Compiled response to the COVID-19 crisis
Break the Wand
A Call for General Strike
I have been told that this is war. That this virus makes frontlines of our hospitals and calls for measures untold of before. That there will be victory gardens again. Families will make facemasks for the fight, and United We Stand.
Are there no holds barred then? Where is the enemy that we may strike? But wait! Is there time for a treaty? Perhaps we may yet consolidate our allies—these gathering armies that bristle at each other may yet coalesce against a greater foe. This has happened before, has it not?
Lift your gaze.
When Pizarro landed in Peru, he met an empire quite as plagued by infighting and partisanship as our own. We should be wary of reducing the outcome of complex encounters to absurd things like causes, but the Incas were quite confident in the integrity of their empire. They were unconcerned about conquest by a few hundred smelly white men, and opposed factions within the Inca's domain sought to wield these invaders against other factions. For this lack of unity, at least in part, they were killed. Por viruela. By a virus.
We will do this also. We will not unite in what they tell me is this war against the virus.
Our so-called leaders, the media, and other influencers also seek to wield this new invader as a weapon of their own. This is a form of domestication, for we cannot tolerate a wild thing. Eventually they will tame this virus with vaccines, but in the meantime those who would wield the power of this wild beast will keep it on a leash made of story. They will weave together narratives for their already docile people—for they are the storytellers, and we the captive audience. But, they will offer us a choice. Some semblance of freedom. We may choose which side we're on.
Here is the choice we are given; the story we are told; the dichotomy we must never question. Shall we ask for protection from our government?—lockdown measures to protect the fragile among us—or do we argue for loosened restrictions (even if this means more deaths) to protect the economic system? This is your choice. It's the Heartless and Practical Capitalists against the Naive and Compassionate Socialists—which side will you choose? In this war against the virus, sacrifices must be made. What'll it be—protection or profit?
Lift. Your. Gaze.
I question this declaration of war. I will not fight a fight against so new an enemy when I have old enemies enough. Nor will I submit that my stories be told in the dichotomies of power and politics. I am at odds with this economy already, it's true—I would love nothing more than to shut it down—but I am wary of these strenuous protections. These lockdown measures respond to the death of privileged people and nothing else. Where is the National Guard when indigenous lands are stolen? When is the global economy shut down to save those who die mining conflict minerals in the Congo? Where is the infrastructure mobilization that stops the deaths of malnourished children?
There is a war we are already fighting, and it is the same war that the Incans lost five hundred years ago. Where are our allies in this war?
The virus has struck. The economy reels and casts about for weapons against this new foe. It reaches for that magic wand that tells the stories, and in so doing it regains initiative and footing. Shall we permit the storytellers to name what it is that we do? They would call this a lockdown, but we are going through the motions of a general strike. Our foe is down. Are there no holds barred? Strike now! Strike down their stories. Break their magic wand.
Do not let them name what we do. Do not let them tell us that they lock us down for our own protection-that we cower before this virus to protect the fragile among us. We will say what we are doing, and it is a strike. We will protect the aged and infirm, yes. But when we're called back out again, we will not come. Or we will come with our demands. And if we are frustrated at so many who do not isolate themselves and so accelerate the spreading virus, let us draw them into solidarity with our effort by offering something to gain. Call it a strike. Offer the carrot and not the stick. Listen to their demands.
This is all a bit naïve of course. There are big wheels turning that do not stop so quickly. I know this, for I have pushed against them all my life. I do not believe the workforce will suddenly coalesce behind a story that the storytellers have not written for us, but I do believe we might leave behind a word. A piece of punctuation. A blot of ink upon the story which cannot be wiped out.
And also there is this: There are bigger wheels than those that turn in this machine, and lest we also succumb to our temptation to wield the wildness of the virus for our own ends—however noble they appear—let us remember that it is the virus who wields us. Let us not domesticate or leash this power. Let us seek to be the point of the sword and not the hand that holds it.
But let us strike.
COVID-19 Highlights Tyranny of the Young
The inability of the U.S. to muster a united and effective response to the COVID-19 crisis highlights the lack of solidarity between generations that results when an older generation—who largely controls decision making, capital, and other forms of power—fails to demonstrate care for younger generations' prospects for the future. A result of this power dynamic, which is essentially tyranny over the future, is that millennials and generation Z continue to defy the recommendations of public health officials by gathering in bars, in large crowds on the beach, etc., and it's very likely that this behavior will be promptly curbed by local, state, and even federal lockdowns.
We should probably acknowledge that government enforced lockdowns—while arguably for public health—are actually about privilege. Privilege is a complicated subject that I've written a lot about elsewhere, and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To avoid becoming swept away by this contentious topic, here I will define privilege as something that belongs to groups of people, but is meaningless when applied to individuals. (If this doesn't fit your personal definition of privilege, please try to accept it for this conversation). There are also different kinds of privilege, and unless you are literally one of those people in the Congo pulling conflict minerals out of the ground for other people's cell phones or buried under rubble in Aleppo, you belong to a privileged group of some kind.
