Saturday, May 30, 2020


Trump reading conflicted script of May 29 speech

The May 29, 2020 White House speech on Hong Kong by the erratic and increasingly authoritarian President Trump was not as bad as it could have been—the stock market took it in stride and Beijing's response was less than withering-- but it wasn’t very good, either. 

Composed by committee and read straight through from a teleprompter, it was laced with Trumpian complaints about the US being “ripped off” and the obligatory pinning of blame on past presidents, but it was largely free of the incendiary innuendoes and malevolent malapropisms that recently led the president to getting admonished on Twitter by Twitter for postings that contained hatred and lies.

Instead, the president’s Hong Kong speech, though not at all milquetoast, represented a patchwork of clashing voices, some reasonable, some not, some trying to wedge the door open, others trying to slam it closed.

There were cheap Churchillian cadences, lashing China with strong verbs: "Raided our factories, off-shored our jobs, gutted our industries, stole our intellectual property…smothering Hong Kong’s freedom.”

The “carnage” section was redolent of the notoriously gloomy White House speechwriter Stephen Miller, but regardless of authorship, there was ample red meat for red-hatted constituents and dog-whistle nationalists. But there were also a few carefully-phrased formulations and open-ended ambiguities, directed at anyone in China who might be listening, suggesting a less combative school of thought.

Although the revocation of preferential treatment of Hong Kong was the ostensible topic of the talk, Trump offered few details and in sum, it sounded more like the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end.  The “death knell” invoked by Mike Pompeo after his rash determination that “One Country, Two Systems” was no longer in effect did not resonate loudly.

Trump started out with the blame game, continuing to heed the advice of Republican strategists who see blaming China as the best way to deflect from the president’s own shortcomings, of which there are many.

The ambitious political pugilist Mike Pompeo has been telling European leaders and anyone who would listen (few have) that Covid-19 should rightly be called the “Wuhan Virus.”  He scored a petty victory in getting Trump to use exactly that term in the latest speech. While that might represent a mild dial-down from the incendiary usage of “China virus” that Trump resorted to in mid-March, it still reeks of an attempt to “point over there” instead of reckoning with the stark failure of Trump-backed public health efforts in the US homeland.

Flanking the president at the podium were US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Though they stood mute and stiff throughout, their presence spoke to different constituencies. Mnuchin, for example, offers a counterbalance to Pompeo, which signals that the business of business has not been entirely eclipsed by the politics of politics.

 Trump and team lined up like bowling pins ready to topple
According to the odd logic of Trump's statement, Hong Kong has not so much been censured as ceded. With Pompeo bombastically insisting that Hong Kong should be punished to punish China, denying the port city preferential treatment and instead treating it with suspicion, what's the net gain? Even China has something to gain from a high degree of autonomy in  Hong Kong, if only for financial purposes and the benefits of having sovereignty over a super special economic zone. 

A tea-leaf read of theatrical placement of bodies as props, in which six of the president's men were lined up like bowling pins on both sides of the big honcho might suggest it's all about teamwork, but it also reveals Trump as a boss who can tolerate some dissension in the ranks so long as his factotums are unbending in their loyalty to him

It’s far easier to pick on a hapless UN organization than face-conscious Beijing, which controls the levers of the world’s second largest economy and is backed by massive military might.

Whether it was for matters of face, or simply an absence of facts, Trump merely hinted at the possibility that the coronavirus first detected in Wuhan was something conspiratorial. Though he came short of claiming the virus was manufactured or weaponized, he made vague, fuzzy claims that will allow the more fanatical of his followers to connect the dots and put the blame squarely on Beijing.

"Why is it that China shut off infected people from Wuhan to all other parts of China. It went nowhere else. It didn't go to Beijing, it went nowhere else, but they allowed them to freely travel throughout the world including Europe and the United States.”

Wuhan International Airport was closed for two months, except for emergency evacuations demanded by the United States and other countries who had nationals stranded in a closed city. Domestic and international travel were both strictly curtailed.

Never mind the facts. Trump then claims, "the world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government.” The sentiment might be Trump’s, but this is not the syntax or vocabulary of the man whose previous day’s tweet was about “shooting and looting.”

