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 the American colonists 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. “History Has Its Eyes on You” is one of the key songs 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 Lin-Manuel Miranda to create 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 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 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 remain to this day an important reference concerning the intentions of the Founding Fathers, often cited by federal judges on matters of constitutional interpretation. 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, part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC. There was an exhibit about early drafts of the Declaration of Independence on Level C3 in the History Galleries.

How do we move 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 the Federalists were swept from power and Thomas Jefferson was elected president. (Hamilton was a Federalist. His party lost after having been in power for 12 years.) That election was contentious. Unlike any presidential election before or since, the vote of the electoral college was a tie. Under the rules of the Constitution, the election moved to the U.S. House of Representatives where the vote was again tied until the 36th vote! The person who brokered 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 revolutionary musical in many ways, from its nearly nonstop rap music to the extensive use of non-white actors.

Hamilton reminds us that America isn’t about any particular people or peoples. Nor is America about any particular class. America is about ideas, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and other documents. These ideas are open to all. They are “what we share.”

Alexander Hamilton was an underprivileged child in the extreme. He was an immigrant born out of wedlock and raised by a single mother who died when he was 13. He grew up orphaned, in poverty, and far, far removed both physically and socially from the advantaged and ruling classes in colonial America. Aaron Burr, who played a major role in Hamilton’s adult life, ultimately ending it, was the opposite – born into extreme privilege. Although also orphaned (by age 2), he was born into and raised by a prominent and wealthy colonial family. He attended the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, where his father and grandfather had been president. Hamilton sought to attend the same college, but was denied admission.

Hamilton’s highest office in the new national government was to serve as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Burr became the third Vice President. Today we honor Hamilton, not Burr, because Hamilton had better ideas about how to build a new nation. And today these two historical characters, both white, are portrayed in a wildly popular musical by people of color and no one cares about the race of the actors except to celebrate 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)

Three presidents appear in Hamilton: Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. All are portrayed by black actors. Hamilton was produced during the two terms of the first black president of the United States of America: Barack Obama.

These facts from and about Hamilton speak well of the character of our country.

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.

Update 12/24/2020: I have tweaked this post since publishing it in July. Changes to the original post include the addition of quotes from Hamilton: The Revolution and the discussion about Aaron Burr.

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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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Podcast Recommendation

Want to learn more about diseases such as COVID-19? I recommend This Podcast Will Kill You by Erin Welsh, PhD and Erin Allmann Updyke, PhD. Drs. Erin and Erin are disease ecologists and epidemiologists. They discuss the biology, history, and current status of a wide variety of diseases.

The Erins, as they call themselves, began their podcast in the fall of 2017 and their very first episode is relevant to today’s interest in pandemics:

That episode is about “the flu” in general and specifically about the influenza pandemic of 1918. Two other episodes in the first season are about the Black Death (plague) of the 14th century. (See Past Pandemics on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, for a discussion of historical pandemics.)

The Erins posted their first episode about COVID-19 on February 4, 2020:

As of this writing, they have posted 11 additional episodes about COVID-19. All of their podcasts about COVID-19 can be found here. Transcripts of several of their COVID-19 podcasts are available here.

Drs. Erin and Erin cover a wide variety of diseases. In the first season alone, in addition to influenza and plague, they discuss smallpox, cholera, polio, malaria, tuberculosis, ebola, HIV/AIDS, and several other diseases. I found the following episode in the second season to be of particular interest, because this disease is becoming more prevalent in Vermont as well as many other parts of the world:

This week we’re tackling the doozy of a disease called Lyme, the most prevalent tick-borne infection in the northern hemisphere. Tune in to hear us navigate the complicated biology of Borrelia burgdoferi, delve into the ancient history of the disease (ice mummy? yes, please!), and trace the tangled ecological web woven by the spirochete, its vector, and its hosts. And to round out this delicious blood-meal of an episode, we are joined by the one-and-only hunter of ticks, ecologist of disease, and PhD advisor of Erins, Dr. Brian Allan! Not only does Brian shine some light on the current innovative research on Lyme disease ecology, but he also details his own experience with the disease. This episode is as full as a tick with information about Lyme disease, making it one you’re not going to want to miss.

An occasional theme here on “The Switchel Philosopher” blog is: How do we learn about the world around us? How do we find information we can trust? (See posts with the News and Media tag, especially this and this.) So far as I can tell, the information in “This Podcast Will Kill You” is trustworthy. Each episode on the website includes references if you are interested in their sources, or in further research. I also found the presentations to be engaging and accessible for a non-scientist.

The homepage for “This Podcast Will Kill You” (image above) says:

Well Hello There
Have you washed your hands lately?
If not listen up

The Erins end each episode:

And wash your hands…
You filthy animals!

A good sense of humor! Recommended. Here is the link again: This Podcast Will Kill You.

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You Can’t Cheat A Pandemic

In the previous post (Where do you get news?) I discussed mainstream media such as the New York Times. But of course many of us get a portion of our news these days from social media.

There is an essay about the COVID-19 pandemic that went viral on social media. It starts out like this:

As an infectious disease epidemiologist, I feel morally obligated to provide information on what we are seeing from a transmission dynamic perspective and how it applies to the social distancing measures.

I first saw this essay on March 24 on the Front Porch Forum social media platform commonly used in Vermont. My family noticed this essay and discussed it.

