Tag Archives: coronavirus

Killing All The Right People

In a 1987 episode of Designing Women, a show about four interior decorators in Atlanta, the titular characters discover a good friend is gay and dying of AIDS. They are naturally distraught, but one of their customers is smug and satisfied. In a diatribe about how AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality, the bigoted belle screeches “as far as I’m concerned this disease has one thing going for it: it’s killing all the right people.” The indomitable Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter (who herself was a lifelong conservative), reads the woman the Riot Act, throwing her out of her business to applause from the studio audience. It’s one of the most powerful television moments of the 1980s.

I’ve been thinking about that scene a lot since yesterday, when three things occurred which might not seem entirely connected, but are. Larry Kramer, the legendary gay rights and AIDS activist, passed away, aged 84. Then, the nation reached a grizzly milestone: 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. As this was happening, President Trump retweeted a video of a supporter mirthfully telling a crowd of likeminded Red Hats that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” No, really. See for yourself.

What do these things have in common? Two of them tell us a lot about the dangerous times in which we find ourselves. One of them shows us the way forward.

None of us exist in a vacuum, least of all the President of the United States. His acolytes will insist that the president did not watch the video, or that the “Cowboys for Trump” leader who said Democrats are only good when dead was being hyperbolic, or that he clarified that he didn’t “mean it in the physical sense” but rather in the “political sense.” It doesn’t matter. The gun-toting militiamen heard what they heard, what we all heard.

It is a nifty little trick of theirs, to walk back statements or send coded messages which provide plausible deniability. As the author and academic Reece Jones pointed out this week, these far-right terrorist groups have developed their own vernacular and symbols, such as wearing aloha shirts as a way of signaling their desire for a second Civil War. The cowboy Red Hat said what he meant, the President amplified it and thanked him for it, and his supporters heard what they were meant to hear: “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat. I don’t mean that literally… wink, wink.”

Of course, sometimes they escalate beyond coded language. Earlier this week, an effigy of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was hung from a tree by a far-right militia group. In 2018, a Trump supporter was arrested for planning a bombing campaign against Democratic officials. Back 2011, Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot when a gunman opened fire on an event she was holding in her district. Six were killed that day, including a federal judge, a congressional staffer, and a nine-year-old girl. I guess they’re good Democrats, now.

This callous indifference of Trump and some of his supporters to the lives of those who do not look and think like them should not surprise anyone. We probably crossed the threshold into a six-digit coronavirus body count weeks ago, but it officially happened yesterday. The president, who had time to tweet his thanks to a man who believes the opposition party is better dead than alive, did not acknowledge the somber and gut-wrenching news until this morning.

Why did it take the President so long to comment?  Well, it’s a remarkably cogent tweet, striking the right tone and without any grammatical errors or random capitalization, indicating that Trump probably had some help composing it. Perhaps the staffer charged with making him sound human was out yesterday. More likely, though, it is simply that he did not care.

The President did, however, care enough to endorse the notion that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat, and this pandemic has killed a lot of Democrats. The New York Times recently ran an article comparing how the coronavirus has disproportionately affected blue states, as well as Black people and Latino people, who are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. The President and Congressional Republicans have refused federal aid to states like New York and Illinois, callously labeling much-needed help for ailing Americans as a “blue state bailout.” These Americans are largely Democrats, though, and the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat. So blue states get nothing, and the death toll rises. After all, like AIDS in the 80s, it’s killing all the right people.

Which brings me to Larry Kramer. Best known as the confrontational, unapologetic founder of ACT UP, Kramer never minced his words. “Some reporter called me ‘the angriest gay man in the world’ or some such,” he once said. “Well, it stuck, but I realized it was very useful.” He used that anger to draw attention to a plague which ravished the gay community, but also to the innate bigotry of many Americans, especially those in power. “Too many people hate the people that AIDS most affects, gay people and people of colour,” he wrote, listing ten hard-learned lessons from the AIDS epidemic.

These lessons are still relevant today as Americans face the bleak truth that the president hates half the country and is literally willing to let them die. We must harness our righteous anger at a man and a movement which threatens our lives and sneers at our deaths. We must defeat not only Trump, and not only Trumpism, but a literal plague they are weaponizing against us. We must stand up and say, quite simply, “enough. Our lives matter.”

A sublot of “Killing All The Right People” is Mary Jo (played brilliantly by Annie Potts) reluctantly being forced to publicly advocate for birth control to be offered at her daughter’s school. In a moving speech towards the end of the episode, she chokes back tears as she speaks to a crowd of parents, and to her dying friend. “I think that it really shouldn’t matter what your personal views are about birth control, because you see, we’re not just talking about preventing births anymore,” she says. “We’re talking about preventing deaths. 85,00 Americans have died, and we’re still debating. Well, for me, this debate is over.”

For me, too, this debate is over. Donald Trump does not care about coronavirus deaths because he thinks the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat, and right now COVID-19 is disproportionately killing Democrats, or at least people who fit his perception of Democrats. We cannot allow this callousness, this hate, to continue to permeate our politics and our nation. We can’t argue over our right to life. Instead, we must do as Larry Kramer did and fight like hell for it, because the only good Democrat isn’t a dead one. The only good Democrat is an angry one.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

In the face of coronavirus, we need a little Blitz Spirit – but not in the way you think

“Well, it’s a national emergency,” I said to my grandmother yesterday as she lamented that she couldn’t find toilet paper (Brits read: loo roll) at the supermarket. “People need to stop hoarding and start realizing that we might have shortages. We might need to ration. America needs a little Blitz Spirit.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, Blitz Spirit refers to the attitude of Londoners during the blitzkrieg, or German aerial bombardment of London during the Second World War. It’s marked by stoicism, resilience, and cheerfulness in the face of a perilous situation. Over the ensuing decades it has entered British civic religion as the defining national trait, a stiff upper lip, “keep calm and carry on” attitude.

