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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

We’re Not a Failed State, We’re a Failed Society

The Daily Escape:

Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, CO – photo by exposurebydjk. These are the highest dunes in North America.

Wrongo has written quite a bit lately about America’s fracturing social cohesion, and increasing white grievance as the greatest threats to our democracy. Here’s Wrongo on social cohesion:

“In the past, we had a set of unwritten expectations that members of our society were expected to comply with, like voting, paying taxes, and displaying tolerance for others. Even those deminimus expectations are fraying today.”

The COVID pandemic has many here and abroad saying the US is a failed state. George Packer argued this recently in the Atlantic. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says calling America a failed state is:

“…not only wrong, it’s irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst…. So stop saying that.

Ok DHS, the US isn’t a failed state, but we may be a failed society. We seem to have decided that while we have the means to succeed, we no longer want to try. From Duck of Minerva:

“Failed states lack the resources, equipment, and government capacity to provide public safety and public services. States like Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen fit this description. The governments of these countries can often barely project authority beyond the walls of their government buildings.”

This doesn’t describe America. We are the wealthiest, most powerful country on earth. We’re home to more Nobel laureates than any country. Our universities are the envy of the world. Our technology sector is the world’s most dynamic.

We’ve lost the will to use our vast strengths to make America a better place for its citizens. If America had the will, we would have blunted the COVID-19 threat, as have New Zealand, South Korea and Germany. Those countries all have far more social cohesion than the US.

And while it’s true that Trump has failed the country, our society no longer feels that we have responsibilities to each other, or to the nation. We have lost the willingness to make personal sacrifices for the good of the community.

Individualism is a crucial part of our national ethos, but it has morphed into selfishness precisely when we need to see ourselves as all in this together. The result is that we’ve shown that we’re incapable of mobilizing the capacity to address the worst threat to public safety of the 21st century.

COVID is the just the third major crisis in the 21st century.

The first was 9/11. Back then, rural America didn’t see New York City as filled with immigrants and liberals who deserved their fate, but as a place that had taken a hit for the rest of us. America’s reflex was to mourn, and mobilize to help. The ensuing Iraq War and partisan politics erased much of that sense of national unity, and fed a bitterness toward the political class that hasn’t faded.

The second crisis was the Great Recession. Starting out, Congress passed a bipartisan bailout bill that saved the financial system. Outgoing Bush administration officials largely cooperated with incoming Obama administration officials. The lasting economic pain of the Great Recession was felt only by people who had lost their jobs, homes, and retirement savings. Many have never recovered, and inequality has grown worse.

This second crisis drove a wedge between Americans: Between the upper and lower classes, between Republicans and Democrats, metropolitan and rural people, the native-born and immigrants, ordinary people and their leaders. Social bonds had been under growing strain for several decades, and now they began to tear. The lasting effect was increased polarization and discredited governmental authority.

Self-pity turned to anger. Anger at Muslims or Mexicans or gays or fancy-pants city folks (or all of them mashed together) offset by a group identity of white grievance. America’s tone changed to defiant anger and hostility.

This was the American landscape that the Coronavirus found: In the cities and suburbs, globally connected desk workers were dependent on the essentials, a class of precarious and invisible service workers. In rural America, it found hollowed-out towns in revolt against the cities. In Washington, Corona found a government that had lost its ability to rally, or work together for the common good.

In America’s president, Corona happily found Donald Trump, the perfect fit for this decaying society. When a corrupt minority rules a dissatisfied majority, there are consequences.

We have literally fallen on our asses. So much damage in a relatively short period of time. Our republic is much flimsier than we thought.

We need a second period of reconstruction in America. The first reconstruction failed because our society failed it. The second reconstruction must fix our failed society.

It will be long and difficult.

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What’s Behind Refusing to Wear a Mask?

The Daily Escape:

Hideaway Beach, Kauai, HI – photo by alohabaltimore

The message from health officials and local governments seems simple enough: Wear a mask in public to help control the spread of the Coronavirus; and the majority of Americans do. But a recent Pew survey showed that 15% only wear masks sometimes, while 20% said they don’t wear masks at all.

