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

Saturday, May 23, 2020

“I Vant To Be Alone”–Being Greta Garbo In The COVID Gulag

Admittedly being quarantined during Corona is nothing like being sequestered in a Ouagadougou hotel, surrounded by armed militias during a coup to remove the President; or being in Angola (LA) prison solitary confinement. Under Corona one can leave the premises for ‘essential’ goods, defined differently and quite arbitrarily in different states.  Liquor stores remain open throughout the country as do whore houses and tattoo parlors, but churches and dentists are shut down.  Although police are now surveilling beaches, parks, piazzas, and other public places for infractions, they haven’t yet really cracked down on those who disobey.  They are close – facial recognition software, high resolution cameras, and helicopters can pick out anyone walking closer than six feet of social distance or not wearing a mask – but the full panoply of government means to control antisocial elements has not yet been used.

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Army camouflaged  thugs, loyal to the conservative opposition, locked down the Hotel Independence on the grounds and supposition – correctly as it turned out - that international development ‘experts’ were by nature and conviction progressive in political philosophy and firmly opposed to the establishment of a right wing, authoritarian African regime.  The history of Africa since liberation, these liberals said, is filled with tin-pot dictators, kleptocrats and authoritarian rulers who in the name of solidarity and liberty established what they said was the rule of law, order, discipline, and moral behavior; but since they never had any intention whatsoever of establishing a liberal democratic government, they must be removed from power. So the French, German, English, and American aid workers who based only on the supposition of complicity, were locked in a miserable hotel, deprived of food, water, and air conditioning until the barricades came down, the coup completed, and Sergeant Israel Mnebe Olabuzumda installed as the head of state.

Image result for images Mobutu in Leopard Skin Hat

The two weeks that the international aid workers were ‘interned’ was painful and difficult.  The coup occurred in June, the hottest month of the year, beer supplies had been interrupted, and because the rebels who had taken over the major generating plant for the city had no idea which button to push, the entire city was dark.  Outside the hotel, the goings on were farcical at best - a Punch and Judy show of Big Man wannabees, generals and colonels who had visions of Napoleon but had never graduated fourth grade, family sycophants and tribal bullies who simply wanted in on the spoils, tanks that had never been serviced, and guns that didn’t fire.  Inside the hotel, quarantined, miserable, and hopeless, the expatriates were a sorry lot. Educated, well-off, idealistic, and principled, they were appalled at the indifference of their jailors, their short memories of Western support for majority rule, and the crudeness and grossly imprecise way they went about business.   Being sequestered was one thing, but to be so thanks to a lot of ignorant, thankless goons was far worse.  African progressive development was obviously an impossibility, a liberal dream, and a failed aspiration.

Angola (LA) maximum security prison is anyone’s vision of Hell. It is a place without reprieve, of no consolation or refuge; a place not only with no morality but with a perverse reversal of it.  Since most of the prisoners are violent, murderous rapist and serial killers with no hope of parole, only the severest, harshest, and most inhumane punishment has any chance of keeping them in line.  A significant percentage of Angolan prisoners have been in solitary for years.  Those who are let out because of an overlooked footnote to the Louisiana penal code discovered by a Northern pro bono lawyer,within days commit savage, barbaric killings and sent right back down. 

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Angola was a horrible place, and the very concept of solitary confinement was redefined there.  Prisoners in the hole were not only deprived of food, clothing, and sleep but abused and tortured.  The trusties of Angola knew how to mete out punishment to these jungle savages; and when and if they reentered the general prison population, they were so addled, frustrated, and maladjusted that it was only a matter of time before they were sent back down.

Americans who had even any brush with authoritarian regimes had cause for worry. It wasn’t so much the SWAT teams on patrol on Florida beaches, or the police helicopter and drone surveillance, or even the break up of incorrectly socially distant patio parties; it was the arrogance of governments and their lackeys, the indifferent arrogation of unconstitutional authority, and the total disregard for civil and individual rights which was at the heart of protest.

Greta Garbo famously said, “I want to be alone”, an apocryphal line in a forgotten movie about the pricelessness of anonymity and personal privacy.   Of course Greta suggested only that she had had enough of men’s attentions and their fawning and ignorant attempts to woo and bed her.  Her screenwriters knew that such a line from such a sultry actress at the birth of talkies, delivered in a voice with smoky, alluring undertones would be a hit and would consolidate the particular romantic image of their heroine.  Yet we take our clues from Hollywood, and the inimitable Greta is our social as well as Hollywood heroine.

Into Great Silence is a film about Carthusian monks who live in an Alpine monastery in complete silence.  In the ordered and regimented routines of the day, there are no extraneous activities and no disturbance.  All monks engage in silent prayer at the same time.  There is no other activity.  Yet their concentration is disciplined and undisturbed because their silent prayers become audible only to them.  The repetition of practiced prayers occludes the distractive element of complete silence. 

Image result for images movie into great silence

‘The silence is deafening’, said a New Yorker on his first trip to the country.  Silence is as disconcerting and disruptive as the noise of the city to a newcomer.  Silence and noise are relative concepts, each with a spectrum of possibilities.  The loneliest place in the world, it is said, is a big anonymous city.  The noise becomes an irritating reminder that a person alone makes no sound, contributes nothing, exists without connection and context.  Long periods of complete silence in an isolated, hermitic existence can cause confusion, anxiety, and madness.  Complete silence is deafening because the sound of blood rushing through the ears is relatively as loud as Niagara Falls.

His need for silence was a need for social distance.  It wasn’t the din; it was the people making it – his  boisterous brothers; his loud uncle; his incoherent teachers; Father Brophy’s interminable sermons; his fathers poker night.  His irritation at noise, his need for silence, and his months in the convent were all tentative, temporary stops on the road to sorting himself out.  A New York silence – an incorporation individual noises so complete that they became indistinguishable and uniformly loud like the sound of rushing blood heard in a perfectly silent space – was real and metaphoric.  People were insignificant as individuals and even more insignificant as part of the city; but he could pick and choose.  He could make them relevant.

The city was an inseparable and undifferentiated thing until he tired of uniformity and willed a part into being.

COVID lockdown has no upsides, no epiphanies, no personal revelations.  No matter how we may try to imagine ourselves as contemplative monks in a serene order, or as a Hollywood diva who wants remove and solitude, or even a martyr welcoming confinement and torture as a gift to God, we cannot.  COVID has been nothing but a government-enforced deprivation of individual and civil rights, an abrogation of Constitutional authority, and an abusive of power by arrogant elites who finally have found a cause which will both consolidate their individual power and restructure an increasingly conservative American society according to their progressive principles.

Image result for images greta garbo

In short, we have been forced into a progressive gulag – solitary confinement enforced by a politically-motivated, arrogant, and abusive, self-interested government.

None of us ‘vant to be alone’.  We were made to worship with others, drink with others, live with others.  And while we are more than willing to sacrifice that social engagement when the cause is right – e.g. WWII – we are unwilling when the cause is flimsy, the risk is questionable, and the rectifying measures dangerous.

The COVID gulag has not only made Americans wonder about government, the ‘truth’ of science, and the nature of authoritarian rule; it has given solitude a bad name.  Confinement in the name of something morally justified, principled, and of national or societal interest is right and proper.  Solitary confinement by choice is honorable; retiring from intrusive, admiring, pesky crowds to ‘be alone’ is pure Hollywood and us.  Trapped by government autocrats and their bureaucratic shills, forced into solitary confinement without logical analysis and justification, has no honor, interior purpose, or claim to morality.  it is wrong, and the sooner we, the prisoners of the COVID gulag are released, the better.

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