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The bullies’ pulpit: Meanness is having a moment, so let’s stand up for decency | Column Newspaper icon Email Plus Outline icon My Account icon

The bullies’ pulpit: Meanness is having a moment, so let’s stand up for decency | Column Newspaper icon Email Plus Outline icon My Account icon

Our car’s rear seat serves as something of a confessional booth. Kids say the darndest things back there. I drive my granddaughters, 5 and 8, to their after-school activities a couple of times a week. Ordinarily, when they get home from school, they’re like kids everywhere: ask how their school day went, they’ll say, “All right, I guess,” or the more economical, all-purpose, “Good.”

But it’s different back in the booster seats, where they can only see a halo of my cowlicky white hair above the headrest, like confiding in a dimly seen monsignor. The ritual begins.

“Pops, the girl I told you about last time? I don’t like her.”

“Why, honey?”

“She’s mean to me.”


“She’s a bully. She calls me names.”

“Have you spoken up, told her to stop?”

“Mm-hmm. She just laughs. And keeps doing it every day. Then she mentions church.”

I keep my eyes on the road. At this point, out of discretion, I should note that my granddaughter likes her classmates very much. There are many children in her school, and this encounter could have happened anywhere — at recess, in the hallway.

“What does she say about church?”

“She asked where we went to church. She said if we don’t go, I’m going to hell and will burn there.”

“That’s very wrong of her.”

“Yes. A couple of times, she made me cry. I don’t understand how people can be so mean.”

“Have you told a teacher about it?”

“Should I?”

That’s when things get philosophical: The girls have seen classic movies about good witches and bad witches. Are there good snitches and bad snitches? When do you call on higher authorities? Why are some people mean, some people nice? Why are some people religious and some not? What would St. Thomas Aquinas have said? (OK, that’s me, the Jesuit influence.) The deep stuff, in other words.

Religion is an excellent topic to stay away from at school. In our extended family, we have a crazy quilt of Irish/Scots/French Catholic, with Russian Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim lines intermixed. Our final mishmash is the spare creed we pass along to our kids: tolerance, live-and-let live. We’re skeptical, doubting pragmatists. We discuss ethics, and right and wrong, but we keep our practices — or our non-practice — to ourselves. We even change our minds.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we were talking about bullies these last couple of weeks. Or about good or evil, for that matter. Kids in kindergarten and second grade should have their childhood, and not be subjected to the nastiness of adult politics. But everyone knows kids pick up on stuff. Even in a low-TV environment like ours, for the past couple of years, the shouting about masks and vaccines, the name-calling that goes on in a red-blue state like Florida, has been hard for sharp-eared little sisters to avoid.

Now, since the atrocities of war have broken out in Ukraine, it’s been harder to keep the real world out. Our family has close relatives in Ukraine, and the mood has been tense, anguished. Yet here in Tampa, life goes on. The tooth fairy can’t be put off: a front “toof” lies beneath a pillow. Birthdays arrive, and must be celebrated, especially with colored balloons that let out indecent noises when the air whooshes out, causing shrieks of laughter.

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An adult glances away from the party to see a video bulletin on his iPhone. It is a scene of empty strollers and baby carriages lined up in a square. It is in Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine, memorializing the 109 babies and children — so far — killed by Russian bombing. On my Twitter feed, a historian quotes the “German word of the day,” wohlstandsverwahrlosung, to describe what many of us who live ordinary, privileged lives feel when we compare our “petty grievances to the pain and struggle of people who know the meaning of real problems.”

It’s a useful multisyllabic German word, especially as memories of World War II, of Nazis old and new, of the Cold War, rise again in the electronic public square. It’s so hard to believe — especially for my generation, brought up to duck absurdly beneath our school desks to cover against Russian atomic attacks — that this is actually happening. That we are actually — actually — again witnessing the bombardment of cities and hearing talk of nuclear escalation. As we, safe between our oceans, complain about gas prices and the rising cost of half-caf lattes.

Those of us with family roots in Europe thought those days of rolling tanks crushing cobblestones were mostly over — over there, in the old World War I song. While we watched our own tribal and ideological quarrels strain our American democratic mesh, it was easy to think Europe had become more civilized. With their socialized medicine and free universities and prosperous, charming cities, surely the passions that drove us rough, gun-crazy Americans were a thing of the past in genteel Europe.

