in a country far away (Ukraine), a long time ago (1932-1933). The person responsible for that terrible famine, Joseph Stalin, has been dead for 67 years.

Furthermore, Mr. Jones is not a U.S. movie. It is a Polish movie directed by Agnieszka Holland. So why is this haunting movie relevant to us here in the U.S. today?

I think one reason this movie resonates with us is because it speaks to our concerns about the quality of the news available to us. I’ve written about this topic before on this blog: on 2/09/2017 and 4/01/2020. One of the themes of Mr. Jones is: Be a skeptical reader of the news. Don’t necessarily trust the media to give you an accurate and balanced view of the world. Even if the medium is the New York Times and the writer won a Pulitzer Prize.

Is the movie Mr. Jones a reliable source of information? Is it good history? The movie is about the Holodomor and the news reporting of that catastrophe, but it is not itself a news report or a history book. Mr. Jones is art. We expect (hope?) that news reports and history books will be factual; that they will not be art. But we do not have the same expectations of complete historical accuracy when it comes to art. Consider Shakespeare’s history plays and Hamilton: An American Musical. They are art, and while they are not completely faithful to history, they are true enough for their purpose.

Nevertheless, from my reading, I think Mr. Jones is pretty good history. A helpful discussion of the history in the movie is here: Liars Go to Hell.

Is Mr. Jones good art? It is a difficult movie to watch because it is so heart-rending, but I found it to be both moving and memorable. From Liars Go to Hell:

The words “must see” are grotesquely overused in movie reviews, but in this case, they are apt. From a compelling James Norton in the title role, to the superb period atmosphere created by Andrea Chalupa (writer) and Agnieszka Holland (director), to a brilliant, understated performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Duranty, Mr. Jones is a riveting experience.

More reviews are listed at the end of this post.

Some reviews are critical of Mr. Jones for the inclusion, as being distracting, of a quasi-love story between Gareth Jones and Walter Duranty’s assistant. But I think the romantic element helps balance the horror of the famine, and makes the story more human.

Vanessa Kirby (pictured) plays the role of Duranty’s assistant. (She also plays Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of the Netflix series The Crown.) Photo: By MTV International – YouTube at 0:20, CC BY 3.0, Link

Some reviews are critical for the inclusion, also as being distracting, of scenes involving George Orwell writing Animal Farm. But I think these reviews miss something. Chapter VII in Animal Farm is about a bitter winter in which the animals starve because their leader (the pig Napoleon, representing Stalin) sold grain and other farm products to finance construction of a windmill. This episode in Animal Farm eerily parallels the famine of the Holodomor, which was caused by Stalin selling grain from Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, to finance massive industrialization projects. Animal Farm even discusses the news reporting about the starvation on the farm. From page 85 in my daughter’s paperback edition (pictured):

It was vitally necessary to conceal this fact [the starvation] from the outside world.

George Orwell (1903-1950) and Gareth Jones (1905-1935) may have known each other. And the farmer in Animal Farm is named Mr. Jones. It is quite likely that the life and reporting of Gareth Jones influenced the writing of Animal Farm.

I re-read Animal Farm as a result of watching Mr. Jones. I had not read it since high school or perhaps earlier. It is a very different experience reading this book as an adult, and I recommend it to everyone. Although published in 1945 at the close of World War II, its warnings about communism and totalitarianism are timeless.

Gareth Jones was murdered in China in 1935, one day before his 30th birthday, and ten years before Animal Farm was published. See Gareth Jones in Wikipedia for what is known about his murder. It is fitting and proper that his memory has been brought to our attention in an extraordinary work of art, which you can find on Amazon Prime Video at this link: Mr. Jones.

This is one of three posts about Mr. Jones:
1. The Holodomor
2. Why you should watch “Mr. Jones” (this post)
3. Unmasking the cult of Stalin

As noted above, Mr. Jones has generated considerable buzz on the Internet this summer. Following are online commentaries about it that I have found:

Continue reading

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The Holodomor

The Holodomor was a catastrophic man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. At the time, Ukraine was part of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Millions of people died in what Ukraine and several other countries now consider a genocide.