Wuhan’s bad luck being the first city to succumb to the virus on a massive scale bought time for other cities in China and around the world, but Trump keeps harking back to a delay of a few weeks in Chin when he himself dithered for more than two months with a great deal more information at hand. 

Trump’s speechwriters prudently left Xi Jinping out of his diatribes which can be construed as a calculated conciliatory gesture in an otherwise ill-tempered theatrical strike against China.

Just a week before, the president was railing against an unnamed figure in China in this way:Some wacko in China jut released a statement blaming everybody other than China for the Virus which has now killed hundreds of thousands of people. Please explain to this dope that it was the “incompetence of China”, and nothing else, that did this mass Worldwide killing!”

The “dope” tweet backfired, domestically at least, because it was paraphrased in a viral meme that bluntly suggested that Trump was the real wacko.

At the same time, a split between two of Trump’s top China advisors broke into the open on Fox TV.  Talk show host Lou Dobbs pit the ideas of outside advisor Michael Pillsbury against White House advisor Peter Navarro. The ostensible issue was an unsigned White House strategic report on China that Pillsbury characterized as watered down and weak, on a par with something you’d expect from Obama or Biden--as stinging  a rebuke as can be imagined among the Trump faithful.

During the May 22 on-air confrontation that followed, Navarro did not take ownership of the “soft-on-China” report, (which admittedly had a bureaucratic, inter-agency ring to it) but Lou Dobbs, once he got his teeth in, did not let go. Instead he accused his guest of “peddling pablum and BS.” An extraordinary ten minutes of television ensued in which the hawkish Navarro, author of “Death by China” was hammered and clobbered by Dobbs for being too soft on China. Among other unreasonable complaints, Dobbs was apoplectic because the president wasn’t calling Covid-19 the “China virus” anymore, not even the “Wuhan virus.”

Screen shot from May 22 show
 At one point, Lou Dobbs took a quote from an opinion piece of mine published in China Daily (which had been quoted and retweeted by Michael Pillsbury) to make some kind of point, the nature of which eludes me because the point never got made, so intense was the televised inquisition.

The rift among hard-liners jostling for favor that broke into the open in the May 22 TV show was very much evident in mixed messages of Trump’s May 29 speech. It was supposed to be about Hong Kong, it was supposed to focus on China, but it ended up speaking volumes about inside the Beltway infighting. 

Trump China policy is a dog fight full of dog whistles, lap dogs, guard dogs and running dogs. His speechwriters failed to bring coherence to the big Hong Kong speech due to factional infighting and the need to accommodate conflicting views in China strategy.  

There are a few soaring words sprinkled in there to be sure, at points it's a sugar-coated encomium to democracy, liberty and all that jazz, but at heart it's a brutal patch-up job to bridge the rift between Trump's “wacko” hard-core haters and mainstream nationalistic conservatives.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020



   by Philip J Cunningham

Cornell University, like most campuses around the world, is facing hard decisions in tough times. A faculty survey just conducted at Cornell University suggests that the 2020 fall semester, if it happens at all, will be a hybrid affair at best.  Things could change for the better or the worse, but the mood of the moment is captured like a time capsule in a new faculty survey which is riddled with hopes, fears, altruistic impulses and selfish concerns about the future.

College as we know it is being undone by the coronavirus pandemic. If public health requires closing down for a semester or two, the challenge is existential. Some of the lost revenue can be made up online, but the loss of the "college experience" in terms of in-person teaching and residential life is harder to replace and compensate.

An F20 With In-Person Teaching--Faculty Thoughts on Personal Risk” was put together at Cornell to better assess the risks inherent in classroom teaching during the pandemic. Over 150 responses were collected from Cornell faculty “to understand more fully what opening-without-vaccine might mean for vulnerable faculty and staff.”   

The posts were collected online between May 11-17, 2020 and do not constitute a comprehensive survey, let alone a consensus, but the 58-page compendium is a valuable document for anyone wrestling with the big question.

Risk it or skip it? 

Should students and teachers go back to school in the fall term if the pandemic still rages?