This particular emergency threatens people with privilege. The group of people most likely to be killed by this virus happens to contain the demographic that mostly writes our laws, commands our military, owns the corporations and means of production, controls capital, and basically calls the shots. Now usually, as Ani DiFranco observes, "Those who call the shots are never in the line of fire," but today they are. And that is why they're calling out the National Guard.
There are certainly other emergencies that affect less privileged groups. I don't know if this virus will kill more people than are currently incarcerated or killed by gun violence or whose futures are daily made bleaker and bleaker by the murder of our planet, but none of these other emergencies have stopped the economy and brought out the National Guard. Because those people don't have that privilege.
Millennials and the younger generations have grown up knowing that their prospects for the future aren't so great, and it appears that the people who call the shots don't much care. Young people have faced gun violence in their schools; surveyed oceans full of plastic; heard increasingly dire predictions about climate change; numbly watched as rhinos, orangutans, and polar bears marched toward extinction, and generally try not to think about what might be in their water and food. They have been defrauded by the educational system and placed in crippling debt without being provided with skills that are relevant to our rapidly changing society. I could detail a list of grievances every bit as long as Thomas Jefferson's against the King of England, and young people are barely more represented in our government than were colonial Americans.
All of this breeds a certain nihilism. And, while the solutions to all of these problems are admittedly complex, it would be offensive to claim that the older generation has collectively made a good faith effort to stand up for their own children. There's certainly been no effort as strenuous as that being made to protect our elders against this virus.
So, as we now prepare ourselves to hand over the freedoms that so many people have died to protect, I think we should ask each other who benefits from this docile submission? Certainly there are many, many underprivileged people at risk from this disease (as always the poor and marginalized will bear the brunt of the crisis), but why should we expect young people—whom we have never acted to protect against any of the crises that threaten them—to suddenly get in line to protect those people who benefit from the systems that marginalize them? Why should they do this? Nor is this privileged call for state enforced quarantine merely about age; it is far too easy for educated people with full pantries to sit in the extra bedroom they've converted into an office sanctuary and write well worded statements calling on representatives for quarantine measures without considering the impact this will have on people who live with abusive partners or parents, people without money for two weeks groceries, people living in crowded conditions, etc.
It will be easy to read all of this through an all-or-nothing lens to mean that I promote young people gathering on the beach. I do not. I agree with, personally conform to, and promote social distancing practices. But I don't agree with government enforced lockdowns that steal the rights so many Americans have already died to protect (at least not until this virus kills more people than have already died in every war of liberation against tyranny that's ever been fought). What will happen while this all plays out? If we cannot assemble, how do we protect the Wet'suwet'en people against the pipeline that threatens them, or any number of other tyrannical acts that may be undertaken during this period of vulnerability? Is our fear so great that we abandon our rights so easily—or are we also manipulated by a group of people who call the shots in the media, and who are included in the group threatened by this crisis?
I particularly think that we should acknowledge that the group of people most targeted by these oppressive lockdowns belong to a group that have little reason to act socially when they have been targeted by anti-social economic marginalization for their whole lives. Does this give them the right to behave anti-socially themselves? Perhaps not, but it's a likely result. Maybe if we offered them a Green New Deal they'd get off the beach—although things are never so simple as that, and such a gesture is probably too little, too late to overcome the psychology that results from generation of marginalization. There is some ambiguity in all of this, and I know it asks a lot of the modern mind to hold space for that. Do your best.
For example, this analysis questions millennials' [and younger generations'] rights to gather and generally reject quarantine measures, but totally fails to acknowledge their marginalization by the older generation that is murdering the planet:
What if we Listened to the Virus?
Coming as it does in the midst of a particularly toxic election year, COVID-19 in the United States has started off as an epidemic of viral information. In our already divided political culture, we are quick to maneuver this crisis for advantage over the "other side," and the story of the virus is quickly subsumed in political narratives that try to wield and distort it to fit their own terms. Perhaps it's more enlightening to turn the tables—to use this viral outbreak as the lens through which we examine our political and cultural dysfunction.
In less than three months since the first reported case of COVID-19 on the other side of the planet, universities in the U.S. are cancelling semesters and sending students home even before a case of the virus is reported on campus—or even in the county. Stock markets are dropping precipitously only to partially recover the next day and then tank again, erasing trillions of dollars in wealth. Political talking heads point fingers at each other, and Facebook junkies share analysis (labelling it "clear and well-stated" or "irresponsible mis-information" depending on who said it, even if they said the same thing). Meanwhile we don't know what to expect or what to do, but we apparently don't want to do it without toilet paper.
All of this rather frantic energy is occurring before very many people have actually gotten sick. I'm not down-playing the potential severity of this outbreak whose endgame we can't predict, but this is not public reaction to our family and neighbors falling ill. Thus far, our decisions aren't based on what is happening here, nor even on what has already happened in China and Italy where the death tolls at this writing are still far less than for this year's flu. But it's too early to tell how the virus will play out, and this not-knowing is terrifying. Millions of people face draconian travel restrictions for fear of not-knowing.
Perhaps the fear is justified. Only time will tell.
