Don Bigote: Chapter 9

Don Bigote: Chapter 9

The story so far:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God
  6. Don and Dan Find Themselves
  7. Don and Dan Find Happiness
  8. The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part I

The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part II

“Want a story?” some lady says. “I got one for you.”

To recap, we’re sitting in a circle in a kind of hostel for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, in northern Spain. But instead of continuing on the pilgrimage—which, to be honest, pretty much sucked entirely, since it was just a bunch of walking—we are inside, swapping stories to pass the time. This is because of this new crazy virus, called cobid or something, that is apparently like a super nasty flu that also kills you. So, yeah, that’s the predicament.

“Go ahead, my fellow traveler,” Bigote says. “We have nothing but time in our present circumstances.”

She takes a breath.


The Landlady’s Tale

The big problem with today’s world is that people think you owe them something. Like, they don’t understand, money is money, and nice don’t pay no bills. Let me tell you about my life, then. My dad worked for his money. He worked in a sneaker factory when I was young, so I didn’t have a ton of money growing up. Ok? Got that? I was no rich baby. But my dad, he had initiative.

For years, he stayed extra hours at the factory, doing experiments with materials and so on, until he figured out how to improve the sneakers. But he was nobody’s fool, and he went and got his idea patented before he showed it to the higher ups. They saw what he had, and they couldn’t say no. Next thing we knew, we had money pouring out our eyeballs, we was so damn rich. We moved from a little apartment to a big old house with a swimming pool. 

I’m telling you this because I want you to know where I was coming from. I saw what my dad did, and I wanted to do the same thing, to make my own money using my own brains. So what did I do? I’ll tell you.

When I was twenty, my dad gave me a small loan of a million dollars, and told me to invest it. At first, you know, I wanted to just have a big party and buy a nice car. But I started thinking in the long-term. How could I use this money to buy something that would make me even more money?

Then, I started thinking about what our life was like before my dad made it big, when he was just a normal worker. Back then, we was always worried about making rent. In fact, one time we didn’t make rent, and the landlord came down and started yelling at my dad, cursing and screaming, and my dad didn’t even say one word back. And that left an impression on me, since my dad normally didn’t take shit from nobody. I thought, That man must be really powerful to make my dad act that way. 

So then I thought, Why don’t I buy myself some apartments and rent them out? If you know where to look—in the poorer part of town, I mean—you can snatch up some property cheap. I got three one-family units to start with, and put them on the market. It was crazy! I didn’t even have to wait an hour. There were so many desperate people out there looking for an apartment. It was kind of, like, overwhelming, so I just tried to choose some people who seemed nice.

At first everything was hunky dory. The money was coming in every month, and I felt like a queen. But then, a few months in, the problems started. One family had some kind of domestic violence, and the police got involved. Another family kept complaining the sink was clogged. A third family said the heat wouldn’t turn on. Problems, problems, problems, and of course the rent started to come later and later. I started to worry: Did I do something really stupid? Because now, I felt like I was at the mercy of these people. They could just trash the place and refuse to pay me, and I’d lose my investment.

Then a friend of mine recommended that I go to this kind of landlord seminar. It opened my eyes to this new business. The presenter was like, “Hey, this is your property. This is your money. It’s all yours. You don’t owe anyone, anything. And, remember, the law is on your side. You can kick people out whenever you want.”

From that day on, business was booming. If a tenant complained, I would just say, hey pay me and shut up, or leave. That’s really what it came down to. I didn’t want to be a one-woman charity. It wasn’t my job or my business to be going around providing people with free housing. They pay or they get lost. End of story. Rent too late, I call the sheriff and he comes in there with a team of movers, and everything gets left out on the curb. Bye bye. Honestly, demand is so high for my places that I don’t even need to worry about loyalty. I don’t even need to take too much care of the apartments, since if the tenants call a government inspector the first thing that happens is a big fat eviction for them.

As you can imagine, business was really booming. I acquired dozens of properties, and each one was just another income stream. Best of all was when I got someone receiving housing aid, since that just was a check straight from the government into my bank account. I felt like every time I closed my eyes I could hear the clink, clink, clink of coins dropping into the piggy bank. In fact, I was making so much money that I started to travel like crazy, and hired an assistant to take care of most of the work. This was the life!

But a few months ago I ran into some trouble. You see, like any sensible landlord—and, I guarantee it, this is just what everyone does—I divided my properties into white and non-white. Like, basically if a black potential tenant came to us, they would see some apartments and not others, and likewise with a white one. It’s just basic economics. You start allowing black tenants in a white neighborhood, you got all sorts of problems. The neighbors are complaining. People call the cops. And you might even start scaring white folks away, which means your property is worth less. No, no, that’s not a good idea. And obviously most white people don’t want to live in the black neighborhoods.

But one day, I got notified that I was being sued. What? Apparently, the old black lady I had evicted the week before had a grown-up lawyer son, who said that it was discrimination. Excuse me? Before I know it, the court had me handing over all my records. Then a judge rules that I was guilty of housing discrimination. Oh yeah, like it’s my fault there are white and black neighborhoods. I had to pay a big fat fine and got suspended from business for six months. So, I decided I’d come to Spain to pass the time, and here I am.


“What an interesting story!” Franck says. “I had no idea that housing was paid for with money in this land. In my kingdom, all the subjects are simply provided with a place to live.”

“Yes, my royal prince,” professor Allesprechen says. “It seems that, in many parts of the world, people believe in a scientific law called Supply and Demand, which they take to be as powerful as the physical laws of motion. And, indeed, all society must operate on this basis, even food and medical care.”

“Did someone say medical care?” a younger guy says. “Because that’s what my story is all about.”


The Patient’s Tale

So, the long and short of it is that I came to Spain to avoid medical debt. But ironically, before all this, I was studying to become a doctor.

I don’t say this to boast, but I’m the first person in my family to go to college. Both my parents are immigrants. They owned a restaurant and worked super hard, all day long, seven days a week. Like most parents, I guess, they wanted me to have a different kind of life, so they were super strict about studying. No way I was going to work in a restaurant like them. I absolutely had to go to college. And, of course, I couldn’t study sociology or English literature or anything like that. I had to do pre-med. Luckily for me, I found that I really liked pre-med, so we didn’t have to have any dramatic, rebellious confrontations.

As you may know, in pre-med you need to take a whole bunch of science classes—physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, and lots of bio classes. I also had to take a class on vertebrate anatomy, and this class had a lab component where we had to do dissections. I didn’t really like it, to be honest. So squishy and gross, and the smell is awful. But, anyways, we did a rat, a frog, a snake, a bat, and finally we had to do a pig. I was making the primary incision in its abdomen when my hand slipped and, somehow, I gave my other hand a bad, bad cut.

They took me to the university hospital and stitched and bandaged me up. Luckily, I was covered under the university’s standard health insurance, so this didn’t set me back too much. But, after a follow-up exam and a few X-rays, the doctor told me I had cut myself so deeply that my ligaments had been damaged. Without surgery, they wouldn’t heal properly, and I would lose mobility in my hand forever. Obviously, this isn’t good, especially since I want to be a surgeon! But the surgery was way, way too expensive, even with my insurance. And this is not to mention the physical therapy I would need.

When you’re in this kind of situation, the only thing to do is beg. I didn’t tell my parents, since they are really proud people. I made a GoFundMe and asked for $10,000 for the surgery, without much hope I’d make it. But my classmates, they were amazing. As soon as they saw it, they shared my page everywhere, and got the whole school involved. In just a month I was over my goal. You can imagine I was feeling pretty great.

But you can also imagine how bad I felt when I found out that the total cost of my surgery was wayyyyy more than $10,000. It was like hitting rock bottom. My whole life seemed like it was over. And now I had the added guilt of having taken all that money from all those people. I was scrolling around on social media, just trying to distract myself from how shitty the situation was, when I stumbled on an article about the difference in prices for medicines and medical procedures between the US and other countries. In fact, in that article it used the kind of surgery I needed as an example. They said it was four times cheaper in Spain. I did some more research, and that was right! In fact, the surgery was so much cheaper that I even had enough money for airfare—even with no insurance!

So, next thing I knew, I was boarding a plane to Madrid. They fixed up my hand, good as new. Best of all, I had some extra time and money to enjoy Spain, so I decided to go on this pilgrimage. But, I gotta say, this whole experience has really soured me on the medical profession in America. I kept thinking: Shouldn’t I be doing this to help people? In the States we just milk people for everything they have. Other countries don’t do what we do. I’m really not sure I’d enjoy being a part of something like that. Unfortunately, by the time I graduate I’m gonna have so much student debt that I basically need to do something that pays well, at least for a while. I have to think about it.


“Now, my dear Prince,” Bigote says, turning to the prince. “You must not take away the wrong message from this story. You see, the greatness of Western society is based on the inalienable rights of property. That means, of course, that everything has its price, and all debts must be paid.”

“Did someone say debts?” a bald, middle-aged man said. “Because I got something to say about that.


The Debt Collector’s Tale

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that’s never been more true than in my life. You see, I’ve lived the American Dream: I started from the bottom and I’ve used my own grit and ingenuity to make a comfortable life for myself. America is truly the land of opportunity.

Let me give you my backstory. I had one of those tough childhoods. Father walked out, mom was poor, moving around from place to place, dropping out of school at 16. Truth be told, if it weren’t for my cousin, I probably would have ended up like all my old friends—getting into drugs, crime, trouble with the law, that sort of thing.

But one day, my cousin pulls up to our apartment and starts telling me about this job. It’s easy, he says. It’s basically just like being a mover. You just got to lift some furniture. And the pay was good—much better than fast food. I showed up the next morning and we got right to work. Turns out, the job was being a mover—a mover outer. You see, this moving company did most of its business with the sheriff, helping them to evict clients.

It would work something like this. The sheriff would go up to the door first, hand on his pistol, and deal with the tenant. Sometimes they would yell and complain and make a big scene, but most of the time they would just say, ‘Ok,’ and let us in. 

We saw all sorts of places this way. Sometimes the apartment would be all nice and organized, and the tenant would be running around, trying to make sure we carried everything correctly. Most often, though, the place would be a dump, with clothes and things everywhere. And sometimes it would be so disgusting—with overflowing toilets, trash everywhere, roaches and rats—that we’d just leave most of the junk in for the landlord to deal with.

All in all, it was a pretty cushy job, since mostly we didn’t even have to take the stuff into the truck. We’d just leave it on the curb for the tenant to deal with. And, honestly, this was probably the better option for these tenants, since if they let us take it to the warehouse, they’d have to pay some big fee to get it back—which of course meant they wouldn’t get it back. After stuff sat in the warehouse for a year, it became fair game for us—take it or trash it. I got some neat stuff that way.

I did this for a few years, until I decided that I wanted a more serious job, one that paid a little better. After looking around, and sending out a few applications, I got a job as a repo man. This meant repossessing cars once people fell behind on their payments. You know, even if you’re late by one day, your car can be taken away? And that happens a lot, especially when your business doesn’t do any credit score checks or anything like that before granting a loan. At least half the people slip up, so it’s just loan, repo, loan, repo. You make a lot of money that way. 

Good thing about this was I was paid on commission, so I made a lot more money. But the bad news was that I had to deal with the client directly. This was the tough part. I’d have to go find them and tell them I was taking their vehicle back. And you got to understand, even this was a courtesy, since technically I didn’t even have to do that. And, of course, I’m willing to be a little reasonable. I’ll drop them off at home before I take the car off. But I don’t give any kind of extensions. 

Well, I’ve learned that people react a few different ways. For some people, this isn’t their first repossession, so they are just sort of quiet and resigned, they don’t fight too much. Then there are the nice ones, who act all sweet and friendly, hoping that this will somehow help. More annoying are the negotiators, who try to buy time, to ask for just a day or a few hours, to run some kind of errand. That doesn’t get them anywhere. My least favorite are the cryers, who break down and start to beg. That’s just messy. But, inevitably, the fighters give you the most trouble. They scream, argue, make a big fuss. A few of them even get in their car and drive off somewhere.

This was the most interesting part of the job, since it could be a little bit of a challenge to find them. I’d have to develop all these strategies. For example, I would try to find the phone number of someone in his family or a friend, and then I’d pretend to be, like, an acquaintance, and I’d ask about him. Or sometimes I’d just sit and wait outside his job or apartment. Or maybe I’d drive around his neighborhood. The key was to find a moment when the car was left unattended. Then, I’d walk up real quick, and I’d use my duplicate key to get in and drive it back. Easy peasy.

Once I got good at the repo business, I started making really nice money. I even got married, settled down, and got a mortgage. But by the time I hit 40, I was feeling a little burnt out. It was just the same thing, day after day. I started looking for the next step. I had always wanted to own my business, be my own boss. But what kind of business? After some thinking, I realized that being a repo man is the perfect training for debt collection. Best of all, you don’t need a ton of money to get into the collection business.

The biggest investment is to buy the debt itself. Now, this isn’t as expensive as you might think. It’s not like you have to pay the full amount of the debt to acquire it. There’s a whole market for old debts, lots of it selling for just pennies on the dollar. This means you can buy a lot of it, and even if you don’t manage to collect it all, you’ll still make a good profit. A lot of this is old medical debt, credit card debt, student loans, payday loans.

The debt collection business is complicated, you see. There are all sorts of ways to get the money back—garnishing wages, or your income tax refund, or you can just be sued. That’s for the really legitimate debt, when the government gets involved. But our business is to collect on really old debt, or zombie debt, which is sort of in this legal no-man’s land where nobody is really sure if you have to pay it or not. It’s one of those things where the government won’t go after you for the debt, but they also won’t go after me if I collect on the debt. Got it?

You may not believe me, but debt collection is a real art. I’m serious. It takes a lot of psychological subtlety. You’ve really got to learn how to manipulate people’s emotions, to give them the right mixture of hope and fear, to confuse them or stress them out. That’s the nature of the business. The first step is always a simple call. For this, it’s important to assume the identity of the original loaner. So, for example, if it’s for a credit card, you’ve got to be the bank. The first call, you have to be really professional, remind them of the debt, and then offer a few repayment options.

