Thursday, March 26, 2020

Born Free, Free as the Wind Blows

We went through this four decades ago, and I suppose we'll have to go through it again.

Yesterday I saw a Facebook ad from a struggling local business which said they were open and ready to serve, and "coronavirus free." I do sympathize with them, but I asked if they'd actually been tested. They answered that they didn't have any symptoms.

Sorry, everybody, but "symptom-free" is not "coronavirus-free." In this case they were probably right, I hope that they don't have the virus, and I don't believe they meant to be deceptive. They just really didn't, and don't, understand the difference.  We really need to understand the difference, though. You can go from apparently fine to very sick in a few hours.  So please, don't get this confused, and speak up when other people confuse it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Fumigation Nation

We critics are often accused, rightly, of accentuating the negative and refusing to offer positive alternatives to the states of affairs we criticize.  I did that in the last post, and this morning I realized that if I didn't like crossing my heart, signaling namaste, and other salutations that others had offered to get us through the coronavirus crisis, I should come with something better.  Here it is:

There, doesn't that say it all?

This morning in a local group on Facebook, someone asked if anyone had seen "that" (no further detail) at 10:05 p.m.  When asked what "that" was, she posted a murky cellphone picture.  Someone else posted that she'd seen several helicopters in the air over my town last night.  No one knew anything, and all I could say was that I'd seen helicopters on their way to land at the local airport from my window.  Someone posted that he'd gotten this:

A couple of people asked where it came from; he eventually explained that someone he knew had sent it to him in Messenger, but he didn't post it right away because it had no source; but when he saw the question about lights in the air, "it made sense."

Except that it didn't.  If the first poster had seen a helicopter spraying a fumigant -- an hour and a half early, when people wouldn't have been inside even if they'd known about it! -- she would have heard it.  If such a procedure really had been planned, would it have been announced through private messages on Facebook?  Perhaps President Trump, Blessed Be He, only wanted to save his Elect, but if that were so, a lot of them had no idea what was coming.  Someone else pointed out that livestock and other animals would have been affected too.

Also, spraying disinfectant from helicopters probably would do very little to eliminate coronavirus, because it would miss all the people huddled indoors.  Whoever came up with this fantasy was probably thinking of spraying DDT to stop malaria, etc. That had some effect because it could kill mosquitoes and flies that carried disease. But insects are not the the main carriers of coronavirus; people are.

In other goodies, a video clip has been circulating on Facebook, shared by an old friend of mine among others, which shows an elderly Mexican woman showing how to make a face mask by accordion-folding a paper towel.  My friend thought it sounded cool, so pleased that she didn't mind it wasn't in English.  It's the kind of Hints-from-Heloise kind of "hack" that appeals to many, but it's not protective gear: if it were, hospitals would be doing it.  Someone shared it to a Facebook group for Bloomington, where I used to live, but added the warning "***This is not a protective measure against Coronavirus Covid-19!!! It will help you to not touch your face, which is an important safety precaution!!!***"  That's about it.  But that tiny positive is balanced by the certainty that many people will believe that the mask will protect them and others, and they'll be careless.  It's not as bad as telling the credulous and desperate that chloroquine will cure COVID-19, because these masks aren't poisonous, but that's small comfort.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Simeon Simian

WARNING: This post takes a somewhat raunchy turn a few paragraphs in.

I saw this tweet this weekend, and replied to it:

It's possible, I suppose, that Mr. Hussain was being sarcastic; the lighthearted tone of some other commenters on his tweet suggests that they might have taken it that way.  On the other hand, 408 likes and 80 retweets suggest that many people took it literally, and no one mocked me for having missed the joke, so I'll presume it was meant seriously.

We're already seeing the necessity of avoiding physical contact in this pandemic, and people have been exploring alternative greetings online and probably elsewhere.  Someone under Mr. Hussain's tweet posted a GIF of a black woman making the "Wakanda forever" salutation from the movie Black Panther.  The trouble with this one is that many African-Americans were dismayed when white fans began making the gesture, seeing it as cultural appropriation, though the fuss died down after awhile as people moved on to the next big Phenomenon.  But that raises the question of whether non-Muslims should put our hands over our hearts in a dignified manner and slightly bow, or non-Hindus make the Namaste sign, or any other salutation borrowed -- appropriated! -- from other cultures.  No matter in the long run, as far as I'm concerned; people will sort out what they're going to do.

The obnoxious thing about Mr. Hussain's tweet was his petty glee at the prospect of people being forced by the pandemic to give up a gesture that is meaningful to them, just to suit his personal hangup.  If shaking hands is unsanitary, so is copulation, so is a non-copulatory embrace, so are mothers using spit to clean their children's faces, so is human society generally.  Keeping six feet apart may be a necessary strategy in a pandemic, but it's not something human beings can live with forever.  Even now we have to find situations and people we can get closer to than that.

