The State Won’t Save Us: Dis-eased Imaginations and Traumatized Hope

Here in the throes of Fogust, but it’s been quite foggy all summer (thank goodness!) The pink triangle on Twin Peaks for Gay Freedom was lit up by LED lights for the first time this year.

It seems like a year has gone by since I last blogged in May. (I spent a lot of time in the past month putting together a dozen and a half short videos based on “stops” in Hidden San Francisco.) The Black Lives Matter protests erupted and swept the country, larger and with more participants than any previous social movement in U.S history! The palpable, visceral disgust at living under an openly racist president finally boiled over and changed the whole tone of social discourse. The tacit or explicit approval of white supremacist culture is under profound challenge from all sides. It turns out a rather substantial majority of people living in the U.S. do NOT want to perpetuate a racist society, even if the ability to understand racism in its deep historical and structural foundations is not as strong as it should be. A poor and distorted system of teaching history (see John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight of August 2 for a good overview), combined with a long-term cultural preference for amnesia and denial, makes it hard(er) to impart a proper understanding of just how foundational racism is to both the United States and to capitalism. (Two books I read recently are great on this: The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson, and Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition by Cedric Robinson… more on these in a later post.)

Incredible art has burst out all over the many boarded up stores and restaurants all over the Bay Area, and presumably the world!
From the June 3 Black Lives Matter protest organized by Mission High School students and attended by about 15,000!
Dolores Park filled with protesters, nearly everyone with their homemade signs.
The most basic question
All the names on the wall behind this guy’s sign were killed by police too… in Clarion Alley

Meanwhile the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically worsened—and right along with it, the social dysfunction and madness that denies the pandemic, that refuses common sense public health measures, and believes in the most outlandish, contradictory, paranoid conspiracies to explain what is going on, have all gone viral too. It turns out that outlandish, superstitious nonsense that purports to explain epidemics is nothing new. In Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Frank M. Snowden details the many panics and hysterias that accompanied the plague, cholera, typhus, and typhoid fever, before science developed new ways to understand them. The oddity of our current pandemic is how much scientific knowledge is present—and dismissed—in the midst of this crisis. In part this is a result of the triumph of the Cult of the Market, which leaves all explanations and solutions to market mechanisms regardless of the plain necessity of a massive, publicly funded and centrally coordinated public health campaign. The corrosive individualism that dominates U.S. life is a direct cause of the broad failure to adequately confront Covid-19. Ideological obsessions have literally ‘trumped’ common sense and well developed public health practices, putting us in the twin holes of increasing disease and death and economic collapse.

The government is teetering between a full-blown militaristic assault on its own cities and a blithe “nothing to see here” ostrich-head-in-the-sand approach to the unfolding events. From one day to the next, we are bombarded by the narcissist blowhard’s stunning ignorance, endless disinformation and self-serving promotional blather, to the dire warnings of local and state health officials, to soaring statistics of illness and death (even the basic numbers are denied by the crazies of the right and ultra-left). The trauma being inflicted on everyone in this society is going to be with us for a long time, regardless of when this pandemic is finally halted, or if Biden beats Trump—the new wave of PTSD will take its own toll for years to come.

Democracy Wall on Valencia still going strong.

Beneath all this is the underlying reality that what once passed for public discourse—primarily visible in the daily newspapers dominated by the Associated Press and its anodyne center-right-to-right presentation of the daily news—has been destroyed by the new Internet monopolists, Facebook, Google, Amazon. The silo-ing of opinion and news has proceeded so far that we now have a hard time imagining how to undo it. In reality, there has never been a true “public discourse” that included everyone. Most people just watched, whether the myriad minorities of our culture, anyone to the left of the center-right, or even the 40 million or so who believe the Bible is the literal truth. What has happened with the tweetification of news and information is that everyone is getting in on it, and so far, no one has established a hegemonic version of their “truth” as one that everyone shares. Instead, the multiple versions of truth and facts are ever more certain of themselves while denying the veracity of any contrary or inconvenient facts or ideas.

