Archives for category: United States
Before I get into this, I’m aware that what I’m about to say may fall into the categories of both virtue signalling and performative anti-racism.

Black-Lives-Matter-Black-Sabbath-sm

A Facebook friend with whom I have little in common politically responded to this user pic with the rather reductive question ‘Slogan or movement?’ I’m not sure what my answer is. (And I’ll be honest – I saw a picture of a rock star wearing a shirt with this design. It’s in the style of the cover a Black Sabbath album. Part of my choice of image is sheer amusement at the conflation.) Starting with the slogan, though, there’s a meme going around which posits a person telling their partner about the pain they’re experiencing. The partner responds with something like, ‘Many people feel pain.’ True, but hurtful. This reflects how I feel about the common responses to the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ – Yes, all lives, but it’s black people being killed by white cops on the street, in their own homes by cops with no-knock warrants to arrest someone already in custody, while playing in the local park with a toy, while walking home with a bag of skittles. So for those folks and so many more like them, I say Black Lives Matter.

In our societies, this is how the phrase has been used since Trayvon Martin was brutally killed and his killer, who stalked the boy even when told to stand down, acquitted.
Systemic racism has been a boot on the neck of people of color since well before Reconstruction. And I know there are far better essays by people much better read and more experienced than I am on the subject. Repeating the phrase is a way of showing that I no longer want to operate in society in a way that doesn’t move us from racism to anti-racism. I want to be on the side of making this better, not on the side of complacency.
Is professing the phrase a precondition for action? I don’t know, but we don’t get to the next level of this society on word or faith alone. By standing up, I’m trying in a small way to say and be on the side of the repressed. It’s in that middle ground between speaking the platitude and doing the work. I know that I’m blessed as a cis-presenting white male, I’ve been the subject of very little discrimination. It’s well past the point that those who step or live outside of that is subject to repression and discrimination, and worse. I can, at this point, only imagine what it is like in these times to be Black and Trans, for example.
When I say that Black Lives Matter, I speak out that the rights to life and to simple self determination do matter and that the right to be treated equally under the law matters, and that the right to be judged as a person and not a representative of a group of people with the same skin color matters, and that the right to the same education as white peers matters, and that there is a right not to be mocked by society for two weeks every year matters, and that  the claim of tradition is no basis for being hateful.

 

“When a disease image is used by Machiavelli, the presumption is that the disease can be cured. ‘Consumption,’ he wrote, in the commencement is easy to cure, and difficult to understand; but when it has neither been discovered in due time, nor treated upon a proper principle, it becomes easy to understand, and difficult to cure.” (from “Illness as Metaphor” by Susan Sontag)

This is sort of an obvious idea, that if you are looking out clearly before everyone else is, what might eventually be a problem, isn’t hard to solve. And when it’s obvious to everyone, it’s very difficult to solve. This is where we are now. I’ve read the same articles everyone else has about PPE and stay at home measures and masks.

And what the hell happened in Michigan this week? Armed people stormed the capital and got in? And were not stopped? (As one friend noted: Is it time to be scared yet?) Everyone apparently went home at the end of the day and no one was hurt or shot. (As another friend noted: This is how you know they were white.)

The problem is obvious if there’s compassion, but how can we show compassion to those who behave in ways that we despise? Those Michigan protesters are frightened, possibly already out of work, financially and domestically at risk, and desperately wanting a return to normal. Because I want doctors and nurses not to be at risk and nursing homes and meat packing plants not to continue to be outbreak vectors, I see this thing one way. But those folks storming the Lansing statehouse? They want to be able to work and get the kids out of the house and fight battles against things they can see, like legislators rather than things they can’t.

Years ago, a woman I respect pointed me to The Five Love Languages, a bit of relationship self-help which I read and found things applicable to my own relationship. (I’m a fiction guy – this is way out of my usual reading, so bear with me.) The writer is a marriage counselor with a heavy Christian leaning and I took from it what spoke to me and let the rest go. The thesis is that each person feels best loved when that love is expressed in one or two of five different ways. And he illustrates this with a couple dozen case studies from his own practice. One such case has stuck with me: A woman comes in for counseling whose husband has been emotionally abusive to her since not long after their wedding. Her attempts to communicate and love in her husband’s language started to bridge the divide between them and they were able to build their relationship together again.

In America’s political divide, from which we find armed men from one side invading the capital where a governor from the other party is trying to keep people safe from our current pandemic, we have to find ways to make the whole thing work. I’m not suggesting that those of us on the left simply need to learn the love languages of those on the right and that will make everything better. In the summer of 2016, I spent some time with some very politically active and astute members of my family. A cousin predicted that we would lose the election because democrats still weren’t speaking to the needs of those in the so-called heartland. I’m not sure if that’s the (only) reason we lost, but I’m not seeing the language coming from Joe Biden that’s going to cross the divide either. Note: I’m also an armchair policy wonk. I want to hear from Biden specifically what he’s going to do to ease the crisis. How he’s going to get PPE and ventilators to all the places that need it, how he’s going to make people the focus of the crisis and not big business, how how how. I’m not getting it yet, but I’m probably not listening in the right places. (And being an ocean away from the US part of this crisis, means I’m not seeing the headlines on a daily basis either.) In politics, policy might be my love language.

And getting back to the opening salvo: the illness and its associated crises are very easy to see now. And as such, very easy to suggest how to attack each portion of the problem. One thing I see that we need is a kind of national compassion that is beyond the skills of the current administration. What I hear is the stoking of division and the coddling of big business at the expense of the working class. This has been what I’ve heard and seen as long as this administration has been in power. The current moment demands unity and unification if we’re going to solve it and most of us live through it.

