Some Thoughts on the Present Moment

In a crisis like this, some people only want to escape it as much as they can. Others want to learn and try to come to grips with it. Neither way of coping is better than the other; it’s just a matter of what works for you. This post is for those in the latter group. If you’re in the former, scroll on past.

The terrible paradox of the moment is that we is that we are inundated with facts but have so little useful information. Anyone can obsessively refresh a counter and watch the numbers of cases and deaths go up, hour after hour, day after day, but those numbers, while tragic and horrifying, don’t tell the full story, because they can’t. Some of the increase is just the fact that we’re testing more people, but we still don’t have the kind of testing capacity to know what percentage of cases we’re identifying. This, in turn, limits efforts to determine crucial factors like how rapidly the virus spreads and what hospitalization and mortality rates look like. On the global scale, it doesn’t help that certain authoritarian countries may be under-reporting cases and deaths in a ghoulish effort to appear in control, but in a crisis like this, even countries that are trying to be transparent aren’t always going to provide adequate data.

The shift in how we live has been so rapid that it feels strange not to know more by now, but the reality is that in the United States the response to this crisis is just beginning. The increases we’re seeing now are the results of infections that happened before social distancing and shutdowns went into effect. It’ll be several days more at least before any curve-flattening is visible. Certain impatient politicians who think leading a country is like marketing a golf course might want to have to it all over by Easter, but Easter is unlikely to be the end, and more likely to be the end of the beginning. By then much of the country will have three weeks’ worth of data from increased testing and three weeks’ worth of limited transmission thanks to social distancing. Then, we can start thinking about how to be more tactical and less universal in our efforts to combat the virus. It’s not going to be as simple as there being one single moment when everyone everywhere can “go back to normal.” That’s a lovely image, but this isn’t a war, and there’s not going to be a V-COVID-19 Day.

I’ve said all along that people shouldn’t be panicking. But we should be prepared for bad outcomes, so that they’re less shocking if they do come. In New York, where about half of all US cases are located, the hospital system is badly strained. If cases continue to surge there, it could overwhelm the system, which is what leads to higher death tolls. When there aren’t enough resources, people die whose lives might have been saved. Now, it’s not guaranteed that that will happen. The authorities are working to bring new supplies in, professionals are improvising alternatives, and new technologies are being developed. Retirees and other volunteers are coming in to take up the slack. People are working hard, and they should keep working hard, and the rest of us should honor them for it. But there’s only so much they can do. And because we have no way to know how many cases tomorrow will bring, we have no way of knowing how close they are having to make ghastly decisions about who lives and who dies.

The most important thing to remember, whether that happens or not, is that where we are, right now, on the precipice, is the result of infections that happened before ordinary Americans had really begun to grasp what was going on. It doesn’t take much time for a pandemic to create an enormous burden on our hospital system. The people who are making noise about “the cure being worse than the disease” are acting as though there was some moment at which we had a choice between an economic crisis and a public health crisis. We were always going to have both. We had the choice of waiting until the virus was everywhere and millions of people were sick, which would have completely collapsed the social order and wrecked the economy, or grinding the economy to a halt in the hope of keeping people alive and healthy. That’s never going to be an easy choice, but economic crises are less difficult to address than health ones; you can stimulate an economy with legislation, but there’s no law that will bring the dead back to life.
If, as I hope will happen, we begin to see evidence in the coming weeks that this crisis is winding down in the United States without becoming apocalyptic, there will be those who will say, “We wrecked the economy for nothing.” (Or, more likely, they’ll say “YOU wrecked the economy for nothing,” and point at their political enemies.) But that’s like a child who, having been told to tie her shoes because she’ll trip and break her neck, ties them, then complains at the end of the day that she never even fell over. Precautions always look ridiculous, until you see what can happen if you ignore them. I don’t think that will happen here, but I do worry about how people will react if there’s another pandemic a few years down the line, or if this coronavirus dies down now, then makes a comeback later in the year. But that’s a concern for the future. For now, we wait, we watch the numbers without reading too much into them, we stay safe, and we take care of each other.


The Party’s Over

I didn’t want to have to write this post.

