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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Fact And Fiction

It's hard to know what to say right now, as almost everything that can be said has been said about our history-making times.  Still, a few thoughts that may be worth more thought.  I wrote last week about possible positive effects of the global pandemic, but I didn't put that in terms of an epistemological concern that Hubby has had for decades, and I shall take this opportunity to explore it. 


After teaching philosophy at the university level for 35 years, he was increasingly worried about how students seemed to be moving from reality to romance.  Many young people were rejecting logic, he told me, and they believed that one belief was as good as another.  They dismissed expertise and were slow to separate fact from fiction.  Some insisted that there are no facts.


So I hope that now, because they face the fatal fact of an invisible virus, they are coming to have more respect for science and the truths under a microscope.  Disease doesn't care whether or not you believe in it, or even whether or not you are a good person.  I especially hope that voters will be more skeptical of those – ala Donald Trump -- who routinely ignore reality in favor of their own egotistical opinion.


In a round-about way, that leads me to climate change, which the anti-science cults continue to deny.  I'm not asserting that there is a connection, but I hope that data miners are looking into the pandemic and the fact that the winter in which it began was the hottest on record.  If I were a laid-off computer geek, I'd be studying weather patterns during previous epidemics.  Again, I'm not saying that there is a correlation, but finding correlations is what thinkers do. 


Meteorology has made tremendous strides in the past few years, and weather forecasts are much more accurate than in the past.  Maybe meteorologists and epidemiologists should merge their data and see what turns up.  Even if no agrees with a thesis, the only way we make progress is to ask questions.  True pioneers -- in science or anything else -- must learn to disregard those who scoff.  Remember that it was only about a century ago when people doubted the reality of infectious germs.




Thinking about climate change reminds me of when Sandy Freedman was mayor and Vice President Al Gore came to Tampa to announce the beginning of NOAA, the federal agency that previously was called the Weather Bureau.  Here in hurricane country, the better forecasts that NOAA can provide us are largely due to investments in scientific equipment and expertise made back in the 1990s.  Such prescience and planning has proved its economic value, but Trumpsters nonetheless continue to mock Gore, intellectuals, and the whole world of scientific curiosity.  Go ahead, guys, the germs won't care.


And that reminds me of another incident back in the day.  Before the late Sylvia Kimbell became a county commissioner, she and I joined others who opposed the digging of another "borrow" pit in Thonotosassa.  We reasonably feared that after the soil was taken for an additional lane on I-4, the pit would become a place to dump trash.  The developers who wanted the permit didn't even bother to deny the possibility that it could become a landfill.


In minds of the business's well-paid lawyers, what mattered was that this would be a private landfill, not a public one ala Hillsborough County's notorious Taylor Road.  We had only one volunteer on our side at the expert hearing, but he was USF's pioneer environmentalist, Dr. John Betz.  A guy on the other side thought his argument was unassailable: "But this is a private landfill; doesn't that make a difference?"  John mused a moment and then succinctly replied, "Not to the microbes."  That's it in a nutshell.  The microbes, the viruses -- they don't care about private/public debates, nor profits nor belief systems.  They simply are deeply hidden facts.




This lawyer who thought that anything private is better than anything public clearly demonstrated his disdain for those outside of his country-club world.  That world welcomes only those who can pay, and its fundamental selling point is exclusivity.  Indeed, until very recently, such people proudly referred to themselves and their institutions as "discriminating."  It's only a small step from discrimination and exclusion to exceptionalism -- and a belief that as Americans, we can scorn the rest of God's children. 


Our misguided president has succeeded in implanting that notion of superiority in masses of people.  Even though they never will have enough money to be included at Mar-a-Logo or his other exclusive properties, he has managed to convince them that they are superior and exceptions to societal rules.  Again, germs don't care.  As this bad bug quickly showed, they can leap across borders and oceans to engulf even exceptional Americans. 


The coronavirus may be exceptional, though, in that it seems to target the affluent more than the poor.  A lot more data will need to be studied, of course, but its beginnings certainly were amid people who could afford international travel, winter cruises, and mountain ski resorts.  Although the worst is yet to come, I've yet to hear of a similar rate of sickness among minimum-wage workers.


Along those lines, will someone please tell the talking heads about percentages?  They designate New York City as the epicenter based on the number of cases, without providing the context of its 8.2 million residents.  Ditto with Detroit, New Orleans, and other cities.  Wyoming has the lowest population of any state, with just over a half-million residents, and had 70 confirmed cases as of March 20.  A thoughtful analyst would run the ratios before putting charts and maps on the screen.  I think these epicenters may be more apparent than real, but Patrick doesn't pay me enough to run so many numbers.  And this, too, is another instance of Hubby's thesis that the attractive folks on TV aren't into science, including statistics.




Maybe people will notice examples of the superiority of "feminine" values over those we consider "masculine."  I know that such generalities about gender-based values are becoming less real, and I hope they eventually disappear.  For my generation, however, there still is meaning -- and a need to point out the positive values that women long have brought to any crisis.  So, while The Donald alternately praised and attacked General Motors, thousands of women simply sat down at their sewing machines and began making masks. 


Presumably Trump's first thought was GM because it is big, and bigness is what counts with him.  Smaller, more flexible industries such as cosmetic makers and distillers are stepping up to fill the void, but not because the White House considered such small-fry companies, especially those related to women.  And btw, re the one woman in his Cabinet:  Where is Betsy DeVos now that schools face unprecedented problems?  Education has been a woman's field too often run by men, and another positive pandemic result may be greater appreciation of teachers and their "feminine" values.


Although you may not agree, I think this also may be a positive result:  Perhaps the sports pages will lose their sacred place in newspaper and/or TV coverage.  With no games being played, our local daily has cut this reserved space to just a few pages – but ever since I was a teenager, I've wondered why even that.  Why such a huge publicity boon to this particular profitmaking business? 


Economists have known for years that more of us go to museums, theaters, and concerts than go to football, baseball, or hockey, but the papers still give disproportionate ink to the guy games.  That's a value that should change.  To say nothing of paying one player $60 million for a two-year contract – and the Tampa Bay Times, which cries poverty at every opportunity, runs a full-page ad to celebrate.




Those of you who are regular readers know that because of Hubby's perilous health, I have been self-isolating since December.  Frankly, it's getting lonely.  I would so much welcome e-mail!  Please let me know how you are coping and your thoughts on anything and everything.  Maybe I can string together a column from that.


Next week, I'll try to go back to history and talk about the 1887 yellow fever epidemic here in Tampa, which may have killed one of every ten residents.  People knew it was contagious:  Neighboring Bartow even posted armed guards to prevent Tampans from getting off the train.  It would be the 20th century before public health scientists finally figured out that it was spread by mosquitoes.  At least one American nurse gave her life during test trials in Cuba.


And one last "that reminds me…"  You've been hearing about the Navy's USS Comfort.  I'm not sure if it is the same physical ship, but there was a Navy ship with that name in World War II.  Despite its International Red Cross designation, six nurses died on it, while another five became prisoners of war in Guam.  Compared with then, now is nothing. 



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