Now we are all fighting two enemies — the virus and those who would force us to be exposed to it…
By Philip S. Wenz, Publisher, Firebird Journal
Back in the 1960s, protestors carried signs and chanted slogans when marching against the American war in Vietnam that was perpetrated by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Many saw the war as a political ploy, a poorly disguised attempt to keep the Executive in power while inflating his Commander-in-Chief ego — at the cost of thousands of young American lives.
As the war dragged on, resistance to the universal draft which provided the human “cannon fodder” for America’s war machine grew to the point where many young men simply refused to be drafted. They publicly burned their draft identification cards, which, by law, they were required to carry wherever they went, or they simply disappeared “underground” or escaped to Canada. The draft resistance movement’s favored slogan of resistance became, “Hell no, we won’t go!”
Fast forward fifty years, and we have another president who is asking the American people to fight a war on his behalf. In recent weeks, Donald Trump has stated over and over that he wants us all to be warriors against the coronavirus in the cause of rebuilding America’s shattered economy — a strong, or at least a visibly recovering economy being the linchpin of his bid for reelection.
As in any war, the commander is willing to sacrifice some of his warriors for his cause.
“Will some people be affected? Yes,” Trump said on his trip to an Arizona factory on May 5. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”
When a reporter asked if Americans needed to accept a greater loss of life, Trump answered, “hopefully it won’t be the case, but it may very well be the case. We have to be warriors.”
There are times when such rhetoric might serve to rally frightened and beleaguered Americans to come together and marshal our collective will against a common enemy. But this is not one of those times.
For one thing, our current viral “enemy” isn’t a malign entity such as the WWII Japanese, Italian and German Axis powers which were bent on world domination. This enemy has no will or consciousness whatsoever — no design, purpose or intent, no abhorrent moral deficiency. It does not hate or despise us. And, it feels no fear, and thus cannot be intimidated or beaten into “surrender.” It in fact feels nothing. The enemy is simply cluster of complex chemical compounds that have a knack of reproducing themselves by combining with similar compounds inside the living cells of certain mammals, including humans.
So any talk of Americans making “war” against the virus is strictly metaphorical, and in this case it’s a bad metaphor. It’s been said that a good commander will tell his recruits that they cannot win a war by dying for their country, but only by killing the enemy of their country. But that admonition is pointless here — this enemy can’t be killed. While something resembling a sub-microscopic (and completely subliminal) war might be fought between an individual’s immune system and the invading coronavirus, all that we the people who comprise American society can do is try to stay out of the way of this dangerous chemical, just as we might try to avoid a cloud of poisonous gas.
Donald Trump is asking us to do the opposite. He’s asking us to muster our forces and charge at the “enemy,” without even providing us with metaphorical gas masks.
“Get out there and fight, and if necessary die for the economy,” he’s saying. “Die for prosperity and profits. Die for airlines and cruise ship companies, for a rising stock market and financing the border wall and enriching military contractors. And hurry up, because the upcoming election is in November, just a few months away, which doesn’t leave much time for an economic rebound that will make me look good. Me…look…good. Me…good. Me…Me…Me…”
Fortunately, most people aren’t responding to Trump’s exhortations, or buying the rationale behind them. A recent California poll found that 70% of the state’s voters are more worried about relaxing shelter-in-place restrictions prematurely, allowing the pandemic to spread, than they are about the orders remaining in effect for too long and damaging the economy. National polling results are almost identical, with 68 to 71% of those polled worried that states will open too soon, even though many of the poll respondents are suffering mild to severe economic consequences from the shutdown.
A May 6 piece by David Graham in The Atlantic, titled What if they reopened the country and one came? quoted polls showing that 85% of Americans would keep schools closed and 80% oppose reopening movie theaters and gyms. “There is no significant difference in views between residents of states that have begun loosening restrictions and those that have not,” Graham wrote.
When the war in Vietnam dragged on for years and President Johnson continued to pour more and more American resources and lives into what was clearly becoming a never-ending quagmire, many people asked why an otherwise progressive, effective president — Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Bill and Medicare and Medicaid through Congress — kept pursuing a clearly failing strategy in Southeast Asia. It was suggested that, having mistakenly amped up America’s involvement in Vietnam in the first place, he stubbornly chased after an ever-elusive victory to save face. Thus the quip of the draft resisters became, “I’d rather save my ass than Lyndon Johnson’s face.”
Once again, 50 years later, circumstances force us to weigh our options and ask, “Should I risk my health (or even my life) and that of my family and friends to be a warrior for Trump’s economic recovery?” For now, at least, most people are answering, “No.”
