The Danger of an Excess of Irony

In Beijing, ~150 new COVID-19 cases have been confirmed since last week, triggering the reimposition of a number of restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease. In New York City, we’ve continued to confirm 300+ new COVID-19 cases per day and are on pace to enter Phase II of reopening on Monday, according to the latest from Governor Cuomo. Finally, with Phase II, we’ll be able to enjoy outdoor dining again! Except, wait, for anyone living in Manhattan, the idea that outdoor dining wasn’t reinitiated like two weeks ago is a joke. (Here’s a good piece by Ross Barkan entitled, “We Need New Public Health Guidance: Local and Federal Officials Have Lost the Script” – the tl;dr: Mass protests in defiance of public health regulations, but supported by many of the very elected officials who’d been declaring the importance of those same regulations, have blown the lid off our COVID-19-control paradigm, and only clear, coherent, contextual guidance from elected officials and public health experts can avert a return to the free-for-all days of early March. Glenn Greenwald makes a related argument in this episode of System Update.) I’d only add that, in view of our rapidly evolving understanding of COVID-19 transmission, guidance is necessarily changing, and I’ve grown more optimistic, both about the prospects for controlling renewed epidemic spread in New York, and about the possibility that we may not see subsequent spikes. Maybe that’s just the sunny weather talking though, and, as usual, time will tell.

Incidentally, Beijing is more than twice the size of New York City.

The frightening situation at the Sino-Indian border has, for now, failed to escalate further, but is certainly another sign both of shifting great power geopolitics and of the fraught global moment in which we’re living. Bill Bishop of Sinocism dismisses the “heavily hyped” Harvard study – which I mentioned in passing last week – “claiming to show evidence [based on satellite and search engine data] the COVID-19 outbreak may have begun in Wuhan in August” as “relying on sketchy Baidu data for key assertions” among “several obvious issues with it.” At the same time, analyses – including this one from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – less obviously politically motivated than the wild assertions of the Administration in DC, have emerged in recent weeks with titles like, “Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus arise from a bat coronavirus research program in a Chinese laboratory? Very possibly.” (This 2014 paper on “Laboratory Escapes” of “Potentially Pandemic Pathogens” makes for alarming reading.) Long-short: No one credible seems to be supporting conspiracy theories about an intentional release of SARS-CoV-2 by the Chinese Government, but we still don’t know how it was that the virus spilled over into humans.

The data on new confirmed cases in the US are beginning to show a clear upward trend. Perhaps that’s just because of increased testing, though reports from a number of states suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, according to Quartz, “US teens on TikTok are making “I love China” videos”; these “satirical” videos are meant to improve their analytics on the platform. If the peak hipsterism of the aughts should have taught us anything, it’s that what starts out as an “ironic” gesture can very easily become your life.

Anyway, I’m just finishing up Sonia Shah’s book, Pandemic, and can happily recommend it as a primer. It’s written in the jaunty, personal, accessible style of a New York Times bestseller (which if it wasn’t pre-pandemic, it almost certainly is now), and I found this passage (from page 209) particularly striking. Enjoy:

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Incommensurable Math

A childhood classmate of mine reached out to express concern relative to my post yesterday: Was I dismissing the idea that racism is a public health crisis? Short answer: Absolutely not. In my view, racism is very obviously a massive public health crisis. What I was attempting to target yesterday was the insufficiency of sloganeering as a mode of engaging with complex issues that do, sometimes, involve conflicting values and priorities. Similarly, I agree with the spirit of all of the statements listed on the church poster (also referenced in yesterday’s piece), but recognize that, in politics, claims tend to be contested, nuanced, particular, and historical in ways that defy easy reduction to catchphrases and street chants. This is one of the key lessons of intersectional analysis – essentially, that emergent (social and political) properties arise owing to the attribution, to a single body, of multiple identities, properties which are non-linear in their ramifications and exceed the simple sum of their constituent definitions. (Relative to my post yesterday, belief in science hasn’t been constructed as an identity in the same sense that race or gender has been, but the point stands that one can assert both a belief in science and a conviction that racism is a public health crisis, and still encounter circumstances, like our present one, when these two values may come into conflict.)

