All In

According to the CDC, the United States performed eight COVID-19 tests on Tuesday. Zero by the CDC itself, which seemed to stop testing six days ago, eight by public health labs. [1] The CDC offered no data at all for Wednesday. U! S! A! We are, of course, the greatest country on earth, so I’m betting we can do even better today: 8 + 2 = a perfect ten! No, wait—aim higher, America! 8 + 3. This nation goes up to eleven.

Of course, not only is the United States not actually the best at this—I think we all know that—it is, in fact, possibly the worst. COVID-19 has extended the Trumpocene’s mix of malignantly narcissistic incompetence and outright malice—itself an extension of the gnawing-on-its-own-intestines-austerity-regimes-of-neoliberalism—from the many it was already preying on to everyone. All of us.

If you’re one of those too-smart types who says you’ll be fine—it’s just those others you’re worried about—dig a little deeper into what’s going on in Italy and then tell me how your position is qualitatively different than Trump’s. Yes, the elderly and people with “underlying conditions” (that’s me! I’m a winner) are more vulnerable. So are the uninsured and the poor and the houseless and communities of color who already face regular state violence and medical discrimination, and those in rural areas where regional hospitals have been forced to shut down, and those who must continue doing high-contact, high-risk jobs just to eat, and those for whom school closures will mean that their children won’t get enough to eat, and those whose bookstores and barbershops and bodegas—always operating on a thin line—may be forced out of business, and those who may have to “isolate” at homes with abusive partners or parents, and addicts whose disease won’t allow them to survive in isolation, and health-care workers who’ll bravely help those addicts, and those addicts’ children, and the children of those who rush into the breach. And then there’s you, under sixty, good health, decent job you can work from home, so it’s cool, it’s fine. You just feel sorry for others.

Except the criminal mismanagement of this almost entirely human-made disaster has led to what is surely only the beginning of a corresponding economic plague that will maybe demolish your retirement, so now you’re going to work extra years, and maybe your body won’t make it that far; or maybe it’s crashing your kid’s college fund, so they’ll scrimp and make it a few semesters before dropping out because the numbers just don’t add up, and, well, that’s not the end, but it’s not what you hoped for, and that’s a loss; or maybe you’re twenty and care a lot about having a habitable planet, so you’re all in on the Green New Deal just as a starter, but now, in the best-case scenario, we lose a year of the very few we have left to make the changes necessary to survive climate change once we’re done surviving pandemic. Which is a limited “we,” a smaller first-person plural, because we won’t all survive. But we will all hurt. A lot. Because that’s what the “pan” in pandemic means: “all.” We will all hurt, a lot. Maybe COVID-19 will finally make that clear. No, that’s not right; it was always clear. Maybe it’s making it visible for those whose situations have encouraged or compelled them to look away, to imagine that their only choice was pity or disregard; those who imagined that suffering was a sad thing that happens to other people. So, great: You were blind, or blurry, but now you see, or maybe you always saw, because you had no choice, but at least now more people are seeing the same thing. What next?

Don’t look at me! I’m just a writer. And, here I am, writing. On the job. But there are greater talents called for at the moment. Community organizers, assemble! Policy wonks, get wonking. And God or Goddess or whatever-gets-you-through-the-night bless you, nurses and doctors and orderlies and admins working on the frontlines. The rest of us: solidarity! Love thy neighbor (but without hugs). But don’t think we can volunteer and donate our way out of this—that’s the lie right-wingers have been peddling for years, the smiley-face version of laissez-faire capitalism’s claws. We endure governments because they can do things that individuals and even movements can’t; it’s a matter of scale and organization. Our scale is light, now, and our organization is . . . not organized.

The challenge ahead is not to rebuild—it’s to build. We can’t restore something that never quite was. We don’t even know what a caring society—the beloved community—might really look like. We’ll have to imagine. So—if your classes are cancelled or your big game is kaput or the office is half-empty, if you don’t know how to wonk or organize, if you’re not a nurse or a public health expert or a social worker, if you’re feeling isolated—well, then, get busy. More time to start the work ahead: imagining the caring society that must come next. This is no thought exercise, this is action, and we can get going now if we haven’t—by determination or due to more visible necessity—started already.

If you’re just beginning, I recommend a scale that feels, well, imaginable. You can start in your home and speculate from there: What happens when you wake up in such a community, what does it look like when you open the door in the morning, where are you going when you walk through it? Who will you meet there, when we are finally ready, at long last, to stop “social distancing?”

I am preaching now, I admit it, so I’ll go all in. Years ago, I ended a book about anti-democratic fundamentalist politics with the contrast between two broad approaches to freedom: that of salvation and that of deliverance. In biblical terms—I said I was going to preach—that’s the difference between Revelation and Exodus. Salvation ends in heaven; deliverance begins in the desert. Salvation is a purity narrative, reserved for the chosen or the righteous or the rich or the white; deliverance is an “all” story. It’s a big, messy crowd walking out of Egypt, arguing with and caring for one another, imagining a way through the wasteland. Salvation depends on authority, rescue from above. Deliverance is a matter of democracy, freedom together.

This nation does not “go to eleven” any more than Spinal Tap’s amplifiers did. Nations, like machines, have built-in limitations. Our imagination does not.

[1] On Friday, the CDC revised the eight count upwards to around 373, twenty-three of which they conducted. Which sounds better, and is better, except in a pandemic, when it remains a number so small as to be nearly indistinguishable from a distance from eight, or eleven.

Jeff Sharlet’s most recent book is This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers (Norton, 2020).