Faux News Final Edition: Dear 2020

Note to reader: this installment marks the last edition of Faux News. I have promised my readers that I will not mention the word “Trump” again and am challenging all other respectable, national news media to do the same. With the Trump word now unmentionable in print, it is not possible for Faux News to continue. It has been a good run and thanks for reading.

December 31, 2020

Dear 2020,

Okay, 2020, you are outa here, and all I can say is that it is about time. Good riddance! Talk about a screw up! There was so much hope when you arrived exactly one year ago at midnight and look what has happened. First of all, you brought Covid-19 with you. Do you have any idea how bad this was and how bad it still is for us? Whose idea was this anyway? Almost two million people have died on the Planet Earth since you arrived, and some 82 million have been infected. 

And ln the U.S.? My goodness! We are the world’s richest and most advanced country, yet we have handled this pandemic worse than anyone. What do you have against us? We make up only 4 % of the world’s population, yet account for over 18% of the deaths and 25% of the infections. We are approaching 20 million cases in the U.S. and 350,000 deaths. You could have stood up on Day One and said, “No, not on my watch. I am not going to allow a pandemic to happen on the Planet Earth,” but you just caved.

But these stats do not tell the whole story. We humans are sick of wearing masks and social distancing. We want to hug friends and loved ones. We are weary of the isolation. Our children are suffering under virtual learning, and our elders who end up in nursing homes die alone because visiting, even by family, is not permitted.

This is simply unacceptable. And you do not have an excuse. Everyone knows that the first job of a year is to leave matters in better shape than you found them when your turn came. And you just stood by on the sidelines, watching. What were you thinking? I will tell you one thing: You can forget about getting the “Best Year Award” at the next convention that happens when all the years gather. It will not happen, and, frankly, you will be damn lucky if you don’t get the “Worst Year Award.”

But it is not just Covid. What about all the other bad things than happened on your watch, 2020? Okay, I can’t fault you for Trump. That was 2016’s fault– and, God knows, that was a big screw up too–but you surely did nothing to constrain this scoundrel. His outrageous behavior got worse by the day, and you did not do one thing to stop it—his constant lying, his stoking the fires of division, his assault on the press and free speech, his denial of climate change, his racism, his support for dictators, his egomania and narcissism, his refusal to concede when he lost, his inept handling of the pandemic…. The list is a long one.

Well, he will be replaced in three weeks, but his awful legacy will last a long time, and you will be held responsible for that.

And what about the other major issues that our planet is facing? Have you done anything to help prevent climate change? Temperatures continue to rise. Storms are more violent. Wild fires are worse. The ocean is rising. Deserts are expanding. I would give you a D- at best.

And what about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. and in many other countries? And the widening gap between the rich and poor nations? What about lingering racism in the U.S. and elsewhere? What about the rise of neo-Nazi groups and thugs like the Proud Boys and others that foster hate? And the frayed social safety net and inadequate health care here in the U.S.? There is so much that needs to be done  that did not get done on your watch. Shame on you!

So starting tomorrow, January 1, your successor, 2021, will take over. I do not know what you years say to each other at the changing of the guard, but I hope that at the very least you will give your replacement a heads up as to what can be expected. I will admit 2021 is being dealt a tough hand to play—but not one without hope. Year 2021 has an ace in the hole with several vaccines to prevent Covid-19 now starting to be distributed. And there will be a new face in the White House—a man of compassion, empathy and experience. Those are huge, and I suppose I have to give you some credit, 2020, for providing these tools for 2021 to work with.

 But 2021 still faces big challenges. Our political divisions continue. Afterall, almost half the country not only voted for Trump but think he is one of our greatest presidents, and over 80% of his hard-core supporters think the election was fraudulent and rigged. 2021 will have to deal with false information and a loss of faith in democracy. The issues of latent racism and economic justice continue, and the climate change clock keeps ticking.

So, one last thing you can do, 2020, before you take off for good is to admit your failings and shortcomings and to inspire your protégée, 2021, to do better. This can happen. I know it can and have faith that if 2021 steps up to the challenge, we can slog our way toward a better nation and better world.

Yours truly,

Joseph T Howell


Faux News

Final note: Since this is the last issue of Faux News, readers are encouraged to weigh in with your comments regarding both this letter and the series.

The Meaning of Christmas for “Nones.”

Note to reader: “Nones” are those who say they do not have a church or religious affiliation, a term which applies to lot of GenXers and Millennials including the Howell children and grandchildren. Last Christmas, the Christmas of 2019, my daughter, Jessica, asked me to deliver a “Christmas message” to the 16 of us gathered in her cozy, Maine home after our Christmas dinner—our two children and their spouses, our four grandchildren, all now teenagers or close to it, and our niece and nephew and  their  families , two dogs, a cat and a pet snake. This is what I came up with (expanded and edited for 2020):

Now I know that what many of us cherish most about Christmas is gathering together with family and loved ones, exchanging gifts, watching  gleeful children and grandchildren when they see the presents from Santa, enjoying a Christmas feast, singing Christmas carols, and just hanging out around a warm fire at a time when the days are cold and dark but just starting to get longer again.

We often forget, however, that Christmas is also a holy day. Christmas is the day that Christians set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This happened over 2000 years ago and is a major feast day for over two billion people on the planet Earth who are Christians. We are honoring the occasion tonight with a small family gathering where for a few moments we think about what the meaning of Christmas is, that is, the religious meaning of Christmas.

It occurs to me that some here might ask the question, do you have to be a Christian or a member of a Christian church to understand, appreciate, or participate in the meaning of Christmas from a spiritual or religious perspective. 

Now you know that Embry and I do go to church regularly and in fact Embry is on the governing board of All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington. You may even recall that I went to Union Theological Seminary in NYC and studied to become an Episcopal priest. So, you can say that we probably have paid our dues. That maybe we are in a better position to understand the religious meaning of Christmas more than someone who doesn’t attend church.

There may be some truth to this, but on a deeper level, I think that you do not have to go to church or even have to call yourself a believer to “get it” when it comes to what Christmas is all about and what the meaning of Christmas is on a deeper level than a family gathering.

I believe there is a spiritual and holy dimension to the life all of us humans experience. This is evident when we ask the question why are we here on this small, obscure planet. When we ask what is the meaning and purpose of life, why are things the way they are, and why aren’t they better. Why do we have to die? And what happens after we die? Why is there evil in the world? I venture to say that these questions are asked at one time or another by virtually every person. It is our nature. It is the way our brains work. It is what makes us human.

In my thinking and experience, religion is the term we use to describe the search for answers that are beyond our rational understanding as mere humans. We can’t fathom why we live in a universe where our small, blue planet circling around a run-of-the mill star is a mere speck in a galaxy of over 400 billion stars, most with their own solar systems and planets. And according to NASA estimates, there may be as many as two trillion galaxies in the universe!  In fact, some astronomers now speculate that our universe may be part of a multiverse where there are an infinite number of universes. Scientists tell us that it all started with the Big Bang around 14 billion years ago and is expanding. But they don’t tell us why.  We humans don’t have the scientific answer to the why of the Big Bang. We never will.

But what does this have to do with the religious meaning of Christmas?  While science can tell us a lot about what, it cannot answer the question why nor does it try to. This is where religion comes in. Having faith and belief that life makes sense somehow–in some mysterious way “that passes all understanding” –is the foundation of religious belief. Now there are many different religions on the planet Earth and about a half dozen or so major religions,  Christianity being the largest. However, I am not one to say that Christianity has all the answers or that it is the only way to make sense out of the world or the meaning of life, or even more important, about the ability to experience the Divine. I look at the search for meaning as having one destination with many pathways. Christianity is one pathway.

And what is that pathway? The Christian story begins with a baby born in humble conditions, an infant who is a symbol of hope.  This child became special because of the life he lived, which many people believe provides a road map for us humans to follow and provides a clue as to the meaning of life. This person was a healer and a charismatic prophet who called for a new order where the poor, not the rich, would experience the kingdom of God. He called for justice and peace on Earth. To his followers he embodied the Divine.