To take this a step further, I thought Devyn Springer’s assessment – in this Red Nation Podcast episode to which I linked yesterday – was apt, in suggesting that the convergence of multiculturalism and neoliberalism has spawned a form of fully commodified identity that has led to a market-based discourse around “representation” that has vanishingly little to do with power and being meaningfully represented politically. (Springer’s point opens up into heated discourses around culture appropriation, among other topics, discourses which I’m going to sidestep here.) Rather than rewrite though, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the exchange that Brittany and I had, as I felt it was constructive:

T: I absolutely agree that [racism is a public health crisis], and have believed that for a long time. Just witness every major indicator of health and well-being being strongly correlated with race in racist societies. [But] I think there’s a lot of dishonesty and denial around this on the Left at the moment – like the only way we can justify mass protests after months of saying even small gatherings were risky and potentially deadly is if we now claim that racism is an even “bigger” health risk than COVID-19, as if 1) that was meaningfully quantifiable (eg, given unknowns, including about actual outcome/effectiveness of protests) and 2) it’s possible to somehow compare these two radically disparate phenomena on the basis of such a quantification. [I]t’s very hand-wavy, and reflects a desperation to reconcile something that has no easy resolution – the pandemic remains a dire threat, but we’re doing this mass uprising anyway, not bc we made some rational assessment, did the math, and conclud[ed] that it was worth it, but bc immense historical and political forces have been unleashed that are beyond any of our control, and we simply have to decide: In or out? I decided I was in, but actually believe that the denial around the stakes and potential ramifications hurts the movement. We shouldn’t be lying to ourselves, especially after all the (justifiable) criticism leveled at the “liberation” protests and the immense sacrifices people were expected to make in the name of pandemic control.

(To elaborate, we can question the motives of Republicans in the US who argued against COVID-19 shutdowns based on the economic impacts, and sometimes claimed they were concerned about the lasting health impacts of economic recession or depression, but in other contexts – for example, in India – I believe there was a very strong case against shutdown/lockdown for the simple reason that the vast majority of the Indian population is not able to practice social distancing and does not enjoy economic (or even food) security sufficient to make an extended lockdown viable in the absence of massive state aid, which was not forthcoming. Hence, as we’re now witnessing, India is suffering the worst of both worlds: The people of Indian suffered through a devastating and draconian nationwide lockdown, only to see cases of COVID-19 continue to steadily climb. The massive spike in daily deaths reported yesterday is no doubt a classic instance of Modi-ist manipulation of the media, intended to direct attention away from the escalating border dispute in the Himalya with China (which resulted yesterday in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops), but the fact remains that after the world’s harshest lockdown, India know also has one of the world’s worst COVID-19 epidemics. We now have reasonably strong evidence that the lockdowns, alone, are responsible for relatively little economic damage (that is, the pandemic will cause immense economic harm whether or not a country chooses to institute a shutdown of some sort), but one is forced to wonder: If we dismissed out of hand the utilitarian claims about long-term health impacts of economic consequences of shutdowns, how can we now so confidently assert the preeminence of racism as a public health threat? In both instances, the benefits and harms are so massively complex and contingent as to defy any meaningful possibility of calculation (even based on a simple metric, like mortality, owing, in no small part, to the utter unknowability of future outcomes of political and economic actions taken today). Say, for instance, the protests totally fail – which I hope they do not – to lead to any lasting move towards racial justice in the US, but in the meantime, they do contribute to worsening the COVID-19 impact in this country, would the argument still have been sound that the public health threat of racism justifies violating some of the best practices for avoiding epidemic spread of a disease in the midst of a pandemic?)

B: [Y]eah, I think that is where the idea that people are laying their lives on the line for this movement comes from — that these are times where risk is high, especially for the people who are at the center of this movement as we know that it disproportionately impacts Black Indigenous communities of color. I think a lot about how this pandemic created this kairotic moment that highlights (for a lot of people, for the first time) how unjust our current system is and in a sense, makes this protest and uprising more effective if anything is part of setting the stage for what is being referred to as “the great awakening” — but you’re right, these aren’t necessarily measurable things (maybe for freakanomics?) but there’s no denying we are in a position of having to choose in or out.

