“With our political and cultural situation having deteriorated far beyond where it was two decades ago, it is my hope that the long-overdue national cleansing and cultural revitalization this pestilence brings in its wake will last.”
t is ironic, is it not, that in this time in which we found ourselves most isolated from one another, we felt, at least for awhile, closer to each other than we have in many, many years?
Let us be frank: Pre-coronavirus New York was a city of pigs, the hog-wild epicenter of a nation increasingly resembling an unkempt, unrestrained pigsty. The standard of what had become acceptable public dress and behavior had deteriorated to the point where I would be pleasantly surprised if a subway ride or a walk along city streets did not yield some species of mild-to-moderate disgust. The onslaught could come at any moment. Everyone from Madison Avenue-clad teenage girls to immigrants just off the proverbial boat was spewing George Carlin’s seven dirty words in every possible configuration. Obese women—growing, with every passing year, more obese and more proud of themselves for their bodies that could have been showcases in a special exhibition devoted to the display of a health epidemic—were walking around in rolls-of-flab-baring crop tops and booty shorts that were a lot more booty than shorts. The customary gait of many grown men had become grotesque, some having taken to strutting around like pro wrestling villains sauntering down the aisle, while others duck-walked like toddlers, unable to propel themselves forward in any other manner due to their pants sagging below their underwear. For both genders, dirty, scruffy, dressed down, and tatted up had become an actual fashion choice. Rhetorical stylings had undergone a similar deformation, with scraggly white hipsters doing their best to imitate the latest in ill-bred, lazy-tongued ghetto slang while increasingly many people below a certain age were having a hard time enunciating more than a few consonants.
In the standards of appearance and conduct, in the arts, in sportsmanship, in every aspect of society, refinement was out; vulgarity was in.
Drugged-out zombies were sprawled out on subway steps or teetering in the middle of the sidewalk. Homeless nut jobs, drunks and junkies emboldened by the class-baiting, race-baiting Mayor de Blasio’s utter refusal to deploy cops to keep ordinary tax-paying citizens safe from harassment and the streets free of filth, were proliferating all over the city, filling and fouling up every spare corner, laying across entire subway benches with their massive stashes of trash in tow, making station platforms reek worse than the public restrooms at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Subway turnstile jumping had become a status symbol in certain circles. On streets and on trains, more and more seemingly normal people, having taken their cue from low-class thugs, had concluded it was okay to play their music or videos out loud for everyone to hear. Occupying multiple seats on crowded public transportation—or even placing feet on seats—was now just the way many people sat in the ordinary course of things. Routinely elevated speaking volume had become yet another form of encroachment upon other people’s space and peace of mind. In the standards of appearance and conduct, in the arts, in sportsmanship, in every aspect of society, refinement was out; vulgarity was in.
All of these behaviors—the kinds of things that actually deserve the name “micro-aggressions”—shared two features: they reflected (1) a fundamental lack of respect for the needs and sensibilities of other people in one’s social environment, and (2) a massive inversion of the usual class dynamics, with younger members of upper-class demographics, followed by the more inveterate trend-hoppers among their doddering elders, falling all over themselves to be first in line to make a headlong leap toward imitation and championing of those at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
Why did this happen? The nub of the issue is this: Planting its roots in the 1960’s, beginning to flower in the late 1980’s, and then bursting out of every crack and crevice over the course of the past decade or so, a movement has taken hold—one the late philosopher Roger Scruton gave the fitting name of “oikophobia”—in which our society has been conducting an all-hands-on-deck assault upon itself and upon all that had made it the envy of the world in earlier epochs. What occurred here is much like what historian Paul E. Gottfried describes in his 2005 book, The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium, as having occurred in post-World War II Germany. Originally, Gottfried explains, German de-Nazification was about confronting and expunging the influence of actual former Nazis. Such persons were disproportionately likely to have emanated from among the German elites, so—in order to dilute their own starring role in Hitler’s horror show—by the 1960’s, German elites had succeeded in giving de-Nazification a different twist. The idea, now, was that Nazism was a kind of German original sin in which all of Germany was complicit, with much of pre-war German culture coming to represent a mere prelude to Nazism. In this way, German elites, instead of being in-the-very-bullseye objects of scrutiny, could miraculously guide themselves back into the conductor’s chair of a new, runaway bullet train. They, then, reframed themselves as dutiful grand inquisitors leading the charge against every last vestige of the Nazi plague that had taken root in the nation, especially among the as-yet-unenlightened and unreconstructed common folk who were, as ever and always, being propped up to be run over.
