Faceboss

I don’t really spend much time on Facebook. I post blog entries to my Facebook page, take a look at what’s on my page when I’m doing that, and try to pay attention to birthdays. But that’s about it.

But boy—do I ever get a lot of notices on Facebook. And a lot of those notices seem, well . . . pretty darned bossy. Facebook will tell me that it’s been x number of days since I’ve been to the page for a Facebook group I belong to. Facebook will call up old photos from years ago to say it was the most popular post of 2015, and ask if I want to post it again. Facebook will try to prod me to do x, y, or z using various Facebook tools. And sometimes, when one of my Facebook friends adds to their Facebook “story,” Facebook will notify me of that and explain that I can either respond or react to the new “story” post. No duh! It’s as if Facebook thinks I’ve got the mental abilities and savvy of a four-year-old and constantly need reminders and explanations to navigate through the Facebook World.

Of course, Facebook wants to encourage people to be on Facebook as much as possible—that’s how it makes money. And Facebook is also trying to monitor and curate the contents of its pages. But in our overly politicized world, where social media is a kind of public forum like the town square of days gone by, we need to be mindful of Facebook’s paternalism and somewhat overbearing attitude. As we move closer to the next set of elections, we’ll have to pay attention to how Facebook, and other social media sites, regulate their content, react to the simple expression of political views at all points on the vast American political spectrum, and instruct us about what they’ve done, and why.

I may need to be reminded to visit a group page I’ve neglected, but I don’t need to be told how, or what, to think. I’d like to believe I’m perfectly capable of sifting through the simple, unadorned political views expressed on social media and deciding for myself.

First Amendment Lessons

The Supreme Court issued an interesting First Amendment decision yesterday that is worthy of note on multiple levels–both for the important lessons it teaches about our modern social media society, and also for what it says about the boundaries of what public officials and school administrators can and cannot do, under the First Amendment, when somebody says something that they really don’t like. You can read the Supreme Court opinion here.

The facts are straightforward. A high school freshman tried out for the school cheerleading squad. She didn’t make varsity, but was offered a spot on the junior varsity. She was disappointed and angry about the decision, particularly since another freshman made the varsity squad and–like so many teenagers (and adults) these days–she took to social media to vent her apparently considerable frustrations. She took a picture, at a location off school grounds, that showed her and a friend with middle fingers raised and a caption with the Queen Mother Of Curses used in connection with the school and the cheer squad, and sent it to her 250 Snapchat “friends”–which included some other students who were members of the cheer squad. They took pictures to preserve the Snapchat post, which then was shared with other students, the cheerleading coach, and eventually the school administration.

And there’s the lesson in today’s social media-saturated world: don’t post or share something that you wouldn’t want to be circulated to everyone in town or printed on the front page of the newspaper. If our kids were still in school, I’d have them read this decision about an ill-advised social media effort that had immediate consequences and eventually ended up in the United States Supreme Court, and suggest that they think about the disappointed cheer squad applicant the next time they wanted to send an edgy, racy, or profanity-laced tweet, Snapchat, or other social media posting. And adults, including me, would benefit by reading it, too, as a useful reminder about how intemperate language launched in the heat of the moment can have lasting, and unwanted, ramifications.

In this case, the student apologized for the vulgar photo and crude language, but the school administration found that she had violated team and school rules by using a profanity in connection with a school extracurricular activity, and she was suspended from the cheer squad for a year. The student and her parents sued, claiming that the school’s disciplinary action violated the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled, in an 8-1 decision, that it did.

The Court’s decision is not a license for students to flash the middle finger at teachers during class or cuss out the assistant principal in the school hallways. The Court noted that while students aren’t stripped of their First Amendment rights when they go to school, reasonable adjustments to freedom of expression must be recognized to accommodate the special school environment. A key fact in this case was that the photo was taken off school grounds, but even that fact is not dispositive; the Court recognized that, in certain circumstances, schools can still properly regulate speech and conduct off-campus–such as in dealing with bullying or responding to physical threats against teachers. On the other hand, certain kinds of speech, such as the expression of religious and political views, will merit special protection against disciplinary action. And, because circumstances can change, the Court declined to articulate a broad rule about which off-campus speech and conduct scenarios can be regulated by schools, and which cannot. Those contours will have to be established by later cases and their specific factual circumstances.

