Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Words Matter

September 19, 2020

As I’ve tried to argue here repeatedly over the last 14 years (!), words matter. Language matters, and we need to pay attention to what is being said and how it’s being said.

For instance, for the first time I can remember, the flu is being called a pandemic. I don’t argue whether or not the flu qualifies as a pandemic. I’m pretty sure it does – it affects a good portion of the world (at least I assume it does – I think press coverage of world health issues is normally pretty light, and since the flu recurs every year, there has been little interest historically in talking about it unless it’s somehow more dangerous or otherwise distinctive) and it affects a good portion of the population (in the neighborhood of 19 million Americans annually (as opposed to the estimated 6.7 million cases of Coronavirus reported in the US after 6 months).

What I do question is the curious fact that this year, the flu is being called a pandemic. Most of the news stories I see using this terminology are fear-mongering, painting dire possible scenarios since COVID-19 is ongoing as flu season begins. The other common denominator in stories referring to the flu as a pandemic is the emphasis on getting the flu shot.

The overall impact is one of creating fear. Fear is a particularly useful emotion as it is very powerful and hard to resist. It’s also hard to live with over a prolonged period of time (like, say six months or more) without some debilitating psychological, social, spiritual and even physical side effects beginning to manifest in some people. In a situation where one is afraid, the urge to remove the source of fear somehow can become nearly overwhelming.

How do you remove fear of illness? With the flu, the insistence is not on proper rest or diet or hygiene or anything else – it’s almost exclusively on getting the flu shot. It’s not that these other things aren’t recommended, it’s just that you never hear about them. The only thing that appears in the news and media is the importance of getting the flu shot, despite the fact the flu vaccine at best has effectiveness rates of 60% and regularly (four times between 2014 and 2019) still clocks in at less than 40% effectiveness. Still, the answer to easing fears about the flu is to get vaccinated.

Likewise, much emphasis has been placed on a vaccine as the answer to our Coronavirus fears. Certainly, government mandated social distancing and mask wearing is also emphasized, but particularly in the last month or two, the emphasis increasingly turns to vaccines and when they might be available. Part of this is due to the fact that like it or not, most people are resigned to the reality of masks and social distancing. There are mandated signs and other repeated emphases locally to reinforce these measures (though they are, at best, questionable as to the degree of their effectiveness).

So media decides to focus on the vaccine. As a political football (of course), and as the source to the end of our COVID-19 fears. Despite the fact there are nagging suspicions that immunity is short-lived (I’ve seen allegations of someone getting reinfected just a month after recovering from COVID-19. Other reports question anti-body likelihood after 12 months).

Vaccinations are the answer to our health fears. Health fears stoked in large part by incessant and uncontextualized media reporting. Big numbers provided in isolation from other numbers that might give them different meaning. Big numbers intended to create fear, and fear intended to be dealt with by recommended (and eventually, I’m sure, mandated) measures such as vaccinations.

Watch the language, folks. And watch what it does to you. I’m not saying there isn’t anything to be worried about. But what I am saying is the change in the way language is being used this year should be an equal source not just of curiosity but of concern and intrigue to you as well. Stay informed, but recognize that simply watching or reading the news is not enough to accomplish this.

Fear of Self and Others

September 18, 2020

Here’s an article that starts off interesting and wanders basically into a defense of wearing face masks during COVID-19. The initial part of the article is interesting, documenting scientific evidence of what common sense and cultural shifts should make clear to most anybody – human beings are communal creatures and as our contact with others (known or unknown) decreases, our well-being decreases.

Obviously COVID-19 has been a huge source of social isolation. Physical distancing might be helpful in reducing the transmission of the Coronavirus, but it’s definitely harmful in fostering a climate of fear, where anyone who gets to close or – God forbid! – sneezes or brushes against us leaves us feeling violated and endangered. The self-righteous pride some people take in shaming others they think are too close is chilling.

Masks also lead to isolation. Difficulty in reading facial expressions complicates even mundane and traditional interactions. Add to that the added difficulty of being heard and hearing others clearly through masks and another barrier to interaction arises. And for many places who rely not only on masks for both sides of the transaction but also those thin sheets of plastic between everyone? It’s barely possible to communicate a food order or a service request, let alone engage in a conversation.

Those most at risk of complications from COVID-19 are further isolated as assisted living facilities and senior care facilities exclude any access between residents and family members.

And even family members treat one another with distrust and fear these days, demanding COVID testing and other measures just to allow for a family visit. Certainly this is a time of extreme and unhealthy isolation. I won’t bother here whether or not such measures are necessary or useful for reducing transmission of the Coronavirus to some people – let’s assume they are. But let’s also admit and acknowledge they are most definitely detrimental to the psychological and emotional well-being of literally everyone.

But this is only the latest stage in an increasing isolation mentality in American culture. Studies long before COVID-19 indicated Americans were lonelier and reported feeling more isolated, despite a plethora a technological apps and programs that should enable us to be better and more frequently connected with all manner of family and friends. As our ability to connect with others has risen, there has been a corresponding decrease in the desire to do so.

The idea of stranger danger that arose in the 80’s has dominated our social awareness and perception of one another. As reporting news from distant locations became easier and cheaper, we perceived a rise in the number of child abductions. The fact that we were hearing about more of them in more locations contributed to this perception, even though statistical data eventually demonstrated there was no increase in the number of abductions (or rather child abductions were decreasing as a whole). Further data also demonstrated that contrary to the stranger danger mantra, which taught (and teaches still) children to be fearful and wary of anyone they don’t know, the vast majority of child abductions were not perpetrated by perverted ice cream truck drivers or other malevolent strangers but rather by trusted family members and friends of family – people the abducted child already knew.

But despite the data, the perception of strangers as a danger persists. We distrust others. We worry excessively about our children in a dangerous world where biking the street or walking to the store are now seen as worrisome activities. My generation wasn’t parented that way, and yet I suffer with a certain degree of anxiety about my children’s safety, despite knowing they need age-appropriate independence to stretch their wings and prepare them for lives as healthy adults.

This also causes ourselves to see ourselves through fearful eyes. We hesitate to reach out to strangers, fearful we will be perceived as a potential threat or danger, because that’s how we would view others – at least momentarily. The fear of being perceived or even called out as inappropriate or pervy or disconcerting pushes us back into our shells, keeps us a safe distance (whatever that means) from others and from life-changing interactions with people – just because we haven’t met them yet.

