What we owe the dead ❤️
A case for civic duty that extends beyond crisis mode
America is an oligarchy organized by the hierarchy of the white supremacist patriarchy. Pancake Brain is a (free) Friday newsletter dedicated to replacing the status quo with equitable public power. If you’re into that kind of thing, I hope you’ll subscribe and share. This project is based on my book, How to Start a Revolution, which you I hope you will read (or listen to).
Dearest Pancake Brains,
This morning, the front page of the New York Times offered the most concrete glimpse of hope I’ve seen since the world turned upside down. Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that cases had begun to stabilize in New York. Now, we have global confirmation that social distancing works: “Dramatic Changes In Behavior Produce Flickers Of Optimism,” announced the front page. Online, the headline reads, “Optimism is Less Distant as Global Coronavirus Rages On.”
The piece moved from Wuhan, China to the United States, where Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases (who has been advising Presidents since Reagan), said he expected that the White House projection of 100,000 to 200,000 virus-related deaths could be lowered.
I paused to take in that number. It registered as an abstract statistic, until, instead of 200,000 potential deaths, I thought of a single funeral.
My uncle is a mortician, and he has been regularly unzipping body bags for less than ten loved ones, who stand six feet away from one another as they confirm that the corpse belongs to the soul they dropped off at the hospital.
When my mom shared this with me, I was shocked to see it was a nice spring afternoon outside. I keep finding myself surprised that the sun is shining as society crumbles into sickness and death, but then I realize I’m thinking about YA nuclear war. Given the current estimates, it seems likely that by the end of the pandemic, every American will either know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who died from the coronavirus. This real-life dystopia can perhaps be best summed up by the words “Zoom funerals.”
There is reason to believe we are headed up and out, though that will require the extensive cooperation of extended social distancing: Stay home, if you can. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Listen to the instructions of scientists and local officials who are dedicated to the public interest, and tell your family to do the same. Minimize trips to the grocery store, and also please don’t be that asshole who hoards toilet paper.
Our civic duty as a responsibility to the interconnected whole is quite plain to see in the spotlight of the coronavirus. There are a clear set of provisions for what we owe to each other, and that commitment must extend beyond crisis mode. Citizenship means actively participating in the question of how we ought to live together, and it is always a matter of survival.
We will be able to return to freedom of movement someday, and that is when a new phase of citizenship must begin, that is, if we would truly like to be free. Right now, our civic duty means staying at home, if possible. It must also include a sustainable commitment to insisting on your right and duty to the political conversation.
At the bare minimum, that means register and vote. Make sure your friends are registered and voting. Beyond that, I’d urge you to build a discipline of democracy. Pick a set number of hours that you dedicate to political action each month. That might mean raising donations for a cause you care about, volunteering for a candidate you support or running for office yourself. When we can gather in public again, participate in a local protest or organize a demonstration of your own. Democracy is a thing we do, and all the goddamn time.
In our reigning dumpster fire, a pandemic is ravaging the globe and a racist authoritarian is gaslighting the American public about the scope of the disease. He is depriving our country of federal organization of resources, and even just a reliable set of information from which to navigate the invisible pathogen eating away at our imaginations. The coronavirus cannot be blamed on Trump, but countless Americans will die as a result of his extraordinary incompetence, which can easily be described as criminal negligence. It is only rational to be alternately stricken with grief and red with rage that this is the way things are, but grief and anger with nowhere to go will turn into despair. We can only build the equitable future we deserve if we make a sustainable commitment to translate our energy into action.
Among the great horrors of the coronavirus is how many deaths could have been avoided, if we had good information and solid leadership. It is up to us now to make certain that so many preventable deaths were not in vain. In honor of the dead, we must commit to our civic duty of empowering ourselves with the facts we need to navigate our lives and striving to routinely take action in the interest of the collective. That’s how we survive this crisis, and whatever comes next.
With earnest irreverence,