Wednesday, December 30, 2020

A Reflection on the Plague Year (apologies to Daniel Defoe)

The Kinks' "Too Much On My Mind" is my 2020 theme

This wretched year of 2020 is finally coming to a close. Unfortunately, the forces of nature and history do not recognize dates on the calendar. The coming winter months will lead to a lot more COVID deaths and potentially more violence from right wing extremists. Nevertheless, I want to honor the dates on the calendar as a tool for some reflection. 

Between the pandemic and the election, I consider 2020 to be the Great Unmasking. The realities of our society and a lot of the people I know have been revealed. This has been horribly disheartening but there have been a couple of bright spots. Some of the unmasking involves things I knew to be true but was loathe to confront.

For example, a lot of people I have known my entire life voted for Trump in the 2016 election. To a person those I had the most respect for did not vote for him in the primaries, and seemed to be voting for him in the general election out of their hatred of liberals (HRC was someone some of these folks had intensely hated for decades) or religious imperative to be anti-abortion. I thought that many of these people, after seeing the damage wrought by the past four years, would reconsider or maybe not vote. Instead they started openly praising Trump on social media and going to local rallies. I reproached myself for being so completely naive. Conservatism has become an authoritarian personality cult, why should I surprised that conservatives in my life, no matter how virtuous they are otherwise, would be taken in? Trump losing the election has helped me cope, but I know there's a lot of people in my life that I will never be able to view the same way ever again. 

The same goes for responses for the pandemic, which are not easy to break down along political lines as you may think. I have seen a lot of selfish, irresponsible behavior from outspoken liberals with comfortable lives who did not need to break quarantine out of necessity. There's also people like the guy who owns the local comic book store, who never wears a mask or shield. I won't be patronizing that store anymore. There are also those in my community who quickly turned to demonizing teachers when they did not want to go back into the classroom out of health concerns. These are steadfast New Jersey liberals, not Trumpers I am talking about. 

On top of this, of course, are the innumerable jackasses on public transit and in other crowded areas who refuse to mask up for some inscrutable reason. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it's that I should be very careful about who I trust. I learned this lesson before during my ill-starred time in academia, but I think after recovering from that experience I let my guard down a little too much.

Our society's hierarchies have been exposed this year like never before. In terms of race it was telling that many people in my life expressed angry outrage about looting in the aftermath of George Floyd's death and absolutely zero concern that his life was taken. The widely disparate impacts of the virus based on race and class have shown just how much racism and classism literally kill. I remember when the virus first hit, and the wealthy of New York City decamped to their second homes in the country while working class people of color stuck in overcrowded housing died in fearsome numbers. 

We have also seen in the past year who actually does the most valuable work and how badly exploited they are. Delivery and truck drivers, nurses, warehouse workers, and grocery clerks have kept the country afloat. Teachers have completely changed their practice in impossible circumstances. What all these "essential workers" have received for this is just lip service. In fact, when someone calls you an "essential worker" you should run for the hills. It means you are about to be put in the line of fire to do grueling work with little regard for your safety. These essential workers will be facing layoffs and pay cuts (educators already are) when their work will no longer be considered so important. All the while the stock holders are still raking it in and university administrators whose only role has been to add to the burden of the educators on the front line are making top dollar. 

(All this talk of "essential workers" should also have us asking some hard questions about the people whose work has been exposed as inessential. They should be feeling much, much more afraid than they are.)

The worst part is I do not see much changing positively after the pandemic. As the election showed, America's constitutional system and geography make sweeping change very difficult and 40% of the country is dead-set against any changes and will in fact burn the country down if they are attempted. Plenty of people who voted against Trump are still committed to the status quo. Since I work on the Upper West Side I have been exposed to multiple "liberals" who thought it was good that Biden won but the Democrats did not win the Senate. The class solidarity of keeping taxes on the wealthy low is not going to break anytime soon. Six months after the streets of America were full of more protest than I have ever seen in my life, many who paid lip service seem to have forgotten that moment even happened, and are secretly glad about it fading, too.

On a bigger scale, the pandemic was a test that this country has failed. We never had a national response, meaning the virus has never been under control. People refuse to cooperate with contact tracing, authorities refuse to enforce restrictions, and many worn down by months of sacrifice have understandably given up right at the moment when it's worse than ever. And so the deaths keep piling up, another 9/11 every two days in a country where many still say "it's no big deal."

It's the same country where our life expectancy was falling before this happened. The same country where suicides, drug overdoses, and gun deaths were epidemics that were also "no big deal." Plenty has been unmasked, but America's status as a nation that any other country would want to imitate is perhaps the biggest. I have never been more convinced that I stand a fair chance of outliving the United States. Currently doses of the long awaited vaccine may expire before they can be distributed. This country does not have much of a future, but it just might keep dragging its wrecked carcass around for a century more.

This year even I, a middle class cishetero white guy, got to experience what it's like when your own government abandons you. I remember how back in March and April, when the hospitals were overflowing in New York and New Jersey and the death totals spiked, yet the federal government did little to help. I remember people in other parts of the country acting as if it was our problem, and not theirs. They were fine letting people die here. Most people -including those in the Tri-State area- have forgotten about this. I never have, and I never will. 

In the short term, I try to find hope. Trump will soon no longer be president. The vaccines are coming even if their distribution is being botched. A young generation took to the streets to demand justice this year, and their commitment gives me the most hope of all.

In my personal life I have tried to cling to what is good and sustaining. I have been able to spend so much more time with my wife and children, usually rare during the school year with our impossible commutes and schedules. I have strengthened friendships with friends who live both far and near. During the pandemic I fell in with a group of local dads and we started watching backyard movies every week together. For the first time since moving here seven years ago I feel like I am actually a part of the town I live in, rather than a temporary sojourner. 

I have thrown myself into the work of distance and hybrid teaching and am quietly proud of how well this old dog has learned new tricks. I have had the joy of teaching sustain me through some difficult straits. Forget all the "essential worker" lip service, I am just glad to be doing work that actually matters. Not many people who make more money than me can actually say that about what they do.

And so I take joy in my family, take heart in my work, and spend my free time reading stimulating books and listening to music and getting a lot better at making pies and cornbread. My hope for the wider world is dim, but life is a short shining moment and I aim to make the best of it. Perhaps 2021 will be better. I am certainly mentally prepared for it to be worse. 

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