It’s been three months since Western University ethics professor Julie Ponesse’s video went viral. It seems she’s become celebrated in those circles that associate vaccines and vaccine mandates with political repression. Fair play to her, I say; political repression will always be a matter of opinion, since politics is always a matter of opinion. My opinion is different from hers.
It’s unfortunate, though, that her stand has put her in some pretty bad company. Last month an event was held at Canada Christian College in Whitby, featuring Dr. Ponesse and hosted by John Stossel. Most likely you know who John Stossel is; he’s one of those celebrity TV journalists who like to dramatize themselves getting to the bottom of matters of great significance. But he’s not the bad company I have in mind; that would be Ezra Levant, founder of Rebel News and generally one of the nastiest, most toxic little trolls you’ll find in right-wing media.
I don’t have much to say, actually, about Ezra Levant other than that. He’s one of that crop of new-media figures, Alex Jones being the role model, who make their living through monetized grievance and weaponized bad faith. It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would want to share a stage with this guy; but apparently there the two of them were, Ponesse and Levant, nattering away at each other and at the audience while Stossel’s benign visage beamed at them from the venue’s giant screen.
Other than that, a pretty cursory web search turned up a YouTube video (which I haven’t watched) from a couple of weeks ago, and that’s about it as far as Julie Ponesse’s current status. There’s nothing to indicate whether her situation has been resolved, so I presume she’s still on paid leave from Western while they decide what to do with her. Right now, the most likely outcome seems to be she’ll remain steadfast in wanting to have her cake and eat it too, i.e. complete freedom of movement combined with complete absence of responsibility, and her university will end up having to let her go for real. There’s enough sympathy out there for the martyr narrative that I fully expect she’ll be able to step more or less immediately into another professorship, at some institution or other more congenial to the solipsistic brand of ethics she apparently champions.
Last year, in the early days of the pandemic, I wrote about a nurse who left her job in fear of COVID-19, causing a brief social-media stir when her video was highlighted by Senator Bernie Sanders’ Twitter account. There has been much water under the COVID-19 bridge since then, but debates over the virus and its effect on people’s lives are as emotionally charged as ever, if not more so.
Which brings us to Dr. Julie Ponesse, professor of ethics at Huron College with the University of Western Ontario, who on Tuesday posted a similarly tearful video (she holds it together until the end) also prompted by the pandemic. Professor Ponesse, though, happens to be motivated not by fear of the virus, but by fear, or at any rate apprehension, about the vaccines. Specifically, she objects to the university’s just-announced mandate that all staff be vaccinated against COVID-19, speaks of the conundrum of being forced to choose between her job and what she deems an unacceptable risk, and frames her situation as a lesson in ethics 101. The gist of her statement is that she fully understands her career to be suddenly ending because she will not be injected with a vaccine she deems to be not proven safe.
Dr. Ponesse is not a crank or a low-information anti-vaxxer. If the video is anything to judge by, she gives every evidence of being rational and well-informed, albeit highly upset. She has simply reached a different conclusion about the risk proposition posed by the vaccines, which are after all being administered under emergency authorization before the normal rounds of testing are completed. The issue I have, though is simple: It’s not clear to me, even from what she herself says, that Dr. Ponesse’s employment was or is actually at stake.
I haven’t found anything documenting what the terms of the vaccine mandate are with respect to anyone’s continued employment. There is a policy regarding vaccination and physical presence on campus, however. The university website includes a press release, a couple of weeks old now, indicating that formerly there was the option to undergo twice-weekly testing in order to be physically on campus. The policy has now been updated to remove this option, “[e]xcept those with medical or Human Rights Code exemption”. The release goes on to say:
Further details and instructions on how to upload proof of vaccination or how to request a medical or Ontario Human Rights Code exemption will be sent to all members of the Western community.
In the video, Professor Ponesse states Western has “suddenly required that I be vaccinated immediately or not report for work”. Based on that wording (and she strikes me as someone who knows how to use words with care), it doesn’t sound like she is liable for dismissal simply because she declines to be vaccinated; only that she is required to not be on campus. Huron College, meanwhile, denies that anyone has lost their job:
University officials deny Ponesse’s claim that she was dismissed.
“While I can’t comment on individual HR matters, I can confirm to you that at this time, no one at Huron has been dismissed as a result of this policy,” said a spokesperson for Huron University College.
Nor does anything in the video indicate Dr. Ponesse has requested an exemption on either medical or human rights grounds, or is necessarily even aware of the option. If there’s anyone equipped to make a human rights case, surely it’s a professor of ethics? With that option on the table, I don’t really see how her dilemma, vaccine versus job, is a dilemma at all. It’s not that I lack sympathy for what Dr. Ponesse is very obviously going through; I simply suspect there’s more than a touch of panic in her reaction.* While her evaluation of the advisability of accepting vaccination at this point isn’t the same as mine, I hardly think she or anyone ought to lose their job over it – not based on the facts I’ve been able to ascertain, at any rate. I can only trust and hope she’ll be back at work soon enough.
While I obviously lack Dr. Ponesse’s qualifications, for my part I don’t think the ethics of the situation are on her side either. There is such a thing as the public interest, and if there’s any case where that needs to take precedence over individual objections it would have to be regarding the spread of infectious deadly diseases. None other than Noam Chomsky took some heat for his recent remarks on this subject:
People piled on him, which they often do, but this time for saying we should insist that people who choose not to be vaccinated be isolated from society. He went on to argue that it’s your right to refuse a vaccine, but then it’s also your responsibility to isolate yourself so you don’t harm others. That makes complete sense to me, and is clearly enough the motivation behind the Western mandate. COVID continues to disrupt our society and set people at one another’s throats. Won’t it be great when this is all behind us?
* In case anyone should suspect some element of misogyny behind my opinion here — flighty women, always flying off the handle — they can go ahead and suspect that if they want. I’ve shared plenty on this blog about my own past panicked overreactions; just read the linked article about Imaris Vera.
UPDATE:She’s on paid leave, temporarily. And she refuses not only to be vaccinated, but even to wear a mask:
Good for the dean, then. Whatever sympathy I had for this lady is now cool reserve — she’s officially setting the wrong ethical example for her students.
Continuing the anti-anti-vaxx theme of the past couple of posts — honestly, there’s no end to this stuff. I could make a career out of posting stupid things people say and claim about vaccines, and I’m quite sure people do (while making a lot less money at it than some of the charlatans they target, and certainly far less than the societal value of the work they do). Just taking a moment to share a couple of additional items I’ve come across in my daily viewing and listening, that also happen to address this particular segment of the wretchedness of our times.
First up is an episode of Doug Henwood’s Behind the News radio program/podcast. Henwood and guest delve into the career of a notably unscrupulous yet highly successful anti-vaxx proponent named Sherri Tenpenny.
This caught my ear in part because they refer to VAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which came up during my previous fisking of J. H. Kunstler’s opinions about COVID-19. I actually looked at VAERS during my early evaluation of his claims, since it’s one of the few cases where he tried to back his claims with an independent data source that could be evaluated. I didn’t go into it in my post, but I reached pretty much the same conclusion as given in the radio episode: namely, that VAERS is a system that accepts reports of pretty much any kind of vaccine-related event. It’s simply a big wad of data, possibly anecdotal, and simply not something you can cite as demonstrating anything at all, without first doing a great deal of work to evaluate, clean and systematize that data into something meaningful. It would be like claiming to be an entomologist because you managed to fill a whole suitcase with Polaroids of anthills – completely invalid.
The second item is this video from Rebecca Watson. Here she takes on yet another anti-vaxx canard which also happened to form part of Kunstler’s tissue of errors, namely the claim that vaccines are bad because they promote viral resistance.
I feel I didn’t do the best job when I made my own argument in rebuttal to this point previously. Well, now I don’t have to because Rebecca Watson brings the goods. I hope you enjoy either or both of these selections if you have the time.
You have to laugh when you come across people who actually talk and behave as if this theory is true, but it turns out, they exist. Do they actually believe it, though? In my opinion, that depends on what you think the word believe means. If you were to go ahead and ask them, likely as not they’d say no, they didn’t literally believe it. But people all too often don’t understand their own unconscious motives, and what they have to say about those motives often shouldn’t be taken at face value either. The clue is in what they do about it.
Nor is this exclusive to the anti-scientific brands of irrationality characteristic of anti-vaxxers and their like. There are highly scientific kinds of irrationality that have no less power over us – and in fact, are often where real material power lies in the world. I have no doubt Sam Harris, for example, believes his own words when he talks about his fear that irrational religious extremists (they will generally always be Muslim, in his discourse) get hold of an atomic bomb. And yes, that’s one thing to be afraid of. But the events of August 1945 show us that holders of a highly rationalistic world view are no less capable of using these obscene weapons against populations – as the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki learned, in the split second before they (the lucky ones at least) were vaporized.
The actual distinction isn’t between the rational ones and the irrational ones. It’s between those who value lives sufficiently to direct their own behaviour so as to respect those lives, versus those who don’t. For my part, I didn’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 because I ‘trust the science’. It’s true that I understand the science well enough to know what I was getting myself into. Therefore, I got vaccinated because I understood and accepted the risk/reward proposition that it represented. By being vaccinated I receive very good, though not absolutely perfect, protection from the virus for myself; and I also contribute to the general welfare by reducing the likelihood that by catching it, I will pass it to others. In exchange for this I accept the risk (minuscule on the individual level, but not zero) of a bad reaction that in the extreme might indeed kill me. There is no zero-risk scenario, just an informed understanding. Most of the time, this is about the best anyone can do.
Anyway, two cheers for the guys hoping to sell their un-vaccinated sperm. If any children come of the arrangement, I hope they name one after me.
I’ve written previously about my disenchantment with James Howard Kunstler, who at one time had much to say that I found compelling, useful, or at any rate worth reading. I thought I’d take a tour through his most recent blog post (title: ‘Danger, Cover Blowing’) and see how things are going in Kunstler world.
Kunstler kicks off by actually condemning the notion of not spreading disease, if you can believe it. His reasoning? That the disease spread anyway, therefore efforts to minimize deaths, overwhelmed hospitals, and long-term health consequences for millions of people were ‘inane’. Kunstler depicts the economic consequences of lockdowns and quarantining as resulting from ‘the gift [he means the virus] from Dr. Anthony Fauci and associates’ (more on the associates below). We’re off to a very strong start here.
