Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic: Creators of Our Digital Age

Emergency rooms are jammed with COVID-19 patients, fighting for their lives. Doctors, nurses, and front-line healthcare workers are receiving much-deserved praise and appreciation, even though (as I argued in earlier article) they’re still under-valued.

Reflecting on this crisis, I’ve come to have a deeper appreciation for another group of heroic individuals. We rely on their tireless work and achievements every day, but all the more so as millions of us are subjected to stay-at-home orders. But they are unsung.

Call them the builders of our digital age. Thanks to them, the lockdowns are more tolerable than they otherwise would have been.

Thanks to Gmail and Dropbox and Slack and Microsoft Teams, many people are able to keep their work moving forward. Thanks to Zoom, businesses can stay connected, students can attend classes, countless families and friends can socialize, and children can goof around with friends that they used to meet on the school playground. Thanks to Netflix and YouTube and Disney Plus and Hulu and Spotify and Apple Music, there’s an abundance of entertainment on hand. Thanks to Amazon and Instacart and the multitude of local app-based food delivery services, you can have household supplies and groceries and takeout left outside your door.

These apps and online services rely on a technological foundation built decades ago. Bill Gates envisioned a future with a desktop computer in every home. We’ve long surpassed that. In many homes, the computers, smartphones, and tablets outnumber the human occupants. Getting online used to mean connecting a computer to a phone line using a slow, screechy modem and dialing up an internet service provider; now broadband internet is pervasive and we stream movies to our iPhones.

Try to imagine being stuck at home during a pandemic like this one — in the pre-digital age, with none of the tools and apps and services we rely on. To contemplate that is to begin to appreciate the enormous value created by the builders of our digital age.

Who are they? Among them are industry-shaping leaders such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Serge Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their startups, now globe-spanning corporations, were made possible by the foresight and risk-taking of investors and venture capital firms. Innumerable coders and computer scientists and network engineers go to work every day to grow these businesses and keep their systems running.

Keeping these apps and networks and platforms operational under ordinary circumstances is an achievement. Doing so amid the pandemic, with surging demand from millions more people self-isolating at home, is an even more impressive feat. Comcast, one of the nation’s largest broadband providers, reported that use of voice and video conferencing traffic on its network was up 212% in March. For Zoom, the number of daily active users has surged since December, up 340%.

We’re leaning more heavily than ever before on the achievements of the creators of the digital age. Let’s take a moment to recognize the benefits we’ve reaped so far and express our appreciation.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic

The pandemic is showing that, all around us, there are under-appreciated heroes.

Legions of them work in hospitals. What’s become clear in New York and elsewhere is that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers are up against battlefield-like conditions. The lack of widespread testing, the desperate scarcity of ventilators and dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, have made their work far more difficult and greatly increased their risk.

The horrifying stories multiply by the day: doctors having to re-use their masks; hospital staff using garbage bags to improvise gowns; doctors having to weigh whether to imperil their own lives to save patients. Here, from the vantage one E.R. physician, Dr. Colleen Smith, is a look inside hard-hit Elmhurst Hospital in New York.

A possible sign of what’s yet to come is evident in Spain, which also has an acute shortage of masks and protective gear. Nearly 14% of all COVID-19 cases in Spain are medical professionals, many apparently infected on the job. One E.R. nurse in Spain has decried the fact that, lacking adequate protective equipment, she and her colleagues have been turned into “health care kamikazes.” (Some doctors in the U.S. are writing and updating their wills.)

Many Americans have expressed their gratitude for the work of doctors and nurses. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook. In New York City, residents stood at their windows to applaud and cheer their tireless efforts. Elsewhere, individuals and companies have collected supplies of masks and donated them to local hospitals.

But if only such appreciation were universal. What’s been stomach-turning is the evident devaluing of doctors and nurses by some administrators of certain hospitals and by government authorities. It is the responsibility of government authorities to prepare for this kind of situation by ensuring adequate supplies and resources, but we’re seeing what happens when the calls for crisis-preparedness go unheeded.

