Institutional Survival

Will this institution survive the stench this creates in the public perception that the constitution and its reading are just political acts?…If people actually believe it’s all political, how will the court survive?

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

This week’s featured post is “The Roe v Wade Death Watch“.

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court

Most of what I have to say about this is in the featured post, but I feel that I should elaborate on the Sotomayor quote above: The authority of the Supreme Court comes not from armies or police, because it commands none. It also doesn’t come from money, because the Court has none to disperse.

The power of the Court depends on the other branches’ compliance. If a President openly defied the Court (as Nixon did not, and we often wondered whether Trump would), the only possible consequences would have to come from someone else: impeachment by Congress or rejection by the voters at the next election.

Whether those other parties would back the Court up depends on its reputation as a body above politics. The public needs to believe in the analogy John Roberts made at his confirmation: The justices are umpires who call balls and strikes objectively, rather than assert their own preferences. If the Court is seen as just another actor in our partisan drama, someday a president will feel empowered to ignore its rulings, and then constitutional government will be over in America.

The striking thing about the current reconsideration of Roe is that nothing of significance in the legal or scientific environment has changed since Roe was decided in 1973. All that has changed are the particular people who are on the Court. The Mississippi case comes to the Court now because conservatives have maneuvered their way into five or six anti-Roe votes. Justice Ginsberg dies and Justice Barrett replaces her; suddenly the Constitution says the opposite of what it said two years ago.

That dependence on personalities is what threatens the Court’s survival as an institution.

and the Omicron variant

The day after Thanksgiving, the World Health Organization named a new Covid variant-of-interest “Omicron”. The stock market immediately tanked, more out of fear than knowledge, and much panic has ensued.

The worry, of course, is that this is Delta all over again: It looked like we had the pandemic licked in June, but then the rise of the more transmissible Delta variant started another surge.

Every new variant raises questions about how well our previous protections will work: Is it more transmissible than even Delta? More deadly? Can Omicron evade the vaccines and the natural immunity of people who have already recovered from one bout of Covid? How effective are current anti-viral treatments? Will it sneak past our current generation of tests? Do we have to revise our previous ideas about masking and distancing? Will new lockdowns be necessary?

The first headlines about any of these questions should be taken with a grain of salt. As useful as it is to get quick answers, fast research is less accurate than slow research. Bearing that in mind, here’s what I’m seeing:

Omicron is outcompeting Delta in South Africa, where it was first detected, so it’s probably more transmissible. On the positive side, anecdotal evidence from South Africa says the symptoms have been mild, though some experts discount this because South Africa’s population skews young.

On defeating natural immunity:

A study published on Thursday as a pre-print, which is still awaiting peer review, found that Omicron is at least 2.4-times more likely to reinfect someone who’s already had a COVID infection compared to the other variants that have been studied.

I’m not sure about this, but I’m guessing a person without a previous infection would be more than 2.4 times as likely to get infected, implying that natural immunity to Omicron from infection by a previous variant is diminished but not gone.

As for vaccine effectiveness, Moderna’s chief medical officer said on November 28 “we should know in a couple of weeks”, but he sounded pessimistic, based on the number of mutations in Omicron. (As with natural immunity, I’ll guess that antibodies targeted at earlier variants would be less effective, but not ineffective.) He predicted an an Omicron-specific vaccine would be “available in large quantities” in early 2022.

If in fact the current vaccines turn out to be less effective, but not ineffective, against Omicron, the conventional wisdom says that you want your immunity to start out as high as possible. So Omicron is an argument for, not against, vaccination and booster shots.

The chair of the South African Medical Association says that the nation’s hospitals were not overwhelmed by patients infected with the new variant (another indication that symptoms may be mild), and most of those hospitalized were not fully immunized.

Until they can be updated, Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatments are also likely to be less effective on Omicron, according the company’s CEO. Merck and Pfizer are optimistic about their anti-Covid pills, because their attacks on the virus aren’t targeted at the spike protein, where most of the mutations seem to be. For similar reasons, Gilead says its drug Remdesivir should still work against Omicron, though it doesn’t have test results yet.

The current generation of Covid tests appear to detect Omicron.

Speculations about lockdowns seem wildly premature. As with the original Covid outbreak, travel restrictions can only slow the spread, not keep Omicron out. It has already been detected in multiple states.

For a few days it looked like case numbers were going down again, but we always knew that Thanksgiving would give the virus another boost. New cases in the US are averaging 110K per day, up 19% over two weeks. Deaths, which have been staying in the 1000-1200 per day range for several weeks, are at 1178. The current surge continues to be concentrated in the cold-weather states, with New Hampshire and Minnesota having the highest per capita rates.