This second paragraph is quite the tissue of truth and error. Kunstler’s grasp of cause and effect when it comes to vaccines, and the coronavirus generally, is notably dim. First and most obviously: yes, viruses in general do spread and burn through populations, but that’s especially true if nothing is done to stop them. Fortunately, something was done to stop this particular virus, with notable success (although not without sacrifice, which I for one felt as keenly as anyone, and more keenly than most of those fortunate enough not to lose their job).
It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that when Kunstler cites the recent death rate from the virus as ‘strikingly low’, he’s talking about a world where… drum roll please… lockdowns, masking and especially vaccines have actually been deployed, and have had their intended effect. In addition to being effective, the viruses deployed against COVID-19 over the past year have been quite safe as these things are measured, with adverse events tracked in the range of 23 per 100,000 doses as of July 30 (with just 6 per 100,000 classed as serious adverse events – Canadian figures, but not likely to be much different in Kunstler’s homeland).
In a previous post, Kunstler likewise demonstrates his poor grasp of cause and effect. Citing figures from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), he argues that because deaths from vaccinations now exceed deaths from COVID (let’s just take his word for this), therefore vaccines are evil. Well, maybe, except that’s not the right comparison. A more meaningful comparison would be the number of vaccine-related deaths that have actually occurred, versus the expected number of COVID deaths had there been no vaccines. I’m reminded of the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise rolls a ball across a desk at Colin Farrell, to make a point about intervening in a foreseeable event. The line “The fact that you prevent it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen” is correct. And with the pandemic, we don’t even have to invoke science-fantasy notions like people with precognition who can see murders before they happen. We only need to grasp the everyday notion that things we’ve seen happen before, like the spread of disease, can happen again in the right circumstances. The dog that didn’t bark in the nighttime, or that only barked once or twice, is far preferable to the dog that kept everyone awake barking its head off all night long. There’s nothing hard to understand about this, we just need to keep our heads straight.
Kunstler’s head is not straight. Measured by the number of deaths prevented, the vaccines have been a roaring success – roaring like a fire, possibly the metaphorical fire of a virus burning through a population that lacks all immunity. In fairness, he is hardly alone in finding these points somehow unintuitive. While it’s the job of public-health officials like Fauci and others to make this case as plainly as possible, there will always be people who prefer their own version, and if they bark about it all night long (which they do), others will start baying alongside them. But we have a right to expect better from a ‘social critic’.
At the end of paragraph two Kunstler tees up his pivot. Starting from the effort not to spread disease, which enrages him, he makes the pandemic somehow about the presence of unauthorized immigrants in the USA, which also enrages him.
“Many of them infected with strains of Covid-19.” All too likely true, considering impoverished Latin American countries are now far more vulnerable to infection than the largely vaccinated American population. There’s no originality in Kunstler’s xenophobia. Depictions of foreigners as bringing disease, and associating out-groups with disgust and degradation, are as old as the hills. If COVID weren’t already on the front burner and fit for purpose, he might reference AIDS instead, or syphilis. In fact Kunstler has a backhanded point here, given that vaccine refuseniks like himself remain as vulnerable as ever.
As for his claim that “the regime” (the word connotes illegitimacy) is fiendishly, i.e. apparently purposely, jockeying foreign detainees around the USA as a means of spreading disease, there’s no knowing whether Kunstler got this from some other commentator or is making it up on the spot. Certainly the detainees themselves don’t have any say in whether they get moved from detention at Point A to detention at Point B. Imagining for a second that Kunstler’s dark hint is correct and nefarious authorities have selected this particular, extremely inefficient, means of spreading disease, the logical follow-up question would be: how does Kunstler reconcile his judgement that this is “fiendish” with his equally vehement assertion that efforts to prevent the spread of COVID are pointless? What’s fiendish about the inevitable? The answer is, he doesn’t try to reconcile these incompatible positions, because he doesn’t give any thought to either one. He’s not speaking from a consistent world view grounded in fact.
Kunstler has taken to enclosing the name of the current POTUS in quotation marks for, I think, two or even three reasons. One, because he shares the sense that others have expressed that Joe Biden is ‘sundowning’ and no longer has his full faculties; two, he sees Biden as simply a pliable front man for the Democratic Party power structure, which in his view is still controlled by Barack Obama; and three, because Kunstler holds to the MAGA view that the 2020 election was stolen and consequently he will delegitimate Biden anyway he can. I’ll leave these aside for now.
The real issue here is Kunstler’s hobby-horse about ‘techno-narcissism’. In general he has more to stand on here than in many other areas, which is one of the reasons I kept following him for as long as I did. Technology is a very useful thing indeed, but there are some problems just can’t be solved that way, and require a different approach – possibly including, though not limited to, the way society is structured.
