Racism is a poison that's been polluting America since before the States became United. Umbilically present in the womb of our colonial birth, racism saw our colony through to independence, and it continues to infect the US today. America became great by exploiting the land, labor, and lives of people of color. We built our greatness on the backs and with the blood of others. This is a fact.
While we've tried, we've never fully committed to undoing and repairing the damage done to Americans of color, and the steps we have taken have always been met with fierce resistance. It took a civil war and over 600,000 dead to make owning another human being illegal in America, and even then the losers innovated ways to exploit the newly emancipated. We will never fulfill our nation's promise until we accept that believing all are created equal means nothing until all are given an equal footing. Take two identical fish, put one in water and the other on dry land, and tell me which survives.
People of color have always been fish out of water in America, no matter their collective or individual gifts and strengths. We celebrate black athletes and entertainers but cross the street when a black man who isn't singing, dancing, or scoring comes walking towards us. The false narrative of a nation imperiled by the lasciviousness of black male lust and violence was the story of the first-ever American blockbuster, 1915's The Birth of a Nation. Based on Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, D.W. Griffith's 10 reel epic "is three hours of racist propaganda -- starting with the Civil War and ending with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the South from black rule during the Reconstruction era."
It's the same trope that Mayella Ewell brought to bear against Tom Robinson in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The fictional Robinson is a stand-in for the thousands of real men and women of color who lost their lives to racially motivated terror. The idea that black men in particular are somehow more dangerous than others makes living while black complicated at best and lethal at worst. This notion drove Amy Cooper to tell a black birdwatcher that she was going to call the police "to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life" after he asked her to leash her dog. It is what killed Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, and now George Floyd.
It's true that these deaths can be traced back to individual actions, but those actions grew from thoughts and perceptions shaped by our nation's cultural conditioning when it comes to black men and black lives. This conditioning didn't start or end with The Birth of a Nation, and it still has lethal consequences. As Dylan Roof shot up a bible study at a historically black church in South Carolina, he told one of his victims "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country, and you have to go."
Roof uttered those words in 2015, but you could easily imagine them falling from the lips of a Reconstruction Era Klansman. The same culture that made Roof a killer has, to some degree or another tarnished us all. This has had dire consequences for people of color as a whole. The Sentencing Project's 2018 report to the United Nations on racial disparities in the US criminal justice system found that "African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences." To draw a sharper contrast, Dylan Roof took nine black lives at that bible study, then got humane treatment and a Whopper from the police. George Floyd got a knee to the neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds for allegedly passing a fake 20-dollar bill.
"WHAT'S GOING ON" - MARVIN GAYE
"Brother, brother, brother... there's far too many of you dying."
"What's Going On" was written by Obie Benson with contributions from Al Cleveland and, eventually, Marvin Gaye. Benson, who was a member of the Four Tops, wrote the song after witnessing acts of police violence against peaceful protesters in San Francisco. His bandmates felt the song was too political, so Benson shared it with Joan Baez, who also passed. Then it made its way to Gaye, who, according to Benson, "added some spice to the melody. He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song."
Released in 1971, "What's Going On?" climbed all the way to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. I fell in love with the album of the same name in college, some 20 years later. My musical tastes, like my world view, were expanding, which tends to happen at that age. But What's Going On? reached me at a particularly formative time in my life. In high school, I was a member of a church we would now call "Evangelical," but my congregation was pretty apolitical. We were not so much interested in establishing Falwell's Moral Majority as we were in keeping kids like me out of juvenile hall. I left after high school, when the focus became more about growing the church than nurturing the people in it, but I can see that my interest in social justice took root there before growing and flowerain’t at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas along with my tastes in music.
What's Going On was part of the soundtrack of that time of my life, along with The Clash on Broadway, Achtung Baby, and Fear of a Black Planet, among many others. Leaving the church cold turkey was not easy. My view of religion was so distorted, I went through physical withdrawals and bouts of intense depression because when I left the church I felt that God had left me. Music and books like The Catcher in the Rye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I've written about in detail) helped me figure out the kind of person I wanted to be post-church, and new people came into my life to help me heal. Then the Rodney King verdict was announced and Las Vegas, like many of the nation's cities, caught fire.