Not widely known then or now, the Holodomor is the subject of a haunting 2019 movie that became available this summer on Amazon Video: Mr. Jones.

Gareth Jones was a young Welsh journalist (in his 20s) who had achieved a measure of renown for interviewing Adolph Hitler in February 1933. The following month Mr. Jones traveled to Russia seeking to interview Joseph Stalin and to find the answer to a question that few were asking: how could the Soviet Union, in the midst of the worldwide Great Depression, afford its vast program of industrialization?

Mr. Jones did not get an interview with Stalin, but he found the answer to his question. It was an answer that no one wanted to hear: Stalin was exporting grain from Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, and elsewhere, that should have been used to feed its people. Mr. Jones includes heartbreaking scenes of starvation.

Why didn’t anyone listen to Gareth Jones, and a few other newspaper reporters who also knew the truth about the famine and its cause? A large part of the reason was the power of the New York Times and its “Man in Moscow” – Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his favorable reports about the Soviet Union, especially their first Five Year Plan. Duranty directly contradicted Jones’ reports.

From a review of Mr. Jones in the Washington Post, July 31, 2020, ‘Mr. Jones’ and the deadly consequences of shoddy journalism:

“Mr. Jones” is, in many ways, a film about Duranty … Duranty comes in for a beating — justifiably portrayed as a hack and an apparatchik for a loathsome regime; shown living in a literal den of iniquity, hosting drug-addled orgies to gather blackmail material for his friend Stalin[.]

Mr. Jones is a reminder of a troubling past. From a review in the New York Times, June 18, 2020, ‘Mr. Jones’ Review: Bearing Witness to Stalin’s Evil:

More than anything, “Mr. Jones” is an argument for witnessing and remembrance. … No one came to Ukraine’s rescue, despite the attempts of those, like Jones, who tried to expose the facts about the Soviet Union. In the early 1930s — with the West eyeing a potential ally in the nearing war — the truth was something few wanted to hear.

The 1932-1933 Holodomor did not stand in the way of the United States establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. President Woodrow Wilson had severed relations with Russia in 1917 when Stalin’s party seized power in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Four presidents later, Franklin Roosevelt was influenced by Duranty’s glowing reports from Moscow, and established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in the fall of 1933.

One of the intriguing aspects of Mr. Jones is that the movie is punctuated with scenes of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, a fable about the Soviet Union from the Russian Revolution into the Stalinist era. Animal Farm was published in 1945 at the close of World War II, ten years after the death of Gareth Jones, but it is likely that his life and reporting influenced the book. George Orwell (1903-1950) and Gareth Jones (1905-1935) may have known each other. One of the themes of the book is the famine on Animal Farm and starvation among the animals after their leader, the pig Napoleon (intended to represent Stalin), sold grain and other products from the farm to raise money for an industrialization project (construction of a windmill). And the farmer in Animal Farm is named Mr. Jones.

I recommend Mr. Jones. And Animal Farm. Both contain timely lessons for today. Indeed, timeless lessons about evil, power, and truth.

Related earlier posts on this blog: The Holocaust, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

This is one of three posts about Mr. Jones:
1. The Holodomor (this post)
2. Why you should watch “Mr. Jones”
3. Unmasking the cult of Stalin

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Matters of Race and Class

Since the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, we have seen nationwide protests, riots, and calls for change centered on racial issues. There are rallies and discussions in my town of Cambridge, Vermont.

In that context, consider this quote:

An obsession with disparities of race has colonized the thinking of left and liberal types. There’s this insistence that race and racism are fundamental determinants of all Black people’s existence.

That’s not a quote from a white supremacist or even someone from the right. It’s a quote from Adolph Reed in the New York Times on August 14, 2020: A Black Marxist Scholar Wanted to Talk About Race. It Ignited a Fury. Dr. Reed, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is the “Black Marxist Scholar.” The talk that he was scheduled to give was canceled. By leftists.

What is going on?

My take is that there are two camps on the left. The race camp blames most problems in contemporary society on racism. The class camp blames class oppression. The word “fury” in the NYT headline suggests the depth of disagreement between these two camps.

Because of the George Floyd protests, we have recently been hearing mostly from the race camp. But Adolph Reed is in the class camp, and he is not alone. The NYT article lists several other leftist intellectuals in the class camp: Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary (formerly of Harvard and Princeton), Barbara Fields of Columbia University, Toure Reed (Adolph’s son) of Illinois State University, and Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of the socialist magazine Jacobin.

That’s all interesting, but I think the NYT article missed something. Something close to home: the 1619 Project.

In August 2019, long before the George Floyd protests, the New York Times launched a major initiative in the race camp: the 1619 Project which seeks to “reframe American history around slavery and the contributions of African Americans.” Project director Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for this initiative.

The 1619 Project was criticized by many. See the NYT‘s response to criticism by historians here and here. But perhaps the strongest criticism came not from historians or anyone on the right, but from socialists. The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has published more than three dozen articles critical of the 1619 Project, saying that it is “a racialist falsification of American and world history” (source). See the list of articles here:

https://www.wsws.org/en/topics/event/1619/

These articles are by a variety of authors, and include interviews with a number of historians and intellectuals. The socialists’ view is that “the basic division of society is class, not race” (source).

The Wall Street Journal reported the following reaction to the WSWS criticism:

To the Trotskyists, Ms. Hannah-Jones writes: “You all have truly revealed yourselves for the anti-black folks you really are.” She calls them “white men claiming to be socialists.”

(Source: The ‘1619 Project’ Gets Schooled WSJ 12/16/19)

But it is not just white men making the argument for class instead of race, as noted in the NYT article discussed above. Adolph Reed, Toure Reed, and Cornel West are African American men. Barbara Fields is an African American woman. Bhaskar Sunkara is Indian American.

Given the NYT article discussed above, the following WSWS article may be of particular interest to anyone wishing to dive deeper into these matters: An interview with political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. on the New York Times’ 1619 Project. That article was published on December 20, 2019, five months before the George Floyd protests.

It is not my purpose here to pick sides in this debate. The point here is simply to observe the surprising diversity of thought by the left on matters of race and class.

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A Path to Racial Reconciliation?

Several local churches are sponsoring the following online discussions about race relations this summer:

Summer Forum Series: Is There a Path to Racial Reconciliation?

The first event was today and the two guest speakers were Vermont Senator Randy Brock and Representative Kevin “Coach” Christie.

It was a most interesting discussion.

I had to smile when Sen. Brock talked about the word “reconciliation” and explained that from the perspective of his finance background the word implies something out of balance. I also have a finance background, and I get that.

Rep. Christie and Sen. Brock are from different political parties, but there was much they agreed on. They both agreed that race relations have generally improved during their lifetimes. They both agreed that issues remain, especially regarding policing. They both agreed that discussions like the one today are an important part of making further improvements in race relations. They both agreed that language is important – that it matters how we talk about these issues, and what words we use. Both legislators are African Americans.

Most of the discussion in the Q&A was about policing, including how important it is to hire the right people to be police officers and how important it is to train them correctly. I would add that it is also important, when it is learned that a particular officer is not doing their job appropriately, to be able to fire them.

Sen. Brock and Rep. Christie each have a valuable perspective on policing matters. Early in his career, Sen. Brock, a Vietnam veteran, was a captain in the Military Police Corps of the U.S. Army. Rep. Christie serves on the Judiciary Committee in the Vermont House of Representatives.

The church pictured above is the Second Congregational Church in the village of Jeffersonville (town of Cambridge), led by Pastor Devon Thomas. Pastor Devon also leads the Waterville Union Church and the United Church of Bakersfield and Fairfield. These three churches together with the Good Shepard Lutheran Church of Jericho, led by Pastor Arnold Thomas, are the sponsors of this Summer Forum Series. Thank you to both pastors for organizing this interesting series.

Three more events are planned in this series, details here:

Summer Forum Series: Is There a Path to Racial Reconciliation?

UPDATE: Video of the first discussion is now posted at the above link. I’d like to call attention to the following quote from Sen. Brock:

Not all African Americans think alike. Sometimes that gets missed. People talk about black leaders. Well, what if we talked about white leaders. Who would we be talking about? Is there anyone who speaks for each and every one of you in exactly the same way? And the answer is no.

