January 18, 2021

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

It’s MLK day and things are relatively quiet. I’ve learned to steel myself in recent weeks before opening my news feeds to see what’s happened over the last day or so. I was quite relieved to read through my digests this morning to find that all of the threatened nonsense for the long weekend vowed by those responsible for the violation of the Capitol has not come to pass. There have been some rather desulatory state level demonstrations, but nothing to compare with what came before. Whether it’s because the riot at the Capitol has finally shocked American society out of its complaisance about extremism or because those forces are simply biding their time until we are all looking the other way to organize and strike again I do not know. I simply know, due to my study of historical patterns, that the Big Lie of a stolen election, Trumpism, and the bizzareness known as Q-Anon aren’t going away any time soon and will continue to influence our politics for a while to come.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. I was a toddler when he gave that famous speech and I’ve heard it and its message my entire life. I’ve done my best to live up to the ideals of that dream and to see that my part of the world does as well. I’m human and imperfect so I haven’t always succeeded but I have kept slowly pushing to be a better accomplice for equality and justice and I know that’s going to be a life long challenge. I’m a white male of the professional class, one whose parents believed in education and in books, so I’ve had certain systemic advantages through life. Being openly gay has been a disadvantage but it’s also helped me see inherent biases and to recognize that correcting those biases aren’t any sort of personal attack on me and mine. I think a lot of the support for the toxic brew of white nationalism, evangelical christianity, and populist sloganeering that’s in vogue comes from people who haven’t been able to understand this, that changing society to allow broader anticipation isn’t about tearing down what is, but rather about adding to and strengthening to allow others to contribute their inherent gifts. It takes tesserae of all shapes, colors and sizes to create a moasic.

When it comes to history and the understanding of social structures and movements, I’ve always been of the opinion that the underpinnings are economic in nature. Who has the money? Where does it flow? Who gets to adjust those flows in terms of taxation and economic policy? We’re living in a time of extreme wealth. The amount of money our current titans of industry control would make the Roman Emperors blush. And the pandemic has hastened the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands as the economic fallout has hit small business far harder than large. When I read about fortunes in the billions, I wonder how one even begins to spend that sort of money? For the most part, it isn’t spent, it’s simply concentrated and the various net worth lists become a sort of score card in the great game of amassing a fortune. Honore de Balzac once wrote ‘Behind every great fortune is a crime’. I wonder if that continues to hold true.

Revolutions of 1848

We’re living in a time, not unlike that of the Industrial Revolution, when a small number of wealthy set national economic policies for their benefit to the detriment of those who actually generated the wealth. In the battle of people vs profits, profits were coming out ahead until about 1848 when various revolutionary reform movements began both in Europe and in the Americas. The pushback, which continued over the next eighty some years eventually led to fair working hours, the abolition of child labor, the idea of the pension, workplace safety laws, the existence of the weekend, and a thousand and one other things that we take for granted. People were finally valued over profits and the resulting policies led to the post World War II world with which we’re all familiar. However, capital and profit always fight back and, since the 1950s, bit by bit, profit has been renegotiating the social contract in its favor. Pensions became 401Ks forcing the middle classes to favor economic policies that were pro-capital and market economy. Recepients of social largesse were recast as moochers and thieves. Public investment in infrastructure was curtailed (compare public buildings and spaces in this country with those in any other developed nation to see where that’s left us).

When a stress such as the corona virus hits a society where the balance is tilted towards profit and away from people, you get what we have seen over the last year. An unwillingness to do the sorts of hard shutdowns necessary to control spread. A lack of response of the government to the people regarding the economic pain and anxiety of even partial shut downs. A public infrastructure eroded by neglect that cannot deliver tools such as PPE or vaccine efficiently. A general sense that 400,000 deaths to date is some sort of bearable collateral damage. A general message of we’re all on our own and good luck to you. Will that start to change this next week with a change of administration? I don’t know. The politics may change but the underlying economics will remain the same without some significant heavy lifting in all three branches of government and I’m uncertain that they’re prepared to do that.

In late January, 2020, a resident of San Jose by the name of Patricia Dowd, a woman the same age as I, developed flu like symptoms. Like most of us, she thought it was no big deal and stayed home treating herself. She died suddenly in her home on February 6, 2020. She was the first known US vicitim of Covid-19. 400,000 more have followed her since then. It only took us five weeks to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and thanks to holiday gatherings, the pace continues to accelerate. We will be at nearly 500,000 deaths on the first anniversary of her passing, more than we lost in four years of World War II and approaching the number lost in four years of the Civil War. We’re well on track for Covid-19 to become the worst mass casualty event in American history. I have hope that we will turn the corner this spring. Vaccines should become more available. They don’t necessarily prevent spread but they definitely prevent the serious forms of the disease that require hospitalization. There is an opportunity, with a new administration, to change the type and tone of public discourse. Better weather will allow more socialization outdoors which is considerably safer.

In the meantime, you all know what to do, vaccinated or not: Wear your mask, wash your hands, social distance, and avoid crowded indoor spaces.

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