Yesterday the NY Times’ editorial board announced a new project titled “The America We Need.” The general thrust of the first piece in this two-month long series was summed up in this line, “What America needs is a just and activist government.” More specifically, that meant adopting most of the platform that Bernie Sanders has been running on, i.e. an end to “exclusionary zoning,” free health care, free child care, free elder care, and housing for all. And that’s just the start.
Today the Times posted its next entry in this project, a piece by opinion writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. The subheading really describes it best, “Covid-19 is killing off the myth that we are the greatest country on earth.” The author starts by acknowledging his privilege:
The fact that I am almost enjoying this period of isolation — except for bouts of paranoia about imminent death and rage at the incompetence of our nation’s leadership — makes me sharply aware of my privilege. It is only through my social media feeds that I can see the devastation wreaked on people who have lost their jobs and are worried about paying the rent. Horror stories are surfacing from doctors and nurses, people afflicted with Covid-19, and those who have lost loved ones to the disease.
Many of us are getting a glimpse of dystopia. Others are living it.
Dystopia is an interesting word choice. It may actually be appropriate in the midst of this crisis. The nation is certainly in a “bad place” at this moment. But it’s worth noting that Democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were using this word to describe America long before the virus hit. I criticized her for doing so at the time and saw a flood of responses on Twitter agreeing that America was indeed a dystopia.
I don’t know if the author of this Times piece would agree with that, but I suspect he might. His problems with America aren’t about the virus, they mostly seem to be about capitalism:
America has a history of settler colonization and capitalism that ruthlessly exploited natural resources and people, typically the poor, the migratory, the black and the brown. That history manifests today in our impulse to hoard, knowing that we live in an economy of self-reliance and scarcity; in our dependence on the cheap labor of women and racial minorities; and in our lack of sufficient systems of health care, welfare, universal basic income and education to take care of the neediest among us.
The hoarding of toilet paper, which is by far the most common example, is probably one of the dumbest things to arise during this pandemic, but it’s clearly a momentary panic based on an irrational fear of scarcity. The word “irrational” is key. The fear spreads, in part, because it’s unusual for Americans to see a grocery store that is out of anything. In a land of plenty, the scarcity stands out as something shocking and thus sparks panic buying. But the beauty of the system we have is that the scarcity of things, from toilet paper to masks to PPE, doesn’t last for long.
The author also faults America for lacking a sufficient system of universal basic income. Perhaps that’s because we don’t have any system of universal basic income. Neither does anyone else in the world, not even in Scandinavia. The author is faulting us for not being to the left of Sweden.
But amid the bumbling, there are signs of hope and courage: laborers striking over their exploitation; people donating masks, money and time; medical workers and patients expressing outrage over our gutted health care system; a Navy captain sacrificing his career to protect his sailors; even strangers saying hello to other strangers on the street, which in my city, Los Angeles, constitutes a nearly radical act of solidarity.
The whole thing is in keeping with the Times’ first entry in this series. ‘The America We Need’ should have been called “Workers of the World Unite.” As I said yesterday, the Times is clearly trying to push a vision of America that American voters have overwhelmingly rejected.