"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Is This The Big One? Our Existential Overreaction To Corona

“This is the big one”, says the Tom Waits character to his wife, played by Lili Tomlin in the Robert Altman film, Short Cuts. Standing in the doorway of their trailer home, drinking the last of their Hawaiian punches (the ones with the little Japanese paper umbrellas), they kiss each other, happy to go out together, and are disappointed when the shakes subside.

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The fact that their lives might only be beginning, or need renewal, or are awaiting redemption, or even ending is incidental.

Lord Jim, the hero of Conrad’s novel of the same name surrenders to the rebel chief whom he feels he has betrayed and is killed by him, an honorable, redemptive death after years of humiliated flight and attempts and moral redemption.  Heyst, the main character in Conrad’s Victory, realizes that he has facilitated the evil that has taken over Sambouran, and commits suicide – an act not of cowardice but of courageous acknowledgement of the evil world which he had always tried to escape.  Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness lies dying without regret or fear; and he like Lord Jim and Heyst acknowledge their frailty and incompetence in an evil world.

Lord Jim (1965) - Rotten Tomatoes

Tens of thousands died at the Battle of Borodino, but are described in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as heroic.  Russian soldiers, assured of certain death as the French cannonballs landed around them, enjoy the camaraderie of the moment.  Dying in a patriotic fight among brethren was not the unhappy end of Hobbes’ short, brutal, and nasty life, but an affirmation of it.  No life was worthy of merit unless it had achieved merit, and falling in the cannonade of Borodino qualified.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king goes disguised to find out what his fighting men think of him and the battle he is waging.  The men, Henry V, are dismissive if not scornful of the king’s ambitions – personal rather than national – but they will fight on nonetheless.  Wars have always been fought so if one’s blood were not shed at Agincourt, it would be spent in Spain, Ireland, or Scotland. Death was a part of life in the early 15th century, and a military one, regardless how unnoticed it might be among thousands of others, had particular value, merit, and meaning.

In those more principled times Death was considered part of life not just its end.  Death had as much meaning as the events which preceded it.  In the Ridley Scott film, Gladiator Maximus, about to be executed by the illegitimate new Emperor's men, says to his executioner, "Give me a clean death.  A soldier's death".  He wasn't afraid of death, nor was he looking for a ceremonious or noble one, just one to satisfy his own sense of dignity, duty, and responsibility.

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The ethos of a meaningful death has been recorded in literature since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Whether tales of knighthood, battlefield valor, Biblical heroism or simply the fabulist tales of theatrical death, death was illuminated as the event of one's life, not just its unceremonious end. The life of Jesus Christ was of little importance compared to his death.

Death for most of us is an eventuality to be put off at all costs.  There is no such thing as a meaningful death, one which is an integral part of life, but an unpleasant finality, an end to things as they were, nothing more.

Of course any loss of life is regrettable, and of course defenses against the virus have to be put in place in the same manner as Kutuzov did at Borodino against the French.  The reactions of one force against the invasion of another will always be the same – bastions, avant-gardes, arriere-gardes, Maginot lines, barbed wire, and fortressed battlements – but the spirit of the troops - in this case we Americans - is different.

It is not surprising that fear and panic best describe our reaction to the Corona virus.  We will scrub, distance, mask, and shutter ourselves - in fact we will do anything and everything to keep the virus and the death it brings at bay.

While the idea of a meaningful death is long lost in history; and while the reactions to death and dying are more limited, secular, and practical; it is still surprising that given the very distinct possibility of death from Corona, there is not more spiritual reflection.  Priests and ministers are calling for social responsibility, communitarian duty, and doing the right thing; but say little about preparing for the death that awaits many.  So not only are we clinging desperately to life but are reluctant to consider or confront death.

It took Ivan Ilyich, the main character of Tolstoy’s story of the same name, a long while to realize that it was time to forget pettiness and narrow, temporal concerns and to turn to dying, death, and beyond.  Only at the moment of his death does he realize that the life he is leaving behind means nothing – not family, friends, community, or profession.  Ilyich was not so much afraid of dying, but unprepared for it.  How stupid he was, he thinks as his illness progresses, to overvalue the present and devalue the future.

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) by ...

It is perhaps too much to ask the young to reflect on life and death as Ivan Ilyich does; but not the old.