Writing in The Atlantic, Helen Lewis explained why Blitz Spirit won’t be enough to save the UK from the coronavirus. “As the government inevitably restricts Britons’ lives to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” she writes, “the country has to reject the voices urging us that we are overreacting, that we should stoically stagger on, as Saint George or Boudicca or Winston Churchill might have done.” Rather than carrying on as usual, this time we must do the opposite and change our behaviour to meet the moment. Anything less could be catastrophic.

She is right. During the Blitz, Londoners went to pubs, gathered around bombed out homes, mingled in parks and continued going to work and school. In the face of a deadly pandemic that is the worst thing you can do. Social distancing works and, as experts have said, flattening the curve—meaning slowing the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm our medical resources—is imperative. Doing that means staying home a lot more than we’re used to and, rather than pulling together as a community, staying as far away from one another as possible.

So while in that regard Blitz Spirit is the last thing we need, there is another way to look at it—one I think we should emulate in the face of this international emergency. Yes, the dogged determination to just get on with things was a defining trait of Londoners during the Second World War, but they also understood, more or less, that in order to provide for the greater good they would have to make personal sacrifices. Foodstuff would be rationed by the state, curfews would be implemented, children would be separated from their parents in evacuations. None of this was easy, some of it was mandatory, but all of it was necessary in order to get through the crisis at hand.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I read through the comments on a Facebook post in which I asked folks how concerned they were about coronavirus. Most people were at least somewhat worried, if not for themselves then for their more susceptible friends and relations.

Yet you couldn’t be on social media yesterday and not see empty store shelves where people have panic-bought everything from the aforementioned loo roll to, according to one Facebook friend, heads of lettuce. And while most of my friends—which, it should be said is obviously not a random sampling nor a scientific poll—said they are at least a little concerned, others admitted to being shockingly blasé about it all. Whether because they think God will protect them, or they are young and healthy, or they don’t think they’ll get it, they’re going about their days and ridiculing the “panic” of everyone else.

It really bothered me, not only because this kind of attitude will help spread the virus far and wide, but because it illustrated an incredible selfishness—just as those panic-buying all sorts of items are demonstrating. Hell, people are already stealing NHS hand sanitser. Our societies are incredibly selfish, and in moments of national crisis that is incredibly dangerous.

Dr. Patti Minter, a history professor I studied under at Western Kentucky University who is now a State Representative in Kentucky, once said to me that “Ronald Reagan made it okay for Americans to be selfish again.” It’s a comment that has stuck with me over the ensuing years, and one I think is equally applicable to Margaret Thatcher and the UK. We are an incredibly selfish society, both countries, prioritising our needs over the needs of our community.

That happened during the Blitz too, of course. There was a black market for goods being rationed, and people tried to cheat the system. But by and large, people understood that in a moment of national crisis personal sacrifice was required. They made it without complaint. It was what needed to be done, so they did it.

We need that kind of moral clarity and certitude now. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, society nearly disintegrated. People didn’t heed the warnings, gathered in large crowds, the virus spread, and then it was every man for himself. Folks wouldn’t check on the sick, wouldn’t bring food to those infected, no one would bury the bodies—people self-isolated too late, but when they did, my God did they self-isolate.

In a 2017 essay for Smithsonian Magazine, historian John M. Barry explains how bad it got:

 

In Philadelphia, the head of Emergency Aid pleaded, “All who are free from the care of the sick at home… report as early as possible…on emergency work.” But volunteers did not come. The Bureau of Child Hygiene begged people to take in—just temporarily—children whose parents were dying or dead; few replied. Emergency Aid again pleaded, “We simply must have more volunteer helpers….These people are almost all at the point of death. Won’t you…come to our help?” Still nothing. Finally, Emergency Aid’s director turned bitter and contemptuous: “Hundreds of women…had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy…Nothing seems to rouse them now…There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.”

 

And this is where Blitz Spirit comes in. As much as it has always been about having a stiff upper lip, it has also been about doing what needs to be done for your community and your country. We cannot give into the fear, but also cannot give into the selfishness. I see it happening already, and it’s deeply concerning. We need to face the reality that the only way we’re going to survive coronavirus is if we all pull together.

That means you may have to go without toilet paper. You might not be able to go to your local coffeeshop or bar. Those concert tickets you have? You might not be able to use them. That big trip you were going on? Cancelled.

Suck it up. Take one for the team. Even if you think you’ll be fine, think about all the people who won’t. Think about what happens if you get sick and spread it to your grandpa, or your elderly neighbour, or the little old woman trying to fill her prescription at the chemist (Americans read: pharmacy). We need to think about one another right now, which starts with accepting that we’ll have to make some sacrifices over the next few months.

So stay home. Watch Netflix. Make your own coffee. Don’t horde. Don’t panic-buy. In fact, don’t panic at all; panic is useless and counterproductive. But accept that things are going to get hard for you and for everyone else. This is a national crisis, whether you’re in the US or UK. It’s going to hurt.

We’re all going to feel it one way or another. That’s what happens in a national crisis. But remember, the operative word there is not crisis. It is national.

Show some Blitz Spirit and do what needs to be done for the country, not for yourself.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan