What Is the Coronavirus Really Changing?

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Have the courage to speak up and act, America

W.J. Astore

On the surface, our lives are changing.  We’re staying home.  We’re practicing social distancing.  We’re wearing masks when we go out.  Many of us have lost jobs and maybe our health insurance as well.  People are suffering and dying.  I don’t want to diminish any of this.

Yet how much is really changing?  Two of my dad’s sayings come to mind: the more things change, the more they stay the same; and the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.  The latter saying defines our coronaviral moment.

The Trump/Congressional stimulus package favors corporations, banks, financiers, and other forms of big business.  Ordinary people will be lucky to see a one-time $1200 check, maybe not until this summer.  Once again, the trickle-down philosophy rules.

The stimulus bill itself is a grab-bag of special interest legislation.  Did you know there’s a “provision in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package [that] allows Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to seek congressional approval to waive parts of the federal law protecting students with disabilities”?  Crises are always a good time to attack the most vulnerable while extending the privileges of the most favored.

Meanwhile, truth-tellers are being vilified or punished.  Did you hear that “Dr. Anthony Fauci has been given added security after receiving threats”?  His “sin” has been to tell the truth about the perils of COVID-19, thereby contradicting all the spin and happy-talk of the Trump administration.  That pisses off the most fanatical of Trump’s cult, leading to threats against a medical doctor who’s trying his best to save lives.

Speaking of being punished, consider this report: “The Navy removed the captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, saying an outbreak of the virus aboard his ship had ‘overwhelmed his ability to act professionally.’ Days earlier, Capt. Brett Crozier had sent a letter asking for help, using an unclassified email system.”  According to Reuters, the move could have a “chilling effect on others in the Navy looking to speak up about issues they are facing at a time when the Pentagon is withholding some of the more detailed data about coronavirus infections for fear of undermining the perception of American military readiness for a crisis or conflict.”

Here’s what Navy Captain Crozier had to say before he was relieved of command: “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our sailors.”

Crozier made two “mistakes” here: he cared too much about his sailors while highlighting the uncaring nature of his chain of command; and he dared to say “We are not at war,” when the accepted wisdom is that America is always at war (how else to justify gargantuan “defense” budgets?).  By embarrassing a callous and mercenary military abetted by the Trump administration, Crozier had to go.  And as he left his ship for the last time, his crew chanted his name in a rousing sendoff.

Today’s final lesson to illustrate how “the more things change, the more they stay the same”: the story of Christian Smalls, a brave Amazon manager who spoke out against unsafe conditions at a fulfillment center.  For his honesty, Smalls was fired by Amazon, which then considered smearing him as not smart or articulate in a leaked memo.  Smalls just happens to be Black, so Amazon resorted to racist words (not articulate, not smart) to imply he had nothing to say of any value.  Interesting that Smalls worked for Amazon for five years but only became dumb and inarticulate when he began to protest unsafe conditions related to the spread of COVID-19.  I watched Smalls in an interview, and he made a great suggestion: stop clicking and buying from Amazon, America.  That’s the only language Jeff Bezos understands.

I’ll close with some words of wisdom from one of my readers.  This is what she had to say:

No reason to complain however, we are the lucky ones.  As with all pandemics, it will be the poorest and weakest in the pecking order who will bear the brunt.  People in countries engulfed by war, refugee camps, metropolitan slums, prisoners in overcrowded prisons stand no chance against this medieval plague.

Excuse my French: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

There’s No Vaccine for Stupidity

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Trump gives himself an A+ and a 10/10 for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.  Not everyone agrees.

W.J. Astore

A few thoughts generated by these coronaviral times:

Perhaps in a year, we’ll have an effective vaccine against COVID-19.  But developing a vaccine against stupidity will remain elusive.

Perhaps we should redefine COVID-19 as a terrorist outfit, thereby unleashing unlimited funding from Congress to combat it.

People are stunned by this pandemic and the changes driven by it.  We’ve been knocked out of our routines and perhaps our complacency.  At least some of us are now open to new ideas.  Which is precisely why our government is rushing in with old ideas, doubling down on trickle down, telling us to remain in place, not only physically, which is necessary, but mentally.  Look at the parade of old ideas trumpeted by the president.  And for that matter Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic establishment.  Trump and Biden are literally tired old men, not in age alone, but more importantly in how they view the world.  There’s nothing fresh or original about them.  Nothing.  Whereas Bernie Sanders is fighting for health care for all, better pay for workers, and a system that puts people first instead of profits.

The courage and selflessness of doctors, nurses, first responders, and indeed all those who are risking exposure to the virus to help others has truly been inspirational.  We’re hearing a lot from the media about our doctors, nurses, etc. being “heroes,” which is encouraging.  Far too often in the U.S., and for too long, the concept of “hero” was linked to military service, with all troops being celebrated as “hometown heroes.”  Athletes, too, were called heroes for hitting homeruns or throwing touchdowns.  Our coronaviral moment is reminding us about the true nature of heroes.  As I wrote a decade ago:

Here, then, is what I mean by “hero”: someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place.  Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages, and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane).

“Hero,” sadly, is now used far too cavalierly.  Sportscasters, for example, routinely refer to highly paid jocks who hit walk-off home runs or score game-winning touchdowns as heroes.  Even though I come from a family of firefighters (and one police officer), the most heroic person I’ve ever known was neither a firefighter nor a cop nor a jock: She was my mother, a homemaker who raised five kids and endured without complaint the ravages of cancer in the 1970s, with its then crude chemotherapy regimen, its painful cobalt treatments, the collateral damage of loss of hair, vitality, and lucidity.  In refusing to rail against her fate or to take her pain out on others, she set an example of selfless courage and heroism I’ll never forget.

Perhaps it takes a crisis like this for us to recognize the “ordinary” heroes among us, the ones who aren’t “top guns” flying warplanes, the ones who aren’t throwing footballs for multi-million-dollar salaries.

Remember when Trump said: “I could stand In the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”?  This moment is proving him right.  He has colossally mismanaged this crisis, yet his followers still place their faith in him.  For his followers, Trump is the ultimate Teflon president.  Nothing sticks to him.  Eat your heart out, Ronald Reagan!

Finally, as a pandemic rages, the Trump administration is warning of a possible sneak attack by Iran even as it deploys ships and air assets in the drug war, specifically against Venezuela.  Echoing the words of Mehdi Hasan, a journalist at The Intercept, what kind of maniac does this?  But maybe it’s not mania; after all, Iran and Venezuela have something in common: huge reserves of oil, and regimes that resist the USA.  Once again, old thinking prevails, old scores must be settled, even as a new world order takes shape because of this pandemic.

Of course, Trump has never put America first.  He’s always put himself first.  He’s given himself an A+ and a 10 out of 10 for his leadership in facing this crisis.  Sad to say, his followers believe him.  Remember when I said there’s no vaccine for stupidity?

Time to Change America

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There’s only one Spaceship Earth

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I argue that the coronavirus crisis provides an opportunity to reimagine America.  Please read the entire article at TomDispatch; what follows is an extended excerpt.  Thanks!

This should be a time for a genuinely new approach, one fit for a world of rising disruption and disaster, one that would define a new, more democratic, less bellicose America. To that end, here are seven suggestions, focusing — since I’m a retired military officer — mainly on the U.S. military, a subject that continues to preoccupy me, especially since, at present, that military and the rest of the national security state swallow up roughly 60% of federal discretionary spending:

1. If ever there was a time to reduce our massive and wasteful military spending, this is it. There was never, for example, any sense in investing up to $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years to “modernize” America’s nuclear arsenal. (Why are new weapons needed to exterminate humanity when the “old” ones still work just fine?) Hundreds of stealth fighters and bombers — it’s estimated that Lockheed Martin’s disappointing F-35 jet fighter alone will cost $1.5 trillion over its life span — do nothing to secure us from pandemics, the devastating effects of climate change, or other all-too-pressing threats. Such weaponry only emboldens a militaristic and chauvinistic foreign policy that will facilitate yet more wars and blowback problems of every sort. And speaking of wars, isn’t it finally time to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? More than $6 trillion has already been wasted on those wars and, in this time of global peril, even more is being wasted on this country’s forever conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. (Roughly $4 billion a month continues to be spent on Afghanistan alone, despite all the talk about “peace” there.)

