The Ten Modern Plagues

On Pesach (Passover) we come together with family and friends to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt.  We retell the story, including the ten plagues the mighty One (as the story goes) released upon Pharaoh to convince him to follow Moses’ demand to ‘let my people go.’  That exodus and the plagues that terrified the Pharaoh and the Egyptians (water turned into blood, frogs, lice, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness for three days and killing of firstborn sons) happened long ago and one might suggest that those plagues are a bit dated.

We are not without our own plagues today.  It is worth paying attention to the afflictions of the present and begin to work our way towards solutions.  My modest exploration follows.

Plague 1:  Culture of victimhood

Today, we are all victims.  Individually, it seems we are all oppressed by someone or something.   Obviously, many in our society are in fact legitimate victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment – the list is depressingly long.  But often claims of “oppression”  wander into the land of the absurd.  It is self-evident that a whole lot of people are looking for a chance to be an outraged victim.  The War on Christmas?  Give me a freaking break.

The problem?  All of this ‘noise’ in the system desensitizes our response to the true victims of oppression.  If everyone is a victim, aren’t we all deserving of attention and recourse?  And assuming the answer is yes, how can anyone keep the scorecard focused on what is most important? 

The answer is that we cannot.  Sadly, we are becoming a culture in which the sheer number of ‘victims’ is overwhelming our abilities to discern what rises to the top and demands attention. 

Plague 2:  Income inequality

The rich have become richer and control a larger share of overall wealth than ever before.  But that is not the only driver of growing income inequality.  The other end of the equation are abysmally low wages.  US policy makers, legislators and corporate titans seem to believe we cannot afford to provide our citizens a livable wage, that we “need” a supply of low-wage, low-skilled workers to make the economy work.  That is pure bullshit.

“The great resignation” proves the point: low-wage workers, when given some breathing room by Covid-driven income supplements, discovered that they could live better with a little more money and the low-wages, low-prestige, and lousy working conditions of their old job just weren’t worth it.  So, they found new, better, higher-paying jobs.

Continuing to focus only on the ‘tax the rich’ solution, without addressing wages, will not solve the problem.  And that will not end well for anyone. 

Plague 3:  Lack of understanding of the First Amendment

“I can say anything that I want.”  Untrue.  You cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater if there is no fire.  “You can’t stop me from talking.”  Untrue.  In my home or place of business, I can absolutely influence what you say, for sure after the first time you say it.

Here is the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Notice the first word – Congress.  This means the government (or those receiving government funding) can’t restrict your right to speak your mind.  This says nothing about me restricting you.  Thus, while standing on public property, you can speak your mind with few restrictions.  But you cannot do so on my front lawn.

This basic confusion results in some people believing they are impervious to repercussions based on what they say.  That leads to people like Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, Mike Savage, and Rush Limbaugh.  And that ain’t any good.  As awful as it sounds, it is good that libel is not legal.

Continued ignorance and/or willful misinterpretation of the true meaning of the First Amendment leads to unpleasant circumstances for all of us.

Plague 4:  Disinformation/Opinion as fact

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not [their] own facts.”  Oh, only if that were true.  As a nation we have conflated the two, especially with the recent concept of “alternative facts.” Alternative facts are at best opinions that divert from the facts or, at worst, pure and simple lies.

The anti-intellectual, anti-science attitude that my opinion trumps (pun intended) your facts can be seen when the electrician or schoolteacher or career state senator tries to discredit the epidemiologist with a PhD,  an M.D., and an M.B.A.

Think misinformation doesn’t trickle down to everyday?  Just days ago, the Washington Post reported on two dads taking their children on an Amtrak trip when, ““All of a sudden, there was a man standing right next to me talking to my son,” Pierce said. “The very first thing he said is, ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman.’ ” Pierce was stunned, he said, as the unidentified man proceeded to shout homophobic attacks, accusing the couple of stealing their children and calling them “pedophiles” and “rapists.”…… We’ve dealt with this brand of terrifying homophobic stranger before with our son,” Pierce wrote [on Twitter following the incident].  “But ‘pedophiles’ and ‘rapists’ were new in the mix, at least out loud.””

This is what comes when misinformation runs rampant.   The modern snake oil salespeople selling this misinformation (what we used to call lies, now masquerading as opinion) are prevalent in our media.  Their beliefs and utterings are terrifying.  We should not be perpetuating their existence.  Their ‘opinions’ cause people to commit violence and endanger others.

Plague 5:  Identity politics

I am a cisgender female, Jewish, Republican voting, American citizen.  I am a billionaire who supports the progressive left.  I am a conservative African American.  I am a Black Supreme Court justice who abhors affirmative action.  I am a gay Republican.  I am a Latina lesbian mother of two.  I am a South Asian Indian immigrant who is neither a doctor nor employed in the tech industry.

The truth is, each of those individuals are much more than a collection of  simplistic and often contradictory descriptions.  If we continue to present ourselves and categorize others in the above manner, we are missing a whole lot of what makes someone a unique individual.   That makes people easy to dismiss, easy to dislike, easy to hate, and easy to oppress.  Taken to the logical extreme, it provides an excuse for violence.

The simplistic attitudes and characterizations of identity politics do not further our developing an integrated society with common values and purpose. 

Plague 6:  Conspiracy theory for political gain

Spreading and furthering conspiracy theories is not illegal, but it can be dangerous and harmful.  When you actually believe that one group is actively working to damage you, your reactions are unlikely to be thoughtful and constrained.  If you believe, as 41 million Americans do, that a Presidential candidate is running a child pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor, you may take actions that others see as unhinged.  If you believe Jeff Bezos or the US government is placing electronic surveillance equipment in vaccine shots you might not get vaccinated, endangering those around you.

