In my last column I discussed the Civil War and the removal of the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues in Richmond, Virginia — the former Capital of the Confederacy. This time I’m going to continue on the Civil War thread, but with a much less happy theme. The Civil War death count was long accepted as 618,222 people; 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South. That is the largest death toll, by far, from any war in American history. 

I bring that up because the number of American deaths from COVID 19 has now surpassed that number; and in fact has passed 700,000. According to the University of Virginia COVID Surveillance Dashboard the American death count from COVID is now at 704,656 and rising by the hour.

If you haven’t seen it reported that the US COVID death toll passed the number of Civil War dead, it’s probably because a recent study posited that the actual number of dead from the Civil War was more like 750,000. That’s due to a new study by J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York. Using an array of modern methods and technologies Hacker concluded that the earlier figure was a large undercount. His new number has quickly gained widespread acceptance among historians, or at the very least consideration and a hesitancy to use the old number. So it is probably the case that COVID deaths have not yet passed the total of Civil War dead. Unfortunately we are rapidly approaching that mark.

Either way, it is still incredible that not more is made of the massive COVID death toll in the country. Yes, the media report it over and over, but widespread public reaction or acknowledgement comensurate with the size of the tragedy has yet to materialize. (Joe Biden and Kamala Harris tried with their tribute shortly after taking office.) Instead many not only fail to grasp the enormity of what is happening, but also continue to dismiss and defy public health advice.  In doing so they endanger not only themselves, but anyone else with whom they come in contact.

It is also simply a fact that much of the old Confederacy, including Texas, is home to some of the worst of the defiance and outbreaks of the disease. The hardest hit areas include Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas — although by no means are defiance of science and COVID outbreaks limited to the old South. By the way I say that, and what I’m about to say, as a lifelong Southerner.

General Ulysses Grant famously wrote that Southern forces fought “long and valiantly” and “suffered so much” for their cause. Grant immediately added, however, “though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

How about we see if Grant’s description of the Confederates can be applied to today’s fierce opponents of vaccines and mask wearing. They are certainly fighting, and some are dying, for their cause although not in a military manner. First, let’s drop the word “valiantly” because it just doesn’t take a lot of courage or valor to oppose wearing a mask, to refuse to get a vaccine, or to harangue school boards. It is also not very valiant to put children on the front lines. Among other places, this is happening in Tennessee where the state has discouraged promotion of vaccines for teenagers. The results are predictable. As the Washington Post recently reported, “In Tennessee, where vaccination rates are low, infections among children skyrocketed in August and September and have declined some in the last two weeks. States with high vaccination rates are seeing far fewer pediatric infections.” The Post added, “In Tennessee, just 17 percent of those ages 12 to 17 across the state have been immunized, versus 52 percent nationwide. (Adult vaccinations here also lag, with 45 percent in Tennessee vaccinated, versus 56 percent nationwide.)”

So let’s drop the word “valiantly” in our attempt to apply General Grant’s description of the Confederate Army to COVID deniers. With that deletion, however, plus a substitution for just one other word, and a couple of tense changes,” I think we can apply Grant’s statement to COVID today. How about:

“Anti-maskers and anti-vaxers have fought relentlessly for their cause though that cause is, I believe, one of the dumbest for which a people ever fought, and one for which there is the least excuse.”  

Anti-maskers and anti-vaxers have fought relentlessly for their cause though that cause is, I believe, one of the dumbest for which a people ever fought, and one for which there is the least excuse.

I know it’s not popular and probably counter productive to use words like dumb and stupid, and I usually refrain from it. Sometimes, however, it’s just unavoidable. I bring it up right now not just because of the COVID situation, but also because of the dominant media narrative about the ongoing stalemate between Democrats in Congress. 

Did I Mention Surge Voters?