He also was executed on a cross. But early Christians believed that in a strange and mystical way, after his death Jesus continued to live. They called this the “Resurrection” –which Christians celebrate on Easter. For Christians the Resurrection of Jesus means that love ultimately prevails, that God is love, that there is meaning and purpose to life, and that we should commit ourselves to work for peace, justice and the end of suffering. Through faith in Jesus as the Christ or the “son” of God, Christians also believe there is a pathway to experiencing the Divine.

The most important message of Christmas for me can be boiled down to one word: hope. Just as the birth of every child is a manifestation of hope by the baby’s parents, the birth of Jesus is a manifestation of hope for a better world, a world where hate and violence are replaced by love and acceptance and where justice prevails.

So the meaning of Christmas is that you do not have to count all the stars in the universe to find its meaning and purpose. That while the vastness of our universe remains a mystery beyond human understanding and while suffering in this world is very real, the religious meaning of Christmas provides hope that our life on our small planet does make sense, that our lives have value and that ultimately goodness will win over evil–and that we are called to help make that happen.

This I believe is the good news of Christmas. But I also think this good news is not just for people who call themselves Christians or believers. It is a universal message for everyone including those who consider themselves one of the “Nones.”





Dodging the Bullet

Some time ago PBS broadcast a series on the rise of Hitler. I recorded several of the episodes and watched the 1933-1934 episode again last night when Hitler had his best friend, Ernst Rohm, leader of the Storm Troopers, executed as part of his final consolidation of power when scores of his followers whom he perceived as threats to his power were killed in what came to be known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” What struck me most about the series—and especially the portrait presented in the Night of the Long Knives episode—was how similar Hitler was compared to Trump in terms of personality. He was egotistical, narcissist, obsessed with power and without a conscience. Murdering to achieve a goal was not an issue. The day following the Night of the Long Knives, he hosted an elaborate cocktail party for his top lieutenants, all sycophants. The PBS episode noted that hardly a word was spoken at the joyous gala about the executions that had occurred the preceding day.

You may argue that the comparison is not fair because Trump as far as we know  never actually murdered anyone. Yes, but still….

Another similarity that came out of the episode was how divided Germany was before Hitler came into power—Communists, Socialists, intellectuals, business people, professionals,   the elite establishment, the army, and the alienated working class–all vying for power and at each other’s throats. Germany was in chaos in the 1920s and early 30s . Inflation was in the triple digits. Many were jobless. Few felt safe or secure. Hitler’s appeal was that he promised stability for the country, and he promised retribution. He would save the country from its dominance by the elites and the rich, from instability, from sky rocketing inflation, from fuzzy-headed intellectuals, and from the Communist revolutionaries. He would make Germany “great again.” He promised that those who had suffered most would get even—a populist message that resonated among the workers and many in the lower and middle class who had been hurt most by the Great Recession and Germany’s post war humiliation.

 The result was that Hitler drew support from people who were mesmerized by his charismatic leadership and by his message and who became his loyal devotees, enthusiastic to do his bidding. Some have observed that his most ardent followers were like a cult. They became Hitler’s “base” and supported him at all costs. The base intimidated many in government and politics and people suspected of not being loyal to Hitler. While his base probably never totaled more than 40% of the population, it was strong enough to cause ordinary citizens and people of good will to to remain silent on the sidelines.

Sound familiar?

You may argue that no, the divisions in Germany  were far more pronounced  than they are in our divided country, and in the U.S. the opposition to Trump remains strong, thanks in part to a free press and the rule of law. Yes, this is true, but still…

And finally, there was Hitler’s unifying message: make Germany great again and get rid of all those who were not of the pure race, the Aryans. “Making Germany pure  again” was the third leg of the stool and was Hitler’s most compelling, unifying message. In a zero sum game, there are winners and losers; and for Germany to become truly great again, the winners had to rid the country of the losers—gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped people and, most of all, Jews.