When such theories are promoted as vote-getting, secure-the-base political rhetoric, and to scare voters into believing nonsense, the results can be frightening.  Not only do we end up with an increasingly uneducated electorate, but we are also allowing the flames to be fanned to create even more divisiveness.

I do not know what to do with the hate-mongers, those complicit in the media for deliberate dezinformatsiya, and others who use public goods (think radio, TV, the internet) for such blatantly partisan political purposes. 

It is a problem, and it will only get worse until we, as a society, agree that the distinction between an individual’s rights to free speech are unique and different from institutional rights.  However, the answer eludes me.

Plague 7:  Confusing freedom of opinion with freedom of expression

There is no legal constraint on what you believe, no matter how bizarre, stupid, or disgusting.  There are, however, some constraints on how you express that belief.  You are free to believe that Seventh Day Adventists come to your home to steal your children, but it is illegal to shoot them on your front porch based on that belief.  That constraint is obviously a good thing. 

However, it seems to me that there is a growing grey area: first amendment-protected protest that leads to emotional anguish or psychological damage.  Imagine the emotional anguish induced in families at military funerals by protestors who shout that their loved one died because gay marriage is legal.  Or the psychological abuse of clinic patients and staff inflicted by relentless, aggressive anti-abortion protests.

Unless a protestor actually commits violence, there is little law enforcement can do to stop someone from standing on public property and calling you a murderer, a demon worshiper, a baby killer, a tool of the bourgeoisie, or a pedophile.  Hour after hour.  Day after day.

I think, as a society, we need to rethink this gray area.  While one’s freedom of expression may well end at the other one’s nose, not all damage is physical.  We will not be better off, in fact, we will be much worse off if our society continues to allow psychological abuse to continue under the guise of ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘freedom of expression.’

Plague 8:  Intersectionality in practice (one example only)

The Women’s March of a few years ago denied attendance to a number of Jewish women’s organizations.  The logic:  the Women’s March was designed to bring attention to the oppression of women.  The organizers of this march determined that the Israelis were oppressing Palestinian women.  Ergo, no Jewish groups in the Women’s March.  After a huge backlash, the decision was reversed and those responsible were relieved of those responsibilities.

Yes, there are legitimate reasons to believe that intersectionality is an important concept.  Trans women of color are at a much higher risk of violence than others.  Poor Black women receive worse health care than poor white women.  African American men and white women earn less than white men.  They have a common bond in fighting this.  Recognizing this bond will increase the resources agitating for change.  We cannot dismiss the reality that some populations are marginalized more than others.

As shown above this concept can lead to some questionable and dangerous assumptions.  While intersectionality has its place and can be useful,  it can also be misused and lead to really bad decisions.  We should not allow this to get out of control.

Plague 9:  The perpetuation of mythology as history

You know the “history” of how America became an economic superpower and the envy of the world because of our individual self-reliance, Protestant work ethic and just plain pullin’ ourselves up by our bootstraps, right?

In terms of bootstrapping, yes, of course it happened and happened a lot.  We created enormous wealth and a cornucopia of food and fiber (which drove industrialization) as we developed as a nation.  But history lessons ignore the contribution of some 10 million slaves (1619-1865) who contributed some 179 million person-years or 410 billion hours of labor.  In other words, the stereotypic successful white American farmer/capitalist/industrialist had a hell of a lot of help.  (Source: David J Hacker)

Likewise, the founder of a profitable over-the-road trucking company certainly worked hard and sacrificed.  But they also benefited from the Interstate Highway system which cost $500 billion in 2016 dollars and is estimated to have generated $6 for every $1 invested.  In other words, the trucking company had a hell of a lot of help.

This mythology, particularly around the rise of US power, blinds us to reality.  Why do people quake in fear over Critical Race Theory?  Because Critical Race Theory indicates that we, as a nation, have built systemic racism into our policies, government, and economy.  The anti-CRT crowd does not like that characterization of our history, true as it is.  So, they make it something to fear and scare the shit out of parents who are not willing to do their homework to find out what CRT really is.  Banning CRT simply perpetuates the myth.  I fear the years of fighting anti-CRT legislation are just beginning.

These myths, which force the opinion of a small group upon the rest of us, impact our beliefs and our governing.  This results in wide-spread ignorance of history, as well as laws which tacitly (or, increasingly, overtly) discriminate against minority populations.  Time to stop mythologizing and start studying history.

Plague 10:  Social Media

A wise gentleman once told me that dirty jokes are spread and understood around the world in less than a day, but concepts with true intellectual content take decades, perhaps centuries to understand.  Example: Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.  Published in 1905, we are still finding tests that validate previously unvalidated portions of the theory.  However, everyone in the world knew about Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock in an hour or so.

Such is social media.  The refuse of idiot thinking, the scatological musings of the ignoramus, and all the useless shit you ever imagined zips around the world at light speed.  It’s practically free.  Just type and go.  (Trust me, I also recognize the irony of the blogger making this statement.)  Thus, white supremacists, Islamophobes, illegal drug purveyors, pedophiles, Nazi sympathizers, racists, anti-Semites, misogynists, anti-government militias, religious fanatics, and a whole host of others are able to commune with their people, pass along their creed, recruit new members to the cause, and spur their believers to action.  The benefits of social media are rapidly becoming outweighed by the negative impacts. 

Each of the other 9 plagues of our modern era are enhanced, delivered, and promulgated by social media.  This is not a good thing (think January 6).  What used to be difficult and dangerous is now easily accomplished and routine.  What used to be hard to do in public is now easily accomplished in private.  I believe we have crossed the line.  It is time to reign this in and fulfil the real promise of the ‘connected community.”

Let us hope that someday in the near future, we can look back upon these plagues the way we look back at the ancient plagues of Passover fame.  As history.

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