An Open Letter



Dear Friends,

Feeling eroded by the vitriol poisoning so many of our online conversations these days, I recently posted my desire to leave Facebook.

The response from my friends surprised me. Nearly all urged me not to go and their advice and quips reminded me of a complicated fact: all those seemingly insignificant likes and angry faces and posts were all part of a conversation that, though virtual and disembodied, was no less real. A click on a thumb was equivalent to the daily salutations to the milk man or the smile to the grocery store clerk back in the day when we physically shopped.

In a diverse and civil society, a multiplicity of weak ties are the filaments that bind. And in a world where my friends are now scattered about the entire globe, and with many of us in some degree of isolation, Facebook offers the potential to perhaps keep some of those weak links intact.

Some folks asked for a deeper explanation, something that the truncated shorthand of social media posts makes difficult. A letter seemed in order.

 


 

I’ve never been a sophisticated social media consumer. I haven’t created friend’s circles. I don’t limit the audience of what I post. I don’t consciously seek out content. I willfully accepted whatever the algorithms dished up to me without establishing rules or filters. If I didn’t respond to someone’s post it was most likely because I hadn’t seen it. Show me the wild ecosystem, I thought. Serve up the stuff from varied quarters of a varied life in a varied world. Leave it all to whimsy and chance.

My daily drip included lovely images of my friend Larson’s cakes that he would bake at Hopi as well as inspiring updates on his weight loss. I had a daily window into my classmate Jonathan’s lawyerly reposts of fact-based reporting on the duplicity of the Trump administration. And even more lawyerly and rage-filled posts by my elementary school friend Robert about much the same thing. And justified rants about meth dealers in Polacca, Arizona. And consoling words from friends. And truly heartwarming posts from an acquaintance on the wonder and difficulties of being a first gen college student while raising her two young children on her own. And my friend John’s encyclopedic knowledge drawn from the far recesses of an encyclopedia that has not yet been written.

It was as if I was frequenting a neighborhood bar where I found bar stool commentary and consolation. It was friendship in that it engendered camaraderie. And yet not quite friendship, because it was after all just a darkened bar. But in the barren desert of the 21st century, you take love where you can find it. It allowed me to remain in touch where I might not have been.

I make it a point not to unfriend anyone. I think it’s important to at least have an inkling of where other people stand and how they feel. To pretend that they don’t exist may make my life easier, but possibly poorer. I feel that at its’ most basic, my job as a citizen is to simply be a welcoming and sometimes dry-humored friend.

And despite what we all know about the moral complications of Facebook, it seemed largely good. But I didn’t fully consider how the algorithms themselves would come to shape my experience.

Social media companies want their machines to learn as much as possible about us. The more the algorithms know, the more effectively they can learn how to act like humans. And the more the algorithms know, the more effectively they can push product. The thumbs and angry faces are one of many currencies in this economy. Users get a low-grade endorphin bump: “Yea! Someone likes me! Yea! Someone shares my anger!” And every like and dislike adds to FBs ever fine-grained understanding of who we are, what we might like, what we might buy, where we might travel, what hot button issues might divide or shape an electorate, and with devastating accuracy even who we might vote for. As a predictive agent, FB might have a more nuanced understanding of me than I do. They may even know the secrets that I am keeping from myself.

Facebook’s viability depends on my reactions. The more I react, the more the algorithms know about me and my friend network: our needs, our desires, and what we believe in. Every year roughly 1,500 petabytes of data is pushed through data sausage grinders on vast server farms in Eastern Washington and the deserts surrounding Phoenix to later reappear as ad placements or memes on some screen trying to sell some shit or some point of view, or encourage uncivil behavior, or cajole one to follow the lead of a miscreant politician.

Facebook doesn’t care how I react, only that I do. So the algorithms float me posts that in high probability will make me happy, at least enough so to toss a thumb. But they’ll also intentionally serve up things that may make me angry. A glowering face becomes just another data point.

With the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus now stewing in the soup of our already poisoned politics, the tenor of our virtual conversation became ever more disturbing. I would step into the bar hoping for a cheap cocktail, and instead encounter vituperative rage from friends or acquaintances blaming Democrats and fascists and the left and scientists and doctors and illegal aliens and abortions and vaccines and voters about this and that and the other. Hoping for camaraderieor emotional release, against my better judgement I sometimes even joined in.