This is not accidental. As I’ve mentioned before, watching of The Twilight Zone series (or probably any mid-century television series) provides amazing glimpse of an American culture where the stranger was welcomed and indulged to an extent I find incredulous – even when that stranger exhibited odd behavior. No, our fear of others and our fear of ourselves in turn has been cultivated. And while the original intentions might have been good, there is considerably greater harm being done now than mere isolationism.

That fear of the other and the unknown is now be exploited for political ends. We are pitted us against them. We’re no longer Americans but rather ideological marionettes expected to leap and dance in anger and indignation at whatever strings are next tugged. We are expected to view anyone who doesn’t hold with our party not as another thoughtful citizen who might have some good reasons for their perspective, but as a threat and a danger to our way of life or to the well-being of a vague set of marginalized persons. And while good argument can be made we have always tended to do this in American politics (hence our two-party system, despite explicit warnings against such an arrangement by some of our Founding Fathers), the situation has reached a new level of vitriol because of our social isolation from one another and our inability and unwillingness to engage with someone we don’t know and who might disagree with us. Social media has only reinforced this echo chamber effect, further discouraging us from interacting not only with strangers, but with people we know, simply because they don’t agree with us.

We’re designed as social creatures, not simply evolved that way out of some sort of obscure, genetically-driven guide towards greater personal success. To deny both our need for connection to one another as well as our need for connection to the divine is to damage ourselves and by extension those around us. Extreme measures may be necessary for a time to protect against health emergencies and other threats, but the there’s a deeper level of isolation and estrangement that has been at work a lot longer than 2020. Rethinking our relation to the stranger is a good place to start in backtracking to a point that we can talk to not just strangers but people we know full well don’t agree with our parenting styles or our political choices or our belief (or lack thereof) in a higher power.

Copaganda and History

August 28, 2020

In light of yesterday’s post and the issues swirling in our country at the moment around police, this article detailing copaganda in the United States was very interesting. For those unaware (like myself, about an hour ago), copaganda is a term used to describe a perceived whitewashing of police and their work in our communities. It is a derogatory term, presuming that bucolic and benign depictions of police through programs such as Officer Friendly are patently false, deliberate efforts to brainwash the population (children in particular) into trusting police officers who, in reality, are an implied danger and threat to the population.

Copaganda of course belies a particular point of view. Whether it’s a full on distrust or disavowal of any form of authority or something more particular to the police force is a matter of degree. The underlying assumption is that the police are not there to benefit the population but rather to control and, by extension, fleece it in some way, although the article above doesn’t make clear at all what such whitewashing efforts actually accomplish and how they are dishonest. The fact that sometimes police officers do their jobs poorly – either because they are sinful humans who are prone to error or because they are sinful humans who sometimes deliberately do bad things – is taken as evidence that any positive understanding of police officers in general is false.

While I can’t remember any specific Officer Friendly presentations in school I no doubt had them. The name Officer Friendly is familiar even if the specifics of who might have talked to us and when are lost in the haze of aging memory.

What this and other articles fail to take into account is the rising level of violence in our society over the last century and particularly over the last 60-some years. I can understand why police officers and other law enforcement officials are a bit more reserved and cautious these days, especially in certain areas of town. They face threats that were likely impossible to even conceive of 60 years ago. While perhaps law enforcement has always been described as a field of service where you put your life on the line, it would appear in our country that has only grown more and more true over the passing decades.

But I’ll point out that depictions of police officers as friendly and well-intentioned is not simply a public relations move from the 60’s to 80’s, but rather how our culture as a whole viewed the police and, I would argue, everyone.

I’m philosophically opposed to the practice of binge-watching that seems all the rage these days. But the one series I am working my way through systematically (though slowly) is the original The Twilight Zone series. As a kid I loved when I could find this on Saturday afternoon reruns, and my fondness for the slightly tilted surreal reality hasn’t faded with time or with subsequent, disappointing efforts to revive the series. Combined with this is my sheer amazement at the output of Rod Serling and others associated with the show. Truly impressive from a creative standpoint!

The show is also a fascinating time capsule. It captures the sort of Everyman nuances from mid-century America, nuances that ideas like copaganda directly contradict and claim were false. What I see in those shows is a culture vastly different from today. It doesn’t shirk from portraying bad people, but it’s well-understood that they are bad and wrong and also atypical. The underlying assumption is that most people are honest and well-intentioned, trying to get through life. The trouble-makers and problems invariably end up being those who see themselves as somehow above such mundane matters, as exceptions to the rule, as smarter or better than everyone else. Their assumptions are invariably proven to be wrong, and not just wrong but dangerously wrong. Usually for themselves but also sometimes for many other people or all other people. If there’s a myth that needs dispelling, it might well be the myths of copaganda and exceptionalism that is so prevalent today rather than the boring assumptions of averageness 60 years ago.

In shows like The Twilight Zone, or Andy Griffith or any number of other successful mid-century shows, police are invariably depicted as basically good. Not perfect. Sometimes bumbling. Sometimes bad but in that case it’s clear the badness is their personal issue rather than a systemic problem with police as a concept. These might be futuristic, interstellar police such as in the first season episode The Lonely. They might be more ‘typical’ figures such as in the episode The Night of the Meek, where the policeman functions both as an Everyman kind of figure, a person just like you and I rather than a dark and sinister agent of nefarious groups and ideologies, but also as a protector, as the one charged with being objective when having to determine the truth in a given situation. We’re reminded that left to our own devices we are very capable of misreading others and accusing them of false things based on our preconceptions, and the local police officer who knows his beat and the people on it can serve as a protection for the marginalized. This is a theme also prevalent in Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

It’s not that the series ignores the dangers of abused authority, as in The Obsolete Man. But perhaps closer to the horrors of Hitler and Mussolini, there’s an awareness of a profound difference between human frailty and flawed judgment in a moment of crisis, and a deliberate misuse of power to systematically oppress people. The series as a whole is far more prone to prowl and probe the dark corners of our souls and hearts as common citizens rather than to seek to pin blame on an external person or authority. After all, the abuses (perceived or otherwise) of a group in power are only possible because of the sinfulness and brokenness (as well as the ignorance) in our individual hearts and minds.

