On being … too much in 2020

By Ingrid Sapona

Since 2011, my December 30th column has been a look back at the year based on the alphabet – you know, A is for…, B is for…, and so on. From about February on I keep a list of news stories and topics I find interesting or unusual. I enjoy the challenge of the alpha look-back because it engages me all year. By the time Christmas rolls around, I usually have only a few letters left to write about.

This year was no different and by December I had all but five letters covered. But the past couple weeks I decided to ditch my alpha review because a look back at 2020 ought to be different. Indeed, I think most would agree that a more fitting year-end review must involve reflecting on – both in sadness and in shock – some of the year’s tragic numbers.

Of course, the most devastating number is the number of people who have died from Covid-19 this year. As of 10 a.m. December 29, 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, there have been 1,778,266 deaths world-wide. Of that total, 335,208 deaths were in the U.S. and 15,202 have been in Canada.

I realize numbers – especially large ones – are an abstraction that can be difficult to understand or relate to. Given that, as I noted in my May 30, 2020 On being… column, I often search for comparisons as a way of providing perspective. CBS Sunday Morning offered a truly mind-blowing perspective on the U.S. death toll this week: they noted that if they did a ONE SECOND tribute for each of the Americans who have died of Covid-19 so far – it would take nearly 4 days. (To be more specific, at 86,400 seconds/day it would take – non-stop – 3.88 days for a one second tribute, which would realistically amount to just flashing a photo or quickly saying the name of each American who has died from Covid-19.)

I can’t understand why the people of a nation as rich and powerful as the United States are not enraged by the death toll. (Or at least they are not enraged enough to demand that their leaders lead.)  What does it say about a society that allows 1 in 1,000 of its citizens to die from a disease rather than come together and do all they can to protect themselves and each other?

But it wasn’t just five and six-digit numbers that I wish more Americans cared about in 2020. Another anguishing statistic relates to the number of federal executions carried out this year. Since July, the U.S. government has executed 10 federal death-row prisoners. While capital punishment proponents might point out that with 17 executed nationwide in 2020 (10 federal prisoners and 7 state prisoners), overall, 2020 saw the lowest number of executions in the U.S. since 1991.While that’s true, the fact is that until this year, there had not been a federal execution since 2003. I find it so troubling that no one seems to be asking why the sudden reinstitution of federal executions? What’s changed?

The year also saw a record-setting 30 Atlantic hurricanes. (That was the most storms since “reliable records” began being kept over 100 years ago.) To those who didn’t suffer the direct impact of any of the 12 storms that made landfall in the U.S., the significance of the storms might not be of particular import. But, failing to believe there’s a relationship to the intensity and frequency of such storms and climate change imperils the world and should be of concern to us all. And yet, there are millions who deny that climate change is real. In a recent YouGov Cambridge Globalism 2020 survey, fully 10% of Americans responding said this statement is definitely true: “The idea of man-made global warming is a hoax that was invented to deceive people”; an additional 17% of Americans polled believe the statement is “probably true”. Even more troubling is that 14% of Americans surveyed believe that climate is changing but that human activity is not responsible at all. (Of the 25 countries included in the survey, the only country with a higher percentage of respondents believing that human activity is not responsible for climate change was Indonesia, with 18% believing that.) 

Huge government expenditures – and therefore huge deficits – also mark 2020 here in Canada (and, I imagine, in other countries). Strict shutdowns, border closures, and stay at home measures brought the economy to a near halt in the spring. So, to help Canadians through the fiscal crisis, the Canadian government made available an array of support payments to help businesses and people. The daily announcements of millions and millions in aid was dizzying and of concern to many taxpayers who feared the government’s seemingly unchecked spending. By the end of November, the Canadian federal government was projecting a $381.6 billion budget deficit for 2020-2021 – up from $39.4 billion for 2019-2020. For a country of just 37.5 million people, $381+ billion is nothing to sneeze at. But, on balance, most Canadians favour temporarily shutting down the economy and offering handouts to help control the pandemic. Still, 2020’s spending will impact us for years to come.