T: I had to look up kairotic (was like, is that a typo or just a word I don’t know?) but, yes! Couldn’t agree more about the kairocity of now. I understand the reasoning for saying people are putting their lives on the line, but it totally negates and reverses everything we were told (about protecting each other and community) for three months about what it meant to respond to the pandemic. Especially given that it is very largely young people making these claims (though obviously not exclusively, as many elders and others who are properly high risk are involved in the uprising). Part of the issue here is that just these sorts of utilitarian claims, made – if often disingenuously by conservatives, at least in the US – on a class basis were rejected out of hand when critics of lockdowns asserted that the social and health costs of tanking the global economy would far outweigh the benefits of the epidemiological intervention. I think it’s very hard to resolve how, now, somehow, because the people/demographics who were supportive (as I obviously was) of shutdowns are supportive of a mass movement, it’s justified to totally ignore all the guidance.

B: Yes. [For people who suffer from] chronic illnesses […] protesting is a privilege and that is absolutely highlighted during this time. It’s also held as one of the only effective things we are doing which is really ableist in itself.

T: Ableist and extremely short-sighted, in my view, given that the protests, like the pandemic, will almost certainly be time-limited, but the effort required to actually achieve and sustain dramatic transformation will have to carry over a much longer social and political time horizon. [Note: Brittany then pointed out that, ironically, “short-sighted” can be read as ableist.]

B: [T]hanks for elaborating on that point. I totally agree with you … but like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’m not about to tell anyone to stop protesting. But we can stop with the rhetoric that it’s the only thing that can do anything. Like in the long run it’s really about us looking at ourselves and changing our behaviors and seeing how we uphold white supremacy — not protesting or posting about it in social media. Truly it’s not enough.

I’d take Brittany’s assertion one step further and say it’s about doing the sustained (social, political, and economic) work, that includes but is not limited to street protest, to radically transform our society in the direction of justice, sanity, and a livable human future on Earth, or to put it more simply, towards a life-affirming politics.

 

A Tale of Two Signs

Yesterday, I took note of two signs. At a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington Square Park (where I, like more or less all of the protesters, wore a mask and attempted to practice physical distancing), handwritten on a piece of cardboard, a demonstrator held aloft the message: “Racism is a Public Health Threat!”

At an Episcopalian church on Hudson Street (which I passed on my meandering walk home), a multicolor printed poster read: “In this house we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real, Love Is Love.”

At the demonstration, I found strange resonances – in the coordinated standing and kneeling, the evocation of histories of martyrdom, the chanting, in unison, of the names of saints – with Roman Catholic or Russian Orthodox religious services. But what happens when different elements of our catechism come into contradiction? Do we believe that “Black Lives Matter” more than we believe “Science Is Real”? Perhaps we won’t have to answer this question as – in spite of my concerns and those of many others – it seems like the mask wearing and physical distancing may be proving effective in limiting spread of COVID-19 at mass protests. I certainly hope that’s the case.

Still, this is the risk when we engage in sloganeering and reduce our politics to a litany of reflex catchphrases. As I’ve recently referenced, there is growing evidence that mask wearing is among the most effective preventive measures we can take to slow the spread of COVID-19. Conversely, it now appears that the risk of the disease spreading via contact with contaminated surfaces is rather limited (so long as people don’t lick those surfaces or otherwise go out of their way to ignore basic hygiene best practices), and yet, for months, based on what we thought was “science,” many of us were taking extreme precautions related to potential exposure to contaminated plastic and metal surfaces, while at least until April in NYC, there was no official recommendation to wear a mask. When stakes are high and state of knowledge is limited and rapidly evolving, the stage is set for just the sort of humbling experiences to which we became, collectively, accustomed in March and April in New York, as for the embarrassing retrospective realizations to which we’re now subject.