This reply was mildly funny, though:

I suppose English isn't this person's first language.  By "foreign" I suppose he meant "non-Muslim." When I pointed out that Islam isn't a nationality, he replied "Islam for us extends beyond national boundaries and nation states. We are first Muslims and then citizens of different lands."  That's true, and different lands have different customs about greetings.  Embracing, holding hands, and kisses, though "simian," are not unknown in Muslim lands, as in many others.

I also couldn't help thinking of what the historian Richard Trexler wrote in his Sex and Conquest (Polity Press, 1995, p. 109: 
Various cultures have used sexual signs and gestures of subordination to express reverence toward their gods and lords. Indeed, only those ready to avoid the topic will be surprised that some corporal expressions of religious reverence, such as kneeling, bowing and prostration, remain formally close to certain sexual postures.
When I see Muslim men prostrated for prayer, I always think of this passage, and I'm not even an ass man.  Those postures are part of our simian heritage, along with kissing and holding hands.

A day or so later, someone posted this tweet, with a more obviously lighthearted tone.

Many of the comments were also playful, but they made clear how little people had thought through what COVID-19 is going to mean.  One person wrote:

Nope.  More like arranged marriages.  Courting involves prolonged physical proximity, and that leaves aside where you meet your love interest (church, dancin' parties, school - all unsafe; and what are you going to do when church, dancing venues, and schools are closed?).  Other people wrote about the erotic excitement of brushing elbows, holding hands, and the like, all of which are verboten under the six-feet-apart rule.  There was romanticization of the days when "ankles were sexy," forgetting how repressive those days were; I think we can guess that they'd been watching too many period films, and forget that people nevertheless broke the rules, with considerable human cost.  (Unwanted pregnancies, social ostracization, sexual harassment and rape, among others.... I forgot to add what used to be euphemistically called "social diseases.")  Also they're forgetting the terrible sanitation of those days, with resultant outbreaks of disease.

Probably this is mostly whistling in the shadow of a catastrophe.  Nobody knows how long we're going to have to stay apart from one another, so of course people joke nervously.  I'm probably taking these comments too seriously, but I don't know. 
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, brave people held hands, hugged, cuddled anyway, even before it was known that such behavior was safe, because they knew and felt how important physical comfort is to human beings.  Besides, from what I know of human nature, most of the people gloating over the end of unsanctified sexual practices are certainly eating ass right now.

One other thing: what bothers me most is the suspicion that I'm seeing the germs of a new erotic prohibitionism being spread.  I don't think it comes from religion, I think it goes into and motivates religion.  I doubt that Rachel Sennett, for example, is a Christian fundamentalist, nor are the people who commented on her tweet, but she's ready to fall back to a sex-negative stance far too easily.  Someone tweeted elsewhere that he already flinches when he sees characters in pre-COVID-19 films or TV casually leaning in for a kiss.  That can be a useful habit to form, but it won't just go away when the virus is no longer a threat.

Damn - this took way too long to write.

P.S. The World Health Organization currently recommends keeping at least a three-foot distance from others, which is certainly easier than six.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Voice of the Sheeple Is the Voice of God

To set the stage: I didn't really reckon with the difficulty of finding romantic partners when I moved to a small town last fall.  I had social networks of many years standing in Bloomington, and it will take a long time to build new ones here.  Those who are ignorant about gay life might be surprised to know that there are significant numbers of gay and bisexual men in and around a town of about 10,000 people; the difficult part is finding them.  So I've started exploring social media -- Grindr, if you must know, which I had never used until last month.  I haven't had much luck meeting partners yet, but it has been interesting, and I've been collecting material for a snarky/despairing post on my experience and observations so far.

The rising COVID-19 crisis threw a monkey wrench into my fine plans, however.  When I began hearing about self-isolation and social distancing, it occurred to me that sexual behavior was going to be affected, though I didn't see much about it at first.  But eventually I found information that confirmed my forebodings: an air- and contact-vectored virus could be spread by sexual contact.  Not directly through copulation as far as we know so far, but through saliva exchange and the shared breathing that intimate closeness - even just cuddling - involves.  Since I'm almost 70 years old, with diabetes and high blood pressure, I'm one of those vulnerable elders we've been hearing about.  I have better things to do than die, so I realized I was going to have to back off.

