Last week’s Last Week Tonight episode encapsulates a consensus view among my fellow liberals that Donald Trump botched his COVID-19 response by failing to heed public health advice.
While Trump’s record on COVID is indeed atrocious (not in the least for the President’s sociopathic acquiescence to the virus’ continual murder of his subjects in order to save face), I am not certain that the US would have fared much better with a more competent president. Even European countries like Spain, which has a moderately left-leaning prime minister, are seeing sharp second waves, that have no sign of relenting.
Throughout the west, public health experts showed hauntingly relaxed attitudes through February. As the pandemic spread in March, top public health officials’ disregard for common-sense measures like masking suggest that the virus would have gained ground under any administration. A Vox article from March 3rd read that “experts doubt it (the disease) can be totally contained and stopped (through isolation of the sick),” quoting an epidemiology professor who declaimed that “there (are) already too many undiagnosed cases out there.” (this being back when the US had under 30 confirmed cases).
And we shouldn’t forget the disease modelers who insinuated (at the end of February!) that air travel could be conducted safely.
None of this is to let Trump or the GOP off the hook. Their callous disregard for the virus’ seriousness has deprived our country of national leadership and engendered fatal skepticism of the virus among the sizable pro-Trump constituency.
And yet, public health professionals–whose career mission can be summarized as fighting pandemics–should aim to perform better than an incompetent kleptocrat.
This requires that they acknowledge and reflect on previous failures. That they evaluate which pieces of advice or approaches currently work and abandon the ones that do not.
It necessitates, on the one hand, a degree of humility and, on the other hand, a faith in concepts that work empirically, even if they have not passed a textbook-style research experiment.
The results of this introspection will not only affect how we fight this pandemic but how our policy-makers govern.
On a host of areas, from housing to public transportation to social services, both America’s Republican and Democratic polities govern with abject failure.
Especially for those of us on the left, who cherish social progress and equity, it is imperative that we do better.
And that starts with some introspection on what went wrong.
Six months of quarantine have amplified my sense of loss, from relationships severed by sickness, distance or lack of attention
The mismanagement of the pandemic has hit a nerve.
The racism, authoritarianism and incompetence of our government over the last nine months (at all levels)… And the loss of life and property they’ve exacted on this country have pushed my pressure cooker past the highest setting
Add in Americans’ continued ignorance of East Asian COVID policies that could get us out of this mess (or of best practices from non-white countries in any policy area), and I am on the brink
Righteous anger can motivate creative outpouring, but it can also degenerate into a bottomless pit of contempt and misery
I’ve been wallowing in the latter state for several months now. My energy has plummeted, causing creative paralysis. I indulge in social media or sweets or substances, mistaking the instant high for productive energy. It creates an illusion for one minute, until I get distracted.
The only solution is to write as often I can. It doesn’t have to sound pretty. But it does have to speak for my heart and the principles I value.
At this juncture in history, silence is complicity. Therefore, I am obligated to dust off my pen.
I started this blog with the lofty goal of creating an interdisciplinary intellectual space, where people could engage with “great questions” in multiple social, political and personal spheres on their own terms. For the sake of efficiency, I feel compelled to narrow my scope for the short-term to the following areas:
Comparative analysis of transportation and housing issues (with a focus on LA vs. foreign countries)
Random urban planning, history and food trivia
Causes of American political decline (entre-pocalypse series will come out of the woodwork!)
Political ideology vis a vis the election
For the same reason, expect my writing to be less formal and more blunt. As always, comments are welcome. No snark without provocation.
In historical parlance, the term “century” denotes less a block of time than a zeitgeist, that roughly corresponds to the contours of a particular century.
Thus, Europe’s “long nineteenth century” spans the 125-year period from 1789 and 1914–a time when the (most of the) continent’s societies transitioned from semi-feudal monarchies to industrial democracies. The Storming of the Bastille and World War I provide meaningful start and end points, the former birthing Europe’s first bourgeois democracy and the latter marking the climax of Europe’s industrial militarization.