Sometimes, that’s enough, especially if it’s not a lot of money. They say, “Ok, yes sir,” and that’s that. You have income. But of course most people aren’t so easy. Some people, you’ve got to scare them. You’ve got to play up all the terrible consequences—credit score, eviction, garnishing wages, and so on. Doesn’t matter if any of it is based on reality, you’ve just got to take a high moral tone, talk about responsibility and consequences, and then offer them a way out—which means, of course, paying you. That’s the fear method.

But that doesn’t always work, either. Specifically, you get some people who get mad instead of afraid. They wanna fight you. Now, you can get into a shouting match with them over the phone, but that’s not really productive. Basically, you’ve got to soften them up somehow, find a weak spot. Usually this means going after other people in their life. So maybe you call someone in their family and explain that you’re concerned about So-and-so, since they’re in debt and not responding. Better still, you call their boss. That usually works.

This is normally enough. But some people are real stubborn. They need more than routine intimidation. For them, what you do is you make your presence felt. This is pretty easy. Find out where they live, where they work, where they like to hang out, and just trail them. Park the car in an obvious spot outside their place of work, for example, and make yourself known. If they come up to confront you, just sit there and let them yell through the windows. Of course, we reserve this treatment for the really big prizes, when we think we have a chance at a serious payday. I’d be lying if I said we got everyone.

As you can imagine, my business did quite well. We expanded into several municipalities, and I personally train all of my debt collection agents. Naturally, we get lots of complaints. The government has even fined us a few times, which is just the nature of the business. We pay the fines and move on. After all, our profit margins are so big we can afford it. We are basically making money for nothing—buying some old bills and paying for a few working telephones.

So, that’s my story: How a man born poor pulled himself up by his bootstraps. That’s why I can now afford a European vacation.


“Wow, it seems that this business of ‘debt’ is very serious,” prince Franck says. “I wonder how we have gotten along so well in Geheimnissland for so long without any money, debt, or payments!”

“Indeed, my prince,” Allesprechen. “It is a strange custom. What is more, I wonder at this tale of debt collection. According to the economics textbooks I have read, sometimes debtors are allowed to default and the lender must lose money, is that not so?”

“Maybe that’s what it says in the textbooks,” a suavely-dressed, older man says. “But you have to remember who makes the laws—lenders. How should I know? I am a lawmaker myself.”


The Lobbyist’s Tale

When I was in high school, we had a class in American Civics and Gov. It was a revelation for me. For the first time, I was really able to appreciate the beauty of our constitution, and the genius of our founding fathers. Everything we thought through: the checks and balances, the separation of powers, the protection of individual liberties—in short, a set of institutions that allowed for governing based on consensus and shared values, which was simultaneously effective, democratic, and individualistic.

By the end of the year, I was so inspired that I knew I had to make this my life. So I studied political science in college. All my free time was spent pursuing my goal. I volunteered for campaigns, I built up a network, and eventually I ran for office on my own. One thing led to another—local office, state legislator—until I became one a United States senator at the youngest possible age: 30. It was a dream come true.

But, as they say, my sweet prize turned to ashes in my mouth. By the end of my first year on the job, I was miserable. You see, being a politician is nothing like you think it is. I imagined I would be busily making laws to improve the country: developing infrastructure, setting rules, designing foreign policy, and looking out for the freedoms of the common man. My head was full of all these principles and ideas that I had been carrying around since high school, and yet my job was a lot more like being a prostitute than a statesman.

It’s no exaggeration to say that politics is fundamentally about money and influence. We rely on voluntary donations every time we have a campaign, and campaigning is expensive. All year long we’re calling potential donors. Every politician has to do it. We spent hours and hours each week in a cramped little grey office, complete with cubicles and headsets, as if we’re telemarketers. And in a way we are: We’re just selling a different product—namely, influence. 

That’s not all. You might think we spend our days having high-minded conversations and hatching grand plans. Instead, we spend our days getting wined and dined by lobbyists of every sort. They are everywhere, like cockroaches, just waiting to spring out at you. And of course you can’t turn them away, because you really need to keep them happy if you want to keep your job, since they are also the same people donating to your campaign and mobilizing your votes. So you end up having conversation after conversation about how natural gas benefits communities, how regulation is killing business, how tax rates should be lowered. And when you finally get down to actually writing legislation, this is all the stuff you talk about, since everyone is in the same position. It’s like being a hostage.

I got pretty depressed about this for a while. In fact, by the end of my first term, I decided to drop out of the Senate altogether. It was a hard decision to make. I felt like I was throwing my life and my dreams away. But it was also a big relief. Still, this didn’t leave me in a good situation. Being a senator doesn’t really qualify you for any other job. So what would I do, go to law school? Go into business? Start a charity? None of those options appealed to me. I was tired, and I wanted a cushy job.

This led me, inevitably, to lobbying. Most lobbyists are former politicians, after all. It makes sense, since we have the contacts already, and we know how the system is put together. Admittedly I had a lot of reservations, since it was all the lobbying that made me so depressed in the first place. But as soon as I started working, I fell in love with the job. It’s easy, it’s pleasant, and it pays a whole lot better than being a politician. Best of all, I finally got the feeling of power—of shaping policy—that I was craving as a politician. Because, finally, I had the power.

I started off in the automobile industry. This was back in the early 70s, when there was a big push to tighten regulations on car manufacturing, to make cars safer. My job was to push back against these regulations as much as possible. And we quickly developed the basic model for all my other gigs: Find a bunch of pliant and cash-strapped scientists, write them a big check, and then use their studies to prove your point. Of course, their studies always prove what you want to prove, for example that seat belts don’t help save lives. Something like that. Then, you corner as many politicians as you can, and you aggressively push these studies. This is useful for them, since having “hard data” gives politicians cover.

Now, you need to understand that this is always a rear-guard battle. We know, of course, that eventually regulations will get passed. But this way, companies have a lot more time to adapt, without hurting their profit margins. It was the same story with cigarettes, which was my next gig. I had all these studies “proving” that there was no link between smoking and cancer. After that, I moved on to the oil lobby, which is where the money has been since people started to worry about global warming. 

It sounds a little awful when I describe it. And sometimes I do feel a bit bad. But, really, the money is just incredible. I save my clients so much money, you see, that they can give me a really whopping salary, and still come out way ahead. If my conscience bothers me, I figure I’ll devote some time to charity when I’m older and retired. Until then, I’ve got a cushy job, a big house, and all the money I could ever want. I even have lots of vacation days, which is why I’m here, on this pilgrimage route.


“What a fascinating story!” Franck says. “It seems that money is far more important than I could have ever dreamed!”

“I agree, my prince,” Allesprechen says. “I find all of this information new and exciting. Specifically, I wonder how this practice of ‘lobbying’ is compatible with the systems of ‘democracy’ that are so universally lauded in this world?”

“Well, uh,” Bigote says, looking a bit uncomfortable. “I suppose the possession of money confers upon one a certain nobility, as it is proof of worthiness and personal merit. Thus, such people naturally are granted a stronger voice in government.”

“Hey guys,” I say, cutting in. “Gotta say, most of these stories are a bit boring. Let me give you a good one.”


Dan’s Tale

You might look at me and think, “This guy is no casanova.” Yeah, I’m not athletic or even really that good-looking. But I got moves. I’m charming, I’m crafty. And I’m really, really determined. What I’m saying is, basically, I’ve had some success in the lady department.

Let me give you an example. Once, I went a whole party pretending to be a French exchange student, so that these university girls would think I was a cultured European. (I forgot to keep up in the act the next morning, and they weren’t happy about that.) Another time I drove 12 hours non stop when one of my old hookups—who had moved away—told me her parents were out of town for the night.

But let me tell you about the strategy I’m most proud of. There was this new girl in school, right. Apparently from Italy. Her name was Fiorella. And she was a babe. Like hard-core. All the dudes noticed it immediately. But we couldn’t get anywhere. First of all, her English was pretty shaky, seeing as she was Italian and all that. And she didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. She ate lunch by herself. After school, she’d walk right home. Sort of a loner type.

I wasn’t going to let no language barrier stop me, though. So, I downloaded a few language learning apps on my phone, and I practiced every day—at least an hour, and usually a lot more. I watched movies in Italian, I listened to music in Italian, I even read the Italian news. Sure, I was failing all my classes, but that was always true anyways. Point is, four weeks later, I knew enough Italian to have, like, a basic conversation.

Still, I needed to have a strategy. She was shy. Seemed to have a scared look on her face. I figured I shouldn’t approach aggressively. I had to be sort of innocent, like her. Non-threatening. So, I looked for an opening—we were paired together in a chemistry experiment—and I started in on my Italian. You should’ve seen the look on her face when I spoke. Like, jaw drop, eyes wide. 

Long story short, instant connection. We start talking every day. She opens up, starts laughing. I’m feeling pretty good. I think this is going somewhere. But still, everyday after school, she doesn’t hang around, but goes straight home. So I’m like, what’s up with that? Finally, I ask her, and she tells me the whole story. She lives alone with her father. And he’s a total nut-job. Like, believes in aliens and UFOs and big-foot. But also, like, super duper catholic. Really conservative and masochistic. Wears like a spiky ankle-bracelet and rough wool underwear, to torture himself all day. You know. 

Point is, this guy is super controlling, and doesn’t want her daughter having any friends—least of all, boys. So that’s why she has to rush home every day. “Listen,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.” I’ll figure something out. You see, when it comes to me and the ladies, no obstacle is too difficult.

Next Friday, I put my plan into action. I arrive at his door, wearing like a kind of monk custom I got together from the local party store. And I use a bit of make-up to look older. I knock, he answers. He’s a big guy, with slicked back hair, and a little mustache. Looks mean. I admit, I was a little scared, and I considered bolting. But quitters never get their just desserts. 

“Excuse me,” I say to him, in my best Italian. “I am a brother of the local Monastery of the Weeping Children of God, and it has come to my attention that you, my son, have moved into the area. My sources tell me you are a very pious Christian indeed.”

“Yes, father,” he says. “Once I went the traveled all the way from the Vatican to Milan while crawling on my knees, while reciting hail marys and counting the rosary.”

“Very impressive, my child,” I say. “I am inspired by your devotion. I wonder, though, if you would have the strength to recite the Prayer of the Blessed Winds of St. Jackson.”

“Oh, holy father, teach me this prayer,” he says. “I want to please God.”

“Ok, my son. Listen carefully. This prayer is very difficult and requires a great deal of time. First, it is paramount that you perform this prayer outside, facing east, with your eyes closed. And you must perform it between the hours of 9 pm and midnight, continuously, without any pause for rest.”

And then I show him a series of funny little twitches and movements, and then teach him some strings of holy words I put together from my mom’s prayer book.

“Do this every day,” I say, “and the Lord will not fail to look kindly upon you and your family. You will enjoy good fortune and heavenly blessings. Amen.”

And with that, I took off.

The next two months were fantastic. The padre would be in the backyard, muttering and gesticulating, and I would sneak up to Fiorella’s room for, shall we say, less spiritual sorts of pleasure. In fact, we probably would have kept this up for the rest of the year if he hadn’t gotten a job offer back in Italy. Hey, maybe the prayer worked? Sadly for me, though, he packed up and took my sweet Fiorella away. Hmm, come to think of it, is Spain anywhere close to Sicily?

To be continued…

On Pandemic Fatigue

On Pandemic Fatigue

If there is a common thread to this pandemic, it is loss. Many have lost jobs, businesses, or homes. Others have lost members of their family, and still others have lost their lives. Even the luckiest among us have lost something, if only time. But this essay seeks to focus on another kind of loss: the loss of patience. Specifically, I want to put into words for myself this strange and unsettling feeling that, of late, comes over me at least once a day, the feeling we call pandemic fatigue. 


The first time the coronavirus entered my consciousness as anything more than a blip was around Chinese New Year, in late January. I was going to see the celebratory parade in Usera, Madrid’s Chinese barrio, and I asked a friend of mine if he wanted to come. “Doesn’t seem like a good idea,” he said. “Lots of people coming from Wuhan.” Wuhan? I did not understand. “You know, that new coronavirus.”

I was stunned that someone in my life—and someone I considered sensible—was willing to change their behavior because of this virus on the news. Long before that, I had written off the periodic media frenzies about foreign diseases. Every other year there seemed to be some new virus ready to destroy the world—avian flu, swine flu, zika, SARS, Ebola—and every year it amounted to very little, at least in my life. Besides, I figured the media had such a strong financial incentive to frighten people that they would play up any potential danger, however remote.

So I went to the Chinese New Year Parade, and I didn’t get sick (though my camera was stolen), and I pushed coronavirus back to the peripheries of my awareness. It did not stay there for long. The news coming out of China seemed increasingly dire. The city of Wuhan was shut down completely. A whistleblower doctor died. Travel from China was banned. And still, stories of coronavirus infections started popping up all over the place.

I went on vacation in late February with my brother—to Poland—and, for the most part, life was still completely normal. But our flight back to Madrid took us through Milan, just for a short layover. By that time Italy was in bad shape, and parts of the country were already on lockdown. Milan was one of the worst hit areas. Even so, we did not even consider changing our flight. I was still quite sure that this virus business would blow over. All this was just our instinctual fear of the unknown. 

By the first of March, most people were still in denial. By that I mean that we were thinking of this virus like some other kind of natural disaster, a flood or a fire—one that is localized in space and time. Maybe Italy was bad, and maybe China was bad, but we didn’t live in Italy or China. The virus would go away and we would move on. Yet two weeks after I got back to Madrid, the schools were closed. Two days later, restaurants had to shut down; and the next day we were shut up in our houses. It was the lockdown.

I really believed that it would just be for two weeks. A month, tops. I encouraged my mom to buy tickets for a trip to Ireland in June. No way this would still be going on in June, I thought. No chance. But now that I had so much extra time, I decided to read a little about pandemics. I read books by experts in public health and infectious disease, by historians and novelists, and by investigative journalists. And slowly, the truth dawned on me—the hard truth that this emergency was going to last a long time.