Corona is not The Big One, not an existential event nor one which signals The End of Days; but reaction to it suggests just how ill-prepared we are for it – not hospital beds, respirators, and protective masks, but a spiritual safe space from which to think about death, dying, and a possible spiritual future.

Given the existential perspective that any world crisis or pandemic affords, the 6’ social distancing, the masks,  jumpy outings to the supermarket, and most importantly the demurral at the coming of Easter, the most important event of the Christian calendar signifying rebirth and spiritual life, seem desperate and vain.

Most of us, once the epidemic crisis is over, will look back with some shame on our scurry-for-the-burrow mentality, our quick-to-escape antisocial behavior, and turning our backs on meaning. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Love In An African Coup–Surviving Quarantine In Ouagadougou

Quarantined is not exactly the right word for what happened in Ouagadougou. Interned is better, but the term has too much of an institutional feel - Japanese American civilians were interned in camps in California during World War II.  No one caught in the coup in Burkina was locked in a concentration camp surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gunned soldiers nor incarcerated in a government prison.   Sequestered is not quite right either, suggesting a benign separation, like a murder jury from friends, family and reporters.

However described, Americans, British, French, and South Africans were trapped in the Hotel Independance, safe at least temporarily from the civil war being fought outside on the streets of the Burkina capital.  The rebel faction was led by a former dissident officer in the Army who had first been decommissioned, then stationed in a remote military encampment in the desert, then removed from service and exiled to Libya. From there, thanks to loyalists both in Burkina and nearby Mali, he was able to mount an armed rebellion against the military government whose commanding general was in power thanks to a coup five years earlier.   The rebels had amassed a significant armory thanks to Qaddafi – arms which were ironically bought from Western mercenary gun runners with American dollars invested during the dictator’s brief act of contrition to the West – and he turned out to be as savvy a military strategist as Sergeant Doe, the Ghanaian leader who took over power from a corrupt civilian government restored a modicum of honesty, transparency, and law.

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In any case, Lucas Bolling and Esther Thomas were members of a United Nations team to assist the government’s public health program, which because of official indifference and consequent lack of funds, was in disrepair and disarray.  Lucas was a medical facilities specialist and Esther an epidemiologist, two members of large team which also included logisticians, management experts, and public finance specialists, all of whom made it through rebel lines and back to the hotel from the various ministries where they were working.  The rebels were intent only on the overthrow of The General and his henchmen and were enough aware of international public opinion to treat foreigners well or at least with impunity.

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The Independance was the only international-class hotel in the country, but its stars and nomenclature had nothing to do with the place itself – a shabby, rundown,mosquito-ridden cavernous, 15-story depressing place – which however was the watering hole of the Burkinabe elite and the place to be seen in the capital.  The tables around the pool were filled with high-level government bureaucrats, army officers, the few private sector industrialists who managed the grain mills on the outskirts of town., and film directors from Africa’s Hollywood.  Ouagadougou had become the center for African filmmaking, drawing producers, directors, and actors from all over the continent. A Burkinabe film about rural African life had won the prestigious European Lion d’Or for ‘Best Independent Film’.

The Hotel was a lively, social place from sundown till midnight, and a buggy, hot, stifling place for the rest of night.

Once the gunfire had died down and the foreigners felt safe enough to at least come out of their rooms, they realized that the staff had fled with the first rumbling rebel tanks coming from the East.  The larder had been raided, but most of the heavier provisions – canned fish, meat, sauces, oils, and condiments from France – had been left untouched; but these were hardly enough to make a meal.

Electricity had been cut completely by the rebels who had quickly taken over the power plant, and without anyone to run and fuel the generators providing emergency power, the hotel was dark.  Worse, there was no longer any air conditioning.  Sleeping with the windows open invited swarms of malarial mosquitoes, so the hotel 'guests' tossed and turned on sweat-soaked sheets.

