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

We are not your lab animals

I have a lot of criticisms about how race is handled (OK, mishandled) in America thanks to white supremacy. Part of that is because I lead an anti-racism organization in this country but I’ve been doing this website since before so mostly it’s because I live here.

I live and breathe racism and white supremacy and will almost certainly die with both going strong still.

But let’s take a quick stop in France (virtually speaking) and check out the pic of the tweet over on the left here with two French doctors talking about possible trials of a potential treatment (or maybe vaccine?) for the new coronavirus that’s shutting much of the world down right now. The original poster provided a small bit of the interview in translation, but it was a pretty damning portion, as Dr. Mira says, “If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like it has been done in some studies in AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and .they don’t protect themselves, what do you think?” To which the other doctor in the live interview, Dr. Locht, readily agreed.

Well, if live interviews are good for anything, it’s allowing people’s racism to slip out unfiltered.

France, like the United Kingdom like the United States like dozens of other white nations, has a history of colonialism in countries where brown-skinned people are native and enslavement of brown-skinned people. White supremacy and racism exist in all these places that were former colonial giants, and can often serve as a mirror for us to look into.

After all, the United States pulled off atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment using Black people like experimental animals, and that’s just part of the legacy of Black people being used unethically for experiments (and often other marginalized or unprotected groups). And what’s worth looking at here, in this French interview, is how easy it is for white people to just suddenly start talking about brown-skinned people as if they were objects (and sex workers, too). No talk of what they might want or their humanity or autonomy. Just, “We should use them like lab animals, shouldn’t we?”

And this interview could just as well have happened in any mostly white nation—including the United States. In fact, given our current administration, I’m surprised we didn’t get to this level of open medical/experimental racism before France.

What is even more offensive about this is that Africa is currently one of the least hard-hit areas of the world with respect to the virus and COVID-19. I might be less infuriated if they had framed it as “Maybe we should start something like this in Africa where perhaps we can really get ahead of the curve and do some good.” I still wouldn’t fully trust in their intentions and honesty, because why not focus on where you are and where your fellow people are and where you have a lot of cases already? But at least it would sound more humane and compassionate.

Because the fact is these doctors are talking about African people like disposable objects. They are acting like all of Africa is living in total poverty with nothing at all (not true) and they are looking at “advantages” like “no resuscitation.” What the hell?

A whole continent of people is just a collection of lab animals to them. Medical commodities.

At a time when a nasty disease could be bridging us and connecting us and uniting us we have this: Doctors dehumanizing people and saying they should be first for the experimental risks. We should go over to a whole other part of the world to do our studies when we have disease right on our doorstep. We should use the brown-skinned folk.

The more things change—even when the entire world just about has been turned upside down—the more things stay the same.

And no, I don’t think all medical and research people are like this. But racism is a big problem in medical care and in research. And the fact is we’re already seeing evidence in the United States of Black people not getting access to tests or treatment for COVID-19 and being disproportionately impacted (by death and suffering) by the disease.

We’re all human and we’re all in this together. No one should be set aside as expendable just because they aren’t white.

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.

Image of lab vials by Bill Oxford via Unsplash