Interestingly, the Court also cautioned school districts about understanding their role in making sure that students–and school administrators themselves–truly understand what the First Amendment is all about. The majority opinion states, in language that those of us who believe strongly in the value of free speech will applaud:

“Our representative democracy only works if we protect the “marketplace of ideas.” This
free exchange facilitates an informed public opinion, which, when transmitted to lawmakers, helps produce laws that reflect the People’s will. That protection must include the protection of unpopular ideas, for popular ideas have less need for protection. Thus, schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”

In applying these concepts to the would-be cheerleader’s Snapchat post, the Justices concluded that, vulgarity aside, the student was simply criticizing the school and the cheer squad coaches–and protecting our ability to criticize our public officials is one of the core purposes of the First Amendment. She spoke off-campus, used a private communications mechanism, and didn’t target the school or any teachers or coaches by name, all factors that weighed in favor of First Amendment protection. Her right to criticize outweighed the school’s professed interests in promoting good manners among its students, in avoiding potential significant disruption of school activities (the Court noted there was no evidence of disruption caused by the Snapchat), and in protecting the morale of the cheer squad members.

The Court concluded: “It might be tempting to dismiss [the student’s] words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.” Those are thoughts that I wholeheartedly agree with, and I hope that others–from public officials to the people who are readily offended by opinions they don’t agree with–also take that lesson to heart.

But what of the student whose ill-considered Snapchat started this kerfuffle and produced the Supreme Court’s ringing reaffirmance of the importance of the First Amendment? I bet, deep down, she wishes she had never sent that stupid, angry Snapchat in the first place.

The Unanimity Factor

From my perspective, one of the worst things that has happened to our federal governmental system has been the increasing efforts to apply political notions to our federal judiciary. Supreme Court nominations have been politicized for a while–although not for long as you might think; former Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative stalwart, was confirmed by a unanimous Senate, 98-0, in September 1986–but now circuit court and even district court nominations are being treated politically, too. For example, Law360, which does daily on-line reporting on legal issues, breathlessly reports on how many judges President Biden (and before him, President Trump) is appointing, how many vacancies are open, and similar information, as if the make-up of the federal judiciary is some kind of political horse race.

And to read what some people have to say about the Supreme Court, you’d think that the Court is hopelessly divided along partisan political grounds, and that those Justices in black robes are at each others’ throats and at risk of throwing punches and karate kicks.

That’s why it’s interesting to observe that the Supreme Court has issued a remarkable number of unanimous decisions this term, for a Court that is supposed to be a festering sore of reflexive political division. And as we approach the end of the Court’s term, when many of the biggest and most controversial decisions traditionally are announced, the theme of unanimity has continued. That means that the Justices who some would contend are motivated entirely by their political affiliations have somehow managed to set aside their differences and mysteriously reach the same decision on the case presented to them.

The unanimity has occurred in a broad sweep of cases, including cases involving the authority of tribal police, whether there should be a presumption in favor of the credibility of immigrants, cases involving unlawful entry into the United States and an environmental clean-up dispute between the U.S. government and Guam, and cases involving the interpretation of a federal statute involving efforts to block collection of a tax and the scope of an exception to the Fourth Amendment prohibition on warrantless searches and seizures. And just this week, the Court issued another unanimous decision on whether the City of Philadelphia’s refusal to contract with Catholic Social Services for the provision of foster care services unless that organization certified same-sex couples as foster parents violates the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment.

The issue here isn’t whether the Court’s decisions are right or wrong on their merits, or as a matter of public policy. The key point is that a Court that is supposed to be on the verge of ideological fisticuffs is somehow managing to reach complete agreement on how to resolve a slew of controversial cases. And people have noticed the many instances of unanimity, and some have wondered whether the Court is trying to send a message to those who view its work in political terms.

Maybe, just maybe, the women and men who make up the highest court in the land are simply acting as impartial, fair-minded judges deciding the cases before them, on their merits and without regard to politics. It would be wonderful if the media, and the politicians, and the pundits and commentators who want to turn the federal judiciary into another political arm of government could just assimilate that reality–but in our current hyper-politicized times, that’s probably just too much to ask for. If only they were as objective and fair-minded as our jurists.

