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Friday Mailbag: What happened to flu season? Also lawmaker pay raises, Georgia's voting laws, medals for cops, and the modern relevance of Nemiah Scudder

If things like social distancing and masking don't work then what in the world happened to the flu?

mask mandate ban 4/5
Supporters of a proposed ban on mask mandates gather outside the North Dakota Capitol on Monday, April 5, 2021. (Michelle Griffith / Forum News Service)
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MINOT, N.D. — I was telling a friend recently that I probably spend at least a couple of hours every day reading and responding to correspondence from you readers, and their response was to ask me why I put so much work into it.

Part of it is that I am lucky enough to get paid to write and talk, and that's only possible because of you folks. You're my audience, and I have a deep respect for that. When you write me, I feel like I owe you something more than some platitudes in response. Also, I really do love talking about politics with people. Callers were my favorite part of talk radio, back when I used to host a show, and feedback from readers - negative as it can be, sometimes - is my favorite part of writing.

Most of the feedback I get doesn't make it into this column. I try to include a representative sample of what turns up in my inbox. If your message isn't included here doesn't mean it wasn't important. Also, if I don't respond to a message, don't assume I didn't read it.

I almost certainly did, but sometimes there just aren't enough hours in the day to engage with everyone.

All that said, remember you can always reach me at rport@forumcomm.com. Messages included in this column may be edited for clarity and brevity.

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Doug writes in response to my column about anti-masking legislation passed in Bismarck this week: "What is wrong with the legislature? Is it really infringing on our freedoms to require people to wear masks? I am so disappointed with the legislature on this issue. One point that might be made is that it helped prevent flu from spreading this year so that it was almost none existent-probably saved 80,000 lives alone. No one is talking about that positive impact of mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. I am very conservative but wearing a mask at work or when I'm out does not bother me at all to save lives. This Bastiat Caucusis a very strange group of individuals and should be voted out of office."

Doug makes a very interesting point about the flu I hadn't considered.

It's true, flu season almost disappeared this last year. "Typically, the winter months bring the peak of flu season," Johns Hopkins reported in January . "As cases of COVID-19 have soared in the U.S. over the past few weeks, however, cases of the flu have remained extremely low."

The Centers for Disease Control tells us a typical flu season about 45 million illnesses, 810,000 hospitalizations, and about 61,000 deaths each year. As of this morning, the CDC's "Fluview" influenza surveillance report for flu season showed just 1,675 cases through March 27.

That's...remarkable.

If things like social distancing and masking don't work then, as Doug asks, what in the world happened to the flu?
No reasonable person wants the pandemic-era mandates and restrictions we've put in place to be a permanent part of our lives. We all want things to go back to normal, and unfortunately part of normal will be a resurgence in illnesses like the flu and all the suffering, and even death, it brings. It's inevitable. Still, when COVID-19 was ravaging our society, it's pretty clear that things like masking (and social distancing and hand washing, etc.) really did help.

As for the Bastiat Caucus, I'll say that their constituents should spend some time considering just what it is their elected representatives are accomplishing. Are they making good policy, and governing our state competently, or are they more worried about the sort of performative politics that garner media attention and social media likes?

Matthew writes, in response to my column about North Dakota's lawmakers approving a pay raise for themselves :

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The stories about lawmakers "raising their own pay" which we see a variation of every single legislative session are important journalism, to be sure. Self-dealing in politics is hardly an unusual phenomenon. The public should be aware of how much politicians pay themselves. That said, the whole "raising their own pay" thing is a bit of a canard. There is nobody else in the state of North Dakota but the Legislature who can set the pay for legislators.

They are the legislative branch. They write the budgets. By law, nobody else can do it. Lawmakers address their own pay because that's their job.

As for the idea that, in North Dakota, Republicans can do whatever they want - even approve egregiously high pay for themselves - with impunity, I'm not buying it. Left-leaning people in our state are frustrated with a couple of generations of dominance by the NDGOP, and they like to invent a lot of explanations for that - it's gerrymandering! it's partisanship! - that allows them to gloss over a more simple truth.

The North Dakota Democratic-NPL doesn't stand for much of anything the average North Dakota voter wants to cast a ballot for. The candidates who represent the Democratic-NPL are liberals, and North Dakotans mostly aren't.

Adam writes, in response to my column about Major League Baseball and the Georgia voting reforms: "MLB did the right thing standing up against Georgia and the sh***y Jim Crow laws. Stopping people from voting because you don't like how they voted is evil. Republicans are just grasping at straws to stop people from voting against them in any way they can. There was no voter fraud except on the Republican end. So, even though I don't like baseball or football or yadda yadda yadda, good for MLB for standing up against the pieces of s**t who are trying to do evil crap against American democracy."

