Books in the time of corona

“Trump and his acolytes are never more comfortable than when they are defending expressions of bigotry as plain common sense, and accusing their liberal critics of being oversensitive snowflakes who care more about protecting “those people” than they do about you.”

What we are seeing now, trapped in our homes, sequestered from one another, is the breakdown of many of our institutions—most starkly capitalism, and more subtly education. What we are seeing now is a case for education. Not just education reform, not just a restructuring of our national syllabus, a redesign of the funding structures, and not only a push back against the inherent inequalities within our current system. No, what we are living through is a wake-up call that we have let the education slide for far too long.

I would like to make a distinction before diving in: There is a difference between being educated and having gone to school. Some of the most educated people the world has produced have never stepped foot inside of a school.

In this country, for as long as I have been alive, we have let religious zealots and sociopathic political grifters drive the narrative around education and school. In doing so we have allowed ourselves to be divided into two categories: educated “elites” and “real” Americans. We have allowed for one side to be painted as honorable, focused on the “real things.” You know, like, “kitchen table” topics. Meanwhile the other side supposedly has their head buried in a book, and too far up its own ass to realize “what is really going on” and too elitist to see the other side as real Americans.

We have let education—something that is free to everyone, a guaranteed right—become the newest face of the culture wars. The irony is that if you were even the least bit educated you’d be able to see that this is by design; you’d be able to discern that education has always been used as a cudgel to divide the haves from the have-nots. I have noticed this dynamic play out in my lifetime, and I know enough to know that what I am experiencing is nothing new.

We have sat by as selfish self-appointed religious maniacs turn our schools into proxy churches. Places where we worship at the altar of an infallible United States, where we learn about the glory of God at the expense of sexual education, world history, and critical thought. We have not pushed back hard enough against those who are depriving us of critical thought and analysis. By the way you can be religious—hell, even pious—and still be critical and analytical. Just ask Martin Luther, or his more modern namesake Martin Luther King Jr..

Are there currently gross inequities in our educational system? Absolutely yes. And yet the places with some of the most vulnerable people—you know the so-called “shit-hole” ones—are still producing beautiful humans with an analytical eye towards equity and liberation. Just look to William Kamkwamba for one of the most recent examples.

Bernard Marks, a survivor of the Holocaust, and frequent critic of this administration, is not just being hyperbolic when he warns us about flirting with fascism. He educated himself, during his time in concentration camps, never forgetting to think deeply about how it was that he ended up in one. And after he was liberated he continued to learn. He never stopped learning and educating us about mass atrocities.

This seems like a good point to make another distinction: There is a difference between being poor and being dumb. Case in point: During the last election (which seems like a lifetime ago!) the poorer the county, the stronger the Clinton support. Clinton easily won all counties with over 25 percent poverty levels. Meanwhile, it is not a coincidence the largest concentrations of Trump supporters come from the least educated states in our country. Here is one more tidbit on that: Democrats who crossed over to vote for Trump were the least likely demographic to engage in analytical thinking.

Are there academic elites? Absolutely yes. Are there educated folks who believe that technocracies should be the way we do things? For sure. There are even learned folks who believe they know what is best for the unwashed masses. Bad but true. For the sake of our own survival it is important that we make a distinction between them and the educated.

Conservatives love telling liberals, who accuse the Republican Party of prejudice, “This is how you got Trump,” a retort that is “less a rebuttal than an affirmation.” But as any student of American history will tell you, we got Trump because racism is deeply imbedded into our national fibers. We find that calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” is problematic not because we melt at the slightest diss but because we know how far this kind of language can travel. We know the links between this kind of diss and lynchings, riots, internment camps, redlining—just to name a few atrocities committed in the name of “keeping it real.” you know, like the way Trump cultists say he does. The same Trump, by the way, who said “I love the poorly educated,” right after winning the Nevada Caucuses in February 2016.

Do I know about infectious diseases? Not really. Do I understand how pandemics work? Not exactly. Do I comprehend the market forces simultaneously at work right now as we brace ourselves for months of self isolation? I would not say I do. But all of this comes with an asterisk: I have read enough to know that we are fucked. I have learned enough in school and out of school to know this is not good. I have learned a bit about disease, economics, and capitalism—enough to know we are not going back to the way things are. Because of this I am mentally preparing for the world I will step back into once I leave my block again. I am also taking this time to revisit books that have guided me through life: The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; My Brother’s Keeper by John Edgar Wideman; The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin; Manchild In the Promised Land by Claude Brown; Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Violence by Slavoj Zizek, and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, along with dozens and dozens of classic science fiction, biographies, and world histories.

