“Only the old and weak will die.”
That’s what some people are saying about COVID-19. The Prime Minister of Great Britain believes in “herd immunity,” a theory that says you can let millions of vulnerable people get sick to build resistance in the survivors. His chief scientific advisor elaborated on this theory of “herd immunity” at length. Some would die, that others might live.
The theory’s scientific gibberish, but the fact that Johnson embraced it makes a certain brutal sense. It allowed profits to keep flowing for as long as possible before the deluge.
Britons soon remembered that Johnson once praised the fictional mayor in “Jaws” for keeping the beaches open even as bathers were getting slaughtered by the titular beast.
“Okay, in that particular instance he was wrong,” Johnson allowed, “but, in principle, we need more politicians like the mayor …”
Donald Trump’s initial response to the growing pandemic was every bit as bad as Johnson’s. First, he insisted it would “go away.” (Keep profits flowing as long as possible.) Eventually, both Trump and Johnson were forced to change their tunes, at least publicly. But they’re still thinning the herd. “Only” the old will die. “Only” the sick and disabled. “Only” the Other. Who are they, those disposable ones, these “only” ones?
Trump’s CEO press conference was a darkly hilarious satire of a society in terminal decline, an infomercial for the vampiric rulers of a dying world order. COVID19 is the first pandemic to come with corporate endorsements. I half-expected the virus itself to make an appearance, covered in company logos like a NASCAR driver.
The message? You know damned well what the message was. It’s a race, and you need a sponsor to win. The implication? Only the old and weak need to worry about losing. Only them. The Winner’s Circle can only hold so many, you know.
The opposite of “us,” we’re told, is “me.” But in the social context, the place where we must all live together, the opposite of “us” is “only.”
“Herd immunity” brings to mind animals on the Serengeti — what are they called again? Gemsbok, eland, impala? So, to them, we’re gemsbok or impala or what-have-you, chewing the brown grass and waiting to be culled by the sleek and swift cougars who race in the clear morning light.
The joke of it all is that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, the slowest-moving ungulates of them all, probably think they’re cougars. But other shepherds stalk this sunswept plain. If they didn’t serve a purpose, they’d be eaten in a heartbeat.
Gemsbok, eland, impala. And a predator, unseen. Waiting.
Pillar of Fire
Given the chance, herd animals protect each other. Given the chance, so do we. Instead, in the silent brutality of their inaction, Trump and Johnson reflect the prevailing political philosophy of the time. The negligence of Johnson’s party caused entire families to be burned to death in a tower of flame after they cut corners on fireproofing. A Koch Brothers-funded American pundit wrote afterward that “we should wait until we can establish that it was actually a bad calculation” to save that money.
No jumping to conclusions – except, perhaps, from windows on the higher floors.
But then, Grenfell’s dead were “only” low-income workers, “only” the poor, “only” refugees and babies. Here, Trump has moved to cut Social Security for the disabled – they’re “only” the disabled, after all — while threatening additional cuts to Social Security and Medicare for older Americans.
Theirs is an animal planet. They seem to observe humanity from a distance, as if it were being filmed from a helicopter for the Discovery Channel. There is no “us” for them, just the big cats licking their blood-flecked claws in the moonlight.
Margaret Thatcher said it plainly, remember? The clipped syllables yet issue from that throat of near-mechanical inelasticity:
“ … there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
Can families produce and distribute medicines and supplies? Can families heal their own sick, tend to their own basic needs? Can families keep the trucks and trains rolling, keep the power on in our homes?
Margaret Thatcher was a sociopath. So was her spray-waxed and buffed hatchling, Ronald Reagan. So are all those who follow their deathly footsteps, that path of pale spoor down the road of no hellos.
Cull of the Wild
An economics columnist for the UK’s Daily Telegraph reflected on the fact that COVID-19, unlike the 1918 flu epidemic, seems to target the elderly and vulnerable while largely bypassing younger people:
“… (F)rom an entirely disinterested economic perspective,” Jeremy Warner wrote, the pandemic “might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”
‘Cull,’ from the Oxford Learners’ Dictionary, means “to kill a number of wild animals from a group, especially in order to stop the group from becoming too large.”
As for an “entirely disinterested economic perspective”: the idea that such a thing could even exist is symptomatic of our psychopathic age.
Warner said later that he regretted using the word “cull,” but was “‘unrepentant about the economic point I was trying to make’.”
Jeremy’s a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, who, he writes, “broke the power of the unions and gave birth to a brand new era of British entrepreneurialism, where individuals were again left free to profit from the fruits of their own labours and ingenuity.”
A recent study found “4.5 million people are more than 50% below the poverty line” in Great Britain today, while “7 million people are living in persistent poverty.”
Warner also tweeted that he was “quite taken by the herd immunity idea” … because, well, of course he was … “but ministers seem fast to be losing their nerve in the face of criticism.”
What, Boris and his ministers afraid of a fight? Does that mean natural selection didn’t choose Great Britain’s toughest and strongest creatures for its top jobs? Time for a rethink, Jeremy.
But Warner doesn’t want you to think he’s unfeeling about the mass death of the elderly, even if it less of a “supply shock” than the deaths of “ those of prime working age.”
“Obviously,” he writes, “for those affected it is a human tragedy whatever the age, but this is a piece about economics, not the sum of human misery.”
As if there’s a difference.
When we use the word “only,” we break a covenant. As the Irish theologian Kevin Hargarden has written, this pandemic “exposes how any society built on individualism is fragile, bound to collapse eventually under the weight of evidence that we are interconnected.”
Nice of him to say, from what I assume is the younger and healthier end of the ladder. We appreciate it down here on the lower rungs.
The newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann was considered a liberal in his time, although he started out as a socialist. Today, we might consider him a “centrist.” In the 1920s, Lippmann concluded that the voting public was a “bewildered herd” that needed to be guided to making the right decisions for the country. They would be guided by elites in politics, business, and media.
His thinking guiding generations of the powerful.
In later life, Lippmann reportedly regretted what he’d written, but the die was cast. America’s leaders believed that people were incapable of governing themselves. If you want to know what Lippmann’s “herd” philosophy looks like in practice, look to the corporate Democratic Party. It has a minimal competence, at times, something its right-wing counterparts lack. But, when push comes to shove, its corporate backers know when to show up for the other party.
Lippmann also coined the word the word “stereotype,” and he was onto something there. He saw that one of the best ways to manipulate people politically was by reducing public beliefs about whole populations to something simplistic and uniform. People were denied the full dimensionality of their humanity for political ends. It’s a story as hold as humanity, re-engineered for 20th-century industrial society.
And it’s making us individually and collectively sicker.
Should our elites be in charge? Elon Musk tweeted that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” Elon also told his workers that they’re more likely to die in a car crash – which, to be fair, might be a reasonable statement if his accident-prone “self-driving” Teslas were more popular.
Car accidents, unlike pandemics, can’t multiply exponentially. At least, not today. But it’s theoretically easy to hack networked and connected cars, perhaps even on a viral scale. That could turn them into a herd of sorts, a collectively-manipulated killing machine.
But one thing would surely be a comfort to individualists everywhere. Most of the passengers would die the way Americans have always preferred their driving experiences: one by one, alone.
An historical dispatch from the “we’re all in this together” archives: The Rev. Cotton Mather tried to introduce immunization during the Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721, but the medical and economic establishment of his day rejected it. Mather didn’t get the idea from God or prayer. He got it from one of the enslaved people in his household, Onesimus, who told him had been cured of the disease through inoculation back home in Africa.
Not that Mather trusted Onesimus. Mather wrote in his diary that the man “proves wicked and grows Useless, Froward (ungovernable), and Immorigerous (rebellious)” – all eminently reasonable responses to his circumstances. Onesimus never resorted to violence, as far as we know, although it was used repeatedly against him. The same couldn’t be said of Mather’s fellow whites, one of whom threw a bomb through his window to protest his immunization plan.
Undeterred, Mather then studied the subject and learned of successful immunization programs in Turkey and China as well as Africa. Most of Boston’s elites found it impossible to accept the idea that new healing techniques could come from such “dark” places.
And so, they died instead.
Reflections of a Wayward Impala
There’s only one way to say this, much as I dislike doing it: I am vulnerable because I am older. I am doubly vulnerable because I have a compromised immune system. I am triply vulnerable because I have lung problems and am susceptible to respiratory infection.
In fact, I’m a Triple-Crown winner in the “only” race. I’ve been working from home for two weeks because of my latest infection, a fact that may have saved me from something worse. It feels like the set-up to a zombie movie, like 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead, where the protagonist wakes up from an illness and everyone else is dead or a monster.
I’ll tell you a secret now, one that older adults carry with them every day: We walk with the dead.
Oh, a lot of us don’t admit it, not even to ourselves. But once you’ve reached a certain age, the dead are with you wherever you go. Your parents are dead. Mine both died in the last couple of years. Your aunts and uncles, the ones who nurtured you and reminded you what sanity was when your parents went off the rails? They’re dead, too.
“Richard,” one aunt said many years ago, “somehow you learned to cope with the stress of your childhood by …” she waved a hand over her head, pantomiming someone escaping into a dream world. She was a great actress and singer, with a highly-disciplined flair for it. She died last year.
“Come back to Earth,” she said, all those years ago, laughing. “I mean, Jesus Christ! Meditate or something.” Then she snapped her fingers. “Hello! Hello!”
Among the Survivors
My Congregationalist soldier-grandfather never told me about the mustard gas attack he survived in World War I. He wouldn’t talk about it. My Catholic grandmother, from France, never liked this country. She married the colonel; now, there’s a story. I lived with her other daughter for a while, too, my aunt. She was Southern Baptist, and career military, tough and cynical and funny. She didn’t have to tell me when she thought I was full of it. Her look said it all. I played bass or guitar at her church meetings a few times, undoubtedly the only Bar Mitzvah’d kid in town who knew the chords to “Victory in Jesus.”
Gone, now, all of them. But, while they lasted, these connections transformed us from an “only” into a “we.” They still do, in memory.
My first grandchild was named for my mother’s brother – who, as it turns out, was a Communist in his college days. He was a photographer, an artist, a writer, a sensitive young man with a bright future. Then he went off to World War Ii and died in a plane crash. He did because corporate profiteers cut corners when they built the bomber he died in. He remained a living presence to us, although he died in 1944. But to the corporation that built his airplane he was only a pilot, only a casualty, only another dead Army captain with a grieving family back home.
His namesake is four years old now, with a 1-year-old little brother. I can’t visit them right now because it’s too dangerous. They called me the other day after dinner, just because they felt like it. We could see each other as well as talk, thanks to public investment in new technologies, but the older boy kept running around with the phone. It felt like I was watching The Blair Witch Project.
No big deal. We were just saying hello.
City of Lost Children
Children and the old: When the web of generations is torn, both ends are lost.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Health came to the United States in 2018 and concluded that more than 600,000 children had died needlessly over the last fifty years. As I wrote at the time, that’s the population of an entire mid-sized city – a city of lost children.
The report concluded that a child born in the U.S. is 76 percent more likely to die before reaching adulthood than one born elsewhere in the developed world (although Boris Johnson and his party are working hard to catch up).
But the Lost City isn’t just for children. When a young woman with a neurological disorder is dismissed as “moody” or “difficult,” she’s an “only.” When a brave young man like Steve Way must fight an insurance corporation for the right to keep breathing and stay alive, this passionate and funny advocate becomes an “only.”
(Steve, by the way, is a neoliberal success story, because he has private-sector insurance. The only problem is that his insurance company may kill him.)
As for the older residents of our decaying city, here I find myself in an unfamiliar position. For once, I’m not fighting just for others, but for myself. And I’m taking note of the daily reminders that I am not fully human to some people – including some younger people, most neoliberals, and a certain percentage of supposedly “woke” Democrats.
Part of me wants to say: Remember me to them when I’m gone.
Our more responsible leaders are telling people over 65 to “self-isolate.” That’s good advice. Unfortunately, millions live in killing isolation already. Nursing homes are telling family and friends that visiting hours are canceled for the foreseeable future. There is a lot of pain in that, as necessary as it is.
Who would deny the humanity of these, the lonely ones? And yet, it goes on.
Sometimes the dehumanization takes a supposedly flippant form, as in the younger people who have been using the #BoomerFlu hashtag. I’ve also seen jokes about elderly deaths finally opening up real estate properties for the young. Sometimes it takes on the form of attempted both-sides-ism, as in the Twitterite who condemned callous young people but insisted that older voters had “shit the bed” by not providing the young with a better healthcare system.
Okay, I’ll play. Which Boomers failed progressivism, exactly? Was it Chris Hedges? Mumia Abu-Jabal? The Combahee River Collective? The Clash? Chuck D?
Generation war is their game, not ours.
Bait and Switch
This disease will hit certain “Boomers” harder than others: the poor, the disabled elderly, for example, and older voters of color. They haven’t exactly been running things around here the last few decades. The idea that all older people are hoarding wealth is false and self-evidently absurd.
Yes, there is a generational wealth gap, but much of that gap is driven by the fact that the ultra-rich are disproportionately older. Did “older generations” ruin things for the young? Some older people did. And a few of them have a lot of money. Most don’t.
Wealth inequality among older people is striking. It includes ‘younger’ vs older over-65s, many of whom lack the wealth their older peers received through defined pension plans, home value, and other advantages of earlier decades. Today’s Medicare and Social Security only provide a modest safety net, and are often inadequate to meet older voters’ needs. Life in a “we” economy would be vastly better for most older Americans, and for their younger family, friends, and communities.
Meanwhile, the author of a shallow anti-Boomer hate book called “A Generation of Sociopaths” is a Millennial venture capitalist. Is there any clearer sign of the bait-and-switch they’re running here?
Death Penalty Voting
Dehumanization of any group starts subtly and then spreads quickly, like a virus. It’s dehumanizing when “woke” Democrats dismiss other people with life experience as “only” old. It’s dehumanizing when young liberals say they can’t wait until more conservative older voters are dead so the electorate moves left – instead of, for example, working to change their minds.
“Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance,” wrote a leading Democratic blogger-magnate after the 2016 election. “They’re getting exactly what they voted for.”
He was talking about coverage for black lung disease, a condition that causes people to cough up pieces of their lungs until they die. He had picked a team and these miners weren’t on it. That’s dehumanization, too.
Here’s what the blogger-magnate didn’t understand, or care about, when he wrote that: Most Republican voters are being systematically misinformed by a massive media machine. In other ways, so are Democratic voters like him.
In any case, the punishment for bad voting shouldn’t be the death penalty.
It shouldn’t be the punishment for this right-wing preacher, either, the one who refused to cancel church services or stop shaking hands during an epidemic because such things are for “pansies.”
It’s so easy to mock him or his congregants, to say they deserve it, or that we’re watching natural selection at work. People are saying all those things. But we don’t believe in thinning the herd. We believe in inclusion, in uplift, in solidarity.
Bored to Death
You know who understands what’s needed to fix this situation? The person who recently wrote these words:
“It is at this moment that we must remember that we are all in this together … Now is the time for solidarity, and robust action.”
Oh, but wait. I’m told by this “woke” writer that this person doesn’t matter.
“I can finally go back to being bored by electoral politics,“ the writer says, “because no matter who the next president is, it will be an elderly white man.”
That reductive summary erases Bernie Sanders’s Jewishness, a minority status that in his lifetime meant widespread prejudice and the loss of his relatives in the Holocaust. His story has been reduced to two dimensions or less with this dismissive wave of implied anti-Semitism.
Boredom is a curious response to the fates of millions, moreover, and even the future of your own cause. The even acknowledges that Sanders has better policies for feminists, but adds: “The joy of being Team No One is that I genuinely don’t care.”
Not caring is the real disease of the hour.
Bernie Sanders waves his hands too much, someone on TV said. Someone else said he makes their “skin crawl.” Every time I hear those words, I know they could be talking about my Jewish immigrant grandfather sixty years ago, or someone else’s Muslim immigrant grandfather today.
My Jewish grandparents saw the destruction of their village, their culture, their entire way of life. My grandfather was an atheist – a “freethinker,” as they were called back then – but his father was a Rabbinical high court judge. I read that back in their home country, during my great-grandfather’s lifetime, he and the other judges issued a warning that the end of the world was imminent. Gog and Magog were afoot in Europe.
For them, at least, it was true. After he helped his village escape from the Cossacks, my grandfather worked as a tailor on the Upper West Side for the rest of his life. He died in 1965 after a brief retirement.
I remember the smell of the steam press in his tailor shop, even after all these years.
My other grandfather, the Colonel, was a tall, straight-spined man of what was once known as “military bearing.” English-settler and Christian by background, he did not wave his hands and would not have made an MSNBC commentator’s skin crawl.
The Colonel left the army and became an investigator for the Southern Pacific railroad. As he traveled for his work, he encountered the dying native worlds of the Pacific Southwest. He told me stories about the Indians he met, and about his days as a child in the 1800s in Indiana. His French wife was raised in wealth and luxury, then saw it all destroyed during the Great War.
So many worlds, gone.
I come from these workers and officers and communists and casualties and heroes. They existed. They had identities. Most were workers. That’s an identity, too.
As for the other “elderly white man” running for president: I don’t know Joe Biden. Our ideologies differ. But I’m guessing he has a story, too, and that we don’t know all of it. And, while I’m all for pressuring the Democratic Party, it is worth noting that its highest-ranking official is a woman. Nancy Pelosi is the second-most powerful person in the United States and third in line to the presidency. Where did her story go?