I’m talking about the narrative that if the Democrats don’t get their agenda passed right now then they are all but guaranteed to lose the House, and maybe the Senate too, in next year’s midterms. That would presumably occur out of a combination of voters punishing them for their ineptitude and “surge voters” suffering a lack of enthusiasm and staying home because Democrats failed to get their agenda through. I know I have talked about surge voters before, but — sorry surge voters — I’m going to do it again. Surge voters by the way are are people who only vote when they get real excited about a particular candidate or cause. At least some polls have shown that a good chunk of surge voters say they would be more likely to vote in the 2022 midterms if the Democrats can get a lot done. If not, they are liable to skip voting next year.

So, to be clear, my critique here is not of Senators or members of Congress. There is certainly always reason to critique elected officials, but that’s not the point here. For the record I generally favor the progressives in the standoff and am glad they are trying to pass legislation that broadly addresses the severe crises in the country. Also, I think that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema should be called corporate Democrats rather than moderate Democrats. While it is hard for me to respect Manchin and Sinema I can understand that some House Democrats from swing districts would want a smaller package or to break it up into separate bills. I am willing to be patient and let all of them as elected representatives — including President Joe Biden — work through that.

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, from her campaign website

My fundamental disappointment rather is with segments of the national media and large groups of my fellow Americans. Far too many are either promoting or accepting the narrative that the inevitable alternative to the Democrats failing to get their whole program passed is for Republicans to be voted back into the Congressional majority. Too many Democrats are also buying into this rather than explaining that having more Democrats is the way to address not being able to get the entire Democratic agenda passed.

This defeatist narrative is based at least in part on polling of so called “surge voters,” which showed sizable segments of surge voters saying they were more likely to vote if Democrats can please them by pushing through the Democratic agenda. 

The level of illogic here is astounding. It also displays a devastating lack of education, or awareness, in civics, history, math and current events. Additionally there’s a large amount of defeatism and lack of fight in this equation too. 

Where to start? First of all Republicans are en masse opposing anything that the Biden Administration and Democrats try to do so that they can then argue that Democrats have failed to accomplish anything. That’s the same strategy they pursued with Barack Obama, meeting to plot it on the night of his historic inauguration. It’s dismaying that many members of the media fail to recognize or acknowledge this tired and transparent strategy — although some do point it out, particularly columnists. It’s even more dismaying that so many everyday Americans repeatedly fall for that same trick/strategy.

Then there’s the math, civics and lack of historical knowledge. The Democrats only hold half the seats in the Senate. That means that one or two stubborn contrarians like Sinema and Manchin can derail the entire Democratic agenda. Numerous polls show that majorities of Americans, like many surge voters, support the Democratic programs and want them to pass. So, from both a civics and math standpoint, it seems the logical solution is to elect more Democrats so that a couple of oddballs like Manchin and Sinema can’t keep the entire country from moving forward. 

I fail to see how the solution is to kick out the Democrats and put in the obstructionist Republicans who oppose all the popular Democratic legislation. Of course Republicans are also the party that has worsened the COVID pandemic by pandering to their far right base — as with Governor Greg Abbott here in Texas and Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida. That’s not to mention former President Donald Trump’s catastrophic failures on COVID. Republicans are also the party of voter suppression and claim to be the law and order party, but defend insurrectionists who violently attacked the Capital, including brutal attacks on police officers.

So really? The solution to divisions within the Democratic caucus is to turn Congress back over to Republicans? Come on man!

Then there’s history. History shows that most major legislation in the 20th and 21st Centuries passed when Democrats held large majorities in Congress. The most consequential and lasting is the New Deal pushed through Congress on bill after bill by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The same was true for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Programs, like Medicare. More recently the Affordable Care Act passed when Democrats had a larger majority than they do today, although not nearly as big as in the times of Roosevelt and Johnson. 

If surge voters who support Democratic policies stay home from the polls (or vote Republican) and let Republicans win because Democrats don’t accomplish enough with their bare majority, well I can think of a number of words to describe that. I will just settle, however, for incredibly disappointing.

(Picture of General Grant is from the New York State Archives)


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