This was the first time that I was living through a world-historical crisis as an adult. The closest thing I could remember were the attacks of September the 11th, but I was just a kid then, and I did not really understand what was going on. This time, I was painfully aware, and yet equally powerless to do anything about it.

I had heard stories of the solidarity that arises during times of crisis, but this was the first time I experienced it. Admittedly, it was difficult to show solidarity in any normal way, since we could not be physically close to one another. This was one of the most depressing aspects of the situation. But people figured out ways to lift each other’s spirits. There were the balcony concerts, the children’s drawings taped to windows, and the nightly rounds of applause for the healthcare workers.

The other aspect that helped us to get through this lockdown was fear. During these months we were still coming to grips with this new infection. How deadly was it, exactly? How did it spread? Could it stay in the air? Who was more vulnerable? What were all the symptoms? The uncertainty made the virus all the more frightening. Even so, it was clear that the virus was dangerous: overwhelmed emergency rooms, bodies stored in hockey rinks, and improvised field hospitals. With such a predator lurking the streets, it was less tempting to go outside.

The twin supports of fear and solidarity made the lockdown bearable. That, and a certain amount of creativity.


In Spain we were only allowed out to go shopping for food. We could not take walks or exercise outside. This really limited the options when it came to maintaining mental health—especially in my case, since I love a long walk or a good run.

But I adapted. I created a workout routine I could do in my tiny room, and made sure to do it every day. To get some sun, I snuck out onto my roommate’s balcony. Missing the local parks, I bought a bunch of plants. I made YouTube videos for my students learning English at home. Since we could not go to restaurants, my brother and I started cooking ever-more elaborate dishes—braised oxtail stew, Brazilian feijoada, French cassoulet, and even homemade kebab.

Still, the monotony could be numbing, the social isolation irritating. I can hardly imagine what it would have been like for someone living alone.

Eventually, after what seemed to be half an eternity, we were let out to exercise. In mid-May, I took my first run in over two months. I emerged onto the street almost shivering with excitement.

And yet the run was somehow less enjoyable than I thought it would be. Partly this was due to circumstances. For whatever reason, the Spanish government decided to let us out only at certain prescribed times; so when I set out the streets were absolutely packed. But I was more disappointed at my own physical shape. Though I had been regularly exercising in my little room, running even a fairly short distance felt difficult, heavy, painful. Breathing was so uncomfortable that I even wondered if I had gotten the virus. And, of course, I was much slower than before.


By the beginning of summer, some flicker of light began to appear at the end of the tunnel. We were coming down from the virus’s curve, and hopefully hitting a flat bottom. The state of alarm lifted on June 21 and we were free to do whatever we wanted. Except for the masks, life began to look pretty normal again.

But even at this relatively calm time, the virus could not be forgotten. This was brought home to me when I tried to get my papers in order to visit New York for the summer. I do this every year, and I was even more eager than usual to go home, since it is always nice to take refuge in times of trouble. Even after getting the requisite documents together, however, I was faced with uncertainty.

Here was my predicament: though I could legally travel there and back with my documents, there was no guarantee that the airlines would know that. Visa regulations are enforced very imperfectly by airlines, who tend to err on the side of caution since they face penalties if they transport someone who cannot legally enter a country. Aside from that, flights could simply get cancelled from lack of demand, or the rules could change while I was in the United States, leaving me unable to return to my job in Spain. I hoped that someone in authority could give me some clarity. But the Spanish consulate could only tell me that the situation was evolving, and advised me not to risk it. So, in the end, I had to forego a visit to my homeland.

I focus on this situation because it captures an essential part of pandemic fatigue: the sense of total uncertainty about the future. It is the feeling of being in limbo, of your life being totally up in the air, of being unable to plan even in the short-term. The most one could do was to wait, while the normal pleasures of life passed silently by.


During the summer, I slowly tried to regain the running facility I had lost. It was far more difficult than I anticipated. My body was slow and sluggish, and even rather delicate. On one run I pulled a muscle in my core and had to spend several days recuperating. Nearly every run was in some way a disappointment. But I did discover a new place to run: a park near my apartment, affectionately called siete tetas (seven boobs), a name the park owes to its seven prominent hills that stand above the surrounding city. Running there obviously meant a lot of running uphill, and I figured that this challenge might be enough to get me back into shape.

Practicing this way, I quickly discovered the key to uphill running: look down. It is simply too painful to focus on how much of the hill remains. When you look forward, you become hyper-aware of your labored breathing, and the urge to give up becomes irresistible. But if you look down, focus on your feet, you notice that each individual step is not that much harder than running on level ground, and so you can continue. And it quickly struck me that the pandemic requires just this same mentality: look down, focus on each step, and forget about how much of the hill is left to climb.

Perhaps a Buddhist would describe this state of mind as enlightened, since it is just this absorption in the present moment that meditation tries to cultivate. And, indeed, it is a powerful strategy when times are tough. But few runners, I suspect, would enjoy running the whole time with their head down. Part of the pleasure of a good run is the scenery—at least for me. Likewise, a big part of the motivation of running comes from setting goals and trying to accomplish them: an attitude inherently oriented towards the future. The pandemic, just like this hill, made all this impossible, and it was all we could do to just keep our heads down and keep pushing forward.


Time became a problem during the pandemic—empty time.

At first, I admit, it was exciting to have so much time to fill. Indeed, mixed in with all the alarm and frustration of the early days of the lockdown, there was a distinct note of relief—the opportunity to slow down, to maybe work on some hobbies, or simply to relax and introspect.

But very soon people began to hit a wall, or at least I did. Humans are simply not meant to spend so much time inactive, cut off, and without a fixed schedule. We need a bit of structure and variety, or else time turns into an mushy purée, thin and bland. With no reason to get up early or late, to do something in the morning or the evening, today or tomorrow, this week or next, it somehow became all the more difficult to focus on anything productive. Focus, after all, is as much an act of exclusion—expelling extraneous distractions—as it is of inclusion; and there was nothing to exclude (or, perhaps, there was everything at once?).

One consequence of this lack of any fixed temporal landmarks was an increase in my consumption of alcohol. Simply put, there was not much else to do, and none of the usual reasons not to drink. Not that I was deliberately drowning my sorrows, you see (at least not most of the time); rather, my background consumption of alcohol grew steadily, until I was drinking almost every day. This only exacerbated the physical toll of prolonged inactivity, contributing to the general sense of malaise and torpor that became my natural element. I would wake up groggy and late, and hang around the house most of the day, even when we were finally allowed outside.

The cumulative effect of all this has been pandemic fatigue: a listlessness mixed with an undercurrent of anxiety. Without a routine, unable to see my family, I passed the time the best I could—taking a few trips, teaching a few online classes, and trying to carry on with my usual hobbies. It was not an altogether unpleasant way to live, I suppose.

Yet the feeling was rather like sunbathing on an active volcano. The whole world had a delicate, fragile quality, as if the situation might suddenly and drastically change once again. This made it difficult to fully relax or to fully commit to future plans. Even the approach of the new school year seemed distant and unreal. Would the schools really re-open? And if so, how long would they remain so?


The reason I have become so aware of pandemic fatigue is that, for the moment, it is partially lifting. School has started for in-person classes, and I am once again in front of a classroom, writing on a white board, trying to memorize students’ names (much more difficult with the masks!). In short, I not only have a routine once more, but also a social purpose. It feels surprisingly good. Aristotle was correct when he noted that we are social animals. 

Now, after all this time, I have to be presentable in front of other people. This means no more gym shorts and sweatpants. The pandemic beard—quite impressively long, if I may say so—was shaven off, and my long hair trimmed. I even decided to do a dry month, Sober October, in order to reduce my drinking to pre-pandemic levels. 

Best of all, my running ability has started to reach pre-lockdown levels once again. All that running uphill paid off, and I can finally run without my body dragging behind my intentions. Better still, I can run while looking forward instead of with my head down, staring at my feet.

But this pandemic is not over yet, and neither is the fatigue. We are in the midst of the long-predicted second wave of infections. The Spanish government is scrambling, amid bitter partisan bickering, to put together a coherent response for this new challenge, and without much success. The main consequence has been a slew of new rules, changing unpredictably from week to week, the majority more annoying than effective. Even as I write this, I am not sure what I will be allowed to do by next week.

The worst part of the current situation is that we will have to endure the next round of restrictions and rules without the psychological supports from the early days. The buoyant solidarity has vanished into the usual humdrum concerns and routine bickerings of life. Lately, most of us (especially the politicians) are more concerned with finger-pointing than with lending a helping hand.

Also, the fear of the virus has lessened considerably. While this is, perhaps, partly justified, since we are more familiar with its symptoms and have better treatments, this is mostly a result of familiarity. Coronavirus is beginning to shift into the background threats in our environments, like car crashes or lung cancer—one of many dangers that we mostly ignore.

After the solidarity and the fear have mostly gone, the only thing left is the feeling of fatigue. In the end, this fatigue is a failure to live with coronavirus, to really face up to it. Most of us badly want to forget about this emergency and move on, and yet we are constantly reminded of its nagging presence. Without the support of the community or even the fear of a new threat, the virus becomes merely a burden, an extra chore, an added whisper of anxiety. Somehow, a problem affecting nearly everyone on the globe has become a dull ache that we all must deal with privately and alone.

I am afraid that there is still a lot of uphill running in our future. The only thing to do is to put our heads down, and push on. 

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Review: Rage

Review: Rage

Rage by Bob Woodward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes.

Under normal circumstances, I would not subject myself to a single book about Donald Trump, much less two. But I happened to finish A Very Stable Genius—written by two of Woodward’s fellow reporters at the Washington Post—during one of the most bizarre weeks in Trump’s very bizarre presidency.

The week began ordinarily enough, with the revelation in the New York Times that Trump was using his business failures to avoid taxes. Big surprise. This scandal was quickly eclipsed by Trump’s unhinged performance in the first presidential debate, which even some keen supporters found unpalatable. And then Trump managed to top his own performance, by announcing his coronavirus diagnosis. Somehow, even this potentially solemn event quickly devolved into a carnival of lies, as various reports on the president’s health conflicted. The farce was capped off by Trump’s tweeting “Don’t be afraid of COVID” after leaving the hospital.

I mention all this only to show that, even after four years and four thousand scandals, Trump has retained his ability to completely absorb my attention and, yes, to shock me. Hoping for some more insight or clarity, I reached for this book—yet another in the long list of Trump exposés. And I did find that Rage complemented the story told in A Very Stable Genius quite nicely, covering much of what is left out in that earlier book. Whether I am any the wiser for having read these books is another question.

The basic story is simple: Trump relentlessly wore down his advisors and officials through unreasonable and often contradictory demands, until they either resigned in frustration or were fired (often via a Tweet). As the authors of A Very Stable Genius put it, Trump ground through his human guard rails. This way, advisors willing to oppose or moderate the president were gradually replaced by sycophants who did little to curb his more destructive whims. Thus, when a real crisis hit the country, one requiring a complex and coordinated response, the White House was completely unprepared.

However, it is also apparent that this was not originally the story that Woodward set out to tell. The first half of the book focuses quite steadily on foreign policy, and is clearly the fruit of much careful research. There are the usual stories of Trump snubbing allies and pining after Putin. But the real surprise comes when Woodward reveals that he somehow obtained the letters exchanged between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Though containing little of substance, these letters are quite surprising in their affectionate and even flowery tone. Even so, this is one section of the book where Trump does not come off so badly. Nothing was gained from the meetings and the letters, but nothing was lost, either; and arguably it was worth a try to extend an olive branch.

Like so much of life, the book gets severely derailed in its second half by the arrival of the coronavirus. It was around this time, too, that Woodward gained access to Trump himself. From January to shortly before the book’s publication, Woodward interviewed the president eighteen times, for a total of over nine hours. This meant that Woodward had a direct line to Trump during the greatest test of his presidency. The book thus becomes a kind of character study in a time of crisis, with Woodward pushing and probing, trying to understand why Trump is handling the pandemic so badly.

The closer a look one gets of Trump, the stranger he appears. To use Woodward’s phrase, he is a “living paradox”—or at least bafflingly inconsistent. One obvious example of this is Trump’s decision to do these interviews in the first place. After all, Woodward had already written a book highly critical of Trump, and is an associate editor at the Washington Post, a paper Trump routinely derides as liberal media spouting fake news. Was it simply bad judgment? More likely, in my opinion, Trump thought that by personally speaking with Woodward, he could convince the journalist to change his tone. (Trump hoped to do the same with Mueller, Putin, and Kim Jong-un, after all.) Either that, or he simply found the publicity and prestige offered by a Woodward book irresistible.

Another tension in Trump’s personality is that between authoritarianism and negligence. Trump’s admiration for strong-men around the world has often been noted, as has his demand for loyalty and praise from his subordinates. And his response to the Black Lives Matter protests—threatening to send the military, and using federal troops to illegally detain protesters—is broadly authoritarian. On the other hand, Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis reveals a man quite averse to real responsibility, as he often left it up to the governors to deal with the problem. An aspiring autocrat could easily have used the emergency to appropriate more power for himself, but Trump did no such thing.

But this apparent paradox is resolved when one realizes that Trump’s conception of authority is very superficial. Being praised by subordinates, being the center of attention, being declared the best, being seen as a tough guy—this is the extent of what Trump demands from the world.

This superficiality is pervasive in Trump’s makeup, and has much to do with his (almost non-existent) relationship with the truth. It is common to call Trump a “liar”—and, of course, the major revelation of this book is that Trump apparently knew how dangerous the coronavirus was in February, and did not take action or warn the public. Yet for me this term is misleading, as it implies that Trump is fully aware of the truth and is carefully concealing it. I am sure he does that sometimes, of course. But more often it is as if he is speaking as a person might when totally overcome with emotion—in extreme rage or ecstatic joy—without even considering the truth.

The reason I say this—and I hope that I am not getting carried away here—is that, when Trump speaks, the words do not seem to come from some deep place inside himself, as happens during a thoughtful conversation. Rather, the words seem to pop out of thin air, determined only be the immediate needs of the present. To put it slightly differently, Trump never seems to be searching inside himself as he speaks—turning an issue over mentally or finding the appropriate phrase—but instead his mouth goes off by itself, like a machine gun, in its predictably staccato rhythm. The following excerpt captures this quite well:

“I’ve talked to lots of your predecessors,” [Woodward] said. “I never talked to Nixon, but I talked to many, many of them. They get philosophical when I ask the question, what have you learned about yourself? And that’s the question on you: What have you learned about yourself?”

Trump sighed audibly. “I can handle more than other people can handle. Because, and I’ll tell you what, whether I learned about it myself—more people come up to me and say—and I mean very strong people, people that are successful, even. A lot of people. They say, I swear to you, I don’t know how it’s possible for you to handle what you handle. How you’ve done this, with the kind of opposition, the kind of shenanigans, the kind of illegal witch hunts.”

I find this response so telling, because we can safely ignore the truth or falsity of Trump’s words. Indeed, I am inclined to think that questions of this kind usually elicit bullshit. But if I were asked this, I know that I would have to pause and search within myself for something that at least appeared to be self-knowledge. I would have to at least simulate speaking from the heart. And it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to do this. Trump’s answer, meanwhile (which essentially amounts to “I am better than other people”), pivots almost immediately from self-knowledge to what anonymous “very strong people” are telling him. In other words, it does not even betray the modicum of self-knowledge necessary to plausibly bullshit.

I am writing this to fully express these thoughts for myself, even though I am painfully aware that I am falling into the tar-pit of Trump’s personality. But enough. Let us move on from Trump to the secondary question of whether Woodward is guilty of journalistic malpractice for sitting on the information about the coronavirus. And I think he is. Woodward has given multiple reasons why he did not go public with the Trump tape, such as that he needed to give the story more context, or that he thought Trump was just talking about China. Neither of these make much sense to me. And I do think it could have made a difference if the recording of Trump had been released in, say, March.

Be that as it may, this book is still a valuable and alarming look into Trump’s White House and character. After such a steady inspection, it is difficult to disagree with Woodward’ conclusion: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”

View all my reviews

Don Bigote: Chapter 8

Don Bigote: Chapter 8

The story so far:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God
  6. Don and Dan Find Themselves
  7. Don and Dan Find Happiness

The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part I

“Wuuhhhuh,” I say, waking up with a start.

My head hurts, my stomach feels shitty, and my left knee is throbbing. Where am I? The light hurts when I open my eyes, so I keep them shut and try to think. What happened? I remember… a kind of trippy cave, a bunch of hippies, some German dudes, and… and… a police raid! How did we get out of there? Last thing I can clearly recall is piling into this sort of weird helicopter thing and taking off through the brush.

I try opening my eyes again, rubbing them and squinting in the sunlight. Everything looks green, very green. It’s some kind of field with lots of trees and bushes around. Okay then… But where’s Bigote?

“He… hello?” I try calling out, but my voice is weak and kind of whispery, like when you’ve smoked a lot and have a bad hangover. I try again: “Bigote?”

“Ah, hah!” I hear a voice from nearby. “It appears that my faithful squire has finally awoken from his slumber.” It’s him.

“Sir?” I crawl toward his voice, still unable to see very clearly. “What’s going on?”

“Well…” This is another voice, a German guy. “It appears that the landing mechanism had a slight malfunction, causing us to impact the ground at a speed that was higher than optimal.”

“How are you feeling, my friend?” This was another German voice—younger. I feel a friendly arm pat me on the back.

“Well, not so great I gotta say. Where are we?”

“Galicia!” Bigote says.

“Ga-what?”

“The northwest of Spain—an ancient land, once populated by celts. A land unconquered by the Muslim invaders and one of the most venerated seats of Catholicism in Europe.”

“Yes, my contraption did not carry us a great distance before we ran into technical troubles,” the older German voice says. I catch a glimpse at the speaker and my memory starts to come back. It’s professor Allesprachen, the guy from that paradise place who we met in Portugal. “I’m afraid there must be a design flaw that I overlooked.”

“Don’t be harsh on yourself, professor,” the younger voice says. I suddenly remember him too: the prince named Franck. “If it weren’t for you, we’d all be in jail right now.”

“Does anybody have some water or something?” I say, sitting back down, holding my head. 

“I am afraid not, my long-suffering companion,” Bigote says. “We have virtually no resources available at the moment.”

“Oh, don’t worry about resources,” Franck says. “We’ve got money to spare. Maybe we ought to find the nearest town and buy some supplies.”

“An excellent idea!” Bigote says. “Should each of us take off in a different direction and return here by sundown?”

“Unnecessary,” Allesprachen says, gesturing to a little black thing in his hand. “I have a device here that can find our location from any point on the earth, and direct us to where we want to go.”

“Marvellous!” Bigote replies. “But how does such a thing work?”

“It uses satellites to triangulate our position on the earth’s surface. I call it ‘Locational Ordinate Specifying Technology,’ or LOST.”

“Brilliant!” Bigote says.

“Isn’t that just GPS?” I say.

“GPS?”

“You know, like Google Maps and all that.”

Before Allesprachen can respond, Bigote cuts in:

“Do not be a fool, Chopin. GPS is a tool of control used by the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy. They use it to monitor the population and enforce that people observe the Call to Prayer and the fasting rules of Ramadan.”

“Well, I cannot say I have ever heard of this Google Maps,” Allesprachen says. “Nor do I know of how it is related with any such conspiracy. But I assure you my device is perfectly safe.”

“Let us go!” Franck says, and soon enough we’re walking through the countryside.

Maybe if I didn’t have a terrible headache, and I weren’t hungry and thirsty, and my stomach didn’t feel kind of like I drank some hydrochloric acid, and my knee didn’t feel like someone hit it with a baseball bat—and if I had clean clothes, a shower, a decent night’s sleep, the prospect of sex anytime soon, or maybe even a nice massage and a tightly-rolled blunt—maybe, in that case, I’d be enjoying this walk through this countryside towards wherever we’re going. But as it is, I feel like absolute garbage.

Luckily we aren’t so far away. Soon, one of these crazy old European towns comes into view, the kind with big walls wrapped around the outside, and all these old stone towers sticking out of it (the pointy kind). We make our way to the nearest bar and shuffle into a booth.

¿Qué vais a tomar, chicos?” the waitress says.

“Ahh, the sweet sound of Castilian. What a beautiful European language!”

“I thought that was Spanish?” Franck says.

“Oh, no—no, no, no,” Bigote says. “Spanish is what they speak in Mexico. In Spain they speak Castilian.”

“But…” Allesprachen tries to say.

Cuatro cervezas,” I say, using some of the only Spanish I remember from Señor González’s class.

Vale, chicos,” she says.

“My word!” Bigote says. “Chopin, I did not know you can speak Castilian.”

“Only a few words,” I say. “I learned it in high school.”

“Astounding! I thought that the conspiracy had removed all European languages from our public schools long ago, replacing them with Spanish and Arabic.”

“Guess my school is a bit special.”

Soon the lady comes back with four big goblets of the good stuff. I gulp mine down almost as soon as I get it.

“So,” Franck says, after taking his own ginger sip. “My good doctor, does your LOST device tell us what city this is?”

“Ah, yes,” Allesprachen says. “We are in a place called ‘Lugo.’”

“Lugo!” Bigote cries out, mid gulp, his moustache dripping. “I have heard of this place. I read about it while researching the Camino de Santiago.”

“Ah, yes!” Allesprachen now cries. “The Camino de Santiago, of course!”

“What is that, my dear mentor?” the prince asks.

“This is an ancient pilgrimage route, established during the darkest ages of Europe. It consists of several different paths, some of them extending as far as our Geheimnisland.”

“But my dear doctor,” Franck says, “what is a pilgrimage?”

“It is a sort of religious voyage that one undertakes in order to feel closer to God, and to purge oneself of one’s sins.”

“I am familiar with the notion of God,” Franck says. “But what is ‘sin’?”

“Well, in this Christian faith, it is the embodiment of God’s disapproval for an action that has been prohibited in the religion.”

“So it is like a cosmic crime?”

“A very astute summary, my prince.”

“What a quaint place this is,” Franck says. “They worship a police officer.”

“Quaint is not the word, my dear friend,” Bigote says. “It is an ancient, noble custom, an homage to one of the pillars of Western civilization—the holy Christian faith. You see, in these dark ages, when this land was overrun by the evil Muslim hoard, Galicia was home to a small pocket of surviving Europeans. This pilgrimage was one of the ways they kept their faith alive, and regained their strength to beat back the invading barbarians.”

“Fascinating,” Franck says. Then, turning to Allesprachen: “You know, my dear doctor, perhaps this is a golden opportunity. I mean, after all, we are searching for a new way of life, a different concept of happiness. Maybe this will help us in our spiritual quest!”

“I think that is a wonderful idea, my prince.”

“Indeed!” Bigote says, newly wetting his moustache. “This is a golden opportunity! And as it is my mission to understand European culture as deeply as I can—before the dastardly conspiracy causes everything to sink into ruin—it appears not only desirably, but incumbent upon me to perform this sacred ritual.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, a knot forming in my stomach. “What are you guys talking about? We only just got here. And I’m sure I would appreciate a few days to relax and eat and recover from all this craziness.”

“Do not worry, my dear squire,” Bigote says. “A pilgrimage, by its very nature, is restful and rejuvenating.”

“For one, I don’t really know what a squire is, or why you’re calling me that. And two—what is a pilgrimage?”

§

“This blows,” I say. “Pilgrimages pretty much suck, I guess.”

So it turns out that all this talk of spirituality and tradition and all that is just an excuse to go on a really long walk. That’s all this Camino de Santiago business is—a glorified stroll. All we’ve been doing is following these silly little signs with yellow arrows on them, which are leading us further and further into the middle of nowhere. 

“Do not be so censorious, my dear Chopin. We have only just begun the journey!”

“I’d like to stop and have a coffee and a ham sandwich or something.”

“Why, was our breakfast not ample enough?”

“A single croissant? No way, man. And also, we could’ve stayed in bed for way, way longer. I don’t know why you had to drag me out at six in the morning.”

“Ah, but my dear Chopin, you must understand that it is only wise to partake of a light meal before spending the day on our feet. And you must admit that it is worthwhile to sacrifice a little sleep if it means that we do not have to walk during the hottest part of the day.”

“I guess… But I’d still like to stop.”

“Oh, my dear Chopin, you have no taste for romance! As I walk this hallowed path, my mind flies back more than a millenia. Think of the nobles, philosophers, saints, and kings who must have trod the very same ground you are standing upon now! Over hundreds of years, facing a relentless foe, these noble Europeans built a culture that remains the envy of the world—gothic architecture, contrapuntal music, three-dimensional painting! It is our sacred duty to preserve what we can of this heritage, before its inevitable destruction at the hands of the conspiracy.”

“I think we should let the conspiracy destroy really long walks…”

“You know,” Allesprachen cuts in, “I must admit, Mr. Bigote, that I am still rather fuzzy on this conspiracy you talk so much about. Can you help me understand better the history and purpose of this nefarious organization?”

“Why, of course, my erudite friend. The conspiracy against civilization has taken many forms in the long course of history. But the most convenient place to start is the Cold War. At this time, the forces of Western destruction operated more or less out in the open, as communists and socialists. But after America’s triumph in the 1990s, these enemies of capitalism, truth, freedom, and justice had to go underground.”

“Underground?”

“Yes, they decided they had to operate in secret, since they could not overthrow the West directly. By establishing a secret network of spies and operatives, they slowly took control—of the CIA, the media—and they set up centers of power in many parts of the less-developed world, like Mexico and the Middle East. This way, they have accomplished through stealth what one hundred years of war could not: almost total control of the levers of power.”

“My word!” Franck says. “But isn’t there some way to stop them?”

“Sadly, I believe it is too late. Yes, at one point I did think we had a chance. The election of our dear leader, Donald Trump, gave me hope. Even now, he is fighting a losing battle against the forces of destruction, buried deep within the United States government. But even a man as talented and brave as he is can never win against such odds.”

“Guys,” I say. “I think I’m going to pass out if we go any further. I’m not cut out for this shit… You know I failed gym class every year since the fifth grade? This is torture.”

“Cheer up, Chopin!” Bigote cries. “We’re almost halfway there!”

§

A few agonizing hours later—with sweat running down my back, blisters covering the soles of my feet, a bad sunburn on the back of my neck—feeling lightheaded, woozy, hungry, thirsty, and generally terrible—just then, we get to the hostel.

It isn’t much. Basically, it’s just a bunch of metal bunk beds in a big white room. They gave us a couple shitty pillow cases for the plastic pillows and also a couple blankets. The bathroom and shower and all that is shared. Luckily there aren’t many people there beside us, so at least it isn’t cramped. But, honestly, if this is what it takes to get God to forgive me, he can hold onto his grudge.

The town isn’t much either—just a few stone houses, some fields full of cows, and a single restaurant. Well, at least the restaurant has hamburgers and beer. After dinner, I crawl into my bunk and find it to be almost comfortable. At least I’ll be able to savor a few hours of being unconscious and away from these nutjobs.

The next morning, as usual, Bigote gets me out of bed by jabbing his bony finger into my rib cage.

“Jesus, dude,” I groan. “Can’t you just say my name or something?”

“Oh, my dear Chopin,” Bigote says. “You and I both know that a touch of physical violence is required to rouse you from your slumber.”

“You sound like my mom, except with a much better vocabulary I guess.”

I sit up and rub my eyes. I feel wretched.

“Honestly, guys,” I say, to nobody in particular. “I can’t believe this is how you want to spend your time. Here we are, in Spain, a country with wine, clubs, hot girls, and we’re out here, walking, like somehow this is going to solve any of the world’s problems.”

“Chopin, hurry up!” Bigote calls from across the room.

Somehow, I managed to brush my teeth and dress myself. But just as we’re about to walk out the door, the owner of the hostel rushes in front of us.

¿¡Qué hacéis!? No se puede salir ahora por el virus!”

“Chopin, did you catch that?” Bigote asks me.

“Nah…”

“Wait a moment,” Allesprachen says. Then, he pulls out a device from his bag. “Here is another one of my inventions, the Linguistic Omnidirectional Speech Translator, or LOST.”

“Isn’t the name of your other thing?” I say.

“Oh, you’re right…”

“And isn’t that just like Google Translate?”

“How many times do I have to tell you, Chopin!” Bigote says. “Google is a tool of the conspiracy!”

“Well, let me turn on the device.”

Allesprachen switches a button on the little black box and a green light pops on. He holds it up to the Spanish man and says, “Can you say that again?”

A digital voice then emits from the box, and says: “¿Puedes decir esto otra vez?

The man starts talking through the machine:

“You guys need to know that there’s a virus out there, called the coronavirus. Lots of people are dying and the government says that we can’t leave our houses anymore.”

“Can’t leave out houses!? That’s tyranny!” Bigote cries.

“I don’t make the laws, man, but if you leave here, you could get a big, big fine, and maybe even arrested. All the flights are cancelled so it looks like we’ll all have to stay here for the time being.”

I look around the hostel. Aside from us and the owner, there are about ten people with us.

“Well at least we don’t have to do any more walking,” I say.

“This is not the time for smart comments, Chopin. I’m afraid that this may signify the beginning of the end.”

“What?”

“I have research to do!” Bigote cries, and walks back to his bunk.

“Indeed, I believe I should do some investigating myself,” Allesprachen says, and also retreats.

From that point on, time has started to go pretty slowly. I spend a lot of time sleeping, and a lot more time laying in bed, looking at the ceiling. Among the people trapped here, there isn’t even one hot girl—the closest is a lady in her forties with a big nose—so there’s no relief in that department. Thankfully, we’re still allowed to go out to buy food and, very importantly, alcohol. So that’s helping. And one of the ‘pilgrims’ here has some playing cards, which has helped to pass the time. But that’s pretty much it, as far as my life goes.

Meanwhile, Bigote has disappeared into the internet. He’s been using the hostel’s computer to do his ‘research,’ all day and apparently all night, too. Allesprachen has set up a kind of lab in a supply closet. He says he’s working on a cure for the virus.

After about a week of this, Bigote emerges—his mustache even bigger, scratchier, and messier than usual—and calls a meeting.

“Everyone, gather together!” he yells. “I need to let you know the truth of what is happening.”

We all pull up folding chairs into a little circle, like an AA meeting.

“We have been told that there is a pandemic raging in the world. The mainstream media assure us that a virus, inadvertently transferred from wild animals, has traveled from China to the rest of the world. So-called experts have concluded that the only way to stop the virus from catastrophic spread is to shut us all in our homes and to close all ‘non-essential’ businesses. We are told that the only way to defeat this virus is a vaccine, to be developed by these same so-called experts in their laboratories.”

“Get to the point,” one of the pilgrims says.

“I am here to tell you that none of this is true. Indeed, this entire emergency is, in reality, a meticulously planned power-grab by the conspiracy to seize control of our society. Now, some people have already doubted the official story about the virus coming from wild animals, thinking that it was crafted in a Chinese laboratory. This is only half-true. The horrible truth is that the symptoms of the virus are really the effects of MSG, built up in the bloodstream through years of eating Chinese takeout. Yet MSG is only one half of the recipe. The recently-developed ‘5G’ wireless network is carefully engineered to activate the MSG that has built up in our muscles, nerves, and blood. The activated MSG produces the virus symptoms.”

“Are you sure…” someone says.

“But why would they do this? The answer is obvious. The communist Chinese government, like so many governments around the world, is really just a puppet for the Muslim Mexican conspiracy. You see, it is all connected—vegans, gays, communists, liberals, global warming scientists, identity politics—it is all part of a grand scheme to finally topple Western Civilization. And this fake pandemic is the perfect vehicle to accomplish their plan. The economic ruin alone will bring many governments to their knees. The manufactured disaster will weaken the leaders who have honest, liberal principles, like our dear Trump, and only strengthen authoritarian communist regimes. State control will seem not only desirable, but necessary, and personal liberties frivolous.”

“But what about…”

“When they finally come out with a ‘vaccine,’ it will be the last phase in their nefarious scheme. They will inject hundreds of millions with a devious concoction, laced with gay genes and mind-control chemicals, allowing them to turn us all into obedient subjects, praying to Allah five times a day and eating vegetarian tacos in polygamous relationships.”

“That doesn’t sound so…”

“Unfortunately, if they have been able to come this far, it is probably too late to stop them. All we can do is hunker down and try to ride out the storm of civilizational collapse. Then, it will be our task to start rebuilding what we lost…”

Bigote stops, and the whole room becomes silent. I can’t tell if it’s because these people think he’s really onto something, or if they think he’s batshit crazy, or if they’re just kinda bored like me. Just as the silence starts to get a bit awkward and uncomfortable, one of the pilgrims starts to talk. He’s stocky, bald, and clean-shaven, who looks like he’s about forty.

“You know,” he says, “a lot of what you been saying makes sense to me. You see, I ain’t trusted Muslims, Mexicans, or really anyone from outside the country for a long time. They’re always up to something, these immigrants, whether they’re stealing our jobs or our women. I swear. Hell, a lot of born Americans aren’t trustworthy either, if they’re from the wrong neighborhood, if you know what I mean.”

“I apologize,” Bigote says, “but I did not catch your name, good sir.”

“My name’s Derek,” he says.

“Well, I appreciate your contribution to the conversation!” Bigote responds. “Judging from your accent, it appears that you are, like myself, of American extraction.”

“I’m an American, for sure,” he says. “Minnesota, born and bred.”

“The real heartland of the country!” Bigote says. “What brings you all the way here, on a pilgrimage in Europe?”

“Well, that’s sort of a long story,” Derek says.

“Why, I think we could all use a long story,” Franck says. “After all, we’re stuck here for the foreseeable future. It would be nice to pass the time some way, maybe by sharing the story of how we got here.”

“If that’s what you want, little man,” Derek says, “I’m game. Here we go.”


The Police Officer’s Tale

Well, first of all, I want to set the record straight about my background. People these days talk about white privilege, like all we whites live in mansions and drive Ferraris. That’s a bunch of bullshit. We didn’t have much growing up, my family. You see, my dad worked at the steel mill, so when I was younger it was mainly my mom, my sister, and me. He made a good, honest living that way, but it was hard work, and he’d come back late, tired, sweaty, cranky. You know.

Well, the years rolled by, and I think work got to my dad a bit. He started staying out late, drinking. At first it was only on the weekends, but then it started to be almost every night. And he was a mean drunk. He raised us right when he was sober. He’d smack us into shape sometimes, but he never hurt us. But when he was drunk he’d take it a bit too far, if you know what I mean, and sometimes he’d hit mom too. I didn’t like that.

Well, I think my mom got a bit tired of it. When I was twelve, she took us to her parent’s house, and told us they was getting a divorce. It was pretty ugly. Dad came over a few times, beat on the door, yelling and screaming. One time he even shot his rifle into the upstairs window. I think he smashed up my grandma’s car a bit, too. That all stopped with the restraining order. Anyways, they had to go to court and all that. My daddy, he must have felt pretty bad by then, because he wanted paternity tests for me and my baby sister. Turns out, I was his son, but she wasn’t.

Well, the judge considered that, and decided that the two of them would get joint custody of me, but my sister would stay with our mom full time. So some weeks I’d go over to dad’s, some to mom’s. Mom got a job as an accountant to push us through. But she started going out with some new guy, Carl, who I guess was my sister’s daddy. I didn’t like him. He’d walk in like he owned the place. He’d boss my mom around. I’d fight with him. One time, when my mom wasn’t around, he smacked me. So then, whenever he’d come over, I’d just go to my dad’s.

Well, my dad wasn’t doing so good, either. Without my mom he started drinking more and more. Most of the time when I’d get there, he wasn’t home. I’d sneak in through the back door and just hang out there, all by myself. Sometimes he’d come home and he’d be happy to see me. But, when he was drunk, he was meaner than ever. I dunno, maybe I brought back bad memories of my mom, and he’d rough me up. One time, he came back with a streetwalker and kicked me out.

Well, this sort of continued for a while. But then, one day, there was a big hullabaloo in town. Turns out, the steel mill was closing down for good. They sacked everyone, including my dad, and boarded up the old buildings. Things went downhill for my dad pretty fast after that. His drinking got out of hand. He’d basically just drink from morning to night. The last time I came over, the house was a dump, liquor bottles everywhere, and my dad was passed out on the floor. When I woke him up he didn’t even remember who I was. So I just left him there. He was dead about a week later.

Well, that was pretty sad. Naturally, I wasn’t doing too good in school under the circumstances. I pretty much failed everything and eventually I just decided that it was just a big old waste of time. So I dropped out and started looking for work. Unfortunately, a lot of the jobs had dried up. Of course the factory was gone. But after all the workers lost all their money, a lot of other places went out of business, too. So the only thing I could find was being a dishwasher in the local diner.

Well, that wasn’t too much fun. I worked six nights a week, ten-hour shifts, and the pay was total shit. I had the idea that I’d be able to move out, buy a car, maybe get a girl, just like my dad did at my age. But I barely had enough money for the bus, nevermind a car. And that’s when I started thinking. You know, working as a dishwasher gives you a lot of empty headspace. So I started wondering why things had gone downhill. Where’d all the good jobs go? 

Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was we was getting fleeced. The government says they’re gonna take care of all us good, hardworking Americans. But what do they do? They send out jobs to China. Or they let immigrants in and take our jobs from right under our noses. Or they take our taxes and they support all these lazy welfare queens in the cities. Or they just let these criminals rob our money, rape our women, sell drugs—basically run rampant. Basically, I figured we was getting the short end of the stick.

Well, that’s when I decided that we had to fight back. And I decided the best way to do that was to become a police officer. But of course I had a problem: I didn’t graduate high school. So I quit my job, studied a bit, got my GED, and enrolled in the academy. It was a bit hard at first, but soon I started to really love it. Eventually I graduated, got a job in the city, and got to work.

Well, that was really great. Being a police officer has a lot of perks, you know. You’re on a team with a bunch of boys, and everyone has everyone else’s back no matter what. Whether it’s some nosy reporter, a politician, or some activist type, it don’t matter, because we never squeal on each other. Yes, at times the job can be a little boring, like traffic stops and whatnot. But sometimes it’s real exciting. Like sometimes you got to bust into people’s houses. One time, for example, we got a domestic violence call. We get there, the guy refuses to let us in, so we kick the door down. Turns out, guy’s got a gun, and he’s sort of stumbling, reaching for it, so I pop him in the shoulder. 

Well, even traffic stops can be a bit exciting. For example, you know you can basically just ask anyone you want to get out of their car, and you can just search it? So if anyone looks suspicious, or if they’re just giving you some lip, you can have them on the pavement, face down. Anything you find in there is basically yours to keep. Petty cash? Could be to buy drugs, you can put it right in your pocket. And sometimes you’ll find a bit of weed, or you’ll just “find” some weed. Half the time, the guy starts to get upset. He might be insulting you, or even struggling, or trying to stop you. Funny thing is, as soon as there’s any resistance, all bets are off. You can wrestle him to the ground, tear gas him, taze him, anything you want. You get out a lot of anger on the job.

Well, the most exciting things could be the drug busts. That’s when you get all armored up, grab a shotgun, and then just go in, guns blazing. You don’t even need to knock or anything, we can just bust right in. It’s exciting as hell. Admittedly, sometimes we made a few mistakes. One time a flashbang burned a kid, and another time we gave some old guy a heart attack. Yeah, and I admit we don’t always find drugs. But it makes you feel like you’re in an action movie.

Well, I do have to admit one thing. I really was never very good with the ladies. I feel kinda shy and I never say the right thing, so basically dating hasn’t worked out for me. But being a police officer fixed that, too. You see, one part of the job is dealing with the prostitutes. Technically, being a whore is against the law, of course. On the other hand, there’s not a lot we can do about it. We throw them in jail and, next week, they’re out again. Or another girl’s replaced the one we locked away. And of course the demand is always there.

Well, so we basically have come to an understanding with the street-walkers. We go over there once in a while, make a big show of busting them up, taking down IDs, maybe dragging a few to jail for some nights. But mostly we sort of tax them. There’s two ways we do this. A lot of the boys just take some cash and zip off. Me, on the other hand, I prefer to get my rocks off. And you know, I think the girl’s prefer it, too, since it’s their job and all, and they don’t have to lose any money. So it’s a win-win. This way, I’ve basically kept myself satisfied, as far as the ladies are concerned. 

Well, so I was really enjoying this job. Sure, I got into some tight corners. People complained. I injured a few people. I got reprimanded a bit. But they also gave me medals, like for tackling a drunk guy waving a bottle around. The money was good. I had my lady friends. Basically, I felt like I was all set. But it came apart a few weeks ago. 

Well, it started with a pretty routine traffic stop. Some guy with a broken tail light. Honestly, I wasn’t feeling too hot that day. You see, the night before, I had done quite a bit of drinking, not to mention a couple pills I pocketed in a drug bust a few days before. So, basically, I was pretty hungover and just looking to have an easy day. Know what I mean? The end of the month was coming up, though, so I figured I should do a couple traffic stops to make my quota. Best way to do this is to go over to the other side of the tracks, the bad part of town, since everyone’s car is busted up one way or another. Pretty easy to stop people for vehicle violations.

Well, so I see this guy with the broken tail light, I flash my sirens, and he starts slowing down. But then, the crazy motherfucker opens his door, jumps out, and starts sprinting away through a park nearby. Now, when I was feeling hot, I woulda just run after him. I was pretty fast in my glory days. But that day I just felt so dog tired. I wasn’t about to be running with a hangover. So I sort of hesitated for a moment, until I remembered something we was taught in the police academy, that it’s legal to shoot a fleeing suspect. That seemed a heck of a lot better than running, so I pulled out my gun and squeezed the trigger a few times.

