The Recovering Pessimist

Pets can help us cope with the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect time to adopt – or foster – a pet.

Anxiety levels are understandably high right now, and companion animals have been clinically proven to lower stress rates and even improve heart health.

Plus, they’re great at relieving the loneliness many of us are feeling right now because of the necessary social distancing and shelter-in-place efforts.

I’ve been working from home for three weeks now, and I rarely venture out of the house. My two cats have been constant companions, and they’re also endless sources of entertainment.

The “boys,” as I call them, are Henry and Edgar, and if you’re friends with me on social media, you’re very familiar with them both. I think they’re both minor celebrities due to my Facebook and Instagram pages, and when I talk to others, I’m almost always asked how they’re doing.

Henry is the older of the two and recently turned 6. He’s an all-black cat except for one tiny white dot at the very tip of his tail. He’s a fat and happy cat, and he spends most of his time curled up next to me. As I tell others, he supervises my work. I think he generally disapproves of anything that doesn’t involve us napping or him getting food.

Edgar – the black-and-white one – is still very much a kitten and is less than a year old. I found him on the porch in mid-2019, and he was a pitiful looking little creature. I spent several weeks luring him to me, and I finally succeeded in gaining his trust and getting him to the veterinarian. He then moved in with us, and despite Henry’s initial resistance, has become a beloved member of the household.

It wasn’t easy getting the two to socialize, but they now spend as majority of their days cuddled up to each other or chasing each other around the house. They rarely fight, and Henry seems to have settled into his new role as a big brother or adopted dad. If you can’t tell, I love them both very much.

Henry is also a rescue animal. I adopted him from one of the local animal shelters when he was a tiny kitten, and I’m glad I did. He has added much love to my life over the years.

In fact, I’ve had rescue animals for my entire life. My childhood pets included a calico cat who was found in the woods and lived with us until her death at the age of 18. My loyal boyhood dog, who died from cancer several years ago, was a rescue from an animal shelter, and we later adopted another dog from the same shelter. His name is Napoleon, and he’s elderly now but still full of energy.

It’s amazing how much joy animals can add to our lives, and we all need a little joy right now. We also need a jolt of positivity, and what’s more positive than a happy cat or dog?

If you’re on the fence about adopting, I encourage you to visit one of our local shelters and at least try fostering. Our shelters are almost always at full capacity or over their capacity, and these animals need a savior. You can make an immediate impact by fostering or adopting, and you’ll feel great about doing it.

These shelters are doing the Lord’s work, and they hold a special place in my heart. Consider helping them out, and I suspect you’ll find that you’ve helped yourself, too, in countless ways.

Have fun loving on a pet, and stay safe until we talk again.

Order from Reeves has suspicious timing

Are politics at play during the COVID-19 pandemic?

They sure seem to be, and one doesn’t have to look far to see what I mean.

For weeks, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves resisted calls to implement a statewide shelter-in-place order, but last week, he suddenly reversed course and issued the order. The order came after a rapid rise in the number of positive cases throughout the state and multiple deaths.

Only hours before, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a similar order, and, in explaining his action, said that he did so after a “change in demeanor” from President Donald J. Trump.

In recent weeks, the president has certainly changed his tone on the virus. For months, he downplayed the severity of the threat, but he seems to have finally realized that the virus is a problem that will not be solved with partisan rhetoric.

Under his leadership, the federal government is now encouraging strict social distancing policies and finally pumping much-needed medical supplies to the states.

Did Reeves, like DeSantis, only change his mind about the order after receiving permission of sorts from the White House? The timeline seems to confirm my suspicion, and it’s also helpful to remember that both governors are well-known allies of the president.

It’s alarming to think that elected governors – leaders who should uphold the best interests of their citizens over the beliefs of a president – are taking cues from Trump in times of crisis.

These leaders should instead rely on experts – and, in this case – medical professionals.

Mississippi Today, the statewide nonprofit news organization, said that a big reason for Reeves choosing to issue the order was a grim plea from LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor and dean of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

In an email to Reeves, Woodward wrote, “Without a statewide ‘shelter in place’ starting very soon (which is proving effective elsewhere), our health system will be overwhelmed. The immediate time frame (right now) is our last inflection point in controlling COVID-19 in our state.”

Woodward added that a shelter-in-place order “is the only additional thing we can do right now to decrease the force of the impact … every ventilator and ICU bed we can spare will matter.”