(source at 47:25)

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Hamilton: An American Musical

The tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has shocked our country. It has led to nationwide protests, riots, and calls for change.

Where do we go from here?

I believe there are lessons for us in Hamilton: An American Musical.

George Floyd was but one of many black men who have died at the hands of police, and occasionally black women, too, such as Breonna Taylor. I will have thoughts about policing in future posts, but in this post I want to consider a broader question: what kind of country are we?

Two aspects of our country must be considered:

  • First, as the New York Times has reminded us with its 1619 Project, some of the Europeans who immigrated to the Americas forcibly brought Africans as slaves.
  • Second, when those European immigrants declared a revolution in 1776, they deliberately created a new nation unparalleled in human history. That is the story told by Hamilton: An American Musical.

What kind of nation did Alexander Hamilton and his peers create? The United States of America became the most powerful nation the world has ever seen, but that is not the focus of my question. My question is about the character of this new nation, our country.

Hamilton and his peers were well aware that they were making history. “Rise Up! Time to take a shot!” is a refrain from the song “My Shot” in Hamilton.  The Founding Fathers put much thought into writing two documents that changed the world:

  • First, they wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This document explained why the colonists were revolting against Great Britain and also proclaimed what the revolutionaries avowed to be “self-evident truths” about people and their governments.
  • Second, after the American Revolution was won, they wrote the Constitution of the United States of America which specified the framework for a new government, unlike anything that had ever existed before. The Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788.

Both documents are addressed in Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies in 1755 or 1757. Ron Chernow, whose biography inspired the musical, uses 1755. Hamilton sailed to what is now the United States in 1772 or 1773, but he played no role in creating the Declaration of Independence. At the time that document was drafted in Philadelphia in 1776, he was a young man of 21 at most and he was in New York City pursuing an education at King’s College (now Columbia University) and drilling with the New York militia.

Hamilton was certainly aware of the Declaration of Independence, and he was a vigorous supporter of the revolution from the beginning. He became an indispensable aide to General George Washington during the American Revolution, and he played a significant role in the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the last major battle of the war.

Hamilton was among the 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted the Constitution. James Madison is considered the primary author, but many others including Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and Hamilton were also significant contributors. (Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was abroad as minister to France when the Constitution was drafted.)

Once the Constitution was drafted, it was presented to the 13 states for ratification. The Federalist Papers were written to promote ratification. Between October 1787 and August 1788 a total of 85 Federalist Papers were written by three men: James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. These documents are almost as important as the Constitution itself. Hamilton wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers.

So what do the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution say that can be helpful to us today in thinking about the George Floyd protests and riots?

The Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” which we now interpret to mean all people not just men. Clearly we remain far from this ideal, even 244 years later, in spite of the Civil War in the 1860s which brought an end to slavery and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which sought to bring equality to black people. The George Floyd protests and riots are stark reminders that we have much work yet to do, but the goal remains equality. As President Calvin Coolidge noted in his 1926 speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, there is a finality about the goal of equality. While we remain short of reaching the goal, the goal itself is unchanged. Indeed it is a self-evident truth that any goal other than equality would be a goal of inequality.

As a side note, Thomas Jefferson included anti-slavery language in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, but it was stricken by others. See this for more information. See also Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents at the Library of Congress. I learned about this little known fact last year while visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, part of the Smithsonian Institution. There was an exhibit about early drafts of the Declaration of Independence on Level C3 in the History Galleries.

How do we get closer to the goal of equality? Clearly there are systemic changes that are needed. In future posts I’ll propose specific systemic changes in our policing policies, but in this post I want to talk about how we propose and make changes. That is, the process for making changes.

The Constitution answers that question. The “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is enshrined in the First Amendment. In short, peaceful protests are OK but riots are not.

Some protestors today call for a “revolution” but this word need not mean riots. The riots must stop. The riots are not OK. If a “revolution” is needed today, it must occur peacefully within the parameters of the Constitution.

Can a peaceful revolution be impactful? Yes. Following are two examples relevant to the theme of this post.

The first example is the election of 1800, sometimes called the “Revolution of 1800,” when Thomas Jefferson was elected president. That election was contentious. Unlike any presidential election before or since, the vote of the electoral college was a tie, and under the Constitution the election moved to the U.S. House of Representatives. There the vote was again tied until the 36th vote! The person who engineered the way out of that impasse was, yes, Alexander Hamilton. That story is told in the musical.