Lucas and Esther had never met before this UN mission, but during the weeks before the coup had become friends and then lovers.  No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service. The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Paul Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

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Brown and Martha Pineda are Graham Greene’s lovers in his book The Comedians.  Brown is the manager of an old, Victorian, grande dame of hotel in Port-au-Prince, and Martha is the wife of a South American ambassador.  Greene knew that their love affair could never happen beyond Haiti, nor could that of any two lovers outside its voodoo, charmed, romantic world. There would have been no lovemaking in the balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  Lovers danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cape Haitian; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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The lovers would never talk about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They would only share experiences from Cornwall, Vienna, or Johannesburg.  Haiti would give  their stories a common context.  Lovers’ homes would only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

Men and women have always strayed and always will.  Foreign travel is a welcome release from family, mores, and responsibility.  For the traveler on the plane to Ouagadougou, wife, children, church, and community quickly fade and disappear.  It is not that Burkina Faso – or Chad, Mali, or Nigeria – have any real promise.  All are developing, poorly-governed, and inchoate; but to the foreign traveler they represent chance, opportunity, and romance.  Insecurity, disease, heat, dust, and bad food mean little in the context of romance – not necessarily a sexual romance, but a storybook one.

Temples, sacred rivers, holy shrines, seedy hotels, surprising friendships are all part of the particular exoticism of foreign places.  If actual romance and sexual intimacy are part of the algorithm, so much the better.  Not expected, always hoped for, and prized better than any if found.

And so it was for Lucas and Esther. The coup was threatening, life in the hotel strenuous and uncertain, but sitting by the rancid, scummy pool drinking warm beer, waiting for the vampire bats to leave their roost at sundown – great black, silent things leaving en masse and returning before sunup to the same baobab tree whose branches shaded the terrace where the beer drinkers sat – dining on peanuts, pate and sardines until it was cool enough to to the room, would never be traded or forgotten. 

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Many years late Lucas was caught in the COVID-19 Corona virus pandemic and was self-quarantined with his wife in a Washington suburb.  There was little to remind him of Ouagadougou.  They had plenty of food and provisions.  He could walk in the neighborhood and shop at local markets; and although he missed the company of friends and the life of bars and restaurants, he was free.  There was no romance, no special camaraderie, or feelings of solidarity.  One managed, waited, and assumed that the worst would pass.

Being trapped at the Independance, never knowing when the violence would end or the food would run out, and sheltering in place was a different story altogether, a promising one.  Perhaps, Lucas and Esther thought, the airport might be closed for weeks, and their affair would be extended in this suspended place.  Family had already become a second thought as the moral obligations for both, never severe, had disappeared.  They would be forced to be together and never return home.

However, isn't travel only a hallucinogen, filled with insights, new perceptions about self and environment with some spiritual dimension with a renewed sense of romance but leaving the traveler with only residual memories?  Isn't travel anything more than a pleasurable high, a vacation, a welcome respite from judgment, responsibility, and concern? While the philosophical insights of Theroux, Wolfe, Nabokov, and others may be valid, is anything so temporally confined and passing of any real value?

Lucas never doubted that without Burkina, the coup, and confinement at the Independence, his affair with Esther Thomas never would have happened; and there was nothing unreal about it.

An older friend of Lucas’ who had recently had an affair with a young woman thirty years his junior had often repeated the Coleman Silk line about love with a much younger woman (Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain). “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”.  Lucas’ friend said that he would never forget that surprising gift under the Christmas tree.  The affair was indeed a hallucinogen, but no less real because of it.

There is something about finding things when confined by age, coup, or circumstance.  They are all the more surprising and delightful because of the confinement.  The COVID-19 confinement was not complete enough, threatening enough, or different enough for discovery of anything surprising.  All was all laid out simply and obviously. It was something to get through, to be recounted as an anecdote, then filed away; but the short, intense, hot, malarial affair in Ouagadougou was permanent.

Friday, March 27, 2020

No Love In The Time Of Quarantine–How COVID And Donald Trump Spoiled A Perfectly Good Marriage

Quarantine is a bad trip no matter when or how happens, but quarantine in COVID America is as bad as it gets.  It is tough enough to be tightly wound with family members who should be far from home in their law offices downtown, adolescent children who should be under their school’s supervision, and toddlers who make ‘working from home’ and impossibility; but worse still when partners fight. 

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Harvey and Melissa Falls had grown politically apart for years.  He had become more and more conservative, much like his John Birch Society parents but with a Tea Party edge.  There were few conservative activists in the Eisenhower years before the rise of Barry Goldwater, William F Buckley and the New Right; but the elder Mr. and Mrs.. Falls were as outspoken as any about about the dangers of  social collectivism, the growing totalitarianism of the progressive state, the international influence of communism; and the particularly insidious and pernicious growth of socialism in America.  Roosevelt’s wealth redistribution and economic interventionism could come back again.