But then there’s the matter of coercion. Prior to the Vietnam war, the coercive mechanism for maintaining an oversized U.S. military was already built into the federal administrative system by the draft. The original idea of the draft, first begun just prior to WWII, was one of readiness: Should America be attacked, the ability to quickly scale up the armed forces was in place. The concept indeed proved useful when Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor, and the country had to mobilize quickly. But after WWII, no one attacked us for an entire generation, and both the Korean and Vietnamese engagements were wars of choice — America wasn’t threatened, but military-industrial complex leaders and executives believed its global hegemony was, and besides, war was good for business. Understanding the situation that way, many in the 1960s generation that was tasked to fight in Vietnam would not have shown up for military duty — were it not for the draft. (One meme from the time was, “What if they gave a war, and nobody came?”)
But the implementation of the draft, which was originally intended to cross class lines and provide for universal military service, had, by the 1960s, become unequal — and to great extent racist. College students were exempt from military service, meaning, at that time, that mostly white, middle and upper class young men could avoid being conscripted by attending a few courses, whereas the majority of young black men — along with poor whites — had neither the educational background nor the money for higher education. The war went on — at its height 500,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam — but it was being fought mostly by the underclass. Ironically, it was middle-class white kids, especially those who weren’t currently in college and thus eligible for conscription, who did most of the protesting against the draft. Their comparatively privileged backgrounds gave them the psychological security and economic latitude to make their own moral judgements about the draft and the war, and to refuse induction.
Similarly, those who are suffering the least financial damage in today’s shut-down economy are in the best position to say “No” to Trump’s reopening campaign. People who can work from home or are living on a secure pension, who can “visit” friends and family and order what they need online, might feel inconvenienced by being more or less forced to shelter in place, but no so much so that they are in a hurry to expose themselves to the virus.
But there is a whole other class of people — factory and service industry employees, gig workers, many teachers and other “non-essential” workers — who are barely hanging on during this economic crisis. Until it is actually safe to “open the country,” and they can return to work under something resembling pre-pandemic conditions, they are dependent on government assistance to keep roofs over their heads and put food on their tables. It is this vast demographic that is most vulnerable to coercion by the Trump administration and its Republican allies.
The coercion campaign has already begun with Trump’s selective use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) which gives the President the power in a national emergency to force manufacturers to produce certain goods considered essential for national security. The President famously refused to use his DPA authority to make companies manufacture medical masks and other desperately needed personal protection equipment (PPE) for front line health workers. But he did invoke it to order meat packing plants that were soon-to-close or already closed due to large COVID-19 outbreaks among their workers to remain open or to reopen.
However, it’s one thing for a plant to be open and quite another for people who are afraid of catching a deadly disease there to show up for work. And that’s where the coercion comes in. Workers who have been laid off because of plant closures are eligible for unemployment benefits. But with the packing plants now open by decree, Republican governors in the affected states, most notably Iowa, Nebraska and Texas, have instructed employers to report workers who refuse to return to their jobs to the state unemployment offices so they can be stripped of their benefits — and thus forced to return to work if they want to feed their families.
There is some rationale for declaring that meat plants are essential to national security. We are a meat-eating country, and meat is our primary source of protein. Although that might not be the most desirable situation from an environmental standpoint, it is what it is for the moment, and changing it, that is, finding alternative protein sources for most of the nation, would take a great deal of time, investment and rearrangement of our food chain — not the sort of project we are likely to undertake during a pandemic. Also, in an attempt to at least slow the economic devastation that’s damaging to the country as a whole, a responsible government will look at the repercussions of allowing a large-scale industry such as meat packing to fail, even temporarily. If, for example, the packing plants remain closed, hog farmers could be forced to destroy up to 1.5 million hogs this spring and summer alone, at a commercial value of about $140 each — and it will take at least a year to raise more hogs to replace them. Trucking companies, middlemen and retail grocery outlets will suffer, and food banks, whether supported by private donations or government entities, will have to pay more for meat.
But as well as taking steps to keep the meat packing industry afloat, a responsible government would at least try to keep workers from contracting COVID-19 in the plants — which have been described as petri dishes for transmission — and then spreading the disease to their wider communities. Many of those communities, it turns out, are small Midwestern towns with minimal or no hospital facilities, so a disease outbreak at a plant threatens the health of the entire population.
Having federal agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and OSHA enforce mandatory safety regulations at the plants — regularly sanitizing the facilities, keeping workers six feet apart, supplying them with masks and so on — could go along way toward reducing workers’ risk of infection, even though it might slow production and cut profits to some extent. But the Trump administration and its allies have little interest in responsible governance, at least as far as laborers and ordinary citizens are concerned. The men and women of the mostly-underpaid, heavily immigrant labor force in the packing plants are dispensable, and replaceable. So while they are forced to return to work, or to keep working, the Trump administration, which has the power to enforce safety measures at the plants, is refusing to do so, and merely recommending that the plants voluntarily improve working conditions.
