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 26: Today is my parents’ 53rd wedding anniversary. We aren’t really gift-givers for anniversaries, but I’ll usually get them a card or flowers or I’ll either buy them dinner or something like that. Most of that’s not really an option this year so I went out this morning and got them donuts and left them on their front porch.
An added bonus to that is that it caused me to go by the Dunkin’ Donuts near them. Which is sort of important to me.
In early March — in my last pre-pandemic post on this site — I wrote about my weekly coffees with my daughter. In it I talked about how, oddly, I’ve become something of a regular at this Dunkin’. It’s a franchised location. The man who owns and runs it is Indian, and every employee I’ve seen there is Indian as well. There’s a woman there who seems old enough to be the owner’s mother and a man who could be his father or uncle. There are a couple of young men in their 20s who could be his kids or maybe nephews. I mentioned at the time that the woman who runs the drive-thru most of the time I go through with Anna could either be his wife or sister based on age. I’m not really sure, but the strong vibe there is that it’s a family-run operation.
I’ve talked before about how the term “small business” is misused by politicians and how, in reality, all the “small business” aid and support they talk about tends to actually mean wealthy people and larger-than-you-think businesses. The people who tend to get lost when the concept of “small business” is invoked are small store proprietors. People who run gas stations, restaurants, and convenience stores.
I’d also argue that it includes the people who run franchised locations of a good number of national chains. No, they’re not in the same situation as a fully-independent mom-and-pop operation, but you’d be shocked to learn how little support from the national brand a lot of franchise operators get and just how much they have to invest and how hard they have to work to make a real go of things. A franchised donut shop may not add the sort of local color a completely DIY place would, but the people who run it and the people they employ are valuable too and, quite often, are living in just as thin a line as the DIY folks are. And, this one at least, is very much a family business, even if it has corporate signage.
Anyway, I was happy to go through the drive-thru this morning and see the woman who usually gives Anna and I our coffee on Tuesdays. They were really busy — Sunday is the donut business’s big day — and it’s been a month and a half since I’ve been through that drive-thru, but she still recognized me, smiled, and said “No daughter today? . . . iced coffee next time!” It felt good. It even felt a little bit normal.
I’ve long subscribed to the Washington Post, but in the past couple of years I have increasingly found their political coverage to be even more myopically inside-the-Beltway than it usually is. I’ve kept the Post subscription — it’s still a good and useful paper — but wanting something of a counterbalance, last year I subscribed to the Los Angeles Times.
The Times’ political coverage comes from more of a “how what is happening in Washington affects America” perspective. Its sports section is pretty great. Since so much of what affects the country starts in California anyway, it’s a good place to learn new things. I’m also simply fascinated with Los Angeles itself for a bunch of personal reasons and it scratches that itch. Above all else, it’s just a well put-together paper. Since last year, my first-thing-every-Sunday-morning routine is to read the e-edition of the L.A. Times pretty much cover to cover. I’ve been really happy with my subscription.
This morning though, I would’ve thrown my copy across the room if it wasn’t on my laptop. The first story that aggravated me was Sunday’s cover story:
The story has moments in which it’s critical. It notes, for example, how billionaire music and movie mogul David Geffen was mocked and shamed for sharing a photo of his 454-foot yacht with the caption, “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus . . . I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.” It also at least nods to the notion that the super-wealthy fleeing L.A. and New York for small towns in the desert or the mountains or the coast risks spreading disease and taxing the medical resources of small towns which are ill-equipped to handle it. But that’s pretty superficial. It’s a look-at-the-rich-people-be-rich story.
I suspect that those who write and publish stories like this one would say that the snapshot they’re providing is, in and of itself, a form of commentary. A “see how some people are living” kind of thing that implies its own critique. For the most part, though, that critique doesn’t come through. It all comes off as straightforward “so-and-so celebrity restauranteur is doing this” and “guy with $8,000-a-month vacation home is doing that.” It’s simply rich people porn.
The issue from a journalism perspective, I think, is that we do not live in an age in which the implied, droll commentary of stories like these even begins to push back against that which is allegedly targeted. Mostly because that which is targeted — in this case “wealth is AMAZING and GOOD” — has no compunction about loudly proclaiming its countervailing view and has no shortage of surrogates who argue for it, often unprompted.
Which is something the second rage-inducing story from Sunday’s L.A. Times made pretty clear as well. It was actually an op-ed, headlined “Angelenos like their single-family sprawl. The coronavirus proves them right.”
The argument set forth is pretty much what the headline says: L.A.’s sprawling, car-focused, single-family-house landscape, which is now the poster child for poor, Earth-unfriendly urban planning, is actually a big asset when it comes to beating back the pandemic. People in L.A. are farther apart than people in New York and farther apart than today’s urban planners in L.A. want people to be, the op-ed argues, and that’s why L.A. has had a fraction of the cases and deaths that New York has had. There was a similar op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune earlier this month.
The problem with that, however, is made pretty clear in a story in the next section of the paper, in which it is correctly noted that dense cities in Asia, including Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong, have seen a fraction of New York’s cases. Meanwhile San Francisco, which is the second-densest city in America after New York, has seen a fraction of the cases that New York and L.A. have seen as well. The common denominator is not density, it’s leadership and aggressive implementation of stay-at-home orders, testing, and isolating and neutralizing infection vectors.
That story, despite being based on facts and logic, notes that the kneejerk anti-density take of the op-ed — which is featured many pages before the news story in the print and e-editions of the paper — will likely carry the day when it comes to urban planning:
Nevertheless, speculation about how dense neighborhoods may have contributed to the coronavirus’ spread will almost certainly have an effect on California’s political debates and could affect how the state grows for years to come.
People who oppose change always have the advantage in our system. They need not prove their cases the way advocates for change must. They need only offer up buzzwords — “crime!” “parking!” — and invoke the fear of change so many have. By doing so they have proven themselves remarkably able to halt progress. In the future, merely citing the baseless notion that density caused mass death in the COVID-19 pandemic and claiming, without evidence, like the op-ed does, that sprawl and low density protected people will no doubt give them another arrow in their quiver to help them stop zoning changes. Stop projects that encourage increased housing density. Stop expanded transit in its tracks. Indeed, I suspect most of the things we’re learning in this pandemic that are useful — things like working from home, the need for a greater social safety net — will be forgotten while the specious and even downright malignant takeaways — Density is bad! Foreigners are not to be trusted! — will last.
Whatever the case, if one wants to create a less-unequal society, it’s not enough to subtly critique the accumulation of wealth or to implicitly shame the wealthy because the critique will be missed and the wealthy have no shame. If one wants to transform the shape of cities into more Earth-friendly, human-scale forms, it’s not enough to simply marshal the data, because those opposing change will, loudly and in bad faith, shout their erroneous counterarguments. These are lessons that the established liberal and Democratic opposition refuses to learn, over and over again. They eschew straightforward and forceful advocacy, citing the alleged need for “civility” or “incremental change” or asserting a misguided belief in institutions or the integrity of those who oppose them.
It’s a dynamic one can see on the pages of the newspaper — even good newspapers like the Los Angeles Times — every single day.
After getting good and worked up about all of that I decided to punt the rest of my cold and rainy Sunday. I put some beans and chicken in the crock pot, poured myself a brunch beer and put on a C-level noir flick that the TCM host characterized, affectionately, as “trash”:
It was a fun, bad movie that’s exactly the thing that can pick up a gloomy Sunday. I even managed not to be angry when, in the opening scenes, the main character gets off the bus in Los Angeles and and finds a place to live and a place to work, all without needing a car.
(Featured Photo: Myriam Thyes: Wikimedia Commons)