Faculty sentiment alone won’t swing it, but a significant number of the Cornell respondents indicated they would not teach in the classroom until a vaccine that counters the risks of Covid-19 becomes widely available. 

Roughly one-third of Cornell’s faculty is over age sixty. The demographics alone alone help explain the “vulnerability” focus of the discussion prompt, but the online forum quickly blossomed into a more general discourse about the pros and cons of opening for the fall term, for all stakeholders, young and old, on and off campus alike. 

Across the board, a concern was voiced that Cornell is not ready for it. Although several self-identified senior scholars took great pains to indicate their desire to teach the old-fashioned way, there was a concomitant concern that necessary protective measures were not, and would not, be available.

The anonymous format allowed for some strong opinions.

"I simply cannot imagine returning to classroom settings of any sort until I, and everyone else who might potentially enter that room, are vacinated. Period." 
"It would be criminally insane to open in-person teaching before an effective vaccine is available."

These somewhat uncompromising responses were outliers, but even the most carefully-couched and gently hedged replies were mostly variations on the theme. Willing to teach, but not willing to infect family, friends, etc. “I really want to teach in person but…” 

Scientists predict a second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall, a point raised several times because it puts the entire question of students returning to campus into question.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, “the product of a Cornell education” is cited as an inspiration. Also cited is Kim Weeden, a Cornell sociologist who conducted  a key study on classroom transmission.             
Various unorthodox models were put forward and discussed, including staggered sessions, intensive summer study, residential seminars, graduate students-only and freshman-and-seniors-only. There were hybrid suggestions, such as starting online at the outset of the term and then transitioning to in-person instruction, or vice versa.

There was a call to include an online option for everyone, student and teacher alike, no questions asked. Several of the impromptu proposals stipulated mandatory quarantine for arriving students, extensive testing and the provision of isolation lodging for any teachers or students who subsequently were exposed or tested positive. A strict ban on off-campus travel during the term was recommended, while another post called to end the term at Thanksgiving before the flu season hits in force. 

It's a cruel calculus. How big do the stakes have to be to put lives at risk?

One of the rare voices in favor of a prompt opening quoted President Martha Pollack as saying that “the cure is worse than the disease” but then seemed to undermine that very point by saying that contagion is a given, so “just let it happen more quickly.” 

Just let it rip?

Out of the blue, one professor argued in favor of decreasing financial aid in order to better boost professor salaries, which would in turn boost school rankings, while another opined that Cornell was too generous to faculty already, and faculty couples should consider designating a stay-at-home mate. 

Many faculty bristled at the idea of being forced or expected to teach in person. Despite discomfort and difficulties with the sudden transition to online instruction as mandated by the Pollack administration in mid-March, the default option is that online teaching is the way to go for the time being. Few were opposed to a hybrid solution, but several expressed a reluctance to teach both online and in-person, saying it was too much. 

Unfortunately for a huge, cash-strapped institution already suffering from reduced income due to dorm and dining rebates for the truncated spring term 2020, more financial setbacks are on the way. The cancellation of lucrative summer programs is a loss, but even more significantly, endowment funds are at risk due the volatility of the stock market. Cuts in state and federal funding are to be expected. Facing the prospective loss of tuition for the fall term, the institution has fears for the future.

But students and their families are impacted, too. Is it fair to charge full tuition for online classes taken at home? How many students will opt out, choosing not to study, or take a leave? Does it not make sense to defer study until the pandemic recedes, given the low likelihood of a traditional, unfettered campus experience in the interim? 

If only the hands of the great clock tower could be magically be turned back to before the pandemic. But the forward-facing challenge cannot be ignored. Can Cornell, in good conscience, open up for business in August, more or less as usual, when the science suggests it is still not safe for people to congregate in close quarters?

It’s a devilish conundrum, pitting public health against the bottom line. Is it wise and compassionate, on balance, to have kids come back to campus when a national public health crisis puts the vulnerable at risk and necessitates complex protocols and soaring expenditures?

Students whose families have been hurt by the record wave of lost jobs will need increased financial aid and new workers will need be hired to install social-distancing props and put in place testing, tracing and strict sanitation measures. In the dorms, double rooms need converting to singles and entire buildings will need to be put aside for isolation purposes. 

