Pandemic and the Case for Community

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In a piece for The New Yorker last week Susan Glasser wrote that “Crises clarify.”

No doubt about that.

She notes that “the incompetence, dishonesty, and sheer callousness of the Trump Presidency have been clearer in recent days than ever before.” Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes of the Lawfare blog go even further, noting Trump’s “incompetence exacerbated by malevolence” in dealing with the coronavirus, a reversal of the previous dynamic on matters like the Muslim ban, where malevolence was tempered by incompetence.

When your administration has only two gears, and one is being clueless assholes and the other is being evil morons, you’re not in great shape.

PANIC IN DETROIT (ALSO: EVERYWHERE)

Where to begin? Let’s start with Trump’s Oval Office speech, which has been widely, and rightly, panned as a disaster.

Sweating, stilted, stumbling over the words on the TelePrompTer, and of course unconscionably spewing lies and misinformation, it was no shock that Trump had the exact opposite of his intended effect in terms of assuring us that there was a steady hand at the helm. Even some of the right wing was appalled. The day before, America seemed relatively calm. The day after, Brooklyn (where I live) was visibly panicked, with the by-now ubiquitous runs on toilet paper. I saw and heard the same thing from towns across the country.

I haven’t yet seen a meme of a sickly and gaunt Tom Hanks from Philadelphia, but I know it’s coming.

Our fearless leader characteristically patted himself on the back and tried to frame this epidemiological crisis as a “foreign invasion.” (No shock, the speech was reportedly penned in large part by Stephen Miller.) He uttered not a word about the most important thing we as a nation can do—social distancing—and instead focused on his go-to move, a travel ban…..which is fine as far as it goes (notwithstanding the folly of at first exempting the UK and Ireland), but also like spending your time ordering new locks instead of stopping the ax murderer who is already in the house. As Chris Hayes noted on MSNBC, when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But even that travel ban seemed to cause as much damage as it stanched, as evidenced by images that soon emerged of US air travelers crushed together for hours at Customs , in veritable petri dishes that could not be better designed to spread disease if we tried.

Meanwhile Devin Nunes, continuing his strong bid for the title of worst human whose surname doesn’t rhyme with “chump,” incredibly suggested that Americans go out for dinner in restaurants, since they’re likely to be able to get a table these days.

In the fallout from the speech we also see the high price of being a congenital liar. Most of the time that trait has served Trump very very well, affirming the maxim about a lie going around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. But now, in this crisis, when he really needs credibility, Trump has none. Even the White House announcement that he tested negative for the virus—after finally agreeing to be tested at all—is greeted with justifiable skepticism.

Here’s Peter Wehner writing in The Atlantic:

(T)his is a massive failure in leadership that stems from a massive defect in character. Trump is such a habitual liar that he is incapable of being honest, even when being honest would serve his interests. He is so impulsive, shortsighted, and undisciplined that he is unable to plan or even think beyond the moment. He is such a divisive and polarizing figure that he long ago lost the ability to unite the nation under any circumstances and for any cause. And he is so narcissistic and unreflective that he is completely incapable of learning from his mistakes. The president’s disordered personality makes him as ill-equipped to deal with a crisis as any president has ever been.

But her emails….

HE DIDN’T START THE FIRE (JUST ASK HIM)

Following the Oval office speech debacle, Trump then held a Rose Garden press conference that was essentially an infomercial for Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreen’s, Quest Diagnostics, and the like—a horrific example of a mindset that thinks capitalism and the private sector are the solution to any problem. (Bonus: All the CEOs were old white men.)

Asked if he accepted some responsibility for the lack of available testing, Trump blithely replied, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Twitter quickly pounced, noting that that is Trump’s motto in life. (Harry Truman, call your service.)

Ever the world-beating sycophant, Mike Pence then took the mic to praise Trump’s wisdom and decisiveness. (“Throughout this process you put the health of America first.”) For a homophobe, he sure excels at fellatio.

The Rose Garden fiasco baldly demonstrated the misplaced priorities of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, priorities which seem limited to the conjoined concerns of protecting the well-being of the 1% and of Donald Trump’s prospects for re-election. As Alex Pareene writes in The New Republic:

It has become apparent that Trump and his staff view a pandemic as a messaging problem that threatens to become a liquidity crisis. The idea that they should have stepped in to contain the virus is as foreign to them as the idea that they now bear the primary responsibility for mitigating it….

