One of my favorite webcomics was the short-lived Minus. Beautifully painted, surreal, often touching, there is no place for it on the Internet. It ran two years, closing in 2008 after 140 episodes.
The best Minus hangs on my wall next to the dinner table. I received the print from a friend, a reminder in stressful times. The strip starts with the discovery of an asteroid headed to wipe out the planet. People take the normal reactions one would expect: prayer, panic, looting, resignation. And then there’s the final panel, featuring Minus reacting to impending doom the way she does.
Reacting how I hope I would. With a baseball bat.
Alas, it’s not how I’m facing this current health/economic/social distancing disaster, mostly because it hasn’t formed into the one we expected or were trained for. That’s evident in everything, from the mismatch in capacity between the threat and our current administration (we were promised Morgan Freeman) to the calm and complete denuding of the toilet paper aisle. As Laurie Penny says, “I was not expecting to be facing this sort of thing in snuggly socks and a dressing gown, thousands of miles from home, trying not to panic and craving a proper cup of tea. This apocalypse is less Danny Boyle and more Douglas Adams.”
In her piece for Wired, Penny continues describing the difference between a catastrophe and an apocalypse. Catastrophe is total devastation: the ocean rising into cities, the glowing orange blast. And there’s always a shot of the Statue of Liberty, always destroyed, possibly floating. Apocalypse, on the other hand “means a time of crisis and change, of hidden truths revealed. A time, quite literally, of revelation.” All our films and media prepared us to fight it out, survive in the most purely Hobbesian state of nature, likely with katanas and leather thongs.
That’s not us. That’s not now. COVID-19 will be catastrophic for the hundreds of thousands who have family die or severely sickened as well as the millions that will be out of work or displaced. The rest of us get to wait at home with Tiger King and back issues of Monocle. We were not expecting our tribulation “to be so silly, so sweet, and so sad.” This will be devastating.
But something else is happening while we wait for that revelation and new beginning. The story of this quarantine and depression is being written by the least imaginative confederacy of dullards and magpies ever to pick over Christopher Hitchens and Jordan Peterson first drafts for hot takes. They’re stealing the story of this time and setting the agenda for the next.
The words we use matter, and it will shape how we come out of quarantine. It’s time we get it right.
Disorder ain’t the enemy.
Every catastrophe has certain folks twisting the situation and using it to further disparage disfavored groups. In the early phases of the COVID-19 epidemic (and continuing through regular White House press briefings) the targets were Asian immigrants and neighborhoods. The potential origin of the disease and failed rounds of containment were used as justification.
In more recent variants, commenters have targeted the poor or the unhoused. Without a safe place to stay or way to travel, folks depend on public transit, find shelters, or live outside. Here, social distance becomes a weapon and a way to cut one group away from the rest of society. The blunt tip of these ideological safety scissors is former Seattlite and documentary propagandist Chris Rufo.
In a recent piece at the administration mouthpiece Daily Signal and recycled for the ironically named City Journal, Rufo attempts to lay blame at the foot of progressive West Coast governance for spreading disease in sanctioned homeless encampments. He calls it a “potential tinderbox for infection.” The argument trots out many tired tropes about decriminalization as cruelty and progressive activism as fascist, with plenty of scare quotes. Then it shrouds the threat in terms of contagion.
Calling them “the New Favelas” in City Journal, Rufo declares that the “West Coast experiment with sanctioned homeless encampments has proved disastrous.” Favelas are slums or shanty towns in the Global South. Often impoverished, mostly haphazard, and always shielded or cleared during moments of potential embarrassment, favelas are an image of chaos on the hillsides rising above bustling urbanism. Or the image of getting something for free.
Pointing to Oakland, Rufo brings in half accurate quotes from a year of television reports; fails to differentiate between sanctioned camps, unsanctioned camps, and safe parking sites; then spends 200 words yelling about Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant. And as usual, Rufo pulls quotes and makes citations in the most cursory way. There are lots of links, but many are circular or were updated. Most egregiously, he cuts off the parts that contradict his argument that it’s the progressive governance of these cities putting unhoused residents in danger.
One quote of The New York Times is used to say that those experiencing homelessness had double vulnerability to COVID-19: close quarters and underlying conditions. Rufo accurately gets the first part, but truncates: “once infected the chronically homeless are more likely to get much sicker or die because of underlying medical conditions and a lack of reliable health care.” (Italics omitted from Rufo’s quote.) That omitted part makes this much broader than just a liberal city. While these ideologues place blame on blue voting districts, cities are taking the brunt of the larger, systemic issues.
Cities and liberal governance are shorthand. Rufo talks how shelter-in-place exemptions for those experiencing homelessness are “an acknowledgement that public authorities cannot provide shelter or maintain public order.” His article repeatedly uses intensifiers like “frightening,” “ceded,” and “failed”. He uses “outbreak” five times, and only once in regards to COVID-19. It’s a mess of loaded words that drive them all to meaninglessness.
In the end, the argument made is not about maintaining order. It’s about maintaining a certain type of order: perfunctory cleanness in a stress-free environment.
Density ain’t the enemy.
High up the blame list for the wildfire spread of COVID-19 throughout the United States is the concept of density. Too many people living too close together. Governors got in on it. Pundits got in on it.
It’s an easy argument to dispatch, given the quick work done to tamp out the virus in super dense places like Hong Kong and Shanghai, and the continuing work to quash it in Germany and Japan.
The foreignness of those places is enough to allow for a single counter argument. “They’re different.” They have a predisposition to wearing masks. They have a cultural predilection to obey commands to shelter. They live somehow otherwise. However, that means that it’s very much like like the argument about order. We’re not actually talking about density, we’re talking about a certain type of density.