This should sound disturbingly familiar to us. Entrenched American elites were the very people who were most likely to have gotten where they are on others’ backs and to have, therefore, benefited from slavery, Jim Crow, and all manners of legalized racism. As the Civil Rights Era took hold and the ax of vengeance threatened to cut too close for comfort, such American elites, much like their German cousins, began to transform themselves from those who had the most to lose in the coming storm to the gallant and valiant instruments of the social justice revolutionary express. Turning self-excoriation into an inconsequential but elaborately staged passion play, they made shows of contrition and regret. However, the true objects of their righteous anger lay elsewhere: the real people they were excoriating were, just as in Germany, those unreconstructed and “backward” members of the populace, who had not yet accepted their complicity in what had now become America’s version of original sin: slavery and its legacy. In an ultimate irony, in a daring gambit to take our eyes off the prize, the truly privileged succeeded in generalizing and racializing the idea of privilege to turn it into the near-meaningless trope of “white privilege,” a vague pathology inherently afflicting all whites in equal measure. In reality, of course, the people under attack—poor and underprivileged rural whites—were themselves disproportionately likely to have been victims of American history. They may have bought into racist ideas once self-servingly peddled by their betters hook, line and sinker. But such ideas, useful—as nativist or racist battle flags often are—for winning the allegiance of ordinary folks to causes from which they realize little or no tangible benefit, never translated into much of a leg up in anything. Now, however, it was time to punish them for still harboring the retrograde prejudices of which their elite superiors, having washed their hands of their sins by checking their own privilege, had already very ceremoniously dispensed. In fact, the many obstreperous ceremonies in which virtuous American elites dispensed such punishment to their backward American lookalikes was a show of those elites’ ceremonious dispensation.
Thus, when college admissions systems were rejiggered to give a legalized leg up to certain minorities, it was not the wealthy whites with their private tutors, college prep classes and legacy admissions statuses (or outright bribery schemes, as we have discovered) who would feel the brunt of such institutional discrimination. Nor would they—with their and their parents’ personal connections at top-tier places of employment—be the ones who would feel the pernicious impact of institutional diversity policies. The privileged upper tiers—those very people who are overrepresented among progressive elites—were guaranteed a soft landing. It was, instead, the white rural poor and poor white immigrants fleeing political and economic oppression and persecution of every sort, viz., people who had little or nothing to do with American slavery and whose position in society in no way reflected any lasting benefit from such practices, who found themselves, yet again, last or near last in line.
Although slavery and racism were the principal cause célèbre on this side of the Atlantic for obvious historical reasons, the toxic European ideologies imported to serve as instruments of the divestment from our racist past—Marxism, post-colonial theory and postmodernist relativism—came packaged with a generalized liberal dose of hierarchy-inverting, anti-traditionalist rhetoric useful in bringing other unticketed passengers along for the ride on the high-speed Oppression Express. The ideologies of anti-maleness, anti-heterosexuality, anti-Christianity, anti-Americanism, anti-Westism, and anti-traditionalism quickly hopped on board. Everything about the culture that centuries of toil, turmoil, hard-won victories, and slow but steady progress had created, the trash-it-all counter-culture set out to invert and destroy, heedless of the fact that the opposite of culture is barbarism. And so, after the barbarians had zeroed in on their easiest target among the young ensconced in the poorly defended ivory towers of academia, where teachers and students alike were ever on the lookout for anything fresh and new to shake up the established order of things, the assault on America began.
By the 2010’s, the revolution had succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Filtering out from academia into the entertainment industry and the organs of the mass media, the onslaught co-opted what had once been the most respectable elements of the established order. What had once represented topsy-turvy outsider views of history embodied in quasi-Marxist tracts like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States now took center stage as The New York Times, with its historically ludicrous “1619 Project” (ignoring the fundamental objections of even academic historians generally sympathetic to its aims), set out to institutionalize a virulent species of anti-white, anti-American bigotry as the foundational cornerstone of educational curricula throughout the nation. The hateful and demented racial myopia of Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which all of American history turned on the axis of slavery and anti-black bigotry, was quickly becoming the official version of American history preached by the academy and the educational establishment to impressionable adolescent victims, who didn’t know better. Every organ of the mainstream mass media and entertainment industry now routinely spouted divisive racial, sexual, and other identity-based rhetoric.