That’s why I’ve been putting it off. There was a case for writing it after Super Tuesday, but I thought, Wait until there are a few two-person contests. There was a better case for writing it after March 10th, but I thought, Wait until there’s been a two-person debate and some voting after that. Then there was an ever better case for writing it after March 17, but there were also signs that the right thing might happen shortly, so I thought, Just wait. But now that he’s made it clear he intends to contest the New York primary, currently scheduled for April 28, the time has come to say: Bernie Sanders needs to suspend his campaign for president.

I understand that that’s a hard thing for Sanders, and his supporters, to accept. It’s always painful to deal with the failure of your preferred candidate and the success of someone you consider deeply inferior, and in a case like this, with a candidate who is plainly not going to run again and who has no obvious political heir, it’s an especially bitter pill. I get that many Sanders backers feel like a Biden candidacy will produce a rerun of 2016 and would do anything they can to avoid that. To have seen Sanders’ insurgent candidacy seem on the verge of victory and then collapse, in not one but two successive primaries, must be heartbreaking. But part of leadership is making difficult, self-sacrificing decisions when the situation requires it, and this primary, more than any in recent American history, is that kind of situation.

It’s not just the usual problem, that extending the primary inevitably creates bitterness that we’ll all have to get over when it comes time to turn our attention to the general election, although with the stakes as high as they are that would be reason enough. It’s also that continuing to contest the primary will inevitably drive up turnout in the remaining states, and in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that’s a very bad thing. Citizens in states that have yet to vote should be pushing their legislatures to institute or expand voting by mail, but no matter what there’s going to be plenty of in-person voting, and it’s in the public interest to reduce crowding at polling places by not encouraging people to go out and cast votes for a lost cause. Sanders supporters attacked Biden, reasonably enough, for sending out a tweet encouraging healthy people to go the polls on March 17th, but at this point the very existence of the Sanders campaign is that tweet, times 1,000.

I’m aware that some Sanders supporters, including those with influence on the campaign, see the coronavirus pandemic as a reason for him to stay in rather than get out. They think that this national crisis demonstrates the need for the kind of sweeping healthcare and economic reforms that Sanders supports, and that Joe Biden has not done enough to provide leadership. This points to a fundamental weakness of a campaign shaped by passionate ideologues: the habit of getting high on your own supply. People not already presupposed to these ideas just don’t want to hear them right now. There may be a case that the reforms Sanders proposes would have prevented the present crisis, but when your house is burning down, you don’t want a finger-waving explanation of how it happened because the house was shoddily constructed; you want someone to put out the fucking fire. And Sanders, who unlike Biden has a current role in the federal government, was not in Washington this weekend to help negotiate the stimulus, but in Vermont, campaigning via livestream. I understand that some people see this “organizer-in-chief” approach as the right one, but to think that it’s going to help him overcome a 20-point deficit in the polls is to delude yourself.

And Sanders doesn’t just need to take the lead in the polls; he needs an overwhelming lead, on about the scale of the one Biden currently has. At this point, the kinds of scenario where he becomes the Democratic nominee (a) are ghoulish and (b) don’t require him to keep his campaign going right now. Nor is there an argument that he’ll somehow gain influence over the convention and the platform by continuing to fall behind in the delegate count. The die-hard Sanders devotees who are spreading absurd rumors about Biden having dementia or being dead are, in a sense, more in touch with reality than his more conventional supporters; the devotees, at least, understand what it would take to turn this thing around for him.

Bernie Sanders has a key role to play in the general election campaign, and in shaping the Biden administration if there is one. And he has vital work to do in continuing to influence the next generation of Democratic politicians, so that he won’t be the lone voice he often seems like now. What he doesn’t have is a meaningful chance of ever being president himself. The more he denies that, the more he feeds the caricature of himself, and of other committed leftists, as stubborn, selfish, and detached from reality… and the more he runs the risk of turning his supporters’ conviction that a Biden nomination means a Trump victory into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Someone is on Your Side…

Stephen Sondheim, the unparalleled genius of American musical theater in the late 20th century, turned 90 yesterday. His work is known for its complexity, its darkness and its ironies, but as is often the case, scratch an ironist and you’ll find a sentimentalist. His memories of attending the opening night of Carousel are instructive: “I remember how everyone goes off to the clambake at the end of Act One and Jigger just follows, and he was the only one walking on stage as the curtain came down. I was sobbing. [Dorothy Hammerstein] had a specific fur stole that she wore to every opening of Oscar’s for good luck, and I cried so heavily I stained it.” Even heavily stylized or abstract shows like Pacific Overtures and Assassins are shot through with raw human emotion.