There’s still another kind of devaluing of doctors and nurses. Consider the college students who flocked together on the beaches of Florida or Mexico on spring break, or the New Yorkers who reportedly arrange pandemic potluck dinners in crowded apartments. They choose not to voluntarily social-distance. They may decide to be fatalistic about their own health—“if I get corona, I get corona!”—but it’s reprehensible to do that and then when they get sick to expect that doctors and nurses, lacking adequate protection, treat them in the E.R. Imposing such a risk on healthcare workers is to disregard their lives.

The ugly premise behind such indifference is that doctors and nurses—individuals who spend years upon years mastering oceans of scientific knowledge and continually honing their life-saving skills—somehow owe us their lives and work. It’s as if they’re our servants, and we don’t have to care what happens to them. The expectation is that they’ll always show up to work, even at the cost of their own health and the well-being of their families. But this is an inverted kind of blackmail, a form of exploitation that counts not on vices, but on the virtues of doctors and nurses. It’s precisely because of their love for their work and dedication to patients that so many of them show up every day.

This same premise, evident in the UK’s National Health Service, long ago wormed its way into America’s government-controlled healthcare system. For decades, we saw the imposition of control after control, minutely regulating the judgment of doctors and nurses, making their jobs harder—with the expectation that they will endure anything to save lives. The pandemic, some people clamor, validates the case for moving to some form of state-run healthcare, like Medicare-for-All. But the opposite is true. Embedded in such systems is a basic disregard for the lives, judgment, and freedom of doctors and nurses.

That’s also what underlies the alarming suggestion by New York mayor Bill de Blasio for a national draft of doctors and other medical workers to serve in hospitals, beginning with New York.

Doctors and medical workers are the “forgotten man” of socialized medicine, with harmful repercussions for us all. Such callousness toward them is a moral travesty.

One lesson we can already draw from this crisis is that we need properly to recognize the tremendous value of doctors and nurses. Another is that rather imposing further controls or nationalizing healthcare, we need to move toward liberating them and their industry. Despite the outpouring of praise and gratitude so far, we’re only just beginning to appreciate them fully.

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Photo by Richard Catabay on Unsplash

In this Pandemic, We’re All Paying the Price of Trump’s War on Truth

By the hour, we are learning more about the spread and lethality of the novel coronavirus. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically upended our lives and economy, it has also brought into sharper focus the dire consequences of putting in the nation’s highest office someone who’s at war with the truth.

Even ardent supporters of Donald Trump acknowledge that he spins, exaggerates, stretches, invents facts. Remember his inauguration ceremony? In Trump’s telling, it had a record-breaking turnout. In fact, it did not.

Such habitual twisting of the truth unnerved both opponents and voters who reluctantly voted for him, but Trump’s ardent supporters shut their eyes to its meaning. A favorite rationalization: it’s a character flaw of little consequence. Yeah, he’s a braggart, but what difference does it make how many came to the inauguration, really?

What about the foreseeable outcome of having someone who habitually twists the truth in the Oval Office during a crisis? Many evaded that nightmare scenario. Now we’re living it as the coronavirus pandemic rages.

In January, while intelligence agencies and health officials warned the Trump administration about a looming crisis, the president shut his eyes to the problem and insisted — as if wishing made it so — that we have nothing to worry about.

Asked on Jan. 22 if he was concerned about a pandemic, Trump said: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control.” He added: “It’s going to be just fine.” Dismissing the risk, he misled the American public into a false sense of security.

At a rally on Feb. 10, Trump floated the dubious theory that, with warmer weather, the novel virus “miraculously goes away.” On Feb. 23, he again insisted that “we have it very much under control.”