Despite the recent surge in cases, the highly vaccinated Northeast continues to have lower death rates than less vaccinated regions. Vermont (73% vaccinated) is averaging 69 new cases per 100K per day, but only .15 deaths. For comparison, Wyoming (46% vaccinated) averages 30 new cases per 100K per day, but 2.00 deaths.

As other numbers go up and down, the ratios of vaccinated/unvaccinated cases and deaths remain fairly steady: The unvaccinated have about five times as many cases per capita as fully vaccinated people, and 13 times as many deaths. Those numbers probably understate the effectiveness of vaccination, because higher-risk people have been more eager to get vaccinated.

Marcus Lamb, a religious broadcaster who championed anti-vaccine arguments and other Covid-advancing misinformation, has died of Covid at age 64. His son’s account of his illness is a classic example of epistemic closure, i.e., having a belief system that is impervious to contradictory evidence.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a spiritual attack from the enemy,” Lamb’s son, Jonathan, said about his father’s COVID-19 illness on a Nov. 23 broadcast of the Ministry Now program. “As much as my parents have gone on here to kind of inform everyone about everything going on to the pandemic and some of the ways to treat COVID — there’s no doubt that the enemy is not happy about that. And he’s doing everything he can to take down my Dad.”

Yes, Lamb died because Satan wanted to keep him from spreading the Truth, and not because of his own willful ignorance and misguided ideas.

and recent murders and trials

Tuesday, a public still buzzing about the Rittenhouse and Arbery verdicts got a new act of violence to argue about: the Michigan school shooting. Fifteen-year-old Ethan Crumbley has been arrested and charged as an adult in the murder of four students, plus injuries to seven other people, including a teacher.

In an unusual move, Crumbley’s parents have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, meaning that they participated in the deaths unintentionally. The parents didn’t attend their original arraignment hearing, and were captured hiding in a warehouse.

Oakland County Prosecuter Karen McDonald explained the charges: The parents “could have stopped it. And they had every reason to know [Ethan] was dangerous, and they gave him a weapon and they didn’t secure it. And they allowed him free access to it.”

By canceling last week’s Sift, I missed the chance to make a more timely comment on the guilty verdict against the three men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery.

Shortly after the verdict was announced, I checked how NewsMax was covering it: Their commentators saw the verdict as proof that the justice system is not racist, and as an implicit vindication of the Kyle Rittenhouse not-guilty verdict a few days before.

I, on the other hand, saw the Arbery verdict as the exception that proves the rule of systemic racism in the justice system. (The adage uses proves in the archaic sense of tests.) The murderers very nearly got away with a KKK-style lynching, and would never have stood trial but for some incredibly stupid moves.

  • It’s hard to imagine them being convicted without the video evidence they recorded themselves. Pro tip: If you’re going commit crimes, don’t make videos of yourself in the act. If you discover that you have accidentally videoed yourself participating in a murder, drop your phone in a lake as soon as you can.
  • The local prosecutor saw the video proving their guilt, but didn’t charge them and didn’t release the video. Now that the cover-up of the murder has failed, she’s been indicted for prosecutorial misconduct.
  • The video leaked to the public because a friend of the murderers thought it would clear them. Second tip: If your friends are idiots, don’t let them see the evidence against you, no matter how much it will impress them.
  • Only after the video went viral did the Georgia Bureau of Investigation get involved, which led to the murder charges.

All of this makes me wonder how many similar lynchings have been committed by White racists who weren’t total morons, and who consequently are still walking around free.

So anyway, the Arbery verdict proves that the justice system isn’t totally racist. If you can get video of a white-on-black crime to go viral, public pressure can embarrass the justice system into doing the right thing, as it did (sort of, eventually) in response to George Floyd’s murder. Hurray for America!

It’s been hard to find a good dispassionate analysis of the Rittenhouse verdict. I like this one, written by Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr.

He simultaneously believes that the not-guilty verdict was a reasonable application of the laws of Wisconsin, and that a Black defendant in a similar case would have been convicted.

My view is that the aim of the criminal legal system should be to level up, not level down. We should spend our energies insisting that the system treat black defendants as Rittenhouse was treated, and not advocate for the system to treat Rittenhouse as black defendants are, and have historically been, treated. Leveling down inures to no one’s benefit. The derogation of rights would spiral downward—and quickly—such that all of our rights would be in jeopardy.

The law, Sullivan argues, always embodies our moral sensibilities imperfectly. (Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have reprimanded a newly minted lawyer for his overly idealistic argument: “This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.”) The solution is to change the laws, not misapply them to get a more satisfying outcome in a particular case.

