Archives for category: history

Karl Marx was being somewhat reductionist when he said that history repeats itself, first and tragedy, then as farce. And I won’t be the first person to suggest that the Corvid-19 tragedy in the US is a repeat of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The earlier was (for those of us in the West) a great tragedy, and what’s affecting us now surely isn’t farce – it’s a tragedy on a larger, faster scale. One of the reasons it’s such a tragedy is that many people learned from the AIDS crisis, President Trump just isn’t one of them.

This probably isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned on this blog the travesty of the Reagan administration in not acknowledging the toll AIDS was taking on a couple of communities in the United States, even when it took the life of his friend Rock Hudson. He refused even to name the disease until well into his second term. That the hardest hit communities were the gays and the intravenous drug users might have had something to do with this. I initially wrote that Reagan was handily reelected even with ACT-UP protests in the capital, but ACT-UP wasn’t formed until 1987. As long as the communities were demonized, though, there was no need to worry. It didn’t hurt Reagan that his opponent in ‘84 was the relatively uncharismatic Walter Mondale.

But the fact is that over the first 20 years of the epidemic, 774,467 people in the US were diagnosed with HIV. 448,060 died of its related ailments. (HIV is still the cause of approximately 1 million deaths per year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.)

The disease wasn’t discussed in US political circles, except in reference to the innocent victims. Remember the Ryan White Act? Innocent meaning not gay, not a drug user. Comics used it as a punch line. Sometimes the entertainment industry stepped up (Philadelphia), generally not. But eventually there was movement in the research and the disease became less of a death sentence, at least in the West. Africa? Still a different story. Standard Precautions also evolved out of the AIDS epidemic. Previously there had been precautions associated with whatever diagnosed illness the patient presented with. First Universal Precautions (1986 or so), which referred specifically to blood and blood-related bodily fluids, and then Standard Precautions superseded those with a set of practices for all those who had patient (and especially body fluid) contact and weren’t dependent on the patient presenting symptoms. When I was working in healthcare in the 90s (as a secretary in home health for a major HMO), I had to be familiar with these, even though it wasn’t in my daily routine to practice them.

Read that WHO doc on standard precautions, or this one from the CDC. That’s okay. I’ll wait.

Did you note the bits about cough safety and hand washing? Yeah, those ring bells because we’re coughing into our elbows now and washing our hands eighteen times a day. What about PPE, sterilization, and infection prevention? Yeah. We’ve had rules in place about those things for decades.

Which brings us to the current repetition.

We know just about when this outbreak came to the US. And we’ve listened to the president and his cohort lie, cheat, steal, brag, and generally screw over those most in need: those suffering from this dreadful flu and the health professionals doing their utmost to help those patients. If the AIDS crisis was itself a tragedy, what can we say about the sheer numbers of this pandemic and the madness of the federal response?

In United States of America, from Jan 20 to 2:00am CEST, 15 April 2020, there have been 578,268 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 23,476 deaths. (https://covid19.who.int/region/amro/country/us)

I’m not really sure how to address this. In less than a week, we will see the number of cases of COVID-19 in the US in three months exceed the number of AIDS cases recorded in 20 years. And we knew how to prevent the outbreak, or at least lessen its effects, and we knew what was needed to safely take care of those suffering. (In fairness, we knew how to do those things relatively early on in the AIDS crisis, too.) And we didn’t. Not only were we as a nation unable to meet this crisis in a unified way, we were undermined from the outset by the avarice of those who should have been setting sane policy.

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag discusses the different ways in which tuberculosis and cancer were treated by the medical profession and by family members of those suffering those diseases. TB had an odd romance about it, but in both cases, even the mention of the disease was thought to add another burden to the patient. One of several dozen key points she makes is that, ‘All this lying to and by cancer patients is a measure of how much harder it has become in advanced industrial societies to come to terms with death. (Ch. 1)’

This speaks volumes to how much we as a society really want to believe that getting back to normal, opening the markets, and so forth is preferable to addressing the massive numbers of suffering on our doorsteps. I’ll be honest, I’ve only finished two chapters of Illness and haven’t gotten to the second volume, AIDS and Its Metaphors. But I think Sontag will have a lot to say that speaks to our current condition.