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The Sixties were his undoing, said his mother.  There was always something very naïve and ingenuous about the boy, something emotionally needy, so it was no surprise that in his twenties he fell in with the wrong crowd.  It was only a surprise that the idealism of the era remained an influence for so long. Until his mid-fifties, Harvey  had never experienced a crisis of political faith.  He had always marched in lockstep with his progressive colleagues; but as he grew older the blush began to fade from the bloom of the rose. 

He found himself angered at the selfish, anti-republican movement of identity politics, the persistent embrace of a culture of entitlement instead of individual responsibility, and the constant, interminable howls of protest against racism, rape, abuse, elitism, environmental depredation, and capitalism.  In other words the more Harvey saw of progressivism and its arrogation of right, the less patience he had with it, and before long, he had left it all behind.

An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, said Harvey’s mother, well into her 90s and delighted to see that her formerly liberal son had finally become educated about its ills. “They all come home”, she said.  Anyone who has lived a moderately long life and kept their eyes open at least part of the time can only conclude that human beings will always remain nasty, unchanged, and unimproved and that circumspection, not optimism, should be one’s modus vivendi. 

Harvey’s wife Melissa had also been raised in a conservative home. Her father was from good, independent, Western stock and never questioned the principle of individual enterprise but never thought to codify his beliefs within any political cast; and her mother, a Southerner not far removed from her antebellum plantation ancestry, was, like her husband, a natural conservative.  While her husband’s conservatism came from a natural philosophical fundamentalism, hers arose out of a Southerner’s hatred for the federal government.  They both were conservatives by nature and breeding, but were never as outspoken as their son-in-law’s family.

Unlike her husband, Melissa had been completely diffident about the Sixties, so her turn left was surprising.  Her mother had tried to disabuse her of such ‘unbecoming’ sentiments (Mrs. Townsend, despite her frequent demurrals, was still a Southern belle at heart) but to no avail. “She was always an impressionable girl”, said Mrs. Ball, resigned to the fact that her daughter was somehow traitorous to both the solid, Western traditions of individualism and discipline; and the Southern way of grace and gentility.

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No one was able to pinpoint why Melissa became progressive.  Perhaps it was because of Richard Nixon.  Her visceral hatred for this greedy, uncouth, duplicitous man was understandable thanks to the severe rectitude of her parents – a deep-seated morality which was offended by crude, illicit behavior.  Her dismissal of Ronald Reagan was equally understandable thanks to her Ivy League, elite education which valued logic, reason, and academic virtues – all of which film star cowboy Reagan did not have. 

However it happened, progressivism took root; and the older she got, the more virulent and obsessive she became.  No subject was out of bounds.  No seemingly innocent observation by her husband went unchallenged.  The weather might be nice and unseasonably warm, but at the expense of climate destruction.  The salmon might be delicious off the grill, but had been grown in the intolerable conditions of Norwegian fish farms.  Gas at the pump might be less expensive than last year but only due to the environmentally hostile fracking and drilling for oil in the most fragile ecosystems of North America.

All of which is to say that when the COVID-19 quarantine of 2020 shut Harvey and Melissa down tight, and when all hatches were battened, there was no peace.  Rather than doing the needful – simple protections against infection, avoiding potentially infectious contacts with others, stocking the larder with necessary provisions, and praying that it would soon end – Melissa conflated her visceral hatred for Donald Trump into a virulent objection to his every action in response to the virus. 

He could do no right.  He was grandstanding, flip-flopping, lying, feathering his own political nest, politicking, currying favor instead of listening to experts, focusing his efforts on practical, evidence-based solutions, and rallying Americans around a common cause.  COVID-19 in Melissa’s mind was not simply that of an epidemiological evolution and rational public health measures to deal with it, but a political cause.  Everything was seen through her politically-honed, progressive vision.  Discussion between her and her husband was impossible. Everything was Trump’s fault, and if millions died, their blood would be on his hands.