The first Sondheim show I really connected with was Into the Woods. (I saw a Maine State Music Theatre production of Gypsy when I was very young, but the only thing I can remember of it is that the girl covered with balloons in the first scene was played by an elementary school classmate on whom I had a little bit of a crush. How things change.) Into the Woods, with its delightful interweaving of famous fairy tales, is great fun for children who love stories, and it was definitely my gateway drug for musicals long before I knew enough to be thinking about who was behind the music and lyrics.

I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite song by Sondheim– maybe a favorite from each show, though even that would be difficult– but for this moment in history, there’s only one possible choice. The song/video cuts out abruptly at the end because of how the story is structured. Here, from an invaluable American Playhouse recording of the original Broadway production, are Kim Crosby, Danielle Ferland, Chip Zien, and Ben Wright, performing “No One is Alone.”

And the Wind Began to Howl

I’ve been meaning for a while to write something about how fitting it is that a man as self-evidently devoid of generous impulses as Donald Trump should wind up at the head of the Republican Party. The Republican elites who spent early 2016 baffled about what their base was thinking should have realized that an arrogant bully is the most natural symbol of a party whose message for about four decades now has been that the only proper role of the federal government is punitive. Has Donald Trump done anything good for his working-class and middle-class supporters? Not really, but they don’t expect him to. They take for granted the truth of Ronald Reagan’s message: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

What can a politician offer people who don’t think he can use the government to help them? Well, he can cut their taxes, but Trump’s tax cut was so obviously tilted toward the rich (and the withholding changes involved so bungled) that the Republicans didn’t even bother to campaign on it during the 2018 midterms. What Trump did instead was to whip up fear about migrant caravans, which brings us to the main thing a Republican politician can offer his supporters: punishment for other people. Create the assumption that prosperity for those who aren’t rich is a zero-sum game, and you can make it seem like a crackdown on immigration (illegal or otherwise) is good for your supporters, even if the evidence for that idea is spotty at best. This is the modern Republican agenda in a nutshell: pursue policies that are bad for the vast majority of the population, and placate those who might notice by saying, “Yes, but I’m keeping women/non-whites/the lazy poor under control!”

Now, of course, we have a pandemic, a situation that by its nature demands federal rather than state leadership, and Donald Trump has proven himself as unequal to the task as some of us have spent the past four years warning he would be. Sadly, Americans’ sense of what a responsible government response might look like is so atrophied that Trump has retained not only the approval of his base but higher-than-usual numbers among Democrats and independents. Some of that is probably a rally-round-the-flag effect as people began to realize how serious this situation is; some of it is probably also grading on a curve, acknowledging that Trump has at least admitted a crisis exists and started taking steps, although there’s still plenty he could do be doing that he’s not, and his daily press conferences are the same mix as ever of unwarranted, petulant self-praise and exaggerations that competent officials immediately have to walk back.

I think a larger reason Trump’s coronavirus-response approval is somewhat high is that ordinary Americans, having by and large failed to take the situation seriously themselves, are inclined to give the president a pass for his lack of foresight. That might be a charitable impulse, but it’s the wrong one. The presidency is a job, and one of its qualifications is the ability to anticipate and prepare for national crises. Nothing in Donald Trump’s record suggested he would be any good at that, and he’s not. Indeed, he’s extraordinarily bad at it, so bad that, as is often the case during his presidency, a simple recital of the facts feels like an attack. You can see why many of his supporters, living within the bubble of Fox News (which is, these days, a very dangerous bubble), assume that reports from elsewhere in the press are malicious lies. It’s hard to believe that anyone could bungle things that badly. But he did. It’s what he does. The only question now is, as the case count increases and the economy teets on the brink, will he finally be held to account for it?

Establishment! Establishment! You Always Know What’s Best!

