According to this morning’s COVID wrapup in the New York Times, despite warnings from top health officials, Americans are leaving their homes in ever-larger numbers, urged on by #IMPOTUS and the entire kakistocracy (I looked it up: government by the worst). Meanwhile Jared Kushner is right on time suggesting that the November election may be postponed, ignoring the fact that such a move would require a constitutional amendment. Coup, anyone? No, just The New Normal.
I’m no fortune-teller. I haven’t the faintest idea which of the many predictions experts, philosophers, and pundits are putting forward is most likely to come true. But it bears noting how almost all of them include continuing levels of unemployment equal to or greater than during The Great Depression, in which the official figures reached 23 percent in the U.S. and more than 30 percent in some other places. The current unemployment rate (rising steadily) is just over 20 percent, the highest rate since 1934.
Many of the people who have filed for unemployment benefits work in businesses and organizations that either will not reopen after the pandemic or will operate at a drastically reduced level. This summary by the brilliant Mike Davis is a few weeks old, but still very useful for the concise and frank way it lays out the new conditions we are facing.
We can’t unring the bell, they say, and some bells have been ringing very loudly these past few months. It has become crystal-clear—even, I hope, to some of those who haven’t previously wanted to face truth—that whole groups of people are dispensable to not only #IMPOTUS, but to the entire flock of right-wing apparatchiks currently setting policy. These hypocrites who are now pleading with “essential workers” and elders to sacrifice themselves for national honor (and convenience) are the same people who have long insisted that those workers are not worth $15 an hour. They shed crocodile tears for the bravery of the mostly black and brown service and care workers who are paying the price for the panedemic, but have not troubled to notice that under current conditions, many essential workers are bringing home less than they would from newly expanded unemployment benefits.
I love the thought-experiment of the philosopher John Rawls. He said we should judge a society from what is called the “original position.” Imagine designing a social order without yourself knowing what gender, orientation, cultural identity, race, religion, wealth, position or other circumstances you would occupy. Not knowing where I would stand in an imagined world, I would argue for social arrangements to guarantee the best possible living conditions and circumstances at the lowest end of the scale of power and privilege. The golden rule would be my guide, refusing to prescribe for others conditions that would be hateful to myself.
The New Normal designed by the kakistocracy is the opposite of Rawls’ vision of a just social order grounded in equal rights and decent circumstances for the least privileged among us.
Now that certain states are allowing businesses to reopen despite the continuing rise of COVID-19 cases and deaths, we can reasonably expect infections to spike even higher with even graver impact on social and economic fabric. What will the unemployment figures look like then?
Does anyone really expect that 30 million folks who have already filed jobless claims—and the millions more who have lost work, homes, insurance but not filed—will magically find new jobs on some future date when the official go-ahead is given for the economy to “reopen,” even as every other store and restaurant on Main Street remains shuttered indefinitely?
I live just outside of Santa Fe, NM, where the top two industries are tourism and state government (the Capitol is here). As in other communities overtaken by tourism, old-timers bemoan the loss of ordinary amenities and conviviality. There used to be a hardware store downtown, for instance; groceries and notions could be purchased. All of the major festivals and markets, the opera season, and virtually every other 2020 event that draws the bulk of visitors and dollars to Santa Fe have been canceled. The bars and restaurants and high-end boutiques that exist to serve tourists are closed, and the few remaining open are struggling to survive on takeout orders.
I keep thinking of this video a friend shared in which the Artistic Director of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater offers an emotional love-letter to live theater, insisting that things like live-streaming cannot replace it, and assuring viewers that “at some point in the near future,” he will again encourage “people to leave their homes and come out to the theater.” This type of inspirational message has been making the rounds in arts circles. Many people like and share these links, as they express a shared longing for normalcy.
I heard yesterday of an arts advocate doing an informal Twitter poll which revealed that most people when offered the choice between restoring the old or building something new chose the former. This frame of going back to the “old way” or moving into something new is everywhere now. What seems a little crazy to me is that so many people evidently believe that the fairy-tale of returning to “normal” that #IMPOTUS et al are peddling can actually come true that they think it has value to ask if people want that.
I’ve been following some threads on Twitter featuring people in the U.K. who are engaged with community-based art and write about cultural policy. I’ve discovered two useful compendia of recent writing on these subjects from Mark Robinson and Francois Matarasso (you can read his recommendations on Twitter).
I wonder how many theatres will put their work with the local community at the forefront of their recovery plans? Building their main house programme out of that relationship rather than assuming what’s useful and needed.
The opportunity exists right now for companies and buildings to create space now for long-form relationships with local people, involving them directly in the creation of work that will re-open their stages.
How many will do that though?
What will happen to establishment arts organizations whose prior work has focused on sustaining a mainstage subscription season or selling museum memberships with a series of blockbuster shows? What would it be like to try to return to the old normal in a city with 20 percent or more unemployment, a city where empty shops and restaurants may outnumber those in operation?
My most recent essay offered my reply to the question of what arts advocates should do now. The video I want to see has the Artistic Director of the Guthrie or any other red-carpet theater explaining to viewers that in light of the dire condition of their community post-pandemic, their emphasis will not be on restarting their previous work exactly as they have done it for years, but on reconceiving what theater is and should be for this moment in history, and doing that in collaboration with the entire community they serve.
As I’ve described, this time is exposing the true nature of power relations in the United States, revealing “that callous greed and indifference that created this crisis was merely one manifestation of a conscious choice to sacrifice the many for the privilege of the few.” We learn every day of some new action the Republicans are taking to profit from this time of suffering, from rolling back environmental regulations to using public funds to bail out rich corporations to pardoning crooks and using the power of the state to prevent people from voting unless they are willing to risk their own lives to do so.
The sector I know best is arts and culture, but my wish is that every sector would abandon the illusion of returning to normal and take inspiration from Rawls’ thought-experiment. Reconsider your own work in light of his “original perspective.” What must be rethought, reimagined, and newly built for your work to help guarantee the best possible living conditions and circumstances at the lowest end of the scale of power and privilege, and therefore for all?
That awareness and healing intention, that love of justice and compassion in action—those are The New Normal I desire. My fear is that we will let the people who care nothing for us drive us to a hell of their making, a new normal in which millions of us are collateral damage for the kakistocracy. What do you desire and fear?
Junior Wells, “It Hurts Me Too.”