“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Thus spake Samuel Johnson, and he was correct. (Note to the reader: a fortnight is two weeks, or fourteen days, from the Old English.) Many of my friends expect the Boogaloo to come in a few fortnights. I don’t really believe in the Boogaloo, but I think there’s something therapeutic about it. Like religion, prison, and true love, the Boogaloo offers a drastic reduction of possibilities. It’s easier to worry about fields of fire from your second-story windows than to wonder what kind of a man you’ll be in society when you’re in the bread line with everyone else, and you’ve started having to pull your own teeth for lack of dental care. We all know in our hearts that a Great Depression, or even a Not-So-Great Recession, leads to years of quiet, grinding desperation. Far better to imagine that the future holds a series of running gun battles with depersonalized Others who will be morally inferior to us but also, one hopes, much less practiced in the manual of arms for the AR-15 (USA) or Marlin 1894 (Canada) or Maringer Vorpal (here in non-firearms-owning Riverside Green, where we study the blade).
You get the idea. It’s easier and more pleasurable to imagine violent action than lengthy misery. Yet here we are, with our focused minds. For me, this focusing has led to an odd… flattening of empathy.
I got a message yesterday from a long-cherished ex-girlfriend who works in the service industry. When things are good, as they were in her case for a long time, her life was a delightful refuge from anything beyond the present moment. I’ve written about it in the past, using various pseudo-fiction covers: the weapons-grade seductiveness you get from that churning vortex of delight and drama and sex and intimacy among young-ish people who don’t really feel the pressure of futurity or posterity the way I always have. She and her friends floated hammock-like in this bizarre web of sponging and debt where someone had always just come into an extra $150 and was therefore buying the drinks with the expectation that their drinks would be bought at another time. Many of them had children, and the children simply didn’t really matter in the way that the children of an Updike or Roth novel don’t really matter; they’re just observers of the bright-size-life being led by their parents.
For that reason and a few others, your rather parenting-obsessed author let this person go a long time ago — but I’ll still catch up with her from time to time, mostly out of guilt. She’s in trouble at the moment. The bars, restaurants, hair salons, and strip clubs are all shutting down. To use the old parable, winter has come suddenly for the grasshoppers who, if they didn’t quite believe in the eternal summer, at least expected the first frost to come in the murky and unconsidered distant future of late middle age.
She didn’t ask for my help. She never asks for my help. She waits for me to force it upon her, as I once did on a remarkably frequent basis before the winter of 2014-2015. That way she gets to imagine that she is doing me a favor by taking the money, the same way that I imagine I’m doing her a favor when I am in fact enabling her perpetual irresponsibility. I thought about just sending her a few bucks to fill the pantry. In normal circumstances I’d just do it without a second thought. This time, however, I paused. What… what if you give her the cash you’d need to buy your son medicine in three months? What if the ZeroHedge crowd is right and there’s some massive economic leveling coming which will put us all just short of the bread lines together? What would you do in 2022 to get back the money you’re giving this woman right now? So my metaphorical wallet stayed in my electronic pocket.
This COVID-19 business, and the economic aftershocks to follow, will make many of us reconsider a lot of our unconscious priorities. It brings into razor-sharp relief the difference between people who are “like family” and people who truly are family. You immediately understand why most Third World societies don’t really contain the concepts of “lying to strangers” or genuine altruism. With that said, I think you’ll see some interesting social effects in the medium to long term: the frankly demonic “gig economy” will, I hope, receive much less adulation from the media and the investor class than it does right now. We might start thinking about the knock-on effects of having so many people on the edge of financial destruction. It hasn’t escaped my notice that the #Blessed and their cherished court jesters such as your humble author are “working from home” while the Amazon delivery people and the Burger King employees are “working without a net” at the moment.
Perhaps this is a much-needed reset. We probably couldn’t have accommodated too much more separation between the fortunes of the rich and the poor without a spontaneous Boogaloo of some sort. We’ve grown far too callously accustomed to the idea that some people are just born to be produce pickers or Uber drivers while others are just born to live in McMansions and drive Teslas and fly private. That comfort with the discomfort of others needed some examination. We will get it now — good and hard.
In consideration of this much-desired change to come, I’m going to suggest to all my readers that you take some time to consider the humanity of those around you. Try to spend a few moments thinking about their lives. What’s changed for them. What will continue to change. Then ask yourself what can be done about that in the future. I’m not talking about the rich-jerk slacktivism where you vote for Bernie in the primary and then spend all week being serviced by gig-economy people who are effectively invisible to you even as you feast mightily on the fruits of your trust fund or your market position or your C-suite good fortune. I’m suggesting instead that you meet your neighbors, learn about the people with whom you interact on a daily basis, try to increase your understanding of situations beyond your own. Get to know them as people and not stereotypes. In some cases this will quite justly increase your empathy; in others, it will quite justly flatten it. Either way, you’ll be working with better information.
I think Andreas of Up In The Valley promotes that understanding much better than most; this is not the first and will not be the last time I recommend him. You could also find a cheap used copy of Nickel And Dimed, if you like. Whatever lessons there are to be had from this crisis, let’s learn them together. Let’s bring our manufacturing back home. Let’s take care of the people around us instead of knowingly displacing them for political and social-engineering ends. I never again want to be in a position where I feel that helping a friend might endanger my own ability to be a proper steward of my own family. Let’s work towards a society where we are in that position less often than we are right now. Thanks, as always, for reading. This is your Captain, signing off.