Full disclosure: after the Nevada caucus but before the South Carolina primary, I started writing a post about how hard it would be for the fractured Democratic moderates to stop Bernie Sanders’ momentum in time to deny him a delegate plurality. So you can see what my predictions are worth (though to be fair, I said, “hard,” not “impossible”). As it turned out, despite what I and others were saying, there was time for the moderates to unify before Super Tuesday; there wasn’t time for Sanders to develop a strategy to respond to that unification. In any case, I don’t know that such a strategy was possible, or that the Sanders campaign was well-positioned to develop one.

It’s not over yet, of course. Prematurely declaring victory was part of the Sanders’ campaign’s error in the first place, to a point where, post-Nevada, they jumped ahead to provoking debates about what would happen if Sanders had a delegate plurality but not an outright majority, skipping the step where he actually built up that plurality. There are still plenty of delegates up for grabs; Sanders could come back again. But it would take some lopsided victories, and he would have to overcome the demographic trends that doomed his campaign in 2016 and are behind his recent reversal of fortune. That’s a steep hill to climb for someone so strongly committed to a very particular conception of political right and wrong. The devotion to principle that makes Sanders appealing to his core supporters also makes it difficult for him to do what any losing politician needs to do: change the record.

On today’s episode of This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Sanders talked about “the establishment” and how it “force[d]” Buttigieg and Klobuchar out of the race. It’s this reliance on overheated and (frankly) unintelligent rhetoric about the operation of power that makes it hard for me to feel anything like enthusiasm for Sanders, even though his positions on the issues align closely with my own. Buttigieg and Klobuchar were dead in the water nationally. They benefited, as did Sanders, from the first two contests being held in the fourth- and fifth-whitest states in the country, but their peak performances in national polling were 13% and 9% respectively. All they could hope to do by remaining in the race was decrease the likelihood of anyone getting a majority of pledged delegates. That was the outcome Sanders was banking on, but it wasn’t in anyone else’s interest anymore, with the possible exception of Warren. Everyone else was jockeying to be the moderate alternative to Sanders. Biden getting nearly 50% of the vote in a seven candidate race in South Carolina made it clear that he was in the best position to do that, so they dropped out and endorsed him. Was there some wheeling and dealing behind the scenes? Probably. Outside the world of politics, we call those things “compromises” and recognize them as part of doing your job effectively. It’s only in a particular brand of leftist commentary that any concession to the reality on the ground is a moral failing.

Sanders and his campaign do themselves a grave disservice by using anti-establishment rhetoric to distract from their inability to secure majorities among actual voters. A candidate who claims the ability to ignite a political revolution by inspiring non-voters in huge numbers should be the one benefiting from increased turnout, and that’s not the case. But it was explicitly the plan for him to win with about 30% of the vote, so it’s not surprising that his most vocal supporters have no strategy to get much more than that. Blaming Elizabeth Warren for not dropping out before Super Tuesday is not a strategy, especially since what evidence there is suggests that her supporters are evenly split between Sanders and Biden. (I’m sure that’s difficult for people who vote primarily on policy to believe, but the average voter doesn’t weigh policy as heavily as some of us do.) Talking about how Biden is terrible and probably has dementia and will lose to Trump is also not a strategy, especially since it invites questions (then why can’t Sanders convince people to vote for him instead? didn’t Sanders have a heart attack less than six months ago, about which he has declined to release pertinent medical information? where is the evidence Sanders will perform better against Trump?) for which there are no easy answers.

I have to confess a certain frustration that the Democratic primary has come to this: a contest between two white men in their late seventies, each with obvious liabilities as a campaigner, neither, to my mind, likely to make an especially effective executive if elected. I would have preferred just about any other final two you could construct out of the major candidates. But that’s the nature of politics: your preferred candidate isn’t always going to win. You’re not always going to feel tingly about your nominee. There will always be setbacks. But you keep going.