These are all the predictable consequences of giving power to people whose only understanding of the role of government is to protect investment portfolios.”

There is no little irony in the fact that Trump, the GOP, Fox News, and its ilk have with great success convinced much of the conservative sector of the American population to disregard the necessary safety precautions. As a result, that population, which skews elderly, is likely to be hit harder than anyone. (Not unlike the way those same forces have for years successfully convinced those same folks to vote against their own economic self-interest.)

In diametrical opposition to Trump’s despicably self-serving behavior, we also saw the noble actions of the truly Honorable Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who browbeat the mealy-mouthed head of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, into committing to making COVID-19 testing available for free to all Americans.

No surprise, Trump also continued to fail to lead by example in his personal behavior.

He was revealed to have been exposed to the virus in meetings with the likes of Bolsonaro, among others, yet balked at being tested, continued shaking hands with everyone he met (ironic, given his lifelong germaphobic antipathy to it), and continued to insist that his administration was doing a heckuva job, Brownie, and that everything would be fine if we all just pretend nothing is wrong and wish upon a star.

But history will not fail to notice his sins both of commission and omission.

We already know that in May 2018 Trump capriciously and vindictively disbanded the pandemic working group that Barack Obama had established within the National Security Council. Now we learn that as recently as two weeks ago he threw a fit and tried to stifle attempts even to warn the American people about what was coming. Politico reports:

After senior CDC official Nancy Messonnier correctly warned on Feb. 25 that a U.S. coronavirus outbreak was inevitable, a statement that spooked the stock market and broke from the president’s own message that the situation was under control, Trump himself grew angry and administration officials discussed muzzling Messonnier for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, said two individuals close to the administration.

Let’s all stop and consider that for a moment.

How many American lives will be lost because of the precious prep time we as a nation squandered due to that unconscionable behavior?

For any lawyers out there: can someone email me an explanation of the difference between manslaughter and criminal negligence, and which one beats four-of-a-kind?

In the Bulwark, Never Trump conservative Jonathan V. Last wrote:

I don’t often get angry about politics—like truly, viscerally, angry. But watching Donald Trump and his supporters talk-down the danger of COVID-19 pretty much pushed me to 11. And the reason is this: I have a number of people in my life who are dear to me and who are super-duper Trump supporters. All of them are over the age of 60. Several of them have compromised immune systems. These are the people most at-risk for the worst of what COVID-19 can do and Trump has been gambling with their lives.

It is the single most irresponsible action I have ever seen from a politician, full stop.

BOOMER REMOVER

This kind of behavior—a politician covering up information and putting public health at risk—is the kind of thing that a mustache-twirling villain does in a bad disaster movie. (“You switched the samples! And the pathology reports! So RDU-90 could be approved and Devlin McGregor could give you Provasic!”)

But the state in which we find ourselves is no accident. It is the result of the choices we as a nation have deliberately made.

We’ve spent a decade arguing about Obamacare, and decades longer arguing about healthcare full stop, only to find that our failure on that front is the precise problem threatening us. Robert Reich sagely notes:

The dirty little secret, which will soon become apparent to all, is that there is no real public health system in the United States….

Instead of a public health system, we have a private for-profit system for individuals lucky enough to afford it and a rickety social insurance system for people fortunate enough to have a full-time job.

At their best, both systems respond to the needs of individuals rather than the needs of the public as a whole. In America, the word “public”–as in public health, public education or public welfare–means a sum total of individual needs, not the common good.

We are about to have that bitter lesson hammered home.

To cite just one example: since we have no mandated paid sick leave, many Americans who should stay home because they are in danger of infecting others will instead choose to go to work—which is to say, be forced to go to work—because they can’t afford not to, thus spreading illness and putting more people at risk. So we all suffer because of a system that operates on the venal premise of “I got mine, fuck you.”

Why we alone among the world’s industrialized nations are unable to provide decent, affordable healthcare for our citizens is an enduring mystery, much like the way we alone let our citizens shoot each other up with firearms like they’re in a Sam Peckinpah western. Something in the water, I guess.

Might this crisis at last prompt some long overdue changes to those systemic healthcare issues? Hope springs eternal.