Speaking of humility, I thought this latest episode of The Red Nation Podcast (which I’ve been loving lately) was great. The interview with Atlanta-based journalist Devyn Springer builds on the concept – introduced, I think during the Obama years, by Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report – of “the Black misleadership class” in critiquing the role played by Killer Mike, TI, and other prominent black residents of Atlanta in attempting to quell the uprising in that city after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I’ve heard and read a number of good critiques of Killer Mike’s speech (which went viral), and generally agree with them; however, I did also link to and favorably quote from that speech in my May 31st post, Rage is Not a Strategy. (In particular, I wrote: “That being said [about the problem being capitalism, white supremacy, and police brutality], I’m with Killer Mike: We shouldn’t burn our own houses/cities down, and this is “the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.””)

I’ll give myself credit that I wasn’t claiming (and never have claimed) that people shouldn’t “riot,” “loot,” or otherwise appropriate or destroy property, but only that I didn’t see these approaches as likely to lead to good outcomes or lasting change, but did see them as likely to cause lasting destruction in already divested communities. I continue to be of that opinion, and have been at pains to make a key distinction: A democratic mass movement for change is one thing, a violent revolution, quite another. I make no value judgment between the two, and recognize that there is a spectrum from fully peaceful mass demonstration, to properly violent overthrow of a government, but don’t see it as a winning approach to pretend or imagine we’re “at war” with the police when we have no plan and stand no chance of winning such a violent conflict. (This is the protest-as-dramatic-gesture framing, valorized recently in the pages of the Paris Review by Robert Jones, Jr.)

Anyway, the risk with hot takes is that you’ll get some of it wrong, and doubly so when you don’t understand the details (as I don’t understand the ins and outs of Atlanta politics), and, frankly, I find Springer’s present analysis more compelling than my own past assessment.

Finally, I wish we could retire rhetoric about protesters boldly, heroically, sacrificially “putting their health at risk” to confront injustice and demand transformation, etc. As the Czech approach to pandemic control taught us months ago: “My mask protects you; your mask protects me.” In Manhattan, I think far more people are engaged in “reopening activities” (like congregating in large numbers to drink on the street) than in “protest activities,” and my own observations suggest that, while protesters are almost uniformly wearing masks and otherwise attempting to observe best practices, street revelers largely are not. Even in our current mass uprising, a relatively small (I’d say low single-digit) percentage of the population of NYC is actively participating in street mobilizations, whereas I suspect the percentage of the population engaged in various potentially-risky reopening activities is well into the double digits. Hence, I’d say the preponderance of the risk of new epidemic spread continues to be driven by reopening, but that there remains the threat that protests can be superspreading events which explosively catalyze new outbreaks.

That being said, when you put your own health at risk, you’re always putting the health of others at risk. That’s just science, and it’s how pandemics work.

Postscript: You may have read about a renewed “epidemic” in Beijing that has led to renewed lockdown measures there. For context, New York City reported 381 new positive cases of COVID-19 yesterday, and we’re pushing ahead with our phased reopening. Beijing reported “less than 100 new cases over the weekend and is shutting down significant parts of the city.” Nationwide, in the US, the trend in new confirmed cases – excluding the significant decline in new cases in New York – has been essentially level for a month and seems to be ticking upward. The White House is trying to claim that this trend simply reflects an increase in testing, but, as David Dayen points out, “The numbers can be twisted to really show whatever you want, with little or maybe none of it being true. Combine that with a situation where states are at different points on the viral curve, and you have a recipe for statistical torture.” Meanwhile, as was both predictable and widely predicted, “Coronavirus Cases [in the US Continue to] Rise Sharply in Prisons Even as They Plateau Nationwide.”

The Year Is Half Gone, But the Millennium Is Just Starting

In continuing to point to the unifying logic underlying struggles for racial justice, public health, and climate sanity, I’ll share, today, a webinar, two short book excerpts, and two excellent recent podcast episodes.

First, I encourage everyone to check out the “South Asians in Defense of Black Lives” webinar that Equality Labs hosted last week. Every participant was uniquely impressive, and it was a privilege to hear them speak (and in conversation with one another). One take-away quote, of many – this one from Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the Equality Labs founder: “When we confront the police, we confront the state.”