What worries me most about recent events is that a certain type of Sanders supporter seems essentially to have given up: their commentary now amounts to, “fine, pick Biden, he’ll lose to Trump and we’re all doomed.” That’s not how you bring change. You support who you think is the best candidate as vocally as you can until the race is over, and then you move on to the next contest, picking the best candidate there and giving it all you’ve got. And so on. You fight. I’m terrified of what will happen if the Democratic nominee loses to Trump in November. Every Democrat should be (and so should most Republicans, but they’re not going to realize that until it’s too late). But even if the worst happens on November 3, there will still be work to be done on November 4, to make the things we’re afraid of as unlikely as possible. And if the best happens, if Democrats reclaim control of the White House and both houses of Congress and start to enact a progressive agenda, there will still be work to be done then too. If you only pay attention to politics when someone who really excites you is in the race, you’re never going to bring about the change you and you candidate say you want.

Book Notes: Elaine Stritch and J. R. R. Tolkien

Today I finished reading Alexandra Jacobs’ biography of Elaine Stritch and Christopher Tolkien’s edition of his father’s writings on the Gondolin story.

The Stritch biography is casual, eminently readable, and fairly superficial. Jacobs never spends more than a couple paragraphs on any subject involving psychological depth: alcoholism, sexuality, the precise roots of Stritch’s showy, sometimes cruel public persona. Precisely how much you enjoy the book will depend on your interest in the names and stories of B- and C-list celebrities of the mid-20th century, who come and go as quickly as the citizens of Oz in Jacobs’ brisk overview of a career that never quite took off in the way it might have. Stritch reached iconic status without having any sustained success to presage it: that she won her only Tony Award for her career retrospective one-woman show is telling. Quite why that happened is certainly too deep a subject for Jacobs, who is content to run through amusing or alarming anecdotes about her behavior without connecting any dots. So driven is the book by Stritch’s resume that her nearly ten-year marriage to John Bay, and his death from a brain tumor, barely leave an impression. If I sound down on the book, I’m actually not: what it sets out to do, it does very well, and anyone fascinated by Stritch should read it. Just go in expecting synthesis, not analysis.

The Fall of Gondolin, read in the wake of Christopher Tolkien’s death last month, inevitably feels like an epilogue to his nearly fifty year effort to organize, elucidate, and publish his father’s writings in the Silmarillion tradition. Like Beren and Luthien, it examines complete texts and excerpts from different versions of its title story, one of the key narratives of what would eventually be called the First Age of Middle-Earth. Together with The Children of Hurin, the three books can perhaps be seen as an alternative point of readerly entry to that Age, over the published Silmarillion, which can be rather daunting. The editorial apparatus of Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin can be daunting as well, of course, though it’s much restrained by comparison to The History of Middle-Earth, and the key texts are more independently readable and more attractively presented.

The Fall of Gondolin is dominated by the only two non-epitomizing version of the Gondolin story J. R. R. Tolkien ever wrote: the very early “Lost Tales” version, and the incomplete account he began and abandoned around 1951. The 1951 version was previously published in Unfinished Tales, but I don’t believe I’ve ever read it before; if I have, it’s been years. It’s strikingly good, especially by contrast to the Lost Tale, which is nightmarishly clotted and clunky in its style. Christopher Tolkien remarks that the abandonment of the 1951 version is perhaps the saddest of his father’s many failures to complete Middle-Earth writings, and I’m inclined to agree. Like The Children of Hurin, which was also incomplete but had been developed enough that a continuous version could be contrived, it brings the control of prose style that Tolkien developed in the course of writing and revising The Lord of the Rings to bear on Middle-Earth material that otherwise exists only in summary versions and juvenilia. The late revisions to the Lay of Leithian, the verse version of the Beren and Luthien story, are likewise marked by a richness of detail and style that suggests what might have been had Tolkien had the time to bring the whole mass of Silmarillion material up to date.

Full tellings, however fragmentary, of these Great Tales make the status of the Silmarillion as an invented mythology more than an abstraction. To read a part in detail is to recognize the scope of the whole, and moments of heroism and loss, sacrifice and redemption that can feel meaningless when summarized have extraordinary power when described in the plain yet powerful style Tolkien had honed by this point, with its calculated archaic flourishes and its clear, quiet evocation of the natural world. What makes The Fall of Gondolin a truly fitting capstone to the history of the Silmarillion is that it also describes what we know about the never-properly-begun Tale of Earendel, which was to be its culmination. That story, into which all the interwoven strands of the Silmaril saga feed, was once not simply the end of the First Age but the end of the entire mythology, before the development of The Lord of the Rings into a tale of the future of that same world. The summaries of the Tale of Earendel used here were written before that happened, and so they have a finality and a grandeur that the later, “true” version can’t. It’s ironic that the very evolution as a writer that allowed Tolkien to begin his most effective versions of the Great Tales not only resulted in a work whose editing, publication, and subsequent fame prevented their completion, but also made those tales less complete and forceful than they had previously been. Something as vast and complicated as the Silmarillion was, perhaps, always doomed to be seen only in fragments and imperfections, and The Fall of Gondolin is, now, the last piece of that perpetually incomplete puzzle.

