The other day I went inside my neighborhood Fred Meyer supermarket to pick up a prescription. As I passed through the sliding door, I noticed that the security guard wasn’t wearing a mask. She was a tall, burly woman, like Tammy on the sitcom Mom, but (as I learned) not as nice. Standing about ten feet from her I said, through my mask, “I think it’s rude of you not to wear a mask in the store.”
What ensued was an unedifying exchange. Putting on the I’m-being-polite-but-only-because-I-have-to tone often affected by cops and security guards, she explained that she had had to chase a shoplifter out to the parking lot, and now she was sweating and her mask was uncomfortable, so she had taken it off.
For a few seconds I stood there considering whether to give her a break. I was not unaware that her job is probably stressful and underpaid. But then I found myself saying: “Your comfort is important, but so are the lives of the people shopping in this store.”
It went downhill from there. Her pithy rejoinders included “It’s my choice,” which I heard as “You’re one of those Seattle libtards, and I’m getting paid to stand here, but I don’t really care if you live or die.” That was jarring, because here in our comfortable north Seattle neighborhood of mostly charming and tastefully modest single-family homes, we tend to think of ourselves as sheltered from that mentality. Her other retort was: “You’re not my dad.” Jenny thought that one was funny because it signifies that I’ve officially become a cranky old guy.
I made a point of complaining to the manager. He confirmed what I knew: that the security guards are not store employees. He said Fred Meyer management was “in talks” with the security company to require its guards to wear masks. He said there are five guards who work shifts at this particular store, and that two of them don’t like to wear masks. “We’re telling them, ‘So send us the other three,’” he told me.
When I began writing this diary in early March, one of the premises was that I should be writing it because I live in Seattle. The reason back then was that we were on the leading edge of the pandemic’s impact on the United States. Now, the New York Times is reporting on studies that show most coronavirus cases in the U.S. spread from Europe via New York City, not from Asia via the West Coast. And we here seem to be on the leading edge of the recovery. (Note that I say seem to be rather than are, because who really knows?) And that seems to be because we’ve been doing important things right.
The recent spate of coverage of Seattle in national periodicals makes us look both fortunate and competent. There’s been “Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead” by Charles Duhigg in The New Yorker, and “Saving a city: How Seattle’s corporate giants banded together to flatten the curve” by Erika Fry in Forbes. And then “The End of the Beginning: Seattle Braces for the Next Phase of the Coronavirus Fight,” again in The New Yorker, by James Ross Gardner. That piece quoted this choice gubernatorial exchange:
Reporter: What are the penalties exactly for not abiding by the ban?
Inslee: The penalties are you might be killing your granddad.
Gardner noted Governor Inslee’s “twin charm offensive” of “bespectacled bookishness and plainspoken Western swagger,” which strikes me as about right as a characterization. I feel competently led and protected, and never more so than on May 1, the day Inslee announced the extension of the stay-at-home order from May 4 to May 31. And that was reinforced when I got around to reading the mostly laudatory front-page profile of him that ran in the Sunday Seattle Times on April 26. With that piece ran a photo of mementos on his office desk, including a framed picture of his newest grandchild (Anne Hazel Inslee, born in December) and a tray bearing a quote from Winston Churchill: “Meet success like a gentleman; disaster like a man.”
All of the above is mediated – it’s stuff I read, that I choose to trust, that influences how I think and feel. In the same category is “We are living through the first economic crisis of the Anthropocene” by Adam Tooze in the Guardian of May 7. “By calling into question our mastery over life and death the disease shakes the psychological basis of our social and economic order,” he writes. “It poses fundamental questions about priorities; it upends the terms of debate. Neither in the 1930s nor after 2008 was there any question that getting people back to work was the right thing to do.” And: “We have to face the possibility that we have been living in a charmed interval.”
Tooze is one of the smart people designated, by a process that’s opaque to me, to educate the rest of us via the better transatlantic periodicals. That sounds snide, but I don’t mean it that way; I appreciate them, and him. But his well-turned sentence about the charmed interval is phrased too gently, to the point of sounding almost obtuse. Of course we’ve been living in a charmed interval. Anyone who’s been paying attention over the past half-century knows that. There’s no shortage of well-informed and articulate writers prepared to analyze our plight, to lead us by the hand with plenty of documentation and citation, if we’re prepared to do the work of reading them. But the subtext of all the chatter is a hard question: Now what?
Especially given the recent turn toward state-by-state ad hoc (not to say willy-nilly) “reopening” of the economy, and Trump’s egging-on of e.g. armed men invading the Michigan state capitol building and threat to “wind down” the coronavirus task force – all in the face of what anyone who knows anything about this stuff is saying will be more avoidable disease and death – I think any honest conversation has to start from the premise that the federal government of the United States of America is in the grip of a regime whose intentions are patently and actively malevolent. I’m tired of hearing about “incompetence” and “failure”; those are beside the point, not applicable categories. If we don’t accept that premise, then all the news we’re reading and watching remains little more than a rolling blob of euphemism, no matter – or rather, because of – the studied fairmindedness of all those well-trained and intelligent reporters, editors, and broadcasters.
For my part, I never want to write mere political commentary. There’s more than enough of that out there already. My hope during this present crisis is to improve my understanding of things that are unchanging about the human situation, while also feeling my way toward a sense of wherever it is we’re headed. I crave what Wendell Berry called “the comfort of being told the truth.” And one truth is that there’s nothing about what we’re living through that’s any longer a matter of politics as we’ve conventionally known it during my lifetime. Or of economics, for that matter. The impulse to “reopen the economy” begs the question of what kind of economy we want to have – and what kind we can afford to have. I find myself remembering what Dick Cheney said about how “the American way of life is non-negotiable” (reiterated by Obama in his first State of the Union address: “We will not apologize for our way of life”).
I read about how Trump is allegedly worried about his “reelection prospects,” and the conventional phrase leaves me cold, because I can’t help but wonder what sort of election we’re going to have, or even whether we’re going to have one. And if we don’t have an election, what then? A lot of smart writers can tell me things like what it says in the Constitution – that the Speaker of the House would automatically become president on January 20, 2021 – but none of them really know anything.
It’s hard to gain any traction. But maybe it’s just not a time to try for traction. So here are some more things that I wonder:
I wonder a lot these days about the sources of political legitimacy, and even whether legitimacy as we’ve understood it is still in play. And I wonder what else might be in play, and when and how we might find out what that is. And I continue to wonder whether, far from failing, Trump might actually be succeeding at whatever it is he’s attempting.
I wonder whether there remains a viable alternative to the current regime, especially at the national level. The onus is on Democrats operating at the national level – and for that matter Republicans, who still could repudiate Trump if they wanted to – to show that they can still be effective and credible at the national level, or else the national level itself will cease to remain relevant to you and me locally, or it will remain relevant only negatively.
The other alternate source of political credibility is at the state level: e.g. Newsom in California and Inslee here. They look good at the moment, but will they be able to keep it together, given the rifts even within our West Coast states and the impulse even they obey to try to shore up the fast-eroding status quo? Someone I just met on Twitter, a fellow Seattleite named Matthew Brignall, gave me this food for thought: “I feel like our states are where the explosion will happen.” It might turn out that the future of the West Coast looks less like the Cascadia of our reveries than like the dystopic setting of Octavia Butler’s novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.
From Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates, May 6:
Just a month before the pandemic, Alaska [Airlines] was internally discussing buying 200 new jets for the decade ahead. Now that plan is likely dead.
Alaska has 32 Boeing 737 MAXs on order and it’s negotiating with the jetmaker to take the first few of those with no new money down, using instead the pre-delivery advance payments it’s already paid for many of those aircraft.
But as for that former plan for future fleet expansion, Alaska’s vice president of finance Christopher Berry said on the teleconference that the company has “eliminated” all capital spending on new aircraft for the immediate future.