Here, though, he is once again simply dead wrong. I have no idea what Kunstler means by ‘strictly speaking’, but an inoculation that confers immunity is a vaccine by any other name. Nor is confidence in them misplaced, as the actual outcome of the vaccination campaigns demonstrates. As for the spike protein, I have no idea whether it damages blood vessels or not, but an unchecked COVID infection will certainly damage far, far more. The mRNA vaccines themselves contain no spike protein; what they contain is a set of instructions to be taken up by cells, whereupon cellular machinery will transcribe them into a finite quantity of spike protein for which the immune system will create antibodies. (Kunstler has also fallen prey to the superstition that the mRNA vaccines alter DNA, which they don’t. mRNA is transcribed from DNA within the nucleus, and travels out of the nucleus for transcription. There is no known mechanism whereby this can happen in reverse, and if some claim that it nonetheless can happen, they have signally failed to even begin to make a case.) While other vaccines possibly do contain spike protein, I’d wager in both cases the result is a nominal amount just capable of producing immunity – whereas the quantity produced by a virus actively replicating in a human body increases exponentially with no upper bound, ravaging organs as it goes, until the immune system catches up or the patient suffocates, whichever comes first. In short, fearmongering about the spike protein is simply barking mad.
Here Kunstler offers the theory that vaccinating people has the perverse outcome of creating new viral variants by increasing selective pressure on the virus. Since this is analogous to how the overuse of antibiotics has led to the evolution of multi-resistant ‘superbugs’, there is a sheen of surface plausibility here, but it breaks down immediately. Vaccines are not antibiotics – they don’t work the same way, and administering them doesn’t lead to the same results. Unlike bacteria, which are independent living cells, viruses are such radically stripped-down organisms it’s debatable that they are even living things. The mechanisms whereby bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance simply do not apply to viruses, which depend on subverting and parasitizing living cells. In any case, whatever prevents transmission or decreases the length or severity of infection, thereby decreases the number of viral replications, the resulting likelihood of mutation, and hence that of developing resistance – so long as the mechanism is applied with due attention to this unwanted outcome. The burden is on Kunstler to support this claim, and needless to say, he has not met it.
Well, could I paint a picture of a greater fiasco? Almost certainly. And must those be the emerging questions? Seems strictly optional to me. But here is where we see Kunstler turn to conspiracy theorizing: overtly attributing covert motives and intentional malice without, so far, any hint of actual justification. Note that word ‘perhaps’ at the end. We’ll see more of that kind of thing.
You could, I suppose. This paragraph plays an interesting role in Kunstler’s case. Since I’ll want to refer back to it, let’s call this Paragraph X. But that isn’t to say that Kunstler is putting these outlandish claims into his writing because he quite believes them, no:
Preposterous, you say? Oh good, we agree. That means we won’t have to worry so much that Kunstler is quite the kind of gibbering maniac who would advance such a claim seriously. This does raise the question, though: why say it, only to immediately reject it? What is Paragraph X doing here, exactly?
Ah, I see – Kunstler serves up the real conspiracy dish. We can see what Paragraph X is for: to provide a contrast, making this latter bit of cow plop seem more plausible by comparison. Holding our noses, let’s take Kunstler’s redolent fiction point by point:
Anthony Fauci, personally, wanted to be ‘the man who defeated all coronaviruses’.
He attempted to accomplish this by, apparently, funding research into a single treatment for all of them at once, for which he would claim sole credit.
Kunstler doesn’t say it, but we’re left to infer that to achieve this ‘silver bullet’, Fauci intentionally took unwarranted risks – i.e., ones that somehow exceeded those that would normally be incurred doing research on coronaviruses. This may be related to speculation about so-called gain of function research, but there’s not enough here to say.
Pursuing this agenda, Fauci ‘got in too deep with China’s PLA-connected bio weapons lab’. Presumably Kunstler means the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Whether or not the institute is associated with China’s military or receives funding from it, evidence that this laboratory was working on bioweapons is nowhere to be found. ‘Got in too deep’ suggests dealings other than normal science. No idea what those dealings supposedly were, except being obviously dastardly, and certainly no evidence is proffered.
Lastly, in some fashion not specified here, it was all of the above that enabled a release of COVID-19 from the Wuhan lab.
So Kunstler isn’t so much saying the virus was released intentionally, you understand; all he’s saying is that Fauci is to blame. That’s all! It’s not enough that Fauci gave possibly damaging advice early on, discouraging mask-wearing on the basis that the needs of front-line medical workers outweighed those of the general public. It’s not enough simply to hold Fauci to account for things he actually has done, or omitted to do. No, no; Fauci must be the initiator, the unmoved mover, the spider at the centre of the web. He and only he must bear the blame for the fact that one member of a widespread and naturally-occurring class of diseases emerged as a worldwide threat. You can tell that Fauci is to blame for all this, because that’s the story Kunstler is selling – selling via highly tendentious reasoning; while exhibiting significant bias against, and a lack of comprehension of, well-supported understandings of public health which have nothing to do with who is in charge; and, I reiterate, with absolutely no evidence.
A word about the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis: it’s plausible. That’s all it is, plausible. Lots of things are plausible, mind you. Some subset of plausible things are even true, including surprising things. Even some extremely alarming things are plausible and also true. Beyond noting their plausibility, however, I have nothing further to say about plausible things. What’s called for is… I know you’re getting tired of reading this, just as I’m getting tired of writing it… evidence. Regarding the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis, there is none of any note, though there is no shortage of vehement suspicion coming from certain quarters. Personally, I also would be very interested to know if in fact COVID-19 escaped from there or some other lab. That said, wake me up when there are more facts in. I’m not interested in speculation, still less in fire-breathing conspiracy-mongering of the kind Kunstler is engaged in here.