More on Maine’s Vaccination Referendum

I received my absentee ballot in the mail yesterday. Imagine my surprise on finding a referendum question, not about sticking it to big pharma, or about the sacred principle of bodily autonomy, but about routine vaccination requirements for people choosing to attend public schools or seek employment in certain settings. It’s almost as if the forces behind the referendum, recognizing that few people support their desired outcome, are working (with a lamentable degree of success) to obscure what is and isn’t at stake here.

Individual laws do specific things, and should be evaluated on the costs and benefits of those specific things. Perceived weakening of a general principle is a potential cost of a given law, but a credible argument along those lines duly weighs the scope of the law and its likely effect on the principle. This law itself is modest in scope. It removes an abused exemption to a mandate for a routine and overwhelmingly safe procedure, and leaves in place the option of home-schooling for those whose objection to vaccination is genuinely strong. Turning to the principles, the idea that a yes vote will strike a blow against the pharmaceutical industry requires a belief that vaccination is central to its profit margin, which is certainly not the case. (It is, in fact, a common false claim of the anti-vaccination movement.) The loss of the comparatively small boost to pharmaceutical profits that would come from the law’s marginal increase in vaccination rates is not something that would cause wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Yes on 1 campaign’s suggestion to the contrary is, like the argument that you could stick it to the elites by supporting Donald Trump or Brexit, an attempt to take legitimate anger and manipulate it for selfish ends.

Then there’s the question of bodily autonomy. It is, indeed, an important general principle that you control what happens to and in your body or your child’s body. But in a complex society, any general principle is subject to certain exceptions. That’s why we have a society: to limit individual freedoms in certain ways and at certain times in the name of the greater good. What we have to consider here is, on the one hand, the likelihood that the law will lead to meaningful infringements on bodily autonomy, and on the other, the severity of the threat posed by declining vaccination rates. As for the former, I’ve seen no evidence that there is some great appetite to pass laws mandating or banning medical decisions that only a Yes vote on this particular law can check. (There is, of course, the desperation of the Republican Party to deny women control of their own bodies, but that’s obviously a phenomenon beyond the scope of the present law.) The more people pontificate about slippery slopes without identifying a single other sign that we’ve left level terrain, the less you should believe them. And as for the latter…

The great danger of the present historical moment is that Americans who grew up in an environment of extraordinary stability and safety take it for granted and dismiss warnings about its fragility as paranoia. But yes, declining vaccination rates do pose a serious risk. And you can’t entirely avoid that risk by getting vaccinated yourself. People who think that their personal willingness to get vaccinated means they can treat Question 1 purely as a philosophical dilemma are forgetting that there’s a reason it’s called public health. Even setting aside the fact that others you care about may have legitimate reasons not to be vaccinated and will therefore be at risk if breakdowns in herd immunity cause outbreaks, there’s a more basic calculation. Medical resources are finite, and outbreaks of preventable disease consume those resources, increasing the costs and risks of all treatment. In other words, you may well actually be doing the unscrupulous side of the pharmaceutical industry a bigger favor by opposing vaccinating mandates than by supporting them: there’s greater urgency, and greater profit potential, in sickness than in health.

I understand the appeal of treating this as a matter of principle. It’s nice to go to the polls and feel like you’re standing up for freedom, or the little guy, or anything else Jimmy Stewart once embodied in a movie. But life isn’t like that. It’s full of compromises and imperfections. As I said in my earlier blog post about this referendum, I regret that this law was necessary. But it was, and just as you do when you vote for the better of two candidates even if you don’t like either one, you should vote to uphold it, even if you would prefer to pretend that the other, easier answer is the right one.