The second example is Hamilton itself. The image at the top of this post is the book Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. It documents the genesis, development, and production of Hamilton: An American Musical beginning with the performance by Mr. Miranda of a single song at the White House in May 2009 during President Obama’s first year in office. It took several years for this to blossom into a full-fledged musical, which opened in New York in February 2015. The book Hamilton: The Revolution was published in April 2016 during President Obama’s final year in office.

The widely acclaimed musical that draws from the breadth of America’s culture and shows its audience what we share doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution: It continues it.

(from Hamilton: The Revolution, page 11)

Hamilton is indeed a revolution in many ways, from its nearly nonstop rap music to its extensive use of non-white actors. Hamilton vividly demonstrates that:

American history can be told and retold, claimed and reclaimed, even by people who don’t look like George Washington and Betsy Ross.

(from Hamilton: The Revolution, page 95)

The reason why I am writing about Hamilton now is that earlier this month Disney Plus released the movie version of Hamilton (see trailer) in time for the public to enjoy this masterpiece during the Fourth of July holiday – which this year the nation celebrated in the midst of a lockdown due to the novel coronavirus. My wife and I have not seen the stage production, but we watched the movie version on July 4th, the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Hamilton is sensationally good. We heartily recommend it.

The final song in the musical is titled:

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

Hamilton: An American Musical tells the story of the founding of our great country. It is a story to be proud of, mostly. By reminding ourselves of this exceptional story, both the good as well as the bad extending back to 1619, we can find our way through the current protests and riots to a better future closer to the goal of equality.

May the story of our time be worthy of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Alexander Hamilton.

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Lockdown in Vermont

We are nearly three months into the COVID-19 pandemic. How are we doing?

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I published statistics about the prevalence of the disease:

On this blog I want to think about the question in the header: What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government – in a pandemic? As a first step, this post documents the actions that Vermont Governor Phil Scott has taken to date.

A state of emergency is in effect in Vermont pursuant to Executive Order 01-20:

The original emergency declaration on Friday, March 13, ordered a number of actions including: closure of assisted living facilities to visitors; and prohibition of gatherings of more than 250 people. In addition, the governor issued a directive on Sunday, March 15, ordering all schools to close by the end of the school day on Tuesday, March 17.

Additional lockdown measures were imposed in quick succession via six addendums to Executive Order 01-20:

  1. March 16: Prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people.
  2. March 16: Closed bars and restaurants except for take-out.
  3. March 20: Suspended elective medical procedures.
  4. March 21: Closed fitness centers, hair salons, etc. Prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people.
  5. March 23: Working from home ordered “to the maximum extent possible.”
  6. March 24: “Stay Home/Stay Safe.” (Addendum 6)

Addendum 6 directed Vermonters to “stay at home” except for “essential reasons” which, for most people, did not include going to work. With limited exceptions, the order said: “all businesses and not-for-profit entities in the state shall suspend in-person business operations.” People were prohibited from working unless they were “critical” or could work without meeting other people, such as working from home.

Nearly a month passed before there was any easing of the lockdown. “Restart VT” has been as follows:

  • April 17: Phase I. “Work Smart & Stay Safe.” 2-person outdoor crews permitted, and other actions, effective April 20.
  • April 24: Phase II. 5-person outdoor crews permitted, etc., effective April 27.
  • May 1: Phase III. 10-person outdoor crews permitted, etc., effective May 4.
  • May 4: Authorized the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) to develop guidelines for elective medical procedures to resume. (Phase IV? Not identified as such.)
  • May 6: Phase V. “Play Smart and Play Safe.” Allowed “limited social interactions and gatherings of 10 or fewer, preferably in outdoor settings.” Outdoor recreation activities permitted effective May 7.
  • May 13: Phase VI. Authorized the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) to develop guidelines for non-essential operations to reopen, beginning with non-essential retail, effective May 18. Click here for ACCD guidance.
  • May 22: Limited outdoor dining and bar service permitted, subject to ACCD guidelines, effective May 22. Fairs and festivals cancelled until further notice.
  • May 29: Limited reopening of fitness centers, hair salons, etc., and gatherings of up to 25 people permitted, subject to ACCD guidelines, effective June 1.

