A Cruel Invitation

My daughter–recently returned home prematurely from study abroad–told me a story she heard in South America about a pair of researchers who just emerged from an eight week research junket in the rainforest to find: A pandemic sweeping the globe. Cities on lock-down. Businesses shuttered. Completely cut off from civilization, they return to a world transformed.

But aren’t we all, really, like them. This is the twenty-first century we didn’t know was coming.

This isn’t like the movies, is it? In film, the viral apocalypse spreads–undetered, unassailable–until human civilization buckles and we tear each other to pieces trying to save ourselves.

Instead–aside from some toilet paper hoarding–we’re doing the right thing. We are making tremendous sacrifices to suppress the spread of the disease. Even though it does not threaten us with a barren world like Stephen King’s The Stand or other super-viruses from fiction that result in a Mad Max-like hellscapes, we are coping. Civilization hasn’t broken. It has prioritized.

And really, I find that heartening.

To be sure, there are parts of this global story that bear deep reflection. We see already that nations that responded swiftly, that prepared wisely are faring and likely will continue to fare much better than the United States. By now it is apparent that no level of corruption or incompetence will sway the base of support propping up this president, but it must be noted: Trump disbanded a pandemic response team in the executive branch and then lied about doing it. Trump waved away early concerns about the virus, and then lied about ignoring its dangers. As always with this so-called-president, he has failed the test of leadership dramatically–worrying more about positive news and the press than American lives and well being. It’s an all-too-familiar pattern: this president believing that through sheer bravado and self-deceit he can rewrite reality in his favor.

Yet this time, reality failed to oblige.

When we come through this pandemic, we will indeed be facing a new world. Our economy will be in tatters. Jobs will have been lost or disrupted. Supply chains strained. We will–as a people–face many choices about how to move forward.

If we are willing to sacrifice so much during this crisis to protect the most vulnerable among us, then maybe we need to admit that our way of life, our economic system, our very society do not do that on a day to day basis.

Our growing inequality is on display everywhere. Across the border in Ciudad Juarez, there’s another story buzzing around. A member of high-society, some rich kid just back from Europe, was too entitled to pay any heed to the orders to self-quarantine and spent a week partying in night clubs and socializing before his diagnosis. He’s now isolated alright–in hiding from death threats. And here in the U.S. we’re asking questions about why so many high profile celebrities and athletes are managing to get preventative testing, when people who are already sick go without. Our for-profit healthcare system is strained and scrambling to prepare for the triage days to come. Our coproratopia shutters, leaving hourly workers adrift.

When we rebuild…we can do better.

Already the bailout is taking unfamiliar shapes. Yes, help the airlines, they say. Obviously, they say we should help out small businesses. But now, Mitt Romney sounds like Andrew Yang, suggesting we just hand out money. That’s pretty bold for a Republican whose party is always on the ramparts, ready to combat the evils of socialism or big government.

And this is a time for bold leadership.

Honestly, the best choices to lead us through the wake of this disaster have been eliminated from the field of candidates for the upcoming election and we are left with a choice in November between the inept man-child or the bumbling, amiable every-man. Personally, I’d rather have Warren crunching the numbers or Sanders rallying the people–but we’ll just have to hope their leadership in the Senate is enough to help us through this.

The real momentum for transformation, though, must come from us.

From the people.

We need to demand the bold restructuring that will inoculate our society against this sort of disaster in the future and build a more just world as a monument to this moment in history.

Let us insist that the executive branch be reigned in after decades of expanding power and that it become fully transparent and accountable to Congress so that decisions like disbanding the National Security Council’s global health security office can no longer be taken on a whim.

Let us consider using taxation–as we did after the Great Depression and World War II–to produce a more equitable distribution of wealth. Should we tax every dollar earned above a million dollars at a much higher rate as we used to? In 1945, it was over 90%. Should we impose a wealth tax to fund the rebuilding of our nation so that the huge stockpiles of banked capital in the hands of people like Jeff Bezos are not simply growing wealth for the 1%, but generating economic activity for the nation?

Should we deprivilege corporations in favor of cooperatives so that when calamity strikes, workers are part owners and can enjoy some economic security, knowing that when normalcy returns, they are part of the solution and not a cost to be cut. Should we restructure the very nature of the corporation–that very synthetic beast–and find new ways to generate capital and drive markets? Can we break the cynical operations of high finance and reward stock holders for the health of a company as a whole and not simply for profit margins that come at the expense of employees and customers–but never, somehow, CEOs.

Should we reunionize? Should we take our democracy online? Should we amend the constitution? A Green New Deal, perhaps?

If this looming pandemic-driven recession is our Great Depression, then we know what our Great War is that must follow it. Because of the flaws in our systems, we have created a society of waste and neglect that is reshaping our environment, our very world. Yet today, dolphins were spotted in the canals of Venice. As we recede from our conspicuous consumption to protect ourselves, so too does the natural world breathe easier for a moment.

If we can rise to the challenge of this crisis, then we can find the fortitude to reshape our lives and our culture to fight the good fight and preserve the world for our posterity. They are right now leaving their colleges, sheltering themselves in their homes, giving up their wages to protect the older generation from the ravages of this disease.

It’s only right that in the next phase, we serve them by helping to create a better world.