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COVID-19 was an unfortunate turning point in Melissa’s life.  She had gone around the bend and become as rabid, incontinent, and impossibly doomsday prophetic as her progressive friends concerning climate change.  Religious fundamentalists were right – the Second Coming, Armageddon, and the end of the world would certainly come within our lifetimes. 

There had been love in their marriage, Harvey admitted, but he knew it had irretrievably left when his wife had become transformed from a loving, reasonable woman to a political succubus. It happens to all shut-ins - the gnawing, unsettled nerves, the nasty thoughts without bar time to forget them, no audience for complaint, no outlet for anger and resentment – but when circumstances are right…’pre-existing conditions’ in the lexicon of the day…and when bilious political hatred has already spoiled the soup, there is no return.

In our generous, inclusive age, perhaps one should also consider Harvey’s role in the final disassembly of the marriage.  Perhaps he had provoked his wife, doing the usual conservative fandango about triage, cost-benefit, risk analysis, and concerns about increasing government power; but he had not.  If fact when she started in, he simply changed the subject, went to stir the sauce, or filled up his glass.  While he was a Republican, he was less a partisan political supporter than a follower of Hamiltonian federalism and a descendant of the Enlightenment.  Political parties come and go; but the fundamental principles of democratic conservatism do not.  It was, therefore, unlikely that any confident, principled, and academic thinker would fight with anyone over political policies let alone with a wife who had gone off the rails.

There were many young couples in his neighborhood who drank and screwed their way through the quarantine, happily locked out of offices and conference rooms; and many others with young children with whom they were delighted to be before they grew up; and many more who had always been politically aligned and who could commiserate about or applaud Trump together.  Harvey was one of the unlucky ones who by circumstance and the pool table random fate of ricocheting balls, found himself at a strange unpredictable confluence of background, upbringing, character, and personality.  No one could have predicted COVID-19 or the demise of a once-promising marriage.  So be it.  Life was never meant to be smooth sailing or a bed of roses.  ‘Principled detachment’ was how one Yale professor had described it. 

But what of Melissa? Would the coincidence of COVID and the the dissolution of her marriage shake some sense into her?  Would her overheated political engine cool down? Would her bile drain? Would reasonableness and memory of good sexual times have the day?

The outcome of any soap opera is never a sure thing, only the predictability of the characters is – and that is what keeps viewers tuned in.  No one actually cares about resolution, only the melodrama leading up to it; and so it is with the saga of Henry and Melissa Falls.  If anyone wants to learn a cautionary lesson from it, all well and good; but most will dismiss it as an unnoticed casualty of COVID, nothing more.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Great American Corona Shutdown–A Very, Very Bad Idea

Panic has set in. A virus that is relatively benign compared to cancer, heart disease, or the Spanish flu is shutting the world down; and while there is no doubt that internment can prevent the spread of the disease, is there not a cost to fracturing the American economy, throwing thousands out of work, dissolving the financial reserves of the middle class, forcing small business to shut their doors never to recover, and unraveling the social, communitarian fabric which is at the very center of American life?

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The ‘prevention at any cost’, ‘saving even one life’ mentality betrays a naïve idealism, a modern rejection of philosophical, existential truths, Biblical wisdom, and common sense.  Investments to save relatively few at the expense of the many is bad economics, dodgy philosophy, and very questionable morality.  Triage has always been a variable in every economic equation and political decision-making. 

The facts are simple – the Corona virus spreads rapidly among most segments of the population.  The elderly and the immunologically compromised are at the highest risk and account for the vast majority of deaths and ICU admissions.  The young and healthy who are infected will either be asymptomatic or experience relatively minor symptoms; and most importantly will survive.  Corona may be ‘everyone’s disease’ from the point of view of infection, but it is the disease of the elderly and infirm when considering serious morbidity and mortality.

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In other words, 80 percent of those infected will do fine – either move on with a cold or the sniffles, or be in bed for a few days.

The problem of course is the denominator of the equation.  If the virus infects tens of millions, then the 20 percent means large numbers of sick and hospital-bound.  Is this not a call to shutdown every aspect of American public life? Of course not.  Epidemiology and public health policy have always been based on risk analysis, narrow-casting, and triage at the least public cost.  That is, how to slow or stop an epidemic at the least pain, cost, and disruption to the majority; and perhaps most importantly, to limit deaths.