The plant owners and stockholders have little incentive to cut their profits by providing enhanced safety measures and extensive testing, which will likely serve to reveal just how high the infection rates in the plants are, exposing management to public scrutiny. And now that they feel that Trump’s invocation of the DPA, which forces them to remain open, protects them from liability if their workers get sick or die, they have even less incentive to protect the workforce.
As a rule, governments with authoritarian ambitions first test their policies on the weakest or most vulnerable members of society. If they can get away with, say, euthanizing people with Downs Syndrome (Hitler), or separating immigrant families and caging their children (Trump), they move to their next target group. If Trump and the Republican governors of a few states can get away with forcing people to work in dangerous, unhealthy meat packing plants, especially if those people get sick and are simply replaced by other’s desperate for work, they will have learned how to coerce others into becoming “warriors” in their campaign to revive the economy.
They’ll know how to force teachers into crowded, unhealthy classrooms so schools can be opened up and children’s parents can be freed of caring for their children — and how to compel those parents to return to work by cutting off their unemployment benefits, lifting their mortgage and rent protections and so on. And if that causes thousands of unnecessary deaths — deaths that they are already trying to hide by cooking the books in federal accounting and state coroner’s offices — so be it. It’s all for the good cause of getting Trump re-elected and keeping the Republicans in power.
Despite Senate and House hearing testimony and many other warnings from health experts that opening schools or the country as a whole without adequate testing and contract tracing, none of which are likely to be in place for at least a few months, Trump and the Republicans who follow his lead are pushing ahead with their reopening plans. Part of their developing political strategy to achieve their aims, along with coercive measures and the under counting of COVID-19 cases and deaths mentioned above, is to discredit the health officials themselves.
In what appears to be a coordinated right-wing effort to attack the medical professionals, and, thus, the safety measures they recommend, Fox News pundits, some Republican Senators and the President himself attacked the idea that it might not be safe to safe open schools in the fall. (Interestingly, Fox’s Tucker Carlson complained that Dr. Anthony Fauci should not be determining national policy (he’s not, he’s just giving input on health matters) because the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease was not “elected” to his position. Perhaps Mr. Tucker would be happier if an election were held and, say, a TV personality or a professional wrestler won Fauci’s job.)
Solidarity is the key to resisting bad governance. As Trump and the Republicans try to force us to sacrifice our lives for the sake of their fantasy of a big economic rebound — which, in any case, won’t happen until we actually get the pandemic under control — it is important that we stick together to resist their lies and coercion. Trump is trying to divide us, to set Americans against one another rather than have them work together against the virus that’s killing them. Dividing Americans has been the hallmark of his presidency, and the pandemic has, if anything, exacerbated that strategy and the damage it does to the country. In order to resist, we must join with as many of our fellow citizens as we can.
Solidarity doesn’t mean that people should pretend to be connected in ways that they are not. A lesson from the 1960s anti-war movement was that while each group — blacks, women, native Americans, gays and so on — had its own agenda, what they had in common was resistance to the war and the way it affected their lives. As an older, white, middle-class freelance writer living in a little college town in Oregon, I have little in common with the day-to-day life and struggles of a meat packing worker in Nebraska. His or her needs, goals and problems are different from mine, with this important exception — we both face the same existential threat, or threats, and we both want, and deserve to stay alive.
And now we are both in a position of fighting two enemies — the virus and those who would force us to be exposed to it — if we want protect ourselves and our families from danger. This common cause of resisting pressure and coercion to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Mr. Trump’s re-election is the basis of our solidarity, our common bond.
How do we join together to fight?
There are many ways help others resist. Those who are in a position to vote with their pocketbooks can send a powerful message by simply refusing to show up at restaurants, hotels, theaters or car dealerships, or take expensive, unnecessary trips. Teachers, many of whom are unionized, can strike, and the rest of us can support those strikes by applying political pressure on the government, contributing to strike coffers through go-fund-me portals and spreading the word about the justice of their cause through social media or our personal networks. It remains to be seen whether the meat packers will strike — they are already protesting, which is a good sign. But whatever form of resistance people in different situations and locales choose, the rest of us can help by reaching out to them, expressing empathy and letting them know we support their cause.
Finally, we can insist that OUR government support us by distributing cash to those in need, providing health care for those who don’t have it, extending mortgage payment and renters protections until the end of the crisis and ultimately providing stimulus packages that create jobs and make sure the economy works for everyone.
In short, we can change the quiet, passive “No,” people have said when asked if they want to die for Trump and Comp. to a loud, unified chant of: HELL NO!
RELATED (from around the web):
Robert Reich: Trump’s 4-Step Plan for Reopening the Economy Will Be Lethal
Ed Pilkington: You can’t ask the virus for a truce: Reopening is Trump’s biggest gamble (with our lives as the poker chips — PSW)