For the moment though, let us use this occasion to shed light upon our fear of the unknown—the wild and uncontained. What is this fear of a wild thing? What does it say about us? Is it lack of trust in our own immune systems? Or, if we are healthy, perhaps we fear for the elderly and infirm. Is it for their sake that so many are now living in lockdown (with more to come), and is that what they would want?
Perhaps there is something even more profound in our fear of this wild unknown thing. Perhaps we perceive an existential threat that dispels even our fears of tyranny so that we will submit with docility to the protective measures of government quarantine. But what might come from that submission later—what will we have lost? Will there be a victory to claim, and which team will claim it?
Only time will tell.
We cannot know how this virus will develop, but our preoccupation with rising coronavirus death tolls—like a stock ticker on futures trading of Western Civilization—highlights our reductive approach to knowing and measuring this disease, and possibly the need for a less reductive and more holistic vision. Because we know that people suffering from chronic conditions have much higher risk of dying when infected with this virus, why do we reduce the cause of death to COVID-19? Mightn't it also be reasonable to attribute causality to the chronic condition? In fact, for the more common flu, Chinese mortality rates don't include cases where the flu causes other illnesses to worsen and lead to death, although the U.S.—where we have a much less holistic health tradition—does include these cases in mortality rates. Reported flu mortality rates are, of course, much lower in China.
The word virus has its origin in Latin and Proto-Indo-European words that mean a venomous or poisonous fluid. Only with recent scientific progress has the word come to be associated with the parasitic agents that we now perceive as causing disease, but attributing the cause of illness to parasitic microbes is just as reductive as attributing death to that illness when other conditions are present. Certainly many people are exposed to the virus without becoming ill (for instance, very few children become infected).
I think this word virus remains as tautological (self-affirming) is it was in the Latin. When we say a disease is caused by a virus, we are still blankly stating that the disease is caused by the source of the disease, for we only indicate a single cause among many—something necessary but not sufficient to describe our ailment. We can trace the source of this virus back to the Wuhan province in China, even to a single seafood and animal market, and before that an "animal reservoir" of viral agents where it appears to have its origin in bats (although I've also read snakes).* Are we so much more enlightened to know all of this—to know that it comes from the wild? And if the wild serves up more sources of disease—antibiotic resistant bacteria and freshly mutated viruses that we can't control—will our words lose their meaning with their utility? There may still be organisms that we call virus, but if this knowledge does not enable us to control them, does that word retain more meaning than its origin in poisonous substance? How so?
We are infatuated with the specter of this unrealized pandemic, intent on defining it, measuring it, and if possible spinning it to serve our own political agendas. We want to domesticate it and use it for our own purposes as we have every other wild thing. Can we see this in ourselves now? Can this crisis shed light upon another pathology?—upon that manic drive toward reduction, conquest, and control that threatens ecological collapse?
It's worth noting that even without measures in place to control spread of this disease, the virus itself has prompted substantial changes in our behavior and that these changes are almost perfectly tailored to relieve the pressure of human activity on collapsing ecological systems.
Indeed, exempting terrorism or sabotage, I can imagine no more effective means to target and disrupt harmful economic activity. Fear of travel has seriously hit aviation and energy companies, two targets whose disruption seems non-negotiable to any effort that would address climate change. Simultaneously, the shutdown in China has left supply chains for the automobile and technology sectors short of parts. Much of this disruption (though not all) has resulted from voluntary avoidance of travel and spending.
I suppose that the resulting instability in the markets and the downshifting of our economy is mostly perceived as a bad and scary thing, but further downshifting is probably going to be required by ecological limits—especially in those sectors of the economy that have been hardest hit by coronavirus fears (aviation, energy, manufacturing, and finance). We may not want to downshift, and most of us will probably fight it, but it's not a fight we're likely to win. Perhaps this virus can show us how to do it a bit more gracefully than we otherwise would.
In fact—though you can call it what you will—this virus is effectively manipulating our group behavior to be much more green, and it is doing so without rules and regulations that are as complicated as they are corruptible. It is doing so without becoming embroiled in the toxic partisanship that so shapes our policymaking. We are voluntarily doing bits and pieces of what must be done to face ecological collapse—but not in reaction to that existential threat, though it may be more serious than the virus. Rather oddly, we are most effectively addressing the ecological threat by reacting to a different threat that may or may not be real.
What can we learn from this? From a holistic perspective, viewing this disease as an imbalance in the culture at large, and as an opportunity to bring our culture back into balance—how does this pandemic shed light on our deeper ecological crisis and the measures we might take to address the murder of our planet? Perhaps we are foolish to tackle such a crisis head-on; perhaps it is too big, and we'd be better off adopting a more oblique approach as this virus has caused us to do. If climate change doesn't evoke the fear of a looming unknown, are there other issues that might prompt us to downshift? If we fail to do so, how will the Earth respond—can continued globalization lead to anything other than more pandemics, economic disruption, panic buying of Clorox, bullets, and other things that make us feel safe? Only time will tell, for the Earth is wild, and we do not know what she will do.
* I'm also willing to consider the claims that this virus is engineered, but I will answer them by asking if we're sure who is engineering who?