Despite the excellent reporting by Mississippi Today, I think there’s much more to Reeves issuing the order than an email from Woodward. Her request should have been all that was needed, but I have a sinking feeling politics were at play.

During his lengthy career in Mississippi politics, Reeves has proven to be quite the political animal, and he has also chosen to closely align himself with Trump. Like DeSantis, he seems to bask in the limelight that Trump occasionally shines on him via his Twitter feed.

I hope I’m wrong, and I hope that Reeves is not making his decisions based on the shifting moods of the Trump White House. The governor needs to remember that he was elected to serve the citizens of Mississippi and not the president.

It’s time for Reeves to set politics aside and be a forward-thinking, independent and strong governor of the Magnolia State.

The coronavirus relief package: Complicated, expensive and necessary

The federal government recently approved a $3 trillion economic relief package to respond to the coronavirus crisis, and, despite the sticker shock, it seems to be a mostly good and necessary piece of legislation.

Democrats and Republicans alike deserve a round of applause for working together to get the package, officially called the CARES Act, passed. There’s a healthy amount of criticism that can be assigned to either side and to the president for the government’s slow response, but the relief package is a good start.

However, a start is all it is. Other countries are doing more to guarantee lost wages and stabilize their flailing economies, and I believe it’s only a matter of time before our federal government has to inject even more money into American households, especially as unemployment numbers soar and as the economy continues on a nosedive trajectory.

For now, government-issued stimulus checks will be coming to most Americans. The one-time check will depend on income, but single adults who have an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less can expect $1,200. Married couples without children who earn $150,000 or less will receive $2,400.

Taxpayers who file as head of household and earn $112,500 or less can also expect $1,200. For every qualifying child age 16 or under, there will be additional payments of $500. The total check decreases for higher incomes and stops altogether for single people earning $99,000 or married people who have no children and earn $198,000.

The check will arrive within three weeks, and the amount will be based on 2019 or 2018 tax data. If you haven’t filed a 2019 return yet, it may be a good time to do so, especially if you’ve recently moved, updated other personal information or if your income has changed. The IRS will directly deposit funds to your bank if they have your account information on file.

The check comes with few strings attached, and you won’t be required to pay income taxes on the additional money. People who receive Social Security retirement and disability payments each month will receive a stimulus check, as will eligible unemployed people and veterans. The relief package also temporarily suspends most garnishments except for child support.

The CARES Act greatly expands unemployment insurance coverage. Self-employed and part-time workers are now eligible for benefits. People suffering from COVID-19 – or those caring for someone with the virus – are also eligible for assistance. Also covered under the package are parents who have seen their daycare provider close due to the pandemic.

The package also adds an additional $600 to the maximum unemployment insurance weekly benefit offered by each state. In Mississippi, the maximum weekly benefit is $235, meaning an unemployed worker in the state could receive $835 per week with the addition of the federal cash. The additional $600 weekly benefit can last up to four months.

Most Americans with student loans will benefit from the CARES Act. Loan payments are suspended until October, and interest is also suspended for the six-month period. These rules are for direct loans – or money borrowed from the federal government – and will impact 90 percent of student loans, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

Another benefit is the more than $370 billion in government-backed bank loans that are now available for small businesses through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The loans are meant to help cover monthly expenses like payroll, rent and utilities, and businesses will not have to repay portions of loans used for these purposes.

The CARES Act also pushes $140 billion to the U.S. health system, including $100 billion directly to hospitals. The cash is meant to provide personal protective equipment to health care workers and also boost the supply of COVID-19 testing kits. Under the legislation, virus testing – and any potential vaccines – are to be covered at no cost for patients.

Additionally, evictions are temporarily suspended for renters whose landlords have mortgages backed or owned by federal entities. These landlords are also prohibited from charging any late fees for nonpayment of rent. Homeowners with mortgages backed by federal entities are protected from foreclosures for as long as 180 days.

If cash is needed to recover from the pandemic, the package temporarily suspends the 10 percent penalty on withdrawals from individual retirement accounts or workplace retirement plans and spreads any income taxes owed on withdrawn money over three years. Americans can also borrow up to $100,000 from their 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan.

The legislation has many other interesting – and impactful – provisions, including increased cash for the agricultural bailout program, a year-long extension of the REAL ID program, new rules for charitable deductions and billions of dollars for state, local and tribal governments. This money is to be used for local disaster relief funds, election security grants and even transit improvements. 

Of course, getting this piece of legislation passed was a politically charged process, and the final bill also includes a $454 billion emergency lending fund for businesses, states and cities. Within this provision is nearly $60 billion for airlines and $17 billion for companies “critical to maintaining national security,” such as Boeing and perhaps even the oil industry.

These payments do come with strings attached. Bailed-out corporations must keep most of their workforce, stop buying back shares of their own stock, cap the pay of their executives and end dividend payments to shareholders while receiving aid.

Like I said, the CARES Act is mostly good, but I could have done without billion-dollar corporate bailouts. I’m hopeful, though, that the aid provided to average Americans and to small businesses will prove that this relief package was necessary, and I hope the government will take additional steps if they need to do so.

Americans need to be financially empowered during this crisis, and our leaders must be ready to act before the crisis worsens – and not react, as they did this time.

The possible positives of a post-pandemic world

The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is, for me, the most unsettling part of the pandemic. We do not know when it will end, nor do we know what the world will look like when the crisis finally subsides. However, I am choosing to be optimistic, and I am looking at the possible positives of the world following the virus.

A major positive is that the pandemic could make loving our neighbors – you know, the biblical teaching we all seem to sometimes forget – the next big thing. Americans are known for their ability to unite in a crisis, and that unity is desperately needed in our polarized country. Instead of viewing ourselves as Republicans or Democrats, we could again view ourselves as Americans – especially as we realize we are all in this together, no matter the outcome.

Hopefully, the pandemic also causes us to realize we are global citizens and that policies like “America First” will not work in the long term. For the country to be successful, we must actively participate in global affairs, and we must care what happens to our neighbors beyond the borders of our country.

Another positive can be found in the amount of innovations that are happening in the midst of the pandemic. Dr. Rambod Rouhbakhsh of Forrest Health was recently asked for good news in the face of COVID-19. He said, “The thing that I’m most hopeful about is innovation – whether it is getting our groceries, medical care, education … this may really have some silver linings in terms of the way we do business and interact with one another. This could push us into the 21st century in ways we were crawling into it.”

In just a few short weeks, we have seen the power of technology at work. Classes are moving to a virtual format, and my gym is even offering online workouts. Our institutions – banks, churches, grocery stores, hospitals and more – are quickly and effectively adapting to what could be the new normal.

Telemedicine – or the practice of caring for a patient remotely – will be part of that new normal. The capability to electronically visit a physician is already there, and it has been allowable in the U.S. for years. In fact, I remember attending my first telemedicine session back in 2015. My then-health insurance provider offered an app that allowed you to virtually visit a physician, and I used it on an occasion when I had a severe sinus infection.

There are clear benefits to the telemedicine system. Convenience, of course, is at the top of the list, but virtual care also improves overall access to medicine and reduces costs associated with traveling to visit a physician. Some early studies also indicate that telemedicine improves the overall quality of care and reduces unnecessary emergency room visits.

The pandemic could also transform other systems, such as the way we vote – and it could be the end of the road for physical polling places. The rise of electronic voting is already on the way; in fact, it has been 10 years since Congress first passed laws requiring electronic balloting for military personnel and other citizens living abroad. Joe Brotherton, chairman of a startup firm that provides electronic ballots, believes the “adoption of more advanced technology – including secure, transparent, cost-effective voting from our mobile devices” is on the way, according to a Politico article.

Brotherton said a hybrid model – mobile-phone voting with paper ballots for tabulation – is already being implemented for the 2020 election cycle in “certain jurisdictions.” Meanwhile, voting by mail could also become an option because of the pandemic, with some states, such as Utah, Oregon and Washington, already allowing such an option, according to the article. These changes will make it easier for some to vote and could even encourage more civic participation at the ballot box.

What are some other things that could change?

  • Health care staff, small business owners and employees, store clerks, truck drivers, utility workers … these soldiers on the front lines of the pandemic could finally get the respect they deserve.
  • The health care system could get a major revamp, especially as the crisis continues to point out glaring holes in the system. Whether this is a public option or something else, expect this issue – already a major political talking point – to explode in importance.
  • Introverts – and germaphobes – unite! The pandemic could end the handshake, the fist bump or the awkward hug. Personally, I am rooting for the Vulcan salute as our new universal greeting, but I understand that may meet a little resistance.
  • That two-hour meeting Monday morning, the one filled with a lot of small talk … yeah, it could have been an email. The pandemic could end our obsession with meetings, and it could greatly streamline business while boosting productivity.
  • Our sick world will get a respite. Studies are already showing how the skies are clearing in previously polluted areas, such as hugely populated cities in China. Could the virus make us understand the real challenges of climate change and make us treat our planet a little bit better? That remains to be seen, but I am hopeful.

