You are uneven.
– Koleka Putuma, “In Limbo”[i]
There are movies that discuss moments like this. A true ‘alien’ enemy threatens the survival of the planet and the only thing left to do is come together, to “spare no resource” and do whatever is possible to save as many lives as possible. In these cinematic scenarios, everyone seems to get it. This is a pandemic – during a pandemic people die, viruses spread by way of interacting with carriers of the virus who are sick and/or carrying while not showing signs of sickness. In the cinematic scenarios, the announcement by the World Health Organization, of a pandemic would result in a panic. The United States Federal Government would whip into action to try and mitigate the damage. The people would panic in the streets before quarantining themselves away from everyone. Citizens in the United States would watch the maps across the news screen illustrating the damage the virus is doing abroad in China, Iran, and Italy and they would prepare anxiously, heroically, for a storm that prepares to shake the foundations of their world. The alarms and sirens would ring, and the people would wonder, “Is this the end of America?”
The only dissonance this time is real life. In real life, Americans are just beginning to feel a panic they have impressed upon the world for centuries. Yet, it is a panic hastened only by what stands to be America’s uniquest quality, namely, the fundamental inability for Americans to imagine that the scenarios dreamed of in Hollywood and inflicted upon the rest of the world can be made into realities on American territory. If there ever was a question around whether or not there is a such thing as American culture then, let the oft-cited “but that can’t happen here,” be its motto. The most exceptional characteristics of American exceptionalism are being made into a dangerous satire in the wake of the coronavirus.
One headline reads, “US Rep AOC implores New Yorkers to Stop Crowding Bars and Restaurants” – pictures had been circulating on Twitter of people in New York carrying on like nothing had happened, nothing had changed, all was well and fine. The coronapocalypse movie script probably wouldn’t even get accepted by the big wigs in Hollywood. Where’s the commotion? Where’s the anxiety? Where’s the paranoia? These people, captured in broad daylight, are not fully to blame. Their President hasn’t exactly been clear on whether or not the virus, officially named a pandemic by WHO, is something they should be concerned about. Donald Trump originally described the virus as a “Democratic Hoax.” After this, Donald Trump continued to downplay the virus tweeting out to his base that the coronavirus was no different than the flu despite the fact that, “Early guesstimates, made before data were widely available, suggested that the fatality rate for the coronavirus might wind up being about 1 percent. If that guess proves true, the coronavirus is 10 times as deadly as the flu,”[ii] The dispute between former Miss Nevada Kate Williams and AOC just about sums it up as Kate Williams brags about eating at a crowded Red Robins against the best public health wisdom. Kate’s argumentative response to the vice and virtues of ‘social distancing’ were warranted because as she put it, “This is America. And I’ll do what I want.” For some reason, “This is America,” doesn’t hit the same after Childish Gambino’s audiovisual rendition of its most problematic elements; or rather, “This is America,” doesn’t hit the same after Donald Trump’s obliterated any semblance of symbolic capital attached to the valor of American hegemony; or rather, “This is America,” doesn’t hit the same after multiple (failed and ongoing) imperialist excursions, settler-colonial enterprises and supports, hyper-capitalist exploitation and branding and re-branding of slave relations. International World, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
The intensity of the American sense of invincibility only means that when America falls it will be one of the hardest of all. America’s Americans do not know how to wrap their head around the idea of a “pandemic” in real life since it would require America’s Americans to reject the logic of exceptionalism which forever considers the threat to be external. In real life, Americans are finally recognizing the limits of celebrity, rhetoric and disavowal as methods of proper engagement.
A satirical article written in the newspaper best describes the paradigm shift with a headline stating, “Dr. Anthony Fauci changes Trump’s Twitter Password.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has become the face of the United States’ response to the coronavirus. He’s been leading the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease since 1984 and has worked with every United States President since Ronald Reagan. In that time, Fauci has had his fair share of encounters with pandemics. Denise Grady, a science reporter for The New York Times writes, “He has led federal efforts to combat diseases caused by emerging viruses, including H.I.V., SARS, the 2009 swine pandemic, MERS, Ebola and now the new coronavirus.”[iii] His open refutation to Trump’s inaccurate and/or overly-optimistic claims have garnered him an additional amount of profile in the media lately. He’s refuted Trump’s claim that a vaccine will be available “very soon” by stating instead that the vaccine would probably take up to a year or eighteen months. He’s refuted Trump’s claim that a “cure” might be possible and stated instead more precisely that antiviral drugs were being “studied to see if they might make the illness less severe.” A quote from an article in Politico has Fauci stating, “You should never destroy your own credibility. And you don’t want to go to war with a president. But you got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.”[iv] Fauci’s truth-telling is his claim to fame and there are two truths that Fauci has spoken that one can imagine providing a cinematic backdrop for protagonist in a film looking to breakaway from a world in chaos. America has yet to really begin to reckon with these statements, and perhaps even extend, beyond Fauci’s own admission, their avenues of possibility. For those already at war with the president for borders being built against their loved ones, prisons made despite their fundamental inability to rehabilitate, worlds paved by way of sexual violence and violation, and exploitation built on extraction of labor and land, these truths turn the end of America into a door of opportunity.
The first truth worth sharing is that: “Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better.” This truth could have been foreseeable by anyone paying attention to the affects of coronavirus on the rest of the world. Yet, while Americans laughed and discriminated their way through the suffering of China and Iran, all that can be done as Europe begins to shutdown and infections rise across the Continent is feign impossibility. Newt Gingrich, in a desperate attempt to forewarn against this, wrote an opinion piece in Newsweek with the headline: “I AM IN ITALY AMID THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS. AMERICA MUST ACT NOW—AND ACT BIG.” Faced with the possibility of doom, Gingrich, like Fauci before him, praised Trump’s decision to shutdown travel to China and Europe before announcing that major changes must be done in order to address the public health crisis or else, “if America begins to have the Italian scale of deaths, we would be losing 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 Americans. If it really got out of control, the rates could go higher.”[v] In these day, we are reminded that the worsening of conditions of health was well in prime effect prior to the coronavirus and all the virus serves to do is make clear what can no longer be concealed. The infrastructure of America is built on the illusion of power by way of force before care.
This leads us to Fauci’s second truth which is that: “The system is not really geared to what we need right now.” Let us take a moment before the wave arrives to remember that the system is not really built for this. The United States Healthcare Infrastructure was not built to publicly support the influx of citizen’s needing to be assisted by medical doctors, physicians and social support. The United States Infrastructure is built on the primacy of war before care or rather, war as the primary mode of care. While Fauci insist that the previous system worked for what it was intended to do, let us say of that system en toto what Fauci has said of it specifically, namely, that “It is failing. Let’s admit it.”[vi] Let us take a moment before the waves arrives to never forget – the ruins of this world belong to the leaders that destroyed it. In the ruins of this world, let us remember to work towards the invention of the next.
We who know that this world was never enough for the very people who finally become a quantum of concern (like the uniquely vulnerable ‘tens of thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle’[vii] who Newt Gingrich finally can recognize) must foreclose the transition from crisis to disaster capitalism that has been so finely articulated in the work of Naomi Klein[viii]. The machinations of such a transformation, the tools for producing them, pre-exist this national emergency and have been pieced together by traditions of radical struggle since before the birth of the American Empire in 1619. Kara Keeling writes in her book The Witch’s Flight that, “Each present, or any-instant-whatever, contains the possibility for the black’s liberation because that present tends toward an indeterminate action.”[ix] This indeterminate present fits well into her theory of cinematic reality. A theory which states, “the possibility for liberation lies in a cinematic reality wherein the whole is the open, change is possible, and there exist, as [Henri] Bergson puts it, ‘actions that are really free, or at least partly indeterminate.”[x] It would be ironic if one of the most devastating blows to the fictions of American hegemony came to a cinematic conclusion. As the birth of this nation, and the rise of the pseudo-Pax Americana are both so intimately tied to the rise of cinema and D.W. Griffith’s racist, iconographic film Birth of A Nation made in 1914. The United States could be said to have founded its identity in cinema, violence and the omnipresent, unconscious fear of the plague. In Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, it is black people and black bodies which serve as the plague’s metaphorical embodiment. A brief plot synopsis might underline how a wave of blackness attacks a healthy civic body wherein it becomes the duty of the Ku Klux Klan to save civil society from this growing black plague. These days the Ku Klux Klan is in the White House and it doesn’t look like there will be much saving in the coming future. The hope, however, is that we might use this moment to further Frantz Fanon’s famous injunction to “bring invention into existence.” Keeling writes, “Fanon’s injunction to introduce invention into existence is a call for an embrace of a space and a time that might be unknown. It is a call for a theory of real movement, a theory that complicates … the set of questions that is currently theorized under the rubric of ‘representation.’ It is a call for an understanding of history and ‘the whole’ as the Open, not as the teleological unfolding of progressive instants.”[xi]
One of the precious minor locations for a practical reinforcement of this call has come from graduate student TAs in the UC school system. The UCSC call for “COLA4ALL”or a “Cost of Living Adjustment for All” while universal in name is particular in practice with each demand focused solely on the working conditions of graduate student workers. What this broken system of health, education, and care unveils is the necessity of a COLA4ALL for ALL. The capitalist administrators of University’s have tried to turn this disaster into opportunity in much the same way as is to be expected from neoliberal institutions invested in continuity over rupture and invention. But the sociopolitical problems of large swaths of the planetary population struggling with rent-burden, low wages and economic inequality, uninsured and under-insured health concerns, incarceration and mass detentions cannot be pushed aside eternally. Thus, we who wish to bring about a new age in the aftermath of the coronavirus mustn’t haste in embracing this space and time of the unknown. COLA4ALL must be an abolitionist call, followed by the various forms of structural rearrangements that would be generative of a new ordering of the patterns, structures and architectonics of the World. May this World know no borders, nor no boundaries, nor no cage. Indeed, rather than accepting the terms and conditions dictated by administrative leadership and bureaucratic elites, it is time we refuse these terms and continue this journey of building our own. The days of care-less, biopolitical neoliberalism may be slowly coming to a close as the horizon of death evens an uneven playing field. The end of America is near. In the process of its closing, what is needed, are visionaries, that might not simply imagine another way of being-together, but in the limbo of its becoming, began to introduce it into existence.
[i] Koleka Putuma, Collective Amnesia (Uhlanga, 2017), 65.
[ii] Yascha Mounk, “Cancel Everything,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2020.
[iii] Denise Grady, “Not His First Epidemic: Dr. Anthony Fauci Sticks to the Facts,” New York Times, March 8, 2020.
[iv] Sarah Owermohle, “‘You Don’t Want to Go to War with a President’: How Dr. Anthony Fauci Is Navigating the Coronavirus Outbreak in the Trump Era,” Politico, March 8, 2020.
[v] Newt Gingrich, “NEWT GINGRICH: I AM IN ITALY AMID THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS. AMERICA MUST ACT NOW—AND ACT BIG | OPINION,” Newsweek, March 13, 2020.
[vi] Elizabeth Chuck, “‘It Is a Failing. Let’s Admit It,’ Fauci Says of Coronavirus Testing Capacity,” NBC News, 2020.
[vii] Gingrich, “NEWT GINGRICH: I AM IN ITALY AMID THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS. AMERICA MUST ACT NOW—AND ACT BIG | OPINION.”
[viii] Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Allen Lane” (Penguin Books, 2007).
[ix] Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Duke University Press, 2007), 71.
[x] Keeling, 72.
[xi] Keeling, 67.