Leafy suburban paradise roiled by COVID stats

You know an issue is shaking the country when even Northbrook starts to vibrate.

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Northbrook resident Lee Goodman changes the numbers on a sign Tuesday. That evening it was defaced with spray paint.

Northbrook resident Lee Goodman changes the numbers on a sign Tuesday. That evening it was defaced with spray paint.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The media consisted of a camera crew, a helicopter, and me.

Although I was there in my unofficial capacity. Not as newspaper columnist but as local resident. I had heard the chopper, looked at my phone — 3:57 p.m. — and remembered that at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Lee Goodman would update the number on his sign to 200,000 to reflect how many Americans have died from COVID-19.

Lee is the sort of fellow no town should be without and, indeed, most towns have one. The local gadfly, or activist — lately I’ve referred to him as “the spoon that stirs the pot.” A retired lawyer, Goodman left the profession to devote his full energies to endeavors such as posting a sign at the busy corner of Shermer and Walters, an area set aside for free expression. It is significant that the other sign, already there, is promoting the annual Lobster Sale at The Episcopal Church of St. James the Less.

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As much as I would like to dive into exploring the identity of St. James the Less — cousin of Jesus, apparently — let’s keep our focus on Goodman’s sign.

I witnessed its arrival Saturday — again, again, not in my journalistic capacity, but as a man smoking a cigar while walking a little dog. The sign drew reaction: a zealous spontaneous rally celebrating the glories of Donald Trump and the insulting absurdity of suggesting that a large number of Americans have died of COVID. I watched the commotion, briefly, then left with the conviction that this is going to be a very long six weeks, if not six months, if not six years.

Tuesday, while I gazed at the helicopter, wondering what it costs to keep that thing in the air, a large, angry man marched up. “Why is the president’s name there?” he demanded. “What’s Trump got to do with this?” I am not given to direct personal confrontation. But the slow pitch of that question just hung there, right over the plate. Why should this guy be the only one allowed to yell? I swung on my heels.

“If you have to ask,” I said, con brio, “you’ll never know.”

As much as I would love to dive into discussing whether Louis Armstrong actually said that when asked to define jazz (spoiler alert: he didn’t) let’s save that for another day.

The man just looked at me. You cannot argue with denialism. It’s like trying to remove fresh paint from a wall with your fingertip. The paint is still there when you’re done, plus now it’s on you, too.

For years, the media has been dutifully toting up the president’s lies with a certain idiot gravity, like those lunatics glimpsed writing down numbers of license plates.

Why bother? It would be more helpful to examine why Trump must lie continually. Easy. Because he’s a bigot. His lying is not a flaw, but a feature. Bigotry is based on denial. The immigrants whose demonization started his campaign 50 years ago — no, wait, only five — are not more criminal than the citizens they want to become. They are actually more law-abiding.

The lies continue. This week, Trump cast the accurate teaching of American history as unpatriotic. Just the opposite: the civil rights struggle is very patriotic — the story of oppressed people who believe in the American dream more passionately than those who first dreamt it. What’s unpatriotic is how easily we ignore it.

Trump also lies because he’s done such a terrible job as president. That’s why even mentioning the 200,000 deaths is political. His base can’t recognize reality because to do so raises the question of why so many Americans have died and will keep dying, compared to everywhere else. Answer: because of the president’s botched response, a staggering monthslong act of incompetence performed on camera. Which he now denies occurred even as he mocks Joe Biden’s mask.

Only after I strolled away — timely departure, an undervalued survival skill — did I realize I might know the man who exchanged words with me. He seemed familiar. Perhaps we chatted in less tense times. That would be too perfect, right? Symbolic of the nation as a whole. We’re all fellow citizens, deeply divided, yes, by this highly divisive leader. But still all in the same boat, like it or not. If it sinks, we all sink.

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