The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent uprising against police brutality, seem to bring about a major rupture in American history. With our federal government failing to provide its citizens with the most basic safeguards against the pandemic, yet capable of inflicting gratuitous violence on them, it seems clear that America’s 122-year reign as a military and economic superpower and, as a so-called “leader of the free world,” has concluded. It is time to start talking about the end of America’s Long Twentieth Century.
The Long Twentieth Century began in Havana, then part of the Spanish colony of Cuba, on the night of February 15, 1898.
The US had just come of age, economically (having surpassed Britain in manufacturing output in 1885). Militarily, the US was still in infancy-with a navy and army smaller than Italy’s. Despite having catapulted to the apex of the world’s economy, the US neither pursued colonial expansion nor exerted cultural cachet.
At 9:40 P.M., the U.S.S. Maine, a Navy ship berthed in Havana harbor mysteriously exploded. 251 of the 290 sailors on board perished.
By morning, the Hearst newspapers were clamoring for revenge on Spain. Two months later, President McKinley declared war. By the end of the year, America had seized control of the Phillippines, Cuba and Guam. Spain surrendered in September. The US now had an empire, and a military, to reckon with.
Over the next half-century, America’s global military and economic influence grew in tandem. America won two World Wars, hosted historical peace conferences and laid the foundations for a new international order.
Domestically, presidents like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt established anti-trust and social welfare legislation that allowed all of America’s citizens to share in its riches. The impressive economic expansion during World War II-the closest thing to a “people’s war” in Howard Zinn’s reckoning-yielded economic prosperity at home while furthering democracy overseas.
And in a corner of the country called “Hollywood”, motion pictures created an alluring image of this country that won hearts and minds across the globe. Jazz (and later, Rock) music, sports, and even modernist architecture came to convey a similar type of “soft power.”
It wasn’t all a big band show, however.
The President who issued the “Fourteen Points“, demanding the right to self-determination in Central and Eastern Europe, entrenched (anti-black) racial hiring practices in the federal post office and Treasury Departments. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, Americans of color in most states lived under an apartheid regime, with restrictions on everything from where they could buy a home to whom they could marry.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s sought to vanquish institutional racism. Martin Luther King famously declared that freedom for people of color would constitute the ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream.
However, even King’s lauded non-violent protest marches received tepid public support from white Americans. While civil rights legislation outlawed overt segregation, neighborhood- and school-level segregation remain pervasive in American cities. Police brutality and mass incarceration of persons of color have replaced Jim Crow as a means to repress and control the black and brown underclass.
The last paragraph may seem like a tangent from my previous thread.
But the white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement proved to be the ultimate undoing of America’s 20th-century growth trajectory.
Starting with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, Republican Party politicians capitalized on white grievance to drastically roll back the post-New Deal welfare programs.
Meanwhile, the military arm of the American state grew more powerful and more removed from civilian oversight. In the 75 years following World War II, the US military engaged in more than 220 foreign interventions-all by bypassing Congress’ War Powers’ authority. This does not count the numerous covert operations carried out be US intelligence agencies,-who tampered with elections and assassinated politicians from Italy to Iran.
Throughout the Cold War, America’s martial imperialism left its white herrenvolk unscathed, even while the COINTELPRO program surveilled and harassed Civil Rights.
Following September 11th, however, Congress–in a moment of patriotic zeal–passed the Patriot Act, which gave federal agencies the power to requisition citizens’ business records and wiretap phones with little to no due process. Edward Snowden found that the government had obtained records of every single Verizon customer.
A government that could extensively spy on citizens and militarize its police force could only cobble together a patchwork “universal” health insurance system under a progressive president Obama.
But Tony Stark was a hit in China. Brooklyn’s culinary and creative ferment maintained the Big Apple’s status as the global capital of cool. And Silicon Valley drew the best and brightest from East and South Asia.
