By Matthew Delaney

Maybe the most toxic thought in American culture right now is the one that equates emotional satisfaction with making the world a better place. It’s understandably given our leaders the impression that feeling good is the only thing that matters to us, so they have prioritized our “problems” accordingly. Now we’re paying for that short-sighted preference in how the coronavirus pandemic is being handled. 

Lost in all the individual arguments over how to fight Covid-19 is the subtext acknowledging how serious the virus is. It’s killed over half a million people in our country alone and has challenged the capabilities of our healthcare system.  

Coronavirus is the biggest threat to some peoples’ safety in their lifetimes — and we’re a country that’s become obsessed with safety. Doorbells have cameras on them. Parents mimic helicopters. There’s even a term to warn people they may be offended by someone’s speech. So, the fact that a rogue cough can upend all our cushiness hasn’t been warmly embraced. 

What do we get from our leaders in response to the pandemic? A ritual of lockdowns that have sacrificed small businesses and our children’s youth in the advertised effort of protecting the vulnerable (which some governors have been killing with their policies). For their part, public health officials have given us no clear sign about when the pandemic will end, or if it ever will end. They’ve even doubled back on their recommendations and said the vaccine we must take actually won’t affect our lives. There doesn’t seem to be much urgency in ending this pandemic from the people tasked with doing so. 

A sane culture would see this and immediately demand change. Us loons don’t care about the shaky science behind the business and school closures, the wonky messaging on vaccines, or the peculiar zealotry attached to masking that leads people to wear them alone in their car.  

Former President Donald Trump’s shock jockey pressers didn’t help matters by treating the pandemic like another arena to fight with the media. We wanted someone in a white coat or with a state flag pinned on their lapel to use their serious voice and do something about the virus — and we needed to see it. Visual changes were imperative to calming our nerves about the crisis. 

That’s especially so because of the pernicious way that Covid-19 spreads. It’s airborne and is transmitted asymptomatically. In essence, it could be everywhere. Limiting things we normally think are innocent was justified as a precaution …at first. Then, “fifteen days to slow the spread” became thirteen months of your life down the crapper, and a reasonable awareness to Covid’s presence became a devotion to policing everything from exposed breath to (it seems like at least) anything fun. We created a hysterical loyalty over the small, yet visible parts of disease prevention while we ignore the massive policy failures that have quietly steered us deeper into this crisis at all levels. 

That should sound familiar. We’ve made a sport out of crafting moral panics over the things we see while ignoring the more subtle and destructive elements causing the problems to begin with. That’s best represented in how we talk about racism against Black Americans. 

For one, we’re not told to talk about the issues that make the lives of Black Americans worse than racism does, like fatherlessness, poverty, and a lack of educational achievement. And when we do talk about racism, the serious instances that we all universally agree on and demand justice for, like the murder of Ahmaud Arbury, rarely get much attention.  

What’s talked about instead is the everyday stuff we don’t see that supports the supposedly more covert systemic racism; the belief that everything from the nuclear family, to Dr. Seuss books and the Chop Suey font fuel a racist culture of white supremacy by way of the transitive property. And that feeds into systemic racism’s worst (and most popular) form in the disproportionate jailing and killing of black men by police officers. 

The appeal takes one part of the truth — that black people can be treated unfairly by the police and in the courts because of their race. However, it doesn’t acknowledge the higher violent crime rate among Black Americans, or that seventy percent of those violent crimes are carried out against other Black Americans, which has brought about more police activity, to begin with.  

Those mixed emotions toward police were exemplified in a Gallup survey done last summer. The survey found most Black respondents wanted the same amount or more of a police presence in their communities, while also recognizing that many Black respondents believe that those same police officers would treat them negatively. 

Then again, the “fight” against racism isn’t built on making sense of messy truths. It’s about redirecting Black Americans’ feelings toward an endless number of unrelated things said to be racist, ensuring the issue is never fully addressed.  

That’s because those feelings are treasured capital for Democrats seeking political office. It’s also why media and academic institutions that support those Democrats work so hard to put a logical tint on Black Americans’ paranoia. It’s gotten to the point that our commitment to the nation’s worst sin is so pervasive it is said to transmit as subtly as the air we breathe

[Coming from people who are curiously only breathing non-racist air, and more suspiciously, are choosing not to share it. But I digress…] 

Just like how political actors operate on the assumption that we all have racial biases, the founding principle of our virus response has been to act as if everyone is infected with Covid. That’s why the language used when talking about racism and coronavirus are so interchangeable. 

For example, a daily newspaper in Arkansas published a column on “asymptomatic racism” last summer. The two authors — one of whom helps run an organization that says its mission is to “reduce the spread of asymptomatic racism” — argue that everything from giving black men suspicious looks or women clutching their purses around them facilitated the “spread” of racism that rots the soul. 

Upon reflection, it’s hard for me to blame our leaders for using the fight against racism as a template for fighting this pandemic. Public health officials did intimate that they’re equal threats, after all. On the other hand, it’s also hard for me to say that’s a prudent strategy given how the latest incidents of police violence against George Floyd and Jacob Blake were handled. 

At least twenty-five people were killed. Billions of dollars of property damage occurred. Two cities were torched, another was briefly occupied, and a fourth has ongoing protests to this day. 

Politically, the only changes it brought were schools removing the names of Confederate leaders, or even Founding Fathers, from their buildings, and some states dropping the Confederate flag from their iconography. Intellectually, the main idea it furthered was its distinct form of racism that says “whiteness” is a sickness

That’s a unique way of trying to cure the country of its systemic racism — then again, just like with this pandemic, there doesn’t seem to be an interest in “ending” racism. As The Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg put it, the point is the catharsis, except the sensation of catharsis is reframed as saving the nation’s moral reputation, which is almost a straight line from the belief that feeling better is equal to meaningful progress. 

If the virus of racism can be defeated by a noisy exhale instead of reviewing damaging cultural traits, then why can’t Covid with its crude aesthetic measures that buck science? 

This all comes back to acknowledging emotions, which is essential to making citizens feel like they matter, but it’s just as important that these emotions are based on a shared and agreed-upon reality.  

There’s no need to falsely theorize that Black Americans’ misery is what bound this country together, as it was in the New York Times’ now-edited 1619 project and has been stoked in Black Lives Matter protests for nearly seven years. Their story is plenty remarkable without the creative license. 

At the same time, pandemic safety shouldn’t become some wellness lifestyle paganism where the unclean need to be shamed into following overreaching health guidelines or doxxed if they aren’t consumed by fear. It’s been a year; we know the risks associated with living our lives. 

Most of all, we need to remember that we get what we value. Warm and fuzzy rhetoric has been preferred over tangible improvements for a while now, so it’s only natural politicians will play to that rather than make meaningful change. The further we get away from this pandemic, the more we’ll realize that much of the past year was wasted thanks to political incompetence and damningly low expectations for what we want out of our lives. We need to ask more from ourselves before we can expect more from our leaders. 

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