The Last Days Of Lobstering?

The people of Stonington are concerned about the future of their community. They aren’t worried about an approaching nor’easter or the remnants of a tropical storm; they’ve survived many of those. Instead, they are worried about federal regulations, designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, that they are afraid might sink the Maine lobster industry–the industry that supports many of the businesses and households in Stonington, which is the largest working lobster fishing community in Maine.

On August 31, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative (NOAA) issued final regulations that will close a part of the coastal waters off Maine to lobster fishing from October to January, which is traditionally a lucrative time for those in the lobster trade. And then, by May, lobster fishermen will have to configure their lines and traps to meet other new regulations that are designed to limit the number of lines connecting buoys on the water’s surface to lobster traps on the ocean floor and to weaken the strength of the rope lines, so that any right whale that becomes entangled can break free.

That’s a source of significant disagreement between the Maine lobster industry, on one hand, and NOAA and environmentalists on the other. The Mainers say that lobster lines aren’t responsible for a shrinking whale population and that it’s been two decades since a right whale became entangled in a Maine lobster rope. NOAA says, on the other hand, that since 2017 34 right whales have died and 16 were injured by entanglements or ship strikes. NOAA also adds, however, that at least some of those whales were entangled in Canadian gear, and the Maine lobster advocates point out that the NOAA regulations of course won’t affect Canadian lobstermen while the Maine industry is being punished. The Mainers also grind their teeth when regulators say that they use survey data on “predictive density” of whales to close hundreds of square miles of waters to lobster fishing, when the lobster boat captains who are out on the water every day say the practical reality is that whales really aren’t affected.

And the lobster boat captains also note that the alternative fishing method allowed by the regulations–called “ropeless gear”–uses technology that is admittedly “not mature” and would be enormously expensive for individual lobstermen to implement. In all, the NOAA says that it expects the regulations will cost the lobster industry between $9.8 million and $20 million in the first year, and there is no federal money available to help them. That’s a lot of money for an industry where the front-line fishermen who bait and set the traps, deposit the buoys, and hope for a good catch, are primarily independent businessmen who own and man their own boats. That’s why Stonington’s assistant harbormaster, quoted in the first article linked above, says bleakly: “This will sink a lot of people.”

It’s a classic example of the push-and-pull between industry and environmentalism, except this time the “industry” being affected isn’t faceless corporations, but individual, blue-collar lobstermen, many of whom are from families that have engaged in lobster fishing, using the traditional rope-and-buoy approach, for generations. If the new regulations, which are expected to be challenged in court, stay in place, and those independent boat captains can’t afford to comply with the new requirements, it will take away a huge source of both jobs and year-round revenue that hundreds of families count on. It’s not hard to understand why the locals are concerned that the regulations will dramatically change the Stonington community.

20 Years Later

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but remember that fateful day. Although two decades have passed, the memories of the burning, smoking towers, watching the TV news and seeing the planes converted into missiles to achieve the murderous goals of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and feeling that the whole world was turned upside down, are still fresh and painful. As that terrible morning of shock and horror ended, we were able to go pick up the kids from school, and one of my lasting memories from that day was the immense feeling of relief at getting the kids into the car and bringing them home, where our family could all be together and we could be sure that all of us were safe and secure. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Twenty years is a long time, and today is a time for reflection. A lot has happened in the years since the attacks. America is still here, of course, but there is no doubt that the country has changed in the interim. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A shock like 9/11 is bound have some long-term consequences, like a colossal rock thrown into a pond causes ripples that ultimately touch every part of the pond’s shoreline. The key point now, in my view, is to focus on where we go from here. The war in Afghanistan is over, and obviously it ended badly. How does the country respond to that reality, and will we finally learn the hard lessons that we have been taught at the cost of twenty years of fighting, thousands of American lives, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars? Or will we forget those lessons the next time a tragedy tempts a President to take the country into another foreign adventure?

And more fundamentally, where is our country headed as a free, democratic society? Just this week President Biden announced that an administrative agency is working on an emergency regulation that is designed to affect the jobs and livelihoods of tens of millions of people who have made a choice to remain unvaccinated and the companies that employ them. Those of us who remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about the process of how a bill becomes a law wonder how in the world the President can presume to exercise such extraordinary power without hearings, amendments, and ultimately a law passed by Congress that specifically authorizes such sweeping action. But in the years since 9/11, we’ve gotten used to Presidents ordering deadly drone strikes, changing policies set by prior administrations, and imposing new obligations with the stroke of a pen.