Trump has failed the country with pandemic response

The COVID-19 pandemic should be the end of the road for the Trump presidency.

The federal government has failed in its initial response, and that responsibility falls squarely on the president’s shoulders. He was elected to lead, and he has proven he is unable to do so.

Of course, what was anyone really expecting from Trump? This is the president who has tried – multiple times – to cut funding for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also fired the U.S. pandemic response team, and he didn’t replace them. This is also the president who said, just a few weeks ago, that the virus was a new “Democratic hoax.”

I don’t know what changed his tune this past week when he finally declared a national state of emergency. It may have been his own close call with COVID-19 – after all, he was supposedly tested after being exposed to it at Mar-a-Lago – or it may have been the fact that thousands of Americans have now fallen ill with the virus. I guess it’s hard to persist with the “hoax” talk when your own people are dying.

Whatever the case may be, I’m afraid our government’s response is “too little, too late,” especially as other countries have implemented strong testing measures and even started quarantines. In South Korea, for example, residents can go through drive-thru testing sites and get results texted directly to their cellphones within 10 minutes. By the way, did I mention the test is free, paid for by the government?

Hong Kong is another example. After the first cases were detected, the government quickly developed diagnostic tests and deployed them to every major hospital. More than 12,000 people were placed in quarantine, and government leaders called for calm. With a unified response, Hong Kong is seeing a limited number of cases instead of explosive impacts.

A similar situation can be found in Singapore and in several other countries. The countries hit the hardest, such as Italy and Iran, all failed to respond quickly to the pandemic and downplayed its enormous impact. Those countries have casualty numbers in the thousands.

The U.S. response should have been immediate and decisive. Instead, as one article put it, we are acting like a “failed state” with no idea how to handle such a crisis. Our leaders don’t have consistent messaging, and Trump has even tried to control public health notices issued from the CDC. As Ashish Jha, who runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, put it, our government’s response has been a “fiasco.”

The U.S. is currently reporting thousands of cases, but that number is probably extremely low due to a weeks-long delay in deploying tests, said Jha. He expects the number to be probably “five to 10 times as many cases out in the community as have actually been detected,” according to an NPR report.

“Without testing, you have no idea how extensive the infection is. You can’t isolate people. You can’t do anything,” he said. “And so then we’re left with a completely different set of choices. We have to shut schools, events and everything down, because that’s the only tool available to us until we get testing back up. It’s been stunning to me how bad the federal response has been.”

The responsibility for the “fiasco” of the federal response goes back to Trump. This hasn’t been a hoax, Mr. President, and you and your administration will go down in history as extremely ineffective and weak in a time of crisis.

When Trump took office, his inaugural address was about stopping the “American carnage,” but as our casualty numbers mount, I wonder what the carnage will look like over the next few months. It’s a terrifying proposition.

We can’t afford another crisis with Trump at the helm (literally … I mean, take a look at the stock market), and we certainly can’t afford four more years of potential disaster because we have such an irresponsible leader.

Trump must be voted out in November. It’s no longer a game of politics. It’s a game of our survival.

Payment to Southern Miss doesn’t pass ‘the smell test’

Mississippi Today recently wrote an eye-opening account of University of Southern Mississippi officials using $5 million in federal welfare funds – paid to them by the Mississippi Community Education Center – to build a state-of-the-art volleyball facility at the Hattiesburg campus.

MCEC was founded by a Southern Miss alumna, Nancy New, who also sat on the board of the university’s athletic foundation. The multi-million dollar payment was for a five-year lease on all of the university’s athletic facilities, and MCEC was supposed to use the facilities to provide programming for the local underserved population.

It’s unclear the extent of that programming, and university officials have only offered up one event as proof of the fulfillment of the lease. When I questioned them last week for our story, which added a Feb. 28 statement from the university to Mississippi Today’s fine account, they had no further comment but said they’d be looking to respond in the future.

I hope they do because, as one of our readers put in an email to me, this entire transaction “doesn’t pass the smell test.” It’s even more alarming when you consider that New is caught up in a state embezzlement investigation and is accused of stealing welfare money set aside to help our most needy neighbors.

As the Mississippi Today report pointed out, those neighbors don’t play volleyball and won’t benefit from the university’s beautiful new volleyball facility, which is officially known as the Wellness Center. I think it’s known as that, but I can’t be sure. University officials did not confirm its official name or when it will open when I asked for comment.

