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

Should You Judge Other People?

Should you judge other people? When you call someone “judgy” or “judgmental,” that’s taken as an insult. A caring friend, many believe, offers a “no judgment zone.” Some tell us to follow the biblical advice: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

But can this approach really guide us in our daily life and thinking?

No. On the contrary: in life it’s crucial to form moral judgments of other people — and act on your evaluation.

That’s what I argued in a recent webinar, part of ARI’s weekly series Philosophy for Living on Earth,drawing on Ayn Rand’s moral theory. Essential to Rand’s view is that our moral judgments must be objective, not emotion-driven. To reach objective evaluations is a serious responsibility. It’s a task, she observes, “that requires the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought.” An aspect of what’s so distinctive in Rand’s perspective is that moral judgment is primarily about seeking out, nurturing, supporting the good people in our life and world (not just identifying the people to shun, avoid, condemn).

One highlight of the webinar was having my colleague Aaron Smith moderate the Q&A portion and also join in the discussion. A fascinating issue that came up early on: what are some reasons that people are reluctant to engage in moral judgment?

Watch the video of the webinar, or download the episode on the ARI Live! podcast (Apple PodcastsStitcher). And join us next time by subscribing to the series.

The “Islamophobia” Smear: A Conversation with Sarah Haider

There’s a growing taboo in our society around the religion of Islam. Take an obvious contrasting example. The Book of Mormon, a musical that lampoons Mormonism, is a hugely successful, critically acclaimed Broadway show, but no one today would dare to stage a musical that subjects the religion of Islam to similar criticism and ridicule.

The taboo is partly the result of well-founded fear. For expressing criticism of Islam, filmmakers, novelists, journalists, playwrights have faced death threats and violent attacks. After a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammad, there were riots, fire bombings, and a political crisis. For “insulting” Islam, twelve journalists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered at their office.

Beyond the threats of violence, the taboo is also enforced by a stinging epithet: “Islamophobia.” This term deliberately blurs together anti-Muslim bigotry and any analysis and criticism of Islamic ideas. The effect is to smear, and thus discredit, any critical discussion of Islam as an instance of prejudice.

To explore the taboo from a unique perspective, I turned to Sarah Haider. She’s the executive director of Ex-Muslims of North America. Today in America, she observes, we behave as if there’s a kind of de facto blasphemy law regarding Islam. Haider brings an admirable frankness to the issue of Islam and its impact on individuals and societies.

Born in Pakistan and raised in the U.S., Haider left Islam in her teens and is an atheist. Her organization works with people who abandon the religion of Islam. No mainstream religion, Haider notes, treats apostates quite the way Islam does. The stigma, difficulties, even threats, they face are considerable. Some people she works with insist on anonymity. Out of security concerns, the organization itself has no physical address.

One fascinating thread in our conversation relates to the pushback and attacks that Haider has faced from individuals she expected to be allies — notably from progressives, liberal feminists, and even secular humanists. Frustrated and disappointed, she called out in particular the hypocrisy of feminists who shut their eyes to the well-documented subjugation of women under Islamic norms.

The “Islamophobia” smear, too, came up in our conversation. Haider objects to what she calls the racializing of Muslims. The sheer existence of ex-Muslims attests to the fact that Islam is a set of ideas people can think their way out of and reject. Being a follower of the faith is not coded into one’s DNA.

In its own way, Haider’s organization is challenging the taboo around the issue of Islam. Which is important and necessary work, because no set of ideas, whether secular or religious, should be fenced off from critical scrutiny. That’s doubly important when some proponents of that ideology seek to silence all criticism by threats of violence.

Why Patents and Copyrights Matter: A Conversation with Adam Mossoff

Would you walk into a store, grab a bottle of wine, and walk out without paying for it? No, that would be stealing. It’s morally wrong, and few would even consider doing it. But many people routinely download or stream pirated content — movies, TV shows — without giving it a second thought. They do not think of these two cases, stealing a bottle of wine and violating a movie copyright, as equivalent morally.

This attitude is compounded by a growing hostility to copyrights and patents. For years some intellectuals and politicians have been calling for drastically scaling back the protections for these forms of intellectual property. And they’ve made inroads. The U.S. patent system once led “the world in securing stable and effective property rights in cutting-edge innovation,” innovation that has supercharged our standard of living in myriad ways. That system was widely seen as the “gold standard.” But no longer.

Why do patents and copyrights matter? What do they protect? What to make of the objections against them? For instance: that no one is really hurt by violations of copyrights or patents; or that these rights are obstacles to progress and innovation; or that they’re an unfair, government-granted privilege or favor?