Someone will have to pay.  No one is excluded either from the direct or indirect costs of any epidemic.  In this case, refusing to shut down the country would certainly result in more infections than if a more restrictive approach were taken; but if high-risk populations were targeted and protected as much as possible from the virus, then although infection rates would rise, horrific morbidity and mortality would not occur.  Young people might get sick and even hospitalized, but if the most vulnerable are kept out of health institutions, everyone benefits.

For the country not to be shut down, government must devolve decision-making to the individual – a very difficult proposition given the intrusion of progressivism and the arrogated authority of government.  If young people can indeed exert social restraint, the rate of infections can be slowed; and if older people, the immunologically comprised, and the infirm can be identified, targeted, surveilled, and assisted, the overall impact of serious complications can be lessened.

In other words, the young, if they persist in taking few precautions against Corona – their prerogative as young, idealistic Americans – they will get sick; but the vast majority will pass through the epidemic without noticing.  Most of those who do fall ill and become sick enough to require hospitalization will survive and their private health insurance will cover the cost.  The political and moral conundrum is this – if such morally indifferent behavior results in a demand for hospital beds which cannot be met, who is responsible, and who pays?  Practicality demands that moral judgement be reserved.

So, how to confront the Corona virus without destroying the economy, disrupting normal social intercourse, marginalizing tens of millions of economically productive citizens?
1) Open up economy for business;
2) Intensify information campaign in causes, prevention, personal risk and responsibility to reduce rate of new infections;
3) focus government prevention efforts on most vulnerable;
4) Mobilize all possible government health resources , especially in the armed forces to treat the 20% of cases likely to need hospital attention and to supplement private care; and
5) use the billions of dollars in Congressional mandated relief  to build temporary hospital facilities, to provide medical equipment and intensive training paramedical staff at good pay; and defray costs of medical care for those without insurance
Any Congressional rescue package designed to mitigate the pain and suffering from employment furloughs and dismissals will do little to jump-start the economy.  Where will  Americans with a few thousand dollars in their pockets thanks to government largess be able to spend it if the economy is still shuttered?  While these economic migrants can buy from Amazon, and the company’s fleet of drivers, handlers, and inventory staff will certainly benefit; there will be no true investment in the service economy – food stores, bars, restaurants, cafes, etc.  The stimulus package might feel good, but it will be wasted in terms of reviving an economy killed by government draconian policies.

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The Corona hysteria is a consequence of many factors – not the least of which is a me-first progressive philosophy according to which personal responsibility, individualism, and individual enterprise are devalued consistent with the rise of the State.  It is up to the State, say young progressives, to sort out the pandemic and to put no untoward demands on the individual.  In an earlier era, one envisaged perhaps naively by the Founding Fathers, the individual, endowed by his Creator with a righteous soul, would always act in the interest of his community.  The pursuit of happiness, reminded Jefferson, was not an open market of personal pleasures, but a responsibility to regard others in the course of achieving one’s ambitions.

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The decline of Christianity in the increasing pluralization of America has also contributed to the ‘me-first’ response to trouble and crisis.  In an earlier era, faithfulness to God and and assumption that all was according o His plan, moderate human excesses.  In today’s multicultural world, despite the potent Abrahamic messages of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, moral principles, once taken as absolute, are challenged or dismissed. 

Cato the Elder prepared educational diptychs for his students, future leaders of the Empire.  Courage, honesty, sacrifice, duty, and honor were among the principles that were the sine qua non principles of leadership.  Individual acts must always be considered within the context of these moral principles.  No such thing, progressive advocates claim.  All is relative.

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Materialism and the pursuit of wealth is today’s far cry from Christ’s poverty and lessons for right living.  Hinduism, long before the arrival of Christ taught that the material world was but a distraction to life’s only purpose – enlightenment – and the Buddha made this negation of the world’s venal promises the cornerstone of his philosophy.

Finally, the increase in life expectancy has had its own unintended consequences.  If the control if not elimination of the scourges of infection and disease which sent  everyone to their graves before age 35 was possible, then consideration of the finality and eternality of death could be postponed.

In short, the young want no part of death, disease, and dying.  Personal responsibility for others is second fiddle to individual prosperity; and government – so maligned in civil times – is still thought to be the be-all and end-all of last resorts.