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.

My best beloved reads the Economist every week, and occasionally I’ll read an article or two as well. She’s noted to me that periodicals like the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are written for people with an interest in the proliferation of money. As such they’re (historically) neither right-wing nor left-wing. Save for the elephant in the room, of course.

I was rereading a column from last June from the Economist’s ‘Bartleby Blog’. On the web site, this blog is subtitled ‘Thoughts on management and the world of work, in the spirit of the “scrivener” of Herman Melville’s 1853 novel’. This alone is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Bartleby the Scrivener is a short story, not a novel.
  • The titular character of Bartleby the Scrivener would rather starve than work. His catch phrase is ‘I would prefer not to.’ He utters this phrase whenever his boss or others ask him to do something.
  • It seems that whoever named the blog took note of Bartleby’s initial burst of hard work, not the fact that by the end of the story, he’s been evicted, arrested, and starves in the Tombs, Manhattan’s municipal jail.

With all of this in mind, I point you to the June 29th edition of the blog in which the writer discusses the differences between American and European working hours and vacation habits.

First point: In 1979, the average worker in the US and Europe put in about 38.2 hours per week. Later measurements diverge. By 2000, the US worker was putting in 39.4 hours. This fell to 38.6 hours in 2016.

Second point: European and US workers differ in the amount of holiday they take. Rather than looking at the number of days off each culture has, the blogger points out that over the course of a year, Americans average 34 hours per week, the French 28 hours and the Germans 26.

Third point: The wealthy in the US work longer hours, but still tend to work in daylight as opposed to cleaners and food delivery people who mostly work at night.

Why the differences? Taxation? Possibly. But the key point is made in the passive voice: ‘Another potential explanation is that a decline in trade union membership has weakened American workers’ bargaining power. Except that unionization rates in France and America are not far apart.’

Let’s take a look at that for a moment: What happened to the unions in the US shortly after the 1979 calculation? I’d point to Ronald Reagan’s firing of almost the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization rather than bargaining in good faith, given that he had supported the union during his campaign. This act alone signaled the death knell for unions in the United States.

The blogger distinguishes between unionization and policy. What isn’t spoken is how a well unionized country affects policy. Employers in underunionized countries also affect policy. Far more now than they used to. In the US, legislators financed by large employers have succeeded in gutting union power in a variety of areas. And they also succeed in breaking labor laws that protect the rights to unionize. So the question of who shapes policy goes unanswered.

I can’t speak for unionization rates in France, but labor in general speaks louder in Western Europe. Mandated holiday time of at least 20 days per year as a matter of national policy in most EU countries makes a big difference in that average number of hours worked.

Continuing through the blog, we get an assertion that ‘champions of workers’ rights have focused on raising the minimum wage (so far to little avail at the federal level)’. Again, begging the question as to WHY these efforts fail at the federal level. Might it have something to do with who is financing those who set the policy? I have a feeling that it might.

The writer then discusses the longer hours worked by the higher paid than the lower paid in the US. And this class of people discussed: cleaners and food delivery workers? Take a wild guess as to the areas of employment that are the least stable from the employee perspective? And which have unionization efforts stymied by both legal and illegal measures almost before such efforts have begun? Yeah, that would be those classes. It’s not that unionization rates have dropped simply through attrition or that the US minimum wage has stagnated through some kind of Adam Smithian invisible hand of the market. Those with money have made it higher to increase either one to the point of impossibility.

We’ve painted ourselves into a corner with the outbreak of Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus). How much manufacturing previously done in the West is now (not being) done in China and other countries in Asia? We made a decision in the 80s that American manufacturing was too expensive and that we’d do better as industrialists and consumers to move production to Mexico and Asia. This, I suppose, is fine, save that we stopped paying living wages to America’s (former) manufacturing employees and increased their credit lines as a sort of compensation.
That’s three of several dozen problems that have been building up in the US over the last 35 years or so. How we handled American purchasing power is a different part of the discussion. China raised its own game in the years following the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. You can’t have democracy but if you’re a Chinese citizen you are entitled to some more of these trappings of capitalism. And it seemed to work. Many Chinese got filthy rich, casinos opened on Chinese real estate, for example, and if you weren’t used to democracy, it did work. Hong Kong? Different question. (Fairport Convention’s Jewel in the Crown seems appropriate.)
Anyhow, US and to a lesser extent, I think, European purchasing power went up, because a lot of Chinese made a lot of stuff very cheaply. So it didn’t matter that real wages in the US haven’t shifted much in 40 years. The decline of unions in post-Reagan America pushed workers into so-called service industries where real wages are kept artificially low much of the time.
Bottom line: We don’t MAKE anything, and as a result we’re in a position where the place that does make all our stuff is on lockdown for we don’t know how long. And creating a manufacturing sector out of whole cloth can’t be done so easily anymore. (It could be done if we were willing to pry a little bit of money and commitment out of the 1%. Not in the cards at the moment.) The same is true in Europe. We have the tools to create that self-sufficient situation, but it means retraining the populous to buy what they need and a lot less of what they want. We’re going to learn mighty soon that the old watch, phone, and TV will last a little longer. (A little less of the planned obsolescence would go a long way.) Clothes and everything else we buy might be more expensive, but part of what we need to do to recover, sustainably, from this crisis is to rebuild the industry and rework how we as people and consumers and industrialists relate to industry.