In a way, has the long road that began with 9/11 led us to this point, where Presidents feel they can unilaterally exercise such vast powers, without the checks and balances that we learned about in Civics class? And, however we may feel about the best way to deal with the COVID pandemic (and for the record, I’m vaccinated), are we comfortable with a form of government where the executive branch, and in many instances unelected administrative agencies, wield all of the power and can issue emergency decrees that would have profound impacts on the lives (and bodies) of millions of Americans, without Congress, as the collective representatives of American citizens and our diverse communities, having voted to require that course of action, set the structure for how the action will occur, established the rules, and determined the penalties for non-compliance? The likelihood that the Supreme Court undoubtedly will ultimately have its say doesn’t make up for the fact that Congress, which was intended to be the primary instrument of government, has withered into insignificance and plays no role in debating and setting such important national policies.

It’s a lot to think about on a quiet Saturday morning, 20 years after a shocking day that we will never forget. But 20 years provides some perspective, and anniversaries are good times for reflection.

The Nature Prescription

I ran across an interesting article recently about a new kind of prescription that some doctors are issuing. According to the article, rather than prescribing drugs, the doctors are prescribing . . . nature. In order to treat conditions like stress, asthma, obesity, and anxiety, doctors are instructing patients to get off their duffs, get out of their houses, and enjoy hiking, walking, or other activities in specific parks and green spaces. The “nature prescription” is apparently particularly popular with pediatricians who are concerned about the spike in childhood anxiety, inactivity, and increasing obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Studies show that time spent in nature is effective in reducing stress and addressing obesity. Neither of those results should be surprising; parks are quiet, less crowded, and far away from stress inducers like rude people, news broadcasts, and angry social media posts. And while you can’t be out in nature without getting at least some exercise, you also aren’t near the refrigerator, the snack drawer, or the jug of sugary soda that might otherwise tempt you.

Doctors who are using the nature prescription approach try to be specific with their patients. They identify a park or green space near the patient, and then discuss how often the patient should go to the park and the activities they should follow for a specific period of time–say, walking briskly for 30 minutes every other day. The doctors report that a specific instruction on what to do, and for how long, is more likely to be followed by the patient than a general admonition that the patient “get more exercise.”

There are obvious challenges with “nature prescriptions”–parks to hike in are a lot easier to find in Maine than in Manhattan, for example–but I think the notion of “nature prescriptions” is a great initiative. We need to get away from the idea that every condition can be addressed with a pill, and encourage people to be more active and to exercise more control over their health and their mindsets. I’ve been following my own “nature prescription” for years, and my experience with morning walks is that fresh air, exercise, and some quiet time to think can work wonders.

An App Too Far

Governments the world over have struggled to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, we’ve seen large-scale shutdowns of businesses, mask mandates on planes and in buildings, and social distancing and stay-at-home orders. But it is the Land Down Under — Australia — that has really pushed the envelope.

This week The Atlantic carried an eye-opening article about some of the governmental edicts that have been imposed in Australia–edicts so draconian that the article carries the provocative headline “Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty.” Consider this partial list of emergency decrees and requirements:

  • Australia has dramatically curtailed its citizens’ ability to leave the country. The article quotes a government website (which you can see here) that states: “Australia’s borders are currently closed and international travel from Australia remains strictly controlled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. International travel from Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption.”
  • Travel between the six states that make up Australia also is restricted. You can access the governmental website that discloses the current restrictions, which include closing state borders, limiting ability to travel within a state, and mandatory quarantines, here.
  • States have imposed curfews, have banned anti-lockdown protests, and have used the military to disperse and arrest anti-lockdown protesters in Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney, more than five million people have been in lockdown status for more than two months.

But the most draconian requirement of all is being tested and rolled out by the state of South Australia. It’s an app that the state would require its citizens to download, and the Atlantic article describes it as follows:

“People in South Australia will be forced to download an app that combines facial recognition and geolocation. The state will text them at random times, and thereafter they will have 15 minutes to take a picture of their face in the location where they are supposed to be. Should they fail, the local police department will be sent to follow up in person. ‘We don’t tell them how often or when, on a random basis they have to reply within 15 minutes,’ Premier Steven Marshall explained. ‘I think every South Australian should feel pretty proud that we are the national pilot for the home-based quarantine app.’”