A ready supply of masks, sanitizers and tests is not yet easy to come by, either.

It was obvious by early March that tuition revenue might be at risk. The Arts and Sciences admissions department, despite its claim to be “blind” to need-based aid was stealthily examining prospective student finances. Though it is impolite to say so, students from Asia, most especially China, have long been cash cows for the university, but visa problems, travel limitations and worsening ties, especially between Beijing and Washington, are going to reduce the number of students who might otherwise be willing to pay full tuition. 

One argument in favor of switching over to online teaching is that some of these sought-after international students could engage in a remote education without the encumbrances of travel to Ithaca, the idea being to push Cornell as a brand to rake in some tuition revenue that way.

Several professors expressed doubts about teaching in masks, including one who bemoaned that the necessity of using "face-shields an N95s" and then adding parenthetically, "not sure if that's more or less awkward than zoom teaching."
Big lectures are almost certainly a thing of the past, but even seminars pose risks of contagion due to proximity and duration of time spent in an enclosed space. The chances of a return to “normal” remain close to nil until an effective Covid-19 vaccine is developed.

At best, an awkward hybrid mix will define higher education for the foreseeable future. If the naysayers about opening up next term get their druthers, no one will be put under pressure to appear in a classroom and no prying questions will be asked of those who opt out. 

Younger faculty without tenure confided the not unreasonable fear that opting out of in-person teaching would be a mark in the file against them, while older, tenured faculty, who enjoy an enviable job security and with it a high degree of free speech, found the anonymous format useful to discuss co-morbidities and health considerations that they would otherwise prefer to remain private. 

Most posts were too provisional and nuanced to allow for an up and down vote against opening, but the overall drift of sentiment was clear about one thing: the broadly acknowledged benefits of in-person instruction do not begin to outweigh the risks as currently understood.

To summarize, going back to the old model of in-person teaching is out of the question until a vaccine, or an extraordinary regime of social controls, mitigation and sanitation can be put in place. 

Long-distance teaching is likely to be the norm until the contagion risk factor is significantly reduced. Many faculty expressed a willingness to experiment with various hybrid measures involving small groups of students in a carefully contained environment. There was some back and forth as to whether on campus instructors should be compensated more than those who stay at home. One stay-at-home wag resisted the idea of differential pay saying that online teaching is hard and those who elect to teach on campus will have easy access to parking and plenty of free tables at the Zeus café.

If crowding in a classroom a few times a week presents a serious risk of contagion that extends beyond teacher and students to nearly everyone on campus in a few short jumps, then what about cheek-and-jowl residence in crowded dorms? What about public spaces in town? 

One professor used the example of students from neighboring Ithaca College, which has just announced the intention to open a few weeks late on October 5, to obliquely make a point that is applicable to college students in general: 

I am extremely worried about the return of undergrads to Ithaca in the fall. I live in a neighborhood where many Ithaca College students have chosen to remain in off-campus housing and they continue to have parties, run/hike/play sports in groups, and have been the least respectful of social distancing guidelines on the neighborhood trails and sidewalks (they wear their IC gear, thanks for identifying yourselves!)

The professor comes down unduly hard on Cornell's academic neighbor but the point of restraining the sporty ebullience of youth is well-taken. Something as simple as a policy mandating mask-wearing is hard to enforce. 

When the closure of the university was unexpectedly announced on Friday March 13, 2020, confused students wandered about Collegetown trying to come to terms with the sudden end of campus life, commiserating in shock but not yet able to register the enormity of the change. The disappointment was palpable that day.

Cornell faculty, teacherly pride notwithstanding, know as well as anyone that the college experience cannot be reproduced online. It is as much about what happens in between classes as inside the classroom. 

The question of campus residential life, though not a focus of the faculty inquiry, was inevitably raised. Sharing small rooms, eating in dining halls, and mixing socially are all riddled with risks. What about sports and theater and music and clubs? What about weekends, parties and social life? 