The time for sane reversal has past and only lessons are to be learned.  Most of us will emerge unscathed by the Corona hysteria,  Our financial portfolios will rebound albeit slowly.  Favorite cafes, bars, and restaurants will return; and things will go back to normal; but the disruption, damage, and consequences of our untoward, precipitous, and wholly unnecessary responses to the Covid-19, aka Corona, aka Wuhan virus will last a long, long time.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Romance In The Time Of Corona–A Haitian Idyll In Port-au-Prince

Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, is dying, and  he reviews his life as the reality of his death sets in.  What did I do right? What did I do wrong? And does it matter now that I am faced with eternity?

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His supposed friends were nothing more than colleagues who eyed his corner office as he lay dying; his wife was happy to see this selfish, controlling man out of her life; and his children…his children? he barely knew them…respectful but distant.  Perhaps he had been ignorant and foolish to have tried to construct a hermetic world, one without inconvenience and bother? or perhaps not, since those whom he had kept out might be a solace in his last moments.

The Corona virus is not like the Plague of the 14th century, a horror of human horrors with death universal, certain, ugly, and awful; nor like the Spanish flu of 1917 which killed millions.  Within the perspective of human history – that history which includes Genghis Khan and the tens of millions that were slaughtered by his armies of the steppes; the Siberian labor camps of Stalin, Hitler’s Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the pogroms of Europe, the forced migrations of the Khmer Rouge; the murderous religious jihads of ISIS and Boku Haram – Corona is nothing.  A death toll almost insignificant compared to yearly deaths from cancer, heart disease, and dementia; a morbidity insignificant compared to infant diarrheas, pneumonias, and malnutrition in most of the Third World. Yet the modern Western and Asian world has panicked, created gulags of its own, spread  doomsday scenarios of The Wuhan Death and the end of civilization as we know it.

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Brent Alston wanted no part of it – not the COVID-19 virus itself, but the fear, panic, and disassembly that were its attendants.   Haiti – the country of Voodoo, dictatorship, poverty, and disease was a refuge, a place where violence and abuse were endemic.  There was no fear of Corona there because nothing could make the lot of the people any worse.  Haiti was the end of the existential line and therefore the only and best place to shelter.

Shelter was not in the lexicon of Haitians who had been through it all – pestilence, famine, autocracy, thievery, deforestation – and for whom anything less than Armageddon would pass unnoticed – and Brent wanted such a such a safe haven. 

Besides, his greatest loves had been Haitian – not all Haitian women but lovers on Haitian territory for whom like him, nationality had no salience or legitimacy.  Haiti – perhaps because of its lawlessness permissiveness – had always attracted the world’s emotional refugees.  The Tonton Macoutes could care less about illicit assignations and adulterous affairs as long as Papa Doc was given due respect and political space. These refugees understood that love in a dictatorship was a privileged affair – for them politics was only a distraction, and cinq-a-sept trysts at the Oloffson or in the hills above Petionville were all that mattered.

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Of course the reality was quite different.  Graham Greene in The Comedians best described the strange allure of Haiti and its menace .  The love affair between Mr. Brown and Martha could never happened outside Haiti – illicit because its adultery and because of its flirtation with international politics, the menace of the Tonton Macoutes, and Duvalier himself. Neither Greene nor any other journalist or author ever dismissed the horror of life under the brutal dictatorship of Papa and Baby Doc, but all acknowledged the special, adventurous, and romantic environment of Haiti under that oppression.

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Brent Alston had his Haitian affairs at the end of Baby Doc’s regime – a time when Haiti was still a patient, accommodating, peaceful place.  He dined in Petionville, Kenscoff, and even Port-au-Prince; fell asleep to the tom-toms in the far hills beyond and above Kenscoff; awoke to the heat and fishy, refuse- and rubber-burning smells of the capital;  and took chiffon rouge collective taxis from the Splendid all over the city to his office at the port.  Haiti was a willing suspension of disbelief – the killings of the Macoutes did not exist, nor the poverty and disease.  His life on the verandah of the Oloffson or by the pool at the Splendid was all that existed.  There were indeed at least two planes to life.

Expatriates are always attracted to one another because of the novelty and excitement of adventure beyond the reaches of family, profession, and responsibility.  Love in Bamako, Burundi, Bucharest, or Varna was always permitted.  There was no adultery or deception in these places; and so it was with Brent, happily married and a loving father who shed all propriety, left coat and hat behind ,and took a room in the Tennessee Williams suite with Usha.