Kunstler wraps up this red-meat paragraph by pointing out that the scenario he’s laid out is advantageous for China, based on his imputed agenda of ‘socio-political destruction of [the West’s] once-cohesive cultures’. This is familiar ground: it’s the standard-issue injured entitlement of Us against Them – the perennial seed crystal of revanchist aggression, experienced as felt grievance, that grows again and again in human societies. This kind of thing is sometimes funny in small doses, generally tedious in large ones, and extremely dangerous when it comes to dominate the public conversation. He hasn’t accused the Chinese in so many words of trying to taint our precious bodily fluids, but do a search and replace of ‘China’ with ‘the Jews’ and this paragraph could have been transcribed from Der Stürmer.
Kunstler isn’t wrong about everything. What he says here is correct and extremely important, so far as it refers to the distrust and disbelief on the part of much of the U.S. population toward their government and ruling class generally. There really is a serious and growing credibility gap between the U.S. government and its people; liberal-identified corporate media really are overflowing with lies, BS, and a growing liberal authoritarianism, to match the well-established right-wing mediasphere; the Trump/Russia narrative really was a colossal hoax; MSNBC and other networks really have become shills for the ‘intelligence community’; the three-letter agencies’ intervention in the 2016 presidential election really was an unconstitutional, anti-democratic overreach; and on and on and on.
But Kunstler undoes himself, in part with fact- and science-illiterate conspiracy-mongering, and in part by showing his ass on the January 6 Capitol riot. Kunstler himself previously gave every indication of buying into, if not QAnon itself, then the QAnon-adjacent narrative that Donald Trump was going to serve up some kind of retribution, or at least subpoenas, against various malefactors that Kunstler and others blame for assorted American ills, both real and imaginary. This was the narrative that animated the rioters who trespassed into the U.S. Capitol building on January 6: their hero, a media creation who in their expectations (certainly not in reality) had written a cheque far beyond the power of his pudgy flesh to cash, needed their help and support to deliver the apotheosis they craved. And so they marched, stormed the barricades, and burbled around the halls of power for a bit while absolutely nothing they expected to happen actually happened. Having placed their faith in the hollowest man currently drawing breath, they were stunned by the anti-climax – and the aftermath was, as could be expected, a narrative reassessment. Blame for the fiasco has been deflected away from their blond hero, away from their deluded selves, and toward Nancy Pelosi, who whatever her faults – they are considerable – had as much to do with the riot as gonorrhea had to do with the conception of Trump’s father Fred (i.e., I presume she was there when it happened).
About this punctured narrative, I have little more to say – except to express my brimming, overflowing pity for anyone so clueless and desperate they looked to a demagogue as indifferent to republican virtue and as comprehensively incompetent as Donald J. Trump to be the protagonist of their cause. One wishes that social critics like Kunstler, who (unlike this hobby-project blog of mine) have an appreciable audience, would do better. Better, that is, than regurgitating propaganda takes that have already done multiple loops through the alimentary canal of fever-swamp confirmation bias.
In Paragraph X, Kunstler calls ours the age of manufactured narratives, showing that he has an idea of the role that narrative – stories – play in justifying and sustaining power relationships. Given the kind of creatures we humans are, one and the same set of facts can easily give rise to multiple competing narratives, each contending to imbue those facts with meaning. Discover which narrative prevails and who plays what part in those narratives, and you’ve discovered who has power over whom, and what they need to do to maintain and increase that power. One particularly potent narrative is that of the lost cause, which in its various guises propelled past political movements as savoury as Nazism and as illustrious as the Ku Klux Klan. Donald Trump now has a lost-cause narrative of his very own, and Kunstler declares his fealty to it hook, line, and sinker.
“The release could be dangerous”, he concludes (and I’ve rambled on at far too much length myself). Long after his best work, this is a final illustration of what became most pathetically obvious about JHK in this declining arc of his intellectual career: how very badly he is jonesing for some kind of righteous release to make good on his resentments. Nothing he writes anymore fails to lead the reader toward the predetermined conclusion: one day, and that right soon, a real rain will come and wash away the pimps, the dogs, the hustlers, and whoever else falls under the baleful eye of James Howard Kunstler.
The young woman’s name is Imaris Vera. She worked, briefly, at Northwestern Medicine hospital in Chicago. If the video above isn’t visible, she is looking tearfully into the camera and relating why she quit her job at the ICU converted into a COVID-19 unit.
As I write, the CBS News tweet has 55.4K likes, 23.9K retweets and has received 25.6K replies. The content is pretty sensational, the appeal for a news organization is obvious, and the top reply is this:
Contra@TheRightMelissa and @Cernovich conflating the viral video with Jussie Smollett, these are not the same situation. Imaris Vera made a social media post which got picked up by a major news media organization, while Smollett concocted a conscious and premeditated fraudulent crime against himself, for gain. The video is neither fake nor fraudulent, and Imaris Vera is not Jussie Smollett 2.0. However, all was not as it first seemed.
