Scenes From the Class Struggle in Lockdown
Those who are anxious to open up the economy have led harder lives than those holding out for safety.
I think there’s a growing sense that we have to find a way to live with this thing, manage it the best we can, and muddle through. Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon. Summer may give us a break, late fall probably not. Vaccines are likely far off, new therapies and treatments might help a lot, but keeping things closed up tight until there are enough tests isn’t a viable plan. There will never be enough tests, it was botched from the beginning, if we ever catch up it will probably be at the point tests are no longer urgently needed.
Meantime, we must ease up and manage. We should go forward with a new national commitment to masks, social distancing, hand washing. These simple things have proved the most valuable tools in the tool chest. We have to enter each day armored up. At the same time we can’t allow alertness to become exhaustion. We can’t let an appropriate sense of caution turn into an anxiety formation. We can’t become a nation of agoraphobics. We’ll just have to live, carefully.
Here’s something we should stop. There’s a class element in the public debate. It’s been there the whole time but it’s getting worse, and few in public life are acting as if they’re sensitive to it. Our news professionals the past three months have made plenty of room for medical and professionals warning of the illness. Good, we needed it, it was news. They are not now paying an equal degree of sympathetic attention to those living the economic story, such as the Dallas woman who pushed back, opened her hair salon, and was thrown in jail by a preening judge. He wanted an apology. She said she couldn’t apologize for trying to feed her family.
There is a class divide between those who are hard-line on lockdowns and those who are pushing back. We see the professionals on one side — those James Burnham called the managerial elite, and Michael Lind, in “The New Class War,” calls “the overclass” — and regular people on the other. The overclass are highly educated and exert outsize influence as managers and leaders of important institutions—hospitals, companies, statehouses. The normal people aren’t connected through professional or social lines to power structures, and they have regular jobs — service worker, small-business owner.
Since the pandemic began, the overclass has been in charge—scientists, doctors, political figures, consultants — calling the shots for the average people. But personally they have less skin in the game. The National Institutes of Health scientist won’t lose his livelihood over what’s happened. Neither will the midday anchor.
I’ve called this divide the protected versus the unprotected. There is an aspect of it that is not much discussed but bears on current arguments. How you have experienced life has a lot to do with how you experience the pandemic and its strictures. I think it’s fair to say citizens of red states have been pushing back harder than those of blue states.
It’s not that those in red states don’t think there’s a pandemic. They’ve heard all about it! They realize it will continue, they know they may get sick themselves. But they also figure this way: Hundreds of thousands could die and the American economy taken down, which would mean millions of other casualties, economic ones. Or, hundreds of thousands could die and the American economy is damaged but still stands, in which case there will be fewer economic casualties — fewer bankruptcies and foreclosures, fewer unemployed and ruined.
They’ll take the latter. It’s a loss either way but one loss is worse than the other. They know the politicians and scientists can’t really weigh all this on a scale with any precision because life is a messy thing that doesn’t want to be quantified.
Here’s a generalization based on a lifetime of experience and observation. The working-class people who are pushing back have had harder lives than those now determining their fate. They haven’t had familial or economic ease. No one sent them to Yale. They often come from considerable family dysfunction. This has left them tougher or harder, you choose the word.
They’re more fatalistic about life because life has taught them to be fatalistic. And they look at these scientists and reporters making their warnings about how tough it’s going to be if we lift shutdowns and they don’t think, “Oh what informed, caring observers.” They think, “You have no idea what tough is. You don’t know what painful is.” And if you don’t know, why should you have so much say?
The overclass says, “Wait three months before we’re safe.” They reply, “There’s no such thing as safe.”
Something else is true about those pushing back. They live life closer to the ground and pick up other damage. Everyone knows the societal costs in the abstract — “domestic violence,” “child abuse.” Here’s something concrete. In Dallas this week police received a tip and found a 6-year-old boy tied up by his grandmother and living in a shed. The child told police he’d been sleeping there since school ended “for this corona thing.” According to the arrest affidavit, he was found “standing alone in a pitch-black shed in a blue storage bin with his hands tied behind his back.” The grandmother and her lover were arrested on felony child-endangerment charges. The Texas Department of Family Protective Service said calls to its abuse hotline have gone down since the lockdowns because teachers and other professionals aren’t regularly seeing children.
A lot of bad things happen behind America’s closed doors. The pandemic has made those doors thicker.
Meanwhile some governors are playing into every stereotype of “the overclass.” On Tuesday Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf said in a press briefing that those pushing against the shutdown are cowards. Local officials who “cave in to this coronavirus” will pay a price in state funding. “These folks are choosing to desert in the face of the enemy. In the middle of a war.” He said he’ll pull state certificates such as liquor licenses for any businesses that open. He must have thought he sounded uncompromising, like Gen. George Patton. He seemed more like Patton slapping the soldier. No sympathy, no respect, only judgment.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called anti-lockdown demonstrations “racist and misogynistic.” She called the entire movement “political.” It was, in part — there have been plenty of Trump signs, and she’s a possible Democratic vice presidential nominee. But the clamor in her state is real, and serious. People are in economic distress and worry that the foundations of their lives are being swept away. How does name-calling help? She might as well have called them “deplorables.” She said the protests may only make the lockdowns last longer, which sounded less like irony than a threat.
When you are reasonable with people and show them respect, they will want to respond in kind. But when they feel those calling the shots are being disrespectful, they will push back hard and rebel even in ways that hurt them.
This is no time to make our divisions worse. The pandemic is a story not only about our health but our humanity.
Republished with permission from peggynoonan.com.