The main reason I’m bringing Sontag’s points into this discussion is that we don’t have the time to be either romantic or blithely quiet about COVID-19. We should be studying and learning and financing the science and the health to get to the other side of this. And doing the work to protect one another. But instead we have the anti-science coming out of the White House and folks like the protesters in Michigan demanding society be reopened so they can shop and have their hair done.

I grieve.

Sometime during my freshman year at university (1985-86), I read an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle suggesting that the current generation should be the last generation of humans on earth. This intrigued me because it seemed obvious to me we’d already done enough damage and perhaps the other species here could make a better go of it once we cleaned up our mess and got out of the way.

I made mention of this to a few people. My mother, if I recall rightly, found the idea distasteful to say the least. She hadn’t read much science fiction at the time, a lot of which probably influenced my agreement with the writer’s sentiments.

In the intervening years, I’ve occasionally tried to find the editorial in question, with no success. Recently, though, I read a letter to the New Yorker which made reference to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Ah. That would be the group. It’s not hard to believe that the whole thing could be just one person who occasionally sends out a newsletter.

So I’m thinking about this in the context of compassion and doing right by the earth and those halcyon days when our population was only three or four billion. The image below is from the July 1975 issue of Mad magazine. Current population, 45 years later? 7.7 billion.

Mad Magazine, July 1975

Occasionally I hear people talk about healing the earth. Usually in the form of a platitude on a bumper sticker or t-shirt. This makes the person with the platitude feel better, If this is a form of virtue signaling (I’ve always been a little unclear on that concept), I’m still okay with the sentiment, regardless of whether it leads to concrete action. What gets me is the response one sometimes hears, that the Earth has been through worse and will heal itself.

This may be true, but we’re wiping out species at an astounding rate and can’t seem, as nations to stop being cruel (the US rolling back rules on national park exploitation, for example). And, it’s an attitude that absolves corporations and municipalities from their responsibilities as stewards of the earth and as stewards of various populations. Flint, Michigan and its drinking water issue – several years later, still not solved, for another example. The attitude that the earth will heal itself doesn’t absolve us of turning the oceans, once teeming with life, into garbage dumps, fished out. In his recollections of the Kon-Tiki expedition, Thor Heyerdahl shares over and over again how easy it was to survive in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the fish that were in abundance. I think he’d be horrified today of the state of large swaths of that ocean.

What is it about these times that sets it all up as a zero sum game?

I keep saying it: No one gets out alive as an individual. This much we know, but do we have to take half or more of the earth’s species with us? We seem to have no restrictions on the amount of cruelty we’re willing to exert on other people, species – yes, a lot of us are good, but as a species, we prove ourselves incapable of making the place better for the next generation. Or even to maintain a baseline for this one. The number of people who are going to die as current trends continue – fires, lack of insects, dropping levels of protein in rice, dropping levels of ice – it’s something we seemed to be inured to. It’s okay to leave what’s left to the next species to come up. We’ve proved ourselves unworthy.

Is voluntary human extinction an instance of compassion for the rest of the planet? There’s a cynical part of me that says absolutely, because I’m not sure we’re likely to contribute anything meaningful in the greater universe, should we make it off this planet before wiping it out entirely. I’ve had friends argue that the art we create shouldn’t be lost. I hate to think that so much won’t be appreciated by later generations, but there’s so much that’s not appreciated by this generation. First world problem, that.

And anyone advocating this must be able to examine the question: How would I feel to be the last one remaining, the one left to turn out the lights on Homo Sapiens? I’d like to believe I could lie down having done the job well. But the thought also terrifies me.

My thoughts on compassion boil down to the question, ‘What do we owe each other?’ What do we with privilege owe to those without? What do the powerful owe to the powerless?