Allow me to be nuanced in my position on Georgia's voting reforms: I do not like that the impetus for the changes was the Trumpian nonsense about stolen elections, but I do not believe the reforms themselves to be unreasonable, let alone some return to the Jim Crow era.

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Do motivations matter? Sure. Do they matter more than the practical impact of the policy? I don't think so. Good policy can be good, even if it's implemented for the wrong reasons.

Despite the folderol, voting in Georgia really isn't any more difficult than it is in Colorado (where MLB moved the all-star game) or, say, New York , where most of our national press corps live and work. But comparing the efficacy of voting laws state-to-state isn't as easy as some would like to believe. North Dakota is a mostly rural state, and even what we consider to be our urban areas, places like Fargo and Grand Forks, are pretty small. What works for voting laws here probably wouldn't work in California, where our entire state population would add up to a medium-sized city.

The politics around voting laws are awful. Republicans often push tougher regulations based on false notions about vote fraud, and Democrats often deride Republican-backed reforms as racist efforts to suppress votes even when the reforms are, when taken out of a partisan context, perfectly reasonable.

North Dakotans should know this better than most. During the 2018 election cycle then- Senator Heidi Heitkamp , on the ropes and desperate to get traction against her Republican challenger (and current Senator) Kevin Cramer , pushed the idea that North Dakota's modest reforms to voter ID requirements were a calculated effort to suppress Native American votes and cost her re-election. Yet the federal courts allowed those reforms to stand, and after the ballots were counted up, we learned that turnout in Native American communities set records , making it pretty clear that Heitkamp's complaints were rooted in political calculations of her own and not reality.

Mike writes, in response to my column about Grand Forks law enforcement handing out medals named after military honors: "I suspect the hate mail is already filling your inbox due to this article. It was brave and necessary. Hopefully, you can open a few eyes with it."

I actually didn't get much in the way of "hate mail" for that column (and I don't get much that could fairly be described as "hate mail" even from some of my most ardent critics). Some were indignant, suggesting that I was somehow belittling the recipients of those particular honors, specifically, or being disrespectful to law enforcement, specifically.

I don't believe that criticism to be apt. We can, and absolutely should, respect law enforcement for the wonderful service they provide us. It's stressful and dangerous, and they deserve our gratitude, but we can acknowledge that while simultaneously expecting there be a bright line between civilian law enforcement and the military. We have had a rollicking national debate about how law enforcement conducts itself in our society. There are real problems, and many of them are predicated on a military-style attitude in the law enforcement community. It's the equipment and the high-and-tight haircuts and the talk about the general public as "civilians."

Soldiers kill people. They break things. They fight our enemies. If cops are soldiers, then we're the enemies, and that cannot be.

Bob writes, in response to my column about the Bastiat Caucus and the threat they pose to the ongoing political dominance of the NDGOP: "I am a 'long time reader--first-time caller' of your blog. Your latest column regarding the Bastiats and Hoverson's take on religious liberty raised a memory from a story by Robert Heinlein 'If this goes on...' I don't know if you have read it, but it was also republished as "Revolt in 2100". (State Rep. Jeff) Hoverson as Nehemiah Scudder--what a thought. Also, along with blogger and columnist--you should add investigative reporter to your business cards. The work you have done over the last year with (former Minot City Manager Tom) Barry and (former state lawmaker Luke) Simons was stellar and excellent reporting. Keep up the good work.

Heinlein was one of my favorite authors in childhood - 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' probably still influences my political outlook today - though many of his stories haven't aged well. One side effect of the technological marvels we enjoy today is that they make old science fiction stories seem a little silly sometimes.

Still, Heinlein's story about Scudder is, in many ways, a cautionary tale for modern politics. Except that, in the modern era, the preferred religion is the worship of political figures. Disgraced former President Donald Trump, as one example. Senator Bernie Sanders, as another. Those people aren't particularly religious, whatever their public pretensions, but they've built cults of personality around themselves, and that's a dangerous thing.

As calling myself an investigative reporter, it's flattering. I work very hard to make my work illuminating for you readers, even if you might not agree with my conclusions, and often that includes original reporting. Still, some get uptight over an opinion writer like me aspiring to the title "reporter." For that reason, I suppose, I don't use it much for myself.

I'll let my work speak for itself, and people can call me what they like.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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