One of the first clusters of positive cases identified in Ithaca was traced to a popular student hangout that was packed tight on that final, fateful weekend of March 13, 2020. A full thirty percent of positive cases subsequently reported in Ithaca (Tompkins County) as of mid-May can be attributed to individuals in their 20’s, which suggests probable student infections, though no details have been made public.

With even a small number of graduating seniors and graduate students left on campus, one can daily observe both conscientious social distancing and social distancing observed in the breach. 

Drinking parties, barbecues, large tightly-spaced gatherings on lawns and public sidewalks are proliferating as of mid-May, now that winter has finally relinquished its chilly grasp on Ithaca. To control student ebullience in violation of lock-down guidelines in even a rudimentary sense seems beyond the ken of local authorities both on and off campus. 

If the entire student body returns in force in the fall, how is social spacing to be maintained?

One respondent put it rather acidly this way: "There is no hope that students - who too often defy rules (Sexual assault? Underage Drinking? Cheating in exams? Not reading the syllabus?! the list goes on) - will keep physical distance, high hygiene, and a regiment (sic) of temp taking.
That's utopian, and I will not risk my health on that hope."

Another theme that surfaces, above and beyond faculty considerations of personal risk, is the well-being of this rural upstate community. Cornell, the stately campus up on the hill, may look and feel like a realm apart, and it is a veritable bubble to students in the throes of the undergraduate experience, but it is intimately integrated with the Ithaca community through the daily labor of service and support staff, not to mention student excursions into town for shopping, drinking and dining.

One professor, distressed at the thought of Cornell not opening, dressed up personal paranoia as a noblesse oblige concern for those "lower in the socioeconomic pecking order." Cornell’s lost revenue "will also devastate Ithaca, which for all practical matters will quickly become Cortland." The panicked professor added that there are risks worth taking "in order not to wake up in Cortland." 

This is an unfair jibe. Neighboring Cortland is indeed poorer than Ithaca, but is also home to a respected college of long standing, SUNY Cortland, which faces many of the same challenges as Cornell. “Centrally-isolated” Ithaca, like its good neighbor Cortland, has been spared the intense outbreaks seen in the New York City, Westchester and Long Island, but both institutions draw heavily on students from downstate New York.

If there is a fall term in the traditional sense, it will involve the movement of thousands of idealistic, energetic, ambition young people from the epicenter of the pandemic to a peripheral area. The "splendid" isolation sought by all is likely to be threatened or attenuated by a second wave outbreak.

The pandemic poses a shared predicament, even if individual responses diverge. But it shakes collective identity to the core. As one punning respondent  put it, the college is at risk of being known as "Coronell" if the public health issue is not handled right.

That many of the respondents have indicated a willingness to risk docked pay or even dismissal speaks to the gravity of the issue:

"I'll take a salary cut if it means I can keep my loved ones out of the hospital or morgue. How about we *all* take a salary cut in solidarity?"
Is it really worth opening before it is safe to do so?

An isolated college campus is not unlike a cruise ship, and not just for the ease of contagion in close quarters. Putting a large number of people with dreamy aspirations into a fantasy space with nowhere else to go engenders strongly interactive group dynamics. 

Visitants are away from home in a place where the at-home rules don’t fully apply. Being away from family and free from work-a-day worries is part of the attraction of the experience. The schedule is flexible, there are attractive like-minded strangers and a confined but enticing world to explore. Shared bedrooms, bathrooms, dining halls and lecture rooms and theatres are integral to the layout. Romance is in the air and a party beat beckons.

For Cornell and other well-established colleges impacted by the pandemic, closing down for a semester or two does not present an irrecoverable loss, but it does pose an unprecedented challenge. A "lost" term is a quirk for the history books, but it will take a lot of work to make up for it. Financial and social shocks will linger.

Sitting atop a hill facing a lake and flanked by steep, waterfall-laced gorges, Cornell juts forward proudly above Ithaca like the prow of a great ship. Students are a big part of what makes Ithaca vibrant and interesting and they will be missed.

But they will be back. When conditions that are currently beyond the ken and control of those steering things ameliorate and improve, it will be full steam ahead. 

The college dream will go on. 