At a White House briefing on Feb. 26, the president said “the risk to the American people remains very low.” Referring to 15 cases in the U.S., he asserted that that number “within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” He added: “We’re going very substantially down, not up” — even as the number of confirmed cases climbed and more countries were reporting cases.

Diagnostic tests for this coronavirus are essential for identifying the spread and lethality of the virus and whether “social distancing” practices are effectively slowing transmission. Touring the C.D.C. facility on Mar. 6, Trump assured the public that “anybody that wants a test can get a test” — when in fact such tests were, and remain, painfully scarce.

Then, after the World Health Organization called the situation a pandemic, on Mar. 17 Trump asserted that “I felt that it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” and that “I’ve always viewed it as very serious” — in brazen defiance of his own past statements and actions.

In a time of crisis we need leaders to communicate openly, frankly, and truthfully. What Trump has done is minimize the problem, peddle false reassurance, and lie. This has inflamed people’s uncertainty, fear, panic.

While Trump refused to face the facts, the U.S. government squandered precious time. Time that could have been spent better preparing hospitals and enabling widespread, rapid testing on the model of South Korea. Result? Lives needlessly lost. And Trump’s denial has wreaked havoc on our daily lives and the economy. For weeks and weeks and weeks the message was “we have it totally under control,” now suddenly tens of millions of Americans are under lockdowns. Innumerable businesses are shuttered, with an uncertain future. Many people have already lost their jobs. The looming economic downturn is potentially catastrophic.

Businesses ruined. Individuals robbed of their livelihoods. Americans sickened and dead, needlessly. The full reckoning will take years to compute.

The lesson here is that you can evade the character of a political leader — shutting your eyes to the facts, wishing them away, inventing feel-good stories. You can tolerate his war on truth, rationalizing it as bragging. And you can tell yourself that, if a crisis erupts, he’ll miraculously face the facts, speak the truth, and handle it honestly. But you cannot escape the consequences of such evasions. Trump’s disdain for facts and truth is blatant, it’s part of his character, and it’s pervasive. So, it’s sheer fantasy to expect him to deal with a crisis honestly, rather than aggravating it.

We’re all now suffering the destructive consequences of installing a person contemptuous of facts in the Oval Office.

The Campaign to “Abolish Billionaires”

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are jockeying to spearhead a new crusade. Its premise is that the sheer existence of billionaires is a moral outrage.

“I don’t think that billionaires should exist,” Sanders explained. The crusade’s rallying cry: “Abolish billionaires.” To that end, Warren and Sanders have each proposed special taxes on the ultra-rich.

Central to this crusade is a claim many find plausible. In a New York Times column that went viral, Farhad Manjoo called for “kneecapping the wealthiest among us” because a billion dollars is “far more than anyone might reasonably claim to deserve, however much he believes he has contributed to society.” A burgeoning chorus keeps telling us: “No one deserves a billion dollars” (Tom Scocca); “No one earns a billion dollars” (Jacobin magazine). The implication: everyone who accumulates — not earns, mind you, but accumulates — so vast a fortune must have done so by shady means.

What’s truly corrupt, however, is the campaign to “abolish billionaires.” It’s founded on a smear. It’s not ignorance that leads billionaire-haters to deny the sheer possibility that a billion can be earned. It’s a willful disregard of the facts.

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The Berlin Wall and the Evil of Socialism

Some came with sledgehammers, some just with their bare hands. On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, jubilant crowds began tearing down the Berlin Wall, an infamous barrier dividing families, a city, a nation. Even as we celebrate that iconic moment, the moral meaning of the Berlin Wall is little understood. 

The Berlin Wall was built and murderously enforced in the name of a profoundly destructive political idea, which, alarmingly, many today are embracing. . .

Continue reading at The Hill

The Timeless Power of We the Living, Ayn Rand’s First, But Least Known, Novel

“Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid.”

