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 20: Decided to do my part to stimulate the economy tonight (read: I didn’t wanna cook) so I offered to get the kids carryout:
It’s extremely hard to argue with 14 year-old boys about healthy habits when they respond with stuff like “well, you write every day that the world’s ending, so why does it matter?”
I have not seen a more thorough analysis of where we are and how we got here than this essay from George Packer of The Atlantic about how, in almost every way that matters, America is a failed state.
Set your pride in the idea of your country aside. Set your reflexive patriotism aside. Just read it. And then ask yourself what, if anything, he gets wrong about the state of our nation. It breaks my heart to say that I can’t find a thing.
In any case, it reminds me of the opening chapter of William Manchester’s “The Glory and the Dream,” which I talked about in the April 2 entry. As Manchester noted, we were waylaid by the Great Depression because we had built a society utterly ill-equipped to deal with it. The same thing is happening now. It took ninety years, but we’re back to square one. A country which is psychologically and structurally incapable of taking care of its people and which desperately needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.
Re-reading the April 2 entry, I realize, with no small amount of petty self-satisfaction, how much of it tracks what Packer is saying in his essay. I’ll admit that most of these entries slide out of my brain not long after I hit “publish.” That’s sort of by design, really. I started this thing to unload the thoughts in my head and to try to move on from them as quickly as possible, so if my observations stuck with me it’d kind of defeat the purpose. But I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty chuffed that, to the extent I do go back and look at them, they’re holding up.
Maybe it’s just a matter of me sharing a few preoccupations with Packer.
He wrote a book called “The Unwinding” a few years ago that tracked the changes in America from the late 1970s through the present. If you’ve been reading my writing for any amount of time you’ll recognize that as something I go back to pretty often. I grew up with people and in places that weren’t exactly on the cutting edge of the cultural zeitgeist, and for those people, those places and, by extension, me, the 1970s zeitgeist remained pretty prominent well into the portion of my childhood that I still very consciously remember.
I look back on the 70s — and those years in the early 80s that still felt like the 1970s to me — as a great lost opportunity. It was by no means a great time — I’m not going to whitewash the malaise and uncertainty of the era — but it was a time when responsible people still thought that “fuck it, let’s just make as much money as we possibly can and not worry about anything else” was a sociopathic as opposed to an aspirational concept. It was a time when a nice, thoughtful but, unfortunately, politically-challenged man named Jimmy Carter told us that, maybe, it’d be a good idea to turn the thermostat down a tad and maybe wear a sweater to save some money. In response, our entire nation threw a 40-year-long-and-counting temper tantrum in which it decided, screw that, we’d rather first bankrupt and then destroy the planet rather than sacrifice a single thing. That tantrum is still raging and is largely responsible for the mess we’re in at present.
For evidence of that, look no further than Georgia and Tennessee. Georgia’s governor announced today that he will be dropping shutdown orders this weekend, with gyms, bowling alleys, hair salons, nail salons, and massage therapists’ opening as of this weekend and restaurants and movie theaters as of Monday. Tennessee is going to let its shutdown order expire on April 30.
It’s sheer madness. It’s a total cave-in to the fringe protestors I talked about yesterday and, more broadly, to business interests which almost every politician in this country has accepted, since the 1980s anyway, to be more important than any single thing. Most notably the public good. This reopening is going to lead to spikes in infections and deaths. We know this because experts have been modeling this stuff for a century or more and disparate closings of public spaces have been proven to lead to disparate results in infections and deaths.
Worse, it’s going to begin a race to the bottom.
When people in Florida or South Carolina see what’s going on in Georgia, they’re going to clamor for similar treatment. When people in Arkansas see what’s happening in Tennessee, they’ll do the same. Particularly businesses at the borders which are losing out to locals crossing state lines to go to places where restrictions have been relaxed. We’ll see this expand, and that expansion will happen before the ill public health effects, which will lag by a couple of weeks, become apparent.
This inevitable pattern — phenomena which does not respect state borders negatively impacting neighbor states — is the very reason why we have a federal system instead of a confederation of states. We tried that and it did not work because we found that there are simply matters that must be dealt with in a coordinated manner. This is why states do no have their own currency. Or their own militaries. Or their own environmental or consumer laws below a baseline national standard. It is simply unworkable.
People who are politically aligned with the governors of Georgia and Tennessee will decry the idea, set forth in the Packer article, that the nation is broken. But the acts of those two governors is about to provide proof-of-concept for that notion.
I spent the evening doing some cleaning and then watching a little TV. Before bed I made one last check of the news and saw that Trump announced an executive order to completely suspend immigration, which he says will protect Americans as we deal with “the Invisible Enemy” that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump, somehow, did not mention that there are something like the three times more Americans infected with COVID-19 than those from the next most-highly-infected country, meaning that we are far more of a a danger to people in other counties than they are to us. Of course, Trump has never been concerned with the accuracy of his anti-immigration ravings.
As I’ve noted here before and as the Packer piece notes as well, a crisis doesn’t break us anew as much as it shows us what is already broken. In this act, it shows us that the president — and his advisor on all things immigration, Stephen Miller, who no doubt prodded Trump to make this move — are looking for any excuse to do what they already want to do but legally cannot do by simple decree. They are using an emergency as a pretext to accomplish their preexisting aims. It’s a classic move of fascist regimes. It’s straight from the textbook.
(Featured Image: Dylan L. Tanner)