Just as telling in these shows is the relatively rare presence of police and other officials. People more often than not have to figure things out for themselves rather than rely on the opinions of anonymous experts or authority figures, whether that involves an interdimensional rescue or a group of neighbors coming to grips with imminent atomic holocaust. If the implication of copaganda is that we are victims of a police state, there’s very little presence of police in these shows. That overall absence also belies the fundamental assumptions that people are essentially trying to be decent and can often, if imperfectly, deal with situations on their own.

It will no doubt be claimed that shows such as The Twilight Zone represent only one slice of human experience, and that however accurate they might be in that one slice they don’t cover every possible experience. That’s true. As it’s true of everything, including copaganda. The fact that some people have negative experiences with the police does not in and of itself prove that all police or the concept of a police force is evil and wrong. Recent events in Seattle where the police were forced out in favor of a presumably better and more benevolent self-rule are good reminders this is true, and that without the restraint provided by an authority presence, we quickly revert, Lord of the Flies style, to a basic system of rule by force and the abuse of the weak and marginalized (even if that category now becomes made up of those who were formerly not marginalized).

It might also be argued that shows like these are less depictions of what is and more wishful thinking about what could or should be, or even of what once was. But I’d argue the depiction of law enforcement in such shows is not attempting to be exceptional or in any way mythic or imaginative. What makes the shows work is that police officers – whether supporting characters or the main character – are believable. The law enforcement characters are not the fantastical ones, and that even if Andy Griffith is a bit stylized, it’s not a character beyond the realm of reality for the viewers. He doesn’t completely contradict reality and experience, even if his even-keeled temperament never gets ruffled in the course of a typical 20-minute episode.

We’re sinful and broken. For some that sinfulness and brokenness is going to be more severe and pose a greater risk to others. In an industrialized and urban society (another factor copaganda doesn’t deal with) where most often neighbors don’t know each other very well and extended family bonds are often non-existent we apparently require a group of people to help maintain order and provide assistance in emergencies. Recent events have shown that though police officers are not perfect (as nobody is!) their presence is far better, ultimately, than an absence of their presence.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. This doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to question certain aspects of law enforcement. And it certainly doesn’t mean than when bad apples are discovered we don’t deal with them. It just means that the presence of bad apples doesn’t necessarily prove a theory of an entire system and everyone in it being corrupt and a threat to the people they claim to serve. And if some police officers have to deal with inner city violence and drug and human trafficking, it doesn’t mean that some others have far more docile beats where they are indeed able to assist in visiting schools and being a proactive positive influence in young people’s lives.

The Talk

August 27, 2020

This article questioning the value of The Talk caught my eye. The column is primarily politically motivated and I’m not going to deal with the political rhetoric that predominates the second half of the article.

I’d like to say to Ms. Brazile that I am not black or a person of color or a minority in the traditional usages of those words in our culture. But I had The Talk as well. I don’t remember the specifics but it was a very clearly communicated lesson. Police are here to protect us and as such we assist towards that end by being polite and deferential. I must be polite and deferential to use Ms. Brazile’s words. But perhaps my must is different than hers and the version of The Talk she seems to imply.

Because while I have no doubt police and other first responders were highlighted as people deserving of our respect and gratefulness, politeness and deference were something I was taught everyone deserved. My parents, my teachers, my neighbors, strangers – everyone. I learned these basic concepts in the classroom. But I also learned them at home. And at home they could explain the deeper reason and reality behind these talks. The reason why others deserved this and it was incumbent upon me (must) to give it is that I am a follower of Jesus Christ. And the command He gives me isn’t simply to grudgingly pretend to give politeness and deference but rather to actually love my neighbor, whomever that neighbor happens to be at the moment. And further still, I am commanded to love even my enemies, to pray for those who persecute me (Matthew 5, Luke 6). So it isn’t just a matter of whether I agree with the person in front of me or think they’re doing their job properly or even whether I know for a fact they are doing their job improperly, I am not released from the command to love them. And love encompasses both politeness and deference.

That was my talk, given not just once, and my talks started long before I was a teenager.

The Talk you refer to sounds different. I don’t know or presume to judge what your religious leanings are. And Lord knows in our cultural rejection of the concept of God and the authority of the Bible, lots of alternative concepts are forced into service to convince people how they should live their lives with others. Concepts like tolerance and kindness, things I’ve written about critically here over the years because they can’t possibly replace love your neighbor as yourself.

The Talk you describe sounds a lot like a talk about self-preservation and self-defense. It sounds like a talk aimed at saving someone’s life when something has gone terribly wrong, not as how you ought to be with everyone, all the time. It sounds like a talk that presumes the worst about the police and frankly, everyone else. It sounds like a talk that is ultimately not very convincing because it comes far too late, and is far too limited in scope, and it is likely being given by someone who doesn’t really believe The Talk themselves, though they undoubtedly had a similar talk at some point in their lives.

However I’m going to go out on a limb here and make an assumption and an assertion. And that is that The Talk you refer to is not the first talk or the only talk on this topic. I’m willing to wager that nearly every child in every school room in this country received a talk multiple times at a very early age. A talk aimed at teaching them how to behave with others, to show courtesy and respect to authorities and those older than themselves. A talk, even, that described police and firefighters as heroes who are here to help us.

But what also seems evident is that though nearly every single person in our country probably had those talks, there are some people who either weren’t listening or, more likely, heard other talks as well. Talks that asserted courtesy and politeness and deference weren’t default ways of interacting with other people. That the police were enemies, not friends. That you have to fake politeness and deference because they certainly aren’t warranted. Regardless of the situation.

Ms. Brazile questions the efficacy and appropriateness of The Talk if it isn’t working. But I’ve watched an alleged video of this latest shooting in Kenosha. And as near as I can tell there isn’t an ounce of politeness or deference being demonstrated anywhere in this video. I hear people screaming – which surely can’t help the situation. I hear moments of silence that I assume are blocking out profanity. I see what appears to be a young man struggling against police rather than cooperating with them and apparently ignoring their commands for some reason. It’s not a good quality video, and it might not even be authentic in this age of digital forgeries and deep fakes. But I’m assuming it’s authentic until I learn otherwise, and I’m making that assumption in good faith rather than in an intentional desire to skew things.