The collective disbelief people felt when the not guilty verdict was announced was profound. Officers claimed King resisted, though witnesses contradicted those claims. Then the police said King was on PCP, which gave him a sense of invulnerability and made extreme force necessary, but there was only evidence of alcohol in King's system. There was something else that kept the police's account from being accepted as gospel. The more than 50 baton blows officers rained down on King, resulting in multiple injuries including a broken leg, had all been captured on video. If ever there was a moment where bad cops would see justice for an injustice they perpetrated on a black man, it had arrived. And yet it didn't.
When the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted, "What's going on?" seemed like a reasonable question to ask.
I remember attending a rally held by UNLV's Black Students Association. I walked up to one of the speakers, who had just given a fiery speech about "mighty-whitey university" and complimented him on his words. After his initial shock, David Smith became one of my best friends. We tried to integrate the student union. We challenged and changed one another only for the better. Since then, we seemed to have grown on somewhat parallel paths, at least socially and spiritually. But we are those two fish I mentioned earlier. While I see David as my equal in every way, I know that society as a whole, subconsciously at the very least, does not.
So "what's going on?"
Accepting my privilege as real doesn't mean life can't be or hasn't been hard for me and other white people. White dividend payments are not directly deposited into my checking account (though I probably make more money than a black man doing the same job). Other white folks don't give me things for free when we are alone (at least not as often as I'd like), despite what Eddie Murphy learned in the 80s.
But Murphy's sketch hyperbolized the essence of what it means to be white in America. I do benefit from a system that has always bent the odds in my favor. Take my educational experiences in Las Vegas. My parents' marriage imploded when I was six, and my elementary and middle school years were marked by transiency, with me attending 10 different schools throughout the valley prior to finishing up at a single high school. This would be hard for any child, regardless of his or her race (again, privilege does not exempt one from hardship). Changing schools impacted students with stable homes, too. Because of its rapid growth, many students in the Clark County School District switched schools without switching residences as school zones were periodically redrawn. Still, throughout my winding path through the CCSD, African American kids were unfairly bused to schools all over the city for a different reason.
"What's going on?"
This was the result of the CCSD's "Sixth Grade Center Plan of Integration." In 1968, despite the Supreme Court ruling almost 15 years earlier requiring schools to integrate "with all deliberate speed," 97 percent of the students enrolled in schools in Las Vegas's historically black West Side were black. The unfair and inequitable plan the district came up with was to convert schools in black neighborhoods to Sixth Grade Centers. Black children would attend neighborhood schools for kindergarten, and then be bused to schools in white neighborhoods for grades 1-5, stay in their neighborhood for sixth grade, then hit the buses again for grades 7-12 (which was always the case, as there were no secondary schools on the West Side). White students would face this inconvenience just once, being bused to schools in the West Side for sixth grade only. Even though it was clear that much of the burden to reform a broken system was being placed on the students who suffered from it the most, white families still resisted. Opposition groups staged a one-day "Bus-Out" that kept 15,517 white students home. I can't imagine the impact this must have had on black children, and their perceptions of themselves and the neighborhood they lived in. What were white parents telling their children about black people and how they lived?
When I rode the bus to the Kermit R. Booker, Jr. Sixth Grade center for the first time in 1982, I was scared. I had been led to believe that the West Side was a war zone filled with gang members who shot up buses filled with white children. By the time I moved again, and started taking a different bus to a different West Side sixth grade center, the only thing I was worried about was having to make new friends. My experiences at Booker, including getting there and back, dispelled the myth of the dangerousness of the black community, so much so that I even attended black churches in the West Side on occasion in high school.