Now, even Marvel has stopped filming. The Momofukus and Robertas are shuttered. And with the American economy shut down (and the Trump administration sending hostile signals to immigrants) the talented masses are staying away.
The only countries in the world that have effectively contained COVID-19 have been in high-income East Asia. Despite strong travel links and economic ties to Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong staved off the mass infection now afflicting Europe and the US through early deployment of social distancing measures (including public mask-wearing and mandatory quarantine of infected individuals) and travel restrictions. South Korea contained its outbreak “curve”–the worst in the world in February–through extensive testing, followed by contact tracing (through both personal interviews and GPS-based mobile tracking) of positive cases.
The examples are not merely informative but instructive. While infection rates slow in most of Europe and United States, suggesting containment in the near future, removing lock-downs on either side of the Atlantic will be incredibly risky unless leaders follow East Asia’s lead in detecting and isolating infected individuals.
Unfortunately, while both Europe and the US seek to emulate South Korea’s drive-thru testing procedure, much of European and US public opinion seems skeptical about the adoption of mobile contact tracing used in South Korea and Taiwan. A perceived cultural difference pops up repeatedly in the skeptics’ arguments.
For instance, Vox’s Ezra Klein casts doubt on a Harvard University plan to develop a nationwide tracking app (of positive test results) by acknowledging that “while similar efforts have borne fruit in Singapore and South Korea, the US is a very different country, with a more mistrustful, individualistic culture.” A BBC article on the subject contrasts western “liberal democracies” with countries like “China, Singapore and South Korea”, implying that mobile contact tracing is more acceptable in the autocratic “East” than in the democratic “West.”
Its not just mobile contact tracing which encounters this dismissive mindset. Renee C. Wurth, a Public Health Professor at Northwestern University, warns that East Asian societies’ widespread face mask use does not make this an essential strategy for combating COVID-19 in the west: Rather, it is Asia’s “community-oriented cultures,” that are the true key to their success.
By insisting that Asian countries are fundamentally different from the West, these dismissals of Asian policy successes reveal the tenacious persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about East Asia.
Since the time of Marco Polo, the Western World has perceived East Asia as irredeemably “exotic” and “mysterious.”
The image of the Orient as a threatening and monolithic “Other”–replete with strange foods, secretive rituals and persons who were not quite human–took hold over the centuries. This construct, which post-colonial scholars refer to as Orientalism, reached its zenith at the end of the 19th-century, when Western Powers encroached on East Asia.
Social Scientists developed grand theories, based on ecology (e.g. Marx’ “Oriental Despotism” hypothesis, which held that control of irrigation systems led to stagnant bureaucracies in Eastern polities) or culture (e.g. Confucianism as a cause of China’s decline) to explain Europe’s advancement relative to East Asia. Although objective on the surface, such theories implicitly justified Western hegemony relative to East Asia, and portrayed Asia as an “ontologically-different entity” (in the words of one historian) from the West-the former being fundamentally incomparable to the latter and requiring neither depth or nuance in analysis.
ln popular culture, the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War fueled fears of a “Yellow Peril”-an invasion of Europe by barbaric hordes. In the United States, opponents of Chinese immigration to California spread lurid rumors of Chinese consuming rats and other unsavory foodstuffs.
Early reporting on COVID-19’s origins at a wet market revealed the endurance of Orientalist stereotype of Chinese consumption of exotic foods.
And as Asian countries have emerged at the forefront of global efforts to combat COVID-19, Orientalism lurks beneath the surface of western public opinion’s disregard for their policy successes.
For instance, Wurth’s opinion on the irrelevance East Asian mask-wearing, borrows from the trope that Confucian culture is a determining factor in the region’s mores. Instead of using the concept to explain East Asian stagnation, she touts it as a reason for the region’s advancement. Nevertheless, the concept still renders the region as “foreign,” albeit for the purpose of drawing policy best practices.
