Covid-19 Demands A National Reckoning

 

 

 

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The U.S. already has over one million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and tens of thousands of deaths. Victims of the disease are disproportionately black and working class. What explains our failure to build a more caring state? Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. argues that we must grapple with the divides at the core of our society in order to reimagine the U.S. with a fully inclusive sense of “us.” “What we have to do is tell the truth about who we are. We’re not the best country in the world. We’re not the most powerful people on the planet. We’re fallen, finite creatures who in this moment in most cases are dying alone…” Glaude says. This week’s thoughtful conversation ranges from the impact of decades of Neoliberalism on the American consciousness to the need for a return to compassionate, human-centered governance, to Glaude’s forthcoming book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. We need a national reckoning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transcript

 

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

The contradictions of our current economic system, they are fully in view. A pandemic that in some ways is indiscriminate, and revealed all of those cracks and fissures and the bankruptcy of a political and economic ideology that has had the country by the throat.

Laura Flanders:

And still coming up on the Laura Flanders show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people doing it, welcome. (silence)

Laura Flanders:

Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. Welcome to these special home recorded episodes of the Laura Flanders show, I’m glad to have you. Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr. writes about the ways in which these United States of ours are often not very United, nor even very state like when it comes to serving the public good. His latest book is, Democracy In Black, How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. His forthcoming volumes tentatively titled, Begin Again, James Baldwin’s America and It’s Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Professor Glaude is joining me now. Welcome professor, how are you today?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

How are you? It’s such a delight to be here with you to have this conversation and to see you.

Laura Flanders:

All right, so you said back in 2016, or you may have written it in ’15, “That the times are dark and the choices are to wake up or watch America burn.” That’s something that you wrote in Democracy and Black. As I thought about that today, I thought, “Oh, is this it? Is this the burning, has our waking up come too late? What do you think?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

Perhaps. The contradictions of our current economic system, the contradictions of an ideology that has in some ways had the country by the throat for 40 to 50 years. I mean they are fully in view where you have a society organized around competition, the pursuit of self interest and greed. Where you have a society that presupposes disposable people. Where you have politicians exploiting fears, deepening divides. A pandemic that in some ways is indiscriminate, well, has swooped in and revealed all of those breakages, all of those cracks and fissures and has in some ways revealed the bankruptcy of a political and economic ideology that has had the country by the throat.

Laura Flanders:

No, it’s an ideology, but it is also a state of affairs. And you have another great line in that book where you say, “In the end, this is the society we have. This is the society we have all built.” It doesn’t feel like a whole lot of a society in the response to this COVID, everyone doing things differently and differently for different people.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

I mean, it’s absolutely true. What I was trying to suggest there is that we’ve built this place true, America reflects in all of it’s contradictions, in all of it’s inequalities it reflects a set of commitments, a set of values that we need to understand. So this idea of some kind of collective sense, a sense of mutual obligation, an idea that we live together in pursuit and in light of certain goods has been tossed to the side. So in this moment of crisis, you have to deal with death alone. You have to deal with grief alone. Government is bad, right? Your trauma is yours alone. And so the fact that policy decisions have been made that have really exacerbated the devastation of this catastrophe, right? We can’t really talk about it as a kind of collective, a collective moment, right? It’s reduced to these very individualized private experiences because we have lost an idea in some ways an experience of mutuality.

Laura Flanders:

Did we ever have it? I mean, did we ever have that sense of a we in this country that was truly a we?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

Well, it’s always been a we that has been deeply racialized, deeply classed, gendered, it’s heteronormative, it’s shot through with all sorts of limitations. The we has always been a source of contestation in this place. So I don’t want to say we’ve never had it. I think we’ve had a more robust idea of it being an aspiration, right? That the idea of we the people, has been an aspiration in moments that we’ve tried to strive for. But over the last few decades we’ve thrown that aside. We the people has been reduced to the top 1%, top 1/10th percent, those folks in gated communities, we the people has been really just an idea suited for a crew crass ideology of greed.

