Whitcomb: Foreign Students Good for New England; Beware Exit of Cops; Reparations Redux

Sunday, July 19, 2020


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.’’

-- From “The Black Swan,’’ by James Merrill (1926-1295); he lived much of his life in Stonington, Conn. His house there is now a home for writers and scholars.




“If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called upon to repeat it.’’’

-- Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), the 30th president



“You have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet."

-- Novelist Stephen King, in Night Shift, a collection of short stories   



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President Donald Trump

Trump's Wise Reversal

It was good news that the Trump administration has rescinded an order that would have stripped visas from foreign students whose courses are moved exclusively online because of the pandemic. Various institutions, led by Harvard and MIT, had sued to block the order, which seemed too many to be obviously illegal. There are hundreds of thousands of such students in America, with tens of thousands in New England.


Trump pushed the visa ban, which would have caused administrative and financial chaos, to try to force colleges and universities to reopen all in-person courses despite the raging pandemic, presumably because he thought it would boost the pre-election economy? And he doesn’t like immigrants anyway.


Foreign students are particularly important in New England – economically and otherwise – because of the region’s world-famed colleges and universities. They bring a lot of energy, ambition and a hefty work ethic and help connect us with, and teach us about, the rest of the world. That makes our region more competitive. And some of the best stay and become Americans. Look at all the foreign-born health-care professionals dealing with COVID-19 and the large number of foreigners who have stayed in New England to create successful, high-paying companies based here, most notably in technology.



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Trump and COVID data

Tightly Controlling COVID Data

Given the numerous attempts by the Trump regime to distort pandemic information for political purposes, especially because this is a presidential-election year, this should make us nervous:

The White House has ordered that all COVID-19-related information from hospitals be sent directly to a new centralized database under the Department of Health and Human Services, bypassing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that science-based and apolitical HHS unit, which used to get it first.


The HHS database information, unlike the CDC one, will not be open to the public. And HHS Secretary Alex Azar, a former drug company executive and pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, is a Trump sycophant.


We’ll see what happens, but in any case, having a database under the tighter control of the administration will make it easier to manipulate and/or hide data. The new database will include the number of cases, deaths, available beds and ventilators at hospitals.


As it is, Trump’s lies and incompetence during the epidemic have led to tens of thousands of deaths. There will be many more.


Another danger of bypassing the CDC, where science reigns, and sending the data to a database under the thumb of the White House is that researchers and public-health officials could be deprived of much very useful information with which to address the pandemic.


The CDC has long been underfunded and understaffed. But it has remained an impressive apolitical and science-based agency. We know what the Trump administration thinks of science that might not be seen as promoting our maximum leader.  It would be nice if hospitals ignored the White House and continued to send its pandemic data to the agency where it belongs – the CDC – and information made quickly available to the public. Otherwise, we’ll have to depend more on prestigious private-sector institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University, to collect, analyze and publicize the data.



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Providence Police Major Verdi PHOTO: GoLocal

Boomerang Effects of Police Withdrawals

For police forces with histories of abuses of citizens, we need to fix their training -- in psychology, sociology, the law and other disciplines -- promptly get rid of bad cops and try, over time, to have police hiring at least roughly representative of a city’s demographics. But it’s a potential disaster for public officials and others to reject the very idea of the need for a strong police or to promote the idea that many, perhaps most police actions against lawbreakers are wrong. After all, most arrests involve people found, after due process, to be guilty.


Crime rates in some U.S. cities have been rising in the past few weeks. While crime usually rises in hot weather, this year we also have the stress-inducing pandemic, which can fuel violence, along, of course, with racial tensions.


At the same time, we have so many denunciations of the police that some officers have become leery of enforcing the law. This gets around on the streets, encouraging more criminal behavior, and so the quality of life rapidly declines.


The crime increase disproportionately hurts racial minorities, a few of whose members are the victims of police abuse. The point of all this, again, is that we don’t need fewer police but better ones, though we can hope that better policing might reduce the need for police over the long run. A social worker is not going to take a violent offender off the streets and into jail.


Watch out for the boomerang effect: As crime tends to rise when police become timid, the public gets scared and demands a crackdown, and cities can end up where they were in the first place with even more incidents of abuses by stressed-out cops.