Second, pulling again from Sonia Shah’s 2017 book, Pandemic, I quote (from page 106, relative to the 1832 cholera pandemic): “[Another] containment measure that New York City failed to implement continues to falter today: prompt public alerts regarding the arrival and spread of the disease.” Shah goes on to write (on page 123) that: “Cholera riots date back to the nineteenth century. Across Europe and the United States, paroxysms of violence fanned out in cholera’s wake,” a claim which, like that regarding the failure of “containment measure[s]” has eerie resonances with our contemporary moment (in which the violence is being perpetrated largely by the police/state, but in which seismic political upheaval is general all across the land).

Third, the Hot & Bothered interview with Patrick Houston of New York Communities for Change (which was instrumental in the passage of New York City’s landmark Climate Mobilization Act in 2019, and, more recently, in the defeat of the proposed Williams Pipeline project) offers many nuanced insights into effective (climate) organizing in New York. As Houston put it: “If we’re an organization about addressing racial and economic injustice, we can’t not take on the climate crisis, especially here in New York City, where so many of our members are […] frontline to the climate crisis.”

Finally, I found the episode of The Red Nation Podcast on “Fighting settler fascism” harrowing, moving, and deeply funny all at once. In recent weeks, but also for a long time, I’ve looked to trace, from where I sit, the connections that unite struggles for racial, environmental, and climate justice, and against authoritarianism and fascism. The distinctions – as is generally the case with categorical labels – are arbitrary, and the four artifacts above offer further signposts marking the unity of the struggle for a life-affirming politics and pointing the way towards a just, sane, livable future on Earth.

Postscript: We still have to be very concerned about COVID-19 in the United States. Also, the first of the potentially life-destroying prosecutions of protesters have begun in New York City. The cases in question, in my view, point to the fundamental confusion, about which I’ve written previously, regarding the nature of this uprising.

Expected Consequences

There’s every reason for pessimism regarding both the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, and the likely eventual outcome of the nationwide uprising. Present circumstances on the one hand, and long histories of brutality and cynicism on the other give sound foundation to our despair. And yet, I’ve been encouraged to witness the rapid evolution of this movement in the streets (about the pandemic, I really can’t offer much encouragement at the moment beyond the potential sources of hope to which I’ve pointed in recent weeks). In addition to the wonted legal observers and volunteer street medics, the protests – no doubt through a combination of effort by their organizers and crowdsourced grassroots initiative – are now regularly characterized by distribution of free food and water; giveaways of masks, hand sanitizer, and even sunscreen; increasingly nuanced political education (and imploration to vote) in speeches from organizers; and robust digital and in-person efforts to share best practices to keep each other safe, maximize collective effectiveness, and avoid summary detention. Perhaps no one aspect of this praxis is new, but just as the scale and intensity of this nationwide explosion of anger are, in my lifetime, novel, so too the coordination and duration of the mass demonstrations in New York outstrip anything I’ve witnessed here or elsewhere (though, of course, as I wrote about yesterday, these new developments have roots in years and decades of work by organizers, activists, and thinkers).

Briefly on the pandemic, India’s apex body for biomedical research has now issued a study suggesting that the “Covid-19 peak in India may arrive [in] mid-November” and that “paucity of ICU beds [and] ventilators [is] likely”; so much for the blithe pronouncements of the Indian Government and the insane rumors and prognostications circulating on WhatsApp (which is, of course, owned by Facebook) that the pandemic would end in April, or May, or whenever based on the prediction of some godman or blessed child. Straight through the harsh, failed, devastating nationwide lockdown in India – and still – the number of new confirmed cases recorded continued to steadily accelerate, and November is still a long way off.

Here in the US, the lies and propaganda circulate, primarily, on Facebook proper (it’s the company’s business model), though the corporate media also does its fair share of the lie-telling. Case in point, as I’ve noted previously, there was a spate of reporting in major media outlets that on June 3rd in New York City, there were no confirmed COVID-19 deaths. The City’s official data portal now shows 37 confirmed deaths on June 3rd, which is a lot more than zero, and enough to make COVID-19 the second leading cause of death in the five boroughs that day (based on the average daily rate of death, with only heart disease killing more than 37 New Yorkers per day on average). Seems like a big mistake, and a big oversight not to go back and correct that mis-reportage, but such is the state of truth-telling and accountability-holding in the United States.