Long-standing self-defense law conspired with absurdly permissive open carry laws to create the set of conditions to make the Rittenhouse affair possible. Perhaps those of us who find the verdict troubling are better served by focusing our attention on state legislatures. I see nothing in the text of the Second Amendment or its doctrinal exegesis that compels states to permit minors to stroll about town with a rifle strapped across their shoulder. It makes no sense, and the unintended consequence of such a legal regime is a Wild Wild West mentality where citizens feel emboldened to engage in private law enforcement.

and you also might be interested in …

Former Senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole died at 98. He represented a bygone era when rivals were not necessarily enemies, senators compromised to get things done, and presidential candidates — even Republicans — conceded after they lost.

Trump’s co-conspirators are changing their stonewalling tactics. They’re starting to drop executive privilege as an excuse not to answer, and starting to invoke the Fifth Amendment. The implication is that they know they’ve been involved in a criminal conspiracy.

A handful of anti-public-health Senate Republicans threatened to torpedo the last-minute bill to prevent a government shutdown. Their price was to get a vote on an amendment to defund enforcement of President Biden’s vaccine mandate (which is already on hold pending a court challenge); the vote failed 48-50. The funding bill then passed and was signed by Biden on Friday, so the government will stay open until sometime in February.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah made the unvaccinated sound like a persecuted minority: “All we wanted to do was have a vote to give a chance to the hardworking mom or dad, soldier, sailor, airman or Marine struggling to put food on the table.” Of course, these unvaccinated workers are not just risking their own lives, but (given how contagious diseases spread) everyone else’s as well. And they already have two chances to save their jobs: get vaccinated, or take advantage of the alternative frequent-testing option. Defunding the vaccine mandate serves the interests of Covid, not American workers.

As the nation approaches 800,000 deaths, close to double the number that we lost in combat in World War II, I have lost my patience for unvaccinated Americans’ misguided and self-centered stubbornness.

The Republicans’ next chance to sabotage America is the debt ceiling, which will probably be hit sometime next week. (At the risk of tediously repeating myself every time this comes up: Having a debt ceiling at all is a terrible idea.)

Edward Geist of the Rand Corporation argues in The Atlantic that the more often Congress plays chicken with the debt ceiling, the more likely it becomes that the nation will default someday.

Nuclear-war strategists have long understood how recklessness, or the appearance of recklessness, may help one side get the other to relent during a single game of chicken. But these strategists’ work also offers a warning for Congress: The more times the game is played, the more treacherous it becomes, because when both sides become convinced that catastrophe will always be averted in the end, each behaves more rashly.

CNN fired Chris Cuomo for conflicts of interest related to the sexual harassment charges against his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Reportedly, Chris helped Andrew craft his media strategy, and used his own investigative resources to gather information on his brother’s accusers.

It was always dicey having a news-talk host whose brother was a governor with national ambitions. But for a time the relationship seemed to have more benefits for CNN than costs. Prior to the scandal, when Andrew would be a guest on Chris’ show, the brotherly banter was often entertaining and even informative. Once Andrew got into trouble, though, Chris should have been much more scrupulous. CNN was right to fire him.

A few days after the Michigan school shooting (see above), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) tweeted his family Christmas card photo.

You may recall the outrage generated two weeks ago when Vice President Harris spent $375 on a serving dish “as US families fret over the cost of Thanksgiving dinner”. How much do you think the Massie family arsenal cost? I’m betting each one of those killing machines is more expensive than Harris’ dish.

But Massie is male, White, and Republican — so who cares?

While we’re talking about fake outrage directed at uppity women, right-wing media recently invented a Nancy Pelosi story out of nothing. According to a rumor that apparently was too juicy to check, Pelosi had just bought a $25 million Florida mansion, simultaneously demonstrating how out of touch she is with ordinary Americans (I wonder how much her cookware costs) and abandoning liberal California for Ron DeSantis’ Florida.

The story was tweeted far and wide (as fact) by the likes of Sean Hannity before anyone bothered to see if it was true. Using Ninja investigative reporting skills far beyond the capabilities of anyone at Fox News,’s Claudine Zap called the listing agent, who debunked the rumor. “I have no idea where the rumor started in regards to Nancy Pelosi. I keep saying I can’t disclose who the buyer is, but it’s not Pelosi.” Hannity has not acknowledged the error.

Putin is upping the pressure on Ukraine, increasing military forces on the border, and causing speculation in US intelligence services that he plans an invasion in 2022. Ukraine says it recently foiled a coup attempt, which it blames on Russia.