2. Along with ending profligate weapons programs and quagmire wars, isn’t it time for the U.S. to begin dramatically reducing its military “footprint” on this planet? Roughly 800 U.S. military bases circle the globe in a historically unprecedented fashion at a yearly cost somewhere north of $100 billion. Cutting such numbers in half over the next decade would be a more than achievable goal. Permanently cutting provocative “war games” in South Korea, Europe, and elsewhere would be no less sensible. Are North Korea and Russia truly deterred by such dramatic displays of destructive military might?

3. Come to think of it, why does the U.S. need the immediate military capacity to fight two major foreign wars simultaneously, as the Pentagon continues to insist we do and plan for, in the name of “defending” our country? Here’s a radical proposal: if you add 70,000 Special Operations forces to 186,000 Marine Corps personnel, the U.S. already possesses a potent quick-strike force of roughly 250,000 troops. Now, add in the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and the 10th Mountain Division. What you have is more than enough military power to provide for America’s actual national security. All other Army divisions could be reduced to cadres, expandable only if our borders are directly threatened by war. Similarly, restructure the Air Force and Navy to de-emphasize the present “global strike” vision of those services, while getting rid of Donald Trump’s newest service, the Space Force, and the absurdist idea of taking war into low earth orbit. Doesn’t America already have enough war here on this small planet of ours?

4. Bring back the draft, just not for military purposes. Make it part of a national service program for improving America. It’s time for a new Civilian Conservation Corps focused on fostering a Green New Deal. It’s time for a new Works Progress Administration to rebuild America’s infrastructure and reinvigorate our culture, as that organization did in the Great Depression years. It’s time to engage young people in service to this country. Tackling COVID-19 or future pandemics would be far easier if there were quickly trained medical aides who could help free doctors and nurses to focus on the more difficult cases. Tackling climate change will likely require more young men and women fighting forest fires on the west coast, as my dad did while in the CCC — and in a climate-changing world there will be no shortage of other necessary projects to save our planet. Isn’t it time America’s youth answered a call to service? Better yet, isn’t it time we offered them the opportunity to truly put America, rather than themselves, first?

5. And speaking of “America First,” that eternal Trumpian catch-phrase, isn’t it time for all Americans to recognize that global pandemics and climate change make a mockery of walls and go-it-alone nationalism, not to speak of politics that divide, distract, and keep so many down? President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that only Americans can truly hurt America, but there’s a corollary to that: only Americans can truly save America — by uniting, focusing on our common problems, and uplifting one another. To do so, it’s vitally necessary to put an end to fear-mongering (and warmongering). As President Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address in the depths of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear inhibits our ability to think clearly, to cooperate fully, to change things radically as a community.

6. To cite Yoda, the Jedi master, we must unlearn what we have learned. For example, America’s real heroes shouldn’t be “warriors” who kill or sports stars who throw footballs and dunk basketballs. We’re witnessing our true heroes in action right now: our doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, together with our first responders, and those workers who stay in grocery stores, pharmacies, and the like and continue to serve us all despite the danger of contracting the coronavirus from customers. They are all selflessly resisting a threat too many of us either didn’t foresee or refused to treat seriously, most notably, of course, President Donald Trump: a pandemic that transcends borders and boundaries. But can Americans transcend the increasingly harsh and divisive borders and boundaries of our own minds? Can we come to work selflessly to save and improve the lives of others? Can we become, in a sense, lovers of humanity?

7. Finally, we must extend our love to encompass nature, our planet. For if we keep treating our lands, our waters, and our skies like a set of trash cans and garbage bins, our children and their children will inherit far harder times than the present moment, hard as it may be.

What these seven suggestions really amount to is rejecting a militarized mindset of aggression and a corporate mindset of exploitation for one that sees humanity and this planet more holistically. Isn’t it time to regain that vision of the earth we shared collectively during the Apollo moon missions: a fragile blue sanctuary floating in the velvety darkness of space, an irreplaceable home to be cared for and respected since there’s no other place for us to go?

In the USA, Life Is Incredibly Cheap

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America’s counterfactual leader, hands posed like pistols, telling it like it isn’t

W.J. Astore

The coronavirus has made one thing clear: life is incredibly cheap in the USA.  Or so it seems to our leaders, who are desperate to put America back to work by Easter in two weeks’ time, irrespective of the death toll that would result.  It’s all about getting back to “normal,” keeping the wheels of capitalism rolling along, and the profits rolling in for corporate America.