Good news, though, the New York Times has discovered Mariame Kaba! If it’s another sign of a true, lasting transformation being worked in our politics, all the better. Let’s hope.

Good piece in The Intercept today by David Segal and Astra Taylor entitled, “Police Budgets, Austerity, and Tax Cuts for the Rich Are Colliding in Democratic States and Cities” – the following stood out to me:

Unfortunately, even a wildly successful “divest/invest” approach alone won’t come close to filling the budget gaps so many states now face. To simply ensure that the current, and woefully insufficient, baseline of state investment in poorer communities and communities of color will even be maintained, we will need to do more. With many states facing deficits equal to around 10-25 percent of their budgets, we must demand a restructuring so that communities least burdened by the ongoing pandemic and recession — and by discriminatory and regressive state fiscal practices — pay more. […] In other words, we need to tax the rich […]

There’s been a lot of emphasis on the – admittedly staggering – almost $6 billion annual budget of the NYPD, and yet, contrary to many statements (which are no doubt valid regarding other cities) about police spending constituting a third or even a half of municipal budgets, the NYPD budget has, in recent years, accounted for ~6-7% of New York City’s annual outlays. Obviously, the pandemic has thrown many budget commitments and projections into doubt, but a glance at NYC’s Fiscal Year 2020 Budget (which was slated to be $92.5 billion before COVID-19 hit; go to page 2E for line item details) gives insight into some basic facts. Pre-pandemic, the NYPD budget for FY 2020 was slated to be ~$5.6 billion. That’s a lot. However, the Department of Education budget was slated to be ~$25.6 billion. That’s a lot more – like 4-5x more, in fact.

How do we reconcile the fact that even cutting the entire NYPD budget would only allow for a 20-25% increase in education spending (setting aside all of our other neglected social priorities – with NYCHA apparently in need of $30-40 billion in capital expenditures, the MTA in dire straits, our public health infrastructure obviously in a state of deep crisis, etc., etc.)? I’ve pointed previously to an excellent, long, paywalled piece in Catalyst, but I’ll point to it again: The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration. What Segal and Taylor point out above is evidence of a disconcerting truth: It is cheaper to pursue “organized abandonment” – in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, which they quote – while dumping money into militarized policing and the prison-industrial complex, than it is to actually fund generous social welfare programs and public goods. Defunding (or even, as Kaba and Gilmore call for, abolishing) the police won’t be sufficient to fill our budget gaps anymore than fully dismantling the carceral state will be. Social welfare, public goods, and world-class infrastructure simply cost a lot of money, in part because they are meant to serve and be used by all, whereas, even in the United States, only a small single-digit fraction of the population is in active contact with police or prison systems at any moment (although the threat embodied in those systems, like the thrumming of a helicopter overhead, is a constant, menacing presence).

Will we live by love or by terror? By affirming death, or affirming life?

I haven’t even mentioned climate crisis (that is, in considering the immense expenses involved in addressing social needs), and given that climate disruption is the defining issue or our times, and represents the convergence of more or less all threats and all opportunities in the realm of the social and political, I’ll point briefly to one of the only substantive references in the Regional Plan Association’s Third Regional Plan – full title: A Region at Risk: The Third Regional Plan; published in early 1996 – to climate crisis. The following image is drawn from page 102 of the Plan:

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The politics of the RPA are neoliberal in the extreme, but for nearly a hundred years, the nonprofit has been engaged with a sort of systemic, region-wide consideration of the functioning and future of the Greater New York City metropolitan area. It’s been 24 years since this staid, corporatist body declared: “An expected consequence of global climate change is an increase in sea levels and in the frequency and severity of coastal storms,” and it will soon have been a decade since Superstorm Sandy wrought havoc all along the coastline of the US Northeast. What progress have we made? Not very much.

Defunding the police is an important, worthy, and monumental goal in its own right, but without a mass convergence towards a life-affirming politics, the redirection of the ~$6 billion in New York City, or the $100 billion odd spent nationwide on police forces will make only a very marginal contribution towards funding the transition towards a just, sane, and livable future on Earth. The merit of the former effort is not predicated on its contribution to the latter, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves about the character and scale of the various, interrelated tasks at hand.