It’s a pretty amazing development when a democratic government claims the ability to unilaterally require citizens to download an app, respond to random government texts, and be required to respond within a specified time period with a personal photo showing they are in “the location where they are supposed to be” or receive a visit from the local police. It’s even more amazing that the head of that government actually thinks citizens should be proud that their state government is the leader in imposing that kind of extraordinary government intrusion. I’d like to think that no duly elected government in America would think that kind of action was anything other than an egregious overreach–but then, I would have thought the Aussies would never have done anything like that, too.

There’s obviously a delicate balance between preserving individual rights and liberties and dealing with public health issues. As The Atlantic article notes, Australia’s dramatic decrees can be cited as allowing it to achieve COVID-related death statistics that are far below those in the U.S. But Australia also shows how the balancing of health and rights can tip decidedly to one side, in a way that strikes at the core of freedoms that are a defining characteristic of democratic societies. Citizens of other countries should be looking at what has happened in Australia and asking themselves: “Was it worth it?” and “Could that happen here?”

Ida’s Impact

We’ve had multiple tropical storms move up through New England this summer, but Ida–which blew through last night and today–was by far the most memorable. The remnants of the storm brought high winds and sheets of rain that dumped multiple inches of water on our community. And that impact doesn’t even compare to the chaos that Ida produced in New York City, according to news reports.

The amount of rain associated with tropical storms is impressive. I can’t find an official announcement of just how much rain fell in Stonington over the last 24 hours, but it was enough to totally flood our down yard, submerging the beds I’ve created and turning some of the lupines and ferns into underwater greenery, and to convert the drainage ditch on the northern border of our property, which normally carries a small trickle down its narrow channel, into a loud, raging torrent of whitewater.

Fortunately, the ferns and lupines that are planted in the flooded area are hardy and capable of withstanding a water onslaught. It’s going to take a while for the yard to dry out from today’s drenching, however.

Another COVID-Related Casualty

We’ll be tallying up and analyzing the consequences of COVID-19 for years to come. The pandemic has not only had a direct human toll, in terms of deaths, and hospitalizations, and illnesses, but also substantial indirect impacts — on businesses, on local economies, on social interaction, on children’s perceptions of the world, and countless other parts of our lives. This week Deer Isle felt one of those indirect impacts when the Island Nursing Home announced that it will be closing its doors in October after 40 years in business.

As has been the case with many of the human casualties, COVID was just one of the causes of the demise of the Island Nursing Home. As the article linked above indicates, the facility had been dealing for years with challenges in hiring qualified staff, attributable to a series of factors–a general shortage of qualified health care workers, its remote location on an island, “Maine winters,” and a lack of affordable housing in the area–and the COVID pandemic exacerbated the staffing shortage to the point that the facility can no longer provide care. And this isn’t the first time that the COVID virus has affected the facility, either; in 2020, there was an outbreak at the facility among both residents and staff.

The closure of the Island Nursing Home will have an impact on this community, by virtue of its position as a significant employer and because it will leave residents, and their families, with difficult decisions about where to go. Many of the residents are from this area, and the notion of moving away to unfamiliar surroundings is unsettling to them. And there will be challenges in finding places for the residents, because the staffing shortage experienced by the Island Nursing Home is also being felt by other facilities. That’s a real problem when a growing percentage of our population is aging and reaching the years when they are seriously looking at assisted living facilities.

Burning Off The Fog

The last remnants of tropical storm Henri rolled through last night, dropping enormous quantities of rain that left large swathes of our down yard underwater. A thick fog followed the storm. The fog was so heavy this morning that you could look directly at the rising sun as it struggled to burn through the haze. I walked out onto the pebbled beach next to the mailboat dock, stepping carefully to avoid the discarded oyster and clam shells and feeling the cool touch of the water-drenched air, to take this evocative photograph.

It is mornings like this one that will make me miss Stonington when I return to Columbus next month.

The Scientific Scourge Of Fake Data

Almost 10 years ago, a significant study on personal honesty was published. It indicated that simple method reduced lying by respondents who were filling out forms: if people signed an honesty declaration at the beginning of the form, rather than the end, they were supposed to be less likely to lie in their answers. The study was cited by other researchers and featured in a bestselling book written by one of its principal authors.

Now that study is being retracted. Over the years, efforts to replicate the results of the study have been unsuccessful, but now a more serious issue has been uncovered. Academics who took a close look at the underlying data cited in the study have determined that one of the main experiments cited in the study was faked, and that the data related to that experiment is fraudulent. The researchers who published the initial study agree and have asked the journal that published the initial study–the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences–to formally retract it.

It’s ironic that a study drawing conclusions about personal honesty would be based on fake data, but it’s the latest high-publicity example of a significant problem in the scientific community. Some have called it the “replication crisis.” We remember from our high school science classes that the scientific method involved developing a hypothesis, creating and conducting an experiment designed to test the hypothesis, describing the experiment and honestly publishing its results, and then letting the rest of the scientific community challenge the hypothesis, the experiment, and the data. The last step, in which other scientists played the role of skeptic and fact-checker and verifier by trying to replicate the experiment and test its results, was a key part of the whole process. And in the past, peer-reviewed journals played an important role in ensuring that the results of the experiments could, in fact, be faithfully replicated and the conclusions drawn were credible.

But something has obviously gone wrong, as a number of high-profile research findings can’t be replicated and there is increasing concern that data isn’t being collected or reported honestly or accurately. The “social sciences,” which encompasses the honesty study noted above, has been especially affected by the replication problem. And in the case of the honesty study, no one seems to know how the faked data was created in the first place. Four of the five authors of the study say they weren’t involved with collecting the false data, and the other one denies that he had anything to do with it. So, how did it happen, and why didn’t the initial authors of the study carefully review the faked data and question its bona fides before publishing the results? Some observers wonder if the behavioral studies that are now a staple of news feeds aren’t being influenced by the desire to create headlines and achieve clicks, leading researchers to overlook questionable data or methodologies.

You see signs these days that say that “science is real.” That’s obviously true, but the replication crisis demonstrates that not all scientific results are real. There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy skepticism about groundbreaking studies or sweeping pronouncements until after the underlying data has been thoroughly vetted and other researchers have replicated the results. As our high school science teachers instructed us, that’s what should have been happening in the first place.

The Dollar Table

Every morning I walk past an antiques store that sells all kinds of stuff, from ancient magazines to old-style crafts to lobster buoys. There’s always a table out front with items selling for a dollar. It’s a savvy bit of marketing by the proprietor. Passers by see the items, think that they’re only a dollar, wander over to take a look, pick the items up to examine them, and wonder whether they could find a use for, say, that tin camping percolator. Then they wander inside to see what additional treasures might be available.

The dollar table items must sell, because the items on the tabletop are ever changing. Eventually, every bit of household detritus seems to find a place on the table. It makes you realize how much stuff is found in an American house: sugar bowls, napkin holders, glassware, random plates, pots and pans, old bottles, ashtrays, and every other piece of bric a brac you can imagine.

But the undisputed lord of the dollar table is the coffee cup. The table always features at least a dozen, ranging in size from dainty to gargantuan. Single cups from what obviously once was a set, cups with branded logos, cups with lids to keep the coffee hot longer—they all testify to the U.S.A.’s love affair with java, and the dollar table allows them to be recycled to new users. It’s a small coffee-flavored undercurrent in the flow of the Stonington economy.

Lessons From Churchill

I’ve just finished Andrew Roberts’ titanic Churchill: Walking With Destiny, about one of the leading historical figures of the 20th century. The 1,000-page volume, published in 2018, draws upon recently released historical documents to trace Winston Churchill’s life in exacting detail, from his early childhood and painful desire to be loved and respected by his father–something that never happened, sadly–through years of turmoil, disaster, and triumph. It’s a fascinating tale of a colossal figure who first came to prominence in the high Victorian era, at the apex of the British Empire, saw Great Britain and its empire fight two world wars, witnessed the dissolution of that empire, lived into the era of the Beatles, and was celebrated with one of the largest state funerals ever given to a non-royal Brit.

Roberts’ book is a compelling read about a fascinating individual. Churchill was a well-rounded figure, with many virtues, and a lot of flaws, too. He was a glory hound in his early days, and his love for the British Empire brought with it a benighted attitude about race and people in the Empire, as well as a belief in the superiority of the British approach that caused him to accept risks that shouldn’t have been accepted. On the other hand, he was extraordinarily hard-working, brilliant, a gifted writer, a great wit, a compelling speaker who turned many a memorable phrase, and the unyielding leader whose fight and pluck and rhetoric stiffened Great Britain’s resolve and kept it in the war when it faced the German war machine, alone, during the dark days of World War II.