To explore these issues, I talked to Professor Adam Mossoff, who teaches law at George Mason University. Mossoff is an expert on intellectual property law and policy, who has published extensively in academic journals and popular outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Politico, among many others. He has testified several times before the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Mossoff is also a contributor to two recent books of essays on Ayn Rand’s philosophy: A Companion to Ayn Rand and Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy. Rand was a principled advocate for individual rights, emphatically including rights to intellectual property, and one thread of my conversation with Mossoff relates to his interest in Rand’s ideas and their impact on his thinking.

Two points resonated strongly with me after the interview. First, I was alarmed to learn that protections for patents in the U.S. have diminished so much that some companies, particularly in biotech, have opted to shut down operations: why spend years and invest billions of dollars in R&D if a breakthrough innovation cannot be secured under patents? Second, it was refreshing to hear a justification for intellectual property rights grounded not on economic arguments, but on a moral case about an individual’s right to the product of his mind.

Watch the interview:

 

Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

The War on Vaccines

Nearly twenty years ago, measles in the United States was declared “eliminated” — thanks to widespread vaccination. But measles has made a dangerous comeback. In the last year, several outbreaks occurred in Washington State and parts of New York, particularly in communities with low rates of vaccination. Such outbreaks reflect the influence of the anti-vaccine movement.

What animates this movement? What to make of its assertions about the dangers of vaccines? And what is the state of scientific knowledge about the efficacy and safety of vaccines? To explore these issues, I interviewed Dr. Amesh Adalja, a physician and expert on infectious diseases. Adalja is co-editor of the new book Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, and he has published in scientific journals as well as popular outlets such as The Atlantic, Forbes, and USA Today.

Two major takeaways from the conversation: First, the war on vaccines does not stem from a dispute over facts; rather, it reflects a wider cultural disdain for facts, truth, and reason. Second, the anti-vaccine movement is itself a significant danger. The more it succeeds, the more we can expect an increase in preventable infections and deaths.

Watch or listen to the interview:


Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Jacob Mchangama on Free Speech in Europe

In 2005, editors at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were concerned about a seeming climate of self-censorship on the subject of Islam. To assess the extent of that climate, they commissioned and published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The ensuing political crisis and violent protests around the world — the so-called cartoons crisis — underscored that the principle of freedom of speech is little understood or valued. That fact was on stark display, again, in the aftermath of the 2015 jihadist massacre at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

These crises were part of a pattern dating back to the 1989 Iranian death decree against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. The dominant response of Western intellectuals and political leaders has been to betray the principle of freedom of speech at every turn. We at ARI have been fighting against this global trend by championing intellectual freedom and the freedom of speech.

Where do things stand in Europe today? That’s the question at the center of my recent conversation with Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and writer based in Denmark. He’s a vocal advocate for freedom of speech, and I’ve found his support for that principle articulate. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and several scholarly journals. During our conversation, we talked about:

  • the facts surrounding the cartoons crisis, and the intellectual climate today
  • the repeal of Denmark’s blasphemy law, and how, while in effect, it had enabled oppressive regimes to justify their own blasphemy laws
  • a recent notorious case at the European Court of Human Rights concerning an Austrian woman’s disparaging comments about Mohammad

From the interview I came away with a renewed appreciation for the First Amendment’s protection for intellectual freedom — but also with a heightened concern that free speech in America is, at best, taken for granted, and at worse, devalued.

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.

Does Success in Life Require Compromise?

The issue of compromise comes up all the time, everywhere. To have healthy, meaningful relationships, we’re advised to seek out a middle ground. In the workplace, we hear, it’s vital that we compromise.

Even as some people insist that compromise is a guiding principle of social life, it’s clear that not every compromise leads to desirable outcomes.

Sometimes, it can be toxic to a relationship. Or, it can sink your business. Sometimes you need to say no. But when should you compromise — and when should stand your ground? How can you tell?

Ayn Rand’s philosophic analysis of compromise is enormously clarifying. It equips us to know when a compromise can enable win-win outcomes — and when, instead, we should refuse to give ground. In a recent webinar, part of our series Philosophy for Living on Earth, I discussed aspects of Rand’s view of compromise, drawing on her essay “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?”

I emphasized Rand’s observation that one should compromise only on the details or particulars within a mutually agreed principle, but never on a principle. When you buy a car, for example, you and the seller negotiate — come to a compromise — on the final sale price — within the mutually accepted principle of trade. But a “compromise” on a basic principle, on what you know to be true and right, is destructive: it means violating your convictions and selling out.

I strongly encourage you to read Rand’s essay “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” which is laden with insights that can help you navigate your personal relationships, your work, and your life. For more on Rand’s view of compromise, and the crucial role of principles in life, take a look at “The Anatomy of Compromise” (reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).

Here is the webinar with Q&A: