Naming the Problem

I live in a beautiful place.

We built on this land, with all the chaos of that; Spouse had built houses before, and I fell in love with the woods. It reminds me, to this day, of where we’d go camping every year when I was a kid: Valcour Island, on Lake Champlain. We weren’t allowed electronics–not even watches–so I brought books, and a journal, and I read and wrote and swam for a week. I remember blowing up air mattresses, the taste of the rubber; I remember the sound of the rain on my tent, the howling of the wind, being afraid; I remember being damp for days, the heat of the sun on the rocks, the feel of the cool water on a hot day. We’d swim at night, sometimes; ill-advised, but we all survived it.

I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much now. But I’m guessing it would smell familiar, too.

I ran into this tweet today, which said something very clearly I’ve been, along with others, struggling to articulate:

This is, I think, the fundamental difference between the US and the rest of the world, and why things are so bad here. Which is to take nothing away from the folks who deny the science, or don’t want to wear masks, or who scream “Hoax!” while people are being hospitalized–but I don’t think they’re the biggest driver of the numbers. At best, they’re a side-effect: a result of fear and frustration, and the increasing sense that we have no control over our own fates.

But the thing is, the fear and frustration–and, I believe, a lot of the disbelief–all come not from ignorance, but from how many of us do not have options. Our governments “allow” businesses to reopen, so employees will no longer be eligible for unemployment. Which means people are left with the choice of paying their bills, or risking their lives.

A civilized society–especially one that likes to crow about how rich it is–has no business putting people in that position.

If we had locked down in March, or even April, we’d be largely done by now. But we didn’t, because some people didn’t want to spend the money. In the end, it’ll cost the country far more, and we’ll have hundreds of thousands unnecessarily dead.

So yeah, I get the rage. I get the desire for control. I get the derision at the people who won’t obey the rules, who seem absurdly addicted to a narrative that makes all of this not real.

They’re not the problem. They’re a problem, certainly; but they’re not the ones who caused this pandemic, and they’re not, for the most part, the ones making everything drag on and on.

This is a systemic failure, and being angry with one another won’t fix it.

It’s hard, I’ve noticed, for people outside the US to understand how truly pathological the situation is. We debate minimum wage in a country with no employment protections and a regressive tax system. We value individualism over the lives of our neighbors, and often our own. We see government as an adversary, something to be tolerated, forgetting it exists because we created it for the collective public good. That it’s utterly failing to look after the public good right now isn’t an artifact of 2016; it’s an artifact of decades of erosion of democratic ideals that never came to fruition to begin with.

TL;DR: We’ve fucked up our government. We never had it right, but it’s only now becoming clear to the rest of the world how thoroughly we’ve botched the job.

I started writing this thinking we need to be kinder to each other. We do. Now more than ever. We’re bombarded with horrific numbers and videos of people acting like asshats. We feel helpless and isolated, and we begin to resent our neighbors because of what we think they might believe. We lose sight of what’s beautiful.

That makes us weak.

OCD, I’m told, is an anxiety disorder. This kind of thing is strange for those of us who are anxious. On the one hand: aha, this time I’m not being paranoid! On the other hand: oh, shit, this time I’m not being paranoid. Fear is exhausting. It saps strength and risks taking us out of the fight.

We have to fight, however we can. That’s part of being human: eternal optimism. We have to believe we can beat this. We can’t let anger with rule-breakers make us lose focus about what’s really going on here, which is that the federal government is choosing to make this situation worse. We have our neighbors, our local governments, our state governments if we’re lucky. Nationwide coordination isn’t going to happen. We need to stay focused, and stay on our toes.

But we can also, in the midst of all this, take a breath now and again, and remember there’s more to the world, to our own lives, than a pandemic.

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