Tag Archives: Pandemic

Public Wealth and Private Squalor

At this point most Americans would settle for a federal government that might work at least as well as the local Costco, food pantry or grocery store: setting reasonable safety rules and providing most of what people need.

These are tough times for the twin ideas that the United States is a “can do” nation and beacon of individual rights. Rather than serving as a model for the rest of the world, the aggressive federal response to protests in Portland and regressive efforts to deal with the wildfire-spread of Covid-19 surely creates more pity from other populations than envy.

Our inability to put reasonable controls on individuals to deter them from spreading the virus has made an American passport partly useless. Our neighbors to the north and south don’t really want us to come across their borders: a denial of visiting rights that extends to many other nations as well. And who can blame them? Leadership from the federal government mostly lacks the will to use its powers on behalf of the safety of its citizens: the most basic kind of malfeasance. The withering of a federal response to the pandemic has left the task of guaranteeing access to even the most elemental of services to many ill-prepared states and cities. This doesn’t necessarily describe all government employees or members of Congress.  Instead, the problem is with too many passive leaders at the top. And so—with some exceptions–we still lack timely virus testing, income maintenance for many workers left unemployed, protections for small businesses, and too little help for families on the edge of homelessness or caught in the grip of poverty.

Kids are now the political instruments of choice for an administration that craves the appearance of normalcy.

Even so basic a process of guaranteeing citizens an education comes down to a non-nuanced policy that simply says “open your doors,” even though many parents and communities are struggling to keep their families safe. Kids are now the political instruments of choice for an administration that craves the appearance of normalcy. At this point most Americans would settle for a federal government that might work at least as well as the local Costco, food pantry or grocery store: setting reasonable safety rules and providing most of what people need.

Another contagion has also spread through the country from the Trump administration or its followers: dangerous health advice and semi-official conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, the presence of allegedly corrupt voters, unpatriotic activists, “fake news” Democrats, “the media” and even the federal government’s own experts.  Reasonable evidence-based judgments are too painstaking and exact for the frail intellects that now populate the ranks of political appointees in Washington and some of the states. What some leaders want to believe now easily out distances what the facts should oblige them to accept.

Of course, the very wealthy are going to be ok.  Having abandoned city houses for second homes, many are prepared to hire private tutors in lieu of sending their children into harm’s way. The ability of some of us to buy our way to safety is a reminder of economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous observation about the United States: that it tolerates private wealth even in the presence of public squalor. His description perhaps explains why so many Americans like to visit Europe, where the costs of functioning health care and public services are often built into the tax structure. We love cities like Amsterdam or Stockholm because fundamental infrastructures are in place, more or less, for everyone. Even through this pandemic some countries have worked to secure the future viability of schools, small businesses, arts organizations, public broadcasters and universities. In terms of similar cultural cornerstones here, we have yet to see how bad the American retreat from the core obligations of a civil society will be.

Simulated Versus Real Experience

Is a day at Disneyland a “genuine” experience, or a kind of grand simulation:  one that is mostly manufactured with a potential range of outcomes that are heavily circumscribed?

The quarantine and shutdown of many businesses has sent Americans back to their homes and to pursuits both virtual and actual.  A recent news story about the resumption of some live sporting events offers an interesting test of whether we still notice the difference.

Presumably, a virtual or “designed” experience is one created specifically for an audience.  It’s usually constructed with specific goals, like selling a pleasurable event and profiting from it, but retaining only the the illusion of authentic experience.  Visiting a theme park tests the theory well.  Is a day at Disneyland a “genuine” experience, or a kind of grand simulation:  one that is mostly manufactured with a potential range of outcomes that are heavily circumscribed? These days, our real main streets hardly resemble the Orlando version.

Similarly, is a baseball game of real players in a stadium where the pandemic mandates that there be no fans still a “real” event to us, especially if the network carrying the game is “sweetening” its audio with fake crowd noise? Presumably, an audio technician matches the ebbs and flows of the action on the field with digital effects that mimic those used in a video game.  There might be a real game happening in real time at the site, but the game coming from your television would be an auditory fraud.

This is more or less the equivalent of a laugh track of recorded shills added to a situation comedy, as when character A enters stage left to peels of laughter and applause. Or it could take the form of a phoned-in user endorsement for products touted by hosts during a QVC promotion.

While we are at it, is a film a simulated experience?  If so, why don’t directors add audience reactions to their carefully constructed audio tracks? And what about the simple act of listening to recorded music? The staples of manufactured experiences surely remain strong; Netflix, videos and on-demand content streamed by YouTube are often cherished as sanity lifesavers.

All of this tests our susceptibility to succumb to any simulated event as a full representation of what lived experience looks like.

But there is also another narrative about people who have shunned simulated experiences for something closer to their real thing: bike rides around town, hikes in local parks, or socially-distanced picnics with friends. I also have friends who have more seriously taken up painting, writing, learning a foreign language, gardening, cooking and long-postponed home repairs.  Others have revisited their home libraries for another look at a favorite book. I’ve also heard hopeful stories of children who don’t want to spend any more time on a screens that have been used for homework and instruction from their schools.  The want their birthright back: to engage in activities where they retain the spontaneity that comes when the outcome of an experience is not already decided for them.

One of the hopeful long term effects of this pandemic may be that more of us have a new appreciation for the value of finding our own paths that will allow us to exercise the mostly unused muscles of creativity and personal innovation.