We, Too, Live in History

For a few weeks in March, as New York City accelerated into its current crisis, but before the enormity of the situation had set in for many of the City’s residents, many affluent New Yorkers seemed stunned about the cancellation of their work trips or the threat to their spring break plans. Sure, the “Polar Vortex” and the “Bomb Cyclone” may have led to travel disruptions, as had, in the past, the occasional thunderstorm, blizzard, nor’easter, or summer spate of mid-continent tornadoes, but rarely did such weather-related delays stretch for more than a day or two.

To be fair, New York has also come through both the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in the past 20 years, so you’d think we’d be more well equipped to process the monumentally atypical, and yet, right up to Governor’s very-belated promulgation of a stay-at-home order/New York’s PAUSE, people continued speaking about their April vacations, their May weddings. And who could fault them? The signs – some of which are still up – reading things like, “Out of an abundance of caution, we will be closed for the weekend,” and “[Blank] will reopen on March 29th” now seem equal parts tragic and quaint. And just as business owners could hardly have been expected, en masse, to initially make sense of the – if not quite unprecedented, certainly extraordinary – circumstances, so too the City’s residents can be forgiven for having expected that there lives would go on as usual (though, of course, words like “usual” and “normal” have now become quite suspect).

As I’ve written before, I think even many of us who rejected the post-Cold War US triumphalism encapsulated in Francis Fukuyama’s now infamous title, “The End of History,” nonetheless deeply internalized its logic, just as many of us who are, or see ourselves, as staunchly anti-neoliberal yet have a deep streak of Reaganism in our souls. How could we not? It’s been the water we swim in, the air we breathe for nearly half a century.

So it was with respect that I listened as Kambale Musavuli of Friends of the Congo fielded Carolyn Baker’s question about Congolese in the United States during the pandemic, and gently flipped it on its head. There’s not a transcript for the interview, and I lack the time to go searching, so I’ll roughly paraphrase Musavuli’s words as follows: I imagine you’re asking about Congolese who are in the US as migrants under the current immigration paradigm, but of course, something like 25% of all African Americans are of Congolese descent. One felt history telescoping back out from the deceptive compression to which it is often subjected by our awful politics. Here was a person with the courage and vision to actually live in the world as it is.

I’ll juxtapose Musavuli’s intellectual courage with the fear and confusion on display in this conversation, on the always uneven Radio Open Source, between host Christopher Lydon and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen who, to again paraphrase, in speaking to his thoughts regarding the current state of the world, with an emphasis on press freedom and democracy in the US, declared roughly: My intellectual vision is in ruins.

I think of Jimi Hendrix’s version of Castles Made of Sand. We have a real opportunity before us, to remake the world in the name of justice and sanity, to recognize – in overcoming the crisis of the pandemic – the fundamental flaws and failures of our dying status quo, and to carry these lessons forward into the epochal work of confronting the once-in-a-civilization crisis of global climate disruption. Part of seizing that opportunity is re/discovering our own courage and vision, recognizing that the world is bigger than our vacations, and that the meaning of life is more than consumption.

The odds are, frankly, badly stacked against us. The Intercept reports that “has ramped up security and police-related spending in response to the coronavirus pandemic”; the President and his Administration continue, apace, in aggressively pursuing their omnicidal deregulatory agenda; major US-based corporations are seizing the opportunity of the pandemic to wage (further) war on their workers; just as major world powers including the US – through its sanctions on Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba – and China – which is deepening its assault on the autonomy of Hong Kong – are capitalizing on the global crises to pursue their own imperialist/anti-democratic geopolitical agendas. As undocumented people in this country are in crisis, others in the US are worried about their lawns (which are driving insect die-offs). Much has been made of the fact that “carbon dioxide [emissions] suddenly plunged by as much as 17 percent globally in early April as the world responded to the covid-19 pandemic.” The same Grist article from which this quote is drawn predicts that the staggering drop in emissions will have a “Tiny Effect on Global Temperature” and that the annual decrease in carbon dioxide emissions will fall in the mid-single digit range, which – if we maintained such an annual level of decrease going forward for the rest of the decade – might be enough for the world to hit the very modest (and arguably insufficient) Paris goals. Might.

It can be hard to keep perspective, but keep perspective is exactly what we must do if we hope to live lives of meaning in confronting, as it is, and, ideally, reshaping the world. As ever more research continues to demonstrate, denial has already cost tens of thousands of lives in the US alone during the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate denial – which is really just an extreme form of the life denialism, the history denialism, the world denialism that leads even good-hearted people (like Jay Rosen) into intellectual and spiritual ruin and bankruptcy – can easily cost exponentially more lives in the years and decades to come, and may yet drive the world into a state of collapse that will make us long for the days of lockdown, even if we take commensurate action, but most certainly if we don’t.

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