Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
April 13: It’s that part of spring when it gets fairly warm during the day but cold at night so the thermostat can’t decide what to do when. It ends up feeling cold at 2AM but then the heat kicks on at 5AM and that doesn’t feel right either. So, of course, I’ve woken up feeling hot more mornings than not lately and, of course, the first thought I have now when that happens is “oh great, I have a fever, guess I finally got it.”
Then I go downstairs, pour a cup of coffee and I’m fine within a few minutes. There’s a long list of things to hate at the moment and that’s not near the top of it, but it’s rising fast.
And then when you wake up and, after realizing you don’t have a fever, you see stuff like this story making the rounds in which an “urban rodentologist” said that since rats don’t have restaurant food and garbage to root through anymore, armies of cannibalistic rats will begin fighting each other with the mightiest and most cravenly cannibalistic rat armies emerging victorious and ruling the new rat landscape.
They voted in Wisconsin last Tuesday. It was extraordinarily irresponsible from both a public health and a governance perspective, made worse by the fact that they could only open a fraction of the polling places due to a lack of volunteer workers. Because of that thousands more people crammed into far fewer places in the midst of a pandemic.
The reason they held the vote: Wisconsin Republicans, fighting the issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and winning, believed that they could put a conservative on the state Supreme Court and that the inevitable lower turnout would help their chances. Just how craven a play it was was captured in this photo:
That was the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin House, in full hazmat gear, telling people it was perfectly safe to vote.
What a damn clown. What a damn clown show. But, plot twist: they lost that Supreme Court election and the liberal won. Good to see that, in a rare, rare case of cosmic justice being served, the worst acts by the worst actors weren’t rewarded.
Another political fight this week: the U.S. Postal Service is near collapse and the president and Republicans seem to want to let it die. As with holding an election in the midst of a pandemic in an effort to put a conservative judge on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, this is another case of using a pandemic as a means of achieving long-held political objectives. And it provides yet another example of something essential to America’s social fabric coming undone.
The background: Private parcel carriers have lobbied for years for laws which will hobble the Postal Service. They most successfully did that during the George W. Bush administration when they got a law passed which required the post office to do what no other company in the country has to do or would ever choose to do: to fund pensions for 75 years into the future, with current funds. Pension funds simply do not work that way because by basic operation of present vs. future value and cash flow, doing such a thing would absolutely wreck their balance sheets. Well, the post office’s balance sheet is required by Congress to be wrecked, keeping it from doing almost anything to innovate in the best of times or weather even the slightest downturns. The pandemic has created a massive downturn in mail volume — people aren’t sending business correspondence — and so the post office is about to go under.
Republicans want this for a reason beyond just helping further their “privatize everything” ideology. They want to sink future vote-by-mail plans, which are newly popular given the times in which we live. They view voting by mail as something that will increase turnout and they fear that increased turnout will help Democrats, making this a grand confluence of their anti-government, anti-democracy objectives.
I don’t know if they’ll win that political fight — I’m still having a hard time accepting that Congress will simply let the United States Postal Service die — but I do see this fight as a part of something larger. A fight beyond just the political sphere and into the social sphere. A fight that we are losing and that I fear we cannot do anything about.
America’s conceit that it’s a relatively classless society – economically and socially speaking anyway, not racially speaking, ever – is based on a lot of self-delusion, but at times it’s been a fairly useful and even beneficial delusion.
We had always had rich and poor here, obviously, but until relatively recently money has been less able to allow people to buy themselves out of being a citizen than it has always been in places like Europe or Latin America where economic and social class is a far more ingrained and accepted thing. Sure, you could always buy your luxury goods here and, if you were very rich, you could have servants do your dirty work. But until pretty recently in America most people – including the professional and educated classes – still had to go to the train station or the post office or to hospitals or to libraries or to public schools or any number of other places where the stuff of society happens and interact with people as rough equals irrespective of financial means. It was this very coming together in the public sphere in so many ways that it never occurred in other places that made America America.
But that has been changing over the past several decades. While the very rich could always keep themselves separate and apart, since the 1980s and especially since the advent of the digital age, larger and larger numbers of people have been able to use money to increasingly insulate themselves from this coming together of everyday life.
Elite status, VIP sections, priority lines, platinum healthcare plans, private schools and all manner of other luxuries have created a situation in which not just the swells on Park Avenue, in Newport, Rhode Island, or in Beverly Hills were living differently, but a great swath of the educated and professional classes in cities all over the country were becoming routinely accepted as living a class apart from everyone else. That, in turn, has led to the greater acceptance, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, of the insidious assumption that the affluent and the educated are demographically superior to the poor.
This has long been the case, but we’re seeing that exacerbated in the pandemic, with status and privilege being conferred upon those of us who can more easily work, shop and socialize apart from our actual physical community. How much easier are you able to weather the pandemic because you can work from home and have meetings and then after-work happy hours via Zoom? How much easier is it for you to shop and eat via Instacart and Postmates? How much harder is all of that for people who work in blue collar industries or who do not have actual access to or the financial means required to utilize the conveniences of the digital age?
I think all of this has contributed to the public sphere of American life breaking down in many important ways. I don’t believe we come together as a society, across economic classes, in anything approaching the way we did even when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, let alone the way we did in previous decades. We drive too much and live in isolated and increasingly cloistered communities of like-minded people. “Success” is increasingly equated with being able to buy one’s way out of the public sphere altogether. I think it’s bad for democracy. I think it’s bad for social health. I think it takes us out of the role of citizen and, at best, puts us in the role of voyeur when it comes to the challenges we face as a nation. In many cases it causes us to simply turn away altogether and to believe the entire country is doing as well as we are in our little economically and technologically homogenous cocoon.
The breakdown of the post office, if it happens, is just another part of all of that.
The post office is a vital piece of national infrastructure. It’s specifically mentioned in the Constitution, with Congress ordered to establish a postal service. Practically, it serves everyone — absolutely everyone — equally and efficiently. Yes, efficiently, no matter what lazy joke you might have about postal workers and no matter how bad the line was when you tried to send something across country last December 21. For over 200 years it has allowed people to send things anywhere and it gets there every single time. It goes to places UPS and FedEx won’t serve because it’s not profitable for them to serve them. It costs 55 cents for you to send a card to your grandma that, if the post office is gone, will either cost you $4.50 or will never be sent at all because FedEx does not consider it worth serving the rural road on which your grandmother lives. Or, if it does send it there, it will do so because you signed up for a “FedEx Gold” membership or whatever new level of elite status happens to come into existence.
The post office is one of the last bits of public infrastructure reminding us that, at least once upon a time, we did not consider it all daunting to undertake large national projects which brought our country together on an equal footing. If it becomes another victim of COVID-19 it will be a national tragedy. Another sign in a series of them that we are, as a country, simply broken.
(Featured Image: Library of Congress)