Moreover, Wurth, Klein and other writers have tended to describe East Asian countries’ policy success in collective terms, ignoring vast differences in policy and society. Discussing Singapore, a one-party state, and South Korea, a democratic presidential republic, in the same breath makes as little sense as equating the United Kingdom with Franco-era Spain. And yet, the fact that East Asia is not Europe permits such abstraction.
Nuances and details in East Asian policies are also ignored. The Toronto Star quotes an expert saying that South Korean contract tracing would “never work” in a western democracy, ignoring the fact that a) South Korea is a democracy and b) contact tracing app has also raised privacy concerns within South Korea. I have heard similar statements made by Twitter users:
Finally, Atlantic Magazine has published profiles in courage on Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern but none on (South Korean President) Moon Jae-in or (Taiwanese President) Tsai Ing-Wen (the latter has earned a paragraph in an article on female leadership in combating COVID).
The hard truth is that Westerners still regard even developed Alien countries as alien: Robotic marvels that can earn a plaudit or two but never be seriously emulated or examined.
To be clear, this is not just a media issue (and there are some great articles like this WIRED one on Taiwan). Nor did this problem suddenly reappear with COVID-19. Over the years, I have received strange looks and remarks when I point to Japan as an example for American commuter rail planning.
But now the stakes are much higher.
If we (in the United States and Europe) don’t want to contend with a two-year lockdown or hundreds of thousands of more deaths, we will have to acknowledge some hard truths:
South Korea is the only country in the world to have stamped out a large-scale (1000+) COVID-19 outbreak. There is no excuse for throwing out examples like New Zealand (which instituted a lockdown when there were only 100 cases) or Germany (which-despite mass testing-has over 100,000 cases and 5,000 diseases, with no signs of letting down).
Stamping out COVID demands that Western Countries evaluate South Korea’s (and Taiwan’s and even Vietnam’s) policies in detail and determine how they can legally design and implement such policies.
The belief that the West is the standard-bearer of progress, and therefore has nothing to learn from culturally- or geographically-distinct regions, is no longer true. Its high time we face up.
Binge-watching Netflix seems to be an acceptable pastime for once. Not only do we have more time on our couches (now that we’re not commuting for an hour or going out after work) but we all need to escape the grim reality, at least for a few hours.
Offering plenty of scandal, sex and adrenaline-rushing escapes, Babylon Berlin is a show designed for binge watching, and (for better or worse) ironically foretells our current predicament.
The show is set in Berlin in the “Golden Twenties”, a zeitgeist by both political instability and cultural hedonism and progressivism.
It is a world where cross-dressing nightclub singers moonlight as Soviet-employed assassins. Where nudist lake outings and police massacres of left-wing protesters occur simultaneously.And where a shell-shocked grizzled army veteran produces illicit lewd films.
Into this melange steps Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne who has been temporarily summoned to Berlin under surreptitious circumstances. Although ostensibly working with the vice squad, Rath ends up being drawn into a homicide investigation that unravels a complex web of conspiracies (I haven’t reached the end yet, so I can’t reveal how it unfolds) involving mutinous Reichswehr (army) officers, pro-Trotsky communists, a mafiosi nightclub mogul, a trove of gold and even Rath’s police department colleagues.
The plot and cinematography are so furtively adroit, revealing major backstories and side plots-in pieces-through a glimpse of binoculars or a brief flashback, as to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat. The fact that nearly every character has some fishy doppelganger heightens the suspense.
And yet, the most powerful part of the series is the strange hindsight it offers in our current predicament.
Only a-month-and-a-half ago I was frequenting gay nightclubs on a weekly basis. The West Hollywood nightlife-almost as libertine as Weimar Berlin’s-carried on with full force despite the ominous illness seeping into the country.
Like the Berlin of Babylon, our republic was in a precarious state. Politicians routinely flouted democratic norms and connived with foreign powers. Inequality ran rampant. Gun violence was a part of daily life.