The following graphs are from the post COVID-19 in Vermont on my other blog, with key events noted on the timeline:At the time of the “Stay Home/Stay Safe” order on March 24 (Addendum 6), we were still on the upward slope of the curves, and we did not know how bad things would become. As it turned out, the 7-day average of new cases peaked on April 9 (at 41.4) and the 7-day average of deaths peaked on April 23 (at 1.7).

The image at the top of this post is the Vermont state seal from Executive Order 01-20. The Vermont state motto is “Freedom and Unity.”

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To wipe or not to wipe?

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, should people wipe down their grocery purchases before putting them away at home?

This post explores the expert advice on this question, how it has evolved, and how it has been reported. This is in keeping with an occasional theme of this blog: How do we find news we can trust? (See this and this, for example.)

Three months ago there was a YouTube video on this topic that went viral: “COVID-19 Food Safety Tips.” This video, which has been viewed 26 million times, recommends wiping down your groceries and shows how to do it. Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I twice recommended this video. See Hunkering Down (March 28) and We are in a war (April 4).

This week there was news about updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC made minor changes to this webpage: How COVID-19 Spreads. The CDC now believes that it is even less likely than previously thought that COVID-19 can be transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces. (It was never thought that this was a major method of transmission.)

The CDC guidance does not mention groceries, but this sparked my interest, and in poking around further I found this guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that speaks directly to my question: Shopping for Food During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Information for Consumers. Some quotes:

As grocery shopping remains a necessity during this pandemic, many people have questions about how to shop safely. We want to reassure consumers that there is currently no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

And:

6. Again, there is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. However, if you wish, you can wipe down product packaging and allow it to air dry, as an extra precaution.

Whoa! I had not heard that before. That is considerably different advice from the food safety video mentioned above, which was produced by a medical doctor (MD) not associated with either the CDC or the FDA. The FDA published that guidance on April 16. That was 2-3 weeks after the food safety video came out, and more than five weeks ago now.

As we gain more experience with COVID-19, it is natural that our views about the precautions we should take may change. That does not surprise me. What does surprise me is that I hadn’t heard of the April 16 FDA guidance before.

Well, how did I hear of the FDA guidance now? Two news articles came to my attention this week about the CDC guidance:

The Fox News article mentioned the FDA guidance from last month, which they also reported on at the time. I cannot find that the Washington Post has ever mentioned the April 16 FDA guidance. I don’t read Fox News much. Perhaps I should read it more?

There was an aspect of the Washington Post article that amused me. They seemed annoyed that they learned about the updated CDC guidance from Fox News instead of the CDC itself. (The Fox News article was dated May 20 and the Washington Post article was dated May 21.) Quotes from the Washington Post article:

Right-wing social media exploited the [CDC’s] website tweaks this week. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity promoted a “breaking” report about the change.

And:

The change to the CDC website, without formal announcement or explanation, concerns Angela L. Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

My view: Fox News made a mountain out of a molehill in reporting on the updated CDC guidance, and the Washington Post made a mountain out of a molehill in reporting on Fox News. But Fox News wins on reporting the FDA guidance.

The photo above is from our most recent grocery shopping trip (Costco). We did not wipe down our groceries before putting them away at home.

UPDATE 5/28/2020: The CDC guidance (here) has been changed again! The Fox News article on May 20 was about the fact that the CDC had added a section to its guidance titled “The virus does not spread easily in other ways” which included “from touching surfaces or objects.” Yes, the CDC had added this section, but they later removed it. Here are three versions of the CDC guidance from the Wayback Machine:

  • May 1 – does not include the “does not spread easily” section
  • May 11 – includes the “does not spread easily” section
  • May 25 – does not include the “does not spread easily” section

The CDC explained its latest change here. Fox News covered the latest change here. I cannot find that the Washington Post covered the latest change. I’m still not reading Fox News; I learned about the latest change from the New York Times, which wrote about the matter here and here.

The FDA guidance (here) has not changed.

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