Yet now we see, in the heart and breadbasket of eastern Europe, what seems at first like a zap-the-enemy videogame, with Russian-launched shells and hypersonic missiles and thermobaric bombs. Only with real bodies, flattened apartment blocks, bread line massacres, and destroyed maternity wards on our live-TV screens.

There are a hundred million keyboard experts out there right now, amateur geostrategists punditing and pounding away at theories on the causes of our newest running global tragedy. The U.S. and NATO caused it, expanding needlessly, poking the bear. Historic forces caused it, as they always do, with Russia forever defaulting to a single despot and czar-like rule. The pandemic caused it, with Vladimir Putin brooding alone in his extravagant forest dacha — like the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining, growing slowly more paranoid about ghostly plots against him by neighboring countries. Well, with Ukraine only pretending to be a country, he would say.

Of the million theories out there, I pluck — not from the retired generals or the eminent historians — just a few threads suggested by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. She simply described both Donald Trump and Putin as insecure men who think they know better than anyone else. The hard beliefs. The refusal to shift. Oh, and the meanness.

Putin, the ex-KGB man, trained in East Germany, likes to invoke God in his musings about his destiny. He spent some of his five minutes at his Trump-style rally in Moscow telling his forced audience that, by fighting in Ukraine, Russian soldiers were doing God’s work: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his soul for his friends.”

At other times, using the chilling rhetoric we remember from Germany’s past, Putin refers to Ukraine’s Jewish-led government as “drug-addled Nazis,” and to his enemies as “scum.” (Trump likes that word, too.) He calls his intimidated domestic antagonists “midges” that flew into people’s mouths to be “spat out” on the pavement.

Since we’re no longer afraid to use comparisons to Hitler, it’s natural to recall that the fuehrer referred to world Jewry as a “virus” to be exterminated. His own pandemic. As King George sang in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “You’ll be back … you’ll remember you belong to me … And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion … I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”

Trump, the former casino operator, invokes God and religion at twice the word rate that Jimmy Carter did, according to the explanatory journalism publication, The Conversation. He famously held up a Bible (upside down) by a church during a walkabout during disturbances. Of course, no one but the faithful believe a word of it. Of his vice president’s White House prayer meetings, he whispered, “Can you believe these guys believe that?”

It is now a part of historical lore that Trump’s first reaction was to call Putin’s moves “savvy” and “genius.” I don’t think of Trump as a warmonger. That’s not his fixed idea. That would be, instead, his unending, sunup-to-sunset fixation on the obvious lie of his rigged, “stolen” election, repeated by rote after more than 60 court findings proved it false. He was willing, he was compelled, to upend our nation’s general tranquility for over twelve months, tangling democratic institutions — all for the sake of a single, regal, wounded ego. Repetition doesn’t just persuade the listener; it persuades the liar himself.

I remember listening to Trump’s hour-long phone call to the Republican election official in Georgia, nonstop ranting false details, almost like a chant, threatening him with criminal prosecution. I thought, “He just … doesn’t … stop. Relentless.” As earlier, I remembered his unending meanness, mocking the disabled reporter, telling cops to rough up protesters, gangster-style. Though I stand squarely for free speech, I remember how relieved I felt when he was finally banned for shouting “Fire” in a crowded Twitter. And I note with a weary wag of my head that Trump is currently tied with President Joe Biden in the general polls for president in 2024.

It’s not a right-left thing. My own standard for decency in politics runs to my opposite shore, remembering warrior John McCain who stopped a woman during a town hall debate with Barack Obama. Holding a microphone, she said to him she didn’t trust Obama, and wasn’t he an, um, Arab? McCain cut her off and took the mike. “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man (and) citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.”

As I bring my focus down from the broad to the narrow, I hold camera on the bay scene from our tidy balcony, the view I know best. My normal beat in these pages has been to chronicle my family and my age group in my adopted state of Florida. Along the way I began watching the rise of an ambitious young governor gathering steam, and chips, on his way to national office. Gov. Ron DeSantis, powered by an exquisite education and blustery political talents, has managed to put a spin, persuasive to enough voters, on his own fixed idea.

