Friday, May 15, 2020

Ordinary People

Ruan Lingyu in Xin Nüxing (New Woman), Shanghai 1935, via Silents Please.

Tolstoyan deep thinker David F. Brooks ("Ordinary People Are Leading the Leaders") is learning, and hoping others will learn, from the masses, and the beauteous simplicity of their way of life, doing without frivolous luxuries like long-term thinking:
Endurance is patience. It is shortening your time horizon so you just have to get through this day. Endurance is living with unpleasantness. In fact, it is finding you can adapt and turn the strangest circumstance into routine.
Endurance is fortifying. It is discovering you can get socked in the nose and take it.
Above all, endurance is living with uncertainty. Sometimes, it’s remaining quiet in the face of uncertainty because no conjecture will really tell you what is coming. Endurance is the knowledge that the only way out is through and whatever must be borne will be borne.
Where by "the masses" I mean, of course, people, also known as ordinary people, who you can only find out about if you make use of their primitive methods of communication:

Those of us in my profession are not good at being quiet in the face of uncertainty. It’s sort of a career-ender. So, I’ve noticed a vast chasm open up between the information and opinion I get online and the information and opinion I get from conversations I have with people over the phone or Zoom.
So the intrepid social researcher, confined to his quarters by the stay-at-home order, has been Zooming with the peasants, where "most of the conversation is about coping with the current moment" instead of allowing his mind to get corrupted by the sophisticates on Twitter, where they "see the world through political categories, make points that will affirm their political identities" and these 800 words' worth of quiet in the face of uncertainty are what we readers get out of it.

I don't know, I'm having a hard time picturing that, especially since most of his concrete remarks on these ordinary people come from Gallup ("Americans are experiencing the sharpest drop in perceived well-being on record"), the Washington Post–Ipsos survey, and surveys conducted by a nationwide nonprofit entity called More in Common, which is interested in overcoming division. Though in one paragraph there's also at least one elementary school principal, an indefinite number of members of church and synagogue congregations, and
people trying to cope with physical anxiety and economic terror by taking a daily walk, noticing the trees, offering one another the kind of psychic care that we used to farm out to professionals.
If you are in emotional distress, please don't call David Brooks. For one thing, the physical locations of the National Alliance on Mental Illness may be closed, but they are still available on the phone, in the New York City area at 212-684-3264, and will get right back to you if you leave a message. People in other localities can probably find the appropriate number the way I learned this one, online, and not through Zoom, except to the obvious extent (obvious to everyone but Brooks) that Zoom is online too.

Then again, I can tell you that many Twitter users are not New York Times opinion writers or elected officials but ordinary people in their own right, as even David Brooks might recognize if he met them on Zoom, and even talk about noticing the trees (one of my favorite Twitter friends, an inside-the-Beltway resident intensely involved in politics, organizes online afternoon dance parties, for which she provides the music and unbelievably delicious imaginary treats). And my Zoom-like conversations (I haven't actually got a Zoom yet, but my office uses Google Meet, and I honestly hate it in spite of being really fond of practically everybody attending, watching their faces freeze and their voices clang into autotune singing as we all hurriedly switch our microphones on and off, unable to find a way of getting attention when most of your colleagues can't see you) offer nothing close to that in terms of coping with physical anxiety or economic terror.

Speaking of Twitter, our friend Boswood (@Bosengood) suggests the razor in the apple of today's Brooks in this classic bit of bothsidesery:
No, in the first place because there's no unambiguous evidence of how well off the people of Georgia and Florida are two weeks out from the end of stay-at-home orders, certainly not in terms of the daily infection and death rates, if that's how you want to measure it.

Florida daily death rate. Georgia's, in contrast, may be showing signs of sharp decrease.
And Brooks doesn't mention Texas, which is what Glenn Greenwald would call "interesting":
He naturally keeps it secret what "evidence" he's talking about, but I found an encouraging sign from Georgia in an article from, of all places, The New York Post:
More than 50 restaurant owners in Georgia won’t be opening their doors to the public, even though the governor has ended the state’s coronavirus lockdown.
Gov. Brian Kemp is encouraging businesses to reopen, despite rising numbers in both deaths and confirmed cases of COVID-19. The latest health department figures show 1,167 Georgians have died and 27,492 have tested positive.
It's a sign of the possibility that ordinary people in states with bad governors are rejecting bad advice, aside from a few gun-crazed, Koch-funded Michiganders and others, and refusing to "open up" until they feel it's safe.

In that sense, and I can't be arsed to study how true it is for the moment, it's possible that Brooks has the story upside down in an interestingly complex way: politicians are divided, between those who are willing to do some long-term thinking and those who aren't, the former including just about all the Democrats with a couple of honorable opponents like Baker (MA) and Hogan (MD); while a lot of big-time journalists tend to be on the short-term side where the story arc keeps them focused, but they don't mean any harm. "Ordinary people" aren't really a special class of individuals distinct from politicians and journalists, but almost all of us thinking in an ordinary way in the conduct of our personal lives, with a tendency during an emergency toward attending to the long term, delaying the gratification of going to a restaurant or distancing our graduation exercises in order to be safe later on.

We're all ordinary people, under our economic masks. We're trying to stay healthy, which in turn means endurance, living in that one-day-at-a-time we-can-do-this way that Brooks appeals to at the start of the column; out ahead of the bad leaders like Kemp and in step with the good ones. Both sides don't do it. We're doing it one day at a time in order to make it into the long term.

After a catastrophic start in the New York area in particular and in spite of really bad decisions in the "heartland", we'll do a better job getting through this than you might think, because we're all ordinary people, and most of us can manage it, and ignore the harmful advice of politicians who seem unable to do that (just as for that matter ordinary people ignore the good advice of moral nags like David Brooks and get into sex trouble, like Brooks, who also has his ordinary side, or money trouble). I only hope they manage to vote that way.

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