We have the time right now (many of us, anyway; I realize being homebound doesn’t mean unfettered free time for all), to dig into books—to get us some education. There has never been a better time, literally, in the history of the world, to access the written word thanks to technology. You feel a little nervous and not sure about Muslims and Islam, dig into the Qu’aran one of these days. Don’t understand what all the fuss is about when it comes to race? Pick up How To Be an Anti-Racist by Dr. Kendi. Want to distract yourself from the insanity that is our current reality? Try out The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin, if you do, you’ll also get a treatise on gender dynamics as a bonus!

The last thing is something I want to say to my educated folks: Rather than setting the bar “high” for those around you, try to set the bar at “dignity,” “self actualization.” and “agency” because that is where the true power of education lies.

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Image of lab vials by Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

What Trump isn’t is as important as what he is

As the coronavirus continues to subsume the planet, the president’s actions and inactions continue to kill untold numbers of Americans. Despite years of warnings from all manner of experts, the president has left Americans so vulnerable as to potentially lead to millions of deaths. As we attempt to deal with this crisis, minimize the outcome and prevent future epidemics it is vitally important that we understand why he has done this.

The answer is simple: he is not now—nor has he ever been—mentally fit for his office. While that may seem obvious, even those of us who loath the president describe him in terms that say otherwise. Rather than understand him as the cruel imbecile he clearly is and admit that our systems reward whiteness and inherited wealth above all else, we imply he’s superior in some way, fooling us.

We do this even now, despite the fact that as of this moment nearly four months after the first case of COVID-19 on American soil, the White House has yet to publish a plan to fight the coronavirus. This is not because the president is masterfully navigating systems the plebian masses simply cannot comprehend. It is because the president is a man born to and living in such privilege he actually lacks the capability to do anything other than receive gifts. This is why it’s so important to stop saying these five things about him:

He’s a gangster

Gangsters are heroes. I know they’re not supposed to be. And that is exactly why they are. Gangsters employ whatever means necessary in order to navigate and fight against a system designed to exclude, exploit and/or destroy them. That story itself is the very entirety of America. In 1780 English writer Edward Gibbon called the American rebellion a “criminal enterprise.” George Washington and company were the first American gangsters. Depending largely on how supported you are by which system you can follow that story as a straight line through the country’s origin in revolution, through Harriet Tubman and John Dillinger, through Gangsta Rap and Outlaw Country. Rebellion is as gangster as apple pie and none of that is Trump. He’s never fought against the system. He’s the desired outcome of the system. And like all of those born into wealth, he’s only ever been cherished and encouraged and protected by the system. He’s been an unscrupulous landlord, a boss who refused to pay his workers, an egomaniacal elite using his wealth to oppress minorities and children and he’s stolen from the poor to give to the rich. While gangsters are the heroes in America’s narratives, Trump has only ever been the villain.

He’s got a strategy

He doesn’t. Really. That’s not to say those around him don’t have strategies. Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, etc. surely have strategies, but the president himself does not. If you think otherwise, I invite you to find any evidence of him ever having created a strategy for anything. That is, not a strategy created by a lawyer or advisor or assistant, but something he himself came up with. While you will find that task impossible, you can find case after case of lawyers and advisors and assistants trying like hell to marginalize the damage done by the president’s deadly destructive, buffoonish absolute lack of forethought.

He’s a con man

Similar to gangsters, we love con men. I can’t count the number of movies I’ve seen with con men heroes. They’re some of my favorite movies and if I’ve learned anything from them it’s that con men need to be good liars. The president, while a frequent liar, is not very good at it. Not only is he a terrible liar, he just has absolutely no impulse control whatsoever.

During this most recent Friday’s COVID-19 press conference it was announced that the CDC now recommends wearing masks in public. The president volunteered that he would not wear one. When asked why, he replied, “I’m feeling good. I just don’t wanna be doing—I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know. Somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just, I just don’t. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but this will pass and hopefully it’ll pass very quickly.”

He’s great at marketing

This is similar to strategy. There’s an implication of a plan that just isn’t there. The president isn’t out here coming up with subtle schemes to get you to spend your money on his products. When put in front of a microphone he largely rambles incoherently. His communication skills are below measurement and he certainly isn’t persuasive. Ask yourself when was the last time he convinced you of anything. Do you think that’s his natural skin color? Were you ever fooled by his hair? He’s just a bad liar and simple bigot giving voice and permission to others of the same descriptions. This is why, when every other country in the world was taking steps to protect its citizens from the coronavirus, the only action our president took was to block people coming into the country from China. And to fail by calling it “the Chinese virus” and the like.

He’s tough

This one is a personal pet peeve. I grew up around a lot of tough people. Disabled vets, the formerly incarcerated, street fighting enthusiasts. I’ve met a lot of tough people and they were all quiet about their toughness. Their toughness was usually born out of fighting circumstances beyond their control. They never bullied. They never bragged. And not one of them ever, ever whined. It just wasn’t possible because, you know, they were tough. The president is not tough. He’s a weakling and he’s the worst kind of weakling: the kind who acts tough when he knows he’s protected, but the moment he feels unprotected he slinks away like a worm.

