Corona Chronicles: Telegrams from Gotham

Photograph Source: Richard Eriksson – CC BY 2.0

Sitting in the East Village, drinking a coffee and trying to read a book, it was hard to ignore the rollicking conversation of liberal Boomers sitting an empty table or two behind me. What surprised me, but shouldn’t have, was the pedestrian character of the conversation. You might have scripted it for a Broadway show, had not the theater district been shuttered out of “an overabundance of caution.” We may soon find abundance wanting. Still the unceasing conversation roars ahead, unstoppable even as a malign pathogen thunders its way across the heartland.

First, there is the usual disdain for Trump. The standard detestations enunciated and agreed to by all and sundry. The ego! The self-interest! The unpreparedness! And, last but never least, the vulgarity! Then, of course, one of their number decides to speak up enthusiastically, even urgently, for Bernie. Why can’t he win? she asks plaintively. The others shift uneasily in their chairs. One of them, evidently the political savant, seems to speak for the rest with his reaction: a sad sigh, a cheeky grimace and a perfunctory raising of the eyebrows. Then he imparts the dark truth: America just isn’t ready yet for socialism. Others concur. The Sanders enthusiast tries a few more pointed remarks, with which everyone naturally agrees. Oh, yes, no doubt. System is corrupt. Democrats leave a lot to be desired. The corporate capture of Congress is criminal. But none of this penetrates the singular judgement of the bunch: we just aren’t there yet. Inevitably, one of the group declares that his real fear is that Trump will use the pandemic as an excuse to call off the election, provoking a fearful rumble at the table. One of the women hastily caveats this by noting that there are quite a lot of conspiracies floating around these days. Alarmed by the vision of Trumpian tyranny, they rapidly turn to reasons why Biden is a pragmatic and sensible choice, among them the lurid surmise that they’ll surround him with smart people, and so on. Mercifully, the conversation at last turns to the shocking spectacle of Italy…

Clash of the Cohorts

To be sure, Boomers have turned out en masse for Joe Biden during the primaries, crushing Bernie Sanders among older cohorts. They even outweigh, by virtue of their civic mindedness in showing up at the polling stations, the huge percentages by which Sanders wins younger voters, who flee from Biden as from a political pestilence.

Much contradictory and confusing data has emerged from the primaries. Like Boomers, a superabundance of African-Americans, from South Carolina to Detroit, voted for Biden, the author of the Clinton crime bill. According to some black commentators, this is because they have decided once again to vote Democrat regardless of the candidate, simply to stave off another four years of leaving the “White Man’s Party” in charge. This is their quadrennial calculus. At the same time, exit polls in twenty states showed, by huge margins, that voters support Medicare for All. Weigh this in the balance against exit polls that show discrepancies with the final tally that consistently negatively impact Sanders and positively impact Biden. Then add to that exit-polled voters in Michigan, Missouri, and Washington state who said they trusted Biden to handle a major crisis better than Sanders.

When it comes to the Biden-Sanders split in psychographic support, it would likely be impossible to separate this age-related disparity from the economic status of the voters. Boomers have the most wealth of any age bracket, Millennials the least. And what these well-intentioned but blase liberals appear to miss is what one CounterPuncher M.G. Piety nicely noted, namely, “…just how mad, in the sense of angry, the average American voter is. Epstiein writes that, ‘if you include those who have left the workforce altogether, the U.S. employment rate is almost as high as it was in 1931.’”

Piety goes on to quote Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, that “‘the amount Americans spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on our economy..than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germans in the 1920s.’”

Yet when the young express their anger and rage, they are chided as Bernie Bros who must learn to practice a more civil discourse with their wealthier, more comfortable elders. This feels more like the height of condescension than some principled appeal to decorum. In this milieu of rage and complacency jousting for supremacy, we are struck by the breathtakingly fast invasion of the coronavirus, or COVID19, whose epicenter is Washington state, but which crossed to clobber New York with forbidding speed.

Taking Advantage

As if this wasn’t unsettling enough, the news media seems to be launching one bizarre salvo after another over the fence into the public consciousness, raising the already surreal character of the last month. A few of these tales, set side by side, begin to baffle the clarifying capacities of the mind:

* Rather than attempt to settle fears, the American Hospital Association decides to issue a “Best Guess” that 480,000 Americans would or could die from COVID19. How many read ‘million’ into that guestimate before having to recalculate? Now that estimate has reached a million, 1.7M according to the CDC’s latest worst case scenario. For a society that receives daily infusions of sunny consumerism, such revelations are particularly disquieting.

* On the heels of this announcement, the Federal Reserve announces it plans to inject $1.5 trillion into the market to ameliorate investor fears. This eventually balloons to more than four trillion. Leftists instantly take to social media to remind us that homelessness could be eradicated with a tenth of that money. Scurrilous and defamatory exchanges immediately ensue.

* Trump declares a national emergency, opening up some $50 billion to leverage against the virus. After making the announcement, the press conference rather speedily devolves into a celebration of the president’s swift action in resolving another emergency, that of the American oil industry. Having instructed the government to buy oil from American energy companies, Trump hopes to stabilize the industry after Russia cut its legs out from beneath it by refusing to slash production as supply surges. Trump’s priorities–pleasing fellow billionaires over caring for the rabble–is visceral. Behind him a snow-haired, stone-faced Mike Pence nods assuringly. Climate action groups go ballistic.

* Democrat John Delaney tweets that now is not the time to argue about Medicare for All, but rather to focus on free universal testing and treatment for the virus. (Delaney fails to note that such extraordinary measures would be standard operating procedure under M4A.) He is immediately savaged by the twitterati, leaving the skeletal remains of his credibility to be picked over by vultures on the grassy plain of the web.

* In a show of magnanimous ignorance, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, owned by the world’s richest man in Jeff Bezos, writes a tone-deaf letter to employees cheerfully announcing they can donate their unused sick days to virus-struck colleagues. Although he didn’t say it, he might have just added, “This ingenious little plan of mine will keep the company from shedding profits as your sacrifice will ensure all our wealthy shareholders are kept happily frozen in their cryogenic tanks.” Bezos, perhaps cognizant of Mackey’s folly, stays silent.

* With a voice vote, the House passes a new resolution demanding new sanctions and punitive measures against the “Ortega regime” of Nicaragua (which handily won certified elections). No Democrat even lifts a hand in protest, such is the bipartisan accord on American imperialism. This is rank and file groupthink.

* Later, the House refuses to pass a comprehensive sick pay bill, since rabidly laissez-faire Republicans don’t want it to apply to large companies, meaning only about 20 percent of workers will likely be covered by the legislation. Rather than passing the comprehensive bill and shaming the Republicans in the public eye, Democrats complacently revise it to meet Republican demands and vote it through. Pelosi celebrates, then later assures the country that should a theoretical vaccine be produced, it should, theoretically, be “affordable” for stricken citizens.

* The spinelessness of House Democrats reflects the economic status of their patrons and their professional-class supporters. These are not the ones who must use credit cards to meet their deductibles when they attempt to actually use their healthcare–if they are fortunate enough to have it. There is little concern among them that a Biden presidency would fail to even consider pressing for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, tuition-free college, debt forgiveness, a wealth tax, drug legalization, or any sensible pullback on foreign wars. Likely that last would be ramped up significantly under Biden, whose interventionist instincts are nearly the opposite of Trump’s hesitancy to engage in foreign wars unless pressured by the military and intelligence community. One gets the feeling that crisis management will be a large portfolio in a Biden administration.

* Word spreads that Trump was asked to step up preparations and testing for COVID19 in January but declined because it might harm his reelection chances. This rings true. He has also been in close contact with Brazilians who have tested positive for the virus, but declined to agree to get tested himself when asked by a brave reporter, soon to be banished from the White House press corps. Referring to himself in the third person, perhaps as a trinity, he says, “We are showing no symptoms, no symptoms at all.”

* The U.S. drops bombs on Iraq after holding Iranians responsible for attacking one of our occupation outposts north of Baghdad, which killed two Americans and a British soldier. This after the U.S. refused the Iraqi government’s demand that it quit the country, not unlike demands by Havana that the U.S. exit Guantanamo, also duly ignored. Meanwhile, Cubans send doctors to China and Chinese send health experts to Iraq to assist with virus prevention and treatment. No distinctions are drawn.

* During a pause in the action, several East Village bars appear to be full of rollicking revelers despite the city’s state of emergency. Like witless Romans frolicking just before the sacking. One might laud their joie de vivre in the face of the pandemic, were it not equally witless.

* In Tompkins Square Park a quartet plays John Coltraine while a medley of Boomers and Xers and Millennials sit on the benches, lazing and gazing at the pigeons and the crisp teal skies, soothed by the saxophone melodies. It feels like any other day in the park. Life, one hopes, rolls on.

* This stands in contrast to the ransacked shelves in Trader Joes and D’Agostino’s and CVS and Duane Reade, which look as if a human hurricane had swept through the aisles, as perhaps it had. A stray box of tissues lays on its side on an empty shelf, an aftermath still life. Dazed consumers, late to the party, stare at the emptied shelves, reading scotch-taped notices that begin, “Due to unprecedented demand…”

* The New York Times, the bible of the bourgeoisie, publishes a story about a super-hoarder. The man is shown standing in his garage: middle aged, gaunt, a day’s growth on his wan cheeks, a glum expression on his face, clad in baggy workout clothes, the standard-issue attire of men who have given up on their public appearance. His garage has been cleared of vehicles and crammed with storage shelves on which he has piled some 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. His gloomy demeanor is evidently owing to Amazon’s having banned him for price gouging. Now what would he do, now that his ingenious plan to get over on panicking Americans had been stopped in its tracks? (There was something wry in the fact that Amazon, the death-knell for a generation of neighborhood bookstores, was now taking punitive measures against a profiteering entrepreneur for having ruthlessly undercut the competition.)

* Meanwhile, six Democrats oppose a war powers resolution that the House passed and sent to the president’s desk, where he will obviously veto it. The party’s alliance with the intelligence community and ‘reformed’ neocons only betokens more of this kind of behavior from its ‘liberal’ members.

* Low-income minorities with little or no college education tend to stay away from the polls, undeceived by the tsunami of propaganda that slides over them weekly. It is the degreed professional class that are most vulnerable to the nattily attired arguments of the Paul Krugmans and David Brooks’ of the world. This gives the lie to the ceaseless vote shaming by livid liberals who smear #NeverBiden supporters as merely delusional bourgeoisie expressing their white privilege.

* To that end, a video of a once-candid Lawrence O’Donnell has been making the circuit of social media. The former Democratic consultant and current host of MSNBC’s ‘The Last Word’ is captured in a documentary declaring, quite vociferously, that the only way to force a party to move to the left is by denying them your vote, or at least making it clear you can and will deny them your vote. This elementary strategy is dismissed out of hand by Biden liberals, for whom O’Donnell is now a foot servant.

* Tulsi Gabbard, owner of a single delegate but banned from debates, continues to level clear-eyed critiques at the establishment, which it dutifully ignores. Gabbard is left like a woman on the Titanic shouting something about icebergs but drowned out by the tinkling piano and the high spirits of the drunken bacchanalia before her. She bravely accuses the intelligence community of interfering in elections when it claims Russian interference sans evidence, another elementary truth apparently unnoticed by tens of millions. She also calls for UBI to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus, a sad coda to Andrew Yang’s once-inspired campaign that has finally petered out on the front steps of Biden Mansion.

* Bernie Sanders, once again moving into movement-crushing mode, declares that he believes Joe Biden–”a friend of mine”–could defeat Donald Trump in the general. He likewise refuses to discuss the former VP’s evident cognitive decline in a weak pantomime of ‘taking the high road.’ This fealty to a party of which he is not a member will likely derail his momentum, as supporters see the outlines of another bitter fall materializing in their minds. For the Democratic establishment, Sanders must seem like a petulant child who acts out for months on end, only to hastily rehabilitate his behavior just as Christmas season arrives.

The Last Irony

Too many paradoxes to reckon with. And yet one more occurs. The nation is struck by a pandemic just as one of its presidential candidates is barnstorming around the country gathering steam for his universal healthcare proposal. And doubly so that as that same candidate fulminates about billionaires, reaching a bellowing crescendo, those selfsame elites blithely leverage the crisis to their advantage, occasionally even appealing to the destitute to become the mini-philanthropists of their own recovery. One could say it is ironic but, as a Julian Barnes character muses in one of his novels about such things, “as for coincidences in books–there’s something cheap and sentimental about the device; it can’t help always seeming aesthetically gimcrack.” Which is the problem here. All one can do in nonfiction is identify coincidences; in fiction one can create them. The ones above seem especially unsatisfying, always arrived at to the detriment of some voiceless majority. There is no justice in them, just a miscellany of abuse. I have heard whispers of how delicious an irony it would be for our blunderer-in-chief to be done in by his own incompetence, evicted from office by the electorate’s roaring disapproval of his handling of the pandemic. For some, that would apply a moral fix to the runaway injustice of his presidency. But this can only be hoped for, not invented.

Should we then leave irony to the Biden liberals? They certainly have the right mise en scene for it: tablesful of emptying wine bottles, glimmering cutlery forking singed scallops and bruised tenderloins between their polished ivories. Irony is, in some ways, a witty way to tie a bow on a conundrum, declare a riddle unsolvable, as it were, and forge ahead, conscience neatly salved with a political sanitizer that eliminates 99 percent of cognitive dissonance. And why not? Is not “CD”–as a frustrated friend finally labeled it in order to quit having to rewrite it every three sentences in his monograph on liberal failures–is not CD the real virus in this country, one we’ve long overlooked but that is, coincidentally, becoming painfully more obvious thanks to the advent of another nasty and menacing infection? Well, we’ll leave that to the wine cave enthusiasts. Time to sanitize the keyboard.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at