Meanwhile, in the short term, the pandemic may yet prove to be Trump’s undoing, or, if we manage to control the damage, he may—yet again—be the lucky but undeserving beneficiary of the actions of others, and take credit for it of course. We shall see. At the very least, his selfishness has never been on more stark display. If that does indeed contribute to his downfall, it will be at a horrific price in human suffering. There is no question in any case that it will go down as some of the blackest and most shameful behavior in American presidential “leadership,” if it can be called that. The only question that remains is just how black.

SHALL WE THIS DAY GENTLE OUR CONDITION?

But let’s talk about another way in which this crisis has been clarifying.

Public health experts have told us that the best way to fight the coronavirus pandemic is by “flattening the curve”—that is, slowing its spread so that the number of cases does not explode and overwhelm the ability of the healthcare system to respond to it. We have seen—in China, in Iran, in Italy—the dire consequences of not doing so:

That is the most welcome news I’ve heard all week. It means that much of the ability of mitigate the impact of this pandemic is within our control.

So how do we flatten the curve? Primarily by “social distancing,” per above: by radically reducing our face-to-face interactions with others. Closing schools. Postponing or cancelling large public events to include concerts, sporting events, festivals, conferences, and other gatherings. Shuttering restaurants, bars, museums, theaters, and other non-essential businesses. Staying home except when absolutely necessary. We all know the drill by now.

The economic impact of these measures is sure to be devastating, but this is a case of paying attention to the crocodile closest to your canoe (or if you wanna be fancy, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). As bad as a recession would be, it’s preferable to a real-life remake of The Omega Man.

The call for social distancing also provides a pointed case study in something that many Americans, especially those with money and power and means, would very much like us to forget: the fact that we are, all of us, unavoidably part of a community where our interests are intertwined.

As a writer, I like nothing more than to be left alone to do my own thing. I say this not because the regimen of self-quarantine is relatively undisruptive to my lifestyle, but because I understand the impulse against communitarianism.

I have always been sympathetic to the appeal of libertarianism, at least in principle (or shall we say, in the abstract). Live and let live and all that. But modern libertarianism of the Ayn Rand variety as manifested in right wing American politics is less a cogent ideology than just a shady veneer for Darwinian oligarchy where might makes right, and Them That Has run roughshod over Them That Has Not, while preaching a fake gospel of freedom and liberty that is really just a con.

Conservatives often try to portray the political divide in this country as a choice between bootstraps-style Horatio Alger-brand rugged individualism on the one hand, and nanny state Big Government socialism (gasp!) on the other. It’s total horseshit, of course, and the last forty years of post-Reagan Revolution golden shower trickle-down economics have shown it. But we need not go into a book-length dissertation here about plutocracy, corporate welfare, capitalist propaganda, and backlash to “you didn’t build that” to understand what a fraud this has been.

For that, all we have to do is look COVID-I9.

The coronavirus has cast a spotlight on an irrefutable fact that libertarianism blithely ignores: that we are all in this together.

Social distancing will work only if we all do it. The young and healthy who are less at risk (but not as less as they think) and the wealthy and well-resourced who have access to top-flight private healthcare and can flee to country homes still have a responsibility to help contain the spread of this pandemic. One could hardly ask for a more perfect and elegant demonstration of the interconnectivity of society.

To that end, social distancing is at once a matter of altruism and of pure, pragmatic self-aggrandizement. I don’t want others to die, and I also don’t want a Malthusian plague to spread that will threaten my loved ones and me. Social distancing, conveniently, helps stop both outcomes simultaneously. Win-win, no?

There is a rich irony in play here. Despite the malevolent incompetence of the executive branch that Jurecic and Wittes tagged above, we the American people have it within our power to manage this unprecedented public health crisis. The extent to which succeed will depend on the extent to which we rise to the occasion, prove that we are a nation of caring, socially engaged citizens, that we really do live by the principles that we espouse, and that we take care of our own.

If we do so, we will have dramatically demonstrated what should be obvious to all, that society by definition is an interconnected proposition, and will have obliterated the lie that “greed is good” and that venality and selfishness is a workable operating principle for a civilized nation.

Now is the time for us to show our mettle, or have our centuries of self-flattery proved a shameful fraud.

*********

Illustration: “The Sermon on the Mount,” Carl Bloch, 1877.

Painting depicts an obscure left-wing revolutionary called Jesus of Nazareth (with arm raised, in umber-colored robe), suggesting that we all treat each other the way we would like to be treated. He was later arrested and executed by the state.

 

 

 

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