This isn’t original- it’s the entire premise of The Good Place. Have you watched The Good Place yet? Really, go and watch it. (And if you haven’t seen it, don’t read too far into that Wikipedia article – the twist at the end of season 1 depends on you having no idea. Most of the cast had no idea. But watch it.)

From a recent episode of the Allusionist podcast:

And the etymology of compassionate? It’s late Latin for com plus patti, so to suffer together. And yes, the root of passion is to suffer. But compassion is ‘to feel the pain of others,’ which is terribly moving.

Back when they still taught civics and government in American high schools (showing my age, I know), we learned that America’s founding fathers didn’t invent the documents on which the country is based from whole cloth. Teachers referenced and sometimes even assigned material from France’s Age of Reason. I’m sure one or two referenced Jean Jacques Rosseau’s Of the Social Contract. At 15, I’m sure I couldn’t actually have absorbed much about it. If one had boiled it down to this sentence (from the introductory essay of the Penguin edition (Quentin Hoare translation), I still would have zoned out:

‘Rousseau’s central aim in Of the Social Contract is to explain how the freedom of the individual can be reconciled with the authority of the state.’

What did stick with me was this: Rousseau argued that the members of a society owe certain things to the group, and can expect certain things, by virtue of all participating in the same society.

And so, reminded that we are all in this together, I started reading the source document. Rousseau is addressing not just any society but a certain kind of perfect direct democracy in which Citizens engage in public deliberation as the legislature of the State with the complete understanding that harm to other members harms the body of the State and that harm to the State directly affects the other members of it.

That’s a poor paraphrase of a very small part of Rousseau’s philosophy, but it’s something like this that the writers of the Constitution were after when they wrote ‘in order to form a more perfect union,’ into that document’s preamble, this idea that we form a government in order to do better by all of the members of the society.

Rousseau is philosophizing a utopia; the folks at Philadelphia were keen to put Rousseau’s principles into practice. It’s unlikely the founders had that much compassion on their minds, given that a few decades later we had to fight the Civil War over their abject failure to abolish slavery (for a start). They did, however, consider the need to have the branches of government independent of both one another and of the voter.

One of these things we learned in those Civics classes was that the amendments to the constitution were generally advancements towards that more perfect union. A sort of ex cathedra of the people. (Rousseau, I think, would have approved of the idea of the general populous acting as a single pope.) As such, the 17th amendment, which provided for direct election of senators, was an advance. I was listening to a political podcast a couple of days ago (It might have been WNYC’s Impeachment: A Daily Podcast – 22 January, but I wouldn’t swear to it) in which there as an assertion that the founding fathers couldn’t have foreseen a senate as craven as the current one because the original version of the Constitution called for state legislatures to elect the senators, avoiding certain issues regarding who senators might be beholden to.

There were a few good reasons to address the process for the election of senators, including periods during which at least one state failed to send any senators at all to Washington because of deadlocks in the state legislature. On the other hand, we can probably guess that a call for the direct election of senators led by William Randolph Hearst (yeah, the newspaper magnate who successfully agitated for war with Spain in the 1890s) might be suspect. (Note: I’m well aware that the issue is a lot more complicated than that and that for a few decades, the benefits of direct elections outweighed the disadvantages.)

This, of course, isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the truisms that a 1980s LAUSD education implanted in my brain, and that a couple of college poli-sci classes tried to remedy. For a long time I held to the idea that many of our steps were a step towards that more perfect union. To paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of our democratic experiment was bending towards some kind of perfection.

Of course it doesn’t, and the gravitational pull of so many things in our society has bent the arc towards indifference (at best). There doesn’t seem to be a Latin-rooted antonym for compassion that includes that root of suffering. Indifference is one of the clearer opposites – a complete lack of suffering with those nearest.

What am I getting to with this discussion: The question of what we owe one another relates directly to how we vote. I’ve talked about voting with compassion. I believe we owe one another a government that isn’t cruel, capricious, or beholden. At the moment we suffer all three, and the one thing that’s least helpful in these discussions is belief.