The Talk isn’t being followed in this video by any of the bystanders or apparently the young man at the center of it. I don’t know what happened right before this video or right after it. I’m not defending the use of lethal force in this or any other particular situation, though I readily admit lethal force is sometimes necessary and appropriate.

I’m simply observing that for a community of people you assert to have given and received The Talk, none of them are following it, as near as I can tell. Which leads me to question your conclusion – that The Talk is nothing more than wasted words. You assert this young man was innocent and was merely trying to help out a situation, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in this admittedly grainy and shaky video. Regardless of what this young man thought he was doing or intended to do, it ended up with him disregarding The Talk as you described it. Which means perhaps it isn’t The Talk that’s deficient.

Perhaps it means instead we need to really look closely at the other talks this young man probably heard. Because it’s those talks he appears to be listening to, for whatever reason. And listening to those talks never is helpful to a person. In this case, he appears to have been seriously wounded. But he might have just as easily been injured to a lesser degree while struggling with the police. Or he might just as easily have ended up arrested and charged with resisting arrest or interfering in an officer’s duty or any number of other charges. All of those outcomes are bad. All are tragic. There is no outcome, no situation where ignoring The Talk you describe makes any sense.

So perhaps instead of blaming The Talk, or the police, or systemic racism, we need to examine the other talks young people are hearing. Because those talks don’t seem to be helping anything or anyone.

Buyer Beware or Unaware?

August 19, 2020

One of those nagging little facts I retain for no particular reason is a phrase I learned in my high school economics class my senior year – caveat emptor. A Latin phrase which means let the buyer beware. The basic concept is that in any given transaction, the one handing over money for goods or services should beware to the best of their ability they are not being taken advantage of. This could be in purchasing a faulty product or not studying the terms of service carefully (a common problem these days when Terms and Conditions of products can be very lengthy and very small print!). If you aren’t careful about how you buy, you might be taken advantage of. Don’t simply trust blindly.

It’s an important concept, as it presumes the buyer is capable of being wary. That they have the requisite skills and understanding to make decisions regarding who they give their money to and in exchange for what. It was a fundamental, undergirding principle of our country for a long time, though I’m not so sure it is any longer.

Of course the buyer can’t possibly know everything. Laws have been created and passed to give buyers protections. Did that new big-screen TV not work out of the box like promised? The seller or the manufacturer or your credit card company – and likely all three – provide you with some level of protection from the reality that despite best intentions and through no deliberate attempt to defraud, goods and services don’t function the way they should.

That’s a far cry from assuming consumers are too stupid to know what they’re doing. But more and more, the assumption seems to be that consumers shouldn’t be held at all responsible for the decisions they make, and that experts should take that responsibility for them.

One example of this is in the field of health care and insurance. Since costs for health care and healthcare insurance continue to skyrocket (perhaps because the system is faulty?!?), and because more and more health insurance companies are covering procedures that are elective in nature and passing the costs on to others (gender change surgeries, abortions, etc.), it’s an important arena for consumers to be aware in. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of taking whatever your employer provides. Other times, you have options or choices, either through your employer or because you are self-employed. Even with your employer, there are usually various options and plans to select from a given provider, and so the consumer is still required to beware what they are purchasing or paying for is really what they want and need.

For seven years now my family has been a member of a health sharing ministry. This decision was made because of concerns of the changes in health insurance in terms of what they decided they would cover (and therefore what we would be helping to pay for), particularly in terms of abortions. We did our research, I talked with at least one person who had been a member for years already, and we read and reread the fine print. Samaritan Ministries did a good job then and now of clearly stating what we were and were not getting and what was and was not covered. We understood not everything was covered, and we understood that our membership and ability to submit needs for coverage was based on a shared set of Christian principles in terms of how we live our lives.

Had our health situations changed substantially (we’re all basically healthy), this might not have been a good option or an option we needed to leave behind. But we’ve so far not ever regretted the decision to move to Samaritan Ministries, and we genuinely feel good, knowing we are helping other Christians in their needs.

But, caveat emptor. And so when I saw this article pop up in a news feed the other day warning against such programs, I naturally read it. After all, regardless of how I feel about something, I want to be well informed.

Firstly, the article is primarily politically motivated, in opposition to a move by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to allow health sharing ministries to be considered a form of health insurance and therefore allowing participants to potentially claim their expenses as deductions on their taxes. The article perceived this as an attack on Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) since it could entice more people to leave traditional health insurance plans and participate in health sharing ministries instead. This would reduce the number of healthy people paying into insurance plans and drive up insurance costs. The goal of the author is to protect the costs of those participating in health insurance plans, rather than to honestly evaluate whether there might be viable alternatives to such plans that could – using market forces – pause or reverse some of the spiraling costs of health care and health insurance. The author’s irritation that health sharing ministries are less expensive than many health insurance plans is palpable.

One particular critique is that health sharing ministries aren’t as comprehensive in their coverage. This is very true. There are many things our membership with Samaritan Ministries don’t cover. This is part of the appeal for us, in some ways, as we don’t want to be funding abortions if we can help it. In other ways, it does serve as a reinforcement to pay attention to our membership and potential needs. If we developed a health condition not covered by our membership, we’d need to evaluate whether we could remain members or not. Likewise, when I’ve been asked by others about our experience, I’ve emphasized that while it works for us, it may not work for everyone and they need to pay attention very carefully to the fine print.

Also as our needs have changed, I’ve been proactive in asking questions of Samaritan. When our oldest son left home for an internship a few weeks ago, I needed to ensure he was still considered part of our family plan, or else we’d need to help him get his own individual plan with Samaritan (or a different insurance plan if he decided to go that route). In all such communications Samaritan has been clear and forthright and prompt. Sometimes less coverage is exactly what you want, because you know you aren’t ever going to need some of the things that aren’t covered.

Yes, this means that someone with a pre-existing condition who opts for a health sharing ministry could end up with some substantial bills they need to pay on their own. That’s why they need to read the fine print very carefully. Yes, someone could simply see the lower monthly share amount and decide it was best to switch out of traditional health insurance to save some money on a monthly basis, and because they ignored the principle of caveat emptor, they could end up hurting themselves financially when things they assumed would be covered aren’t covered. This isn’t because the health sharing ministry is being dishonest or attempting to defraud people. Rather, it’s because health sharing ministries by default and design cover fewer things than traditional health insurance does. That’s not bad (at least it doesn’t have to be) but it does require paying attention to details.

Not that this keeps people from insulting health sharing ministries and, by extension, those who find them valuable.

The Los Angeles Times ran a rather bitter column on the topic of the proposed IRS changes. “Healthcare experts” are invoked nebulously as disapproving of health sharing ministries because of “substandard coverage”, ignoring the fact some such health sharing ministries are intentionally providing less coverage for certain things deemed necessary and essential by experts, such as abortions and elective surgeries for gender reassignment.

I’ll assume the columns assertions that sometimes these plans are marketed in less than honest ways might sometimes happen. Frankly, I don’t see many advertisements for these plans out there, but still, I’m sure it could conceivably happen. That doesn’t mean the plan or ministry itself is dishonest. Unless of course they’re deliberately misleading people, in which case they should be held accountable as any provider of goods or services should be – and not simply because they’re health sharing ministries.

Nineteen state attorney generals think the proposed IRS changes are illegal because of a lack of analysis of the outcomes, and because it could be damaging to existing health insurance markets. Why is it that we are guarding against potential competition in this market? Oh yeah, that’s right. Because this is a government mandated and controlled market to some extent now, and the government apparently didn’t consider the possibility of competition messing up the amazing numbers it used to convince our lawmakers to approve it. Gee. I guess we should just stick with the status quo despite there being potentially good alternatives that give the power and decision making back to the people rather than the government.

Because people apparently aren’t capable of being wary or informed in their decision making. So let’s just eliminate options for them. Much simpler. Very American. Not.

The author asserts that my health sharing ministry is offering me junk, and I’m stupid enough to buy it. While that’s always potentially true (even of insurance companies) my experience thus far is that this is not the case. To assert otherwise in such broad brushstrokes displays the very type of willful or unavoidable ignorance the author is accusing me of possessing and seeks to protect me from.

Unfortunate.

The New York Times weighed in as well with an emotional piece about a young boy with a tragic illness. The implication in the article is that this poor family is going to be ruined because they are members of a health sharing ministry instead of an insurance company. The article has multiple compelling photos of the young boy in various stages of health, and essentially paints the picture this family is being left out to dry by their health sharing ministry – Samaritan Ministries, the same one we use.

But nowhere is that specified in the article.

Instead, the severity of the boy’s situation and treatment and the likely costs of such treatment will likely exceed the cap on per incident issues. Ignoring the fact that Samaritan negotiates with healthcare providers for reduced charges because they will be paid via cash rather than having to jump through insurance hoops hoping for reimbursement. And despite the specific fact – mentioned but lost in the shuffle in the article – that Samaritan has a program specifically to help in such extreme situations. The boy’s family hasn’t been cheated or misled or anything, and there’s no certainty yet the bills will exceed the incident cap, or that Samaritan won’t cover up to the cap, and that there may not be additional funds to help them.

But just the possibility that there could be a problem is enough to justify the attack article. Despite the fact the father defends Samaritan in terms of previous issues they’ve submitted for coverage. Still not good enough.

So, after reading these various articles, I come back to to what my high school economics teacher, Mr. Conway, taught me. Caveat emptor. Know what you’re doing to the best of your ability. But also recognize you can’t know everything, and nothing is guaranteed. The authors of these various articles all give the common impression that health insurance coverage is guaranteed, yet I’m sure we all know someone who was told their coverage wouldn’t be as extensive as they were led to believe, or who were denied coverage for a particular issue.

The New York Times article mocks the company’s exhortation for members to trust in God. But that’s just what it’s members do. Not simply a claim of Christian faith is required for membership but also reasonably verifiable evidence of regular church attendance. Members do trust God, and that’s part of the point of Samaritan Ministries – is faith not simply as a pleasant sounding mantra but something that guides the decisions we make and the money we spend and how we spend it.

I pray these authors never run up against the unpleasant truth that health insurance is not a guarantee of financial safety and security. And I pray they might reconsider whether deliberately opting for programs that don’t cover everything is the same thing as receiving “substandard” care, and whether the potential for misunderstanding is the same as duplicity.

Kindness Replaces Tolerance

August 18, 2020

I warned about the dangers of the tolerance movement over a decade ago. This was a cultural buzzword aimed at disarming anyone critical over the massive changes being pushed onto our society and culture by a very small minority of people with powerful, well-placed allies in media, education and government. Don’t like the idea of marriage being redefined arbitrarily by the State – or by the individual? You’re not being tolerant.

The danger of the movement was that tolerance flowed only in one direction. Everyone was to be tolerant of the minority opinions of marginalized groups, no matter how small or how outrageous their demands. But nobody needed to be tolerant of long-standing institutions, practices, or beliefs. These were inherently excluded from the mandate to tolerance because they were deemed to be intolerant themselves. A convenient argument that served it’s purposes. Massive changes to our culture were forced through as critics from any quarter were silenced by the demand to be tolerant.

Tolerance hasn’t been heard much in recent years. But a new, related buzzword is rising to prominence – kindness. I was sitting at LAX a few weeks ago and saw a woman and her young children sitting nearby – two of the three of them had shirts touting or demanding or encouraging kindness. Later on landing from various flights, the flight attendants invariably reminded everyone to be kind as they went on their way. An Internet meme showed a letter ending with the exhortation that, if you had to choose between being right and being kind, you should choose being kind.

Kindness is a tricky thing. It sounds good. Who doesn’t want to be kind, after all? Kind, nice, these are words in our cultural that hold appeal. They’re often wrapped up in the explanations we give about how we want people to be. Don’t we want our kids to be nice?

I guess it depends on how you’re defining the term, and that’s the slippery part. Ultimately, as a follower of Jesus Christ and an adherent of the Bible as the sole infallible repository of instructions and examples of what that means, I want my children to be loving. Kind as a variation of loving might work, but kind in substitution for loving will never work. Not for very long. This was my critique of the tolerance mantra as well – it’s a lousy substitute for love. So is kindness.