After Sen. Bernie Sanders retweeted the video, Vera responded to him via Twitter to provide a clarification. I can’t find the response tweet (her Instagram account is offline, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she has suspended or deleted her Twitter account as well), so I am relying on this National Review article for some details. Her response prompted CBS News to follow up with this clarification tweet:
Imaris Vera, the nurse in this video, clarified her experience on Monday in a tweet: “We were each assigned 1 N95 per 1 covid patient’s room but was not allowed to wear it outside of the room, wear our own N95 mask around the Nurses station or Halls, which I came prepared with.”
To restate my understanding, Ms. Vera confirmed she did receive an N95 mask from the hospital, and was instructed to wear it inside patients’ rooms only. She had also brought her own N95 mask, which she wanted to wear outside patients’ rooms, but was informed she could not do so. This prompted her to quit in tears, seemingly in fear for her safety. CBS News added: “The hospital, Northwestern Medicine, acknowledged that Imaris Vera had quit her job, but referred CBS News to Vera as to the details of why.”
CBS News was journalistically obligated to post the clarification, because their initial tweet of the video clearly gave the misleading impression that nurses in the COVID-19 ICU were being required to work with no PPE at all. Right-wing commenters were quick to pounce: accusing CBS of promoting fake news, and making much of the fact that Imaris Vera had used Instagram pretty much the same way as anyone else who uses it, i.e. to post selfies and videos for attention. CBS clearly did not sufficiently investigate the original video before giving it wider distribution, and they are fair game for criticism as a result.
But what about Imaris herself? What led to her recording and posting the video, which she may have expected to be seen only by friends and family? The National Review report references another social media post from late March, in which Imaris acknowledged that she “suffer[s] with anxiety and bi-polar depression and was feeling a heavy toll with transitioning back into the ICU after being away from the bedside for over a year”. She additionally posted on April 1 that “I am currently looking for other COVID Nursing jobs where I know I’ll feel SAFE & not be told I can’t wear my own mask/PPE”. The magazine — founded by the late William F. Buckley — took care to point out that this means she quit her job almost immediately, after being out of work for a year. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to sense a whiff of judgement on their part, but sense it I do, for what that’s worth. In general, sympathy on the political right for Imaris Vera as an individual was lacking, to say the least.
As someone having my own history with anxiety, up to and including quitting a much-valued job because of it after just four months (with — let me emphasize this — no other means of support), I want to stand up for Imaris. No words can do justice to the reality of a panic attack. When I had my first one, in my mid-twenties, I sincerely and uncritically believed I was dying. Lacking any framework for what I was experiencing, I took my panic symptoms for physical reality, and believed in the marrow of my bones I was experiencing my last moments on earth. The horror was beyond all description. While I (obviously) survived, other attacks followed, little more tolerable though they trailed off with time.
Years later, with my anxiety still not effectively treated, the stress of adjusting to the excessive demands of a new and highly dysfunctional workplace subjected me to a grinding, unending struggle to function, while a monster haunted my spirit and gnawed at my insides 24 hours a day. This culminated in another panic attack, though this time I had enough experience to recognize it for what it was and seek reasonable medical attention. For several days afterward, I struggled with the sheer impossibility of trying to go back to work, knowing it was beyond me but paralyzed by my expectation of myself that I had to try. Somehow, through some breakthrough denial of reality, I did manage to go back in for another few days before the final, simple event that broke me. (We had an in-office training event that took me away from my desk for a couple of hours. When I came back, my voice mail box was filled with unanswered demands.) I went to the washroom, shut myself in a stall, wept quietly for a moment and then walked to my manager’s office to inform her that I was done.
When all these events happened, I was not being physically threatened — not at all, not once, by anyone or anything. My life and health weren’t in genuine danger from my being expected to work in close proximity to a contagious killer disease. Nor was I under constant assault by apocalyptic news reports letting me know that not just my country, but the entire world, was buckling under the viral threat. Imaris Vera, however, was. In this environment, she wanted to put her skills to use and help people, while also wanting to protect herself. Being disallowed from doing so to the degree she wanted, she broke under the strain and she was done. She therefore found herself in the position of having to let go of elusive, hard-won stability, and throw herself back into the maelstrom of economic precarity and a completely uncertain future, as the only alternative to the destruction of her physical health, her mental health, or both. Try to picture what it would take to drive you to that choice.
I have been Imaris Vera, and I can’t even imagine the worst experiences of my life being compounded by a massive social media pile-on. Take it easy on Imaris. She’s been through a lot. Take it from one who knows: anxiety is no joke.
Somewhere along the line, I became a habitual reader of James Howard Kunstler’s blog, Clusterfuck Nation. I even sporadically read and, god help me, participate in the comments section. Since my area of common interest and agreement with Kunstler largely begins and ends with his views on urbanism and the bad effects of the automobile, I continually surprise myself every time I check in, since he largely moved on to other subjects quite some time ago (basically, since Duncan Crary stopped helping out with his podcast). Nonetheless, I persist.
Another reason I surprise myself is that I’m already on record as identifying the prevailing mood at CFN as mandatory nihilism. Why, you might ask, would someone come back again and again to imbibe that product? Yet this attitude is not only characteristic of the political right but growing rapidly, as the YouTuber Three Arrows observed last week. From him, I learned that the Germans have anticipated me by coining the word Zweckpessimismus, meaning intentional or studied pessimism. Kunstler’s world view, and that of the bulk of his readership it seems (at least the ones motivated to comment on his blog), now lies pinned under glass. Maybe he ought to consider rebranding.