It’s a thought-provoking essay, but who wrote it? The posting on our local Front Porch Forum did not identify the author. That posting began as follows:

We received this from a friend in Mad River: Front Porch Forum Post in the Mad River Valley on Covid-19 Precautions and Information: “MRV Community: A friend who is a doctor at DHMC shared this from a colleague. I thought it was worth passing along.”

I am pleased to report that the mystery epidemiologist has surfaced! Among other places, this viral essay authored by Jonathan Smith was published by WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, on April 3:

‘I Promise. I Promise.’ You Can’t Cheat A Pandemic

WBUR explains:

Jonathan Smith originally wrote the piece below as a letter to his local neighborhood of about 50 families. It struck a chord, and his neighbors began sharing it widely within their own networks. Shortly after, and many tens of thousands of email forwards later, it went viral. Smith, a lecturer in epidemiology at Yale University who is currently completing his PhD in epidemiology at Emory University, graciously granted Cog permission to repost the piece. Though it was written a couple of weeks ago, the message remains the same. (And in my own personal experience, it can be a useful tool in reinforcing the importance of social distancing to loved ones who have grown weary of the strict guidelines.) I hope you’ll find it as resonant as we — and millions of others — did. – Frannie

[“Cog” is Cognoscenti, one of WBUR’s programs. “Frannie” is Frannie Carr Toth, the editor/producer of Cognoscenti, as noted at the link.]

I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here’s the link again:

‘I Promise. I Promise.’ You Can’t Cheat A Pandemic

An epidemiologist is a scientist who studies epidemics and pandemics (among other things). Professor Smith explains why social distancing is so important to slow the spread of this disease and limit its toll on our society.

From the essay:

You should perceive your entire family to function as a single individual unit: If one person puts themselves at risk, everyone in the unit is at risk. Seemingly small social chains get large and complex with alarming speed. If your son visits his girlfriend, and you later sneak over for coffee with a neighbor, your neighbor is now connected to the infected office worker that your son’s girlfriend’s mother shook hands with. This sounds silly, it’s not.
[…]
It is hard (even for me) to conceptualize how on a population level “one quick little get together” can undermine the entire framework of a public health intervention, but it can. I promise you it can. I promise. I promise. I promise. You can’t cheat it. People are already itching to cheat on the social distancing precautions just a “little” — a short playdate, a quick haircut, or picking up a needless item from the store.

Professor Smith says: don’t do it. Don’t cheat on the social distancing guidelines. You can’t cheat a pandemic.

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Where do you get news?

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I have been posting about the COVID-19 pandemic currently raging in the world. (Click here for all posts on that blog about that topic.)

My question for this post: Where do you get news about the pandemic? Please share your thoughts in the comments if you are comfortable doing so.

I have asked this question before on this blog (in general, not about any specific topic). See this 2017 post and the comments. In that post I wrote:

Much of the news these days – even from some of the sources listed above – seems to be unnecessarily negative.

How true that is now! Much of the news about the COVID-19 pandemic is relentlessly negative. Yes, the pandemic is deadly serious. I have noted on my other blog that “these are unprecedented times,” that in our household we are “hunkering down,” and that collectively we need to “slow the spread.” But I do wonder if the news is giving us a balanced perspective on all aspects of the pandemic.

Let’s collectively think about how we inform ourselves about reality, an appropriately ironic topic on April Fools Day.

Personally I consume almost no radio or TV news. I am a reader. I have long subscribed to three newspapers – Burlington Free Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal – and I also read VTDigger. I admit that I no longer read the Burlington Free Press regularly because over time it has included less and less of interest to me. My family continues to read it and they let me know if there is anything in it that I should read.

All of that is online. We no longer receive any paper newspapers except the News & Citizen, a wonderful local newspaper that is mailed free of charge to everyone in a handful of towns in our area, and which I read faithfully. See the photo above. This newspaper is generally apolitical, and I love it.

Recently, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I subscribed to a new online newspaper: The Epoch Times. I don’t know much about this newspaper. It was founded in 2000 by a group of Chinese-Americans associated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement. That’s unusual, but I have not noticed any spiritual preachiness in their reporting. I am intrigued by the Chinese-American connection, since China is part of the COVID-19 story.

I have noticed that the folks at The Epoch Times are not fans of the current Chinese government. They seem to like the style of government envisioned by the founders of the United States of America. I like that style of government, too.

The Epoch Times is more supportive of President Trump than my other newspapers, so I will read their reporting skeptically. Coincidentally, like the NYT and the WSJ, The Epoch Times is headquartered in New York City, the current center of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and the home of President Trump. (It was his original home, until his recent move to Florida.) Perhaps these three newspapers together – NYT and WSJ and TET – will provide a balanced perspective on the pandemic.

It’s OK to take a break from the news, too. Is the news getting you down? Consider taking a walk outside. If you do, be sure to follow the advice on the marquee below: keep 2 meters apart from other people and wash your hands when you return home.

(“On the Bijou Theater marquee in Morrisville, the spaces where films are normally advertised have a different message this week: Do what you’re supposed to in the coronavirus crisis.” Photo by Tommy Gardner. From the News & Citizen, March 26, 2020, page 7. Online here. Used with permission.)

A walk helps us connect with reality in our neighborhood. The news helps us connect with reality in the rest of the world. It’s a big world outside of our heads. How do you inform yourself about reality?

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