But if you were part of the middling urban bourgeoisie, with just enough of a paycheck to indulge in cocktails or pour-over coffee on the weekend, you could rationalize everything away, or forget it even existed.
Until the economy stopped…
Anyone with a basic knowledge of European history knows what will happen next in the Babylon story: the 1929 Stock Market Crash will lead to totalitarianism, which will lead to the bloodiest war in Germany’s history.
We’re past the crash phase now. Which is why watching Babylon arouses such a strong feeling of nostalgia.
Life is short. History is long.
When will I be able to frequent nightclubs again without the risk of contracting a terrifying illness? Where will our turbulent geopolitics take us?
These thoughts don’t usually linger. I am always too giddy to move on to the next episode.
And even when they do, my feelings ultimately move from despair to contemplation.
One discreet message I pick up from Babylon:
A corrupt society is probably not worth retaining, regardless of its temptations.
I had a busy social calendar in February. I went out to bars and coffeeshops every weekend, where I chatted and flirted with both friends and strangers. I kind of miss those days.
Nor surprisingly, COVID-19 was rarely mentioned in these conversations.
Americans are notorious for shying away from unpleasant topics in conversations. As the saying goes, “never talk about politics, religion and death.”
Vox’s David Roberts, notes how “small talk” in conversations between strangers or at social events serves a purpose of social bonding, rather than conveying information. Thus, small topic focuses on “topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.”
However, as my past life experience shows, keeping our conversations light and cushy prevents us from confronting issues of grave importance.
Imagine if we had talked about COVID-19 at the bar. We might have thought about social distancing earlier or even demanded answers from officials hesitant to tell the truth.
In the long run, Climate change poses an even greater threat to our existence, but is still considered too awkward and “nerdy” for the cocktail party.
By neglecting such topics of social importance, we fail our civic duty as citizens of a democracy to stay informed on the issues we vote on.
Some might argue that you can only have a good conversation with a person who is knowledgeable of the subject at hand. Yet, conversations about the weather are a core part of small talk, and we aren’t all meteorologists…
This is not to degrade small talk’s role in facilitating social bonding. A certain exchange of niceties at the beginning of a conversation is psychologically needed to initiate contact. This opening small talk should be differentiated from the dominance of superficial yet agreeable topics in many conversations.
Indeed, American small talk’s aversion to uncomfortable topics discourages people from opening up about their personal troubles or struggles. By foregoing topics that make them vulnerable, participants in a conversation lose an opportunity to establish a deep connection. By pushing discomfort, pain and anguish under the rug, conversational norms further a harmful stigmatization of mental health.
Having struggled with Obssessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Asperger’s traits for much of my life, I can vouch for the last point being far from trivial.
Much of the pain and depression I have experienced in my adult life might have been assuaged if I felt more comfortable sharing my feelings with others.
In the current crisis, let’s resist the urge to deflect conversations and shame “negativity” or geekiness.
Let’s give ourselves (and others) space to share and listen, to love and to learn.
The COVID-19 outbreak has crippled the US airline industry. A precipitous decline in travel demand has forced carriers to cut flights by 40 percent. A temporary national shutdown of air travel may be the only way for the aviation industry to stop hemorraghing money.
In the grandest of (American) corporate traditions, the airlines are now lobbying the federal government for money, a “bail-out” to put it bluntly.
With Democrats and Republicans apparently nearing a deal on the Coronavirus stimulus package, it looks like the airlines’ request will be granted (an exact amount has not been specified yet).
And yet, helping aviation workers is not the same as helping airlines.
Its not just that airlines have squandered the last decade’s profits on stock buybacks and executive bonuses (rather than improving worker pay). Airlines have a hefty carbon footprint.
Air travel is by far the most polluting means of transport. According to the BBC, a short-haul flight emits 154 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer, triple the emissions per passenger traveling in a four-person vehicle. Collectively, commercial aviation accounted for 2.4% of global carbon emissions in 2018, more than the sixth-heaviest polluting nation, Germany.