What To Do With An Odd Hall?

The old saying is that all politics is local. That’s definitely true in Stonington, where residents recently had an in-person town meeting at the local baseball field, so as to allow appropriate social distancing. At the meeting, the attendees discussed and voted on a number of issues. One of them was what whether to proceed with the town purchasing the building shown above.

It’s the former meeting hall for the local chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows, located on the western edge of Stonington’s small downtown area. There aren’t many Odd Fellows left in Stonington, so the organization offered to sell the building to the town. Town officials were supportive of the idea and put it on the agenda for the town meeting, where residents voted to approve the purchase.

Why would residents vote to approve the acquisition of an old fraternal organization building? One of the arguments was to keep it out of the hands of a buyer who would turn it into a personal residence, thereby further hemming in the commercial area of town. And while the building may need a lot of work—a point made by opponents of the purchase—the property sits on precious waterfront and includes an old dock, both of which could give rise to commercial uses.

The cost of the building to taxpayers is initially estimated to be $525,000, which is a lot of money for a small town. Town officials are exploring the possibility of getting federal and state aid to help pay for the purchase and the necessary refurbishing work, and also are working on potential uses for the building.

It’s a tough issue. The Odd Fellows’ Hall could turn out to be a white elephant that puts a crimp in the city budget, but towns like Stonington need to preserve their commercial areas, too. It’s a risk, of course, but it’s reasonable to believe that some business somewhere will see the potential of a building that commands a great view of the harbor and will turn a derelict venue into a functioning contributor to life in downtown Stonington. The voters at the town meeting see an opportunity. Now we’ll keep an eye on that building to see if the opportunity is realized.

A Maine View On Immigration

The Working Waterfront is a local publication that covers Maine’s coastline and islands. The June 2021 issue carried an interesting story about immigration and its importance to the future of Maine’s economy, which includes both Maine-specific industries, like seafood harvesting and processing, forestry, tourism, and farming, as well industries found everywhere, like elder care and health care.

The bottom line is that Maine is desperate for workers, and is looking to immigrants to fill the void. And when Mainers talk about “immigrants,” it’s not just people who come to Maine from other countries, they’ll gladly welcome people from other parts of the U.S. who might want to come here to work, too. The Working Waterfront article calls all of these people “New Mainers,” and estimates that the state will need at least 75,000 of them over the next ten years to keep Maine’s industries economically viable. That number will allow replacement of the 65,000 workers who will be hitting retirement age–according to the Census Bureau, Maine has the oldest population, per capita, in the U.S.— and adds in some additional workers to allow for growth.

The article reports that businesses have already begun to fill the worker void with New Mainers–primarily immigrants from overseas. One seafood processing firm reports that more than half of its 400 employees are New Mainers, with many of them hailing from the Congo, Angola, Vietnam, and Cambodia, while a lobster business includes employees from the Congo, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador. The businesses see these New Mainers as hard workers who are eager to succeed and enjoy their share of the American Dream, and the New Mainers see the Pine Tree State as a land of opportunity.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for a long time, with a lot of attention focused on America’s southern border. But the immigration story is a complex one, and involves a lot more than a surge of desperate people wading across the Rio Grande and how we should deal with them. The reality is that America needs immigrants, and immigrants need America, and we need to figure out a way to allow people who want to work to get into our country, legally, and fill the employment voids in places like Maine. It’s pretty clear that New Mainers will be an important part of this state’s future.

Mixed Messages

We’re at a weird time in America. At the same time many of us are completing our COVID-19 vaccinations, getting our vaccination cards, and feeling like we are on the cusp of returning to some reasonable measure of personal freedom, and some states are beginning to loosen their restrictions, we’re getting dire warnings from national leaders and public health officials about a potential “fourth surge” of the pandemic in the United States.

(Would it really be only a “fourth surge”? I’ve lost count, frankly.)