I'm thankful for friends like David who helped me change and grow. Yet I still carry racism with me. I think everyone is guilty of leaning on a stereotype now and again, because it's easier than challenging our own biases. Those prejudices have had dire consequences for African Americans. A black man jogging through his own neighborhood can arouse the fatal suspicions of his neighbors. What happened to Ahmaud Arbery, with three white men "saddling up" to protect their property from a threat that existed only in their twisted minds, is a natural consequence of the hate Griffith propagated all those years ago. The fact that one of those men was a former police officer says something about how deeply racism continues to infect our society and its institutions.
So here we are again, a nation coming face to face with the poisoned fruits of its past as it struggles to grow a more sustainable future. When riots erupted after the four officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, President George H. W. Bush didn't turn off the lights and bunker down. He didn't order the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters so he could stage a hackneyed photo-op. When he addressed the American people, Bush didn't use the riots as an excuse to dismiss the injustice of what happened to King. He drew a distinction between legitimate protest and mob violence that our president doesn't seem to be willing or able to do. When you have a someone in the Oval Office who is so bad that he makes George H. W. Bush seem overqualified to be president... well, "What's going on?
But this isn't about Trump, just as the racism in Griffith's film wasn't really about him (though he was undoubtedly racist). This is about us. When"What's Going On?"was released in 1971, Gaye suggested it was a question we should be asking one another in order to break down walls and build understanding. "Talk to me," he said, "so you can see what's going on." Today, "What's going on?" is a question we should be asking ourselves. For white people as a whole, that means accepting that racism is our problem, even if we truly believe that we aren't racist, or feel that we haven't benefited from racism in any way. We must no longer give the oppressed the added burden of ending their own oppression the way the Clark County School District did.
If I could, I would kneel on the neck of my privilege, but privilege is not something I have, it's something that's given to me. Ahmaud Arbery's white neighbors probably ignored a few white joggers the day they murdered him. They probably didn't even notice them. In this, we see how privilege is transactional. We must ensure that our African American brethren are included in the exchange -- not because we are racist, but because they are suffering, and for no reason. It's not good enough to not be racist. We must be antiracist. In that sense, "What's going on?" is still a question we must put to others, just not to black people. We know what's going on with them. They are suffering. They are dying. They are tired. "What's going on?" must be a challenge we make to power whenever a person of color is denied the level of dignity and respect we demand for ourselves. Racism did not start with us, bit if we question more than we accept, we can conquer the hate it causes.
Consider learning about and supporting the following organizations committed to bringing justice and equality to America:
Grow your understanding of the African American experience, and learn about how you can work to make change:
I had great hair in high school.
That's my first impression when I look at my senior picture. I mean, damn! Those waves! They looked like they popped right off of John Taylor's head and on to my scalp. It would be interesting to hear today what my classmates thought of me then, if they can recall any impression of me at all. I really didn't embrace everything high school had to offer. I mean, I dabbled. I wrestled (poorly) for two and a half seasons, went to a few parties. I devoured every art class I could take. But I wasn't in any clubs. I rarely went to any dances -- not even prom -- and I didn't date a girl who went to my school, not seriously at least, until after I graduated.
So when people posted their senior pictures on social media in support of this year's seniors, I only kinda got it. I think those people looked back at their time in high school, saw the things they did and the stages they crossed, and they got sad because today's seniors have had their last year mutated by the coronavirus. But not every kid consumes school the same way. This was true for these guys, it was true for me, and I'm sure it's true for today's students, too.
I think I was more wallpaper than wallflower as far as Eldorado High School was concerned, an amalgam of each of the stereotypes represented by The Breakfast Club. When it came to doing school, I was mediocre, at best, so I retreated to church. Being a shy, lonely kid at church was easier than being a shy, lonely kid at school. I immersed myself in a world where, at least two times a week, I was told how much God loved me. I understand now how that was problematic; but, at the time it meant something. I can't really understand what teenagers are going through right now because by the time I graduated, I had, regretfully, quarantined myself by choice. I can try to relate, though.