The Herd

The Maine presidential primary, which I mentioned in an earlier post, will be held on March 3, Super Tuesday. There’s another issue on the statewide ballot for Maine voters that day, one that honestly matters a lot more than who will get a slightly larger percentage of the state’s small delegate count. I’m referring to Question 1, a referendum on whether to repeal a law removing religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccination requirements. A “Yes” vote is a vote to repeal the law, letting people decline vaccinations for what they claim are religious and philosophical reasons; a “No” vote leaves the law in place, denying people the right to claim such exemptions. I’m strongly in favor of “No.”

The first thing I want to say is that I regret that a law like this is even necessary. My instincts are libertarian; I think wherever feasible people should be able to make their choices and live with them. In a better world, it would be possible to allow religious and philosophical exemptions to the very small number of people who would actually want them. But that’s not what’s motivating the increasing numbers of people opting out. They’re driven not by religious or philosophical concerns but by pseudo-scientific ones. It’s not that vaccination is contradictory to their sincerely-held but inherently unverifiable beliefs about the nature of the universe. It’s that they think, incorrectly, that vaccination poses such a risk or offers so little reward that not vaccinating, or vaccinating in non-standard ways, might be a safer approach.

If you want an example of a genuine religious objection to a common medical practice, consider the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusions. Witnesses aren’t claiming that blood transfusions cause autism, or that they have unexplored dangers, or are a conspiracy by “big pharma.” They’re not trying to second-guess doctors on their own turf. They’re expressing a belief, based on a broadly credible but not falsifiable interpretation of established texts, about how God wants them to behave, whatever the consequences might be within the temporal world. You can certainly argue with them about their interpretation of scripture, but they’re not making a factual claim that’s open to easy dispute. When parents raise questions about vaccination, on the other hand, they’re not in the realm of the ineffable. They shouldn’t be able to decline simply because they have irrational fears, any more than a food service working should be able to get out of washing his hands because he says he’s not even sure germs are real.

I don’t want to seem unsympathetic to parents who are genuinely trying to do what’s right for their children. To paint vaccine skeptics as a gaggle of wacky conspiracy theorists would be as unfair as calling vaccine proponents tools of big pharma. Parents wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t worry about the risks the world poses to their kids. The trouble is that, as Alexander Pope put it in a misquoted and misunderstood poem, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” The emphasis there is on little, not learning. Having some basic knowledge of a subject is often less valuable than knowing nothing about it at all. When you know nothing, you can admit you know nothing; when you have some facts at your disposal, there’s a temptation to try to use them. First year psychology students do this kind of thing when they go through the intro textbook and diagnose themselves and their friends with every disorder in the index. And in the 21st century, the Internet is everyone’s intro textbook to every subject on Earth.

Vaccination has emerged as a subject on which people are resistant to the general presumption that doctors know what they’re talking about. Those who would never second-guess their physician on what prescriptions to take or what surgical option to pursue feel free to treat vaccination schedules as optional or arbitrary. That’s probably because vaccination, when working as intended, is invisible in its effects: you only see it when it begins to break down.* That’s starting to happen, but (thankfully) not on such a scale that the link to vaccine skepticism is visible to people not predisposed to see it. But make no mistake: the decline in vaccination levels in Maine is reaching a point where it threatens herd immunity. Herd immunity is the ability to prevent disease outbreaks by vaccinating enough of the population that the disease can’t spread among the small group that has legitimate reason not to be vaccinated. It’s vital enough to public health that even as harsh a measure as this law is more than warranted.

The paradox of herd immunity is like the impulse to touch exhibits in museums. Everybody wants to do it, and everybody thinks, “What harm is one little set of fingerprints going to do?” But it doesn’t take very many people giving in to the impulse for permanent damage to occur. Herd immunity has largely protected the first wave of parents to decline vaccinations, but when their peers see the results and think, “It worked out OK for them, so why not me?”, they’re destroying the system that they hope to exploit. I understand that vaccination schedules often seem arbitrary, and that it feels reasonable to want the same freedom to do what you feel is best that you enjoy in most other aspects of child-rearing. But doctors aren’t petty bureaucrats: they don’t give detailed instructions about what to do and when to do it for the sheer thrill of having power over you. They do that because small changes can make a big difference to effectiveness.