The statement made yesterday by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, is pretty jarring for those Americans who hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, just ahead. After reporting on increases in the number of COVID cases (now topping more than 30 million Americans) and hospitalizations, Dr. Walensky went off script to confess, in emotional terms, to feeling a sense of “impending doom” and said she was “scared” that the country could be on the verge of a new surge as COVID variants infect the unvaccinated parts of the population. President Biden also said that “now is not the time” to remove masking and social distancing requirements.

The statements by Dr. Wallensky and President Biden have to rattle the confidence of people who believe a return to “normal” is not far away. The average citizen is getting pretty mixed messages right now. We’re feeling good that vaccinations are being made available to most age groups and seeing lots of social media posts with pictures of bared arms getting jabbed and vaccination cards, and we know that restrictions are being loosened in many places–but at the same time we are getting alarming warnings and, for many of us, we know people who are continuing to come down with COVID even now.

And part of the problem with this confusing mix of data and messages is that it is occurring against the backdrop of obvious pandemic fatigue and, in some quarters, a growing distrust of the pronouncements of our public health officials and concern that they are never going to let the world get back to 2019 normality. The CNN analysis piece linked above describes the unsettled situation this way: “The nation is caught on a ledge between triumph and a late game disaster in a fight against a pathogen ideally engineered to exploit lapses in public health, resistance to mask wearing mandates and the frayed patience of a country disorientated after a year when normal life went into hibernation.

These different perspectives necessarily inform how people react to the messages we are getting. When the doctor who is the head of the CDC admits to being “scared” and feeling a sense of “impending doom,” is she conveying a legitimate, albeit emotional, reaction to the latest data, or is her message part of the newest effort to keep people frightened, masked up, and in their houses indefinitely?

Now that we are vaccinated, we’re going to try to get about our lives–but prudently. I’m still going to engage in social distancing, and I’ll gladly continue to mask up in enclosed spaces. I don’t think we’re done with COVID-19 just yet.

Outrage At The Capitol

When I was a kid I received a small bronze replica of the U.S. Capitol with green felt on the bottom as a gift. I kept it on the dresser in the bedroom UJ and I shared, and when I looked at it it made me feel proud to be a kid in America. Years later, Kish and I lived in an apartment only a few blocks from the Capitol and worked in the neighboring congressional office buildings and in the Capitol itself. We saw the colossal Capitol dome, white and bright against the sky, when we walked to work in the morning. We had lots of visitors in those days, and I often took them on a tour of the Capitol, statuary hall, the legislative chambers, the former seat of the Supreme Court, and the awesome Rotunda beneath that huge dome.

For me, at least, the Capitol, with its graceful marble facade and great dome, has always been a solid, reassuring, tangible, powerful symbol of our American democratic systems and way of life. And it is precisely for that reason that the riots that occurred yesterday — riots that, according to D.C. police, left 4 people dead and the Capitol littered with broken glass and smashed doors as rioters surged through the building just as Congress and the Vice President were fulfilling one of their most important electoral obligations — were so unforgivable. The rioters deliberately interfered with the workings of government, put the lives of elected representatives at risk, disgraced and defiled one of our most important democratic symbols, and made a cruel mockery of our proud tradition of the peaceful transfer of power after an election.

The D.C. police are reporting more than 52 people have been arrested, but I am hoping that that is just the tip of the iceberg. Authorities should pour through the photos and video of the people cavorting through the Capitol, vandalizing the building and its grounds, standing on statues, and stealing and smashing, and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. We should make them pay for debasing our symbols, our processes, and our traditions.

To their credit, Congress and Vice President Pence went ahead and certified the election results after the rioters were cleared away — which means the rioters failed in their essential purpose, as Vice President Pence observed — and after the certification President Trump finally pledged an “orderly transition” when his term ends on January 20. From the President, those words are too little, too late. By refusing to acknowledge reality, associating with the lunatic fringe, and stoking their feverish tantrums, President Trump has given our country a black eye in front of the watching world. He sowed the wind, and he has reaped the whirlwind. His antics have been inexcusable. He claims to be an “America first” patriot, but he has deeply embarrassed our country, all of its citizens, and the many people who held their noses and voted for him in good faith — and himself, assuming he is even capable of feeling embarrassment.

Donald Trump may never admit to any mistakes, or accept any fault or responsibility for his actions, but apparently he is concerned about the value of his “brand.” I hope he is capable of understanding that what he has done has stripped his “brand” of any lingering value it might once have had. Americans aren’t going to forget this outrage or Trump’s role in it.

Lincoln On The Verge

I’ve had a chance to do some real leisure reading over the holidays, which is a wonderful way to spend a few days away from work. The first book I tackled was terrific: Lincoln On The Verge: Thirteen Days To Washington, by Ted Widmer. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history generally, and Abraham Lincoln specifically. (And a hat tip to JV, who recommended it to me in the first place.)

You might call Lincoln On The Verge a microhistory. It focuses specifically on the thirteen-day train trip Lincoln took from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. They were thirteen momentous days, as the South was moving from secession to a full-blown Confederacy, with a government, a President of its own, and ongoing seizures of federal facilities as the do-nothing Buchanan Administration sat idly by, twiddling its thumbs and utterly failing to uphold, preserve, and protect the Union or the Constitution. It’s hard to read this book and not come away with the distinct view that James Buchanan was the most worthless holder of the Presidency ever: corrupt, inept, helpless, and presiding over an Administration thoroughly infused with southerners who were actively undermining the Union they were supposed to be serving.

For Lincoln, it was a dangerous time on a personal level. As the country was coming apart, he was the subject of countless assassination threats — and, on the trip itself, actual assassination attempts and other dangers as he went out among the people. He also faced a different kind of risk. As was traditional during that time period, Lincoln had remained silent during the campaign for the Presidency, letting his surrogates and many campaign biographies work for his election. But as the train trip began, Lincoln began to speak, and ended up giving dozens of speeches as his special train followed a zig-zag course through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio (including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus), Pennsylvania, and New York. Some of his speeches were clinkers, but others were brilliant reflections on the American experience. Lincoln’s speeches to the masses that came out to greet him on his winding journey set a marked contrast with President Buchanan, who never spoke in public, and helped to build essential public support for the Union cause and for the Civil War that lay just over the horizon. The journey was capped by a run though the dangerous slave state of Maryland, where the threat of an assassination attempt loomed large, to finally reach Washington, D.C., the capital city nestled between two slave states.

Along the way, the formerly clean-shaven Lincoln continued to grow the beard that we now associate with him, and was seen and distinctly remembered by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans — including some who went on to become famed poets, sculptors, advocates for the abolitionist movement, and future Presidents. As the journey progresses, the reader also gets glimpses of a very different, rapidly growing America on the cusp of earth-shaking conflict and change.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that strongly resonates today. The subtext of the entire book is pretty clear — good leaders can make a profound difference and bring people together in a common cause even in the face of incredible divisiveness And the ultimate message is clear, too: where would we be if Abraham Lincoln had not been there to accept the greatest challenge in American history?

The Abolitionists’ Carol

The other day I was listening to the essential Sirius XM Holiday Pops channel when a version of O Holy Night was played. It’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and it was one of Mom’s favorites, too. She loved the Mario Lanza version, with the tenor using his great voice to hit some of the high notes that make the tune so stirring and powerful.

But the message of the song is powerful and stirring, too. Particularly the third verse that goes:

Truly he taught us to love one another:

His law is love and his gospel is peace.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

For Christmas carols, that’s about as political a message as you are going to get — but of course the notion of ending human bondage and instilling brotherhood for all fits neatly with the entire redemptive thrust of the Christmas story. The verse got me to wondering, though: when was O Holy Night written, and was its author an abolitionist?

In fact, the song does have a significant abolitionist history. O Holy Night began as a French poem, called Midnight, Christians, that was written in the 1840s by an atheist to commemorate the dedication of a new church organ. The poem was later set to music and became the French carol Cantique de Noel. It became popular even though French church authorities criticized its message as not being sufficiently reverential. The song crossed the Atlantic and, in the 1850s, as tensions between the North and South reached the boiling point, an American abolitionist minister named John Sullivan Dwight translated the song into English and no doubt applauded the resulting anti-slavery message. As the Civil War neared and then burst over America, the song became extremely popular in the Union states — and probably was never played, or sung, in the short-lived Confederacy.