Somewhere in the bible it says that each person has to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. I don't know about salvation any more, but I think that fear and trembling does apply to our attempts at making sense of quarantine. As I try to come to grips with how this situation is going to impact the teens in my life, I'll share this song along with my senior picture, knowing full well that it can't change what they're going through, or how what staying at home looks like for them:
"I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY (WHO LOVES ME)" - ILLUMINATI HOTTIES
"So when the night falls, my lonely heart calls..."
The seminal version of "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" was released in 1987, becoming Whitney Houston's fourth straight number one single. She won a Grammy for the song the next year, when I was a junior in high school -- the same age my daughter is now. I wasn't a fan, but it was hard not to hear Whitney everywhere. The track's upbeat music didn't seem to mesh with its lyrical content, but I identified with the loneliness the words conveyed, even if I thought bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark did it better. I'm sure I would have heard this song at prom that year, had I gone.
My daughter won't be going to prom this year, and when I think about that, I hear this version of "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" by illuminati hotties. Mirren accurately identifies as a younger, better looking version of me. She is much more adept at every aspect of school than I was, and she's doing her best to get more out of it than I did (coronavirus be damned). But I know that this doesn't mean school is any easier for her. Embracing life may come with a different set of risks than retreating from it, but they are still risks. Mirren is a metaphorical juggler with many balls to keep aloft, and I know she worries about dropping even one. If anything, life in quarantine has made things worse. Now she's juggling in an earthquake.
I think her time in quarantine is lonely, but not in the way it would have been for the teenaged me. Teenaged Tom definitely wanted someone to dance with. My daughter has that someone, only she can't see, let alone dance with him. When we talk about it, it's the indeterminate nature of the situation that frustrates her the most. Where she lives in the northern reaches of New York state, restrictions are being eased, but uncertainty remains, and it continues to shift timelines and alter plans. I know my kid won't be marching on downtown Plattsburgh, carrying a sign demanding that her boyfriend be liberated, but practicality can't cancel the ache that comes with someone's absence.
It's easy for people to try dismiss such feelings from a teenager, but I think that's hypocritical. Even Teenaged Tom felt the searing power of young love; and, more often knew the sadness of its absence. Those memories make this version of "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" mine, in the same way "We Could Send Letters" by Aztec Camera -- which came out 20 years before she was born -- is my daughter's today. Loneliness is not linear. It's a raw, violent thing; a virus of a different sort that -- like love -- has been infecting the star-crossed for all time.
At the risk of losing friends and making enemies, let me just unequivocally state my position on one of life's most enduringly essential questions: the Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones. Take a moment, if you like, to scroll down and leave an angry comment or two.
Now let me make another thing equally clear: the Rolling Stones are one of the greatest bands of all time. The fact that we are so consistently called to choose between these two groups says something about the rarity of the air they occupy. Our choice never multiplies to include the Kinks or the Who. Keith Richards has argued that the Beatles and the Stones traded steps when it was clear that where the Beatles walked the Rolling Stones followed. The first original song the Stones charted with in the UK was "I Wanna Be Your Man," a Lennon/McCartney cast-off. The Beatles' first trip to America is remembered as a triumphant fairytale filled with screaming crowds and a legendary television performance. The Stones' first US tour saw half-filled arenas. Sergeant Pepper taught the Stones to play Their Satanic Majesties Request.
When the Beatles split to find themselves as individuals, the Rolling Stones finally found their identity as a band. They didn't fill a void so much as they created, defined, and occupied a completely new space. The era that birthed the Beatles' decline saw the seed of what Rich Cohen calls "the four greatest records in history" -- the Stones' "golden run" of Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. These albums gave us songs like "Street Fighting Man," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Brown Sugar," and "Wild Horses" among many others. The fact that these songs were written and recorded during times just as turbulent for the band as anything the Beatles faced says something about how great an accomplishment they actually are.