I don’t know if this statistic belongs in this blog entry or another, but I’ll leave it here for the moment:

Federal immigration officials told a judge last week they believe they’ve finally settled on the number of children separated from their parents by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. The number is 4,368. (Los Angeles Times, 18 January, 2020.)

Rob Cox in Reuters argues that ‘China Does It’ is a bad antitrust argument (6-minute read). But before I get into the arguments the biggest companies in the US and Europe make for maintaining their monopolies, I want to talk about how we are able and not able to occupy space in society.

I’ve had two discussions in the last few days that I want to connect. In one, my friend was complaining about nudity at Dutch spas. Nudity is generally the norm at spas in the Netherlands unless it’s a rare kledingsdag (clothing day). My friend complained that one should be able to wear a swimsuit or not. The issue is not one of prudishness, but that my friend has a surgical scar that a swimsuit hides. It’s not even that the scar is problematic. It’s the threat of unwanted intrusion in what should be a relaxing space that gets tiresome.

Another friend is an expert in her field and occasionally gives free practical courses associated with it to the public. And what is the first question raised in a recent class? Something about how and where she gained her expertise, or her interest in the subject at hand? No. It was ‘Where are you from?’ The adult child of Japanese immigrants born and raised in Los Angeles. Not that that part matters. Again, it’s the impertinence – and the unspoken question of whether my friend had a right to occupy the space at the front of that classroom.

These two experiences play into a larger narrative of how the spaces occupied by people are no longer personal. They probably haven’t ever been, really, but we had a couple of decades where it seemed that they might be. If one wasn’t paying very close attention.

Where to I fit into this narrative? As a cisgender, adult, heterosexual presenting (I’m out as bisexual in most areas of my life, but you can’t necessarily tell that by looking at me) white male, my right to occupy space is rarely questioned. Nor is most expertise I claim. I’m also Jewish which you can probably tell from my physical profile. I’m somewhat removed from the racism I’m about to discuss, but only just. It’s a topic for another entry.

On a good day, however, I might classify as an ally to those who face harassment and verbal and physical violence simply for being.

The right to occupy space. I read a tweet sometime in the last few days that read something like ‘A survey of transgender people asked “What is the one thing you would do if you had a day during which no one would judge or comment on your appearance?” The majority of respondents said “Go swimming.”‘ This Vox article (approx. 5-minute read) on a 2016 survey doesn’t have that nugget, but it tells quite a lot about how difficult it is to be trans and occupy space.

All of this is leading up to a connection I want to make to that Reuters article on big business in the west and China, but I’m going to toss in one more thing about swimming and occupying space. About twenty years ago I dated a black man who grew up in Detroit in the 70s. In response to a suggestion we go to the beach, he laughed me off, saying “Negroes don’t swim.” He didn’t share any of the history of the difficult efforts to integrate swimming facilities that continues. The New York Times ran a long article on the subject just last summer. In short, the right to occupy space unharassed in America is tenuous, and far more extensive than even some close followers of the news guess.

I could stop here and say, ‘look how enlightened I am for acknowledging my privilege’ and all the blah blah blah attendant to such a claim.

The Reuters editorial linked at the top of this entry has nothing to do with occupying space, except insofar as Facebook policies turn a continuing blind eye to the racism on its platform – not within the editorial’s scope. It has nothing to do with how we as a society address or don’t address our responsibilities to each other. It has nothing, really, to do with respecting the privacy and autonomy of people in their private and professional spheres. What struck me reading the arguments of people like Sheryl Sandberg (CEO, Facebook) and European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is the distance between how we look at business and how we look at humans. Both of these people argue competition policy as it relates to the Chinese.

It might be that financial reporting is always like this. If I read Reuters’ Breakingviews and the Economist as assiduously as I do popular news assessments of social policy, this wouldn’t surprise me. But reading Cox’s look at how large corporations address competition got me thinking about how to decrease concern with monopoly power and increase respect for each other in our common spaces. More to the point, I started thinking, again, how little discussions of monopoly power have to do with how humans interoperate in the world. I’m not arguing anything here that five millennia of (mostly privileged white male) philosophers and teachers (not to mention three seasons of The Good Place) haven’t argued better. But the question remains:

How do we get where we need to be?