When the virus hit, we scared everybody into staying home. Then, we worried about the impact on the economy, so we pushed our governments to reopen too early. Finally, we decided that wearing masks would protect us from the virus after saying they weren’t that effective.

Most people want to do the right thing, but far from everyone. We’re no longer a “can do” country. Now we’ve become more like: “won’t do”.

Mask wearing has become a tribal badge. Trump mocked mask wearers for appearing weak. He’s said wearing a mask is a political statement against him, so it’s no surprise that mask refusers are more likely to be politically conservative. That’s an ominous trend when new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are increasing steeply in some red states, the very states where mask-wearing mandates are least likely to be adopted.

The mask refusers have also allied with the anti-vaxx’ers in a “you’re not the boss of me” stance versus the government.  As Kris Kristofferson said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, but with Coronavirus, that freedom to not mask up gives you plenty to lose.

And it gives the country plenty to lose as well. Wrongo wears masks in accordance with his state’s laws. Apparently, that makes Wrongo a liberal.

This story from Oregon shows the depth of the problem. A trooper of the Oregon State Police refused to wear a mask while patronizing a coffee shop, despite a mandatory order by the state’s governor, Kate Brown, that masks were to be worn in all public indoor spaces throughout Oregon.

The shop’s assistant manager told the trooper that he needed to wear a mask. The Statesman Journal reports that the trooper said:

 “Governor Brown has no authority to take our civil liberties. We aren’t going to wear masks.”

The manager recalled that the trooper then placed his order, offering this foul-mouthed retort to the governor’s mandate:

“He said, F— Kate Brown”.

This story carries a lot of baggage. First, the trooper is one of America’s anointed class of cops, for whom there is little consequence for bad behavior. Second, the trooper is a man. Men are more likely to opt out of wearing masks, even though men are at higher risk than women of dying from coronavirus infection. Third, Governor Brown is a Democrat, and a bisexual woman, so it’s unlikely that the trooper was a fan.

FWIW, the trooper was fired.

Most people understand that a mask protects you while offering real protection to other people. The message seems to have gotten across that masks are mainly about protecting others, but those troopers in Oregon, and many other people across America, are simply choosing not to participate in their own, or in your protection.

The recent increases in confirmed Coronavirus cases across the US South and West are being driven by young people who are not social distancing. The young are also least likely to wear masks.

We compel all sorts of behaviors. Seat belts while driving. No smoking in restaurants. No t-shirts with inappropriate text in high schools. But compelling mask-wearing for safety? That’s a bridge too far.

Here’s the thing: Encouraging people to wear masks hasn’t worked. Shaming people who won’t wear masks hasn’t worked. Reassuring people that masks are not a political statement hasn’t worked. Informing people about the serious health consequences of COVID-19 hasn’t worked. Reminding people they aren’t invincible, that the Coronavirus has killed young, healthy people hasn’t worked.

Begging people to wear masks, if not to protect themselves, then to protect others, hasn’t worked.

If we can’t convince anti-maskers to care about their own health, then we certainly won’t convince them to care about other people. It didn’t have to be this way: Pandemic, death, and depression. Things getting worse because we argue and won’t work together.

People are saying, we quarantined for three months, that’s enough. If your boat capsized, and you swam for three minutes, would you say that’s enough, you’ll stop swimming and drown, even though you can see the shore?

The solution isn’t elusive, but it requires more social cohesion and less faux grievance about freedom.

You want kids back in schools? You want the economy to restart? Wear a mask!

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – June 28, 2020

Why should you wear a mask? Wrongo’s FB friend (an MD) explained it well:

 “We don’t wear the mask to keep ourselves safe or even to make other people comfortable. We wear masks so the germs that spill out of the holes in our faces via water droplets and aerosols get caught in the mask and don’t get into other people’s eyes, nose or mouth or land on their wounds, clothes, hands or face….That way transmissions end with us. We stop the spread and can go about life almost like usual. Masks are also a great visual reminder of what’s going on…people stay back a bit. I actually wonder if that visual reminder is what so many people hate about masks. Do they want to pretend this is not happening or not a big deal or that they aren’t utterly failing society in every way?”

From Pew Research: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are about twice as likely as Republicans and Republican leaners to say that masks should be worn always (63% vs. 29%). Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say that masks should rarely or never be worn (23% vs. 4%).

Republicans also are less likely than Democrats to say they have worn masks in stores or other businesses always or most of the time in the past month.”

Fact Tank says that only 49% of conservative Republicans say they have worn a mask all or most of the time in the past month, compared with 60% of moderate Republicans.

All of this explains where the virus is expanding:

Wearing a mask is more threatening than an attack by terrorists:

Europe thinks we should wear masks:

A tough year gets tougher:

Times like these call for better drinking choices:

The presidential race is shaping up to be a real fight:

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Churchill’s Lessons For Our Time

The Daily Escape:

Algodones Dunes, CA – 2020 photo by _christopherjs. The Algodones Dunes cover 1,000 square miles of Sonoran Desert, making it the largest dune system in the US.

Wrongo fears that some of our country’s problems may be intractable. Blog reader Fred VK agrees:

“I’ve been distressed lately by how seemingly brain dead so much of the US population seems, not only regarding COVID-19 but more, the fragile state of our nation and what the forces of Trump have done and are doing. Some say we will never get back due mostly to lack of resolve. Years ago, I developed this notion that Americans were so complacent about our country and government because they believed that everything was so set in stone that nothing could shake it and that the republic was good to go as is forever.”

Things aren’t set in stone, and they don’t go to hell in a straight line, But from where we stand today, it’s questionable whether America can (or will) be able to solve its biggest problems.

So the question is: What should we be doing when we live in a country where you know bad things will continue to happen, and you can’t stop them?

Worse, in the time of COVID-19, we’re seeing that our efforts to prevent, or to moderate what’s wrong are failing. It’s worth considering that all of our efforts are barely slowing down the worst of what is happening to the climate, to inequality, to the re-emergence of racism, and the rising threat that factionalism presents. For many of us this hits home. We or our loved ones are among those suffering: losing our lives, homes, livelihoods, or living in despair.

We are far from the first to contemplate a civilization’s decline. From Ian Welsh: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“The Roman Empire went through multiple periods of decline…stoics and epicureans debated how to live the good life in an evil world. The Chinese practically had dealing with declining and corrupt imperial eras and warring…periods down to an art: When no good could be done in the world, one returned to one’s private life to write poetry, drink wine, and care for those close to one while refusing as much as possible to be complicit in the evil of the times.”

Words to live by: Avoid being complicit in the evil of the times. This can’t all be blamed on Republicans, but they are primarily responsible for the wrong that’s occurred in America since the 1980s. Can we work together to pull out of our current nose dive? It will require far better leadership than we have now.

Wrongo is reading Erik Larson’s book about Churchill and the Blitz. Larson focuses on Churchill’s first year as prime minister. On his first day, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Dunkirk was only two weeks away, and the blitz was about to begin.

Britain was woefully unprepared. They had just 45 fighter aircraft when Churchill took office, and no one thought Britain could hold out for long against the Nazis. Churchill managed to convince the British people of the “art of being fearless”. He bludgeoned his government and the military on to the same page. Many in England wanted to concede Europe to Hitler, if that meant even a temporary peace, and they had to be brought to see the fight was worth having.

This picture is from a London library during the blitz. It is also the frontispiece in Larson’s book, and shows how people try to normalize even under the worst of circumstances:

Via Shorpy

But we should no longer normalize. Churchill was able to bring his country together despite all the factionalism, and we must make that our goal. Reading Larson’s book puts our own political dysfunction in focus. It’s clear that today, when the stakes are very high (not as high as England in WWII), we also need robust and top quality leaders.

What is our job as citizens, if leadership is to be the difference? Wrongo isn’t saying we shouldn’t fight the big fights. The best way to lose the big fights is to not fight.

We need to cajole, or force if necessary, a few of our politicians to step forward and be the heroes we need.

Many heroes have emerged as the COVID-19 fight has unfolded. We’ve seen good people brought closer together. We’ve felt the pain that comes when we know we must transition from a weaker to a stronger place, but we know we’re not where we need to be.

Sadly, few if any of our current heroes have been politicians.

Some of them need to step forward, and take the chance to be the leader who can teach Americans the “art of being fearless” much like Churchill taught the British.

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