What was golden for the Rolling Stones in the studio was rusty and jagged outside of it. There were arrests and infighting. There was the decline, departure, and death of founding member Brian Jones. Keith Richards began his own spectacular struggle with heroin addiction. There was Allen Klein, the "manager" who helped speed the dissolution of the Beatles and who left the Rolling Stones nearly broke. They headlined what they hoped would be the "West Coast Woodstock," only to see the Altamont Speedway Free Festival descend into violence and murder; the Sixties ethos of peace and love beaten with pool cues by the Hells Angels as "Sympathy for the Devil" blasted from the stage. Through all of this, the band did what their name implies: they rolled with and through it, which is why a track from Exile on Main Street is up next on my soundtrack.
"TUMBLING DICE" - THE ROLLING STONES
"There's fever in the funk house now" - Keith Richards & Mick Jagger
The band was far from destitute when they decamped to Nellcôte, a mansion Richards rented in the south coast of France to set about recording Exile on Main Street. But that summer, the Rolling Stones was a troubled, tax exiled group of lost boys looking for Wonderland. Lester Bangs said the album was about casualties and partying in the face of them, but critic Ben Ratliff called it "an audio diary of rock stars finally facing the rigors of marriage, children and addiction." Aside from that, he argues, it is difficult to pin down Exile's singular essence. It's a concept album in search of a concept.
It may have found one nearly 50 years after its release.
Lines like "the sunshine bores the daylights out of me" from "Rocks Off" describe the growing ennui I'm feeling after forty-some-odd days of staying at home, while "Rip This Joint" could easily be co-opted by the covidiots protesting their stay at home orders. The lyrics to "Casino Boogie" were put together like a puzzle (a favorite quarantine pastime), with Richards and Jagger tearing up newspapers and magazines and then fitting phrases together to make the song. "Ventilator Blues" was inspired by the stifling Nellcôte basement where much of the recording took place, but the song's literal and figural relevance to today is evident in "everybody's gonna need some kind of ventilator." Who isn't feeling a bit "Torn and Frayed" right now? Still, it's "Tumbling Dice" that does it for me, and it's not just because "women think I'm tasty."
Jagger cribbed the lyrics together after talking to a housekeeper about gambling, only the song's not a tutorial. It could stand as a warning to anyone looking for something more from a one night stand than just that one night, with the singer cautioning, "you got to roll me, and call me the tumbling dice." Sure, you might get lucky, but... you very well might not. That's how gambling works.
I can't make a case for the song being wholly appropriate for this situation, or for me at all, even in the best of times, and I think that's why it appeals to me right now. I'm a pretty level-headed person settled comfortably in a loving and monogamous relationship. I (still) have a job and the people I love are healthy. I'm not one who is ever looking to gamble with that sort of security, but I can understand why leaving things to chance might be appealing, especially since the certainty and control we are never really guaranteed has been challenged even further by the coronavirus.
We've had to give up a lot of certainty in the face of a virus that may or may not effect us. It is a threat that has reshaped everything we do. Taking my sick pup to the vet gave new meaning to being a "rank outsider." It meant staying in the car while a tech took her inside, then waiting for the vet to call so we could discuss her symptoms, and then waiting again for the vet to call back with a diagnosis and plan for treatment. I can't imagine having to do something similar with my wife should she fall ill, yet that sort of distance worrying is real for far too many right now. Too much waiting and empty waiting rooms, so we send our goodbyes through the air and hope they travel farther and faster than the virus.
COVID-19 has us all at "sixes, sevens, and nines." Like it or not, what used to be normal is not a safe bet, and there is no new normal for us to lay odds on just yet. Still, through all of this, the Stones seem to be having yet another revival. Their performance of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" for Global Citizen's One World: Together at Home "concert" stood out. A year ago, they just happened to record an eerily prescient single, "Ghost Town" -- their first new original music in eight years -- which they rolled out a few weeks ago.
The Beatles will always be shiny and new. They are forever standing around a psychedelic drumhead wearing day-glo band uniforms. One of their many gifts is to be discovered again and again by generation after generation, their story a perfect pyramid of exposition, then climax, then denouement we listen to on repeat. The Rolling Stones have always moved too quickly for such consumption, and yet for many they are just as eternal.
