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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro


Like many of you who have been sheltering-in-place, with my now-virtual day job having settled down a bit, I've been catching up on TV that I've missed. During Comcast's everything-is-free-so they-can-suck-you-in week, I caught Chernobyl on HBO. This compelling historical drama focused on one man: Valerie Legasov. A professor with expertise in nuclear chemistry, a lifelong Communist, a never-rock-the-boat type, Gorbachev brought him in to lead the scientific team dealing with the disaster. And he does. In the dramatic highpoint, after lying to the West, he tells the truth in front of an inquiry, indicting the system. He's punished, and he commits suicide, but by how many he inspired, his act of courage did more than that of any other single person to bring down the Soviet Union.

The second hero of the miniseries was the Soviet people. Many faced danger, knowing they might not survive. When sluice gates needed to be opened, draining water from the reactor, preventing an explosion that would have left the Ukraine and Belarus permanently uninhabitable and left a trail of death well beyond, three men volunteered for what all expected to be a suicide mission. When a tunnel needed to be dug under a reactor, thousands of miners went in to do it, knowing they probably wouldn't survive. The empathy for those way outside of immediate social circles was astounding and humbling.

However, when I looked to the Internet for comment on this miniseries, the most prominent links were to revisionist history, claiming that Ronald Reagan was responsible for forcing the Soviets to clean up the disaster. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Reagan was in the early stages of Alzheimer's dementia. Reagan went on record as saying the accident was predicted in the Bible. At least the revisionists will no longer be able to ascribe the dictum "Trust, but verify," to Reagan, as the TV show points out that when he heard this Russian proverb, he convinced himself he had come up with it. If only the documentary had gone into the next year, "Tear down this wall," might have also been banished to the dustbin of history. Yes, Reagan said it. No, it did not lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The 1980s can be looked upon as when the world's two superpowers undertook mutual destruction by overspending on weapons and allowing the looting of the economy by privileged elites. The Soviet Union collapsed first. Rather than lead Russians into a cooperative world economy, the Reaganites taken as advisors sold capitalist propaganda that wrecked existing state assets and put wealth in the hands of corrupt billionaires, paving the way for fascism under Putin. Smoke and mirrors continued to conceal the rot in the United States, prolonging the period of theft, until only now, during a pandemic, do we see how fundamentally unstable the US economy is.

What struck me from this historical drama as having relevance for today were the roles of expertise and empathy in coming through a crisis and the role of pompous pronouncements divorced from action of consequence—virtue signaling—in doing nothing to help and, in some ways, exacerbating a situation. Yeah, there are lots of parallels, but I'll resist the temptation to bloviate and rehash stuff that's been all over the news. Instead, I'll personalize this, but I'll still use the existential crises of the day, starting with the pandemic.

Expertise: I'm a Ph.D. biochemist. I worked on host-pathogen interactions. True, not this pathogen, and not this host, so I'm not the level of expert you'd see on a TV show. Indeed, were this Boston or Berkeley, I probably wouldn't even be the most knowledgeable guy in the coffeehouse. But I can read the scientific literature. And, as someone with experience as both a science educator and a science communicator, I can interpret the literature in a way that can add value for others who can't. So, I will blog or post to social media when I am not just duplicating what a lot of other people are doing. I also teach.

And, I am doing something I've never done before: getting involved in discussions over NextDoor. Our local NextDoor site has more than 14,000 people on it. These are the folks most likely to determine by their actions whether or not I get the coronavirus. Let's just say that the loudest folks on there watch a lot of FOX News. There are also a lot of folks who read everything but don't participate, and many of them are on the fence as to what they will do. At first, I did share my expertise, and some folks appreciated it, but most just wanted to argue. So…

Empathy: We have a lot of senior citizens in our community. Many of them are scared. Our county has the fourth-highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Florida. Yes, Fort Myers has more than Jacksonville, Tampa, or Orlando. Why? A lot of folks without empathy who flouted the shelter-in-place orders and view a mask or social distancing as a restriction of their liberties. I ride my bicycle past a shopping mall, and for a long time, I saw very few masks. My daughter in Boston goes out her door and sees virtually nobody without a mask. (Her neighborhood is more educated and more Asian than mine.)

So, I figured I'd try something new on NextDoor. I put out a post asking folks to list in the comments the details of the online services for their houses of worship, for the benefit of those who wanted to participate in a religious community but were scared to attend in person. At first, folks were hesitant, but by the fourth day that post was up, there were hundreds of interactions. There were none of the nasty posts that had predominated up to that point.

I also successfully engaged in what I'd call "Barbed Empathy." At the time, golf courses were still operating. They had been shut down on the East Coast of Florida, and we were getting people driving all the way from Fort Lauderdale to play golf on the ones in our community. That's two hours away. So, people were flouting their local restrictions and going from a hot zone for the pandemic into our area and interacting in a non-social-distancing fashion.

I put up some posts about this on NextDoor. The empathy part was expressing concern for the senior citizens in our neighborhood. The barb was mentioning lawsuits. Could the golf courses be sued if they knowingly ignored CDC recommendations and continued to operate as usual?

Others joined me in echoing these points. The owners, who all read NextDoor, got the message: the golf courses shut down for two weeks, and when they re-opened, they didn't allow anyone to play who wasn't either living in the community where it was located or a member of a pre-existing league. No more jerks from two hours away. And social distancing rules were put in place.

At this point, even though there were still idiots who weren't practicing appropriate social distancing, I turned my attention elsewhere. With the unsafe conditions at our local supermarkets, which were flouting child labor laws and refusing to enforce mask wearing (and as a result, all of them have reported employees with COVID-19), the golf courses weren't the biggest danger. Any further attention on the golf courses would have been virtue signaling, as it would have done nothing.

I'm working on the mask wearing at this point. For my latest post to NextDoor, I wrote in it that I did not intend to respond publicly to any comment (but I would engage in private messages, should people desire to do so). I linked to an article advocating mask wearing. There have been at least three hundred interactions back and forth on that post. Nobody has convinced anyone else of anything. However, the goal is to influence the lurkers. Those advocating responsible behavior are now more numerous and more articulate (no surprise on the latter) than those defending their own selfish behavior. The balance has shifted since the early posts I did. I may or may not have contributed to this shift, but I'm also seeing a shift in behavior: as I ride my bicycle past the shopping mall, I'm seeing more masks and more social distancing than I did a few weeks ago.

Am I perfect at this balance? No. Indeed, on a totally unrelated issue, a few days ago, over Facebook, I mistook a request for emotional support for an invitation to discussion. I hurt a friend's feelings by doing so. And it wasn't on a topic where I had any higher level of expertise than anyone else responding to the post. Mea culpa.

Today's social media is dominated by talk of the cops in Minnesota who killed still another man for living while Black. I didn't Tweet my outrage—that would have been virtue signaling. Although I have been involved in civil rights issues in the past (community organizing, demonstrations, etc.), I'm not actively working on any civil rights issues at present (unless you count advocacy for individual young people of color). As such, I'm not an expert. My voice shouldn't be dominating.

However, I might put a heart on the posts from friends who are actively working on civil rights issues. Or who are sharing personal stories of how the upsurge in bigotry is affecting them. With the ugliness of many of the posts I'm seeing, they might need some empathy.

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