What we've lost in the plague — and what we've gained: A chance to remake America

We have all suffered losses in this tragedy, great or small. If we face that honestly, we can build a new future

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 19, 2020 1:25PM (EDT)

Coronavirus is exposing the cracks the the system (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Coronavirus is exposing the cracks the the system (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

If loss is the fundamental experience of human life, we have all experienced enough of it lately to last a lifetime. We have lost friends, loved ones and family members. We have lost jobs and schools and the rhythms of ordinary life. We have lost our favorite restaurants and that cute little coffee shop and the neighborhood bar — and not all those places will be coming back. We have lost picnics under the cherry blossoms and overnight delivery of absolutely everything and the NBA finals.

In the midst of life we are in death, as the Book of Common Prayer informs us. That passage comes from a Gregorian chant that goes back at least as far as the late Middle Ages, when plagues came and went like the weather, mysterious judgments of a capricious God. If its point was to suggest that even the most painful losses contain the seeds of renewal and redemption, that's a lesson we're all struggling to grab hold of now. 

In New York City, where I live, we appear to be past the brutal "peak" of the pandemic's bell curve, as the news headlines and our irascible governor inform us. This means that only 500 people or so are dying in our city every single day — a few days ago it was more than 900 — and the number of hospitalized patients is beginning, very slowly, to decline. I don't know whether I hear fewer ambulance sirens or not; as anyone living through this dreamlike period can testify, time is elastic and perceptions are unreliable. Anecdotally, sirens are not always necessary because the streets are so clear. 

Not everyone who dies of COVID-19 illness is elderly, of course, but I already know three or four adults who have lost aging parents to this virus, and their stories can be multiplied by the thousands. In most cases these people are dying in intensive-care units or nursing homes, alone except for the health care workers who tried to save their lives at risk to their own. For those tempted to tiptoe around those losses with "Fox & Friends" weasel words — well, those people were old and likely to die soon anyway — I can only assume those thoughts are driven by fear and shame, and that they will haunt you. I have been lucky: My mother will celebrate her 98th birthday next month, God willing, and her locked-down but relatively luxurious senior residence has seen no signs of infection. Still, I wake up nights wondering if I will ever see her again.

There is so much more loss ahead — large and small, momentous and trivial — and it is only natural to grieve. Inexorably, we are losing the summer that isn't even here yet: Graduation and sleepaway camp and family vacations and music festivals and the baseball season. San Diego Comic-Con and the Cannes Film Festival and Shakespeare in the Park were all canceled this week. On my wall I have a picture of my kids, taken last Fourth of July on the FDR Drive in lower Manhattan as we waited amid thousands of other people for the Macy's fireworks show to begin. It already looks like a snapshot of another era, the time before.

This past week was the one when many of us realized how long all this will likely go on, and how altered our lives will be from this point forward. It was also the week when the president and his allies began to push earnestly toward "reopening" the economy, which they seem to understand as an engine or entity that stands above human lives, and feeds on them. This is a cultural conflict, but perhaps not as much a contradiction as it appears. 

Such people's overly eager admission that lives must be sacrificed to drive investment and consumption — "the markets" — is more revealing than they intend. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, a multi-millionaire Indiana Republican, created a soundbite for the ages in proclaiming it was time for Congress to put on its "big-boy and big-girl pants" and prioritize "the American way of life" over, you know, the actual lives of actual Americans.

On an emotional or psychological level, I get it: People like Hollingsworth fear all this loss in a highly specific and personal way, and cling to the belief that it can be undone if the economic gods are propitiated in just the right way. Through ruthless magic, applied by the priesthood of the big-boy pants, the doors of Dick's Sporting Goods will be thrown open once again and the status quo ante of gangster capitalism and Trumpian delusion will be restored in all its glory. There might be some pathos to this, if it weren't so small-minded and mean-spirited.

It benefits the Hollingsworthites to pretend they have grassroots supporters, and so small groups of protesters, fueled and organized by right-wing advocacy groups — and quite likely by the Trump campaign — began to descend on state capitals and shopping malls this week. (Please read my colleague Amanda Marcotte on the Michigan protest, if you haven't already.) It was the usual carnival of selfishness and paranoia and intense insecurity in macho-nationalist drag, but what precisely did they want? Some not-entirely-clear return to "normal" (which was definitely not normal), and the restoration of something that cannot be restored. Isn't that the persistent yearning of the human species, to recapture the past? It never seems to work — consult Proust and Fitzgerald for more details.

We ought to be amazed that even a modest number of working people will so enthusiastically side with the overlords of capitalism, and are willing to risk their family's lives for a system that has been spectacularly rigged against them. But such things have long since ceased to be amazing. As Jamelle Bouie observed in a New York Times column this week, the "reopeners" have larger issues in mind than a desperate attempt to shore up Donald Trump's re-election prospects, although that's certainly a major factor. 