Laura Flanders:

I mean, I’ve been so struck by it in these times where in this pandemic era we realized we really don’t have a public infrastructure that is up to snuff. Why? Why have we not the richest country in the world over these centuries built such a basic thing that most countries have, most developed western societies have, they may not be great, but they have them?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

I mean, I think it has something to do with a certain understanding of the role of government, right? There’s a particular political position that holds that big government is always bad. It is intrusive with regards to liberty and freedom, where people appeal to notions of liberty and freedom as a way to protect their advantage. And so the idea of the public good has in some ways been under assault by an ideology that views government, that pursues an idea of public good, as necessarily bad. And this is really rooted in critiques of The Great Society and critiques of The New Deal, right? When you think about these moments as moments of government trying in some significant way to address in one instance, economic devastation and understanding that government has to play a certain role. And then in the context of The Great Society government trying to address deep inequality, racial inequality, that’s the legacy of white supremacy and slavery, right?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

In both instances government is being viewed as intrusive, taking freedoms from certain folk, and then reallocating resources to undeserving folk. And given that read government is viewed as bad, right? So whether it’s the social safety net, whether it’s public infrastructure, whether it’s public health care infrastructure, it’s all viewed as taking something from deserving people and giving it free to undeserving people.

Laura Flanders:

So, you’re saying that we don’t have an effective national healthcare system, a rural medical healthcare system, a successful public education system because we don’t like big government. I mean, people were less hard on The New Deal than they were on The Great Society and the war on poverty. They were okay with helping poorer white folks, weren’t they, then more okay than they were for helping blacks and farm workers for heavens sake, women?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

So those undeserving people are often Black and Brown. Those undeserving people are more than likely poor people of color, right? In the context of The New Deal, we know the limitations. We know what Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats insisted upon as Roosevelt sought to respond to the devastation that had in some ways overwhelmed the country. And we know that black folk were limited, where are kind of excluded from FHA loans. We know that black folk were excluded from many of the social programs that that kept people afloat. And if we can tell a story about the wealth gap, the rise of the white middle class, that rise is on the backs of Black and Brown folk, we know that. We know when Bobby Kennedy goes down to the Delta of Mississippi and rubs the face of that young black girl, suddenly the face of poverty is black and all of a sudden we get the tax revolt in California, right? We get all of this calls for law and order and the like, right?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

So we know, when we say that the country has been built true, that the inequalities we are experiencing, it is a direct result of the racialized ideology and idea of whiteness, which of course the benefits and burdens of citizenship to particular folk and view other focus as simply acts of charity, as philanthropic gestures, and the result has been in some ways, a society that claims to be democratic, but it is deeply, deeply not democratic.

Laura Flanders:

To put our finger on it, you say that inequality and white supremacy are baked into our failures to provide for the public good at this moment and have been for decades. That means white people would rather have no healthcare system then possibly share it with black people. How do we unravel that? That’s deep.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

I think we got to tell the truth, right? We’ve been dancing around this in the context of political debates where people will say that the reason we don’t need healthcare is because we want choice. The reason we don’t want a living wage or we don’t need a safety net, it’s because folks are lazy, they don’t want to work, they don’t want to pursue the American dream and all of the values that come with it. Those are all lies. We need to just simply tell ourselves we’ve been lying about the current circumstances and then confront the fact that there are a group of Americans, white Americans, who we can’t convince… And let me explain what I mean by that, Laura, so we spend so much time trying to convince those who hold noxious commitments not to hold them and then we compromise with them and particular have to bear the brunt of the compromise.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

I’m of the mindset that we have a finite amount of civic energy, a finite amount of political energy. I’m not interested in convincing Trump voters to have different commitments. I’m not interested in convincing white racist that they shouldn’t be racist. I want to spend my civic energy building a world where those commitments have no quarter to breathe.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

And so I think what we need to do is to confront the lies, understand that we have been scapegoating Black and Brown people for our own self interest to deconstruct this notion of whiteness as Wendell Berry argues in The Hidden Wound and others, right? To deconstruct a day in and day out to free us into being the different kind of people. That’s going to take a lot of hard work, but it’s also going to take some work where we don’t have to spend our energy focused on these folk who would rather throw the whole thing in the garbage can then actually being true to what we put on paper.