It’s not hard to imagine church congregations of the North belting out the song with relish during the holiday seasons in an era when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted and adopted by the states, and the horrors of slavery in America finally ended, once and for all. And who knows? Music can have a powerful influence, and the song may have helped to create the political climate that allowed those momentous events to happen. For that reason alone, O Holy Night might be the most historically significant Christmas carol in the holiday playlist.

Vaccine Politics

I was watching TV this week and saw two related stories. One featured a truck delivering the first coronavirus vaccines to Ohio, where a masked Governor DeWine took a look at one box being unloaded, as shown in the photo above. The other was a story saying that the NFL was not going to try to cut in line so that its players and coaches would get the vaccine before others do.

The second story seemed weird to me. I’m sure the NFL thought it was being noble by publicly announcing that it was eschewing any effort to jump the queue for vaccinations. But I had the opposite reaction: why in the world would the NFL even entertain the notion of trying to move up the vaccine priority list? The fact that the NFL apparently considered it, and decided not to try, just shows the risk of political games being played with vaccine distribution and administration.

I suppose this should not be surprising to anyone. The coronavirus has had a devastating effect on our society, our culture, our economy, and individual families who have suffered losses of loved ones. Of course people are going to want to get the vaccine so they can put this whole weird chapter of their lives behind them, and the sooner the better. (Unless, of course, they are anti-vaxxers who aren’t going to get vaccinated at all.) But priorities have to be established so that there’s not a mad scramble for inoculation, and that means there’s a chance that people will try to pull rank, call in favors, apply pressure, and move up the list.

The initial priorities are easy: front-line health care workers and the places where COVID-19 has had the greatest impact — such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities — and that’s how Ohio is going to proceed. But the tougher questions come after those obvious initial candidates are identified. I think there should be some consideration of impact and risk in the distribution decisionmaking. People who work in areas of the economy that have been crushed by shutdown orders, like restaurants and the arts, should have the opportunity to get vaccinated before white-collar workers who have been able to safely continue their jobs from home. And people who have existing health care conditions that increase the impact of the coronavirus should be ahead of healthy people.

I’m happy to wait my turn — hey, if the NFL is doing it, so can I — but I’ll be very interested to see how the vaccine rolls out. I’ll be watching to see when the political types get their shots.

Lincoln, Lincoln, And More Lincoln

I’m hoping to do some significant reading for pleasure over the holidays, and two of the books on the holiday reading list feature my favorite historical figure: Abraham Lincoln. Richard got me Abe, by David S. Reynolds, for Christmas, and I’ve also picked up Lincoln on the Verge, by Ted Widmer, on the recommendation of a friend.

I’m not quite how many books about Lincoln I’ve read. It’s easily dozens. I’ve read fiction about Lincoln, like Gore Vidal’s excellent Lincoln, and fine biographies like David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and histories in which Lincoln is the star of the show, like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. I’ve read books about Lincoln’s early days, books about his melancholy, and books of his speeches. I’ve read the classic Carl Sandburg biography. And even so, I eagerly look forward to reading still more about America’s 16th President, that towering, yet somehow still elusive, historical figure and political genius who guided America through its worst conflict with decency, fortitude, and self-deprecating humor and whose writings capture the real essence of the American concept better than anyone else, before or since. Perhaps these new books will provide some additional insight into the man who has been shrouded in myth since his assassination at the moment the Civil War was ending.

In my view, Lincoln is easily the greatest of America’s presidents. The only bad thing that comes out of reading about him is this: I always end up wishing that the qualities he brought to the office and to his political career were shared by more of our current political class.

Overmasked

I noticed them doing some work around the Schiller statue on one of my recent walks around the park, and when I walked past the statue on Saturday I saw that Herr Schiller is now sporting an oversized mask. I suppose somebody in the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department decided we need yet another reminder of the need to wear masks — even though the statue is honoring social distancing dictates by staying more than six feet away from, and above, anyone walking by.

I’m sure whoever came up with the idea of masking the statue thought they were being pretty clever — even though masking up stuff has been done to death already. But the sight of the giant veiled statue provoked a pretty negative reaction from me. Must the authorities take every opportunity to hit us over the head with masks and other reminders of this ongoing pandemic? Can’t they leave at least some things alone, so we can get an occasional taste of the world as it was before “coronavirus” became a household word?