No, I’m not about to suggest that we have a budding Florida Putin in our midst. DeSantis is not an evil man, I believe, just an uncommonly ideological, blindingly ambitious one. He lacks the madness of King George or the world-class narcissism of The Donald. But there’s a drift toward true-belief coercive government in this “Freedom State” that bears watching. It showed itself in his handling of the pandemic, a phenom still with us despite all tropical efforts to deny it. It’s the scene I’ve watched the most closely, and experienced the most intensely.

From his early start as a barely-elected governor, DeSantis gave hope to pragmatists like myself with a mix of policies that included smart takes on the environment as well a friendly-to-business Republican agenda. Not my glass of mango juice, but sane. When the pandemic began, we saw the crackpot pipe come out. Mimicking his mentor Donald Trump (but avoiding his bleach-sipping public idiocies), DeSantis signed on with a crew of off-grid academics and scientists to push — stealthily — the idea that the coronavirus should burn itself out, that the promised vaccines were overrated, and, most of all, that wearing masks was for show. All while “protecting the vulnerable.”

DeSantis has pulled off a neat Orwellian trick. He’s spun his early small-government ideology into a slogan about its being all about freedoms. That is, by using government to restrict freedoms at a dizzying rate, on everything he does not like: school boards, mitigation efforts, teaching kids about sexual fluidity, cruise lines checking health, professors practicing academic freedom teaching about race. On his own say-so, he bought therapeutics that went unused, paying for treatments that were outmoded, and funding facilities that shut down. Because he, and a crackpot advisory board, bucking national and international scientific consensus, knew better.

His tough-guy policies, downplaying vaccines and mocking masks, playing macho to the MAGA crowd, cost not just an incremental number, but thousands of lives. Florida, blessed with forgiving weather, had 1.5 times the COVID death rate of California (338 per 100,000 vs. 220). All he had to was show flexibility, a little give, keep businesses open, yes, but encourage masking during surges. Nope. No pulling back, no weakness shown. It served DeSantis well, among the survivors. It’s made him not just a shoo-in for reelection as governor, but a leading presidential contender to a Trump who’ll be older in 2024 than I am now. And believe me, folks, I’m not feeling that spry myself.

Just the pace! Neither Trump nor Biden — nor I, come to think of it — could keep up. On a near-weekly basis, for a couple of solid years, DeSantis has found a useable twist in every hot-button, red-meat issue, wowing the Fox watchers he knows so well: issuing bounties for angry parents to become snitches, encouraging students to videotape their professors and report suspicious remarks; conjuring an election-watching police force in a state with almost no fraud; diverting state troopers and funds out of state to protect us from dark-skinned border hordes who have cleaner criminal records than your average Florida man. It’s been exhausting just to watch.

And, the meanness. DeSantis, high-fiving crowds, growling that a person’s decision to vaccinate, or not, has no effect on anyone else — a swell thing for the unvaxxed or the immunocompromised to hear. He bullied a group of cowed high schoolers into taking off their masks, calling it “COVID theater.” As it turns out, at least one of the boys had a compromised grandfather, my kind of guy.

As tough guys always do, he hired mean, too. His vax-doubting chief health officer disdained masks, refusing to cover around a cancer-stricken state senator. COVID theater! His press secretary tweeted that protesters against the “don’t say gay” bill were really “grooming” children for perversion. Yow, who even says that? His newest hire for the state board of education is a “Q-Anon-adjacent supporter” of the Capitol insurrection. True dat!

And now, finally, after this month that will live in infamy, I reduce my field of vision to the personal, to my neighborhood. I end with my granddaughter. The scene, you’ll recall, is that she is bullied at school by a schoolmate who’s been taught, at home, that anyone who doesn’t believe in her fairy tale will burn for eternity. Somehow, at the age of 7 or 8, this little bully has been told it’s okay to utter a cruel certitude to a schoolmate, to watch her eyes tear up, to see her face crumple. And to say it again the next day.

As a U.S. commander said, when surrounded by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and told to surrender, “Nuts!” I’m going to suggest to my granddaughter, with her mother’s permission, that she tell her tormentor to stop. Firmly. Bullies need confronting.

I’ll go back to my usual chipper self next column. For now, all I am saying is, give us some peace. God save us all from true believers. And glory to Ukraine. Slava Ukraini!

Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner). He can be reached at gbarrygolson@gmail.com.