In the previous post on here, I focused a lot on how the organizations and institutions that have spent the last decade obsessing over the concept of resilience turned out to be alarmingly fragile. And that’s still true — where I live, we are approaching two months of social distancing, the rate of COVID-19 cases and fatalities are still increasing but at a much slower rate, but the economic consequences of this have been extremely difficult for many people as businesses close and layoffs accelerate.
Unfortunately, the difficult balancing act this has posed (how do you balance out responsible life-saving pandemic response with a catastrophic growth in unemployment?) has been hijacked by right wing extremists brandishing long rifles, who reject the medical science, mock people who take appropriate precautions in public, and put children in blackface while chanting about President Trump.
Resilience As Myth
Needless to say, the protests are not about the pandemic. They are about white identity politics, and they are being heavily funded and encouraged by right wing billionaires who demand their employees accept deadly risk they won’t in order to to buff their share prices. They represent no popular movement, not even on the right, even if a both-sides-obsessed media covers them like an equivalent mass movement equal to the supermajority of Americans who support some form of social distancing.
But that’s the key, isn’t it? “Some form.” There is a growing movement of people who are simply fed up with being at home — they are bored, feel cooped up, etc., and don’t want to really stay distant from each other long enough to allow the pandemic to be managed effectively.
Resilience isn’t just a buzzword for organizations, it is also a personal mantra for those obsessed with self-improvement blogposts on Medium. That doesn’t mean the idea of personal resilience is nonsense — there is a rich psychological literature about handling adversity in a healthy way — but the way in which many people approach it is in the context of, like, a mean supervisor at work, or handling an aggressive social contact.
The decayed personal resilience of Americans during this crisis has mirrored the cratered organizational resilience that essentially crashed the economy after a month with reduced revenue. While losing work is difficult, it would be a manageable challenge if we had an effective government that wasn’t destroyed by decades of libertarianism. Ultimately, the people whining the most about social distancing are the people who have the least at stake in the current set up — being asked to work from home and not spend every Friday night blackout drunk at some bar is not a personal sacrifice on par with, say, World War 2 (even if the President tries to use militarist language to describe the challenge). It just isn’t.
The Truth About Our Economy
The reality is, those with the most to lose with the end of social distancing are those who don’t have a choice in the matter. Many businesses are too small to outmaneuver the global conglomerates that snatched up the “small business relief” package. Some businesses are choosing to continue working from home to protect their white collar employees; but even then, their blue collar employees remain at risk – consider the unusual solidarity Amazon’s work-from-home programmers are displaying with the warehouse workers forced to show up even as their peers die from COVID-19. Grocery store workers, warehouse workers, meatpackers, and medical staff have had to keep working in unsafe conditions while people asked to please take a few weeks off from socializing for the good of society whine about the imposition.
The American economy has always been based around creating winners and losers, despite the propaganda that casts it as a “rising tide that lifts all boats” (a demonstrably false claim). This isn’t even the first time very wealthy people have plainly stated they want to kill people in order to make money. From the institution of slavery to the outsourcing of textile jobs in horrifically unsafe overseas factories, the American economic system has been built upon an entire class of disposable workers asked to routinely risk death for our cheap consumer goods.
Ultimately, there seems to be an inverse relationship between one’s income and one’s personal resilience — the poorest Americans are forced into situations so stressful and unwinnable few can really imagine its true impact. They aren’t the ones picking up guns and waving swastikas about being told to stay home, they are the ones being threatened with permanent impoverishment if they refuse to return to work in fear for their lives.
Much like the falsehood claiming Trump’s supporters were low income (they are actually a coalition of high income blue collar managers and billionaires), the “open economy” people aren’t really protesting for their personal right to risk contracting a deadly illness at work. They want haircuts, golf clubs, and trips to the beach.
Needless to say, the people holding signs and yelling racial epithets at state capitals are not demanding better healthcare for people who are sick, nor are they demanding more support for people forced out of work through no fault of their own. They aren’t demanding the federal government stop seizing PPE shipments, or an end to the artificial shortage of COVID-19 testing kits. They want luxury goods.
This isn’t personal resilience, despite the bluster of people saying they aren’t afraid and don’t believe their own doctors who beg them to stay home a little while longer. It is deep, pathological personal weakness. It is people afraid to be alone with their thoughts, afraid to be home, afraid to feel out of control. They are afraid to be a little bit selfless in order to help everyone around them.
Time for Awakening
There isn’t an easy answer to this, because it isn’t just the fascists screaming Nazi slogans at a state legislature. It is a deeper pathology in American society, a sort of widespread narcissism that finds any infringement on personal convenience a grievous insult, driven by anti-social libertarians who attack expertise, science, and the very idea of society and a shared fate between neighbors.
That isn’t something that can be addressed right now, in the short term. What can at least hold it back is strong, brave governance that rejects the exceptionally cruel demands of an astroturfed, braying mob — but even that hasn’t held steady (witness Gov. DeWine, whose handling of the early stages of the pandemic rightfully earned praise, cave on the common sense policy of requiring masks as a condition of allowing businesses to re-open).
The anti-resiliency of America doesn’t have a single cause, because it has spread from the grass roots and the grass tops at the same time. And the result is a deadly catastrophe on a scale no other country facing COVID-19 would ever tolerate, much less shrug at and assume it won’t personally affect them. Individualism, far from a brave act of personal integrity, is in fact a coward’s approach to the difficult challenges of living around other people. It has reached an apotheosis in America in 2020, and it isn’t at all clear that we will be able to emerge from it in a recognizable form.
But, there is a small bit of hope, at any rate: People are finally waking up to the dreadful risks and heartbreaking personal costs we demand of the service industry to keep our lives comfortable, cheap, and insulated. Maybe that dawning awareness is something that can built upon to start making our society more just, more fair, and more humane.