In some room way in the back (you know, that room that you might not normally go into), I detected the sound of raging voices and the crack of pool sticks breaking over skulls as a full on brawl unfolded. And it was getting nasty. People were gathering material to make pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. Some were brandishing guns. To one of my sensitive temperament this watering hole felt neither a safe nor happy place to be.

The ever diminishing shared assumptions only amplified the discord. I felt as if a pack of mean-mouthed and mean-spirited bullies were challenging my knowledge of Santa Claus. I know he exists and I know he is good. I mean, we all do. He has always existed. I have decades of proof. Even though my parents are long dead and I’m married, presents have continued to appear each year under the tree. And each year when I leave out a plate of cookies and carrots, in the morning only a few bites are taken. Who in their right mind would leave half a cookie except for a very busy Santa? Imagine my sadness when I first saw angry memes claiming that he was fake, that I was a sucker for believing in him. Wait. What? Some people don’t believe in Santa Claus? Santa is as sacred a cow as there ever was. Some mornings mid lockdown would begin with a pit in my stomach.

The mechanics of this strange watering hole began to interfere with the shape of my days. Back in the era when we still had dining establishments, my time at the neighborhood bar was bounded. I might drop in after work, share the counter with friends for 45 minutes and then be home in time for dinner. The FB bar, though, was open for business 24/7. Back in the real world, I might get into a heated conversation over beers with my friend Leo and at 5:50 it was bottoms up. We’d pick it up tomorrow. But at the FB bar I might offer something and individuals up and down the line would provide their commentary. Out of courtesy I tried to respond where response was due. And folks in turn would riff. And all the while I needed to get home to put dinner on the table.

I responded not just out of politeness. As an informed citizen, had I not an obligation to call out falsehoods or dangerous ideas I encountered? And Facebook ensured that encounter them I did. Increasingly I found myself fighting with people at the end of the bar who — Christ — I’m loathe to repeat the horrible things that they said.

When the gal at the end announced that I was being played by the toy industry, I could not in due conscience let it stand. I lidded my rage and put forward scholarly proof of Santa’s existence. She countered with a meme. I felt drained. How in god’s name could I convince this ninny that Santa lives at the North Pole and I was feeling super scared for him because now the North Pole was fucking melting?

Given the location of my bar stool, my ears filled with competing noise. Soon not just my knowledge of Santa was being questioned. The Sanderites insisted that Biden was a serial molester and a shill for the fascist liberal elites. We would be better off, they said, to have the whole shit house go up in flames than elect him President. And the MAGAites said that Biden was a pro-death and senile racist allied with Obama the Islamist.

Staked positions were so rife with contradictions that they stopped making sense.

Some argued that shelter in place orders or even the emergence of the virus itself were orchestrated by Democrats to remove Trump from office (never mind that over a third of the world was sheltering in place.) One person shouted that the Covid-19 disease was not caused by viruses. Another insisted that he was just trying to keep an open mind. Perhaps folks were dying because sheltering had weakened their immune systems or perhaps they were dying of fear. The air was filled with a cacophony of unverified or poorly examined information.

There was the secret alliance between Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci that I had a hard time even comprehending. I pleaded that vaccinations were first administered by variolation practitioners who inoculated folks with powdered small pox pustules in the 1700’s, a sought after procedure such a scourge was small pox on humanity. And what about polio? Because of vaccines this feared disease is now unknown. I angrily asked the drunk beside me if he had ever seen a person with limbs withered by polio?

He hadn’t. See? No polio, no problem.

My counterarguments themselves soon descended into nonsense. Don’t you remember the Man in the Iron Lung?” I shouted. You don’t because the polio vaccine put the friggin iron lung industry out of business! Go visit Youngstown! Listen to fucking Bruce Springsteen!! There’s no more iron, man! The demand completely dried up!!!

And then I heard some Russian accented voice slurring something about the dangers of voting by mail and I suddenly myself defending enfranchisement in a democracy. It was goddamn eight pm, my family was waiting, and I was trying to prove the virtue of Santa Claus.

The more facts I provided, the more unyielding patrons became and the more reactive and foul mouthed my own responses. The shouting occurring at the separate ends of this horrorshow bar met in my own brain as a maze of convex mirrors with no exit but for the shattering of glass.

And the data points? They grew into a veritable flood.

Two blows put me on the ground.

I watched powerless as a cultural divide was manufactured over fundamental principles of public health. Right wing political action groups aided in part by foreign bots encouraged citizens to resist requirements to wear a mask, or keep distance, or shelter at home, suggesting any efforts at disease prevention violated civil liberties.

It was as if no small number of people had come to believe that the highest expression of our civic values would be to roar up in our cars and tailgate a Suburu driving mom with a Baby on Board sign dangling in the back.

Or that I had the right to blow cigarette smoke in the face of a bystander because I have the right to smoke.

Or to not wear a seatbelt because it violated my right to free movement in my own car.

Or that when passing a flashing sign warning of black ice, that the person ahead was correct in accelerating, believing that he was a good driver, or had airbags, or that the sign was wrong and the black ice didn’t exist. To this driver it seemed not to matter that hundreds of cars and eighteen wheelers were creeping along behind him, and that if he was wrong in this dark winter weather and he spun out, my EMT friend Paul would be the one to risk his precious life to save him.

Here I am even now, sufficiently agitated that I’ve spent precious time defending public health — or let’s just call it at for what it really is — the health of our public sphere, the higher interest, the social good, the health of the polis itself.

What, I wondered, has become of us? What foul air was fomenting within us such anger?

Many have written about how we got here. But how dearly do we find our way out?


These Facebook fissures make me long for an America that we seem to have lost, or that perhaps was only imagined. I’d like to believe that we as a nation rallied to fight the scourge of fascism in the 1940’s. That’s the story we now tell ourselves 75 years later. Perhaps lost to our sensibilities are the erratic dissent and cross purposes that prevented us from engaging for so long in the first place.

From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

And we so easily forget the people who were excluded or endured their own tribulations (Nisei or Walker Evans poor,African American soldiers or African American anything). Perhaps our current fractiousness and ill will are congenital and not so different from our discourse and tensions of the past.

The Jolly Flatboatman, 1846, George Caleb Bingham

George Caleb Bingham’s 1846 painting, The Jolly Flatboatman comes to mind, though my remembered version is nothing nearly as serene as the one hanging in the National Gallery: on that raft the dancing figure creates a perfect triangle with the boat deck, not unlike the idealized dimensions of a Grecian pediment. In my minds eye, I remembered the boat as something more careening, jugs a swinging, the dancer teetering on the edge of the raft in a absinthe and mustard gloom as the flat bottomed boat drifted directionless downriver. Bingham’s brazen dancer still suggests something of my American ideal however, the America that perhaps posits strength and conviviality, resilience and ingenuity. America has always been rollicking and unruly, the only true rule being that in the end we are still just a mob. And if you let the mob mash long enough, well, meh, perhaps something may come of it. We are that dancer and we’d like to believe that his exuberance and unbridled joy will carry us.

But in this moment, I feel sadly and with no small amount of fear that we are witnessing the profound darkening of that buck dancer’s shadow.

In recent days I’ve found hope in two touchstones. One comes from a conversation years ago with a dear Hopi friend. He was lamenting some injustice by community leadership. You should exercise your rights, I suggested.

He smiled. Hopi don’t have rights, he said. We only have responsibilities.

In this challenging reframing, the individual matters less and the health of the community more. The wellbeing of one depends on the wellbeing of all.

The second consolation came from the well of friends who chimed in on my Facebook feed. Sociality, even in social media, provides the tender connections by which we remain a society. The message I received was unequivocal and clear: turn away from the darkness if you must. And let’s warm our hands together around the fire. I found myself reflecting on the nature of the hand warming and all the forms it took.

I took solace from my friend Larson, a Hopi man who posted a description of his first shopping excursion after 60 days of isolation. He described how he traveled to Phoenix and wore a mask. How he wiped down every surface he touched sometimes both before and after. How he kept his distance. How he looked about in dismay in those places where few did the same.

Larson wore a mask not because he is a shill of some conspiracy. Or because he is afraid of the virus. He did it because given our current emerging understanding of the disease, he does not know what he carries within him. He may be largely certain that he is not an asymptomatic carrier. But he is not 100% certain. So he felt that his highest obligation was to simply exercise care. He cared about the other people in Phoenix. And he has a great and abiding love for the community of which he’s a part. For Larson to show his love, to express his respect, to protect care givers and grocery clerks and gas station attendants and lots of hard working people, he need only wear a mask. Perhaps sanitize a shopping cart. Perhaps be alone for such time that it makes him feel sad and lonely. For Larson this hardly counts as a price to pay to do his part to ensure the well being of others. He was not asking what he could do for himself. He was asking what he could do for those around him. Larson embodied his civil liberties by wearing a mask.