The reek of that powerful disinfectant — used to abate the spread of lice-borne diseases — hints at the squalor that defines Petrograd. The city, in the years after the Communist revolution, is a study in filth, poverty, quiet despair. Returning to Petrograd by train is a young woman, whose posture and mien single her out. “She had a calm mouth and slightly widened eyes with the defiant, enraptured, solemnly and fearfully expectant look of a warrior who is entering a strange city and is not quite sure whether he is entering as a conqueror or a captive.”

Meet Kira Argounova, the heroine of We the Living, Ayn Rand’s first — but least known — novel.

Read on.

A Blind Spot Obscuring the Islamist Menace

Well before the Islamic State declared itself a “caliphate,” its leaders announced their aim plainly. But few took them seriously.

“Our objective,” stated one of its spokesmen, “is the formation of an Islamic state on the prophetic model that acknowledges no boundaries, distinguishes not between Arab and non-Arab, easterner and westerner, but on the basis of piety. Its loyalty is exclusively to God: it relies on only Him and fears Him alone.”

Having promised to establish such a caliphate — a society on “the prophetic model,” ruled by sharia (or religious law), a society indifferent to ethnicity and nationality, united only by faith — the Islamic State did exactly that on conquered territory, with its capital in the city of Raqqa (previously in Syria).

Having promised to “acknowledge no boundaries,” ISIS worked globally to spread its vision of a political-social order defined by sharia, leveraging social media and disseminating highly produced propaganda articles, magazines, videos.

Having promised loyalty “exclusively to God,” the group took the fight to the enemy: unbelievers. It inspired, fomented, and directed deadly attacks on infidels in London, in Manchester, in Brussels, in Ankara, in San Bernardino, California, in Orlando, Florida. Hit especially hard was Paris. In January 2015, jihadists massacred journalists at Charlie Hebdo and carried out a deadly siege at a kosher supermarket. Then in November, a squad of jihadists shot up sidewalk cafes and set off suicide bombs outside a soccer stadium and at a music venue, killing 130.

But the reaction of many intellectuals and politicians was denial. A common mantra held that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam” — an echo of the Bush administration’s assurance that the 9/11 attackers had hijacked a noble religion. The repetition of this phrase seemed to imply that wishing will make it so.

Read on.

Why So Many People Struggle to Gain Self-Esteem

Ayn Rand held that self-esteem is not simply desirable, but an essential value in human life. It is no less important, no less necessary, than food and physical health. And on her view it is something within your direct control to achieve: each of us can attain it. Yet many people find it difficult. Why?

One major factor, which I mentioned in a recent webinar on Rand’s conception of self-esteem, stems from the fact that self-esteem is in part a moral assessment.

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Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

Bernie Sanders, Like Donald Trump, Is Hostile To A Free Press

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, like so many of us, is rightly alarmed at President Trump’s “authoritarian bullying of the media.” Trump’s demonization of the media as the “enemy of the people,” Sanders writes, amounts to a “deliberate attempt to destroy the very idea of a free press.” Positioning himself as the anti-Trump on this issue, Sanders has unveiled a plan to save “real journalism.”

Will Sanders’s media plan actually protect the free press?

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photo AFGE cc-2.0

Why Ayn Rand Opposed “Extremism”

What is “extremism”? Seems obvious, many people would say: just look at the actions of a white supremacist who shoots up a mosque or synagogue. Or a jihadist’s suicide attack. There are many other vicious acts that we commonly label as “extremism,” which one dictionary defines as “the holding of extreme political or religious views.”

But this term is nowhere near as clear as it seems.

Consider other views that are “extreme” (outermost, farthest from the center, calling for drastic steps). For example, when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was an “extreme” political view to be against monarchy and for individual liberty. At the time of slavery, it was an “extreme” view to be an uncompromising advocate for abolition. And, whereas racism and Islamic totalitarianism are vicious, clearly it is morally right to be for liberty and abolition. But all of these examples — given how the term is commonly used — could be labeled “extremism.”

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