Capitalism is America’s true national religion, and money is our god.  Our leaders make decisions consistent with that belief system.  And, as Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic activist for the poor, said: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

Worth citing here is Caitlin Johnstone, who in a recent article noted how America’s response to COVID-19 illustrates the pathologies of market-driven capitalism and the politicians who so willingly serve it:

The corporate cronyism of America’s political system has been highlighted with a massive kleptocratic multitrillion-dollar corporate bailout of which actual Americans are only receiving a tiny fraction. Instead of putting that money toward paying people a living wage to stay home during a global pandemic, the overwhelming majority of the money is going to corporations while actual human beings receive a paltry $1,200 (which they won’t even be getting until May at the earliest) at a time of record-smashing unemployment.

America’s capitalism worship has been highlighted with Wall Street Journal headline “Dow Soars More Than 11% In Biggest One-Day Jump Since 1933” running at the exact same time as “Record Rise in Unemployment Claims Halts Historic Run of Job Growth — More than 3 million workers file for jobless benefits as coronavirus hits the economy“. Stocks are booming, Amazon is surging, and mountains of wealth are being transferred to sprawling megacorporations, while actual human beings are terrified of what the future holds.

Nice to know a few are profiting while so many worry, suffer, and die.  But should we be that surprised by how callous America’s leaders are?

I recall reading Daniel Ellsberg’s book on U.S. planning for nuclear war.  Sixty years ago, U.S. leaders were prepared to kill 600 million people (that’s not a typo) in their efforts to “win” the Cold War.  As I wrote about in December 2017:

U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Daniel Ellsberg noted, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.

Notoriously, General William Westmoreland once mused that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.  Life is plentiful.  Life is cheap in the Orient.”  That philosophy helped to justify massive killing of the Vietnamese people (perhaps as many as three million) in a futile quest to “win” the Vietnam War.

Thinking about Westmoreland’s musing in light of our government’s response to COVID-19, as well as past plans for “winning” a nuclear war and prevailing in Vietnam by killing everything that moved, one wonders about which value system truly esteems life.  It sure doesn’t seem to be the “Western” model as espoused by our leaders.

Bonus Lesson: In its daily send out, the New York Times had this article today: FACT CHECK: “Trump’s Baseless Claim That a Recession Would Be Deadlier Than the Coronavirus,” by LINDA QIU.  The opposite is more likely to be true, according to research and experts.

The Coronavirus Is Immune to Lies

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Richard Feynman

W.J. Astore

Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies.  It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science.  You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk.  And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.

Trump is the man who sold us a fake university.  Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president.  Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick.  And he’s good at it.  It’s a skill that got him to the White House.  But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.

The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist.  His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying.  Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction.  Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.

Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned.  Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:

“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”

The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism.  Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty.  (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)

Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America.  Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.

Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.”  So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all.  You’re acting murderously instead.

Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”

They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.

Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.

Update (3/26): If America reopens by Easter with crowded churches and the like, prepare for lots of dead people, as this article and graph show (courtesy of the New York Times):

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Social distancing for 14 days leads to 128 million total infections in the USA by October (curve on left).  Social distancing for two months leads to 14 million total infections (curve on right).  Trump appears to prefer the curve on the left in the name of boosting our economy.  Which result would you choose as the leader of America?

Quick Thoughts on the Coronavirus Crisis

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W.J. Astore

As millions of Americans are laid off or lose their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis, they often also lose their employer-provided health care.  You think maybe it’s finally time for Medicare For All?

Americans will have to rely increasingly on credit cards, which charge usurious interest rates of 25% or higher, even as the Fed has lowered the prime rate nearly to zero for banks.  Any chance that banks and credit card companies will dramatically lower their rates to help Americans in this time of crisis?

Speaking of credit card companies and high interest rates, guess who their greatest friend was in the U.S. Senate.  Yes, Joe Biden, Senator from Delaware, where laws favor banks and credit card companies.

Speaking of Joe Biden, guess who’s been virtually invisible during the coronavirus crisis.  His handlers apparently think Joe isn’t ready for prime time.  Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has been raising millions for charity and promoting sensible ideas that are later adopted by the Trump administration.

The DNC, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer don’t know what to think or do until their corporate masters provide guidance or give them permission.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration and the Republicans are filling the vacuum, even as they push legislation that supports their pet ideas and programs (restrictions on immigration, further attacks on public education, and the like).