One of the book’s themes is that, for all of his brilliance and self-confidence, Churchill was someone who could learn from his many mistakes, rise above them, and–crucially–identify and assimilate changes to his world view that allowed him to avoid repeating them. Churchill’s advocacy of the bloody, ill-fated and ultimately disastrous Dardanelles expedition in World War I could have sent a lesser person slinking off to a life of obscurity, and it haunted Churchill, and was repeatedly mentioned by his adversaries, even when Churchill began serving as Prime Minister in 1940 after the fall of France. But Churchill didn’t let that colossal failure forever cripple his career; he learned from it and other errors and ultimately profited from the very hard lessons it taught. Churchill’s approach to his stout-hearted service during World War II was strongly informed by those lessons and his prior experiences–good and bad.

I’ve been reflecting on Churchill and that important element of his personality these days, when we have seen the United States take a huge black eye with its inept, disastrous, and humiliating failure in Afghanistan. Obviously, many mistakes were made, and there is plenty of blame to go around for all of the four Presidents, and their administrations, who contributed to the Afghan debacle. But the key point now is how to react to those obvious mistakes. Those of us who lived through Vietnam feel like we’ve seen this show before, and now wonder whether our country will ever learn. Will we finally focus our attention–and treasure, and finite resources–on the matters that are truly essential to our national security? Will we resist future temptations to try to build mini-Americas in faraway countries with radically different cultures and perspectives? Will we be able to recognize and avoid “mission creep,” identify the policies and institutional processes that produced the Afghan fiasco and change them, and actually hold accountable the incompetent people who failed to do their job and, in the process, put thousands of people at risk and cost us billions of dollars in equipment and money and a considerable part of our national reputation?

What has happened in Afghanistan is an embarrassment and an epic failure that featured countless mistakes and misjudgments. Having read Roberts’ biography, I’m convinced Churchill would have learned from those errors and recognized how to avoid them in the future. Can our country do the same?

A Man, A Backhoe, And A Project

Meet Melvin, our next door neighbor. Melvin is a retired lobsterman who spent 60 years out on the open waters surrounding Stonington, arising at the crack of dawn, heading out to his boat, and baiting and retrieving hundreds of lobster traps. But even in his retirement, he’s the most industrious person I know. He’s always working on a project.

That’s Melvin on his backhoe, which features prominently in many of his projects. So far this summer, Melvin and his backhoe have moved hundreds of lobster traps that he sold, cleared out a waste area of scrub trees and weeds, hauled and split granite rocks, built a nifty stone wall, and dug up and updated a drainage system. Melvin also built a safety fence for his toddler age great-grandson. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The next project on the horizon starts today. There are some trees that have grown up in the lot next to ours that block the view of the water for Melvin and Janet, for us, and for the owner of that lot next door. One of the trees isn’t healthy, either. The old owner of the lot didn’t want to do anything about the trees, but the new owner wants them to come down, and Melvin and his backhoe are ready to do the job. He’ll be cutting down and hauling out the branches and trunks and then chopping them up. The work starts this morning.

I also noticed a mound of fill in Melvin’s driveway. I guess that’s for the next project—or maybe the one after that.

Cuomo’s Fall

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has resigned, brought low by a New York Attorney General report that found that he had harassed multiple women. His resignation will take effect in 14 days, at which point he will be succeeded by New York’s lieutenant governor. He continues to be investigated by multiple legislative committee and district attorneys.

Only a year after Cuomo was lauded by the news media and social media, and mentioned as a potential presidential candidate as a result of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic–a handling that later gave rise to its own set of questions about Cuomo’s truthfulness and transparency–the formerly defiant, powerful politician has been dethroned, done in by his own wretched excesses and improper conduct. He thought the rules didn’t apply to him, and now he has found that they do. He deserves his sorry fate, and one can only hope that his plummet from the heights to the ashes will serve as a cautionary tale and lesson for other politicians who believe, in their hubris, that they also are bulletproof. One can also hope that his story might cause other people to hesitate before giving unqualified and gushing praise to political figures who might turn out to have feet of clay.

Cuomo’s dizzying fall reminds me of the poignant poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Faith In Signs

People in German Village put a lot of faith in signs. You see them all over the place, in random spots, appealing for opposition to proposed development projects or asking for help in preserving a community initiative or staking out some other position for all to see.

This sign, which has appeared at the Third Street entrance to Schiller Park, is a good example of the phenomenon. Its goal is laudable: speeding, especially on Third Street, is a chronic problem in German Village. Of course, it’s entirely debatable whether speeders are going to notice a sign—even a bright yellow one—or be deterred by it. A policeman stationed at that spot with a radar gun would undoubtedly have more of an impact.