Laura Flanders:

So how do we do that in these times? You’re very hopeful about street action, street mobilization, you’re inspired by the movement for black lives, you’re in Ferguson, you’re inspired by Reverend Barber’s movement in North Carolina. It’s difficult for us to be in the streets right now. Well, we have to at least be very careful. Again, are we too late? Did we wait too long? What is your sense of where that remaking that change comes from now?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

There are moments when I’m really, really profoundly skeptical and pessimistic, reaching for my liquor cabinet on a regular basis. But I think every crisis as Stuart Hall, the late British theorist used to put it, , “Every crisis is a conjunctional moment, it’s a moment of catastrophe and possibility.” Right? The contradictions of our society are in clear view. The idea of raising the tax rate as A.O.C suggested was unfathomable a couple of years ago. So the idea of Medicare for all, the public option is now the safe choice, right? In 2008 we couldn’t even talk about the public option, they would take it off the table immediately.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

In the midst of this catastrophe our imaginations have been unshackled and I think it’s time for us to kind of be bold in what we envision the country to be. And that can happen in these spaces with the work that you’re doing, it could have happened in the Bernie Sanders campaign, right? It can happen in terms of how we hold the Biden campaign to a certain kind of standard. It can happen down ballot in the election cycles and it can happen in the way in which we think about our being together post COVID-19, so this is me sounding like the abstract professor, not the organizer, but I think the conditions for us to imagine ourselves differently are really right, it’s just a matter of whether or not we have the courage to do so and the occasion to do so. And I think we do, I have to bank my all on it or I’m going to drown in Jameson.

Laura Flanders:

Gramsci who you referred to, talked about that space, the interregnum between what is now and what is yet to come, what is dying and what is yet to come. And he called it being filled with morbid symptoms that couldn’t feel more literal than it does right now. Putting life into this moment is challenging. You got a lot of inspiration from the Bernie Sanders campaign, but you had your reservations, learnings for the future, from this moment, from that campaign, what do you think we need to take away from this into this new world we’re building?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

I only wished that Bernie Sanders could have talked about race in a much clearer way, but I think what his campaign revealed is that we don’t need to be… How can we say it differently? We can put aside the triangulation of the DLC and Clintonism. We can be boldly progressive in public space, if we only just put forward our vision of who we can be together, we can inspire others and then we can move the country, right? We have conceded over and over again to the terms of political debate and what the Sanders campaign revealed is that we didn’t have to do that. We didn’t have to do that.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

And so moving forward as we deal with to get Trump out of office, that’s my view. But we have to get him out of office without compromising our vision for the country. We have to still push an agenda, we can chew and walk at the same time. So it seems to me, Wallace Stevens says, “God and imagination are one.” And there’s a line in Emerson where he says, “God speaks to us through our imaginations.” In both of those formulations, we have to be able to do some freedom dreaming as Robin Kelley would say. We have to envision the world, imagine the world differently and then act on it.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

So part of what I’m trying to suggest here is that we have to begin to speak boldly about a living wage. Speak boldly about Medicare for all. Speak boldly about workers having a say so in how companies function or owning a percentage of companies. We need to speak boldly about a broad democratic vision and then we can pull the country, right, I think, to the left. If we mobilize, if we mobilize and organize whether or not that will happen, I’m not sure.

Laura Flanders:

Okay, well time will tell. Your next book’s about Baldwin, James Baldwin and Baldwin exactly speaks to heart, he speaks to vision, speaks to the things you care about so much. He also speaks as you do to the psychic pain and trauma of living in these times as a black person and also as a white person, beautifully he talks about. In this moment I’m very struck, especially being outside of New York, that the public discourse, the mainstream as we call it, I call it the money stream discourse, is all about an economy that’s shut down, about people who are at home, with a few moments of celebration for the heroic emergency workers.