I do know it cost $7 million, and MCEC paid – upfront – $5 million. According to a statement from the university’s chief communication officer James Coll, the other $2 million was raised from private donors.

In the Feb. 28 statement I mentioned above, university officials admitted they were “disappointed that the concept (of services provided by MCEC) has not materialized to the extent presented to the University – through no fault of USM.” However, in the same statement, the university was quick to point out they had no legal obligation to return the $5 million if the deal fizzled out.

And it’s fizzling quickly, it seems. MCEC is suspending services around the state as its founder is in the midst of a legal battle and as grant awards to the nonprofit are withheld. According to an emailed statement from Coll to Mississippi Today, “it is now apparent that MCEC is unlikely to continue as an active partner in the agreement.”

From my viewpoint, it doesn’t appear that MCEC ever followed up on its promises, and I can’t tell if university officials ever pressed them on it – or if they just quickly deposited a check and started construction.

Under New’s leadership, MCEC received more than $65 million in federal funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services over the course of a few years, and that money was supposed to help the state’s poor. The state has admitted that it did not follow procedures, and the money was seemingly mismanaged.

They’ve instituted new policies to ensure “these actions never happen again … and the money goes to people who need it,” according to a DHS spokesperson. In the meantime, the poor continue to suffer, including people who are our neighbors here in the Hub City.

University officials have to be aware of the bad optics of this situation, and the ethical – and logical – thing to do is void the agreement with MCEC. Additionally, they should return the $5 million to state coffers, and DHS officials should ensure it is used to provide direct assistance to those who truly need it.

I’m not at all against the USM women’s volleyball team having a great facility to use for their practices and matches, and I think the Wellness Center is likely needed on campus. However, in light of these recent developments, the $5 million should be found elsewhere.

Mitchell’s ‘Race Against Time’ confronts the South’s difficult past

Mississippi-based investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell is a hero in my eyes, and I was happy to see his much-anticipated memoir, “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era,” hit bookshelves earlier this year.

The book – published by Simon & Schuster in February – is a lengthy and emotional walk through the author’s intense career as an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, and I’m proud to recommend it as one of my favorite books.

“Race Against Time” begins with Mitchell’s start as one of the Ledger’s court reporters. He is interested in civil rights-era killings, and his bravery – and determination to win justice – takes hold of his work. Mitchell tackles cold cases that haven’t seen the light of day in years, and he is richly rewarded with numerous convictions of Klansmen who previously escaped justice.

Mitchell’s work was highly dangerous. In the 1980s, when his journey for justice began, the Klan was still highly active in Mississippi – and they made their disdain for Mitchell and his reporting known. Still, he doggedly pursued justice in cases like the assassination of Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP.

Byron De La Beckwith shot Evers with an Enfield 1917 rifle in the early morning hours of June 12, 1963, as Evers was headed into his home. De La Beckwith was arrested for the murder and was tried for the crime – twice – in early 1964, but the juries deadlocked both times. He may have escaped justice forever had it not been for Mitchell’s determination.

The reporter helped unearth new evidence in the Evers murder, and he also put pressure on Mississippi authorities to retry De La Beckwith. He was successful, and De La Beckwith was convicted of murder in 1994.

Mitchell was also instrumental in securing justice for the family of Vernon Dahmer. Dahmer, who lived in the Kelly Settlement near Hattiesburg, was a local civil rights leader famous for his work to secure African Americans the right to vote. Dahmer was also a two-term president of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP.

On the night of Jan. 10, 1966, a group of Klansmen firebombed Dahmer’s home, resulting in his death while defending his family and securing them from harm. Fourteen men were indicted for the Dahmer murder, but only four of them were convicted while another entered a guilty plea. The person who ordered the killings – Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the Klan – was tried four times, and each trial ended in a mistrial.

Once again, Mitchell used his journalistic talents to apply pressure to authorities. He sought out new evidence, built networks of information, cultivated sources and coaxed stories out of them, and his work was rewarded with the state reopening the case on the 25th anniversary of the Dahmer murder. It took seven years, but Bowers was convicted in 1998.

The third story in the book is about Mitchell’s investigation of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He interviewed one of the primary suspects, Bobby Cherry, who had previously evaded justice, and he identified numerous holes in Cherry’s alibi. With this help, the Alabama attorney general was able to reopen the case and convict Cherry.

