The last few weeks I have been having a profound case of déjà vu, watching Creepy and Dopey and Wifty sashay across the country.
There was the sense of having lived this before – or read it somewhere in my younger days.
It was the chubby one, who calls himself Newt. He portrays himself as an intellectual who sees the future, but he carries a whiff of Nineteenth-Century America.
Then it hit me. Samuel Clemens. Mark Twain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That’s where I think I first encountered Newt. I opened the book and skimmed through it (electronically) and there from Chapter 19 through 33 were two poseurs who worked the Mississippi, claiming to be a king and a duke. Down on their royal luck, they would perform Shakespeare “wherever the people are as green as the money,” to quote another heartland American hustler, the Music Man.
The king and the duke overwhelm Huck and Jim with their pretentions, using big words and scraps of history, but they also refer to people as “country jakes” and “greenhorns” and “flatheads.”
It takes a while for Huck and Jim to sort out the king and the duke, but eventually they do.
Well, anyways, I doan' hanker for no mo' un um, Huck. Dese is all I kin stan'."
"It's the way I feel, too, Jim. But we've got them on our hands, and we got to remember what they are, and make allowances. Sometimes I wish we could hear of a country that's out of kings."
Twain, who had such a keen ear for the intellectual bully, could easily have written in Newt as the third scalawag. And this most American character, born in Harrisburg Hospital smack alongside the Susquehanna, would have been right at home on the Mississippi.
How long would it have taken Huck and Jim to scope out Newt? Without trying to imitate the speech patterns Twain gave them, here’s how I imagine the vagabonds, sizing up Newt:
“As Descartes said after defeating the Normans on the playing fields of Eton, ‘Give me liberty – or give me $5,’” Newt announced.
“What’s he saying?” Jim asked.
“Beats me,” I said.
“This is just what the Founding Fathers meant when they came over on the Mayflower,” Newt continued. “They all came over here together to discover America so they could turn it over to the historians.”
“Huck, I don’t understand a word he’s saying,” Jim whispered.
“Neither do I.”
Finally Newt slowed down because he said he was getting powerful hungry and couldn’t educate us any more until we passed the hat and collected enough for a meal, and maybe some jewelry he could ship home.
“He wants money so he’ll talk some more?” Jim asked.
“Apparently,” I said.
“How’s about we pay him not to talk?” Jim said.
Perhaps a fictional version of Newt would escape the fate of the duke and the king, who are tarred and feathered, as Huck and Jim watch.
In these kinder, gentler times, it should be quite enough to let the man talk a bit longer.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.