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 30: My car has a recall notice and, to my surprise, the dealer is still open so I took it in this morning mostly as an excuse to leave the house. No one was there when I got there except for the service department people. After handing over my keys I went back to the waiting area with my laptop to do some work. After about an hour a couple more people showed up to wait while their cars were being serviced, but everyone kept their distance. Just before I left I saw a salesperson out in the lot, showing a couple a Subaru Outback. I guess someone may really need to buy a car right now but it struck me as odd that this part of the economy was operating as normally as it was under the circumstances.
As for just being there: it was the first time I’ve been somewhere with my mask where I wasn’t able to just get in and get out quickly. I brought a travel mug of coffee and had to lift the bottom of my mask each time I wanted to take a sip. I felt like this:
I figured it was OK given that there was so much distance between everyone in the room. I don’t know. Doing anything that is not a set routine right now feels so harrowing.
Speaking of cars, I was accosted online today by someone making an anti-shutdown argument I often ignore but decided to think a bit about today: “hey, life is full of risks. People die in car crashes. Should we just ban cars?!”
You know what? We would 100% be banning cars — or passing emergency laws to severely limit their use — if we were experiencing the same patterns in auto fatalities as we’re seeing with COVID-19.
Do you know how many people died in automobile accidents in 2018 in this country? I didn’t until I looked it up. The answer: 36,560. That’s a lot! But nearly twice as many people have died of COVID-19 in the past two months than died in auto accidents in 12 months in 2018. I will go out on a limb here and say that if, suddenly, the automobile fatality rate increased by a factor of five or six there would be immediate, nationwide action to do something about it and it would likely be pretty damn radical. We’d actually probably ban all non-essential driving until we could figure out why it has happened and until something could be done about it.
Hell, we already have taken pretty radical action in response to automobile fatalities, at least when you look over the long term.
Current rates of automobile fatalities are, actually, pretty darn low. In 2018 there were 1.13 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. When they started keeping records for that in the 1920s, the number was over 20 times that. Even as late as the late 70s, the automobile death rate was almost three times that of today. There is similar improvement if you measure things by deaths against total population. There is even pretty substantial improvement in the raw number of automotive deaths despite an overall increase in the amount driven and the size of the population. Those 36,560 deaths in 2018 can be compared to over 54,000 deaths in 1972, when the country was much smaller and drove fewer miles.
The number and rates of automotive fatalities have gone down — dramatically — because we, as a nation, have made a gigantic, across-the-board effort to make auto travel safer. The government has mandated safety measures, even when some have claimed that their doing so infringes upon personal freedoms. The private sector has not only complied with those governmental standards, but has gone above and beyond to do more, going so far as to make auto safety a selling point — something they use in marketing — as opposed to a mere obligation.
People have likewise altered their habits in dramatic ways. On the whole, we drive less recklessly than our parents and grandparents did both because of those laws and because it’s no longer culturally acceptable to drive in ways that were considered normal 50 years ago. Dad isn’t having martinis after work and then driving home without his seatbelt in his car with non-shatterproof glass and a non-collapseable steering column. Kids aren’t out drag racing or drinking cases of Hamm’s out by the quarry and cruising the streets like they did back in the day. We’ve changed all that because it was really fucking dangerous to drive cars a few decades ago. Way more than it is today anyway.
So, please, spare me the specious arguments about how we shouldn’t be taking steps to combat COVID-19 because cars or cigarettes or alcohol or anything else is also dangerous. We, as a society, have almost always made great efforts to rein-in hazards to people’s health and personal safety when presented with them. Sometimes those efforts have come in response to government action. Sometimes they’ve come in response to legal threats. Sometimes they’ve been the product of changes in human behavior. Most of the time it’s been in response to some combination of those things.
But we do it. We do it because we’re unavoidably mortal. We do it because we’re generally rational. We do it because most of us want people to live as long as they can. Those same considerations apply to a pandemic.
But only generally rational. My god, did we see plenty of evidence today suggesting that at least a small number of us are out of our goddamn minds. Unfortunately, one of those people is the President of the United States.
First the civilians, who think they’re in some sort of paramilitary force:
Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today. #mileg pic.twitter.com/voOZpPYWOs
— Senator Dayna Polehanki (@SenPolehanki) April 30, 2020
Multiple armed gunmen storm Michigan’s State House, State police are protecting @GovWhitmer and blocking the gunmen from gaining access to the house floor.