You may argue that nothing like this could ever happen in the U.S. You are right that what happened in Germany was far worse than anything that has happened under Trump, but still….

The anti-immigration message of Trump is a major reason for Trump’s popularity and appeal. And ripping children away from their parents as they sought legal asylum in the U.S. has  intimations of what was happening in Germany in the 1930s.

Yes, it could happen here.

But it didn’t, and that is the big story as 2020 mercifully begins to fade into history. We dodged the bullet. Who knows what would have happened if Trump’s effort to overturn the election results had been successful?

Think of the many what ifs. What if the elected officials in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia had caved, including the many Republicans who stood firm in certifying a fair election? What if the judges, including many appointed by a Republican president, had allowed the bogus lawsuits to proceed? What if the three Trump appointees on the Supreme Court  had voted in Trump’s favor and persuaded others appointed by Republican Presidents to do so as well –as Trump had assumed they would–and thrown out the election results in these battleground states that Trump lost? If any of these actions had occurred, it would be a different story. We would be facing disaster.

But the dam held. Our institutions and checks and balances did what they were supposed to do. The guard rails worked. Courageous people stood up for what is right. The rule of law won.

But the fight is not over. Over 100 Republican elected representatives—”ReTrumplicans”?– in the House and Senate weighed in in support of Trump  to nullify the votes needed so that  Trump could  win in the battleground states .  States attorneys general from red states all over the country also supported the effort to allow state legislatures controlled by Republicans to appoint electors who would vote for Trump even though the popular vote was for Biden. Republicans supporting Trump are pointing to two more dates when they will have a chance to reverse the election outcome—Monday, December 14, when the electoral votes for president are cast and Wednesday, January 6, when they are officially certified. And Trump still is tweeting that not only did he win by the largest margin in U.S.  history and had the election stolen, he—not Biden—will be sworn in at high noon on January 20. Over 70% of Republicans echo Trump’s mantra that the election was stolen. Trump’s hard-core base is incensed. Some are armed and ready. Just last night thousands of Trump supporters led by the Proud Boys marched in downtown Washington, resulting in dozens of arrests, fist fights with onlookers, and at least four stabbings.

We won this battle. The war is far from over.



Advent in Covid Time

Note to reader:   This  is a brief essay that I wrote this week  for the  newsletter for All Souls Episcopal Church, where Embry and I have been members  since the mid 1980s.

What will historians say about the year 2020? There has never been anything like it in my lifetime of almost 80 years. Covid-19 has affected the entire world though the U.S. has been hit the hardest. We have already lost more than 300,000 Americans to this dread disease. Some 15 million of us have been infected, and the number is growing by over 3,000 deaths a day as the pandemic rages on. Is there anyone in the U.S. that does not know of someone who has been infected?    And what about all those who are grieving the thousands who have died?

These are indeed hard times. Many of us feel like we have been confined to house arrest. We are not able to hug friends and be with family and loved ones for special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. We are sick of having to wear masks and to keep our social distancing and are tired of Zooming, though without it we would be even worse off. We are weary of the isolation and the uncertainty. We are wondering how long this will go on, and will we dodge the bullet.

Advent gives us a clue and something to hold on to. As the days get shorter and colder, you can understand why our prehistoric ancestors must have wondered whether every year might be the last. Would the days keep getting shorter until darkness prevailed on the planet forever? But like a miracle, every year the days would start getting longer again. Another bullet dodged.

 Life for many of us humans from time to time has its periods of darkness and despair. We wonder if there is light at the end of the tunnel. We ask—will we get through this?

The message of Advent is that yes, we will. At the end of this darkening season comes Christmas. Days will start getting longer again. On Christmas day we Christians will celebrate the birth of a child in a manger whose life showed us that there is light at the end of this tunnel, that life does have purpose and meaning, that in the end love prevails, that all human life is sacred, and that we all are children of God.

And this Advent, the light is already starting to flicker. Vaccines are on the way. Yes, 2021 will also be hard, but we will get through this.