I found solace in the poems that my friend Dan regularly posts.

Believe This
By Richard Levine

All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.

How can we invite ourselves toward that content that elevates rather than diminishes our collective humanity? Dan expresses his civil liberties by reminding us in words that are beyond his own words of what it means to be human.

I thought of my Hopi friend Samantha who on one of her recent morning runs in the desert posted a photo. Above she wrote the words, “Morning prayer run for my mother.”

The Hopi Reservation, May 2020

Samantha believes that social distancing and isolation may be the best tools she presently has to keep safe the grandmothers and grandfathers in her fragile community. If you’d like a deeper understanding of what it means to have your world destroyed by a virus, ask anyone in Native America.

For Samantha, social distancing feels not at all like the death of liberty.

It feels instead like a shield protecting her community from death.

Until we know more about this novel disease, the risks for this small, already embattled people are too great. Samantha embodies her civil liberties by praying alone for her extended family members with whom she cannot be.

I am heartened by my friend Gary, not by what he posts, especially not for what he posts, but because in person, in the real world outside the Internet, I have seen his face filled with a glowing love for those human beings around him. I would encourage Gary to give voice to his civil liberties by expressing the part of his nature that is deeply compassionate and kind.

I am heartened by my childhood friend Scott who I’ve watched tread confidently into the middle of bar brawls and not engage, but instead put a consoling arm around a shoulder and offer up memories of a shared past. He exercises his civil liberties through goodwill.

I am heartened by my friend Julie — not necessarily for what she posts, (The algos rarely serve them up in my feed), but more for knowing that her fierce intelligence still exists. She embodies her civil liberties by being ruthlessly practical, by working to ensure that her counterpoints are, to the best of her ability, grounded in fact.

My friend Karin expresses her civil liberties first and foremost by being civil. And no less importantly by being civic. She follows local politics down to the school board. She writes letters to her elected representatives. She lobbies through the civic apparatuses available to us regarding issues that will make her local community a happier, more supportive and caring place to be.

My friend Mary has exercised her civil rights by assiduously studying how the Holocaust unfolded in Amsterdam and how it was resisted, and sharing those learnings through her writing and guided community discussions. She strengthens the meaning of the word citizen, by providing support to refugees in confinement who’s only human crime has been the harboring of hope.

My friend David exercises his civic duties by painstakingly weaving beautiful baskets.

And my friend Poppy recently cast her civil liberties wide by sharing some Jerry licks on some version of Shakedown Street, guitar peals so softly articulated yet so exuberant, so full of joy that they squashed my inner curmudgeon and made me smile.

And I guess I’ll probably always remain Leo’s friend. Partly because we’ve been friends since childhood. When I was young there was no food in our house, and so every afternoon for a good stretch of time I would go to his place and raid his refrigerator. He fed me when I needed to be fed. I don’t know why he did it. But I would count it as a civic virtue. I’ll remain his friend simply because he’s Leo.

Lastly, I am heartened by images sent by my friend Mary, a fellow American and epidemiologist who has devoted her entire professional life working to save millions from the scourge of malaria. She presently lives in Geneva.

The signs were everywhere, she said, in the town and in the countryside. One read, “We are all in this together,” Another, “You are surrounded by love.” In another, a hay bale statue depicted a nurse wearing a mask.

Geneva, Switzerland, May 2020

In Switzerland, Mary said, folks are largely of one mind and they feel as if they are working toward a common purpose. Certainly that is not alien to us as a people? What has made it so foreign to our own selves and to each other in this moment? These signs remind me of what we can be.

How interesting I thought, that the word to give thanks in French is remercier, the granting of mercy, literally that price which is to be paid.

Geneva Switzerland, May 2020

May I grant mercy unto you.

And may you grant mercy unto me.

These thoughts are partly about the infection of our politics. In Facebook and in our national conversation I feel both scared and sad that we have become so merciless, so quick to anger and cruel in word. From what vicious and damaged soul has this division on a daily and hourly basis been nurtured and spawned? And why have we allowed ourselves to adopt it?