I'd been slowly negotiating to meet a local man since last week, when I still thought I could go on being sexually active.  I didn't hear from him for several days, and then last night he sent me a message moving the negotiations forward.  I explained that I was going to practice social distance for the foreseeable future.  I'm not sure what I expected, but his reply surprised me:
Um u really worried about that.  Man and people wonder why I don't have much faith in the human race as a whole. I would explain why u shouldn't give it and concern and give u reading recommendations if my word wasn't sufficient enough. But I've learned that people just follow the herd as long as there sot is comfortable and shields them from having to think for themselves.

But u do what u believe is best everyone should be vigilant and there's no such thing as too safe. Woot
I think the first sentence is supposed to be a question.  My initial reply was that people wonder why I don't have much faith in the human race as a whole, a backhanded putdown of him that I don't think registered; and that I remember similar dismissive talk from the 80s.  I wasn't interested in debating him via chat on Grindr, so I only added thanks to him for giving me an idea for a blog post.  It's my life and health, not his, and the word of a semi-literate person I know only through online chat is not "sufficient enough." 

Then, as I reflected, I realized that if I were going to follow the herd, I'd first have to decide which herd to follow.  We have the doctors and public health experts and the shortage of basic medical equipment and the near-total absence of tests for the virus in the US; but we also have the Trump administration denying that there is any problem, that COVID-19 is just like the flu, and we have crowds flocking to crowded bars and restaurants and Florida beaches for spring break, and elderly people going to their bingo games and book groups and Bob Evans, and various prominent dimwits declaring that they're going to stand up to the virus and not let it win, to eat wherever they like because this is America.  We have test kits mysteriously becoming available for entire sports teams and various celebrities, but not for frontline healthcare workers.  So which position is bold independent thought and which is just following the herd?  

Later today, after I began this post, the latter positions were undercut as Trump suddenly turned on a dime and began to treat the situation seriously.  I haven't asked my online buddy what he thinks about that.  After all, he himself seems to have flipflopped between the first and second paragraphs of his lecture to me -- unless that second paragraph is sarcastic, which seems likely to me.  I can't claim to think totally for myself; I'm not credulous about experts, and even the experts are struggling to make sense of the scattered data available to them.  As a non-expert I'm not in a position to come up with my own data.  But I had largely reached my own decision to close in over the weekend, before the official response had reached critical mass.  Not just for my own sake, but for solidarity with others, supporting my local businesses and public institutions.  I don't like it, but I also know how lucky I am: I'm retired with adequate pension income and health coverage, I have no responsibilities to pull me out of my home into riskier environments, and my town so far seems to be untouched by the coronavirus.  But no one knows for sure, because we don't have enough tests.

And that guy?  It's academic, because I can't foresee when I can go back into circulation, but after further chatting with him on other topics, I don't think I want to be in the same room with him.

Image credit: via Daniel Larison - I don't know where he found it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Moral Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Chaos

Like most of us, I imagine, I've thought of cutting back drastically on social media, or getting out of them altogether. But if I did, I wouldn't have seen this meme this morning:
Now, this is really, really, really stupid. If Sanders truly were the last vestige of decency, then no one would be working in his campaign, no one would have endorsed him, no one would vote for him.  Certainly no one younger would.  He's a very important figure, but he's not unique, there are plenty of other good people with the same principles out there working for them.  Sanders is not a unique genius who invented all those good policies by himself: he stands on the shoulders of generations of activists and politicians and writers and speakers who invented them or kept them alive during the Dark Age of the Reagan years and his successors.  Sanders deserves tremendous credit for sticking with his principles despite years of pressure and derision, but so do the people he represents, not just in Vermont but around the country and around the world.  This meme is (unintentionally perhaps, which doesn't make it less insulting) essentially, effectively, a slap in the face of all those people, because it erases them and says that they don't exist.

I was always nervous about the premature triumphalism I saw among Sanders fans -- not all of them, but not just the very young ones either.  I wondered how it would hold up under a loss or two.  I don't think whoever made this meme is representative of the campaign overall, but I do think it marks a weakness of the whole rah-rah circus party tone it allows and cultivates.  I've never liked pep rallies, and I don't remember the last time I ever went to one for a political candidate.  Probably I never did.  For whatever reason -- my introversion, my early reading of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, who knows? -- I don't trust cheering crowds.  They can't be relied on.

What part of "Not Me, Us," is so hard for even Sanders's adherents to understand?  This cult-of-personality stuff, this Great Man myth, is why we're in trouble now.  It isn't how we got the improvements we've seen in the past century and more.  FDR didn't haul himself from his wheelchair and give the US the New Deal, he had numerous movements supporting him and pushing him.  Neither Rosa Parks nor Martin Luther King created the Civil Rights Movement, it predated both of them, and King didn't elevate his people, they elevated him.  King was a great orator, and in an important sense a great politician, but the spotlight allowed too many people to overlook the equally courageous people behind the scenes, those who did the actual organizing, who registered voters, who risked being beaten (and often were), risked having their homes burned down (and sometimes did), risked being jailed and killed (and often were).  There were so many of them that it's not practical for anyone to remember all their names, but they were the heroes and King was their figurehead.