We are in trouble. Americans not only need to defend ourselves from a pandemic, but from the actions and inactions of the president as well. I know quibbling about these descriptions may seem frivolous, but defending ourselves from a deliberate and clever malefactor requires a different tact than from an unspeakably dangerous idiot. Being able to see the difference could be a matter of life or death.

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Image of lab vials by sebastiaan stam via Unsplash

Calling All White People, Part 43: Lessons unlearned even in the face of COVID-19

Calling All White People, Part 43

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: What COVID-19 teaches us is how little we learn   

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

As the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 continues to relentlessly march across the face of the Earth afflicting ever more people with the disease COVID-19, one of the biggest takeaway lessons for me is seeing how little people are willing to learn—from the past, from adversity or from both.

I mean, there’s the part about people still calling it the coronavirus as if it’s the only one out there, and the flu we deal with each and every year hasn’t always been a coronavirus itself that mutates on a regular basis and stays with us. I know “novel” as in “new” isn’t common parlance in the general population—for most people a novel being something to base a movie off of or a thing you read on the beach you shouldn’t be at because you’re supposed to be social distancing—but you’d think by this point people would catch a clue.

But no, too many people are still acting like this is something alien and strange, rather than a worse form of something we’ve seen before and were pretty much on schedule to see soon even if we hadn’t seen it this year.

However, the lesson that is most dismaying to me on a social level—the most disturbing lesson on the logistical and practical levels being how few people have ever washed their hands and still don’t—is how unable we are to make connections and learn from history even when people are on the web and on the news and many other places telling us about it.

As a member of Gen X, I spent my formative youth and young adult years under the specter of AIDS when it was a disease that meant a death sentence. I remember when research turned up that HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection may have begun as SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus), people didn’t get want to grasp the simple concept that diseases in animals sometimes jump to people through the power of evolution. Instead, so many decided to create a simplistic narrative that we must have gotten AIDS because some African guy decided to have sex with a monkey that had SIV infection.

Let’s not blame the fact that nature does what nature does—instead let’s concoct a tale that blames “foreigners” for the disease.

It’s something we’re seeing right now. Do we listen to any experts or read a single link on our social media about zoonotic disease (animal to human transmission) and how it can happen through transmission via the air or bites from an animal or even a third party like a mosquito (biting an infected animal and then biting a human)? No. Much like blaming some anonymous fictional guy in Africa for fucking a monkey as to how we ended up with AIDS, we say it’s the “freaky” eating habits of Chinese people (ignoring things in the U.S. like “Rocky Mountain oysters” and pig ears) and their “unsanitary” conditions at public markets (ignoring how little the FDA inspects or regulates U.S. food properly and, again, the fact we don’t even wash our own damn hands).

And so Donald Trump and others can go around calling SARS-CoV-2 the “Chinese virus” or COVID-19 the “Chinese flu” or “WuHu flu” or “Kung flu” and much of America, even the so-called educated and aware segment, simultaneously nod (or even laugh) and then look at Asian people as the cause and the problem. And ignore when people point out that the “Spanish flu” that ravaged the United States not that long ago (historically speaking) almost certainly started in Kansas but blaming another country felt better.

So, we don’t make the connection that we’re racist enough in this country to weaponize naturally occurring viruses into xenophobic tools.

And then we don’t make the connection that as hospitals are overwhelmed and people are told they aren’t sick enough to be there (and die later untreated) or aren’t showing enough symptoms to deserve a test, do we think about how many Black people have talked about being denied care by even their own physicians when they are clearly in need of care because “they don’t need it?” Nope. Heaven forbid we should see that increasingly we as white people are considered disposable by the rich and powerful (the old are too used up to keep around and the young are told to risk their lives to keep the economy going). Increasingly, we’re getting the treatment Black, Indigenous and other non-white people have encountered by healthcare but we don’t take pause to think about how it must have affected them to deal with such things for generations and how it kept them from rising socioeconomically and otherwise. No, we see it as a singular attack on us and still find a way to blame them.

Of course, it helps when the president does things like order the removal of posters detailing how to reduce the contraction and spread of this new coronavirus (and other pathogens) from immigration offices. Because it’s better for America’s ego and its racist institutions to make sure the “foreigners” get sick so that more of them can die and we can blame them later for spreading the illness.

No, we don’t like to learn from history. Which is why we get to repeat it with the latest coronavirus that is something new and special and we can’t deal with yet. And instead of coming together to fight it, we instead revel in pointing the finger—as usual—and learning nothing from the history we can access so easily with modern technology.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.