Pandemic, Protest, and Profit.
Musings of an Early Riser: June 13th, 2020
Musings of an Early Riser: June 13th, 2020
So, here we are, at it again. For me the chaotic progression of these last months is a reminder of my introduction to America, fifty years ago, as a graduate student in North Carolina. National Guard troops, riot gear, rubber bullets, stun guns, tear gas and armored vehicles: do we ever learn?
Of course, this time there are some differences. A fast moving worldwide viral pandemic, for one. But that does not excuse America’s inept and poorly managed public-health response, enabled by the dysfunctional denial of reality by a myopic and self-absorbed President -- nor the resulting disproportionate number of deaths among poor, elderly, Black and Latino citizens. And then, amidst the civil shut-down designed in defense against the virus, came the capricious and brutal police killing of George Floyd: an incendiary grenade that ignited protest and stirred common outrage, across the Nation and the world.
As the spread of the virus accelerated, international markets were shuttered. In America over 20 million people were abruptly laid off. Unemployment, which had been running around 3.5% at the beginning of March, soared to over 14% in April. Stock markets plunged. Such shifts are reminiscent of the Great Depression, now almost a century ago. "Those jobs will be back,” claimed Trump on Fox News, "they'll be back very soon." Sadly, not so. Employer-supported health insurance began disappearing and rents were not paid. Millions of Americans began turning to food banks, many for the first time. In contrast, after billions were garnered from short selling, stock markets shrugged, rallied, and then began to rise. By early June the Dow Jones Industrial Average had made back some 80% of its losses. With their unemployment rate hovering around 20%, however, such statistics offered little comfort for many African-American and Hispanic families.
Across the board Americans were unhappy, and significantly so. In polls conducted by the University of Chicago 80% of participants felt that there was something seriously wrong with America, a sentiment that had grown in step with the predominantly peaceful, anti-racist, protests daily gripping the Nation’s attention. The US had also stumbled in managing the pandemic. In Europe the number of coronavirus cases had been dropping since April whereas in the US, after a brief plateau, they rose once again with over 150,000 deaths, and counting. Related to this failed response to an international humanitarian crisis, but perhaps of even greater long-term concern, was that on the world stage America's reputation for moral and scientific leadership had entered rapid decline . In the words of the late George Carlin, comedian and satirist, “Americans have embraced a culture where steep profits and shallow relationships have multiplied our possessions but reduced our social values.” Rather than markets serving the common good, we had enslaved ourselves to their perpetual growth.
From the beginning -- from America’s founding -- markets have been worshiped in this Nation as an ideology rather than for what they really are, as a natural product of human social evolution and as valuable tools with which to construct an equitable, thriving, society. As I explored in my book American Mania, and more recently in its companion volume The Well-Tuned Brain, America’s traditional immigrant values of resourcefulness, thrift, prudence and an abiding concern for family and community have been hijacked in recent decades by an all-consuming political self-interest where profit in the marketplace is no longer considered the means to an end, but as an end in itself.
The video of my conversation with David Milch is above.....
While taped in the summer of 2015, it is even more timely today .
Los Angeles, June 2020
History informs us that self-indulgent strivings, blindly pursued, do not end well. Shortly after The Well-Tuned Brain was published I had the privilege of discussing my musings with David Milch, the Emmy Award winning writer and producer of television dramas, including Deadwood. This series, set among the Black Hills of South Dakota during the gold rush of the 1870s charts the growth of an illegal frontier settlement from primitive mining camp to incorporated town. Deadwood, in its history, is notable for the many wild characters – among them Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and Seth Bullock – who were lured to the Black-Hills in hunger for riches, only to find death. David Milch, harnessing his extraordinary talents as a story-teller, weaves Deadwood’s colorful history into a powerful allegorical tale of how unfettered self-interest, exploitation, and raw violence must ultimately yield to the recognition that only through mutual understanding, built on rational discourse, can the bedrock of a prosperous and viable social order be secured. It is a timeless story, one that remains powerfully relevant, even today, in America’s ongoing struggle for unity and cultural balance.