Should there be room in Maine law for genuinely principled objections to vaccination? For people who believe, say, that God intended us to be susceptible to measles, or that the state has absolutely no right to take coercive action in the name of public health? In the long run, yes, I would like to be in a position for that to be possible. If the current anti-vaccination movement runs its course and the risk of outbreaks of preventable disease goes away, then I wouldn’t mind seeing the law changed to allow more freedom for those who demonstrate a sincere commitment to such ideas. But for right now, there’s too much risk that any exemption would become a loophole to be exploited. The safest option is to vote “No” on Question 1.

*It has this in common with democratic norms, the destruction of which by the contemporary Republican Party many Americans shrug at, because they take for granted the safety those norms provide and are under the dangerous impression that a decline into authoritarianism can’t happen here.

The Choice, As If It Matters

Maine’s presidential primary is about a month away. If she’s still in the race by then, which seems reasonably likely, I’m going to be voting for Elizabeth Warren.

The first thing that needs to be said is that in this disastrous political moment, the conventional process of selecting a candidate is barely relevant. This post from the always worthwhile blog Lawyers, Guns & Money explains why:

This election is incredibly important because it’s about stemming the tide of ethno-nationalism and fascism. Winning the presidency is absolutely critical to that in all sorts of ways (controlling the executive branch, foreign policy, judicial appointments etc.)

But it’s not about enacting anything even vaguely resembling a progressive political agenda, because in the short term that can’t happen. It’s about triage.

An awful lot of digital ink has been spilled, and a fair amount of ill will generated, about minute differences in reform plans that will never be enacted, and about the perceived failures of certain candidates to adjust to modern realities. That’s not entirely a bad thing: lively debate over a long-term vision can increase everyone’s political engagement. But as we transition into the voting phase of what seems likely to be a long and bitterly-contested primary, it’s vital to remember that the next Democratic president’s vision is barely going to be relevant to what he or she achieves in office, because other factors limit the range of possible outcomes much more decisively. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s very exciting that economic injustice has entered the Democratic discourse on a more meaningful level than at any other time in the last 40 years or so. But that’s a beginning, and an opportunity; it’s not a sign that change is immediately achievable. The national discourse hasn’t shifted anywhere near that much, and the Republican discourse continues to slide to the right.

I will cheerfully vote for any of the Democrats who has a meaningful chance of winning the nomination, and anyone supporting any of those Democrats should easily be able to make the same pledge. The risk is always that passion for a particular candidate will lead to overinflated rhetoric about how the alternatives wouldn’t be any better than Trump, and that over-engagement in the dramas of the moment will turn that rhetoric into a sincere, deeply-held, but indefensible belief. No one running for President right now is anywhere near as corrupt, authoritarian, and bigoted as Trump. Don’t fall into the trap of taking Trump’s awfulness for granted because he’s a Republican and Republicans are generally awful; absolute rather than relative standards are what matter.

I plan to vote for Elizabeth Warren because I think she strikes the best balance between desiring bold change and recognizing that bold change is complicated. She seems to me to be the best suited to pursue as aggressive an agenda as possible, without wasting time on misguided appeals to bygone bipartisanship or ill-fated attempts to change politicians’ behavior by rallying the general public. It’s obvious that she’s engaged in the details of the reforms she proposes, which is an enormous plus, given that indifference to, if not outright contempt for, detail has been the hallmark of the terrible Republican presidencies of the last four decades. And the vision she emphasizes is more comprehensive than that of her primary opponents: it’s not just reversing Trumpism, it’s not just tackling economic injustice, it’s not just about what some dismiss as “social issues” or (dog whistle alert) “identity politics.” It’s all of the above.

You can probably discern from the above some of the reasons I prefer Warren to Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg (who are listed there, for whatever its worth, in preference order from greatest to least). I don’t see much value in going in-depth on my issues with them. They’re not perfect, but neither is Warren, and again, given the current political context, the odds that any of the four would be a significantly better or worse president than the others are minimal. They’re all products of the only normal political party and political ideology in the modern U.S. The current president is not. And when November rolls around, that’s the only thing that’s going to matter.