Party-line Democrats want payments to Americans to be means-tested.  Yet help to corporations is never means-tested.  What gives?  In the spirit of trickle-down economics, expect a few drops of assistance to the poor and buckets-full of support for the rich.

Huge crises don’t always produce good leaders.  The Great Depression exposed Herbert Hoover and his small-minded thinking.  COVID-19 is exposing Trump for what he is: ignorant, lazy, incurious, incapable of empathy, petulant, and vain.  Meanwhile, as an alternative, the DNC puts forward Joe Biden, a corporate tool in his late seventies showing signs of confusion and cognitive decline.  Sadly, it’s not true that strong leaders arise to meet the moment — not in this White House, not in this corrupt political system.

Americans have been told for decades “You can have it all.”  To have “No Fear.”  To take selfies of ourselves and revel in our own individualism.  Even after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, our leaders told us to go shopping and visit Disney, to consume and party.  Now we’re being encouraged to come together, to help one another, to be unselfish, to live a life that’s not self-centered.  But in many cases it’s too late.  People aren’t listening.  They’ve been told forever to focus on themselves and their own self-actualization.  And you just don’t flip a propaganda/conditioning switch that easily.

That said, I salute our doctors, nurses, other medical personnel, and first responders.  I salute everyone working at supermarkets and hardware stores and the like, serving us all despite the risks.  I meet my neighbors on walks and I admire the spirit of friendliness and our collective willingness to help one another.  We’re going to need this spirit to get through the weeks and months ahead.

“Keep calm and wash your hands” is a sign I saw at my local bank.  It’s not the worst advice.  Be safe out there.

Update (3/23): To no surprise, a deeply corrupt and compromised political system is responding to this crisis in a deeply corrupt and compromised way.  Truly, this is a national emergency. And what is Congress doing to help ordinary people? Virtually nothing. The Senate’s “relief” package is relief for the rich and corporations and industries.

In this immense crisis, we are seeing the sheer awfulness of the religion of American capitalism.

As Trump has dithered and Biden has remained invisible, Bernie Sanders has led the charge, raising millions for charity and fighting for workers.  Why can’t people see this?

 

Strong, Smart, and Resolute Leaders: What America Needs Now

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COVID-19: Not impressed by weak, dumb, and irresolute leaders 

W.J. Astore

If nothing else is true, COVID-19 is a wake-up call to all of us about the need for strong, smart, and resolute leadership.

Donald Trump is not that kind of leader.  He ducks all responsibility for mistakes, provides false information, and blames the crisis on others (Europeans, a “foreign” virus, the Obama administration, and so on).  His VP, Mike Pence, has been a non-entity for years and has done nothing to allay the concerns of Americans.

Meanwhile, the Democratic front runner, Joe Biden, has given short remarks read off a teleprompter.  I see headlines like “Can Biden handle a two-hour debate?” and I wince.  If serious people think Biden may not have the physical and mental endurance to perform well in a staged political conversation, how can we possibly believe he is fit enough to be president for four years?  Biden will be 78 in November, and none of us is getting younger.  If there are serious concerns about his mental and physical stamina now, when he’s not being pushed, how can there not be profound concerns about his ability to handle the burden of presidential leadership?  Severe stress ages everyone, and we shouldn’t close our eyes to this reality.

Roughly the same age, Bernie Sanders appears mentally and physically robust, and his speeches on the pandemic have been sensible, detailed, and smart.  But even Bernie isn’t getting any younger.

In Biden’s case, people may argue that Joe can always fall back on his VP if he fails in office.  But we don’t elect a president with the idea that he’s infirm and may soon need to pass his duties to a younger man or woman.

There is one presidential candidate still in the running for the Democrats who is strong, smart, and resolute and who is young to boot: Tulsi Gabbard.  She is 39 and has dramatic ideas to help ordinary Americans during this crisis.  Yet she’s been excluded from the Democratic debate by the DNC that can’t forgive her for supporting Bernie Sanders in 2016 while criticizing corruption within the party.

As Americans, we need to get serious about our leaders.  Trump has shown he has no answers.  Biden’s debate performances (among other public appearances) raise serious questions about his mental and physical capacity for office.

Yet as of this moment these two men appear to be our likely choices come November.  At a time of severe crisis, that’s no choice at all.