These thoughts are also about bodily infection. So here are some provisional truths based on our current knowledge. SARS-Co-2 is a pathogen that our bodies, the human body, in it’s 90,000 years of evolution has never encountered. Our bodies do not know what the hell to do with this thing. Our bodies are learning as quickly as they can. Our bodies are paying the cost of that learning. And based on our knowledge of virology, without intervention, our education and the cost of that education could be borne for a very long time.

Secondly, no one alive today on the planet Earth has living memory of what it’s like to live through a global pandemic. So too our body politic is learning. And the cost of that too been great. And early indicators suggest that it may be greater still.

We don’t know what this disease is going to do. It could burn out. Or it could not. It’s mechanisms may allow us to gain immunity. Or it may not. It may have seasonality or it could mutate. Or it may not.

But it matters not what you or I believe. The virus itself in the end will be the exclusive arbiter of truth.

So if we believe life itself to be precious, does it not serve us to move thoughtfully and with care, and to do so together in a way that serves not just our own personal needs, but also the needs of the most vulnerable among us? I am young. I am invincible. I have a strong immune system. But others may not. And so perhaps I should adopt a standard that will help them feel safe.

And as for the social media stuff? I won’t leave the Zuckerchamber just yet. I’ll do the best that I can. For the moment we’re in this together. I’ll don my armor. Erect my privacy filters. I’ll do my best to turn my own voice away from dark words and toward all of you and the doggies and the fluffy bunnies and the pictures of sunrises and evening light. And I’m never gonna stop defending Santa Claus. There’s a healing yet to be waged. And it’s not about Covid.

It’s partly about me.

And it’s also partly about you.

But it’s mostly about us.

Sincerely,

Andy

May 25, 2020

####

For those who want a deeper or more nuanced dive into some of the stuff I’ve touched upon, you might look toward the following:

To learn more about the darker corners of the internet, the growing information divide, and the manner in which our information feeds are shaped by algorithms in ways we may not be aware of, take a listen to Rabbit Hole, a new series that is part of the New York Times Daily.

This Podcast Will Kill You has wonderfully funny, delicious (each week they have a Quarantini recipe!) and fact-based and footnoted in-depth primers on measles, pandemic response, Covid virology, and the history of and science behind vaccinations. These gals do great work. Any episode is worth it’s salt.

If you feel suspicious of the public health enterprise and the workings of the World Health Organization and the CDC, you might want to read some in depth profiles of the deeply committed professionals within these organizations. You could start with two from the New Yorker, one a fascinating window into the Epidemic Intelligence Service, and the other a profile of one of the early researchers into Corona viruses. Hopefully they can provide a more dimensional understanding of these hard working public servants, complex organizations and fields of study.

Folks who are feeling suspicious of vaccines might want to look at some of the critical reportage drawing connection between the current pandemic response backlash and the far right. I’ve seen an increasing number of vaccine hesitant reposting from Breitbart and even troll sites. :-/. It’s chilling to see how this stuff spreads.

If you’re interested in super duper solid in depth reporting on pandemic conspiracy theories, the predations of this administration, and the ways in which the pandemic is being used as a fulcrum by outside actors and the ill-willed to foment division in this country, the June issue of The Atlantic is outstanding. I strongly encourage people to read online, or better yet subscribe if you can afford it.

If you want a brief advisory on surviving and exercising our civic virtues in this challenging moment for our democracy, consider Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. This review in the Guardian is a super good start.

If you prefer a more dense read regarding Kremlin disinformation campaigns and the spawning of the authoritarian movements in Europe and the US, take a look at The Road to Unfreedom.

Or else if you have drive time and want a more concise and human voiced distillation of these ideas, you can turn to his talk at the Ideas Festival. Timothy Snyder, fluent in nine or so European languages is darn smart and kind and funny — he is a sobering and soothing tonic for those souls who perhaps wonder if they are going crazy in this moment.

If you’re looking for ways to bridge the many divides we are now experiencing, you can look toward Better Angels and Braver Angels — the latter of which sponsors facilitated meetings between people of different political persuasions to help us learn to talk again.

And for those who want to know a little bit more about Santa, there’s no better place to start than a rereading of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

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