“Impossible to anticipate.”
Those are the excuses we are making for the failures of the US (and state and local) government to respond effectively to the presence of the coronavirus in the US.
Above, the newest map from COVID Exit Strategyshows that nearly every state has uncontrolled spread. Only four states show improvement. None of this is surprising; it is a predictable consequence of years of seeing the suffering of others as an attack on our freedoms rather than as a symptom of inequality that will eventually destroy the nation.
But you don’t have to be a seer to see that this was the way Americans, individually and collectively, would choose to respond. While virologists have done amazing work, understanding how the virus works and spreads doesn’t explain how it spreads. For that, we need scholars of politics, race, religion, and American culture more broadly.
What those scholars can see and what we’ve been sounding the alarm about for years, since well before the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president in 2016, is that we understand, in some way, that the suffering of others is a criticism of our way of life (a way of life that is grounded in economic exploitation and racism). But because we want this way of life so badly–or, at least, because we cannot imagine a different way of life–we cling to it rather than choosing justice. Because we cannot let go of the oppression that props us up, we call those who demand it liars.
This pursuit of selfishness and cruelty is not reserved for people with diagnoses of malevolent traits like psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Selfishness and cruelty have always been part of our domestic relationships, our gender relationships, and our labor relationships. They are built into our sports and our entertainment, our religion, and our architecture, and they are foundational to our economy.
But this is not new and certainly anytime before the liberation movements of the mid-twentieth century, it was worse. What has been different–and was revealed to a national audience eight years ago–is that we have expanded the domains where this is the case to the extent that we have no meaningful protected areas of life left. Cruelty previously reserved for people of color, women, those with disabilities, and other minoritized groups has been extended.
When the Columbine shooting took place in April 1999, the myths that emerged from it were stories of Christian teens dying for their faith. When Sandy Hook occurred in December 2012, eight years ago this year, the myths that emerged were that the dead children and their grieving parents were actors hired by anti-gun liberals to stage a crisis that would move Americans to enact gun regulations. After the time a gunman killed 17 and wounded 17 in Parkland, Florida in 2018, bands of armed men began following survivors to intimidate them into stop telling their story. We didn’t plow the building into the earth and turn the site into a memorial to the dead. We harassed and daily re-traumatized children.
Instead of seeing child victims of mass shootings as martyrs (which also stymies social change that would end gun violence), we see them as liars–and, worse, as people who are working against freedom. People who think that Sandy Hook was an attempt to take their guns will of course think that COVID is an attempt to cart them off to gas chambers.
Once we come to view murdered children as agents of oppression trying to take away your Constitutional rights, it’s not a big jump to seeing every victim of our rightwing policies as an enemy. Wearing a mask makes as much sense as locking up your guns. (And if you read that sentence as a sensible argument for saving lives, including your own, with only the most minor of inconveniences to yourself or a reason to show up on your state legislature’s front steps as Vanilla ISIS is really the issue.)
COVID victims are, like gun violence victims, causalties of a rightwing government, but while Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden would be better in office right now by a lot, their neoliberal policies would have spared us from only the worst; the very point of a Joe Biden candidacy is to prevent the kind of changes necessary to address the root of the pandemic. Even Democrats would rather die that give up capitalism, as our failure to address climate change has shown. The thinking that has allowed COVID hoaxers and maskholes to thrive precedes Trump, though it (along with the electoral college and other forms of voter suppression) helped elect him and it is bigger than the rightwing, Indeed, it includes moderates who want the pandemic to go away but maybe not so much as they don’t want to pay for parents (i.e., women) to stay home to care for children or for poor people to have healthcare and maybe as long as it disproporationately affects Black, Hispanic, and indigenous people, it’s not so bad after all.
This moment was predictable long before Trump was on the scene and unless we address the crisis of artificial martydrom among Americans–one fueled by racial resentment, Christian nationalism, and American exceptionalism–we’re not going to solve COVID. We’re just going to keep descending Niemöller ladder.