This is not to glorify the “good old days” of three networks with three white male anchors defining the parameters of acceptable discourse like it was when I was young. A good deal of the skepticism now prevalent towards experts and expertise is rooted in the revolt against authority that reached a brief zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s—a revolt that was entirely justified and only failed to go far enough. Moreover, the hand-wringing of liberal lament over the lost civility of decades past elides the blatant exclusion of a majority of the population from that space of “civility,” whether African Americans, women, LGBTQ folk, etc., all left out until the militance of the mid-century upheavals thrust them briefly onto center stage. Criticisms of “shrillness” still dog women as they run for office, while various glass ceilings enforce gender and racial hierarchies more or less as they always have, the occasional black or female executive notwithstanding. The severe widening of the wealth gap, a decades-long process only becoming more exaggerated with every passing month, has opened an abyss into which millionaires and their “betters” seem committed to plunging society.

And that leads rather inexorably to another deep problem on our plates. For many activists the obvious solution to so many of the problems we can easily identify is to win elections and put the government on a new path—or at least help re-establish a basic commitment to facts and science! Even for the more radical, seizing the state one way or another still seems the path towards changing the direction of society. But the state has always been a creature of capital, serving to construct and then manage “free markets” to ensure the subordination of workers to the imperative of wealth accumulation and concentration. The brief interregnum of social democracy (in the U.S., the New Deal) in which redistribution and social safety nets were put in place by the state using a progressive tax system (upwards of 90% income tax on the richest during the “golden era” of 1950s Eisenhower Republicanism) has been unraveling ever since the 1970s. A half century later, it is a ghost that haunts political imaginations, but offers little by way of meaningful solutions for the transformative changes we simply must enact.

Continue reading The State Won’t Save Us: Dis-eased Imaginations and Traumatized Hope

The Virus of Delegitimation

During the May 1 Cancel Rent car caravan, I of course had to attend by bicycle… with my banner! (Photo by Brooke Anderson)

While I may be sick of wall-to-wall coronavirus in the media, and we’re all a bit stir-crazy with the physical distancing and staying home, I’m NOT sick of this luminous, sensuous, expansive, amazing HALT that we’re living through now. I’m cautiously excited about the profound crisis of legitimacy this pandemic is inducing in our already brittle, exhausted, and criminally insane society. After weeks of imagining how different life can be, and seeing the amazing resurgence of turtles on a beach on the east coast of India, crocodiles on the beaches of Oaxaca, Mexico, and countless other regenerations and reappearances, and sharing the clean air and sparkling views we now have every day, who hasn’t stopped to ponder the possibilities of NOT going back to “normal”? I’ve argued for decades that life could be SO wonderful, SO much better than the pathetic charade we have been imprisoned in until now. But we had to stop working, stop producing that world, and after a healthy break to think about it, start producing the world we want to live in. Maybe the sudden devaluation of shopping, celebrity, and spectacle has enriched our lives and opened our senses to overlooked possibilities? Did we inadvertently stop and smell the roses?

Bumble bee on 15th Avenue stairway.
Covid-19 testing site at Garfield Park in the Mission during early testing effort.
After the initial census tract got tested, it finally opened up to everyone.
Everyone is wearing a mask now!
Trying to help and make a few bucks too…
Major effort at our home sweatshop!

