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Re: On behalf of the platypus

Posted by beckett2 on April 12, 2020, at 2:40:52

In reply to On behalf of the platypus, posted by sigismund on April 9, 2020, at 18:39:26

From today's New Yorker:

"The American Exception

By Zadie Smith

April 10, 2020

[Photo of trump at top.]

He speaks truth so rarely that when you hear it from his own mouthMarch 29, 2020it has the force of revelation: I wish we could have our old life back. We had the greatest economy that weve ever had, and we didnt have death.

Well, maybe not the whole, unvarnished truth. The first clause was neither true nor false: it described only a desire. A desire which, when I heard itand found its bleating echo in myselfIll admit I weighed in my hand, for a moment, like a shiny apple. It sounded like a decent wartime wish, war being the analogy hes chosen to use. But no one in 1945 wished to return to the old life, to return to 1939except to resurrect the dead. Disaster demanded a new dawn. Only new thinking can lead to a new dawn. We know that. Yet as he said itI wish we could have our old life backhe caught his audience in a moment of weakness: in their dressing gowns, weeping, or on a work call, or with a baby on their hip and a work call, or putting on a homemade hazmat suit to brave the subway, on the way to work that cannot be done at home, while millions of bored children climbed the walls from coast to coast. And, yes, in that brittle context, the old life had a comforting sound, if only rhetorically, like once upon a time or but I love him! The second clause brought me back to my senses. Snake oil, snake oil, snake oil. The devil is consistent, if nothing else. I dropped that apple, and, lo, it was putrid and full of worms.

Then he spoke the truth: we didnt have death.

We had dead people. We had casualties and we had victims. We had more or less innocent bystanders. We had body counts and sometimes even photos in the newspapers of body bags, though many felt it was wrong to show them. We had unequal health outcomes. But, in America, all of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong skin color. Wrong side of the tracks. Wrong Zip Code, wrong beliefs, wrong city. Wrong position of hands when asked to exit the vehicle. Wrong health insuranceor none. Wrong attitude to the police officer. What we were completely missing, however, was the concept of death itself, death absolute. The kind of death that comes to us all, irrespective of position. Death absolute is the truth of our existence as a whole, of course, but America has rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole, preferring instead to attack death as a series of discrete problems. Wars on drugs, cancer, poverty, and so on. Not that there is anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the dates on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effortand its relative successbeen linked so emphatically to money as it is in America. Maybe this is why plaguesbeing considered insufficiently hierarchical in nature, too inattentive to income disparitywere long ago relegated to history in the American imagination, or to other continents. In fact, as he made clear early on in his Presidency, entire shithole countries were to be considered culpable for their own high death ratesthey were by definition in the wrong place (over there) at the wrong time (an earlier stage of development). Such places were plagued in the permanent sense, by not having the foresight to be America. Even global mass extinctionin the form of environmental collapsewas not going to reach America, or would reach it only ultimately, at the very last minute. Relatively secure, in its high-walled haven, America would feast on whatever was left of its resources, still great by comparison with the suffering out there, beyond its borders.

But now, as he so rightly points out, we are great with deathwe are mighty with it. There is a fear, when all of this is said and done, that America will lead the world in it. And yet, perversely, the supposed democratic nature of plaguethe way in which it can strike all registered voters equallyturns out to be somewhat overstated. A plague it is, but American hierarchies, hundreds of years in the making, are not so easily overturned. Amid the great swath of indiscriminate death, some old American distinctions persist. Black and Latino people are now dying at twice the rate of white and Asian people. More poor people are dying than rich. More in urban centers than in the country. The virus map of the New York boroughs turns redder along precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and middle-school ratings. Untimely death has rarely been random in these United States. It has usually had a precise physiognomy, location, and bottom line. For millions of Americans, its always been a war.

But now, apparently for the first time, he sees it. And, in a hurry for glory, he calls himself a wartime President. Let him take that title, as the British Prime Minister, across the ocean, likewise attempts to place himself in the Churchillian role. Churchill (who actually fulfilled his wartime role) learned the hard way that even when the people follow you into war, and even when they agree youve had a good war, this does not necessarily mean they want to return to the old life, or be led by you into the new one. War transforms its participants. What was once necessary appears inessential; what was taken for granted, unappreciated, and abused reveals itself to be central to our existence. Strange inversions proliferate. People find themselves applauding a national health service that their own government criminally underfunded and neglected these past ten years. People thank God for essential workers they once considered lowly, who not so long ago they despised for wanting fifteen bucks an hour.

Death has come to America. It was always here, albeit obscured and denied, but now everybody can see it. The war that America is waging against it has no choice but to go above, around, and beyond an empty figurehead. This is a collective effort; there are millions of people involved in it, and they wont easily forget what they have seen. They wont forget the abject, exceptionally American predicament of watching individual states, as the New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, memorably put it, bidding as if on eBay for life-saving equipment. Death comes to allbut in America it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder.

One potential hope for the new American life is that, within it, such an idea will finally become inconceivable, and that the next generation of American leaders might find inspiration not in Winston Churchills bellicose rhetoric but in the peacetime words spoken by Clement Attlee, his opposite number in the House of Commons, the leader of the Labor Party, who beat Churchill in a postwar landslide: The war has been won by the efforts of all our people, who, with very few exceptions, put the nation first and their private and sectional interests a long way second. . . . Why should we suppose that we can attain our aims in peacefood, clothing, homes, education, leisure, social security and full employment for allby putting private interests first?

As Americans never tire of arguing, there may be many areas of our lives in which private interest plays the central role. But, as postwar Europe, exhausted by absolute death, collectively decided, health care shouldnt be one of them.

like a bird on a wire




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