Well, soon enough the rest of the boys came. I was a bit worried at first, since I figured he was almost definitely a goner, but they said I was right about the law. Any fleeing suspect is fair game. Of course I had some paperwork to do and all that, but basically it seemed all good. Turns out, the guy was running because he was driving with a suspended license, and that was because he was late on his childcare payments. So basically he was just some deadbeat anyways. Good riddance, I figured.

Well, the next few days were more or less normal. The chief got me on desk duty, since that’s the normal procedure after you kill a suspect. That was fine by me, though. But three days later, everything just went to hell. Turns out, some liberal jackass filmed the whole thing on his cellphone, and it was circulating on the internets—one of those viral videos, you know. Soon as that happened, it just exploded. The media were involved. Reporters outside the precinct. Protests in the street. It got rough pretty fast.

Well, even after all that, I wasn’t so worried. You see, the police, we got each other’s backs no matter what. So I was pretty confident nothing would really change. After all, it wasn’t the first man I killed in the line of duty. And the chief had my back. He gave them media people the facts—I was within my legal rights to shoot a fleeing suspect, he was some deadbeat, and so on. But the pressure kept on building. After a while, the chief told me to stay home for a bit, to help relieve the pressure. But then the reporters were hanging out around my house and I couldn’t do nothing.

Well, after a while the mayor got involved, and told the chief that I had to go. I admit, they gave me a pretty good severance package. Let me keep my pension. Decent unemployment. But that didn’t help the fact that I was notorious. I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without getting funny looks. This didn’t make it any easier to try to find a new job, let me tell you. And you know what? These protesters, they weren’t even happy when they gave me the boot. They wanted me arrested. Imagine that! They don’t know the law. A police officer don’t follow the same rules as normal people.

Well, crazy thing is, they kept saying I killed the guy because he was black. But the truth is I woulda killed him no matter what color he was. I just didn’t feel like running that day.

Well, I got pretty bored all alone in my house, drinking and so on, so that’s when I decided I’d come on this pilgrimage. I had a decent amount of money tucked away, mostly from all the confiscating I did on the job. So now I’m here. And it’s pretty great. People don’t recognize me so I don’t get any dirty looks. And of course all the scenery is nice. But I do miss being a cop. There’s nothing like it. When you’re a cop, you are the boss of the neighborhood. Nobody can say shit to you. And everyone got to do what you tell them to do. Besides, when you’re a cop, you know you’re basically doing a good thing in the world. Without us, who would protect the people from thieves, murderers, and rapists? But do I get any respect? Nope.


Derek stops talking, and we’re all silent for a while.

“What a remarkable tale,” Franck says.

“Wait a second,” I say. “So, you can just take whatever you want from people you stop on the street?”

“Chopin,” Bigote says. “I believe you missed the most important lesson from this story.”

“Yeah?”

“This is a perfect illustration of how the conspiracy has undermined the United States. Through their wily machinations, they have managed to promote trade deals that, they knew, would have disastrous economic consequences for the country. This loss of decent employment, in turn, caused a wave of crime that required additional police to handle. But the conspirators have turned their dastardly ideology on the police, making it impossible for brave officers, such as Derek, to do their jobs. Now, they are demonized, as part of the so-called ‘white, patriarchal, Christian state!’ As the public’s trust in the forces of order erodes, the evil forces of chaos—the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy—get ever closer to their goal of destabilizing the society completely, and ushering in their dystopian world of vegan, feminist identity politics!”

“That’s damn right,” Derek says.

“You know,” Franck says, “I feel that I have learned so much about the world from your story. And this has given me an inspiration. Perhaps all of us should share our stories? After all, we have a lot of time to pass during the quarantine, and I personally am greatly eager to learn more.”

“Want a story?” someone says. “I got one for you.”

To be continued…

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Review: Evicted

Review: Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.

Yesterday, on July 24, the federal moratorium on evictions—protecting about 12 million renters—ended; and many state-level moratoriums will conclude soon as well. Enhanced unemployment benefits, which gave households an extra $600 per month, will terminate this month, too, meaning that families will lose income at just the moment they are vulnerable to eviction. Meanwhile, as the virus rages on, so does massive unemployment. It seems likely, then, that the United States is on the cusp of a huge wave of evictions. Under these circumstances, I thought it was a good time to read this book.

This is an urban ethnography written about the lives of the desperately poor as they struggle to find stable housing. Matthew Desmond lived for months in a trailer park and then in the inner city, following people around, taking notes and photographs, recording conversations, conducting interviews, and carrying out large surveys. In many ethnographies—especially since the postmodern turn—the author has striven to include herself in the narrative, emphasizing the subjectivity of the process. But Desmond has effaced himself from this book, and has instead written a kind of nonfiction novel of eight families undergoing eviction.

The first thing that strikes the reader is that Desmond is an excellent writer. The narration is gripping from the beginning—dramatic, vivid, and even occasionally poetic—meaning that my first reaction was emotional rather than intellectual. Wrenching pity for the people caught up in this cycle of poverty alternated, at times, with light disapproval at seemingly self-destructive behavior, which disappeared into outrage at the landlords profiting from this situation, and then incredulity that such things can be allowed to go on in a supposedly advanced nation. Often, I found it hard to take in, and had to put the book down to take a breath:

[Crystal] had been born prematurely on a spring day in 1990 shortly after her pregnant mother was stabbed eleven times in the back during a robbery—the attack had induced labor. Both mother and daughter survived. It was not the first time Crystal’s mother had been stabbed. For as far back as she could remember, Crystal’s father had beat her mother. He smoked crack and so did her mother and so did her mother’s mother.

But if this book were merely a collection of such stories, it would be little more than poverty voyeurism. This book has quite an important point to make, though, and that is how eviction is not only a consequence of poverty, but one of its major causes.

Any account of housing instability needs to begin with the fact that most people who qualify for housing aid to not get it—3 out of 4 receive no aide whatsoever. This leaves them at the mercy of the private housing market, which has seen steadily rising rents for years, at a time when wages are stagnant. Though it is normally recommended to pay no more than 30% of your wages in rent, the subjects of this book paid far, far more—in some cases, over 90%. This has serious consequences. Most obviously, if you are paying so much of your income in rent, it is impossible to save, and often even to pay basic expenses. What is more, this means that virtually any unforeseen expense—repairs, medical problems, or a funeral—can make a renter fall behind.

Once behind, it is extremely difficult for a renter to catch up. This effectively puts them at the mercy of the landlord. Even if the house is in disrepair and violates safety codes, missing rent means that the renter can be evicted on short notice. As Desmond describes, some landlords are willing to be lax—at least for a time—and cut deals with tenants. But for many who fall behind, the sheriff will soon be knocking on their door, along with a team of movers, giving the tenants a stark choice: to have their things left on the curb, or put into storage (where they need to pay extortionate fees in order to keep it from being trashed). Most evictees do not have housing lined up, and many end up in homeless shelters.

In a market where buyers are desperate and sellers are relatively scarce, there is little incentive for landlords to reduce prices, or even to make basic repairs of their properties. As Desmond explains, it is often more profitable for landlords to evict late-paying tenants and contract new ones than to make their properties livable. The tenants in these pages put up with rats, roaches, broken walls, smashed windows, clogged plumbing, sagging ceilings, to give just a short list. Desmond himself did not have hot water during his stay at the trailer park, despite paying rent on time, repeatedly asking the landlord, and even informing them that he was writing a book about life in a trailer park.

Eviction is not a rare occurrence—there are well over one million per year in the United States—and it is also not merely a private tragedy. Unsurprisingly, evictions concentrate in poor neighborhoods; and when residence in an area is unstable, it makes it an even less desirable place to life. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, neighborhoods are not primarily made safe by patrolling police, but by the constant presence of people on the street, people with a sense of ownership of the neighborhood. Ejecting residents obviously erodes this possibility—and not only in the area where people are evicted from, but also in the areas they unwillingly move to—which makes the city generally less safe.

Eviction is also not colorblind. Just as black men are disproportionately locked up, Desmond found that black women are disproportionately thrown out. And when you consider that having either a conviction or an eviction record can disqualify you from public housing, and can legally be used to screen potential renters by private landlords, you can see that this disadvantage is compounded. The white families in these pages certainly did not have an easy time finding and maintaining housing, but the black families were significantly worse off. Desmond followed one white couple who managed to find a place despite both of them having eviction and felony records, and one of them an outstanding warrant!

It is crucial to remember that housing instability is not merely the byproduct of individuals navigating private markets. The government is not only culpable for being a bystander to suffering citizens, but for propping up this very situation. Just as government force—in the guise of police officers and prisons—has been used to deal with the social fallout of disappearing jobs, so has government force—in the form of eviction courts, sheriffs, movers, public eviction records, and homelessness shelters—been used to deal with the disappearance of affordable housing. Without this government backing, the situation could not exist.

In many cases Desmond documented, government workers actually encouraged landlords to evict their tenants. Since many properties do not meet building codes, virtually any government attention—whether from the police, the fire department, an ambulance, or social services—can motivate a landlord to eject a tenant. What is more, if too many 911 calls come from an address, the property is labeled a ‘nuisance property,’ and landlords are forced by the police to ‘take action’—usually through an eviction. Even victims of domestic abuse are often evicted, one reason that many victims do not contact the police.

If we can agree that this situation is unconscionable, then of course we must do something to change it. But what? One solution is rent control: establish maximum prices that landlords can legally charge. This can have some quite negative unintended consequences, however. For one, if low-income housing ceases to be profitable, then there is no incentive to create more. This leads to shortage. But what about simply giving people more money, such as by raising the minimum wage or a basic income scheme? The problem with this strategy is that rising rents can easily offset income gains.

One fairly easy, short-term solution would be to provide defendants in civil courts with public defenders. Currently, in the United States, only defendants in criminal courts have such a right, though many other nations also provide legal counsel in civil cases. At the moment, most people do not even show up for their eviction hearings; the majority who show up do not have a lawyer, and most of them lose the case. Legal counsel can profoundly change the odds of evictees. And it is worth noting that, though hiring lawyers is expensive, cycling people through homelessness shelters is even more so—and this does not even take into account the other forms of economic disruption caused by eviction, such as job loss (quite common when people lose their home).

Another solution, popular in the past, has been to build public housing. This has several obvious problems, too. For one, as happened in NYC, vibrant and affordable neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for enormous housing projects. What is more, the design of public housing projects was ill-conceived: enormous high-rises with parks in between. By isolating the poor into these buildings—with no shops or other services nearby, and few good communal spaces—the projects became dangerous and dysfunctional.

It is possible that smarter public housing could play an important role in the housing crisis. If apartments are scattered through the city, rather than concentrated, and integrated with shops, restaurants, and other businesses, then it is much less likely that they will become dangerous. An added benefit to cheap public housing is that they exert a downward pressure on the housing market, since private apartments must compete with them. However, the housing shortage is so acute that public housing alone is unlikely to be enough; it would require too much building.

This is why Matthew Desmond advocates housing vouchers. These vouchers basically pick up the tab for renters, covering anything above 30% of their income. However, there is an obvious problem with such a scheme: landlords are incentivized to overcharge for their properties, since the money is guaranteed. Indeed, according to Desmond, this often happens, which leads to a lot of wasted taxpayer money. Clearly, some mechanism is necessary to establish reasonable prices. But the voucher scheme does have the great advantage of scalability: they can be distributed quickly and widely.

Such a program would not be cheap. And in the United States, welfare programs tend to be politically divisive, since in our individualistic culture we prefer to hold the poor responsible for their own poverty. This mindset runs very deep. Desmond even records a preacher who, after giving a sermon about the importance of charity, refused to help a homeless woman so that she could learn her lesson. And certainly many of the people in this book did make bad, self-destructive choices. But as Desmond points out—and as psychological studies have shown—living in poverty actively erodes people’s ability to choose wisely and to think in the long term. Furthermore, many behaviors which seem irrational to middle-class onlookers are actually sensible adaptations to poverty.

The other important point to consider is that those of us lucky enough not to live in poverty are also benefiting from government policies. The federal government subsidizes mortgages—a policy that mainly benefits people with six-figure incomes. The capital gains exception means that homeowners who sell their house do not have to include much of that money in their income, and thus are not taxed. Indeed, the United States loses far more in tax revenue through these kinds of tax breaks than it spends in housing aid for the poor. This fits into a common pattern in American life: that those least in need of help are those most likely to receive it (and vice versa, of course).

As I hope you can see, this is a gripping and important book. The reader comes away with both an intellectual and a visceral understanding of housing insecurity. There are some things that I wish Desmond included—most notably, what economic trends drove this change—but, on balance, I do not think anyone could have written a better book on this topic. Now, as we face the prospect of mass evictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps we will summon the political will to do something about the problem.

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Quotes & Commentary #77: Camus

Quotes & Commentary #77: Camus

Really, however, it is doubtful if this could be called a victory. All that could be said was that the disease seemed to be leaving as unaccountably as it had come. Our strategy had not changed, but whereas yesterday it had obviously failed, today it seemed triumphant.

—Albert Camus

We humans are vulnerable to a variety of cognitive illusions, not the least of which is the illusion of control. The idea that an event is completely out of our control is extremely difficult for us to accept, apparently; and so our brain tricks us into thinking that we are the ones pushing the buttons. This can take many benign and amusing forms. For example, many of us repeatedly push the call elevator button or the crosswalk signal while waiting, with the idea that we can somehow speed it up. Or we leave the pit of an avocado in some guacamole, thinking we can prevent it from going bad. 

This behavior often leads to superstitions, especially in situations when chance plays a major role. For example, baseball is notorious for the great many superstitions which abound, as players recruit supernatural intervention to reduce the role of chance. Fundamentally, these superstitions all make the mistake of confusing correlation for causation. So if a batter eats sixteen carrots and then hits a home run, he may conclude that the home run was due to the carrots.

And this process can take place on a societal scale. The classic example is, perhaps, the rain dance—an attempt to control weather patterns through ritual. Indeed, the idea that humans can influence the natural order through carefully prescripted and repeated gestures is arguably one of the psychological roots of religion. 