This is America in the age of Trump. pic.twitter.com/tLWR2bvjtR
— Rob Gill (@vote4robgill) April 30, 2020
That’s the capitol building in Michigan, where armed protesters showed up to shout at lawmakers and to ensure that measures taken by their governor to protect them from a deadly pandemic are rolled back. And they’re likely to be rolled back, as the state’s GOP legislature moved today to sue the governor to have her emergency declarations nullified.
It probably goes without saying that if a large group of black protesters showed up at the state capitol with semi-automatic weapons, yelling at legislators, they would be killed, with a quickness, by the police or the national guard. These men, however, are treated differently for some reason. And they’re getting their way. All by virtue of their outrage at, again, the government trying to keep them from dying an ugly, painful death.
The president, meanwhile, has decided that this whole “United States” thing is not all that important:
Trump says he's unlikely to allow support for state budget since the hardest hit are "Democrat states", points to well run Republican states like South Dakota. "If we do that we'll have to get something for it. pic.twitter.com/OIW1UWf95J
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) April 30, 2020
Imagine if China mounted an amphibious invasion of the west coast and Trump said “the Chinese army is in California, Washington, and Oregon. Those are Democrat states so, eh, we’ll see if we’ll deploy the military. Wars are tough.”
The entire point of the federal government is to deal with problems that are national in scope or to deal with emergencies in single states which are beyond the ability of the state to handle alone. Hurricanes come to mind. When they or any other sort of natural disaster happens, the federal government, always, mobilizes to deal with both the immediate effects of the disaster but also to alleviate the negative economic effects.
Trump, though, is simply saying, in the face of a national emergency, that eh, maybe he’ll help those who are politically loyal to him, but not those who are not. At best. In some respects, he’s abdicating the federal government’s role completely, regardless of what anyone thinks of him, casting Washington as a reluctant backstop. Fiddling as Rome gasps.
This is the sort of thing that should cause a president to be removed from office. We’ve learned, unfortunately, that one of the two political parties has no interest whatsoever in governing, only power. Because the president who is utterly refusing to fulfill the most basic duties of his office is a member of their party, they don’t care.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, though. Maybe America, as we know it anyway, is simply doomed.
I don’t say that lightly. I’m actually becoming more and more convinced of it.
Since the end of the Cold War, our national ethos has been limited to two things and two things only: the accumulation of wealth and the projection of military power. Those in power are in power because they represent a commitment to one or both of those concepts and those concepts only. Hardly anyone with any actual power in our current political class has demonstrated any sort of commitment to the well-being of America or its citizens. Those in politics who do demonstrate such a commitment are cast as radicals. Oddballs. And, at times, threats, who are dealt with in ways aimed at neutralizing them.
Into this milieu came a virus that quickly created a pandemic. A pandemic that cares not a lick for our military might and is utterly unaffected by our wealth. At least unless that wealth is used to ensure the well-being of America and its citizens by, say, making it materially possible for them to remain quarantined long enough for the virus to be fought.
We don’t have that will, however and will not use our material wealth in that fashion. As such, people suffer both medically and economically. They get sick and they die in numbers far outstripping that of nations whose national ethos is not so focused on material wealth and military power. They become desperate and do things like storm state capitol buildings with guns. Or they become unhinged, lose all perspective and do things like invoke the Holocaust in response to being told not to go to sports bars. At the very least, they begin to chafe hard against best public health practices and slowly but surely begin to undue whatever good anti-pandemic efforts have achieved. We’re seeing that in some states already. We’ll see it elsewhere soon.
This pandemic will end, but I do not think there’s any going back to any recognizable concept of American Greatness. Mostly because we haven’t really demonstrated such greatness in any real way for a long, long time.
We were able to continue to act as if we had for a long time because it wasn’t truly challenged. Our economic and military might has covered for the rot setting in underneath, but the rot has been laid pretty bare. We don’t have the will to face anything approaching a serious challenge. We don’t have the leadership willing or capable of rallying us in the face of one. We are crumbling. We are melting down. We have no way to contend with a threat that cannot be shot at or for which there is no profit opportunity.
Empires fall. Usually not because of invading hordes but, rather, because of internal rot and because the values and ethos on which they were built are shown to be illusory. Because the promises they make to themselves and their people are unable to be kept.