There’s a collision of autonomy and respect and privacy and intrusion from so many different areas that any conclusions I draw are either meaningless, or pablum. The social media waters that we swim in constantly invite – and foster – invasion and misunderstanding. And outright hostility. Note again my generally unchallenged white male expertise. I know that I can step up and say that the status quo is untenable and quietly slip back into enjoying my position with respect to it. In my What If Future, the status quo is that no one is challenged in their right to occupy space, but gracious, that future is bloody far away.


And entirely unrelated: The one-two punch of The Talking Drum and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part Two on King Crimson’s Meltdown: Live in Mexico (Spotify link) is superb. To be played at maximum volume.

(ETA: My friend Kevin added the following: ‘I am somewhat surprised you limited this to those affected by his ignoring AIDS. His policies in Central America, both under Reagan and on his own, went far further than was revealed in Iran Contra and resulted in untold deaths, mass impoverishment, and the overthrow of legitimate governments by USA backed and armed narco cartels who persist to this day.  Lastly we can point out that Bush and William Casey were responsible for the perpetuation of the Iranian hostage crisis, which cost Carter the election.’ These things are absolutely true, and any one of them could have earned another 500 words. The AIDS crisis struck closest to home at the time and is much in my thoughts these days for other reasons.)

I’ve been thinking about the death of George Herbert Walker Bush and why I won’t ‘dignify’ his memory by keeping silent. By 1988, HIV had been identified as the source of AIDS and AIDS had been named for three and five years respectively. Bush had remained silent the entire time, as had his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. (Reagan’s silence, even as friends of his such as Rock Hudson died, was despicable enough.) When ACT-UP and other gay groups protested in forms of extreme street theatre and were arrested for it, they were working in the same realm as the Freedom Riders two decades before, and playing for similar stakes. The people who risked and suffered violence and arrest at the hands of police forces coast to coast in many cases could have lived relatively quiet closeted lives, but as soon as they put themselves on the line for queer causes, they risked being disowned by their families (as the price of coming out had always included), firing, often their entire livelihoods. (This is why Harvey Milk pushed for all gays and lesbians to come out – to make it impossible to ignore that we were everywhere.)

s-e-dThis was a fair risk because their friends were dying. (I would so love to be able to say that I took the risks, but I lived safely then and rarely demonstrated, and generally only when it was safe. I won’t rewrite my own history.) Friends and lovers were dying horrible, lonely, painful deaths. Let’s not forget that the opportunistic infections associated with AIDS were slow and had few treatments. And there was no cure on the horizon.

As the leader of the free world, Bush had the responsibility and the duty to speak out, But, I hear you say, it wasn’t politically expedient to do so.

No, butt the crimes and death that result from political expedience are unforgivable. Instead of standing up and saying These are our brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, he declared a whole segment of the population ‘Other’, a nuisance, and therefore disposable. That nuisance continued to die on his watch at an alarming rate. When he took office over 82,000 cases of AIDS had been reported in the US and almost 62,000 had died of it. When he left office in 1993, those numbers had increased threefold in the US alone. In his time in office, and in the succeeding quarter century, Bush has always been unwilling to stand up and own up and repent and do some kind of good work in this regard.

When his own Department of Health and Human Services produced a report on teen suicide that included the specific risks of gay and lesbian youth, Bush caved to far right groups and suppressed the report. The report was only released when its findings were leaked.

Bush’s successors have blood on their hands too, and I’m not willing to give them a pass, either, but in this moment of hagiography, I must say no. The man was not a saint of any kind. When the crisis was in its infancy, and leadership was required, he continued to do what was expedient. Were I the sort who believed in such things, I’d say that Hell had prepared a room.

ETA: The Rude Pundit has a column on this matter that’s a whole lot less nice than mine.