Reparations Redux

“History is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

― Edward Gibbon (1737-94), author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire



In other racial news, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has signed an executive order to begin looking at establishing a reparations program in Providence for residents of African and Native American background to address how their ancestors were treated. (Reminder: Many, many people with those backgrounds also have plenty of white European DNA, too. We are all mongrels.)

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Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza

Direct, cash-based reparations would be a financial and political disaster. As it is, the city is broke, and few taxpayers want to give money for reparations for what was done in the deep past. The fact is that few people, white or otherwise, feel guilt for outrages in which they played no part and that were/are common around the world. Indeed, citizens have to accept that “man’s inhumanity to man’’ is rife. Government would grind to a halt if we tried to financially address all of humanity’s horrible and innumerable past crimes.


Yes, let’s educate the public more about slavery and other human-rights outrages. Maybe that will reduce the chances for future such outrages. But there’s no common-sense way to rectify history.


Mayor Elorza is said to harbor ambitions to run for Rhode Island governor in 2022 but a reparations program could swiftly sink those dreams. Hizzoner should get back to the budget.


Maybe a bit more attention should go to the slave trade and other human-rights outrages happening right now in other nations and try to stop them.



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Governor Gina Raimondo

They Like the Beaches Anyway

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is rightfully cutting back at parking at Scarborough and Misquamicut state beaches because of overcrowding, especially by young adults (many from out of state) who ignore social-distancing and face-mask directives. But anyway, I have always been surprised by the number of people who want to crowd together on a hot humid day on a beach, pandemic or not. A nice seat in an air-conditioned room or a walk in the mountains seems more inviting in mid-summer.


Meanwhile, it’s depressing to see the number of jerks who give retail people, such as at ice-cream stores, a hard time when the latter try to enforce pandemic guidelines. There are enough such people to have led a few store owners to decide to close for the duration. Selfish people making a tough period worse!




New Shell Games

The shellfish industry – both wild-caught and aquaculture-grown -- is over-dependent on the restaurant industry and thus has been slammed during the pandemic. Many restaurants are reopening, but only at 50 percent or less capacity, and some have closed permanently.


So, the oyster, quahog, soft-shell clam and mussel collectors are working hard to develop direct relations with consumers, with the latter going directly to oyster and other cooperatives to buy the stuff, to farmers markets and supermarkets or even have them delivered to homes and places of business. It reminds me of the fish man who would peddle his stuff, right off the boat and put on ice and covered with canvas, at the back of his truck, around our coastal town when I was a kid. (Was that illegal?)


Shellfishermen are just so New England. Let’s support them.



Back to Banned Bags

Long-needed bans on one-use petrochemically based plastic bags have been enacted by various cities and towns places around America the last few years, and for good reason: They’re a slow-motion environmental disaster, killing wildlife and polluting waterways. But with the arrival of COVID-19, some jurisdictions that had banned them lifted the bans to discourage the use of reusable bags.  That’s what happened in Massachusetts by the order of the state.  It was feared that the reusable bags might be vectors for the disease. But as it turns out, they don’t pose a threat, so localities can go back to the ban. Good.

Get out that sturdy canvas bag.


The pandemic has spawned a lot of well-meaning but bad rules. But as the science is developed, some of them have a short life.


The United States of Inaction

The war goes on to bring a major new source of nonpolluting electricity to New England by means of the transmission of Hydro Quebec power via a western Maine route ending at a converter station in Lewiston, Maine, whence it would supply the regional grid. The original plan was to run the line through New Hampshire, including part of the White Mountains, but local opposition blocked that.

Inevitably foes, some of them rich summer people, and others, including wilderness purists, strenuously oppose the plan because it would require construction through scenic forested areas (most forested areas are scenic!) and,  after it’s built,  the few people along the route would have to look at the line’s towers. Oh, the humanity!


The project would be entirely paid for by Massachusetts electricity-rate payers and be an economic and environmental boon for the whole region – including Maine.   Cheap, clean energy. But it’s increasingly difficult to do any big projects in litigious America, no matter how good for the general public – another reason we’re sliding to Third World status.


There will be a referendum question on Maine’s November ballot that could kill the project and both sides are in a well-financed campaign to get their way. Let’s hope that reason prevails.