So let’s tease that out for a moment. The United States has a type of order that is uniquely susceptible to contagion. We have a particular type of density that is particularly susceptible to viruses. It’s American exceptionalism, in reverse.
What’s actually true skirts on something that. There is something that just isn’t working. Half the country will point at Capitalism. Half the country will point at Socialism. Instead, let’s look at something a little more fundamental.
Everything in our system–any system–can be broken. (Think for a second about the fact that we have two Popes. Then consider there’s a movie about it that was deservedly nominated for Oscars.) But parts of our system break in such different ways. Some things are fragile and some things are brittle. There’s a difference.
Fragile suggests a thing is breakable, but able to be put back together. More than just stiffening in the onslaught, fragility offers the potential of the repair being stronger than the original. Or, like Kintsugi, the Japanese method of using gold to repair broken pottery, showing the layers of beauty in service and detachment from one type of perfection.
Brittle is stiff, rigid, and completely obliterated under too much stress. I had a fiberglass rod for a tent. It lasted a hell of a long time; years of being ignored in a closet, then put into service irregularly to see if it worked, and thrown in the trunk to be unused when we decided it was 11pm and there was a perfectly good hotel RIGHT THERE. But under a bit more stress than normal (read: children) it absolutely shredded. The fibers went the wrong way and its place in the tent required it to hold tension in just the opposite direction than it broke.
The comparison, in many post-90’s pop psych books, is that it fragile versus brittle symbolizes a difference between women and men. Women visibly pop under pressure and can be reassembled by a crack team of supporting sisters. When men are put under too much stress, they can be ground to an unrecoverable powder and take their violence out at the business end of a weapon.
It is not always right to compare the tensile strength of materials to the breaking point of humans. But it’s wholly okay to do that with parts of our legal doctrines and economic systems. We’re literally watching the most brittle parts of our law be shredded to dust. Stupid stuff, like alcohol delivery and the width of sidewalks are laughably incorrect in the face of a disease that will kill at least a quarter million people.
Weird laws have shown themselves remarkably resilient. Homeowners associations are requiring more COVID 19 reporting than the federal government. Renters have more risk than landlords when it comes to economic downturns. I can horde toilet paper in my garage, but I can’t sell it from there unless I have a Home Occupation license in a majority of subdivisions in this country.
The tough times will be when we ask–and we will be asked–how brittle is it? That question is hard enough to answer when we’re faced with saying goodbye to even the most beloved coffee shop. But something that employs thousands of people or has hundreds of thousands of acres of property or has millions of dollars of capital at risk? Can something be brittle if it’s never been tested? Our banking system has only tested itself. Our rent system has never been tested the way it’s about to be. Who even knows about the cruise industry.
We are about to see what parts of our neighborhoods are fragile and which are brittle. There is going to be–there is already–a repeating refrain that transit is dead, density is dead, cities are dead. They will be coming from folks that are secure that their industries have funding. The things that have gotten financial support–cars, airplanes, cruise ships–haven’t been tested in nearly the same way. When we hear density, we have to decide if that’s being used as a proxy. Is it someone’s fear of the different? Or is it their argument to let something remain untested while they are protected elsewhere.
“We’ve met the enemy…”
There was a fun article about the preparation teams are doing for the NFL draft, which will switch from the cheering crowds and commissioner hugs to a remote studio show. The article was not fun because it was interesting, but because it gave us those inane sports koans that have been missing without games. “The intangibles are really very tangible.” “This can be a stressful time, but the organizations that handle the stress best will win.”
These are just as meaningless as declaring War on a tangled strip of RNA in a fat jacket. Fighting COVID-19 is not a conflict of attack and defense. It’s not even a fight. The catastrophe we are dealing with is one of getting stuff right that we should have been doing already. Communicating with trusted scientists and institutions. Sustaining nimble and valuable community networks. Washing our damn hands.
This ain’t a war because we’ve polluted the word. We fought a War on Drugs (that funded terrorists), then a War on Terror (that funded narco-despots). We’ve had a War on Crime, a War on Poverty, the Culture Wars, and the Cola Wars. And every tin-pot demagogue rallies their affected miscreants with the same chant that they’re being attacked, from the War on Christmas to the War on Cars.
This ain’t a war because wars don’t save us. Wars obliterate an enemy and do little for the people at home. All the effort to obliterate an errant strand of debilitating genome means nothing if we don’t do it again. And again. And again, ad nauseaum. We can only fight this monster to a draw. The folks that come in to decimated battlefields after the fight with pushbrooms and sanitation are the ones that make the peace.
These folks are vital to the outcome of this contest. But so are the words we use. Like Rufo’s racist Favelas, or Trump’s targeted China Virus, or Cernovich’s misguided Density argument, COVID-19 gets past our defenses because of the fatty nonsense that shields the destructive payload. Their words have meaning. And it’s to deliver a payload destructive lies.
Our words must have meaning too. We are not fighting a virus. We’re saving people. We’re not deploying weapons. We’re connecting lifesaving equipment. We’re not obliterating an enemy. We’re washing our hands.
Connecting our wellbeing to fellow human beings means we’re not in a zero-sum game anymore. Mine does not reduce yours. I’m not trying to take up a field to declare victory. Really, we’re all just trying to keep the important things–water, toilet paper, and strong beer–continuing for the duration of our stay in close confinement with our dear relatives.
So this is not a baseball bat moment, as much as it should be. We’re not going to be able to stand there and beat back this threat with 34 inches of American Ash. But it is a baseball time, nonetheless. And that’s because we are returning to an era of meaningful words. As the king of meaningful words, George Carlin put it the best when comparing the violent war pageantry of football to the National Pastime:
“Baseball has no time limit: we don’t know when it’s gonna end – might have extra innings…
In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there’s kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there’s not too much unpleasantness…
In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!”
Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.