There are moments in certain days, on certain weeks, during particularly bad periods of the month, that I start to think there will be no going back–not to normal, not to civilization, not to anything. I imagine my son 20 years from now, assuming he’s one of the survivors, telling small children about this thing that used to exist called the internet. That there used to exist these things called countries. And schools. And family meant a thing that exited with a mom and dad and grandparents and aunts and cousins, and it wasn’t just a word to describe the people you lived with.
These thoughts feel true to me when they come. They feel more real than what passes these days for reality, even as I remind myself that this particular virus has a 95%-ish survival rate. I believe this in my mind, but my body and my bones and my heart remain unconvinced. But then it’s hard to be optimistic about anything when you’re about to
celebrate observe your six-month anniversary in quarantine, and you find yourself living in the most virulent town in one of the most virulent states in one of the most virulent countries in this virulent world.
I came to Athens, Georgia all those 15 years ago because it was different from the rest of America back then. In 2005, the USA was still reeling from 9/11, the re-election of Bush, and those unjust, illegal and unnecessary wars. In an America that was becoming less free every day due to surveillance and the militarization of everything, including people’s psyches, Athens seemed untouched by all that. It felt free. It felt like an oasis of creativity and kindness. It felt like a miracle.
For the first couple of years, I felt that way about Athens every single second I was living here. When it started to fade, coming in and out of focus for periods of time. I remember talking to someone who grew up here about it and them telling me, “Congratulations, now you really live here.”
Athens felt like an oasis. The crazy shit going on in the rest of the country reached here as a rumor, as a piece of bad news that was happening someplace else. It wasn’t on the streets, not where you could feel it. That’s all gone now. The current city/county government is far and away the most progressive and left-leaning it’s ever been in all the time I’ve lived here. When the pandemic started, we closed down before NYC did. Nevertheless, a few months ago our police force tear-gassed non-violent protesters and lied about their reasons for doing so. And now the University of Georgia has reopened in as irresponsible manner as possible. Georgia’s always prided itself on being #1 in the South, ahead of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee. And though this means #45 in the USA (maybe #40, depending on your feelings about the Midwest), Georgia has always seemed committed to being “the better one” when it comes to life in the US South.
Not anymore. Universities in Alabama, South Carolina, even Tennessee are more transparent, more pro-active, and just plain better about handling the spread of the virus. UGA has been awful in every way it’s possible to be awful, lying about information, withholding information, allowing fraternity and sorority parties, continuing with football plans (only 20,000 people allowed in the stadium!), instituting unworkable draconian policies for faculty, and even callously dismissing the death of a staff member. This week the reported numbers, which are comically, deliberately optimistic (testing is done voluntarily, symptomatic students/faculty/staff are discouraged from being tested) spiked into the high triple digits. This wouldn’t be so scary if UGA didn’t sit directly on top of Athens, if the university culture didn’t revolve around walking into downtown every night and partying maskless and inebriated until you puked.
And so as we approach our sixth month of quarantine, it has never been less safe to go to the grocery store, to go anywhere, to do anything, than it is right now as this particular moment. It has never been less safe to protest. People used to just bring signs; now they bring guns. A small group of Americans–small in every sense of the word–have decided to take up arms against their oppressors, who happen to be the oppressed, and they move with the tacit approval of nearly every single police unit in this country. People like this have existed for as long as there’s been an America. But in the 1950s, the John Birch Society didn’t have a news channel uncritically amplifying its toxicity. It is now September and the election is in doubt, the future of this country as a semi-functioning democracy is in doubt, and the future of the planet, ecologically and politically speaking look very grim indeed.
There are reasons to be hopeful. There are always reasons to be hopeful. But the future right now looks like death and corruption and lying and murder, and if something different happens it will feel like a fucking miracle. All I can say to any of that is be strong, be safe, and be prepared. A time will come very soon when we will need to put our bodies against the gears of this society and insist that it change. I’m not talking about violence. I’m talking about a refusal to participate. I’m talking about a general strike. This will require everyone’s participation. It will require people in secure positions, especially people in secure positions, to risk losing that security. But based on what I’ve seen from the UGA faculty (and the sizable number of students who care about this stuff) at UGA this month, I don’t think that’s going to happen here. I think most people will just keep complaining online, congratulating themselves on their superior intelligence superiority as their 401(k) continues to grow, even as people are getting sick and dying all around them.
This is all just how I feel, an attempt to describe the crushing weight of pessimism I feel on a daily basis. It may or may not be true, or real, or even fair, but when one in every five Americans thing the Democratic party is a satanic cabal of pedophiles, and two in every five think a 17-year-old kid has the right to murder unarmed people who protests police violence, I can’t think of a way to end this sentence in a way that makes sense.