Love In The Time of Corona

March 15, 2020

IT WAS INEVITABLE: Society was due for a course correction. We’d settled into our accepted state of idiocracy, whining about our moron leaders while sipping our over-priced coffee drinks. Their delusions of nationalism were destined to bite all of us on the ass. Brexit, “America First,” Polish nationalism, and all the rest. Build a wall and crime will fall, they said. They were too stupid to know that germs don’t recognize man-made boundaries.

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In less than two weeks the fantasy of “national borders” was laid to waste by the creeping, then accelerating, coronavirus. We are the world, sneezing and coughing together, engaged in a collective fear that our inherent sociability is killing off our elders, one nursing home at a time. Our anti-science president thought he could employ his jingoism by placing his executive power in front of this “foreign virus” (his words). COVID-19 laughed at his hubris. It was already here, spreading like a kerosene fire.

So here we are, in lockdown, trying to “flatten the curve,” riding out the pandemic in our under-stocked bunkers, socially distancing ourselves from our neighbors. Thank the gods for Netflix and chilling. (We now know what will come after Gen Z, the Coronials. See ya in 9 months, babies!) What does this mean for our society, as food servers run out of grocery money and Trump thinks of another way to help his rich friends, again? (“Fed to pump in more than $1 trillion in dramatic ramping up of market intervention amid coronavirus meltdown”) It seems like once they closed down Disneyland, we were racing to a complete social collapse. At least my gym is still open, for now.

In times like this, people crave togetherness, something more than posting memes about empty toilet paper shelves at Costco. Older readers will remember how after 9/11 there was a strange sense of unity that fell over the country. We were all bonded by our grief and needed to be together, hugging strangers and lending handkerchiefs to wipe away others’ tears. Ah, those were the days. How can we accomplish this same cathartic social ritual with three feet between us at all times? I want to hug my elderly neighbors who are already “socially distanced,” but will that kill them?

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Our founding sociologist, Emile Durkheim, asked, over a hundred years ago, why we need religion. In a time of growing scientific explanation, it seemed like religion was less and less required to make sense of the world and yet people were still flocking to churches, synagogues, and mosques. What he found made a lot of sense. People’s need for religion didn’t have anything to do with needing “God,” but needing each other. We needed a sense of community, from the Amish to Zoroastrians. We needed to be in one place together, breaking bread and engaging in rituals that gave us a sense we were connecting the sacred mysteries and the profane reality.  Religion gave us the social cohesion needed grease the wheels of a functioning society. As a kid who grew up in the Bible Belt, you never asked where someone was on Sunday mornings. They were at church, with their friends.

In the twenty-first century, social media has given us much of that sense of community we used to find at our various worship services, but it’s still not the same. Even with online shopping, online dating, and online education, there is still an innate desire to be in a room together. Maybe it is tied to our tribal origins, the rule by consensus. Checking in with each other by taking stock of body languages. “Yeah, I get the feeling people don’t want to go the Chili’s after work.” We need to be reminded of the flesh and bones of us, that we are not a series of illuminated screens.

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So how will we get through this? My intellectual mind understands that limiting social contact will slow down the spread of the virus and put this thing in the dumpster with the swine flu, the bird flu, and various monkey-born illnesses. But my emotional mind wants to take my family out for dim sum to support our suffering Asian community and later grab a drink at my local bar in hopes a few shots of whiskey will immunize me. (Guilty of doing both this week.) Facebooking and ordering delivery just doesn’t cut it. Will my very human need to be in the world (and putting my money where my asymptomatic mouth is) extend this nightmare and maybe take out a few humans in the process? How can I be the needed citizen of the world and also stem the economic collapse in my little part of the world?

Durkheim believed that even horrible things can be functional for society. Maybe COVID-19 is functional as a great reset for the human race, to remind us that borders and nations are luxuries that quickly fade when we realize we’re all in this germ factory together. I’m wrapping my arms around the world. And then washing my hands.

Preparing for the Great Leap Backwards: We call it “anomie”

Jan. 4, 2017

There was a wonderful moment of peace in our house on New Year’s Day. Andrea and I were sitting on the couch reading. I was reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water. My wife was reading Patti Smith’s first memoir, Just Kids, and Cozy was sitting in my old bean bag chair, reading Go, Train, Go! It’s one of a series of memoirs by Thomas the Tank Engine. The Best of Donny Hathaway was playing on the hi-fi, the coffee was brewed, and it was almost snowing outside. I took it all in, my beautiful family, and thought, “Can the rest of 2017 please just be like this.”