People joke that if the coronavirus ever came in contact with Keith, it would have to go into isolation. They wonder why scientists aren't trying to derive a vaccine from his blood. What they don't understand is that it wouldn't work without Mick. It never has. Andrew Loog Oldham knew this when he locked them in the kitchen of their dingy London flat and told them not to come out until they wrote a song (they did -- "As Tears Go By" -- which became a hit for Marianne Faithfull). They've had trouble staying in the same room together without fighting ever since. Even now, they have to be kept far apart backstage, as Keith can't stand to hear Mick go through his vocal exercises before a show. And yet, when they take the stage, it all works. Keef brings the riffs, Mick brings the words, and we all keep tumbling.
Many, many writers and journalists have documented what a shit show our president has made of managing the coronavirus in America. President Trump recommended that all Americans wear masks, then he refused to do so himself. He said that no one could have seen how bad the pandemic would be for our country, even though one of his trusted economic advisors wrote about it in a January 29 memo. The president either ignored or didn't bother to read what Peter Navarro laid out. Trump isn't much of a reader.
Next, he said that governors will make decisions about when it's safe for their states to reopen (despite falsely asserting that he had "total authority" on the matter), only to undercut state-level decisions with reckless tweets that produced scenes like this, captured by Alyson McLaran:
This unnamed tank-man of the #pandemic silently obstructed the path of "patriots" protesting Colorado's stay-at-home order. It is fitting that a healthcare worker would be a metaphorical mask, blocking the spread of fear and anger unleashed by our president's petulance. The only thing that's obvious about the way Trump "leads" in this time of crisis is how he can't seem keep his thumbs from contradicting what his mouth says just days earlier ("follow the guidelines." "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"). We need clarity from our president. We get confusion instead. Hence...
"BALL OF CONFUSION" - LOVE & ROCKETS
"Vote for me and I'll set you free..." - Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong
"Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today)" was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. They were part of the Motown Records hit factory that made sure the Model-T Ford wasn't the last thing made in Detroit that profoundly shaped American culture. Their song was recorded and released by the Temptations in 1970, reaching number three on the Billboard charts that June. Since then, the song has been covered, to varying degrees of success, by Tina Turner, Leon Bridges, and Duran Duran. As truly great as the original version is (how can you not like the backing track laid down by the Funk Brothers) it's the steely, slightly faster version recorded by Love & Rockets in 1985 that resonates with me these days.
Even though it's part of my COVID-19 Soundtrack, "Ball of Confusion" was, like me, born during the Nixon years. Until January 20, 2017 Richard Nixon was arguably the worst American President of the modern era, but Tricky Dick has nothing on the very stable genius running our nation off the rails right now. If you need an example of leadership during a time of crisis, look no further than this exchange President Trump had with Peter Alexander, the White House correspondent for NBC News back on March 20th:
Alexander: What do you say to Americans, who are watching you right now, who are scared?
President Trump: Peter, I say (looks directly into the camera), my fellow Americans, it's okay to be scared. These are scary times, and we're facing a tremendous threat, a tremendous threat unlike we've ever seen (pauses to look at notes). The coronavirus doesn't hide behind a flag. It doesn't attack using weapons. Guns. It doesn't use planes. Instead, it takes the hands we use to hold our loved ones, and the mouths we use to say "I love you" and it makes them dangerous. Deadly. So you can be afraid, but you need to be strong, too. America has the best people. The best people. People who know how to stand up to fear. We did it in World War II. We did it on 9/11. I was there at Ground Zero, as you know, and I saw it. And we're going to do it in the days, weeks, and months, I can tell you. I can promise you, my fellow Americans, that my administration is going to throw everything we have at the coronavirus, and with your help, we're going to win. So stay home, stay safe, and stay strong.
Here's how that exchange really went down:
Alexander: What do you say to Americans, who are watching you right now, who are scared?
President Trump: I say you're a terrible reporter. That's what I say.
It says a lot about Trump's leadership that a high school special education teacher could come up with a better answer to Alexander's question, especially since it was tailor-made for making one seem presidential. The man who once claimed to have the best words couldn't muster anything worth saying to the country. Instead he attacked a reporter for asking a perfectly valid and appropriate question.