The author spent eight years resident on the wonderful Cornell campus as a student and later as a visiting faculty fellow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020



Blaming China for the unforced eras of the US government is not classy, but it is a classic distraction technique. The Trump administration has been self-centered, clumsy and careless in responding to the Coronavirus pandemic. Even with the significant lead time gained from watching the viral disease ravage Wuhan months before American cities were similarly stricken, the US government dithered. Trump has shown himself indifferent to unprecedented suffering.
The White House response has been not only been slow, doltish and truculent, but outright counterproductive. Dismissive of experts to the point of being anti-science, uncooperative with local leaders to the point of stoking regional division, Trump’s scatter-brained response to the pandemic has been indefensible.

Don’t defend Trump…attack China,” urges an internal memo distributed to US Republicans running for election. “Push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic.”

This is the advice of the "Corona Big Book" --the brainchild of Brett O’Donnell, a Machiavellian strategic advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. Released on April 17, 2020, the toxic talking points have infected Fox News, Sunday talk shows, Senator Cotton’s press releases, state department policy pronouncements and presidential tweets.

“Attack China” is a dangerous man-made viral campaign leaked from an unregulated political laboratory that puts partisan politics above domestic well-being and international peace. The hatred and prejudice implicit in the “Corona Big Book” constitute a flagrant neo-McCarthyism. Innuendo, fabrications and scare tactics are spoon-fed to Republicans seeking to extend their tenuous grip on power.

Enter Mike Pompeo, provincial congressman, former spy chief and now the nation’s foremost diplomat who openly admits that “lying, cheating, and stealing” are integral tools of statecraft.

Trump’s recent outburst of intemperate comments about China, including his provocative use of the derogatory term “China virus” and verbal digs blaming China for letting it “out” of the lab echo the “big book” line coming from Pompeo’s office.

But Pompeo has gotten tangled up in a web of his own lies, contradicting himself in TV interviews, saying the virus was from a lab but not from a lab, man-made but not man-made, and then petulantly claiming that “China has a history of infecting the world and they have a history of running substandard laboratories.”

Trump’s China “experts” Michael Pillsbury, Peter Navarro and Matt Pottinger are working in parallel with Pompeo to punish, humiliate and isolate the very country they are allegedly expert in. Their bigoted and incendiary anti-China rhetoric puts ordinary Asian Americans at risk. Pillsbury alludes to inscrutably secret Chinese plans while Navarro claims on TV that the two countries are at war because Shanghai Disneyland is now open and the one near his home in Anaheim is closed. Trump abruptly ends a White House news conference, refusing to answer the question of a Chinese-American journalist with a withering put-down, telling her to “ask China.”

The blanket stigmatization of China shows signs of interagency coordination, signaling a shift in Trump foreign policy, which, until recently, had been obsessed mostly with trade matters.

Aware that relentlessly hitting on China has distinct racial overtones, especially when coming from a cabal of bullies and powerful white men, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger was trotted out to give a short video presentation in Chinese about the May 4 tradition. Given his previous experience in China as a journalist, he does a competent job of reading Romanized mandarin for the camera, but he has an ax to grind and is no expert in history.

On the sidelines, there is Trump whisperer Steve Bannon, who has paired up with anti-Beijing tycoon on-the-run, Guo Wengui, to stir trouble. Bannon was an early advocate of the conspiratorial idea that Covid-19, which he calls the “CCP Virus,” is war by other means.

Another fount of support for a harsh policy on China is right-wing cult Falun Gong, which publishes the Epoch Times with the semi-clandestine support of the US government. The cult promotes a pro-Trump political line that is in almost total alignment with Pompeo’s crusade against China, except, perhaps, for its eccentric opposition to interracial dating and homosexuality.

Pompeo’s Chinese counterparts have largely shown restraint in the face of US provocation and have made reasonable pleas to cool the hot rhetoric. Ambassador Cui Tiankai firmly maintains that disputes about the origin and spread of the virus are best left to scientists.

The execrable election-year blame game in the US should be exposed for what it is—a sordid spectacle designed to divide and conquer a confused electorate. Pompeo’s neo-know-nothing “attack China” campaign is a cheap provocation based on half-truths, innuendo and lies, a contagion of bad ideas that is best contained before it spirals out of control.