Acting together we flattened the curve of the pandemic. Not the government. We did. We the people.
Remember that phrase?
Now …we the people are no longer acting together. On July 1,we hit 50,000 new cases of coronavirus. Our personal best.
Are we so weary of inconvenience and uncertainty, that we are willing to abandon parts of our society? Have we already forgotten that this virus will disproportionately kill our parents? our grandparents? those with underlying health problems at any age? the poorest among us?
Americans have neither the stoicism to actually bear the risk of dying from covid-19 nor the fortitude to embark on an indefinite period of rigorous self-isolation. Nor, even if we could muster those qualities, could we get a majority of our fellow countrymen to go along. And so, instead of deciding upon some basically rational course of action, we have collectively agreed to forget the things we could no longer bear to know.
The “commodity fetish” in capitalism is the tendency to see the value of a commodity as an inherent property. The value of a widget is related only to the value of other kinds of widgets in the marketplace. We are blinded by the panoply of glittering widgets. The complex of interpersonal relations that go into producing widgets is ignored.
The pandemic has lifted the curtain and exposed (in Marx’s terms) the “relations of production” usually masked by “market” metaphors. “Supply chains”, it turns out, are people. “Supply chains” get sick.
Workers we took for granted and did not notice are now “essential” to our way of life. Why are these workers “essential” today? Why weren’t they “essential” on January 15? They are “essential” today because what they do is suddenly visible and cannot be taken for granted. “Supply chains” are working people whose labor keeps the groceries stores stocked so Americans never have to be without retail choice.
What do these “essential” workers have in common? They are poorly paid and their employers consider employee safety an afterthought.
If you work in a meatpacking plant, by order of President Trump, you are officially considered less essential than the steak you’re cutting up.
Since February, we …comfortable white people…have come to see that even America … our insular City on the Hill …can be attacked by an invisible and inexorable enemy. We have been forced to look mortality in the face.
It became apparent that our government would not help us.
By the time of George Floyd’s murder, we had come to see that our only pandemic defense was our collective willingness to sacrifice the immediate gratifications of easy sociability and retail therapy. We came to see that our individual health depended upon community action. We sheltered in place and experienced oppressive uncertainty. Will we survive? Will our family members survive? Will our incomes survive? Will the “American way of life” survive?
Regardless of our ethnicity, we have all been imprisoned in a radically uncertain future.
In “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” a story by Saki (H.H. Munro), the eponymous politician in a debate on the Foreign Office in the House of Commons remarks that “the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” The United States is experiencing the same excess. More outrage is being perpetrated and felt than can be contained within the existing frame of institutions and discourses. The image of things bubbling over, of energies and emotions that can no longer be enclosed, is physically manifest on the streets, as those who have been privately confined for so many weeks spill out into the public realm. But what there is too much of is not just present injustice. There is a superabundance of the unresolved past.
I have started several posts since the dawn of COVID 19 and finished none. I was flooded. Even during the best of times, my vicious internal editor only allows me to measure out my thoughts in coffee spoons. I have to thank O’Toole for naming the flood as a shared condition and freeing me somewhat. I can offer up bits of the the flotsam and jetsam the flood has dislodged for me .
To start, I grew up during the worst of the Civil Rights protests. I would watch African American children being spit upon in Alabama and then attend a school where most of my friends were African American. It was this experience that drove the first wedge into the complacent Republican edifice of my upbringing. I have been in and around the labor movement and distrusted capitalism my whole adult life. But so what? Where the f**k have I really been for the last 50 years? I was living my daily life (being a good consumer) in the comfortable cocoon of white privilege; intellectually dozing.
“White silence has been violence”. Yes. That is a weight I will consciously bear in the hopes that discomfort will keep me more alert to present injustice.
I am still perseverating on the question… why toilet paper?
What came to my mind in thinking about the power of TP was Maslow’s hierarchy. This is a familiar (and very American) pedagogical tool. It is American in its blithe promotion of “self-actualization” as an ultimate goal. Nevertheless, it is a tool that can help privileged, self-actualizing American college students understand why so few very poor people are sitting next to them in class. Very poor people are too busy trying to feed, shelter and protect themselves. Such basic activities limit one’s ability and predilection to ruminate on Dostoevsky’s place in world literature.
In thinking about Mazlow’s hierarchy I realized that every level is linked by toilet paper. This is the power of TP; it is intimately rolled into our most basic physiological functions. Its very personal role is to keep us safe from the microbially dangerous waste we privately produce. In so doing, TP also sets the stage for us to experience the love and acceptance that accrues to those who do not waft of excrement. From social acceptance follows self-esteem and once we have reached the ledge of self-regard, it is but a small leap to the apex of “self-actualization”.
When something like the COVID pandemic strikes, Mazlow’s pyramid makes more sense upside down. Our lives are no longer safely arranged. Our “base” needs are no longer afterthoughts. They loom large. Will our “base” needs be met? If they are not met, who will we be? The weight of our biological vulnerability presses down. Can we bear it?
We are not masters of the universe, we are virus bait.
If you lack a Hobbesian view of human nature, you are going to be late to the pandemic hoarding party. You are going to be without toilet paper.
That’s what I told myself standing in Safeway staring at the empty shelves, feeling slightly embarrassed… as if I had missed some obvious social cue. Why toilet paper? The Google offered some insight:
Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.” This is an example of “zero risk bias,” in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.
These days the the greater risk is going to the grocery store in the first place.
Given the amount of uncertainty in which we were swimming…self quarantine? lock down? days or weeks?… adding a little buffer stock to one’s cache of TP was rational. The effects of mass buffering however were empty shelves. For Americans, empty shelves are eerie and portentous. OMG …my neighborhood cornucopia is empty of that which can clean me…toilet paper, disinfectants and hand sanitizers. What will I be deprived of next? This is how an end-times shopping spree gets its start.
Few people appreciate how much retail inventory is “just in time”. I did a stint with Kroger a few years back (All praise the UFCW!) The only real storage space in a grocery store is the shelves. The corporate computer knows how much of any product will be (normally) needed in each store each week. Toilet paper takes up a lot of shelf space and sales are normally not volatile. In a well run store, there is only a two day supply. It is only when people get irregular that the supply chain falters.
The moral third refers to those values, rules and principles of interaction that we rely upon in our efforts to create and restore the space for each partner in the dyad to engage in thinking, feeling, acting or responding rather than merely reacting. Jessica Benjamin
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a coliseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such humanity is surely brought into being.... In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.Is this the doom written within our nature? If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races and creeds can share this world…if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real . Tortuous advances worn over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
From Brad deLong
I would conclude that managers with a bias toward freedom, choice, decentralization, and responsibility produce good results alongside a civilization of bewildered individuals lacking moral certainty. By contrast, prophets produce a civilization filled with confident fanatics who then commit gravely immoral actions--and who afterwards have nothing to say but: “Will you please send Lazarus down here with a damp cloth?"