Trust me: we’re not going to forget that there’s a pandemic going on, even if there’s not a mask on every statue.

Deboarding Downtown

Before the election, there were cautions about potential unrest in downtown Columbus during the period while votes were being counted. Most of the businesses in the downtown area put plywood over their street-level windows for protection against rock throwing, just in case. The boarded-up windows, which tend to attract graffiti, gave the downtown area a creepy, apocalyptic feel that matched, and maybe enhanced, the general sense of trepidation many people had about the whole election period.

Yesterday I went downtown for work and was glad to see that the plywood had been taken down from many of the buildings, while removal efforts were underway at still other buildings like the one shown in the photo above. Two weeks after the election, businesses evidently feel that the danger of civic unrest has passed and that it’s time to get back to normal. I was happy to see that development, because reflective windows are a lot nicer to walk by than plywood.

I’ve always been a believer in the “broken windows” theory, which posits that physical surroundings can send cues about expected behavior. Boarded-up buildings send a very distinctive message, whereas businesses that have removed the boards and are happy to let the sun shine in send a different message entirely. And although normally I’m the first person to question holiday decorations that are put up too early, this year I won’t mind seeing festive trimmings put up on downtown buildings, even if they go up before Thanksgiving. They will be a tangible sign that the election is behind us, the holidays (and the end of 2020) are on the horizon, and it’s time to move forward.

Jinxing The Year

Lots of people were pretty happy with the election results. Add in some apparent good news on progress toward a coronavirus vaccine, and there are many who have been in a celebratory mood lately. Social media has been littered with photos and video footage of sparkling champagne bubbling away in delicate flutes, ready to be quaffed as part of the party.

Speaking as a Cleveland sports fan, these displays of happiness, glee, enthusiasm, and even confidence for the future are causing me enormous concern about jinxing. 2020 has been an unbelievably difficult and punitive year so far, which suggests that the fates controlling the year are like the fickle and perverse gods of Greek and Nordic myth. My Cleveland sports history means I know all too well what happens when such capricious gods feel taunted or tempted by premature human displays of hope or optimism: that’s precisely when the gods will take steps to crush your soul and send it hurtling into the black pits of despair. Having already steered a pandemic and toilet paper shortages our way, the 2020 gods are clearly capable of just about anything that will further toy with the lives of puny humans.

I’m not saying this is definitely going to happen if the celebrations continue, of course — but it being 2020, why take a chance? Better to remain meek and humble so as not to tantalize the gods with another chance to toss a few more thunderbolts and chuckle at the resulting misery. Better to wait on the celebration until 2021 actually gets here — if that ever happens.

Fighting The Good Fight

Two people I know pretty well were candidates in last Tuesday’s general election. Both were motivated primarily by noble desires to serve the public in the judicial branch of our government. One of them won, and will be a great addition to the state court bench in Ohio. The other, regrettably, did not — but she fought the good fight. She was a great candidate who worked tirelessly and cheerfully and did everything that successful contenders must do.

As the 2020 election recedes into the distance, I’d like to focus for a moment on those candidates who fought the good fight. All of us have tasted the bitter dregs of defeat at some point in our lives, in an athletic contest, a spelling bee, a talent show, or a competition for the heart of another. We all know that losing really hurts. I cannot imagine, however, how it must feel to lose an election, after devoting countless hours to fundraising, campaign events, and — it being 2020 — awkward Zoom calls. Even worse, politics being what it is these days, the losing candidate often has also been the subject of demonization and the most negative advertising you can imagine. It takes a lot of guts and fortitude to run for any office — whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, the Green Party, or the marijuana parties that appeared on some state ballots this year. Most of us, myself included, would never dream of doing so.

We all need to remember that our republic would not work if at least two candidates did not summon up the gumption to run for the office in question. On our ballot this year, there were a handful of uncontested races — and that’s too bad. Campaigns serve a crucial purpose. They help to frame the issues, they give us information about the contenders for the office, and the positions staked out by the candidates often increase public awareness of the issues and the duties performed by the office itself.

So, here’s to those candidates who fought the good fight. We appreciate your personal sacrifice and your commitment to public service. Our system couldn’t do it without you.