Laura Flanders:

But this society is mostly not shut down, I mean there’s an awful lot of people working because they have to. Working because people are requiring them to whether they have the protections they need or not, and there’s a disconnect that Trump is obviously exploiting in his ramping up of we should open the country, people feel shut down and their ability to make a living. And I’m struck by how we live in America with these contradictions, we the people, but with slavery, we’re all in the same boat, except we’ll obviously not. Talk about that and how do we change that? How do we relieve ourselves of the burden of this deep contradiction, this cognitive dissonance that this country seems to put in at the core of our being?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s to first acknowledge that it’s at the core and not an exception. This is, to put aside Gunnar Myrdal’s formulation of the American dilemma, that somehow the problem is that we’re not just living up to our ideals, right? And if only we changed our practices, right, then we would be okay. No, we need to understand the very imagining of America, it carries with it the very contradictions you’re alluding to. So at the very moment in which we’re giving voice to an idea of democracy, right? We’re not only do we have slavery, we have the extermination of Native Americans, right? At the very moment in which we are imagining ourselves as a democratic space, right? We call ourselves the empire of Liberty and what are we doing in Cuba and Haiti and Puerto Rico? How are we imagining Puerto Ricans in some ways? What are we doing with Japanese Americans and interment camps? In each of these moments, we see the exception that actually proves the rule of who we actually are.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

So, I think that confrontation… Because Baldwin is really key here, Baldwin begins with the interior. He wants to start with the of who we are, our own wounds, our own traumas. The fact that we haven’t grappled with the pain and the hatreds that circulate in our being because he says the messiness of who we are on the inside evidences itself in the messiness of our arrangements on the outside. And so he moves from the interior to the exterior, right? So when you read him there’s this kind of honesty that is very difficult to do. I didn’t think I was going to survive writing that book, right? Because he’s so exacting in what he’s requiring of us. But the idea is not to rest in a kind of narcissism, but to imagine a self that is engaged in a kind of self examination, Socrates, right, that makes life worth living such that then it will result in these arrangements that are much different.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

So I think what we have to do is tell the truth about who we are. We’re not the best country in the world. We’re not the most powerful people on the planet. We’re fallen finite creatures who are in this moment, in most cases, dying alone. We can’t grieve with each other. Folk can’t grab their mother’s hands or run their fingers through their grandmama’s head, her hair. We can’t be the ones present when they’re taking their last breath and they can look upon our eyes and say, “No, why?” Because we’re revealing what we value and who we value, right? So the fact that they’re rushing to open up the economy now reveals the character of the country. This is what they care about, and we have to announce boldly and compassionately that we care about other things, other people, a different way of being in the world. And this is how we want to live moving forward and to act on that as aggressively as we possibly can.

Laura Flanders:

This sounds such a silly question, but what’s your view of Donald Trump? He is a singular player on the stage right this second.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

Yeah, we vomited him up, right? At every moment in which the country has an opportunity to be otherwise it doubles down on his ugliness. So you think about the Civil War, you think about reconstruction and reconstruction is this second founding, right? What do we get in response? We get convict leasing, we get Jim Crow, the value gap as I put it in Democracy and Black returns. This valuation of white people is valued more than others. You think about the civil rights movement of the mid 20th century where we have people just arguing for basic human dignity and first-class citizenship. What did we get in response? A call for law and order. The tax revolt in California, this argument against the government, the erosion of the social safety net, that’s the ugliness.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

What did we get in response to the election of Barack Obama? We get the tea party, we get voter suppression and voter ID laws, and then we throw up Donald Trump and we produce some vile, right, and catastrophic, in this instance, response, Donald Trump is us, as I’ve said before, right? He is a reflection of what’s at the heart of the country and our challenge in this moment, even as we understand him as a singular figure, our challenge is not to exceptionalize him because now I’m going to draw on my religious studies background because what we do is we displace our sins onto the scapegoat and we think that the only thing that we need to do is get rid of him and we will be saved. And if you believe that I got an affordable flat in Brooklyn to sell you.

Laura Flanders:

I often end these conversations by asking my guests what they think the story will be, the future, perhaps 50 years from now, will tell of now. What do you think?

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

Oh my goodness, it was a moment of dire choice. One way the story could be told is that we faced a momentous choice and we chose to be otherwise. The nation finally left behind the baggage that has kept it from being a truly genuine democracy, or another version of the story will be in the face of a momentous choice, the nation doubled down on his ugliness, and it served as the last choice it ever could make. It served as the end of American civilization as we know it.

Laura Flanders:

Eddie, thank you so very much. Professor Glaude, really a great pleasure to talk with you and I look forward to talking with you about the Baldwin book.

Dr. Eddie Glaude:

Same here, thank you so much for everything you do.

Laura Flanders:

You too, thank you.

 

 

 

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