The reason that I am bringing all of this up is that I believe we can observe this process quite clearly in our response to the coronavirus. All of us badly want to feel as though we can control the spread of the virus, and this has led to some sensible and, I suspect, some far less sensible solutions. I have observed several people in my neighborhood who put little bags on their dogs’ feet. Only slightly less ridiculous are the shoe disinfectant mats being sold online. Even the practice of wiping down our groceries with bleach strikes me as more ritualistic than sensible. 

Indeed, considering that we can get the virus just from breathing in particles, then all this trouble to disinfect surfaces does seem rather suspect to me. I cannot help thinking that, by the time you touch an infected surface, you will have breathed in the virus ten times before. (And by the time you get it from your dog’s paws, you will have gotten it one hundred times before.)

Just as in superstition, irrational virus precautions can take place on a societal as well as an individual scale. The most notorious example of this I have seen was the bleaching of a Spanish beach, in the coastal town of Zahara de los Atunes. While undoubtedly causing significant environmental damage, the benefits to coronavirus control seem doubtful in the extreme. As another doubtful measure, I would offer Governor Cuomo’s decision to disinfect New York City’s subway system every night. Again, if the virus can be breathed in, then the threat from contaminated surfaces may be entirely redundant.

More generally, I think it is fair to say that we do not completely understand the pattern of coronavirus spread. A few days after announcing the nightly subway cleaning—a massive and expensive effort, which displaces the homeless and may impede some people’s commutes—Cuomo announced the results of a study on 600 people who were diagnosed with the virus in a hospital. He was surprised to find that only 4% had used public transportation. The large majority were not working. This result is puzzling. If mere exposure to the virus was enough, then one would expect the essential workers—especially those on public transport—to constitute a far larger portion of cases, since they come into contact with far more people.

Perhaps we have overestimated the importance of mere exposure, then, and underestimated the importance of “viral dose.” (Please keep in mind that I am in no way an expert, and this is pure speculation on my part!) This means that a long amount of time spent with one infected person could matter more than a passing proximity with several. If this is the case, then forcing people to stay in their homes, even if they have symptoms (which was the policy here in Spain), may be somewhat counterproductive, since it would increase the viral dosage of any co-residents.

This would also mean that prohibitions on outdoor exercise were not sensible. Indeed, over two weeks after finally letting children go outside in Spain, no noticeable uptick has been observed (despite complaints that people were not maintaining the correct distance). Other evidence points in this direction as well. This Chinese study could only find one single case of an outdoor transmission, and instead found that the vast majority of outbreaks took place inside the home.

Globally, the data also seems to indicate that we do not fully understand the relevant variables. The virus seems to be striking some countries hard while leaving others mostly untouched, in a pattern that is not easily explained either with governmental action or weather. The case of Spain and Portugal seems especially baffling, as Spain’s small neighbor has so far suffered five times fewer fatalities per habitant as Spain. And this, in spite of never having imposed mandatory stay-at-home orders or closing all non-essential businesses. Though Portugal is given credit for acting early, the two countries entered into a state of alarm at about the same time, closing schools and restaurants the same week. Yet the contrast is striking. 

If we are going to effectively combat this virus, then I think this means doing our best to resist the illusion of control. This is because the cognitive illusion blinds us to the real effectiveness of our strategies. If we embark on a maximal strategy—doing everything we can think of to stop the virus—and the virus indeed abates, we may conclude that it takes a maximal strategy to beat the virus. But in that case, we may end up like the carrot-eating batter, drawing false conclusions from a mere correlation. And since so many individual measures are rolled into a maximal strategy, we remain in the dark as to which specific measures are the most helpful, which are basically useless, and which are counterproductive.

This information is vital if we are to achieve anything resembling a functional economy. Our goal should be to uncover which measures have the lowest cost-benefit ratio—inexpensive and minimally inconvenient strategies which effectively curb the virus. If indeed masks work, then widespread mask usage would be such a strategy, since they do not significantly disrupt normal life and cost mere pennies to produce. If it is not too late, increased security measures for senior care homes would be another such strategy, since age is a major risk factor.

Perhaps the easiest way to determine such measures would be surveys. Governor Cuomo has already demonstrated the knowledge that can be gained by surveying incoming hospital patients. Indeed, we probably should have been doing so from the beginning, allowing a more detailed picture to emerge of which activities tend to increase risk. Widespread serological testing for antibody prevalence can also be easily supplemented with detailed surveys. With any luck, certain patterns will emerge from this data, which will point us in the right direction.

Another way to find out more about how and where the virus spreads would be to turn our testing capacity away from patient diagnosis and towards investigative studies. This would mean testing representative samples from relevant populations, to ascertain the prevalence of the virus in different areas and professions. Such testing may reveal useful patterns in the virus’s spread. Contact tracing—once we have the ability to do so—can be similarly used as an investigative tool.

But as it stands now, I often get the impression that officials (here in Spain at least) are like a blindfolded boxer, swinging left and right hopping to connect with the target. The result is rather incoherent. For example, when people were finally allowed outside to walk and run, the officials decided to impose time constraints for these activities. I am not sure what they hoped to gain from this. But the result has been that everyone rushes out the door as soon as the clock strikes, and the streets are consequently packed.

Adding to this, officials decided not to open the parks, so there is less space for walking. To compensate, they tried converting several roads in the city into pedestrian zones. But I cannot help wondering: how is a pedestrian zone any safer than a park? Last weekend we were treated to the absurd spectacle of joggers squeezed into a narrow, tapped-off zone, jogging in one big circle around Madrid’s Retiro park, which remained closed. 

Such policy mistakes are harmless enough, I suppose. But I think we need to be very wary of what this blind swinging can lead to. Traumatic events can provoke a panicked response that can do more damage than the threat we are trying to avoid. America’s last traumatic event—the September 11th attacks—provoked some very sensible changes, like increased airport security, but also set off a series of interventionist wars that cost far more lives than the original attacks themselves. Such wars seem rather absurd to many of us now; but at the time, when the threat of terrorism seemed to overshadow every other consideration, we were willing to react with a maximal strategy.

Does this crisis present us with a similar danger? I think it may. And if so, we need to do our best to avoid the coronavirus equivalent of an Iraq War, and focus on finding strategies equivalent to bomb screenings and reinforced cockpit doors—easy, cheap interventions that can save lives, rather than a giant quagmire that only adds another problem on top of the one we already have. If we are the blindfolded boxer, we need to focus on removing the blindfold, rather than swinging as hard as we can.

Review: Plagues and Peoples

Review: Plagues and Peoples

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind therefore resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behavior have never sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.

It is risky to write a book like this. When William H. McNeill set out to analyze the manifold ways that infectious diseases have shaped world history, it was almost an entirely novel venture. Though people had been writing history for millennia, specialized works focusing on the ways that civilizations have been shaped by illness were few and far between. This seems rather strange when you consider that it was only in the twentieth century when disease reliably caused fewer casualties than enemy action during war.

Perhaps thinking about faceless enemies like viruses and bacteria simply does not come naturally to us. We personify the heavens readily enough, and do our best to appease it. But it is more difficult to personify a disease: it strikes too randomly, too mysteriously, and often too suddenly. It is, in other words, a completely amoral agent; and the thought that we are at the mercy of such an agent is painful to consider.

This tendency to leave diseases out of history books has come down to our own day. The 1918 flu pandemic is given a fraction of the coverage in standard textbooks as the First World War, even though the former caused more casualties. Curiously, however, that terrible disease did not even leave a lasting impression on those who survived it, judging by its absence in the works of the major writers of the day. It seems that memory of disease fades fast, at least most of the time. The 1968 Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 Americans that year (which would translate to 160,000 today), and yet neither of my parents remembers it.

This is why I think this book was a risky venture: there was not much precedent for successful books written about the history of diseases. Further, since there was not much in the way of prior research, much of this book must perforce consist of speculation using the spotty records that existed. While this does leave the historian open to the criticism of making unfounded claims, as McNeill himself says, such speculations can usefully precede a more thorough inquiry, since at least it gives researchers an orientation in the form of theories to test. Indeed, in my opinion, speculative works have just as important a role as careful research in the advancement of knowledge.

McNeill most certainly cannot be accused of a lack of ambition. He had completed an enormous amount of research to write his seminal book on world history, The Rise of the West; and this book has an equally catholic orientation. He begins with the emergence of our species and ends with the twentieth century, examining every inhabited continent (though admittedly not in equal detail). The result is a tantalizing view of how the long arc of history has been bent and broken by creatures lighter than a dust mite.

Some obvious patterns emerge. The rise of agriculture and cities created population densities capable of supporting endemic diseases, unknown to hunter-gatherers. Living near large masses of domesticated animals contributed much to our disease regimes; and the lack of such animals was decisive in the New World, leaving indigenous populations vulnerable to the invading Europeans’ microbes. Another recurring pattern is that of equilibrium and disturbance. Whenever a new disease breaks in upon a virgin population, the results are disastrous. But eventually stasis is achieved, and population begins to rebound.

One of McNeill’s most interesting claims is that the great population growth that began in the 18th century was partly a result of a new disease regime. By that time, fast overland and sea travel had exposed most major urban centers to common diseases from around the world, thus rendering them less vulnerable to new shocks. I was also surprised to learn that it was only the rise of modern sanitation and medicine—in the mid 19th century—that allowed city populations to be self-sustaining. Before this, cities were population sinks because of endemic diseases, and required constant replenishment from the countryside in order to maintain their numbers.

As I hope you can see, almost fifty years after publication, this book still puts forward a compelling view of world history. And I think it is a view that we still have trouble digesting, since it challenges our basic sense of self-determination. Perhaps one small benefit of the current crisis will be an increased general curiosity about how we still are, and have always been, mired in the invisible web of the microscopic world.



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Quotes & Commentary #76: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #76: Thucydides

Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.

—Thucydides

In my previous post I bemoaned the conversion of a public health crisis into yet another partisan fight—with those on the left for the lockdown, and those on the right against it. In this regard, I think it is striking to reread this passage of Thucydides, as it encapsulates a common occurrence in times of crisis: the preference for extreme measures over moderation, for decisiveness over prudent hesitation.

The reason for this is our very human need to feel safe and secure. Having a plan, especially a drastic plan, is one of the ways we accomplish this. Carrying out extreme measures at least gives us the illusion of control; and control is what everyone craves in an emergency. But I do not think we should let this very human need prevent us from being critical, open-minded, and moderate. These are good qualities in the worst of times as well as in the best of times.

My main concern is that I think that too many people—especially on the left—are advocating long, strict lockdowns as the only possible option. Calls to reopen are being dismissed as irresponsible or even nefarious, and respected epidemiologists like David Katz (who advocates more measured policies) can only get a hearing on Fox News and Bill Maher’s show. This makes me worry that the left is backing itself into an ideological corner, insisting that lockdowns are the only way to fight this virus.

There is certainly a noble impulse in this: valuing human life over profit. But I think that the situation is far more complex than this dichotomy implies. A narrative is starting to emerge that it is our evil corporate overlords (Elon Musk, most notoriously) who want us to return to work in order to satisfy their greed. Already in Georgia, people are compiling lists of businesses which are reopening with the intention of blacklisting them for doing so. But are we really willing to vilify people for reopening when remaining closed would mean bankruptcy, financial ruin, and losing their livelihoods? The anti-corporate, pro-lockdown messaging is ignoring the simple truth that the economic effects of the lockdowns will hurt the poor far, far more than they will hurt the rich. 

Granted, we could and should be doing much more to help the poor and disadvantaged during this time. Also granted, our economy was rife with structural inequalities before all of this, which ought not to have been there to begin with. But we must work with the economy we have and with the options that are politically possible—not with the economy we should’ve had and the things we should be able to do. And we also must be sure that our policies are shaped by prudence rather than fear or ideology.

So here is my worry: if the left (of which I consider myself a member) becomes the party of lockdowns, this may not appear so wise in retrospect. This is because the efficacy of our anti-virus measures is still very much an open question; and it is thus very possible that some of our policies will have done more harm than good.

As a prime contender for this, I would submit school closures. As I noted in my previous post, young children seem both safe from, and hardly able to transmit, the virus. The idea that they were major transmitters was an educated guess, and it seems to have been wrong. Keeping children out of school, however, will undoubtedly be harmful to their development and detrimental to their futures. And it will most certainly do the most harm to the poorest among us. Furthermore, keeping children home puts more pressure on parents, and may take some doctors and nurses out of commission.

At the very least, I think it is wrong to close schools in a “better safe than sorry” mentality, without very thorough consideration of the costs and benefits. As a teacher myself, I can say with confidence that virtual learning is no substitute for being in the classroom. If my students must miss class, I want to be sure that it is to protect them, and not simply to make us feel safer. I am not willing to sacrifice their education to satisfy my panic.

Here is the trouble with a total lockdown: it combines so many different measures into one sweeping global approach that we have no opportunity to see which specific parts of the lockdown—closing restaurants, canceling concerts, calling off school—have the highest cost-benefit ratio. It simply cannot be taken for granted that a total lockdown is the single best strategy going forward. In the absence of more data about the virus’s lethality and total spread, we cannot even be confident that it was even a wise strategy to begin with. (A study by the Wall Street Journal—which admittedly has its own biases—found that there was no correlation at all between coronavirus mortality and the speed of lockdown in U.S. states.)

The case of Sweden should give lockdown advocates pause. Sweden has become notorious for its lax coronavirus measures. Shops and restaurants are open, and life carries on without masks or gloves. Meanwhile, most other European countries instituted strict lockdowns. Spain had one of the strictest lockdowns of all. Parks were closed, and people were not allowed to go on walks or to exercise outside. All non-essential businesses were shuttered, and people could only leave the house to go to the pharmacy and the supermarket. Police patrolled the streets, giving out hundreds of thousands of fines, and making hundreds of arrests, in enforcement of the lockdown.

If lockdowns were really an effective way of controlling the virus, then one might expect Spain to have a substantially lower death rate. On the contrary, Spain has suffered twice as many deaths-per-million as Sweden. Indeed, Sweden is in the ballpark of Ireland and Switzerland, two countries that took swift, decisive action to shut down their economies. And Sweden’s “curve” seems to be leveling out anyway. To say the very least, it has not been an unmitigated disaster in the country. 