In its final chapters, the book recounts Mitchell’s extensive involvement in the reopening of the 1964 “Mississippi Burning” murders. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were working with the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote when they were brutally murdered by Klansmen in Neshoba County and then buried in an earthen dam.

Mitchell wrote about the “Mississippi Burning” case for six years and was able to locate new evidence and new witnesses. Through the process of elimination, he was also able to identify Mr. X, a key FBI informant, and make several other invaluable breaks in the case.

His investigation renewed calls for justice around the country, and the case was reopened in 2005. Edgar Ray Killen, a Klan organizer who directed the murders, was indicted on three counts of murder and convicted later that year.

Mitchell’s career has been full of success, and his memoir is a testament to that. It’s also a testament to the power of – and necessity of – investigative journalism. Mitchell is no longer employed by the Ledger, but he founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in 2018. The nonprofit news organization will build off of Mitchell’s past work and continue it.

“Race Against Time” is a great read worthy of your attention. The book features excellent writing and strong pacing, and it’ll leave you wondering how the Klan’s hatred took hold in the South and allowed for such heinous crimes. It’ll leave you unsettled, but it’ll also leave you with hope. It’ll show you that justice is still possible and that people – and attitudes – can change with time.

Don’t be a ‘useful idiot’

Most mornings, I can be found listening to “The Daily,” a podcast from The New York Times.

The podcast takes a subject that’s currently in the news and dissects it, usually with journalists from the Times and various subject-matter experts. It’s always full of interesting information, and it’s certainly an intellectually stimulating start to my day.

The Feb. 26 episode was about Russian interference in the upcoming presidential election.

According to the FBI, Russian operatives are – again – actively interfering in our elections, and, this time, they’re playing both sides.

Sure, the Russians are running interference for President Donald J. Trump – as they did in 2016 – but they’re also toying with the Democratic primary process in favor of the current frontrunner, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

(As a side note, I’ll mention here that the president does not believe in the accusations against the Russians and, at an early February rally, called the accusations “idiotic.” Remember, it’s the U.S. intelligence community making the accusations. The intelligence community is headed by a director of national intelligence, who is appointed by the president.)

One of the podcast’s guests was Richard E. Sanger, a national security correspondent for the Times. Sanger said the Russians are placing disinformation – false information intended to mislead – on popular Internet forums like Reddit with the hopes that Americans will believe the false information and share it with their family and friends.

According to Sanger, this tactic is not new.

“In the Cold War, the Soviets called (Americans sharing disinformation) ‘useful idiots’ because they unintentionally picked up a Russian theme, a piece of disinformation, and repeated it until it became organic,” he said.

Sanger said there are two theories to the end goals of the Russian interference.

The first is to “have the country screaming at each other.” A chaotic U.S., polarized and lost in heated political debate, is good for Russia.

“It makes the United States look like a place that can’t get its act together. It makes democracy look like a chaotic form of governance that can’t really be trusted to make progress,” said Sanger.

The second theory, according to the correspondent, is “that the Russians really do favor Trump, and they think that Bernie Sanders is the most beatable Democrat.”

Both theories are alarming, and I don’t want to be a victim of Russian interference. I don’t want you to be, either.

That’s why I’m urging you to be smarter about what you read – and share – on the Internet.

Just recently, I ran across a Facebook post claiming to show what Americans would pay in taxes in a Sanders administration. The numbers were terrifying; for my tax bracket, my income taxes would sharply increase.

A quick Google search showed me that the post was inaccurate, but the scary thing was the number of my friends who were actively sharing the post without doing any investigation. The post had thousands of “likes” and even more shares.

I don’t know if the post was Russian propaganda or good old dirty American politics, but it certainly raises red flags.

In the 2016 presidential election, Russian bots spammed the Internet with lies about then-Democrat frontrunner Hillary Clinton. The posts ranged from claims about Clinton’s health to her “involvement” with a child prostitution ring in a Washington, D.C., pizza joint.

The claims were effective, according to experts. Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the CIA, said the 2016 disinformation campaign was “the most successful covert influence operation in history,” and Nate Silver, a statistician, wrote in February 2018 that “…Russian interference tactics were consistent with the reasons Clinton lost.”

I won’t make a judgment here if that is true or not, but I will say it’s a scary thought.

We must constantly be on guard, and we must realize the truth, although it may be politically inconvenient for some: the Russians are not our friends, and they’re actively interfering in the most sacred part of our democracy.

We can’t expect social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to police every post, and we must be able to judge items for ourselves. An easy way to spot disinformation, according to the Poynter Institute’s Daniel Funke, is to look carefully at the posts that make you react.

“If a piece of information makes you feel scared, angry, disproportionately upset, or even smug, then it’s worth doing additional checks or slowing down before re-sharing it,” he said.

An easy way to verify a piece of information is to do a quick Google search. Often, disinformation pieces have been debunked by Snopes or PolitiFact. You should always consider the source of posts, too, and check to see if they’re coming from a reputable source of information.

If a person you know is actively sharing disinformation, it may be time to engage with that person, too, and tell them what’s going on. Back your claim up with proof, and try to open a dialogue with them. It may not always be an easy option, and it may not work, but you can say you did your part.

Most importantly, build up your internal system of red flags. If something seems fishy to you, do some investigating before sharing.

It’s your civic duty, and it really matters. In fact, the future of our democracy may rest upon it.

Three short years, but wow, the ‘Burg is prospering

Last weekend, out-of-town friends came to visit, and we went on a sight-seeing tour of Hattiesburg. I was proud to show them the changes “my town” has made since their last visit three years ago in February 2017.

There’s been a bunch, and all of them have been overwhelmingly positive. As we ate – and drank – our way through the Hub City, I noticed many of these changes, and they filled me with a sense of pride. The ‘Burg is such a fun and fulfilling place to live, and I’m glad I planted my roots here back in 2010.

The District at Midtown is one excellent improvement to our city. Located across Hardy Street from Southern Miss, the district offers wonderful dining and shopping opportunities, including treats like Robert St. John’s sinful Midtown Donuts. The district’s anchor, Hotel Indigo, gives visitors a charming look into Hattiesburg’s culture and history. The entire area is fun to visit, and I send my kudos to the developers and business owners.

Speaking of Southern Miss, I’m always happy to drive through that beautiful – and growing – campus. If you didn’t know, I’m a William Carey Crusader through and through, but Southern holds a special place in my heart. My friends commented on the university’s beauty, and I was reminded of the devastating 2013 tornado that destroyed much of the front of the campus. The recovery was remarkable, and I’m always happy to introduce USM to others.

On our eating and drinking tour, we stopped by Southern Prohibition in downtown Hattiesburg, and it’s just one example of a local business that’s prospering. They just completed an extensive renovation, and the entire operation is impressive. It’s an asset to our incredible downtown, which is always growing. I hear downtown will soon get an axe-throwing establishment (talk about a new way to vent your frustrations) and another independent bookstore. This news makes me happy.

Walk a few blocks from Southern Prohibition to Front Street, and you can buy bagels, chicken and daiquiris, and other great food. Since my friends last visited, Nelson Haskin Jr. has bought the famed SouthBound Bagel & Coffee Shop and opened Blu Jazz Cafe and Nellie’s Chicken and Daiquiris. Haskin continues to make improvements on Front Street, and his investments are our town’s gains.

One of my favorite places in the ‘Burg is a hop and skip away from Front Street. The Depot on Buschman Street moved to a new location a few doors away from its previous one, and the building – a rehabilitation project, indeed – is beautiful. Their old location, also on Buschman, is now filled by Fika, a Swedish cafe. These restaurants add great flavor to downtown, and I’m happy they’re here.

I can never resist an opportunity to “show off” my alma mater, and William Carey University has seen tremendous changes since 2017. If you’ll recall, on Jan. 21, 2017, an early morning storm produced an EF3 tornado that made a 31.3-mile trek across east Hattiesburg and into Petal. The tornado killed four and destroyed or severely damaged more than 1,100 homes.

The damage to Carey was catastrophic, with every building on campus receiving damage. Tatum Court, the 103-year-old administration building, was destroyed, along with the 98-year-old twin dormitories, Ross and Johnson Halls.

Shortly after the storm, I wrote, in a Signature column, “…Carey will rebuild. Its picturesque campus will one day be whole again – different, but with its same qualities: a beautiful, safe school offering a valuable education in a Christian environment. Carey will continue to be a place for the next generation of bright-eyed and eager students to find hope and peace within its gates.”

Thankfully, I was right, and, in three short years, Carey is back and better than ever. Its beautiful new administration building, still named Tatum Court, was completed last year, and several other new buildings are now in place. A three-story student center – the tallest building on the campus – is under construction at the site of the former Tatum Court, and the university is growing by leaps and bounds.