In fairness, President Trump then added that the American people needed answers and they needed hope, but these are two things he has been unable to adequately supply despite his daily attempts to do so. The president's answers are usually lies ("Anybody that wants a test can get a test"), and his idea of hope is pushing an unproven drug he has a small financial stake in. His briefings often raise more fear than hope, particularly when the Drs. Fauci or Birx aren't present. In fact, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 35% of Americans surveyed trust the president on the coronavirus. Conversely, the same poll found that 66% of the respondents trusted their own governor, despite decisions like this coming out of Florida.
I'm with those 66%. I avoid the president's briefings, and instead I rely on my state and local officials for answers, for hope. I schedule my daily routine around Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker's coronavirus updates. Baker has been steady to the point of stoic, yet when he does show emotion, it's in a way that reaches to the heart of what many of us are feeling in world where people have to say goodbye to dying loved ones over FaceTime. I also welcome the recorded messages from Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill, whose sensible response to the virus has made international news. Mayor Cahill always starts this messages with "Hi friends," and before he gets to reminding us about social distancing and wearing masks, he asks us to think of our neighbors who are sick, and to say prayers for the families of those who have passed. These leaders aren't perfect, but their leadership is more reliable, even in its imperfection, than the flailing indignation in the face of failure we get from President Trump.
I get that people are scared, even those (maybe especially those) who are protesting stay at home orders. I'm scared, too. But we can't be willing to put lives at risk today simply because death is inevitable some time in the future. Whitfield and Strong acknowledged in their "Ball of Confusion" that there were people interested in learning and "talkin' 'bout love thy brother" and we have people like that in our confusing world, too. Instead of demanding the right to play golf and get haircuts, the people protesting stay at home orders should unfollow Trump and start listening to those Colorado healthcare workers, and the thousands of others like them, who have asked us to stay home so that some people infected with the virus don't have to die today. There is nothing confusing about their daily heroism, and the quiet leadership that drives it.
You can download "Thank You" by Thomas Wimberly, along with other artwork donated by artists dedicated to the fight against COVID-19 at Amplifier.org.
The coronavirus is not the first pandemic of the Twitter age, but it will be the most remembered. Even though almost 12,500 Americans lost their lives to H1N1 during the Spring of 2009, March was still mad. Kobe was still alive and winning championships. Baba-Booey was still throwing out horrible first pitches. America, for the most part, stayed open. Today H1N1 is mostly a stick pundits use to measure both our government's reaction to the coronavirus and the media's coverage of that reaction. H1N1 and Twitter shared time together on the planet (still do), but COVID-19 is the first #pandemic. It will take years for us to come to terms with the swiftness with which it blew through our houses and slammed our doors shut.
Even though we've been forced to retreat behind closed doors and makeshift masks we are, in some ways, more connected in the face of COVID-19 than we've ever been. Because of Zoom, my wife currently spends more time with some of her co-workers than she did when they shared the same building. Even though venues are closed, concerts are common because social distancing doesn't apply to social media. Until an equally potent virus infects our devices, the way we cope with and relate to this new kind of isolation is something we can share and others can consume, which brings me to the next song on my COVID-19 soundtrack:
"ISOLATION" - JOHN LENNON
"People say we got it made. Don't they know we're so afraid?"
John Lennon made and released "Isolation" during a time of great personal and professional upheaval. It's the fifth track on his first official solo record, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a starkly raw record that was a sharp left-turn away from the gloss and polish of The Beatles (despite their attempt to get back to basics with Let it Be). With each song, Lennon gives the audience a glimpse into what it's like to simultaneously quit drugs and The Beatles cold turkey. He sonically and lyrically lays his grief bare on "Mother" and wonders, now that he's stepped away from being a Beatle, "who am I supposed to be?" on "Look at Me."