American conservatives are split on how to respond. Ted Cruz wants a tougher stand on Russia, while Tucker Carlson wonders why we aren’t allied with Putin, who is popular among Tucker’s white-nationalist base.

Who’s got the energy reserves? Who was the major player in world affairs? Who’s the potential counterbalance against China, which is the actual threat? Why would we take Ukraine’s side, why aren’t we on Russia’s side? I’m totally confused!

When schooled by GOP Rep. Mike Turner about democracy vs. authoritarianism and the undesirability of condoning nations expanding by military force, Tucker responded tentatively: “I’m for democracy in other countries, I guess.”

I thought I was just getting old, but apparently movie dialogue is objectively harder to understand these days.

Why choose among solar, wind, and wave power when you can harness all three with one device?

and let’s close with something something imperial

When I first got to Rome, I wasn’t taking the ancient statues seriously as representations of real people. I mean, the Romans also made statues of the gods, and who knows what Jupiter or Minerva look like?

After a day or two in the museums, though, I started recognizing some of the emperors before reading the plaques. (A famous statue of Augustus in the Vatican Museum has tucked-under little toes. There’s no way a sculptor would give the Emperor crooked toes unless he really had them.) By the end of the week, Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were becoming old friends, to the point that I could say, “Oh, this statue is Trajan styling himself as Augustus.”

Now an artist in Switzerland has used modern tech to create photo-realistic images of the masters of the ancient world. This head-shot of Augustus is so real it inspires a whole new level of detail in my imagination of his life. Like: When you grow up with a name like Octavian, what do the other kids call you on the playground?

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Daughter Number Three  On December 6, 2021 at 2:09 pm

    Are there historical references that say Augustus was blond and blue-eyed?

    • ramseyman  On December 7, 2021 at 8:34 am

      Per the site: “Hair: light brown, fair, blondish “subflavum“ (Suet. Aug. 77)
      Eyes: “clear, bright eyes” (Suetonius) bluish grey “glauci” (Pliny XI, 54)”

  • David Klopotoski  On December 6, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    I agree that movie dialogue is really hard to understand these days. The first time I really struggled to understand a movie was “Finding Neverland” with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. For some reason everyone in that movie spoke in whispers.

    As far as Tenet is concerned, I think it’s more than just the sound mixing being terrible. For example, the scene with Michael Caine is like 15 seconds long but has to relay a ton of information (and some decent jokes). This means the exposition has to cut out basically everything except the important names, places, and dates that we need to keep track of which results in the dialog barely being sentences. It’s such a vital piece to the puzzle but so easy to miss because they speak so fast. Of course most scenes in the movie are like this because if they were fleshed out to make the information easy to digest the movie would be 4 hours long. Which is why Tenet probably should have been a miniseries, but Nolan is obsessed with filmmaking, so whatever. I liked it.

  • stlounick  On December 6, 2021 at 5:24 pm

    I expect an overturn of Roe v Wade to have a strong reaction to a religion dictating their beliefs for the rest of us….these justices can dance on that pin all they want but that is exactly what it will come down to…..what religion the justice practices. And that will create the turmoil that Roberts seemingly wants to avoid…but he will not be able to control the religious ideology that will guide this decision.

  • ramseyman  On December 7, 2021 at 8:31 am


  • Bolling Lowrey  On December 7, 2021 at 12:22 pm

    I do not think the defendants in the Arbery case were “morons” — rather, far more frightening, they felt “right” and “invincible”. And they almost ‘got away with it’. They would have if their friend hadn’t also felt the same and released the video which to him “showed” Arbery should have immediately surrendered himself to them and all would have been fine. [most questionable] Where is this country headed with such kinds of “thinking” and military assault weapons in the “loving” hands of all who wish, including, of course, KY Rep.Massie and his family.

    • Anonymous  On December 11, 2021 at 5:07 pm

      “So anyway, the Arbery verdict proves that the justice system isn’t totally racist. If you can get video of a white-on-black crime to go viral, public pressure can embarrass the justice system into doing the right thing, as it did (sort of, eventually) in response to George Floyd’s murder. Hurray for America!”

      And vote in all the elections that elect people related to the justice system. Vote against people like the local prosecutor in Georgia, and vote for people like the Attorney General who prosecuted the George Floyd case.

  • BFG  On December 11, 2021 at 6:13 am

    I think I prefer Daniel Voshart’s renderings – if that URL works – the headshot by Haround Binous of Augustus changes the ears, the nose, the lips too much for my liking. YMMV of course. –Peter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: