Forum Post: "'All The Psychoses of US History' : How America is Victim-Blaming The Corona Virus Dead!" ... by Lois Beckett
Posted 3 months ago on May 27, 2020, 1:01 a.m. EST by ImNotMe
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"'All The Psychoses of US History' : How America is Victim-Blaming The Corona Virus Dead!" by Lois Beckett:
"As racism warps the US pandemic response, a health crisis has escalated into a Culture War."
Why do Americans represent less than 5% of the world’s population but nearly a third of the known coronavirus death toll? Not because of government incompetence, the Trump administration is arguing, but because Americans are very unhealthy.
The United States’ organized response to the pandemic had been “historic”, Trump’s health secretary, Alex Azar, told CNN on 17 May, but America “unfortunately” has a “very diverse” population, and black Americans and minorities “in particular” have “significant underlying disease”.
Jake Tapper, the CNN anchor interviewing Azar, paused and squinted. Surely, he asked, Azar was not arguing that “the reason that there were so many dead Americans is because we’re unhealthier than the rest of the world?”
Azar doubled down: “These are demonstrated facts.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s the fault of the American people that the government failed to take adequate steps in February …” Tapper said.
“This is not about fault. It’s about simple epidemiology,” Azar said, adding in a pious tone: “One doesn’t blame an individual for their health condition. That would be absurd.”
Blaming black Americans for dying from a novel virus because they had diabetes or high blood pressure was precisely what Azar was doing. Someone had to be held responsible for an American death toll approaching 100,000 people, worse than any other country’s reported deaths. In order for the Trump administration to remain blameless, someone else had to be blamed, and the administration was now blaming the dead.
It took less than a month after the first shelter-in-place orders to devolve into a full-blown partisan culture war, complete with armed protests egged on by the president; conservatives questioning or denying death numbers; pundits arguing against a continued lockdown with lines like, “You can call me a Grandma killer”; attempts by hair salons and barbers to stage acts of civil disobedience; and some states led by Republican governors moving to quickly reopen, even as other states with Democratic governors announced months of continued restrictions.
A majority of Americans remain supportive of public health restrictions, including nearly half of Republican voters and 68% of people who have lost a job or suffered a pay cut.
The anti-lockdown demonstrations at state capitols have attracted a messy jumble of protesters: anti-vaccine activists and other conspiracy theorists, rightwing provocateurs, members of known anti-government militias, gun rights advocates, established conservative groups backed by wealthy billionaire donors, Republican stalwarts and people who were actually out of work.
It would be wrong to argue that racism was the sole motivation for the protests, or even a decisive factor for the many different protesters who showed up.
But the moment when the US response to coronavirus escalated into a full culture war is revealing. The big protests at state capitols, with crowds of white Americans demanding their governors reopen the economy, started about a week after national news outlets began reporting in early April that black Americans made up a disproportionate number of the dead.
Systemic racism created the health disparities that made black and brown Americans more vulnerable to dying from coronavirus, public health experts say; and now the same racism is also shaping, and undermining, the country’s political response to the pandemic.
Back to the Puritans
It’s not surprising that Americans, who are used to tackling every problem through the lens of “individual rights”, would struggle with how to respond to the collective demands of a pandemic.
“It’s this mismatch in terms of a social problem, and the tools we have at our disposal to make sense of it,” the sociologist Jennifer Carlson said.
Americans don’t have much of a national vocabulary for talking about collective action and sacrifice. Jon Stokes, a gun rights activist from Austin, Texas, has strong opinions about tyranny and freedom. But he said he was frustrated that some of his usual allies did not seem to understand that dealing with a novel virus, in a country where no one has immunity, required a different kind of politics.
“Our rights are being violated. That is all actually real,” Stokes said. “But this is one of the few times when that’s OK. Pandemics – these call for a collectivist response. They don’t work without one.”
For some wealthy Americans eager to reopen the economy, the motivating fear may be the risk of social change, the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz said.
“The capitalist class, those who benefit most from the unequal system, they know it’s not sustainable,” she said. “They’re desperate not to stay locked down too long, so people get used to fresh air, breathing air without carbon in it,” she said. “People might get ideas of a different kind of world.”
To Dunbar-Ortiz and other historians, Americans’ push to reopen the economy during a pandemic, and some Americans’ willingness to hold armed demonstrations in order to do so, looks like a case of almost psychotic repetition.
It’s not a new idea that thousands of people must die to preserve America’s “business as usual”. It’s not a new assumption many of those people will be brown or black.
The Navajo Nation, where many families do not even have running water to wash their hands, has one of the highest rates of coronavirus in the country.
The coronavirus culture war is “kind of a petri dish of all the psychoses of US history”, as Dunbar-Ortiz, the author of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, put it.
European colonists established their settlements in the midst of the mass death of indigenous people and opened the American market for business “at gunpoint, in the wake of that epidemic”, said Patrick Blanchfield, the author of a forthcoming 500-year history of American gun violence. Enslaved black people died performing the essential labor that kept the economy running. The smallpox virus the Europeans had brought to a new continent full of people with no immunity would leave tens of millions of people dead.
Today, “who is being asked to die for the market to be open?” Blanchfield said. “It’s black people. It’s Native American tribal communities.”
Early Puritan accounts of arriving in the New World and seeing indigenous people dying of illness are marked by a familiar self-righteousness. The Puritans look at an epidemic and “think it’s a divine dispensation”, Blanchfield said. “The very fact that people are dying is taken as both pragmatically offering market opportunities ... but also as a theological vindication of your own survivorship.”
That Puritan instinct to see infection as a sign of guilt, and health as a kind of vindication, is currently playing out across the political spectrum.
American liberals sometimes treat their belief in science as a kind of religion, Blanchfield argued, fetishizing technocrats and rejoicing when conservatives who do not “believe in science” are punished.
Some liberals have posted comments regretting that they could not wish that participants in “reopen” protests would get coronavirus, because they might infect other, innocent people, Adam Kotsko, a political theorist, said.
After Georgia decided to reopen businesses early, despite continued warnings from public health officials, one liberal activist with a large following tweeted “sips coffee” as her only comment on an article reporting that Georgia had seen 1,000 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours.
Even as some leftists on Twitter were calling the GOP a “death cult”, other leftists were suggesting that the punishment for unbelievers should be death.
This impulse to blame other people for getting sick is rooted in fear, said Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University.
“Everyone wants some narrative, to explain the unimaginable level of illness and death and vulnerability that we’re all feeling,” he said. “Everyone wants there to be a logic to this.”
The victim-blaming on the left, though, has come from individuals’ Twitter accounts, not Democratic party leadership. The victim-blaming of black Americans has come from the highest levels of government.
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