This album is a good example of the dichotomy of celebrity. For Lennon, and probably for most famous people, fame and popularity can make you feel alone in a way that seems inconsistent and out of place when there's a version of you plastered here, there, and everywhere (thanks, Paul). At the height of Beatlemania, John, Paul, George, and Ringo found solace in one another's company by hanging out in their hotel room bathroom because that was the only place where they could be themselves on their own terms. Celebrities become wealthy by producing a version of themselves for our consumption. In that trade-off, they get trapped by the expectations that come from being who we think they are. For fans, it's easy to forget that there is an actual, feeling human being behind the pictures in the TMZ stories. With "Isolation" Lennon presents that humanity like an open wound.
Since the world cocooned, many of us have been contending with who we are. We go through familiar routines that, despite their sameness, are different from what we're used to. Shopping remains a necessary pastime. We have to eat and have toilet paper. Lots, and lots of toilet paper. Other constants aren't required, but not surprising in their constancy, like our obsession with celebrity. Almost 40 years after Lennon died, the world is still enamored with the concept that he helped create, came to hate, and was ultimately murdered by. We still consume the famous, even under quarantine. Want proof? For a lot of us, the threat of the coronavirus didn't become real until Tom Hanks -- America's Dad -- got it (you can check out his wife's quarantine playlist here). But we still want celebrity on our terms, which was never fair, perhaps even less so now. For example, BuzzFeed wants you to know that celebrities are pandemic shopping just like the rest of us. There's even pictures of Miley in a mask! Yet, that same media outlet laments that celebrity nonsense is at an all-time high, while The Nation explains how the coronavirus reveals that the stars are not like us (perhaps not even Forest Gump).
I disagree with The Nation's headline. Stars are like us, they just don't live like us. Yet it's as if there's a certain degree of worry, fear, suffering, and foolishness that isn't allowed celebrities, even though their world -- which admittedly is drastically different from ours -- has changed just as much. Vanessa Hudgens saying, “Yeah, people are gonna die. which is terrible. But like, inevitable” on Instagram is similar to Glen Menard Nordal saying "None if us are getting out of this world alive...virus or no virus....it's fear mongering at its best" on Facebook. The only difference is Hudgens has 38.8 million followers on Instagram and Nordal has 32 followers on Facebook. Not 32 thousand. Just 32. Insensitivity is another constant... virus or no virus.
Our continued consumption of celebrity quarantine culture is hypocritical and unfair. Even as we deny the rich and famous the right to fear and frustration, we still expect them to assuage ours. Hudgens was forgiven for her coronavirus faux pas as soon as it was announced that she would be participating in a High School Musical cast reunion singalong (add "We're All in this Together" to your quarantine playlist). Our how could they! during quarantine incredulousness moved onto Justin Timberlake and his public frustration with the demands of 24-hour parenting, even though social media was filled with things like this from "normal" people, once quarantine closed schools and remote learning ensued:
Neither of these pictures look like they were taken on a Montana ranch. I don't know Cara Biddings but her Twitter profile says she lives in Maine, and she seems nice. Yet, I see the same thread running through her and Timberlake's comments. They're both just humans. Victims of the insane situation we all are in.
Two years before "Isolation" was released, Lennon shouted "I'm lonely! Want to die!" on "Yer Blues." I'm definitely not there, but I am adapting to a new sort of loneliness. I'm thankful for my wife and my pups. I appreciate the virtual connectedness I have with others, but it is a pale substitute for the physical, human interactions I didn't know I'd miss until they were gone, like Thursday night trivia at my local dive bar. I want to stand outside my classroom between bells again, share the Jeopardy Clue of the Day with my colleagues, and joke with my students. The free and easy exchanges of "please" and "thank you" that occurred in restaurants and shops are either gone or given a new and tangible weight in today's circumstances, where buying groceries can be deadly.
When this is all over, I'd love to spend time in the Grenadines on David Geffen's 400 million dollar superyacht. But I wouldn't want to be stuck on it while the rest of my life was put on hold. For now, all of us still shop, celebrities in nicer stores, with a new distance that can't be measured in arm-lengths. The situation, not the setting, is what makes "Isolation" so heavy.