Biblically, kindness isn’t a major theme. More often than not in the Old Testament when a translation (such as the English Standard Version) employs the word kindness in translation, it’s referring to God’s disposition to us, the Hebrew term chesed. Otherwise, kindness is sometimes the Hebrew word shalom, which more commonly is associated with peace. But peace isn’t necessarily a word we use as much today and so kindness is used instead (Genesis 37:4, for example). Kindness is not a common Old Testament term (if you do a word search for kind, be aware that more often than not the results refer to the translators use of the word kind as a synonym for type).

In the New Testament when translators employ the word kind, they are translating a variety of Greek words with a fair variance of meaning, such as epiekeia (also meaning gentleness), philanthropos (courteously or, more literally, humanely), chrestos (good) (Luke 6:35 – the only place in the Gospels where the ESV makes use of the word kind in translation). This Greek term word chrestos in various forms is the primary word translated as kind by the ESV.

The Bible is far more apt to talk about love, and specifically exhorting followers of Jesus Christ to love rather than to be kind.

Kindness as a metaphor or synonym for love would then be an appropriate goal for my children or for myself. But kindness as a replacement for love doesn’t work. Not for long. Kindness has too many problematic connotations. It’s possible to be kind without love. Kindness is more perfunctory, more a matter of how things are done rather than why things are done. I could imagine someone to be kind who was merely very good at superficial displays. Someone who aspires to be kind has no problem with saying whatever wants to be heard, pretending to agree with whatever is requested. In fact any number of things we consider to be quite bad in general could be justified under the banner of kindness. The goal is to spare hard feelings or difficult conversations or unpleasant disagreements. The goal is not necessarily what is best, or true, or right.

Love recognizes that there must be a best and a true and a right and sometimes, unfortunately, in the name of love we must confront people with this reality who would rather believe otherwise. I could be kind to someone and not point out the dangers of a course of action or an ideology. But I wouldn’t be loving them. I’d be more accurately loving myself but excusing myself from a difficult conversation or their disapproval or rejection of me for not simply supporting them in their erroneous ideas. Love must be tough sometimes, because love presumes some hard truths and realities, and recognizes that our feelings are very fickle and fragile. If my goal is only to spare someone’s feelings I will inevitably fail at this, and in the meantime I will likely have also failed at being honest or any number of other things as I go to greater and greater lengths to try and spare their feelings.

And of course, like tolerance, this kindness movement is only in one direction. We must be kind to very small minorities of people who insist on changing everything in our culture to suit their personal preferences for how things ought to be. Anyone who would disagree with them is being unkind and is therefore to be denounced and if necessary destroyed.

Examples? How about the evolutionary biologist having his career shredded because he insists on the science that shows that male and female are not simply cultural and social constructs that can be arbitrarily redefined or done away with completely. Science in no way supports the demands of radical LGBT supporters who insist that gender is a spectrum to be defined by the individual rather than a binary reality to be dealt with. Apparent exceptions may arise to this, but it doesn’t change the fact that in the overwhelming majority of situations, men are men and women are women and this is biologically not sociologically dictated and should be supported as such.

Or how about the sanctions enacted by more liberal democracies on more conservative democracies who refuse to embrace LGBT demands for redefinition and reconstruction of society around their ideas?

How about people losing their jobs for having the audacity to state the obvious – that not all protests and protestors are equal, and that there are some very awful things being done right now and hidden behind the masquerade of protesting racial injustice?

How about people being vilified and criticized for not simply doing what everyone else is doing, or what some people demand that they do? Being criticized for their rightful recognition that body language matters and therefore we should be very careful in what we demand from others?

The overly simplistic attack that someone who refuses to do what others arbitrarily demand them to do is evidence of racism or some other inappropriate motivation is unkind, but it is sanctioned under the kindness banner because not providing the demanded response is itself deemed unkind and therefore not entitled to the protections the kindness banner would otherwise extend.

If my goal is not kindness but love, then I am forced out of my own head and my own ideas and my own hopes to engage with another person as another person, not just an extension of myself. I am driven to listen to them, to seek to understand them. I may in the end still not agree with them, but love also prohibits me from discarding them or attempting to destroy them simply because they disagree with me. It also prohibits me from accusing them of being unkind or unloving simply because they don’t look at things the same way I do.

Kindness dispenses with all of that effort.

So beware of this latest Trojan Horse called kindness. It isn’t necessarily what you think it is, isn’t necessarily what Sesame Street claims it is, and you aren’t required to live and act and believe by it’s precepts and demands. Especially if you claim to have a Lord and a Savior who has given you far greater and deeper and richer commands to love, even if it isn’t always perceived as kind.

What Are We Testing?

July 24, 2020

I continue to lament the difficulty of interpreting the Coronavirus/COVID-19 data pushed at us on a daily basis whether through the media or through government sources of one sort or another. Numbers without context are unhelpful at best, dangerous worst.

Case in point – daily updates on new COVID-19 positive tests in our county.

On nearly a daily basis I receive an e-mail from our city detailing the number of new cases of COVID-19 reported. Presumably through testing. The source of this data is our county public health office, and the news of late has been dire. If you only look at the headline of each e-mail, the very clear and terrible information communicated is that we have 100+ cases of Coronavirus detected in our county on a daily basis.

A compilation of the data communicated just for the last two weeks:

  • July 13 – 56 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county
  • July 14 – 184 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county
  • July 15 – 89 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county
  • July 16 – 224 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county
  • July 17 – 137 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county
  • July 20 – 85 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county
  • July 21 – 135 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county
  • July 22 – 160 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county
  • July 23 – 162 “new confirmed cases of COVID-19” in our county

Add these up and one would logically conclude that, as per the e-mail title, there are 1232 new cases of COVID-19 in our county. That’s a big number. Our county population per 2019 census data is 446,499 people. Which means that .00276 percent of our county is infected. That sounds like a much smaller number, but of course small numbers can be very dangerous if we’re dealing with a highly infectious and deadly virus.

I won’t go into a discussion on whether that’s actually the case or not.