Anyway, I don’t post to this blog nearly often enough, but I’ve also resisted using it in the way I’ve been tempted: as a handy backscratcher whenever I get the itch to rebut or criticize Kunstler’s latest. I’m finally bowing to the inevitable. Maybe it’ll motivate me to do some more useful writing on other topics.
Today’s Kunstler missive addresses an issue of the moment: the increasingly panicked response of the Democratic Party establishment to the obvious strength, and increasingly likely success, of Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be their nominee for president. As for Sanders’ policy priorities, Kunstler predictably dismisses them as promises of free* stuff that can never be delivered on for various reasons, but especially because of limits to economic growth.
On the latter score, Kunstler has facts and reason on his side, because the end of the fossil fuel era and the need for energy transition are no longer science fiction. They’re upon us, as is the ecological crisis we’ve been completely well aware of since no later than the publication of Silent Spring. Capitalist realist that he is, Kunstler takes the austerity position — that there is no alternative to silent acceptance of reduced expectations — absolutely for granted. Our friendly social critic — who has expended no small amount of breath and ink describing the economy as a series of swindles — will have no truck with the idea of redressing those swindles among individuals, or the consequences they have imposed on the wider society. It goes without saying that redistribution of wealth and resources, whereby average people may retain a modicum of dignity and health, is both bad and wrong, not to mention doomed to failure. We’ve seen plutonomy become plutocracy, which became oligarchy; and this will become fascism (he calls it unspecified ‘trouble’), which will end in a new post-industrial, post-consumerist agrarian feudalism. This is Kunstler’s vision, and he lacks patience to debate even any mitigations wherever I’ve seen him have the opportunity. At best, he dismisses any alternative as an attempt to sustain the unsustainable.
Kunstler styles himself as a social critic, yet he rejects social goods, unless they’re attractive buildings or ‘nourishing’ architecture of a kind that — this is telling phraseology — informs people of who they are and what their place is in the scheme of things. As might also be expected of a capitalist-realist of the Zero Hedge variety, Kunstler continues to rail against the great demon inflation. This, mind you, comes after a 40-year period in which inflation has been crushed so effectively that even the great financial crisis of 2007-08 could not budge the needle (google the economist Mark Blyth alongside “creditor’s paradise” if you want to follow that thread).
In a similar vein, Kunstler is a true devotee of money mysticism and the cult of gold. There is nothing more useful to plutocrats and oligarchs than mystification about money. The question of what money is is dead simple: it’s virtual value. That’s it — nothing less, nothing more. The value of money is based on the expectation that a token of some sort can eventually be redeemed for something tangible such as food, clothing or shelter. (Or medical care.) The engine that keeps money in circulation, thereby assuring that there will always be demand for the tokens, is taxation and the ability of the state to coerce payment in its accepted currency. To a plutocrat, it is critically necessary that the operation of money be excluded from the realm of politics. The hyperinflation scare is only the shrillest and least subtle way that people, especially politicians, are discouraged from even beginning to treat money’s role in society as a tool — one that can be used for multiple purposes, including the purpose of improving the lives of everyday people. That, and righting the savage imbalance of power between the wealthy and everyone else that was achieved largely by sweeping the operations of money under the rug in the first place.
One of Kunstler’s favourite slogans is ‘the virtual is not a substitute for the real’. This is apt enough when talking about the way social media acts as a virtual substitute for companionship, or passive consumption of media provides a substitute for real engagement and a real stake in how the society is run. But I’ve never seen Kunstler come to grips with the implications of his own slogan for his views about money, i.e. the virtualization of value. Nor does he take seriously the possibilities that people see in democratic socialism, or any other kind of politics that refuses to accept the endless accumulation of wealth by the few as fatalistically as he does. It’s not that Kunstler is quiet about oligarchy; it’s just that he assumes, indeed insists upon, impotence on any level but the personal (edit: and the local). Hoard gold and get ready for the trouble that’s coming, he says, over and over endlessly. In the end, that’s all his social criticism is good for.
When it comes to the question of “how America will pay for all the free* stuff Bernie proffers”, the answer is glaringly clear: by devoting real resources to the task. I say again, real resources — things of unarguable value such as hours of work, tonnes of building materials, and joules of energy — not merely virtual (i.e. throwing money around, whether it’s denominated in gold, fiat dollars, or promises from your fairy godmother, until it inflates beyond all meaning). Money, demystified and put to work for the purpose on a realistic basis, can and should be part of allocating those resources and achieving those goals. Reorienting public priorities toward these ends, instead of enabling and then defending endless wealth accumulation and oligarchy, is the task — and that means challenging power, including and especially money power, as it is and where it sits. The fact that we are hitting real resource constraints and that exponential growth is ending makes this more critical, not less. It was bad enough that an opulent minority was able to capture the economic surplus while it was still growing; for them to continue doing so when growth stops, or even rolls back, is intolerable. The payoff will be that when the shit hits the fan, we may actually come out the other side retaining some of the material gains of the Industrial Revolution for the good of everyone, instead of collapsing by default back into medieval inequality, only this time on a vastly impoverished planet.