This axiomatic proposition was clear: Whoever was on top in America (or rather, in some 1950’s caricature of America these people could not let go and believed was still around, if it had ever existed in the first place) was bad; Whoever was on the bottom in America was good. Dissociating oneself from erstwhile elites and elite high culture while idealizing and emulating the most obvious exemplars of the oppressed underclass—African Americans (or, again, a pathetic, ghettoed-up caricature of African Americans)—was now the thing to do to attain status and cultural caché. Hip hop music and fashion and ghetto culture as a whole, bolstered by powerful commercial forces eager to capitalize upon a trend and cater to the preferences of youthful tastemakers, came to drown out much else. This was not unlike those who might once have cultivated a taste for the avant-garde—or, at least, for culture that felt authentic—but came instead to genuflect at the altar of the most vulgar, unsubtle, debased, depraved, and commercialized images and sounds. We had gotten to the point where Pepsi, Nike, and Gillette were running ads trying to profit off of juvenile gestures of superficial protest. Racial and sexual protest was a hot commodity. We were exalting self-destruction, a society cannibalizing itself.
It is in this ignominious posture that we had arrived at our pre-Coronavirus moment. Then, the plague washed up on our shores. It hit back hard against the inconsiderate thoughtlessness with which we had come to conduct our public lives. It forced us inwards, into our homes and into our souls. It made us vigilant, attentive to the manner in which our actions affected and, indeed, impinged upon others. It got us to cover our big mouths, to conceal from the world our all-too-ready grins and all our other spontaneous, mindless, inadequately composed expressions. It quieted us down, the city as a whole, yes, but also individuals, upon whom masks, as though they were subconscious muzzles, imposed the critical discipline of silence. It got us to quit the streets, shut our doors, shutter our windows, hunker down and introspect. And, perhaps best of all, it got many of us, for the first time in what seemed like ages, to condemn, at least in our thoughts if not in words or actions, those who continued to go about unwarily and heedlessly, those who refused to cover up, those boors who kept taking up too much space and insisted on failing to maintain their distance.
This was starting to bear some resemblance to a cohesive, generous, and functional society in which I might want to live.
But here is the irony with which I began: Even as we saw less of each other than we had in decades, for the first time in decades, September 11th being the last time, we felt, at least for a brief span of time, like we were part of a single community once again. We were fighting the same invisible enemy, taking the same precautionary measures, made subject to the same restrictive rules, regulations and obligations. We were reading about and witnessing incredible acts of generosity, as many formerly commercially motivated actors were opening their hearts and their pocketbooks for the common good. Samaritan’s Purse, Franklin Graham’s anti-gay evangelical organization, was lending a hand to a city normally inhospitable to its belief system with a 68-bed field hospital opened in the middle of Central Park. Remaining petty squabbles aside, our politicians were working together towards common ends better than they had since before Newt Gingrich’s incarnation of the Republican Party had upped the ante on partisan politics. And Joe Biden was undoubtedly being flooded once again, through the haze of early-stage dementia, with nostalgic memories of the days when he and his racist Southern segregationist colleagues all got along. Under a polarizing Republican President, Republicans and Democrats worked together to deliver a quick stimulus package that, for all its faults and predictable corporate giveaways, also gave a lot more to ordinary Americans than Congress had done in 2008, under a Democratic President, when the outrageous decision was made to bail out the financial institutions that, unlike this time around, had caused that crisis, while letting the average Joes who’d lost their jobs or their life savings sink or swim at they might. Trump praised Cuomo. Cuomo praised Trump. Trump praised de Blasio. Trump and Biden enjoyed a congenial phone call, with both speaking of the interaction in glowing terms. This was starting to bear some resemblance to a cohesive, generous, and functional society in which I might want to live.
The cultural power brokers, of course—the media worst of all—were too locked in the punch to adapt to our new reality. Soon after the coronavirus panic touched down and drowned out the rest of their petulant noise in which race and other identity politics had been playing the perpetual leading role, I predicted to many friends that it would not be long before the powers-that-be regained their footing and started reporting on what I knew would be coronavirus’s disparate racial impact. And, of course, it did not take long. By March 31st, an effort was already afoot by some of the most divisive identity-mongers in Congress—Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris among them, of course—to get Coronavirus statistics broken down by race. By April 3rd, everyone’s favorite back-of-the-clown-car member of the House of Representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was calling for reparations for minority communities based on the larger number of cases in New York’s minority communities, such as Brownsville, the South Bronx, Flatbush, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. And then, escalating day after day, the media picked up and ran with the racial frenzy, documenting disproportionate numbers of cases in neighborhoods like Crown Heights or Borough Park (the latter with median income 25% below the city’s median), neighborhoods that—perhaps unbeknownst to national media—are occupied by large numbers of Hassidic Jews, many of whom were refusing to abide by social distancing rules, continuing to pack into synagogues for services, and forcing cops to step in repeatedly to break up crowded funerals. Other media sources were documenting the higher national death rates from Coronavirus among African Americans and attributing such ill fortune to the always-at-the-ready bugaboo of “structural racism,” absurdly blaming “[h]undreds of years of slavery, racism and discrimination” rather than the more concrete and mundane prevalence of fast food and other present-day dietary habits (not shared by many other disproportionately impoverished groups, which tend to cook at home more often than wealthier Americans) for the prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and other pre-existing health conditions that predisposed African Americans to severe cases of Coronavirus. Nor, of course, had any of these media pundits drawn the connection between norms of manliness and cool-pose culture that pushed African American and Latin communities—and men, in particular—to avoid mask-wearing and social distancing, a situation obvious to anyone who actually bothered to walk around in the neighborhoods at issue and one that may have been aggravated by some of these same prominent media organizations—CNN, NBC, and The New York Times—irresponsibly propagating a myth that African-American males wearing mask would be risking racial profiling.
But the media’s attempt to continue its superficial race-baiting in the face of the present epidemic is not its worst infraction. That distinction belongs to the tireless media campaign to divide rather than contribute constructively to solutions towards which the rest of us are working, to cast blame rather than to inform and enlighten us, to engage in now-pointless criticism of what could have or should have been done in hindsight—back when China was busy deceiving the rest of us and hiding nearly every critical aspect of the burgeoning pandemic from the world, costing us valuable time that could have been spent heading off the deluge. Although it is difficult to identify more than a few nations in the world that handled this complex and rapidly unfolding situation optimally —and though even the examples of those few nations, some of which either had homogeneous and compliant populations or else had prior experience dealing with SARS or Ebola outbreaks in recent years, might be entirely irrelevant to our own circumstances—such scruples did not deter the marauding media machine from deploying its front-line second-guessers in a scorched-earth offensive against the usual suspects. I am not speaking only about the predictable and endlessly bitter vitriol directed against the President by the same people and news organizations that have been going at him since before he was inaugurated, but also about articles like this or this calling out every one of Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio’s many missteps. I am not denying that there have been missteps by one and all (the overwhelming bulk of them forgivable in light of an entirely novel challenge, imperfect information, and conflicting advice from experts), but the time for pointing the finger of blame, if ever, is after the battle is won, and when decision points such as elections actually come around. There is, on the other hand, a word we have for the act of firing at our leaders while the war is still raging: treason. Pointing an accusatory finger at the rest of America, however, has been the media elites’ m.o. for some time now, and they are no longer able to hold back.
If the media in its present form is a casualty of the Coronavirus epidemic, America will be better and stronger for it.
The Coronavirus is a social catastrophe, but good has come out of it, and I believe there is the potential for even more good to materialize before all is said and done. As I have said above, despite the divisions the media has succeeded in sowing among us, the Coronavirus has bound so many of us together in a feeling of local and even national community that we have not had the pleasure of enjoying in a very long time, and what that means is that we will have far less patience than we normally do for those hate-peddlers who continue trying to drive their wedges in to tear us apart. If the media in its present form is a casualty of the Coronavirus epidemic, America will be better and stronger for it. Consider this question: If news organizations dropped the opinion-posing-as-news and even the op-eds entirely, left those to specialized “opinion” publications and stuck to making a sincere effort to report facts in an unbiased manner rather than marshaling evidence to make out a case for barely concealed left-of-center or right-of-center agendas, would we not be better off? If one or two of the high-profile, once-reputable, and even authoritative news sources that have become destructive and disgraceful peddlers of political hackery, such as The New York Times, vanished into dust to teach those that remain a valuable lesson about integrity, would we not breathe a sigh of relief?
The Coronavirus epidemic has made this much clear: While the media is not, by nature, the enemy of the people, this media today is the enemy of our people. It is the most obvious, powerful and dangerous element in the elites’ war on America, a war that, as I have described, has claimed high culture, unifying traditions, standards of taste and decency and basic manners among its many casualties. Just as September 11th brought unity and an embrace of patriotism and a common national agenda back to the fore, the Coronavirus did the same and may yet do it once again before all is said and done, when our final collective triumph over this disease draws closer and becomes more apparent to one and all.
Coronavirus is a plague, but it is the plague we deserved, the plague we had coming, our comeuppance for living too long in a dysfunctional society in which we had let the shrill voices of unrepresentative elites fracture us so deeply and thoroughly that we no longer knew how to come together, even when we most needed to. That, more than anything else, is why it took us so long to get our footing as the pandemic swept in. But despite the media’s war on our national morale and collective unity, we learned on the battlefield, day by day, and we are still learning. With our political and cultural situation having deteriorated far beyond where it was two decades ago, it is my hope that the long-overdue national cleansing and cultural revitalization this pestilence brings in its wake will last.
Alexander Zubatov is a lawyer in New York, as well as an essayist and poet.