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But I know it’s not to be. This particular set of 365 days does not promise to be easy. After the rough start to 2016, I don’t doubt that some of the icons of our childhoods, those increasingly fragile baby boomers and older, will pass away and I’ll have to stop to pay tribute, dusting off their records, renting their movies, and maybe writing mournful odes. Stay with us, Chuck Berry. Don’t leave us, Betty Friedan. We still need you in this world. And there will be younger ones, even younger than me. “I just bought his new album! I just read her new book!” These passings will remind me that my parents are getting older and face their own health challenges that will inevitably put my own loyalty as their child to the test. Stay with us. Let me get back to work so I can help take care of you. I want Cozy to get to know you better.

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The country faces much bigger challenges than I do when Trump takes his “oath” on January 20th. (Look for crossed fingers behind his back.) When he and “his” congress repeal Obamacare, millions of the “angry white people” who voted for him will lose their health coverage. The record low uninsured rate will zoom back up and the first contact with a doctor these angry white people will “choose” will be an Emergency Room. And tax-payers will again get stuck with the bill. That looks more like socialism than Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Personal bankruptcies will sky-rocket as medical bills wipe out any savings or home equity these angry white people have. I hope that iron worker in Michigan has got a few hundred thousand dollars under his mattress for his kid’s first few leukemia treatments! But at least the Trump did what he said he was gonna do. I like a guy who says what he means. Now about that wall.

These folks are likely to see all kinds of bad news from the guy who modeled himself as their savior. Prices going up from his simple-minded protectionist trade policies as wages go down because of a new war on benefits, unions, and the minimum wage. “Competition” is great for the fat cats at the top and he knows this. The defunding of public schools will turn these kids to the streets. But hey, you might get a voucher! No worries, because the promise to renew the war on crime and drugs will give them three hots and a cot at the new private prison, all paid for, not by the rich, but you got it. You.

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I’m not sure how the cavalcade of changes that is coming from the arrival of the most incompetent plutocrat to ever golden parachute into Washington will affect me. I am just beginning my return back to work now that Cozy can successfully distinguish Plah-Doh from actual food. It could be great as the sane segment of the population was looking for experts in diversity, criminality, and what to do when a new generation of young, angry white people start spray-painting swastikas around town. Or it could be the exact opposite as the walls go up and Americans, fearful of the coming crash, just put all their money in Canadian dollars and wheels of parmesan cheese. Diversify! That’s me with a sign down on SW Broadway. “Will lecture about Late Capitalism for contributions to my minimum credit are payment.”

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Our first sociologist was a little French fellow named Emile Durkheim. The guy was supposed to become a rabbi but invented a scientific discipline instead. I’ll write more about him because his ideas are fused into my veins. He was, in many ways, inherently conservative, alerting the enlightened to the unintended consequences of the French Revolution. Revolutionary change itself is not bad, but when things happen too quickly and people start throwing the baby out with the bathwater, you’re gonna get some ugly version of anarchy. In 1789 France, it was the abolition of any institution associated with the monarchy. In 2017 America it may be the abolition of any program associated with that black guy. What was his name again? The result in France was the “reign of terror” and the invention of a political tool called the guillotine. What will be the equivalent in the reign of Trump?

Durkheim had a term for this – anomie, the sense of normlessness. When things change too quickly and institutions loose their ability to keep things relatively stable, people freak out. For Durkheim, it was high suicide rates associated with industrialization and the sweeping away of the old regime. Usually, we are happy when the old order goes bye bye. Slavery was a long tradition. So was legal sexual harassment and the unpunished murders of transgender people. As sociologists, we are often discussing anomie associated with change that moves society forward. How have men handled (or not handled) that radical idea that women are human beings invested in right to equal opportunity? Some dudes freaked out.

Get ready for the anomie of a society that suddenly lurches backwards, to AGAIN when AMERICA was GREAT. To a time when women, people of color, LGBTQ people, working people, and yes, a lot of angry white people regularly got screwed and were told to sit down and shut up or the goons would come for them in the night. How will America manage this rapid change to the good old boy days when generals and millionaire (now billionaire) men made the rules? Will we descend into chaos as our basic institutions are attacked by this con artist? He and his Legion of Doom represent the greatest threat to the idea of America we may have ever faced from within.

Hey, maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Maybe nothing will really change after January 20th. That Trump will be our great entertainer and solve all our complex problems with a tweet. His seemingly pathological lies could be a brilliant secret plan to get Wall Street to hand back America’s wealth to Main Street. Or maybe Washington will be crippled with same deadlock as always and any change will be small and unnoticeable to anyone who doesn’t read wonky blogs. But honestly, I don’t think Donald could name the first ten amendments of the Constitution, let alone FDR’s Four Freedoms. The question is will the angry white people who voted for him see the con before the midterm elections in 2018? I imagine even his KKK supporters are gonna feel a bit like suckers by summer.

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Look, I just want enough “freedom from want” to be able to keep my house and sit on my couch with my family on cold winter’s days, reading memoirs, and not worry about guillotines for “libtards” and college professors. And know that Chuck Berry is still in the world.