I went for a drive yesterday. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to do that anymore, but I wanted to see what the town looked like. I also needed some time alone, something that’s in short supply these days.
Nearly everything was closed. The grocery stores were open; their parking lots were full. The restaurants were open, nearly all of them drive-thru only. The rest were limited to 10 people. Riding my bike a few days ago, I read a sign on the Beef O’Brady’s that said once they reached 10 people, they would lock the doors and you could call and have your food brought to you.
There was also a sign, now-ubiquitous, assuring customers that the employees were taking the highest sanitary precautions, etc.
I didn’t go inside then. I didn’t get out of my car yesterday. As I drove, all I felt was fear. Not of getting the virus. That’s probably going to happen at some point, and I’ve already done everything I can that’s within my control. The fear I was felt was for everyone else. The fear I felt was for our society. Driving through a mostly-shuttered Athens, Georgia, I saw a community that had sacrificed a lot–their livelihood, their social life, their freedom–in order to keep people safe. It was inspiring. It’s inspiring every place it’s been happening, all over the world.
It would be nice to see some of that spirit of sacrifice, and concern for the well-being of others from our current president, as well as most of the Republican Congress and a handful of Democrats.
Because in nine days, people have rent due. Most people in this country live paycheck to paycheck. Most people in this country have been forced, by the greed of the investor class, to live paycheck to paycheck. And most people in this country aren’t getting a paycheck. Charity, no matter how well-intentioned, isn’t going to solve the problem.
There’s a simple solution–the government needs to give unemployed people money. This is what other countries, like Denmark, the UK, and Australia are doing. Because the alternative, to do nothing, would mean that people would go hungry, would lose their house, their car, or run up credit card debt, and suffer, through no fault of their own. Because they were doing the right thing. Because they were saving lives.
But nothing is simple in America when it comes to helping working people. Helping the stock market, helping billionaires, helping multi-national corporations–that’s easy. Here’s a tax cut. Here’s a stimulus. Here’s a subsidy. Poor people, however can go fucking suffer and die. Long before The Rona happened, the US government, and by extension, US voters, have had no problem cutting benefits, denying people access to affordable health care, etc. etc. You know the story. It was only a matter of time before some people on the right, faced with the inconvenience of social isolation, and their fears of a market collapse, did some quick Millsian utilitarian math, and decided they’d rather see a 4% drop in the US population than a 4% drop in the next day’s Dow Jones.
Right on cue, the President tweeted today that, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” (I’ll spare you the all-caps). This from the guy, and an administration filled with ass-kissing toadies, who refused to take steps back in January and February that could have prevented all this.
There have been a handful of moments in my adult life where this country, faced with a generation-defining historical moment, had a choice to make. And every single time it’s made the wrong choice. After 9/11, people gave in to their fear and allowed the state to expand its power over citizens. After the fall of the Soviet Union, we attempted to become the head of a New World Order. After the 2008 recession, we poured money into corporations and the financial industry, while allowing people to lose their homes.
We face a similar moment now. Bold, humane action on the part of our governments could lay the groundwork for a new social safety net, an admission that the chaos of life in a free market economy is too chaotic, too potentially cruel. These days, we are all re-assessing what’s important, and we are agreeing as a society that human beings are more important than things, that socializing is more important than shopping. When the day finally comes that it’s safe to go back into the street, I have a feeling people aren’t going to be sitting at tables looking at their phones. They’re going to be talking, laughing, crying. An incredible majority of Americans have made a statement, by staying inside their houses, by volunteering to deliver food to kids who aren’t getting fed at school right now. They have made a statement that they care about the well-being of their fellow American. They care about people they haven’t even met. They’re willing to sacrifice their own comfort so that others might live.
But I can’t help thinking, on this cold, drizzling Monday, that if the government doesn’t match that level of sacrifice, if it doesn’t even fulfill the basic task of meeting the needs of its citizens, that this spirit of love I find so inspiring might turn into something else. Rent is due in nine days, and too many people don’t have a way to pay it. The next month’s rent is due in 40 days. What happens then? What happens when people don’t have money for food anymore? What happens when the unpaid electric/water/etc. bills eventually come due? What happens when working people start acting like the wealthy people in this country–and start taking what they want no matter who it might hurt.
I fear that the people currently in power in this country are too stupid, or too careless, to realize that we are only a couple of weeks away from a complete breakdown of what we call society. And I worry that prison and/or death is what awaits the people who are on the fringes right now, the people who are most vulnerable to poverty, sickness and death. Because in America, that’s always been the story. It’s just that now,the number of people who meet that definition is exponentially expanding.