And I’ll ignore that the VAST majority of these confirmed new cases occur roughly 65 miles away in the north end of our county. So our city is roughly 65 miles away from the real problem area for our entire county, yet our city is subject to the same restrictions as this infection epicenter. Despite the fact that our city is only 95 miles from the center of Los Angeles, a distance that traverses another entire county. Since the governor’s current lockdown orders are on a county-by-county basis, it means we’re affected by happenings 65 miles away in our own county, where we wouldn’t be affected by happenings just a little farther away in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

I’ll ignore that for now. Grudgingly.

The e-mail headlines add up to 1232 new cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks. That sounds like good reason to panic. But then you open up the e-mail.

The first thing we’re then told is that the county is reporting this number of new cases. Reporting is different than being. Reporting is at least one step removed from the actuality of an infection, because reporting may or may not happen in real-time with the infection. Do the reporting numbers only include tests from this particular day? Could tests from previous days be reported now because they’ve only just had time to process the tests or only just now been able to add those numbers into the mix? We aren’t clear here. A certain number are being reported on this day but there’s no indication that means that certain number were discovered on this day. It’s possible that positive test results are being included from tests conducted at some point in the past.

And it immediately becomes clear this must be the case. Because our county’s current total of confirmed cases is 5,444 since the outbreak began in March. But the number of recovered cases is 5,051. Which means that, taking into account the 32 actual deaths in our county attributed to COVID-19, there are only 361 active cases at the moment. And 162 of those active cases are being reported on this day.

What?

If 1232 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in less than the last two weeks, how can there only be 361 active cases at the moment? And if there were 162 new cases reported yesterday, which are part of those 361 active cases, how could it be that on Tuesday there were allegedly 350 active cases?

The only way that’s possible is if the reported numbers are for cases that were tested so far back that the people have already recovered and are no longer considered active. Indeed, we’re told in the e-mail that 93% of those infected have fully recovered.

So while the e-mail claims it is reporting new, confirmed cases of COVID-19, we need to be cautious in distinguishing this from new, active cases of COVID-19, as that clearly can’t be the case. Apparently, from yesterday to today, despite there being 161 new cases reported, there are really only 11 new active cases. And since there are no new fatalities being reported, it means that of the 161 new cases being reported, 150 of those folks have already recovered. They aren’t currently infected.

I’m not a math major by far, but I think my logic and my arithmetic is good so far. Please point out to me if that’s not the case, or if I’m drawing inappropriate or faulty conclusions from the calculations!

Now let’s just focus on the two reports for 7/22 and 7/23.

On 7/22 I was informed by the city, from the county public health office, that:

  • There were 160 new cases of COVID-19 being reported for the day
  • Two previously reported cases were found to be duplicates and removed from the numbers about to follow
  • There were 5282 positive cases of COVID-19 to date in our county
  • Of these 5282 positive cases, 4900 have already recovered and are no longer active cases
  • There are currently 350 active cases of COVID-19 in our county
  • 160 new cases are included in that 350 number of active cases (this would be the logical, simplest way to interpret this information)
  • 32 people have died thus far
  • 85 people are currently (I believe) hospitalized for COVID-19 related issues
  • 29 of those hospitalized people are in ICU

When I go through those numbers, things appear to add up. Total positive cases to date are 5282, which equals the 4900 recovered folks plus the 350 current active cases and the 32 fatalities. Of the 350 people actively infected at the moment 114 of them are currently hospitalized.

On 7/23 I was informed by the city, from the county public health office that:

  • There were 162 new cases of COVID-19 being reported for the day
  • There were 5444 positive cases of COVID-19 to date in our county (5282 from the previous day’s totals plus the 162 now being reported)
  • Of these 5444 positive cases 5051 are fully recovered and not active cases any longer. The previous day there were 4900 recovered cases noted.
  • There are 361 currently active cases of COVID-19 in the county. The day before there were 350 active cases. Which means that of the 162 new cases reported today, only 11 are active cases. The other 150 reported cases are earlier cases where the person is already recovered
  • There are 86 people now in ICU (up one from the day before)
  • There are 27 people hospitalized in total for COVID-19 related issues, down two from the day before

None of this interpretation is provided or highlighted or summarized in the e-mails. I’d like to better understand how it is our whole county is under lockdown and my parishioners are prohibited from gathering to worship when there are, in reality, only 11 new active cases of COVID-19 reported in our county in a 24 hour period.

Pay attention to the details. Don’t assume that what you’re being given means what you think it means. Look through the data with other people and try to make sense of it. You might be surprised at the picture you arrive at compared to the picture painted for you just through headlines or selected numbers.

The Forest

July 20, 2020

A very good read here. It requires that we lift our heads up above the headlines being screamed at us moment by moment to recognize the larger damage that has, is, and apparently will continue to be done.

Conclusions to be drawn, since the author does much in terms of description but very little in terms of prescription?

For starters, this should be a stark wake-up call to the inherent dangers of a professional political caste made possible by unlimited terms. It’s tragic that more publicity has been given in recent years – by both red and blue pundits – to eliminating term restrictions on the Presidency than on calls for term limitations on all elected offices and officials. Often such calls are aimed only at the legislative branch of government, but real thought should be given to considering term limitations for the judicial branch as well. I have long maintained that people with a vested stake in the real world tend to be more responsive to the needs of people they are not so different from than people who are virtually guaranteed employment for life at tax-payer expense without really needing to consider the needs of the taxpayers.

Criticism of the media for not fully reporting more nuances of the Coronavirus pandemic is necessary and warranted combined with some hard examination of why such willful exclusion of contextualized data and information continues. Much self-righteous indignation has been expressed in defense of our free press, but when the press is nearly uniform in what it says and how it says it, I suspect strongly it isn’t nearly as free as it likes to think itself, or as we need it to be.

Other conclusions?

Which Numbers?

July 14, 2020

Numbers are interesting things. Or more accurately, what numbers are cited and how they’re cited are interesting things.

Here in the US we’ve been dealing on a large scale with the Coronavirus since early March. Early on as lockdowns were put in place around the country the reports I remember were of massive death rates in Italy as well as sporadic reports of huge fatality levels in New York City. Articles with pictures of bodies stacked on the sidewalk because hospitals and mortuaries were unable to deal with the rapid spike in deaths related to COVID-19. Most everyone was pretty willing at that point to go along with demands to shelter-in-place and shut down non-essential businesses. The goal was not to eliminate infections necessarily, but to bend the curve, reduce the steep rate of new infections so hospitals would not be overwhelmed with dealing with incoming patients.