I get it. It’s alienating, even for me, to see the presidential race reduced to two elderly white men. I want a woman president, but I don’t want Margaret Thatcher. I want younger people to take charge, but I don’t want Paul Ryan in the Oval Office. It would be good to have a worker for president.
I’m not minimizing her pain, but when that woke writer proclaims that “I can finally go back to being bored by electoral politics,” I can almost hear my late aunt saying, in a stage-dramatic voice,
“Come back to Earth! Hello!”
My aunt had reasons for calling me back. I was almost gone, all the way gone. Like I said, I’m not minimizing anyone’s pain. Don’t minimize mine.
Aging in a Time of Neoliberalism
I’ve got bad news, haters: Waiting for my generation to die is not a viable political option. Millions of us will still be voting in 11, 12, 15, 20 years, as we lose our last chances to save the planet and prevent economic collapse. This planet’s chances may breathe their last before we do.
Do a lot of older voters fear change? Almost certainly. Some African-American voters surely share that fear. A lot of people in both groups are forced to operate without much economic margin of safety. The same is true of the disabled, at every age. And children are the least safe of all.
Here’s something worth knowing about older voters: Theirs is a shrinking universe. They’re clinging to what they’ve got. Sure, you can tell a retired waitress or seamstress, a 75-year-old woman who can barely stand up anymore, that she’s one of the lucky ones. Maybe she gets $1,080 a month from Social Security to pay for rent, food, medications, transportation. Maybe she can wring a little joy out of the remainder, perhaps by calling the grandkids on a prepaid phone card or something.
Tap, tap. Is this thing on?
You can tell her she’s lucky, but she won’t hear you.
Someone on social media brought up the analogy of the psychology experiments they’ve done with children, the ones where they can have a piece of candy now or wait an hour and get three pieces. The common interpretation is that the children are using deficient logic, because they can’t time-shift their reward to make the maximally efficient decision. In today’s world of predatory capitalism, however, the kids aren’t wrong. They may not get the candy if they wait because, under neoliberalism, promises are made to be broken.
My generation had a cartoon character called Wimpy, from the Popeye cartoon show. Wimpy was a stereotypically rich glutton who always said, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
Back then it was a joke. Today he represents financialization, neoliberalism, and all the broken promises that ideology entails. The financial crisis of 2008 showed us that they don’t have to honor their contracts, or even obey the law. They are all-powerful.
Fear creates an aversion to change. Help us change that, please. I will gladly vote Tuesday for some organizing today.
Here’s another secret: All the medical tests your doctor has you take every year, the ones that keep coming back negative? Sooner or later, one comes back positive. Then, maybe, another. There’s a blood disorder, an immune system failure, some permanent change to the lungs or heart or some other vital organ. You’re not going to die, yet. But death has transmuted itself from an abstraction into something closer to a reality. The cloudy thing just outside your field of vision has begun to coalesce into a familiar shape. You’ve seen that shape come for your family and friends. For now, it’s just stopped by to say hello.
I’m 66. I know now that I walk with the dead, and with death. That awareness is part of the job description, at least if you’re wired a certain way. That said, though, I’m not in any fucking hurry to go. I’ve got 20 good years, if I’m lucky. Maybe 30. (Keep going, Noam Chomsky!)
The coronavirus has exposed the vulnerabilities in our world order, just as medical tests reveal vulnerabilities in our bodies. COVID-19 has bombarded this system with a kind of radiation. It’s some planetary imaging scan, illuminating every vessel and wire, every channel where blood and electricity should flow. But the flow is blocked. The prognosis is bad. This is the test result you knew was coming. This system is dying, infected with a contagion as old as humanity: greed.
You know that, inside. And we, the older, should understand it better than anyone. But we don’t. How can their – our – minds be changed? We on the left must talk more about the shared interests of the older and younger working class. That much is obvious. I think that’s a project worth taking on.
We’re not a herd: not yet, anyway. But we can adopt the best that herds have to offer. Living herds have a collective awareness. You can see it in the beauty of a thousand deer moving as one across the desert, or in the liquid physics of a bird flock as it turns. Individual members die, but the herd lives on. It moves, it sings.
The time will come, the bell will toll. It sounds obvious, and it is. Until it happens. Then it feels as new as birth, as new as waking up in an unfamiliar room.
And so, in the meantime, all I can do is pass on what the survivors of past worlds told me while they lived. They said you can survive by remembering to love. They said you can learn to care, even if caring doesn’t always come easily in this life.
And they said that, after a lifetime of hellos, you always hope that there will be one last chance to say goodbye.