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New-Flag Days

Trump and his cultists, who are heavily concentrated in old Slave States, have made much of saying that waving flags associated with the Confederacy is a First Amendment right. Yes, it is, but only to a point. It doesn’t mean that state and local governments should display these symbols of racial brutality and treason. Individuals and private-sector groups can do whatever they want.


Mississippi is the latest Southern state to remove a Confederate symbol from its flag in the wake of the latest upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement. As Mississippi is as Deep South as you can get, this is a good sign indeed.




Even back in the ‘60s, when I (a white man) was in college, it struck me as strange that an athletic team would be named after ethnic groups, e.g., Cleveland Indians, Dartmouth  (College) Indians (name-dropped but the college did start as a school for Native Americans…) and Stanford (University) Indians (no longer) and much less so, the Fighting Irish of the University of Notre Dame. But having “The Braves’’ as a team name seems fine. 


Having an ethnic group as a mascot is weird.  But the Washington Redskins really stood out, and now, finally, the name will be changed.

Maybe I should be surprised that there were no, say, New Orleans Blacks.



The Summit of Summer

Ah, high summer! Plants have slowed their growth a tad in the heat; you find you’ll have too many tomatoes and zucchinis, and those birds, such as thrushes, that sing so much in late spring/early are summer are quieter. Soon we’ll hear the katydids play their songs, reminding us that summer is sliding as darkness falls earlier. Grab the summer while you can, though you might want to postpone some of those trips to state beaches you had planned. The COVID-19 limits might make these excursions too complicated to be worth it.


The ocean here is warmest in early September anyway.



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Jeffrey Epstein

Validation by Proximity to Conspicuous Wealth

The photos of the late (his death through suicide or murder?) pedophile and diversified crook Jeffrey Epstein and his still-living former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, with celebs such as the Trumps and the Clintons, and word of Epstein giving rides on his jet to the respectable likes of Ira Magaziner, shouldn’t be that surprising. Rich people want to spend their time with rich people. In a nation of ever-increasing adoration of wealth and the power that goes with it, rich folks, especially the nouveau riche, want the sense of validation they get from being in the presence of glittery Mammon. The more conspicuous the consumption the better! And who wouldn’t want a free trip on a private jet?

You can see all this in full flower in the summer in The Hamptons, where rich folks live in such amusing proximity/density even though there are far more attractive places. They want the validation of the address.



Secret Trumpers

I wonder how many secret Trump voters there will be in November. Quite a few, I’d guess. These could be people he appeals to on the basis of bigotry or because he gave them a big tax cut or simply because they hate all Democrats and/or Democratic “elitists.’’ Out of embarrassment, these Trumpers will keep their plans hidden.


Even as his corruption and managerial incompetence spread, the president continues to please them come hell or high water. They, and Trump allies making voting very difficult in some Democratic areas in swing states, as well as assistance from the Kremlin, could get their man re-elected, whatever the polls say now.



Pandemic Scam

Beware of any calls or texts from (408) 610-4747. It’s a financial scam by hackers seeking to make a mint off the public’s confusion about federal aid to individuals in the pandemic.



In an Epicenter of Constant Change

Famed New York writer and editor Pete Hamill’s book Downtown is an often eloquent and very personal trip through (mostly Lower) Manhattan’s history from Dutch days to after 9/11. It’s rich with historical research and personal anecdote and speaks to the city’s “alloy’’ of people from around the world and their famed energy, innovation and resilience, which have, along with its superb location and geography (especially its great harbor), made it what the late Pope John Paul II called “the capital of the world.’’ The city has again shown its basic strength, courage and ingenuity in the COVID crisis, as it did with 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008-09.


I found Mr. Hamill’s description of the gritty, dangerous ‘70s in Gotham particularly ripe because that’s when I lived there. I could again smell the unpicked-up garbage during municipal strikes and the stifling dankness of subway stations in the summer.


The book also serves as an analysis of urban nostalgia and the need to accept the relentless social, economic, physical and aesthetic change exemplified by New York, with lessons for other big cities, too. (I sometimes find it hard to find my way around parts of downtown Boston, where I worked decades ago, because so many new buildings have gone up and more than a few torn down. New York, with a street grid above Lower Manhattan, is easier.)

GoLocal columnist Robert Whitcomb's take on Rhode Island's college economy, and the latest debates on police -- and reparations. 


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