The Value of Collective Experience

New Orleans       A couple of random comments have gotten me thinking a bit about the post-coronavirus world.

One thing that stuck with me was a young man’s take on hoarding in New York City that was a throwaway line in a New Yorker piece.  In his opinion it was evidence of the destruction of a sense in society of the common good and decisive proof that deep-down people believe now “it’s everyone for themselves” with no sense that the community or government will in fact protect and sustain people.  Another was a Facebook posting from a dear old friend saying that he usually enjoyed being part of history, but didn’t like being part of the history being made now.

Certainly, being part of a global health catastrophe involves sharing a terrible reality and living through our worst nightmares. There’s nothing good about it.  At the same time, these comments made me think about whether, once this is all over, if there might be some value we can harvest from this historic, but very collective experience.   Working in countries around the world as varied as France and England and Honduras, Kenya, and India and having conversations and exchanges with all of them during this global crisis has felt weirdly unifying.  I can’t immediately think of any other experience we have shared so universally.  The fear and reaction to the virus is truly global in a way that the globalism of neoliberalism could never embed so deeply.  Everyone speaks from their own country’s crisis, dysfunction, and fear of disease and dying, but for once they speak, even if in different terms and situations, of a truly collective experience.

A contributor to ACORN from Switzerland reacting to a report from ACORN over BBC about the situation in Mumbai, replied to my thanks for her donation this morning, saying among other things that she was “heartbroken” and the situation in India seemed like “another world.”  Of course, she’s right, but is it possible that our collective experience will bring our worlds closer together in an understanding that in fact a crisis in India or China or Africa might be a crisis for everyone, not just someone else’s problem.  As a public health catastrophe, coronavirus is a universal killer even if its impact is hitting African-Americans and lower income families worse, even in the United States.  This isn’t like AIDS where we could pretend just needle users or gay men were hit hardest, or Ebola or SARS, that happened to those “other” people in Africa and China.  This one hits home for everyone.

No one hears a word from anti-vaxers now.  Health is once again a public good, not simply a private preserve or individual choice, despite the inequity of access and delivery.  Divisions of work, the invisible infrastructure of the service economy, and the risks of lack of preparedness and less than full health coverage for our people, are impossible to ignore.  The list of gaps here and around the world are growing and sharing this historic experience might make inaction unforgivable.

Another world might now be possible, even if improbable, and perhaps the young man’s observation that the pandemic has laid bare the terrible truth of our aloneness, might be translated into a deeper commitment to the common good.  We are already seeing community arise locally in many areas and rigid political ideologies forced to bend to popular service and support, even if uneven.

A collective global experience, though both different in its reach and impact, simply has to teach all of us something that creates permanent change.


Secretary Lost at Sea

New Orleans      I’m way out of my lane when I start chiming in on how the military should work, and I’ll admit it, but only to a degree.  I’m pretty clear that “chain of command” is not something that you wrap around your ankle like a weight until you hit the ocean floor.  I think it means that you move your grievance up the ladder, one step at a time.  We believe in that whether in our union contracts or our own workplace.  On a daily basis that works well, but in an emergency, it’s time to yell from the roofbeams or crow’s nest to keep ourselves afloat in this conversation.

Nonetheless, one thing I am absolutely clear about is that I know a fool when I see one, and acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly is showing himself to be about the biggest horse’s butt we have seen in a long time in a period when we seem to be confronted with such nonsense on a daily and even hourly basis.  I’m not saying that just because he fired Captain Brett Crozier, the commander of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, for sending an email and a four-page memo pleading for help in off-loading his crew being infected by the coronavirus.  Yes, he overruled the enlisted and uniformed Navy admirals running the force who wanted to let an investigation run its course on whether Captain Crozier acted correctly.  Yes, chain of command is more important to him that the lives of the sailors.  Yes, certainly, he had the power as the civilian over the military to do the deed, and he did it.

We can disagree about that, and we do.  Maybe we don’t know all the ins and outs here or whatever.  Regardless, we can’t possibly disagree about how foolish and stupid Modly’s stunt was in response to his unbridled anger at seeing the videos of Crozier’s sailors cheering him as he walked the gangplank off of the ship.

He flies 8000 miles at government expense to Guam.  He boards the Theodore Roosevelt and commandeers the ship’s loudspeaker system.  In a profane fifteen-minute speech, captured on audio by some of the sailors, he rants about Crozier, calls him “stupid” and “naïve” and blisters the sailors for having supported their captain.  His arrival wasn’t announced ahead of time, but the Navy brass had solicited questions from the crew and edited them for professionalism and so forth.  He answered and addressed none of these questions in his spiel.  He didn’t tour the ship or meet with any sailors.  He left the ship after his tirade.  Reportedly, sailors were lining up to say they would not reenlist.  He seems to have jumped back on a plane and flown back to Washington.  What a fool!  Who does this?

All of this is a lesson in leadership.  We can disagree on Crozier perhaps, though that’s hard for me to stomach, but there can’t be any disagreement about how absurd Modly’s actions have been in the aftermath.  What could he have hoped he was accomplishing?  Did he think he was quelling a mutiny, and if so, how might any of his actions have done anything but make the situation even worse?

“Acting” secretary of the Navy is right.  He’s acting as if he knows what he’s doing, but proving to America and the world that he needs to be sent to dry land somewhere remotely and immediately and taken as far away from any chain of command over anything as soon as possible.


Please enjoy You Can’t Rule Me by Lucinda Williams

Thanks to WAMF.