The British Empire was arguably the greatest empire the world has ever seen. By the mid-19th century it was acknowledged as the world’s preeminent industrial and military power. Great exhibitions were held in which its extraordinary achievements as a nation were displayed to an envious and admiring world. Yet, within a few years, the cracks began to show.
Inequalities and deprivation at home became increasingly obvious. Its grip on its colonial holdings began to loosen in the face of increasingly bloody rebellions and uprisings, leading to increasingly brutal crackdowns and undercutting Britain’s claim that it was engaged in a glorious “civilizing mission.” At home, political polarization over the most pressing issues of the day — things like “the Irish Question” — led to governments which could not rally sufficient support to adequately address them or, for that matter, other important day-to-day issues.
Abroad, challengers to Britain’s power — most notably Germany — were emboldened. The country’s so-called “splendid isolation” ended, with the UK signing treaties with France. With Japan. With Russia. The country began to feel, on some level, that it was not the power it liked to think it was. For Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Rudyard Kipling composed the poem “Recessional,” which strongly alluded to national decline and served as a reminder — largely unheeded, at least by those in power — of the transient nature of empire itself.
The First and Second World Wars ended with Britain, technically speaking, victorious, but utterly gutted. Despite moments of glory — The Battle of Britain, El Alamein — its self-conception as a preeminent or, at the very least, an independent military power was proven erroneous. It’s self-conception as an imperial power was outright obliterated as it, reluctantly, came to accept that it must devolve its colonial possessions. Its self-conception as an economic power was severely undercut by postwar deprivation and near national bankruptcy, avoided only due to intervention on the part of the United States.
I think that, in many ways, America is where the United Kingdom was a century ago. We don’t call ourselves an “empire,” but we are. We’re technically victorious, we’re culturally influential, and we are treated as the most powerful force on Earth, but we’re similarly gutted. A wide gulf exists between our stated ideals and our actions. Our self-conception as a force of good in the world and our self-conception of a land of freedom and opportunity at home is relentlessly undercut by our actions in the world and our utter disregard for our own people.
The concepts of democracy, humanity, and freedom form the corpus of our secular religion, but our ruling class is truly a class apart from the common people. Many of those leaders are oblivious of and immune to the struggles we face. Many others are outright apostates to the principles of democracy, humanity, and freedom in the first place. Either way, the current crisis is laying bare just how unwilling and how incapable we are of rising to the challenges the idealized version of America — and even some former versions of America — would’ve been able to handle in the normal course.
This crisis will end because all crises end, but it’s already too late for us to plausibly claim, later, that it was actively vanquished. An objective view of how it all eventually plays out will necessarily be one of failure analysis and that failure analysis will necessarily show how our failure as a nation as a whole was largely responsible. In this it, like a colonial uprising in New Zealand or South Africa or a dockworker’s strike in the Port of London, will at least eventually be seen as an unmistakable milestone of our national decline.
I’ve long worried about this decline. I’ve spent an unfathomable about of mental energy over the years — much of it on the pages of this site — thinking about what we can and should do in order to stem it and rally ourselves back to being the country we’ve long imagined ourselves to be. I’ve come to believe, however, that the decline is, by now, irreversible. I tend to think that now it’s all about managing the collapse.
When some empires fall its via definitive and righteous defeat, usually militarily. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, for example. In those cases their post-imperial order was largely proscribed for them by others. They thus had a road map of how to remake themselves into something positive and support to help them do it. That won’t be the case with us. Our decline will be more like that of Great Britain or, perhaps, the Soviet Union. A collapse occasioned by a crumbling and rotting from within that allows most of us to deny and then put off the sort of national reckoning required to find our new place in the world and the new conception of ourselves.
Will we, like the former Soviet Union, descend into corrupt kleptocracy, with elites grabbing everything they can before most people realize what’s happening, after which all that is left is to assume a mindset of national resignation?
Will we, alternatively, follow the post-imperial British model and flail around in an extended malaise with occasional periods of resurgence, laden by a nostalgia for our past greatness?
Or will we regroup and reform? Will our collapse create an opening for those people I mentioned above — those who, at present, do care about the well-being of Americans and who are now cast as radicals and oddballs? An opening for the bright young minds of my children’s generation? Will we, with their leadership, be able to stop looking backwards at a now-discredited conception of America and, instead, remake our country anew? A country that is humane? A country that is committed, both in theory and in practice, to something other than the mere projection of military strength and the accumulation of material wealth?
To the extent I have hope, that’s my hope. It’s about the only hope I have to hang on to these days.