Public confidence in the entire right-wing political and economic project "that captured the state with President Ronald Reagan and is on the path to victory under Donald Trump" has already been shaken. This pandemic presents the terrifying prospect (to conservatives) of killing it off for good. Congress has already embraced policies "that would be criticized as unacceptably radical under any other circumstances," Bouie writes, and more is almost certain to come:

In one short month, the United States has made a significant leap toward a kind of emergency social democracy, in recognition of the fact that no individual or community could possibly be prepared for the devastation wrought by the pandemic. Should the health and economic crisis extend through the year, there's a strong chance that Americans will move even further down that road, as businesses shutter, unemployment continues to mount and the federal government is the only entity that can keep the entire economy afloat.

In a similar vein, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has observed that this crisis lays bare the fatal weakness of the American social contract, circa 2020. "We built an economy with no shock absorbers," he told Times business reporter Patricia Cohen. "We made a system that looked like it was maximizing profits but had higher risks and lower resiliency."

As Cohen summarizes the state of affairs before the pandemic, the economy "has pumped out enormous wealth" in the years since the 2008 recession, while workers "have gotten a smaller slice of those rewards." With wages largely stagnant and the cost of health care and housing rapidly increasing, having a job is no guarantee of "income security," a dramatic and troubling new development in American life. All the coronavirus crisis has done, in a sense, is to reveal and amplify the existing contradictions of a distorted economy that has massively enriched a few people like Trey Hollingsworth at the expense of pretty much everyone else.

"A lot of the people in the economy are living at the edge, and you have an event like this that pushes them over," Mr. Stiglitz said. "And we are unique in the advanced world in having people at the edge without a safety net below them."

If one thing we have lost in the pandemic is the shared delusion of a booming economy, that would be a major epistemological rupture in American history that offers new possibilities for the future. It could create, as Bouie suggests, an opening for a renewed experiment in social democracy. But times of intense economic dislocation are dangerous and unpredictable, and this moment could also lead to the end of democracy — which, like late-stage neoliberal capitalism, was already beginning to crack under the strain.

This sense of urgency has led the entire Democratic Party to coalesce behind nominee-by-default Joe Biden, more than six months ahead of a decisive presidential election that will be conducted in unknowable and unprecedented conditions of stress and uncertainty. I have spoken my piece about Biden, who strikes me as perversely ill-suited to this moment or, to put it another way, as the perfect symbol of his party's rootlessness and self-hatred. But that die has been cast, and it seems prudent to observe a code of polite social distancing on this question, at least until the morning of Nov. 4.

For some reason it remains a universally accepted truth that moderate establishment Democrats are the most "electable," despite an unblemished record of agonizing defeat that stretches all the way from Hubert Humphrey to Hillary Clinton, by way of Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry. Of course it's possible, or even likely, that "negative partisanship" and widespread loathing for the incompetent sociopath in the White House (as expressed by political scientist Rachel Bitecofer) will outweigh all other issues this time around. 

But whether Joe Biden will win the election, against a uniquely devious opponent with limitless funds and an unmatched ability to manipulate the media, is only one unanswered question. Whether a potential president who has literally promised no fundamental changes to society, and a party that seems committed to turning the dial back to 2015, are remotely capable of preventing the next upsurge of fascism — potentially better organized and less overtly criminal than this one — may be a bigger one. 

What unites many so-called liberals and conservatives, then, is a desire to rewrite recent history and undo all the loss — not just the staggering present-tense losses of the pandemic, but all the losses of the Trump presidency, and all the losses of the grossly unjust economy and the deeply divided society that made Trump possible in the first place. This is understandable, as I suggested earlier, but it's also a death trap. There is no switch we can flip to give Trey Hollingsworth back his fictitious economic boom, or to banish Trump to historical oblivion and restore the illusory social harmony of the Obama years. Neither of those things was ever what it seemed, I would argue, but in any case they are unrecoverable now.

For most of us, and maybe all of us, such momentous questions are pretty abstract right now as we try to wait out the pandemic and the economic crash. Personal losses come first. My kids celebrated a milestone birthday while in lockdown, and I can never give them that back. I cannot promise them Fourth of July fireworks or a trip to Ireland or the summer production of "As You Like It" they have looked forward to all year, because none of those things is likely to happen. Those are insignificant losses or markers of privilege on the larger social canvas, no doubt — but not to them.

We have to find a way to accept the modest personal losses of this moment, along with the unbearably large and tragic ones, and face them for what they are. There is no way to make them un-happen and no pathway back to the past, not the past of two months ago or five years ago or any other time. If we accept that what is lost is lost and cannot be recovered — and if we can grieve and mourn and celebrate those losses, after our own fashion — that may open the way toward discovering together what can be rebuilt, or built anew. That's a simple, even banal sentiment. But it describes the greatest challenge this nation has faced since World War II, one that will define our place in history.  



By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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