* NB: Eliding the words ‘Free at the point of use‘ is the standard lie and misrepresentation that Kunstler happily cooperates with. Have you ever heard some fool ranting, say, that lighting at night is not ‘free’ and never can be? Certainly not, and if they did so as vociferously as people rail against single-payer medicine, you’d escort them to a rubber room. Yet streetlamps and lighthouses exist — because the need for them was identified, we made provisions for them using what resources were at hand, everyone got on with their lives, and nobody siphoned off vast, unearned, dynastic fortunes in the process.
1. Allowing employers to ‘average’ time worked across a four-week span. I work with numbers. There is no reason to do this, *except* to deny workers overtime pay. None. It’s called regression to the mean.
2. Not requiring employers to get a signed agreement from workers if they request >48 hours of work per week. This ‘red tape’ creates a record that can be checked up on. Bye-bye record = bye-bye accountability.
3. No longer requiring employers to display posters informing workers of their rights on the job. The Minister of Labour says, “People get information from electronic sources now, more so. They still have to be provided by the employers.” Or they could just, you know, put it out where employees will see it, in a place where they know employees will be — namely, the workplace.
4. Rules requiring industries to keep track of toxic chemicals they use are being eliminated. Because everyone wants more poison around, and no one benefits from knowing about it. Right? It’s more competitive!
Things like this are a test by the Conservatives to see what they can get away with. There’ll be more, and more aggressive, moves later on.
I’ve been doing a lot of biking this summer. I promised myself at least three hours a week and mostly I’ve held to it, but this week I got lazy. So today I figured I had some catching up to do, and I got ambitious. To make a long story short, I ended up at Yorkdale. Tired and sweaty, but I figured I was fine, I’d just take the subway back.
Only, the University-Spadina trains were taken out of service, due to a medical emergency: after one stop, two trains in a row kicked everyone off. Not knowing how long I would be waiting on the increasingly crowded platform, or how many stops south I would have to go before I could find another train, I got back on my bike and hauled myself from Lawrence West to Lawrence Station. Whoops, I forgot that the usual weekend closures are back on. So, it’s more sweat, but down to St. Clair I go. Nope, huge lineup of people transferring from the replacement buses. So, onward to Bloor, which I could have done originally without the detour. Sigh.
When I get to to my stop, I figured at least the buses have bike racks and I can ride the rest of the way. (It never occurred to me to use the replacement buses on Yonge because those are always packed, and I didn’t want to add to that the complication of my bike, racks or no.) The bus loop at Royal York station has been closed for construction for over a year (escalators too — fun!). They say it’ll be open again by this winter, but in the meantime everyone has to walk down Royal York and across Bloor to the street stop. Think I made it? No, there goes my bus seconds ahead of me, even though I was a bad pedestrian and didn’t totally obey the signal. Now my handy smartphone app tells me the next one will arrive in 15 minutes or some other insulting length of time (mind you, this route is part of the ‘ten-minute network’, supposedly guaranteeing that’s the longest possible wait).
Well, I made it home at last, even tireder and more sweaty. And I mean, I’ve lasted this long without a car, while knowing I’m still better off without a monthly payment, to say nothing of the side costs. But any more of this excellent, world-class transit and I’m liable to give myself a heart attack.
(A little behind the curve of the day-to-day. The following was prompted by an online conversation.)
Police officers deal daily with the worst humanity has to offer. They guard me while I sleep. I have benefited all my life from the good work of police men and women. There’s nothing the world needs more than honest, brave police officers.
Likewise, there’s nothing the world needs less than corrupt and/or cowardly ones. That’s because the stakes are very high — the highest, in fact, because alone among all professions, law enforcement is entrusted with the discretion to use force and violence as part of their jobs; up to, and including, deadly force.
I understand the police want respect for what they do. But respect is earned. No one should be dictating the terms by which others accord them respect. If you look the world round, you basically see two different kinds of police. One kind protects the public — this kind is associated with freedom. The other kind protects itself against the public. That kind are cowards. And policing as it’s practiced in the United States of America is the second kind. In the USA, police are trained to be cowards.
Daniel Shaver was seen with a pellet gun on a hotel balcony in Mesa, Arizona, and someone phoned it in to the police. The responding police officers did what they were trained to do: i.e., they subjected him to a lethal game of the hokey-pokey. When he didn’t put his right foot in as instructed, they shot the intoxicated, unarmed and completely harmless man dead with an AR-15.
Contrast that with this, just a couple of weeks ago:
The police officer who responded to the Toronto van attack had far greater reason to fear for his safety than the officer who shot Daniel Shaver — unlike at the hotel, there was a chain of bodies littering the ground. The van attacker (alleged to be one Alek Minassian) further directly provoked the officer by gesturing as if reaching for a gun and pretending to aim at the officer. The officer kept his cool, and secured Alek Minassian alive. He didn’t fire shots that might have endangered bystanders. If Minassian had had accomplices, he was kept alive to give information about them. And fundamentally, this officer’s training and actions reflected a respect for the value of human life.
The death of Daniel Shaver is evidence of a police force trained to protect itself at the expense of the public: cowardice. The apprehension of Alek Minassian represents a police force trained to accept risks in order to protect the public: bravery.