Some might argue that King represents the unknown heroes of the movement: we can't remember them all by name, but we can remember him.  If it worked that way, I'd be more tolerant of the tendency, but it doesn't.  Look at the way King's legacy has been distorted, and Rosa Parks's as well.  Every year we have to point out again that Parks wasn't a lone wolf who got tired one day and defied a white bus driver, she was an activist and part of a movement.  It's harder to teach the history of a movement than to teach the history of One Man or Woman, but so be it: it has to be done.

Of course I get it, we've suffered reverses and this person is feeling bad. If they want to give up, they may do so. But others won't. I'm with them. This brings to mind a story, which may even be true, about Harriet Tubman: she carried a gun with her to fight off slavehunters, but she also used it to threaten the fellow runaways she guided to freedom if they quailed and tried to turn back.  Who can blame them for being afraid, but she wasn't going to let them give information to the slavers when they were captured.  Even if they tried not to, they'd be tortured, and brutally punished in any case.  She wasn't concerned with sparing their feelings, however, rather with protecting the others she was guiding, and herself as well.  It's one thing to be frightened and disheartened, like the author of that meme: it's another to broadcast doom on Facebook, and it's not tolerable.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Just Trying to Clear Up a Few Things Here in the Augean Stables

I'll try to finish this before the Super Tuesday polls close.

Incidentally, a young woman of about 30 who works in my apartment building's rental office asked me yesterday what "Super Tuesday" is.  I explained it to her, and she really had no idea.  Not only about Super Tuesday, but what primaries are for, and some other basic parts of the electoral process.  I did my best.

Every day I feel inadequate to comment on this campaign season, compared to years past when I wrote quite a lot on the subject, because I don't think I know enough.  I haven't been following the process as closely this time because I'm old and tired and depressed by the raving ignorance (see the comments under that one) and irrationality (ditto) of so many people of "progressive" and "left" politics.  A lot of people are shooting off their mouths and keyboards about politics despite knowing not much more than the young woman I was talking to yesterday.  Yet I realized, and not for the first time, that despite my ignorance I am much better informed than many of my fellow citizens, and indeed better than many professional commentators whose job it is to inform themselves.  I'm not bragging here, understand, just pointing out how disturbingly low the bar is.

That realization is probably not going to open the floodgates of discourse around here.  But I just started watching a clip on Youtube from The Hill's Sunrise morning program.  I've been semi-following Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti for a couple of months now, and they are much better than most news commentators I've come across, despite some blind spots.  (I thought I'd already written here about some of those, but it seems not.)

As I hope everyone knows (though after yesterday's conversation I realize I could be wrong), both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the Democratic competition yesterday and endorsed Joe Biden. As someone remarked of Buttigieg, this represented perhaps the first time a rat has been observed boarding a sinking ship.  Today Beto O'Rourke chimed in for Biden too.  Krystal Ball commented, with her trademark snark: "Pete and Amy ... may hate each other, but not as much, apparently, as they hate universal health care."

Even I thought at first that this was somewhat unfair - I mean, Pete and Amy and Joe and Elizabeth and Beto are all nice Democrats, surely they don't hate universal healthcare?  That's so harsh.  And I'm sure many moderate, reasonable centrists would agree with me.  Pete and Amy and Joe and Elizabeth and Beto want us to have affordable, accessible universal healthcare that doesn't take away our freedom of choice to pay exorbitant premiums for policies with outrageous deductibles and still be turned down for treatment much of the time - that's America.  They don't disagree with Sanders's policies, they only oppose his stridency and loudness and ideological rigidity, and of course all his many privileged white-guy supporters who are so mean and alienating.  But then I remembered: if they really didn't object to universal healthcare, they wouldn't oppose it so firmly and dishonestly; they wouldn't have initially have made supportive noises and then backpedaled.  If their differences with Sanders really lay in matters of style rather than policy, nothing is stopping them from adopting his policies so that voters could choose based on the important things (his New Yawk accent, etc.) and not his many good and very popular ideas.

But they don't.  It's because they hate universal healthcare, an increased minimum wage, free public college, forgiveness of student loan debt, and all the other "divisive" (but very popular) policies that have one vital thing in common: they benefit most or all Americans, not just the rich.  So Krystal Ball was right on target.  Snarky, but right.