Tuesday, April 21
fragmentary notes from a bad time getting worse (1)
This isn’t going to be well-written and it’s probably not worth your time. I’m just pinning some thoughts where I can see them and check myself after a while.
As I’m writing this, the WHO situation report for today lists 2,397,216 confirmed cases and 162,956 deaths worldwide. For the United States it has 751,273 cases and 35,884 deaths. The New York Times map shows 804,701 cases and 40,266 deaths for the US, though it’s not yet reflected in their CSV data.
Both numbers are lower bounds on both the number of people infected and the number of dead. I’m wildly unqualified to guess how much bigger the real numbers are.
I tried to look back in my notes and see when the virus first really entered my awareness. The best I can come up with is that I remember talking about it on the phone with my dad. I was standing in a hotel lobby at a conference in San Francisco, full of coworkers who’d traveled internationally to attend. The 27th or 28th of January, I’d guess. It was in the news by then in an escalating kind of way.
A throw away line in an entry from the airport a few days later: “People in face masks because the network made them afraid of a potential pandemic.”
I think the fear really set in towards the end of February. My mom was in town and we were in the car coming back from lunch one day. I opened a laptop to check work mail and skimmed some headlines and it hit me: This one is happening. I was nervous about her taking a plane back home. The same day she left, I drank beers with a bunch of old work friends and we very carefully didn’t talk about it.
I began stocking up on canned food and dry goods in earnest somewhere around then. Work events started getting canceled. I remember a series of social gatherings haunted by that sense that this might be the last one before things got real. A series of those conversations where people said “wait, you really think this is going to be a big deal?”
I haven’t regretted those early trips to the grocery store for a second.
I started bookmarking some of my reading under a covid19 tag on the 1st of March.
In the weeks after that, I argued with older relatives and talked to neighbors and realized that the nature (and existence) of the disease had become a partisan question and a focus for the kind of conspiratorial paranoia that usually centers around chemtrails and cell towers.
Fewer people tell me it’s just the flu now. My nearest acquaintance with a chemtrails / deep state / 5G / FEMA camps obsession decamped for New Mexico a while back. I don’t think the conceptual shear has gotten any less pronounced overall, though. The focus has just shifted a little.
It was always clear that, at best, Donald Trump is morally vacuous and profoundly stupid. For a long time I had conversations where people who shared that premise would ask how much it really mattered. Sure, Trump was personally appalling, every bit the mobbed up piece-of-shit real-estate con artist you knew you were getting. But was this administration really any worse or more extreme in terms of outcomes than x-random 2020-era Republican would have been? I haven’t heard anyone ask these things lately.
Of course, a lot of people don’t share that premise. In the early days, back when I still had the capacity to worry about things like national elections, I said: It seems like the only way Trump is likely to lose the election in November is if the pandemic and its consequences get bad enough. I expected some kind of reversal in popular understanding if a lot of people died and a lot of jobs went away, but what we seem to be getting instead is a hardening cultural divide over whether the virus is itself a serious threat and whose fault it is if so.
So: The US is decently likely to have federal leadership which combines world-historical incompetence with actual villainy for the duration of this thing. As a bonus, we’re now a population permanently unable to agree on the most basic questions of fact about an event that’s going to reshape politics, culture, and the economy for decades.
Then again, I guess you could say the same about a majority of the really big things that have happened during my lifetime.
Today I feel like the American federal project is collapsing. This is an empire not just in slow decline but in a state of active disintegration. How much of that did I think already? How deep down did I feel it? I’m not sure. Maybe it’ll look different in a season or five.
Right now you can watch the cracks open in realtime. I don’t mean that there won’t be a United States of America when we wake up one of these quarantine days. I think it’s a fair bet American militaries will still be murdering people for resource extraction long after my natural lifespan runs out. But regional pandemic compacts between state governments, defunded public health agencies, and governors making back-channel deals to smuggle medical supplies in so they can’t be seized by the feds: I don’t think this stuff is ephemeral in its effects.
Structures are failing. Money and power are going to build other structures to compensate. Channels are going to shift, boundaries and systems are going to reconfigure.
It’s useful to have read The Shock Doctrine right about now.
Plenty of recent experiences have caused me to think some pretty anarchist thoughts again. The pandemic has complicated that. Or maybe it’s only informed it. My politics don’t feel any more coherent than they did 6 months ago. Maybe it would be a bad sign if they did.
The already-patchworky set of stay-at-home orders and other restrictions are about to loosen, driven partly by death-cult consensus politics, and partly just by the impossible pressures of keeping a lid on so many people and systems. Too soon and badly managed is what I expect out of this.
“Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” is simultaneously the best and worst of American impulses.