My mind wanders these days, even as I try to focus on one theme or another. Public health, pandemic disease, bird flu, ornithology, speculative fabulism and science facts, medicine and authority, and on and on. I’ve been reading a lot about public health, and even dived (dove?) into the history of epidemic disease here in San Francisco thanks to City of Plagues by Susan Craddock. In it, she shows how poor people were harshly pathologized in 19th century San Francisco, getting blamed for getting sick (since their poverty was a result of their poor character, not an unequal social division of wealth). San Francisco’s white workers directed their frustration and racist wrath at the Chinese almost from the beginnings of statehood, and recurring smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, diphtheria, and other disease outbreaks were repeatedly blamed on Chinese. Public health officials took advantage of this prevailing logic to invade Chinatown on missions to “clean it up,” leading most dramatically between March and October 1903 to the destruction of 160 buildings and the eviction of 70 more in the small neighborhood during a bubonic plague eruption. No studies were ever done on the health effects of repeated use of chlorinated lime, carbolic acid, bichloride of mercury, and other noxious substances during these “clean-up” campaigns. After the 1906 earthquake, the devastated city was overrun by hundreds of thousands of rats, and it was finally understood that fleas on rats were the source of bubonic plague. Chinatown, was one of only three districts that did not have a plague problem since the neighborhood had already been rebuilt and sanitized. The rest of the City went on a rat-killing frenzy, and also began pouring cement where wooden floorboards had been in basements and back yards. Dr. Rupert Blue, the city’s Health Commissioner, said, “The disease [was being] built out of existence. This is the hope of San Francisco and in time that city will be one block of concrete throughout.” It was this same post-quake campaign that led to the removal of chicken coops, horse stables, and all domestic livestock from San Francisco. A decade later, the 1918 flu ripped through San Francisco twice, even inspiring a public revolt against wearing masks, before being largely forgotten until Covid-19 refreshed our memories.

Line for food pantry at St. Peters Church on 24th street on April 17, 2020.

The bizarre reality we are living through, when history has suddenly jumped up and seized us all by the throats (or lungs for the unlucky ones already sick), has led to a rapid reconsideration of what is important. For most people, family and friends and the vital connections we have with the people we care about, has moved front and center. Considering what we really need has been an unexpected bonus to this enforced staying-home. Seems toilet paper is very high on the list for a lot of folks, but more broadly, access to food, electricity, and communications has taken on central importance. Care provision, whether by front-line medical workers, or the legions of low-wage workers who had been toiling unappreciated in skilled nursing facilities or childcare centers, also looms large as a basic necessity, elevated by this crisis. Whatever follows this economic shutdown, the folks who provide care for our elders and children may finally gain some long overdue recognition for their essential work. And the ongoing scandalous neglect of people in elder care situations—warehouses for the aged—run by for-profit monsters who exploit their workforces, and provide the bare minimum of comfort and service for their “clients,” may finally be revealed in its naked brutality. And changed forever?

Continue reading The Virus of Delegitimation

Practicing Anarchy While the State Fiddles

From Hong Kong

It’s April 12 and we’re still under shelter-in-place orders which were extended to May 3. They may likely be extended to June, who knows? We don’t really get a chance to participate in these decisions, they just mysteriously come from “the authorities.” Do we trust them? Who are they exactly? How would we have a more democratic process in this situation? With so much apparently falling apart, where is our agency in this moment? Old habits of passivity, trust in authority, and our general isolation from any kind of engagement in the larger dynamics that shape our lives tend to dominate our experience. We really need to find another way.

I’m out every day, bicycling or walking through the streets, climbing Bernal Heights, enjoying the serendipitous social encounters with old friends here and there. I’m also in a few email conversations that have lengthened to dozens of missives, with a variety of links to smart analyses appearing all over.

In San Francisco, as of today, we still have less than 1,000 cases and just a dozen or so deaths, out of a population of about 800,000. San Franciscans have been very cooperative and adaptable, and have largely engaged in a self-managed process of physical distancing and reorganizing everyday life. It’s downright anarchic! Yes, the government called for shelter-in-place in mid-March. But lots of people were already doing that before then, and as soon as the call went out, it seems that a huge majority of the city readily complied. It’s part of why I like living here. I think we can do this. We can take common sense actions together, without coercion or heavy-handed enforcement. I’ve shared so many moments already of people cooperating, thanking each other, standing aside on a path, making way in an almost crowded grocery aisle, waiting a few feet behind at a corner so as not crowd each other. It’s remarkable! It’s anarchy for real, albeit on a very small scale.

Continue reading Practicing Anarchy While the State Fiddles