These are just a few examples of the many disturbing numbers that marked 2020 – there are many other shocking numbers we should be concerned about. (The number of lives lost to gun violence in the U.S. has been on my year-end alpha list many, many times and it probably should be mentioned here, as should the number of blacks killed by police. But honestly, I suspect the 2020 figures related to U.S. gun violence and police killing of blacks wasn’t much out of line with what it’s been for a long while.)

My hope for the new year is that 2021 is not marked by horrifying numbers and that at this time next year, we have happier things to reflect on.

Stay well and care for each other now and throughout the New Year.

Thank you for reading On being….

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … rekindled

By Ingrid Sapona

When I hear about a book that sounds interesting, I go on the Toronto Public Library website to borrow it or put my name on the waiting list for it. With popular books, the wait is sometimes so long that I forget why I thought it would be an interesting read. My memory lapse, however, often proves magical as some books end up feeling like the embodiment of Lao Tzu’s idea that “when the student is ready the teacher will appear.”

This week when I got a notification one of my holds was available, I was surprised to learn it was Barack Obama’s new book. I had placed a hold on it when it was released in November, but the waiting list was long. I suspect that the demand was so high, the library probably ended up purchasing additional copies. Anyway, mindful of the fact that e-books with waiting lists can’t be renewed, I downloaded it immediately and later that afternoon I started it.

After pausing to reflect on the dedications and the brief inspirational poems, I dove into the Preface. I didn’t get too far before I was overcome with emotion. On one level, I felt like I was meeting a friend who I’d not seen for awhile. You know that feeling – part wonderment at being able to pick up where you left off and part sudden awareness of things you didn’t even realize you had been missing. By about the third page of the Preface I realized what it was I’ve been missing: the beauty of language. That, in turn, made me aware of my resentment toward how pathetically small our social vocabulary has become over the past four years. The main reason for this is that Trump has the vocabulary and syntax a third grader.

Initially, I think people assumed his word choice was calculating. His use of simple words like stupid, fake, nasty, and loser made him seem relatable, so the argument went. But, after listening to him for four years, it’s obvious that his word choices are a reflection of the limits of his vocabulary. After all, even when talking about things he likes, or when he’s bragging about his tremendous skills and abilities, the only word he can think of is “great”. Well, in fairness, occasionally he throws in a “the likes of which” for emphasis.

Over time, it’s also became clear that Trump’s limited vocabulary is a reflection of the immaturity of his analytical skills. Even when the proverbial chips were down and everything was on the line (in his mind), Trump was unable to describe the Supreme Court’s decision this past week as anything other than a kid in a schoolyard might. For those who may have missed his insightful tweet about it, he characterized the U.S. Supreme Court justices as having “chickened out” when they denied the Texas Attorney General’s motion to block the ballots of voters in various battle-ground states.

Perhaps most concerning about Trump’s limited vocabulary is how true a reflection it is of his morality. After all, when the primary word you use to describe others is stupid, describing members of the military who have died as suckers or losers is hardly a stretch.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that only big words can convey complex, important ideas. Far from it. Simple words can certainly be used to convey nuanced thinking. Here’s an example of Obama’s use of the single syllable word “watch” in the second paragraph of the Preface: “I hoped to give an honest rendering my time in office – not just a historical record of key events that happened on my watch…” Can you imagine Trump talking about himself as watching over the country’s wellbeing? Trump’s more likely to use the temp to garner attention, as in: “Hey – watch me!”

In just the first few pages of Obama’s book I was reminded of all sorts of words that have been sorely absent from public discourse over the past four years – words like humankind, norms, service, and safeguard. I’m sure Trump’s familiar with these words and their definitions, but the absence of them from his vocabulary speaks volumes about how little he cares about the ideas they represent.

Obama’s book has been just the balm I need now to lift my spirits remind me of the possibilities.  So, here’s to reacquainting ourselves with the dictionary in 2021 and to the return of the kind of well-developed vocabulary needed for thoughtful, in-depth analysis, and polite public discourse.

Happy Holidays everyone – look out for yourself AND for each other!

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona