We were on the roof yesterday when the nightly cheering broke out, and I have to admit: It was very moving. Out our windows, the phenomenon feels localized, but from the roof – with the city spread out in every direction more or less as far as the eye can see – it felt like that outpouring of presence went on for miles which, every evening, it no doubt does.
Later, inside, after dinner, I took a last look at my phone. Pre-pandemic, I’d years prior stopped spending much time on any social network, but under the pressure of self-isolation (and at my partner’s urging with respect to sharing this writing), I’ve been on Twitter in particular of late. It’s a mixed bag, of course, but, net, it makes a person sad, and last night, the parting salvo came from a stranger imploring me to “Get [my] shit together” for having supported Hari Kondabolu – one of my favorite standup comedians – in pushing back against the #IBelieveBiden campaign.
So it goes. But I couldn’t help thinking that, beneath the feel-good veneer of all that rooftop and out-of-window cheering lurks the fractured venom of a very sick and confused political culture. People only think they’re cheering for the same thing because there’s no opportunity to interact, or – more optimistically – only at the most basic level of love of place and desire for an end to trauma are we truly united. On our block, too, after all, a neighbor plays Sinatra every night (on a car sound system cranked loud with the doors wide open), and I know it lifts most every spirit with ears to hear.
Would that the case were different, as – although my online interlocutor seemed quite intent on casting me as an unhinged… um… right-wing reader of The Intercept? Frankly, I couldn’t make out what he thought my position was, other than that #IBelieveJoe, I didn’t (though his politics were made very clear by his bio, which read, in part: “Lover of Blues Brothers, C.S. Lewis, MCU, and all things awesome,” and his preferred mode of discourse: Shouting, was made very clear by his actions) – it’s painful to find oneself so truly marginal to a culture.
Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on, but COVID-19 is nowhere near the leading cause of death globally. Around the world, on average, roughly 50,000 people die a day from heart disease, another 30,000 from cancer, and 10,000 from respiratory diseases. Disaggregating COVID-19 from all of the causes of death (heart attack, kidney failure, stroke, etc.) which it can precipitate, official figures have the disease steadily causing ~5,000-6000 deaths per day globally for the past month. If we accept that these figures reflect a drastic undercount, and that the actual death toll is probably at least double what these numbers suggest, then that would make COVID-19 the third leading cause of death in the world at the moment, though by far the leading daily infectious source of mortality (given that tuberculosis kills, on average, ~3,000 people per day).
New work from the COVKID Project suggests far more children all already infected in the US than was previously suspected, though supports the prevailing notion that the risk to kids from COVID-19 is low; however, even with low risk, if tens of millions of children become infected, thousands of them will die.
A brief survey of the caustic implications of all this fear and death will be instructive: DSNY has indefinitely suspended its residential compost program; people on actual house arrest find it hard to go outside because of remote monitoring devices; under scrutiny for sheltering his political allies in the nursing home industry from prosecution, Governor Cuomo has found a scapegoat (unsurprisingly, a nursing home not in Park Slope or Albany, but in Washington Heights); the Metropolitan Detention Center – the same federal jail in Brooklyn which was in the news in early 2019 for keeping hundreds of people locked up for at least days with no heat in the midst of a brutal cold snap – has been destroying medical records to cover up the extent of COVID-19’s spread within its walls; in Louisiana, “[la]wmakers voted by mail” to “[roll] back an expansion of mail-in ballots for people concerned about the coronavirus”; in North Dakota, a “tiny airport […] scored enough money under the federal stimulus law to cover its expenses for 50 years” while “one of the country’s busiest airports, JFK International in New York, got barely enough aid to make it through three months of operations”; in DC, the one-woman Congress that is Nancy Pelosi announced that state and local governments are seeking $1 trillion in the next bailout, which makes you wonder what she was up for the previous three and a half rounds of corporate giveaways; in the United States, Aleksandar Hemon – who lived through the bloodshed that accompanied the collapse of the former Yugoslavia – opines, “Trump’s Nationalism [Is Advancing] on a Predictable Trajectory to Violence. His Supporters Will Kill When They’re Told To”; from Delhi, we see convincing examples that Hemon is probably right; in India, as yet another politically-motivated legal vendetta against the truth demonstrates, the space for freedom of speech continues to narrow; and, in this country, the corporate media (and most of the population) continues to look the other way (if not celebrate in spiteful glee) this Administration’s First Amendment-eviscerating persecution of Julian Assange.
It is a sad round-up of the state of affairs: Austerity, mass incarceration, corporate cronyism, a concerted Republican war on progressive cities and states, Democratic ineffectuality and complicity with Republican nihilism, the rise of fascism, the gutting of civil liberties, and the utter failure to commit to even the most modest steps to address climate crisis. Bloomberg has a cheerful piece up pointing to a projected “unprecedented 8% decline in global carbon dioxide emissions this year” owing to the pandemic and predicting that this trauma will accelerate the global shift towards renewables, but, put differently, it would take at least an equivalent percentage reduction in global emissions each year for the rest of the decade to reach even the very modest Paris climate goals, and look what this took. Not an altogether sanguine sign in my view given 40+ years of global inaction on global warming/climate change/climate crisis.
Catalyst – the scholarly imprint of Jacobin – had an excellent article in its fall 2019 issue entitled “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration” that I’d encourage everyone to read as we confront the risk of new waves of austerity and the immense human suffering brutal budget cuts would entail. (Tl;dr, if you don’t read these sorts of things: Yes, the US is very racist, but the emergence of our contemporary system of mass incarceration can be best explained not by a racialized war on drugs, but by the response to an actual, empirically-documented spike in violence that started in the 1960s and was caused by major structural shifts in US political economy, a response which was characterized by failure to invest adequately at the Federal level in social welfare programs (which are expensive), which in turn led states and localities to “deal with” crime in a punitive fashion (which is also expensive, but is far cheaper than providing a comprehensive social safety net for all)).
Call me a killjoy – especially after my concerted efforts yesterday to call for imagining a future different from the ugly visions we’re being fed by the corporate media – but it’s not enough to cheer the “heroes” while Cuomo, McConnell, and others mortgage our futures and foreclose possibilities for desperately necessary action on climate, healthcare, etc., etc. (videlicet, see the Green New Deal). It’s not enough to stand opposed to our scary and mean-spirited President, but then turn into exactly the sort of howling-mob member who backs that President when your own candidate is credibly accused of sexual assault. We knew at least from the spring of 2019 that Biden bore some version of this liability, and attacking survivors or people of conscience who stand by them may be a winning strategy (Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court now, after all), but it’s not one for which I’ll stand.
To end on a brighter note, I’ll turn again to David Dayen who writes:
[There] is a new militancy in U.S. politics. It has some roots in the wildcat teacher strikes that began in West Virginia in 2018. But there’s increased urgency and precarity right now, and a lack of responsiveness from Washington. Unions were born out of such despair in the Gilded Age, and rose to their peak after the New Deal. The rumblings in workplaces and apartment complexes have the ability to change our politics rapidly, to constrain lawmaker action, to force changes.
I know we’re conditioned to believe that only set of interests in America can have a voice. […] But it’s not necessarily true in times of crisis. People power is not just a slogan. Today, people are on the streets working to make it real.
Here’s to that, but we don’t get to the streets by first succumbing to propaganda. A funny thing has been happening, though: Whenever I type the WHO, autocorrect gives me The Who instead. And good for them! Can you imagine being so iconic that your band name outcompetes UN agencies in the not-mind of an algorithm? Let me nod to those once youthful renegades then: We shouldn’t get fooled again, and part of not getting so is staying awake, even when it hurts.