Admittedly, if you compare Sweden to its Scandinavian neighbors, Finland and Norway, you can see that their lax policy seems to have resulted in a higher mortality rate. Does this prove that Sweden has taken the wrong course? I think we should not rush to judgment. First, it is easily possible that, as Finland and Norway open up, their death rates will climb to approach Sweden’s. Furthermore, by minimizing the damage done to their economy, there is a very real possibility that Sweden inflicted less total harm on its society.

(We also should not rush to declare New Zealand’s tough policies a success, which for the moment seems to have eliminated coronavirus from their shores. While this is impressive, it remains to be seen whether this was the best strategy for the long-term, since it is possible that it will only make it that much more difficult to reestablish open channels with the outside world.)

My own personal fear—which apparently is not shared by many—is that the left will put itself in a bad position if it becomes the party of the lockdown. At the present moment, there is an awful lot of fear of this new virus. But in six months, when the elections roll around, what will be at the forefront of people’s minds: the virus, or the economic depression?

My guess is that, as time goes by, fear of the virus will fade, and concern for ruined businesses, blasted retirement accounts, and lost careers will only grow more acute. So far, it seems that Republicans have shifted most decisively in the direction of economic concern, with Independents shifting somewhat in that direction, while Democrats have hardly budged.

Such flagrantly political concerns should not guide our policy. Concern for human welfare should. And I am afraid that we may be developing myopic and unrealistic ideas about the lockdowns in this regard. First, somewhere along the line, many people seemed to have forgotten that our original idea of “flattening the curve” was to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. The idea was never that we would absolutely prevent people from getting sick. Unless we are willing to stay inside until a vaccine is widely available—an unknown timeline, but still many months away—we are simply going to have to accept some risk from the virus.

Now, perhaps some rich countries could afford to stay shut up indoors until we have a vaccine. And maybe this would benefit these rich countries (though I doubt it). However, I think such a prolonged and severe period of economic inactivity would be horrendous for poorer countries. Telling people to stay inside is simply not feasible where people live in shacks and have no savings. And governments in poor countries could not afford drastic social policies to keep their people fed, especially during a severe depression. (Remember that a depression in richer countries means a depression everywhere.) A months-long lockdown could easily result in food shortages in many parts of the world, which might claim significantly more lives than the virus itself. 

What is more, prolonged economic depression has serious political repercussions. Economic instability easily translates into political instability, and political instability easily translates into violence—even war. The 2008 financial crisis has already had an awful effect on worldwide politics, eventually resulting in waves of populist right-wing parties, and a growing polarization which has resulted in increasingly dysfunctional governments. And this is only to speak of rich countries.

In countries already struggling with low standards of living and ineffective governments, what will be the results of an economic crisis much more severe than 2008? Will every government be able to take the pressure? We must keep in mind that, if any government fails, the consequences will be bad for everyone. As we have learned, power vacuums leave the door open for the most dangerous among us to gain control.

For those of us on the left, I think it behooves us to examine the complete picture, and not to fall into easy rhetoric about workers being sacrificed for the economy. These are the hard facts: the virus is here to stay; and if the economy is not working, it will be very, very hard on millions of people—especially poor people all around the world. Our governments could and should do more to alleviate the economic suffering. But many countries around the world simply do not have the resources to do so, and a severe depression will only make this more true. Of all people, we on the left should know that poverty hurts and kills, and we cannot afford to turn this into yet another purity test.

The hardest truth of all, perhaps, is that we are in a horrible situation that requires us to make painful compromises. An ideology that promises easy answers and readily-identifiable villains will not get us very far.

Quotes and Commentary #75: Franklin

Quotes and Commentary #75: Franklin

So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

—Benjamin Franklin

Our brain has an astounding ability to formulate justifications for believing things that we want to believe. As I have already remarked, the current pandemic—a major historical event—seems to have changed nobody’s mind. Socialists are calling for universal healthcare, capitalists are calling for corporate bailouts, and in general the old battle political lines are as strong as ever.

Indeed, at a time one might expect people to turn towards experts, I have observed some even embracing—of all things!—anti-vaccination. Really, if a pandemic cannot convince somebody that viruses really do cause disease and that we ought to prepare for them, then I do not see much hope for reasoned debate.

Considering that our collective response to a novel virus has somehow turned into a partisan fight, then I do think there is ample reason to suspect that many of us are not reacting rationally. And there are powerful emotional reasons for this. Specifically, I think that we have been impaled on the twins horns of fear and foolhardiness.

A part of our brains is terrified of contagion and disease, while another part is prone to wishful thinking. And it seems that these two emotional reactions are coming to dominate the two sides of the political spectrum: the left is fearful, while the right is foolhardy. The problem is that I think both emotions lead to irrational and unsustainable responses.

Giving into fear means embracing long and even indefinite lockdowns. Better to be safe at home than putting oneself and others outside at risk. And of course this is not wholly unreasonable: the coronavirus is real, and it has taken lives. My concern is that the original justification for the lockdowns is being forgotten. The idea of “flattening the curve” was to prevent our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed, which was a real danger in places like Madrid and New York City. The idea was that, if we flatten the curve, we will save lives—not by reducing the total number of infections, but by spreading out the infections so our healthcare system could handle them.

But somehow this thinking got lost, and I am afraid that there are many who think we can somehow eliminate the virus altogether by staying inside. The virus will be there, waiting, whenever we leave our homes. A virus has no timeline and infinite patience. So unless we are willing to wait until a vaccine has been invented, mass-produced, and widely distributed—which will be such a long time that it could cause unprecedented economic harm—then the only reason to wait, as far as I can see, is to make sure our hospitals will be able to handle the influx of patients. In places where the healthcare system is not nearly at maximum capacity, I do not see what would be gained by an extra month of waiting inside, other than allowing people to feel safe a little longer.

Demanding long, strict lockdowns even in areas where the virus is not widespread strikes me as a response motivated primarily by fear. And the problem with fear is that it gives you tunnel-vision, focusing all your attention on the source of danger, and reorienting all of your priorities around the new threat. This can lead to some obviously irrational behavior—in nearly all of us.

For example, a person may refuse to walk across a bridge because of his fear of heights, but may smoke cigarettes and drink heavily (much more serious risk factors for health) on a regular basis. Collectively we may focus frantic attention on a mining disaster that kills dozens—launching inquiries and investigations and instituting reforms—while we completely ignore hospital-acquired infections, which kill tens of thousands year after year. The human brain is wired to respond to immediate threats, and especially the kinds of threats (like violence and disease) that shaped our evolution. Much more serious threats, which kill through slower and less spectacular means, are easier to ignore. (Global warming is probably the best example of this.) 

The problem with our great fear of the virus is that I think it may cause us to neglect the costs of our containment measures. The success of a country’s policies cannot be measured in the number of its coronavirus cases and deaths alone. A profound and prolonged economic depression will both reduce lifespans and, directly and indirectly, also cause deaths. But the suffering caused by the depression will be slower, longer, less spectacular, and thus less scary. However, such damage is just as real, and it is just as much a consequence of our policies.

As I have argued before, a truly moral response to the crisis requires that we try to reduce harm as much as possible, all across the board. Fearfully focusing our attention exclusively on the coronavirus will lead us to be not only irrational, then, but potentially immoral.

Let me give a concrete example of this. From what I can tell, there is a growing amount of evidence that young children are in negligible danger from the virus. Moreover, according to this study performed in Australia, children are apparently not even a significant source of contagion. Indeed, in Switzerland they are apparently confident enough that children do not pose a danger that they have given young kids permission to hug their grandparents.

If it is true that children neither pose nor suffer a significant risk, then that would make many of our school closures questionable at best. In Spain, for example, schools will not reopen until the fall. But keeping kids out of school does serious, lasting harm to them—harm that disproportionately falls on poorer students, and harm that must also be taken into account when we make policies. (Also, Spain’s policy of keeping children confined in their homes for 6 weeks also seems hard to justify in this light.)

My point is not to advocate for school reopenings, per se (though it does seem reasonable to me), but to make the more general point that the current environment of fear makes even a rational discussion about school closures impossible. Instead of balancing the risks and rewards to students, many on the left seem to instinctively dismiss such conversations as frivolous and irresponsible. I do not think this is a productive mindset.

The mirror image of fear is foolhardiness, and I can sense it taking hold in certain sections of the right. We see it most clearly in the demonstrations in front of state capitals, in which participants deliberately flout safety guidelines in order to demand an economic reopening, often for pretty superficial reasons (like a haircut). It seems that many people still believe that the virus is not a significant threat and does not require any special action. But judging from what happened both here in Madrid and in my own state of New York, I think there is ample evidence that this virus is, minimally, a significantly greater threat than the seasonal flu. A policy of “do-nothing” is clearly inadequate when bodies are outstripping coffin-production and morgue capacity.

Foolhardiness also leads to another kind of cognitive blindness: wishful thinking. We all have the tendency to grasp at any data which supports our hoped-for conclusions. We can see this at work in a viral video of a certain Dr. Daniel Erickson (since removed from YouTube), who claimed that the data showed that coronavirus was, in fact, already widespread and far less deadly than the flu. But his argument was a product of wishful thinking, and rested on a basic error of statistics—extrapolating from a non-representative sample.

Erickson used our current coronavirus test records to extrapolate to the entire population. This does not take into account the obvious fact that most testing is done on people who are sick or who otherwise suspect they may have the virus. Our testing records, then, will obviously show much higher rates of coronavirus than the general population. Extrapolating from this data is simply nonsense. However, this video gained traction in rightwing circles and was even used on Fox News to argue against the lockdown.

A rational and moral response will be neither fearful nor foolhardy, but will take measures to minimize the total harm to society—both from the virus and the economic downturn. This is easier said than done, of course, especially in the world of politics. Personally, I think this is the ideal time to try out something like Universal Basic Income, which I think would ease the economic pressure and also give us more flexibility in combating the virus. But sadly this does not seem likely.

Given the real possibilities, then, I think that it is our obligation to cut the best path we can through both fear and foolhardiness, balancing the risk posed by the virus against the risk posed by a major economic depression. This means that we cannot let our fear of the virus be the only factor we consider; but we also cannot let wishful thinking cloud our judgment.

Acting rationally means fighting against the universal human tendency to give in to our hopes and fears. Both hope and fear, in different ways, distort the real danger.

Review: The Plague

Review: The Plague

The Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.

As with all of Camus’s books, The Plague is a seamless blend of philosophy and art. The story tells of an outbreak of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—in the Algerian city of Oran. The narration tracks the crisis from beginning to end, noting the different psychological reactions of the townsfolk; and it must be said, now that we are living through a pandemic, that Camus is remarkably prescient in his portrayal a city under siege from infection. Compelling as the story is, however, I think its real power resides in its meaning as a parable of Camus’s philosophy.

Camus’s philosophy is usually called absurdism, and explained as a call to embrace the absurdity of existence. But this is not as simple as giving up church on Sundays. Absurdism is, indeed, incompatible with conventional religion. Camus makes this abundantly clear in his passage on the priest’s sermon—which argues that the plague is god’s punishment for our sins—an idea that Camus thinks incompatible with the randomness of the disaster: appearing out of nowhere, striking down children and adults alike. But absurdism is also incompatible with traditional humanism.
The best definition of humanism is perhaps Protagoras’s famous saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” In many respects this seems to be true. Gold is valuable because we value it; an elephant is big and a mouse is small relative to human size; and so on. However, on occasion, the universe throws something our way that is not made to man’s measure. A plague is a perfect example of this: an ancient organism, too small to see, which can colonize our bodies, causing sickness and death and shutting down conventional life as we know it. Whenever a natural disaster makes life impossible, we are reminded that, far from being the measure of all things, we exist at the mercy of an uncaring universe.

This idea is painful to contemplate. Nobody likes to feel powerless; and the idea that our suffering and striving do not, ultimately, mean anything is downright depressing. Understandably, most of us prefer to ignore this situation. And of course economies and societies invite us to do so—to focus on human needs, human goals, human values—to be, in short, humanists. But there are moments when the illusion fades, and it does not take a pandemic. A simple snowstorm can be enough. I remember watching snow fall out of an office window, creating a blanket of white that forced us to close early, go home, and stay put the next day. A little inclement weather is all it takes to make our plans seem small and irrelevant.

A plague, then, is an ideal situation for Camus to explore his philosophy. But absurdism does not merely consist in realizing that the universe is both omnipotent and indifferent. It also is a reaction to this realization. In this book, Camus is particularly interested in what it means to be moral in such a world. And he presents a model of heroism very different from that which we are used to. The humanist hero is one who is powerful and free—a person who could have easily chosen not to be a hero, but who chose to because of their goodness.

The hero of this story, Dr. Bernard Rieux, does not fit this mold. His heroism is far humbler and more modest: it is the heroism of “common decency,” of “doing my job.” For the truth is that Rieux and his fellows do not have much of a choice. Their backs are against the wall, leaving them only the choice to fight or give up. An absurdist hero is thus not making a choice between good and evil, but against a long and ultimately doomed fight against death—or death. It is far better, in Camus’s view, to take up the fight, since it is only in a direct confrontation with death that we become authentically alive.

You might even say that, for Camus, life itself is the only real ethical principle. This becomes apparent in the speech of Tarrou, Rieux’s friend, who is passionately against the death sentence. Capital punishment crystalizes the height of absurdist denial: decreeing that a human value system is more valid that the basic condition of existence, and that we have a right to rule when existence is warranted or not. To see the world with clear eyes means, for Camus, to see that life is something beyond any value system—just as the entire universe is. And the only meaningful ethical choice, for Camus, is whether one chooses to fight for life.

This book is brilliant because its lessons can be applied to a natural disaster, like a plague, or a human disaster, like the holocaust. Indeed, before the current pandemic, the book was normally read as a reaction to that all-too-human evil. In either case, our obligation is to fight for life. This means rejecting ideologies that decree when life is or is not warranted, it means not giving up or giving in, and it means, most of all, doing one’s job.



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