Almost one-quarter of global aviation emissions came from flights originating in the United States (two-thirds of which came from domestic flights).
The Democratic draft bill circulating in the House would require airlines to reduce Carbon emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050–and have the government buy out old, less fuel-efficient jets–as a precondition for $50 billion aid.
Yet with much of the planet having burned the last few years (and countries obligated to limit temperature increases under the Paris Climate Accord), even this target seems to modest.
The airline industry’s failure provides a once-in-a-life-time to go big for the planet. Emulating Greta Thunberg, we can take radical steps to support airline industry workers while phasing out jet-fueled aviation technology once and for all.
The federal government can do this through the following steps:
Let the airlines collapse. The government could potentially buy up the aircraft.
Provide a separate stimulus package for airline industry workers (could also carry over to cruise industry) by paying pre-layoff monthly wages, up to $60-75K per year.
Give airline workers priority in hiring for new high-speed rail or sustainable long-distance air/sea travel services.
When the economy recovers, companies might regroup, or the government could (if it bought up aircraft) establish its own airline. But an interconnected high-speed rail network would reduce air travel demand on short-haul domestic routes, where air travel is the least carbon efficient. Airlines would be compelled to focus on long-haul international routes, whose higher fuel costs would increase the incentive to develop sustainable technology.
Nearly a month ago, I pondered whether democratic governments could respond to COVID-19 as effectively as authoritarian China. I hypothesized that democratic governments are better equipped to handle COVID-19 due to public feedback mechanisms (like voting and free speech) and their prioritization of public welfare, but may still be handicapped by public misinformation and interest group politics.
Now, with much of the world shut down by the virus, my hypothesis seems to be bearing out.
The US and European democracies have largely failed to contain the outbreaks. Underestimation of the virus’ risk (by politicians as much as the general public) and misinformation by right-wing partisans (following President Trump’s talking points) led “western” leaders to ignore the virus’ spread within their borders, until it was too late to contain or mitigate an outbreak.
By contrast, East Asian industrial democracies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong have led the way in preventing or containing the virus’ spread.
In stark contrast to the authoritarian mainland, Democratic Taiwan swiftly took action following the first reports of the virus in Wuhan.
In December 2019, Taiwan authorities began screening passengers on every flight arriving from Wuhan. Taiwan soon followed up by enforcing two-week quarantines of passengers arriving from infected countries using mobile tracking devices. Partitions in schools and cafeterias and universal mask-wearing ensured that social distancing was maintained without shutting down the economy. The government nationalized private factories to ramp up mask production, while simultaneously rationing distribution, to ensure an adequate supply for the nation’s citizenry.
Taiwan currently has only 169 confirmed COVID-19 cases, while the US has over 24,000.
Unlike Taiwan, South Korea, had a large outbreak of COVID-19 in February, with more than 8,000 cases by the end of the month. But through aggressive testing and quarantine measures, the country brought the outbreak under control, with little growth in cases in the last two weeks. Like Taiwan, South Korea has used cell phone tracking to monitor the movement and location of confirmed COVID-19 patients.
In both countries, governments have fought COVID-19 by partially infringing on certain citizens’ privacy and property rights. But they have done so in a trustworthy manner (e.g. Taiwan’s cell phone monitoring program is authorized solely for public health purposes) and with the support of their populations.
Democracies do respond swiftly to crises-when citizenry are willing to make a few sacrifices for the common good, and when governments earn citizens’ trust through honest and effective communication.
A democratic government with the capacity and desire to maintain its citizens’ safety will contain the crisis and marshal popular support.
Contrast that with the response of President Trump, the first true “authoritarian” president of the United States.
First he denied the pandemic, then he downplayed it (hoping to preserve a facade of stock market growth), and finally–once it was too problematic to ignore–he declared war, while blatantly lying about the previous cover-up.
Authoritarian states can’t protect us. They only give a &#@ck about their own survival.