East Hattiesburg as a whole is steadily recovering and growing. I always loved driving by the very unique-looking Seventh-Day Adventist church on William Carey Parkway, and I was heartbroken when it was lost in the storm. The church recently finished rebuilding, as have several other places of worship, businesses and homes. There’s still work to be done, but the foundation is strong.

My friends, who last saw this area of town in tatters, were tremendously impressed by these recovery efforts and the overall growth of our city in three years. I’m not even mentioning their reactions to the growth down Highways 49 and 98 – and their reaction to our new Steak ‘n Shake – but I will tell you that one of them even said she’d like to move here.

That’s a testament to our greatness, Hattiesburg. Not only are we great, but we’re also resilient, and we’re poised for a bright future.

Let’s keeping moving upward.

Remembering Revels

On Feb. 11 in the House Chamber of the Old Capitol in Jackson, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the state agency that operates the fantastic Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, celebrated the life of Hiram Rhodes Revels.

It was in that very room 150 years earlier that Revels, an African American born to free people of color in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1827, was elected by the Mississippi State Senate to serve as one of the state’s two senators in the United States Congress.

Revels was the first African American to serve in Congress, and, on the 150th anniversary of his election, there was a great deal of national interest given to his life. Eric Foner, author of “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution,” penned an op-ed largely about Revels for the Feb. 14 edition of The New York Times.

“Hiram Revels is worth remembering as both a pioneer of black political power and a refutation of racist stereotypes,” wrote Foner.

Revels, a barber by trade, grew up as an apprentice to his older brother, who owned a barbering shop in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Following the death of his brother, Revels took ownership of the shop until becoming an African Methodist Episcopal Church priest.

He spent many of his younger years ministering to African Americans across the Midwest, a dangerous role. Revels provided religious instruction to slaves, and, as he later recalled, was met “with a great deal of opposition.” He was briefly imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for, in his words, “preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence.”

At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Revels was a Methodist Episcopal Church minister in Baltimore, Maryland, where he also led a black high school. He helped the U.S. Army recruit two volunteer regiments of African Americans, and, two years later, he joined the Army as a chaplain for an African American regiment in Mississippi.

According to Foner, Revels “came to Union-occupied Mississippi … and threw himself into educating the former slaves.” At the war’s conclusion in 1865, Revels returned to preaching and briefly led churches in Leavenworth, Kansas, and New Orleans before receiving the call to permanently lead a church in Natchez.

He settled in Reconstruction-era Natchez with his wife and five daughters in 1866. In 1868, the state’s provisional governor, Adelbert Ames, appointed Revels as a Natchez alderman, and, one year later, he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi Senate.

While in the state legislature, Revels delivered the body’s opening prayer in January 1870, a prayer so powerful that Mississippi Congressman John R. Lynch later noted it “made Revels a United States Senator.”

Prior to 1913, state legislatures elected U.S. senators, and, in 1870, Mississippi’s two Senate seats had been vacant since the start of the Civil War. As Foner notes, “Mississippi’s lawmakers, who included almost three dozen African Americans, chose Ames for one vacant United States Senate term and Revels for the year that remained of another.”

During his time in the Senate, Revels supported racial equality, later writing that “I did all I could for the benefit of my needy and much imposed-upon people.” He fought for the reinstatement of black legislators from the Georgia General Assembly, and he persuaded the Secretary of War to hire black mechanics at the Baltimore Navy Yard. Revels also fought for integration in public schools and in the railroad system.

His Senate term expired in March 1871, and Revels returned to Mississippi, where he was appointed as the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, which is now Alcorn State University. He briefly served as Mississippi’s interim secretary of state in 1873 and continued as college president until 1882.

Following his retirement, Revels moved to Holly Springs, where he resumed preaching and served as editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper. He also taught at Rust College prior to his death on January 16, 1901, at the age of 73.

I agree with Foner that Revels had a life worth remembering, but I wonder how many people do. There are few mentions to Revels in our culture; indeed, there are not – to my knowledge – any significant public memorials to him. Looking at a Mississippi map, one that is covered with honorariums to Civil War figures, I do not see a municipality named Revels or a county called Revels County.

Where are the highways devoted to Revels? The schools? The statues?

As our state debates touchy subjects like the removal of Confederate monuments and the possible changing of our state flag, it may be time to look at honoring people like Revels, who committed their lives to racial equality and fought the hard fight when others could not or would not.

Revels deserves more respect than a tall tomb in his adopted hometown of Holly Springs, and, while we are taking a deep look into ourselves and the image our state projects to the nation and to the world, he is a figure we should remember.