Still, I’m glad I live in a neighborhood where people believe in the power of signs. It shows that people are engaged and believe that an individual’s efforts can make a difference. I’d rather have neighbors who are paying attention and trying to effect change. It’s when the signs disappear that there is cause for concern, because it indicates that people either don’t care anymore, or they have given up hope that their efforts can make a difference.

The New Mask Ask

In Columbus, at least, things seem to be moving back to more of a masked-up world, as businesses try to figure out what to do in view of the delta variant of COVID. You really need to pay attention to signs and notices when you go into commercial establishments.

Yesterday I went to grocery shop at the Giant Eagle in Grandview. There was a card table in front of the entrance with a sign that said that all patrons, vaccinated or not, had to wear a mask to enter the store; next to the sign was a box of those familiar white and blue masks that Giant Eagle was offering for free so customers could mask up. So I donned my mask and entered to do my shopping. It quickly became apparent that some people either hadn’t seen the sign or were ignoring it, as about half of the patrons I saw were unmasked. No one from Giant Eagle seemed to be enforcing this particular store’s “mask mandate,” either.

Then I went to another store where the sign on the door “strongly encouraged “ everyone to wear a mask in the interests of protecting everyone’s health. In deference to the proprietor’s wishes, I put my mask on again before entering. Most of the other patrons didn’t.

I’m not sure how widespread the masking requests and requirements are, although my very limited experience indicates that Columbus stores are definitely more mask-oriented than businesses in Stonington. So while I’m here, I’ll have to keep a mask at hand, just in case. And my rule will be to defer to the instructions of the business owners, who really are in a no-win situation in view of the scary stories in the media and the ever-changing CDC guidance. For many business owners, the path of least resistance will be to follow CDC instructions. Whether they will have employees tasked with the thankless job of trying to enforce the mask rules is another question.

After yesterday’s experience, I wonder if we aren’t sliding, slowly but surely, back into the masking and social distancing world, after an all-too-brief taste of the old maskless and carefree normal. I’m not looking forward to it.

The Space Invaders

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is dealing with the fallout of a devastating report released by the New York Attorney General’s office that found that he had sexually harassed at least 11 women and that his office featured a “toxic culture” of fear and intimidation. Cuomo responded to the report by saying that he “never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances.” He says the report is inaccurate, biased, and the product of politics, and so far he has rejected countless calls–ranging from President Biden to multiple officials within the New York state government–that he resign from office.

Cuomo’s lawyer prepared and released an 85-page response to the Attorney General’s report. One of the interesting things about the response is a section with “eight pages with photos of the governor hugging various people, and another 15 showing hugging involving political figures including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and U.S. senator from New York.” (You can read Cuomo’s statement about the Attorney General’s report and find his 85-page response here.) The response document explains, at page 5, that Cuomo “has hugged or kissed male and female members of his staff, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, Andrea Stewart Cousins and Carl Heastie, as well as constituents he meets on the street, and family and friends, as has been well documented.” The response contends: “The Governor’s conduct in this regard is unremarkable: Democratic and Republican politicians, male and female alike, use handshakes, hugs, and kisses to connect with others.”

In short, politicians routinely invade the personal space of everybody, male and female, so what’s the big deal? The implication is that such unwanted contact is not harassment, it’s just the reality of how politicians generally behave.

Of course, not every politician engages in serial hugging, kissing, and touching. When I worked on Capitol Hill, my boss, Congressman Chalmers P. Wylie, was a very proper person who never, in my personal experience, did anything more than give a good firm handshake for a “grip and grin” photo with constituents. And while other politicians seem to crave close physical contact–you can find lots of photos of President Biden awkwardly touching people, for example–the fact that other politicians don’t recognize boundaries doesn’t excuse Cuomo’s behavior. More importantly, can anyone really doubt that the power relationship allows politicians like Cuomo to behave as if the normal rules of interpersonal conduct don’t apply to them? If you look at the photo above, it’s hard to believe that any normal person would hold someone’s face in that way, and then not recognize from the woman’s facial expression and obvious discomfort that the contact was unwelcome–and upsetting. But that’s not how the “personal touch” politicians are wired.

We’ll have to see what happens with Governor Cuomo and any litigation that might result from the Attorney General’s report and other apparently ongoing investigations. But maybe his “everybody does it” defense might actually cause people to take a closer look at handsy politicians and bring an end to their hugging, clutching, shoulder-grabbing, close-talking invasions of personal space. Politicians really need to learn to keep their distance.