Here we are four months later and lockdowns are being reissued after a month and a half of eased restrictions. There is fearful talk about rising infection rates (as opposed to fatalities). But the talk now is not about fatalities any longer but infection rates. We’re told about how many new cases of COVID-19 are being discovered. Presumably with wider testing. This is of course concerning. Or is it?

Assuming the Coronavirus is as contagious as we’re told it shouldn’t surprise us that as testing rates go up so will the number of cases reported. Especially if, as sporadic articles maintain, the virus is airborne and can remain in the air for longer periods of time as opposed to mainly being spread from speaking, coughing, etc. in close proximity to one another. In which case, infection rates have likely been much higher than reported all along (something I’ve maintained since March), when testing was non-existent and then at lower rates than it presumably is now.

This is of course bad news. Anything that makes people sick is cause for some level of concern. Every year we know the flu is going make the rounds and a lot of people will get sick (far more than are reported to be infected with the Coronavirus, so far) and many will even die from it. But because we’re used to it, we don’t really take many precautions other than the flu shots that are now aggressively pushed each year despite offering questionable protection.

The Coronavirus is new and therefore we’re much more nervous about it as information is difficult to sift through to determine the real risk it poses. So far what we’re told is that it’s the greatest risk to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions that weaken their ability to fight infections in general. I don’t doubt this is true – my question is how serious the risk is.

Consider this collection of data from the CDC.

The first chart is a week-by-week breakdown of fatalities associated with the Coronavirus either alone or in combination with other illnesses. The first column is just deaths attributed in some way to COVID-19. Note how the numbers increase rapidly from the first reported cases in February. They peak the week of April 18, 2020 when there were nearly 17,000 deaths associated with COVID-19 in the United States. Then look how those numbers decline just as precipitously to under 200 as of the week of July 11, 2020. There are some disclaimers to note, such as the data (particularly the most recent data I would presume) is not necessarily fully accurate due to discrepancies in timing as to when data is received by the CDC. But in any case, it’s clear that COVID-19 related fatalities are nowhere near where they were in April at the height of our fear and worry. The disease is killing fewer people than it used to, despite shocking rises in reported numbers of infections in recent weeks.

Two columns over the Percent of Expected Deaths is also fascinating. This column compares the weekly data to historical data from 2017-2019 and shows how the 2020 fatality data compared to those previous years. In other words, did more people die in these weeks in 2020 than died in previous years in the same weeks when Coronavirus wasn’t in the picture? These figures peak in the same week – the week of April 18 – with a 40% increase in fatalities compared to previous, non-COVID-19 years. And then the percentage begins dropping so that by mid-June overall numbers of deaths are roughly equivalent to previous years. Although data is likely incomplete after mid-June as per the disclaimer notes, again the trend is clear that the virus is not as fatal as it was initially. I’m curious as to why that would be.

In the second table, I find it interesting that while California gets a lot of news play, our infection levels are rather low compared with other places and our fatality levels are essentially identical to previous, non-COVID-19 years. Unlike, say, Massachusetts, which I never hear about in the news! They have roughly 2000 more cases of COVID-19 than California despite a population 1/6th the size of ours. Fascinating.

It’s good to be cautious here. We have an odd habit in our country of emphasizing death counts that is misleading in terms of the real damage done. This is true in terms of our reporting of wars and other international engagements. You hear how many of our soldiers are killed, but never additional information on how many are severely wounded, as in limbs blown off or life-long paralysis or blindness or other severe, life-altering injuries. Likewise, with COVID-19 there are people who do get seriously ill but don’t die from the disease. So just looking at death statistics certainly doesn’t convey the full impact of the virus.

But it does make me wary about the heavy push for a vaccine as an answer to this situation. I’ve never thought it reasonable to assume we could produce a vaccine for this on demand. Vaccines aren’t that simple – otherwise we’d have a vaccine for the common cold! I worry more that if and when a vaccine is developed, there will be a push to make it mandatory – a push based on maintaining fear levels of Coronavirus into next year.

At least as I interpret the data, it seems more reasonable to say (as I did months ago) that likely infection rates are far higher than reported because of inadequate testing capabilities, so the apparent increase in infection levels now that testing is more pervasive is not really an increase in the percentage of people getting the virus, just a rise in the number of them detected. All of which means the virus is far less lethal than widely reported, even if it does still pose a risk to certain at-risk populations who would also be equally at risk from the flu and other more common and known viral strains.

Instead of emphasizing vaccines as the hope for moving past this, it seems far more reasonable to rely on herd-immunity since the vast majority of people who get the virus are only mildly affected and make full recovery. Assuming this process of infection and recovery leaves people with life-long antigens that make repeat infection impossible, within a few years the Coronavirus will no longer be much of a threat, and will be a decreasing threat to people as they age and develop other complicating health issues since they likely will have already had COVID-19 and won’t get it again when they’re weaker and less able to fight it off.

I’m happy for someone to explain how or why my analysis and conclusions are wrong. Data is time-consuming to sift through and there are a lot of anecdotal articles (or more accurately editorials) out there to complicate things further.

Peloponnesus & Bible Study

June 13, 2020

I start all my Biblical book studies with a section on isogogics – the study of things around or surrounding the text like who the author is, when it was written and by and to whom, and other information. When we can better understand these sorts of things we potentially gain better ears to hear what the author was saying and why. Not all studies include this sort of information but I find it very helpful.

One such example? Prior to starting preparations for this study on 1 Corinthians I didn’t realize there was an isthmus separating Greece into two main sections. I didn’t realize that Corinth’s location near this isthmus led to a very old and storied history of commercial vitality as the city had access not just to a western port leading towards Italy and Europe but an eastern port leading towards Turkey and the Orient. And because my geography knowledge is so sparse (I’m American), I didn’t know that the region where Corinth is situated separated by this isthmus from the rest of Greece is known as the Peloponnesus.

Just another reason I prefer to research and prepare my own Bible studies rather than rely on something someone else has prepared. I may never need to know some of these details, but I feel like they’re helpful in some small way to my larger appreciation not just of the Word of God as it impacts actual people and places, but the Creation of God as a whole.