The allure of travel – the romance of the road – has nothing to do with exotica, but with sexual affairs.  Wives and husbands, once goodbyes have been said on tarmacs or departure lounges are forgotten as soon as the aircraft lifts off.  The traveler is himself only, untethered and free beyond reach and responsibility.

No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service.

The strangeness of a hotel room, the hotel itself, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”
In The Dead Hand Theroux describes the unsettling chaos of Calcutta –  kaleidoscopic and fascinating, but eventually claustrophobic and indecipherable. Calcutta is too much for a foreigner, too intense and unremittingly alien to take measure; too unlikely and unpredictable; too strange.  There is no refuge and no time for sorting out a Westerner’s preoccupation with justice, equality, moderation, and progress.  No time to process holiness, abject poverty and its inverse morality, idol-worship, profound spirituality, and crowds.

Brent would have felt no sense of intimacy without the voodoo drums of Haiti, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  They danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cap Haitien; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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They never talked about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They only shared experiences from New Brighton,  Harvard, and Spring Valley; or Radisson, Fort George, or Nemiscau. Haiti gave their stories a common context. New Brighton and Fort George would now only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

There is something disassembling about foreign places to which no one is immune.  Once one leaves the tarmac at Dulles, homegrown cultural constraints are loosened; and once once one lands in Niamey, Bamako, or Luanda they are untethered.  There is no liberation to compare.

It was not surprising that the Haitian love affair continued only as long as the lovers met in Haiti. Neither one ever suggested that they meet in Boston, New York, or Miami; and when her summer internships were over and his last contract delivered, they knew that their affair was over.  Their friendship was uniquely, irrevocably Haitian.

There are always regrets that disturb the phenomenon, cause oscillations. A frequent traveler never got over his love for a Danish woman who left him for an Angolan lover; a Palestinian Parsi persona non grata in Israel, her home; or a doctor from Timisoara who had attended Ceausescu before his death; but his disappointments were never discouraging.  He was never looking for a mate. Love was never unique nor permanent, but only temporal.

He had never had a satisfying affair in the United States.  The casual liaisons and even more continuous relationships with women in California and Nebraska, although intimate and special, were never the same as those in Calcutta or Yaoundé.  There was no reason why women in California or Nebraska were less appealing than those met abroad.  On paper they were all within the margins; but there was something disassembling about affairs in tropical climates.
The same women, suggestive over gin pahits on the verandah of the Tallygunge Club in Calcutta were different. There could be no possible explanation for the liaison between two lovers on Anjouan,  an island in the Comoros, both accounted for and neither unhappy.   It must have been the ylang-ylang the microclimate, and the isolation.

What brought the lovers together in Haiti was Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking on a balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning in Moroni; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti; if it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

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So it was that Brent in the time of COVID-19 and under the flimsiest of pretenses travelled to Haiti.  The country in permanent political and social disarray had no lockdowns, no social distancing, no sheltering in place.  The bars, clubs, and dancehalls of Carrefour were filled to capacity every night, the French restaurants in Petionville still serving foie gras and bouillabaisse, and the prostitutes and touts as visible as ever by the port and on the docks.  It wasn’t that Haiti had not hears about the Corona menace.  it didn’t care.  What worse could possibly happen to a country that had suffered all?

The drums above Kenscoff were as loud and persistent as Brent had remembered them, the rum punches on the verandah of the Oloffson as tart and sweet as they had ever been, the mulatto women as beautiful, and the weather as warm and tropical. He and his Haitian lover met as pre-arranged at the Splendid, had dinner at Cote Cour, Cote Jardin the Haitian grandchild of Eric Ripert, Executive Chef of Le Bernardin, and liqueur at the Oloffson with the grandson of Petit Pierre, a young man who affected his father’s panache and charm.

Brent understood that Haiti was a pause, an interlude, a willing suspension of disbelief; but it was no mirage.  There were indeed such places of unembarrassed, irresponsible pleasure from which he would eventually have to return.  As much as he hated the idea of the place of Puritanism, rectitude, and fearful watchfulness that he had left, it was his home.  And therein lay the dilemma.