Saying “The ‘Rona” Ain’t Funny At All

I’ve been acting like a jerk on the internet. Again. Reflexively chastising friends on Facebook for breezily referring to 2020’s viral villain by its trendy sobriquet, “the ‘Rona.” Because I hate that crap like Indiana Jones hates Nazis. Don’t get me wrong; I hate Nazis too. I have a big enough heart to hold more than enough seething rage and disgust for both–with plenty left over for the current political administration. But I digress.

After taking one of my pals to task for her dismissive ‘Rona-quote yesterday she replied, “why do you hate that name so much? And what could be the alternative Nick-name?

Fair enough. I spewed out a quick and bile-tinted response along the lines of this:

You’ll be sorry you asked, but: just Covid-19. No nickname. No pseudonym. No alias. No tag. No hashtag. No handle. Just Covid-19 or, if you must, “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)”–the scientific equivalent of a mom who has had it up to here bellowing her child’s name off the back porch, brandishing full name like a k-bar with which she intends to eviscerate the guilty. “Elizabeth! Cora! Habersham! Get your sorry ass home RIGHT NOW.”

You know the tone. And we all know that Covid-19 has been a very bad girl. Not bad in the garters and bustier sense of the word, but bad like the Burgermeister Meisterburger or Dick Cheney. Joy-killing, breath-stealing, vomit-inducing bad.

There is nothing funny or cute about it. The virus posesses no sentience to pique with mockery, and no lighthearted irreverence will make anything better. It is serious as a blow to the back of the head with a lead pipe. When I hear that term, “Rona” used I think of mask-less, cheese-eating high school boys chortling around a keg of Coors Lite, shrugging non-nonchalantly over 1,712,818 (and counting) deaths and, even worse, the very real chance of becoming viral carriers. I think of thoughtless ass-hats who don’t give a damn.

We’re roiling in a dark shit-pit of death and despair mostly because a significant portion of our neighbors are either too ignorant or too selfish (I’m talking to you, you backwards freedom monkeys whining about your “consteetootshanal rights” to kill the rest of us) to take the virus seriously. You got us here. The very least you can do is not joke about it, no matter how much it shades that deeply felt and forcefully denied sense of utter fear and helplessness that haunts your every breathing moment. Call it by its name.


“Defund The Police?” Really?

I’ve held my tongue regarding this catchy slogan over the past six months or so, largely out of respect for the dozens of people, most of them innocent, most of them people of color, most of them black, murdered–and in many cases executed by police officers, and the hundreds, even thousands, who have been shot, beaten, strangled, kicked, tortured, and, yes, in cases like citizens like Sandra Bland, literally lynched within the very walls of a jail cell (which is, apparently, the accepted punishment for black folks in Texas who forget to use their turn signal.)

After the very public murder of George Floyd at the hands of a pyschopathic veteran “peace officer,” in which he alternately glowered and stared mirthfully–his pleasure seeming to verge on eroticism–at the witnesses held back by his willing compatriots, I dared to think “finally, this will lead to some sort of change, some reckoning and accountability). Surely, those nearly-nine minutes of lascivious violence, abetted by fellow officers who formed a barrier against and menaced the burgeoning crowd, would strike into the heart of a nation we like to imagine as free and fair? But no. Less than three weeks later, Rayshard Brooks was executed for falling asleep in a fast food drive-thru lane and, after over half an hour in custody, grabbing an already-discharged taser and running away. He was shot twice in the back.

In between Floyd and Brooks, thirteen other black human beings were shot dead by law enforcement–and I don’t mean to imply in any way that all of them were innocent. Many of them were not. The issue–the atrocity–is that there is a clear disparity in the way our public servants initiate these confrontations, not to mention how they conclude them. For every black suspect shot in a quickly-escalated incident, there are a dozen instances in which officers go to great lengths to keep from killing white perpetrators. The optics: a black person is going to be beaten and often killed, while a white person, at worst, is going to be issued a citation.

Sadly, the predominant narrative generated from protests during the weeks of national grief and outrage that followed Mr. Floyd’s murder has been “defund the police.” As slogans go, it has a lot going for it: it is brief, catchy, and radical. The best way to control the center of a dialogue is to lean towards extemism, and thus pull the middle towards your side, thus making an outlying position seem more moderate. The problem here is that the middle is made up of human lives, and rhetorical victories don’t stop the bloodshed, even if they make us feel good about ourselves. Forget that this slogan–or rallying cry, if you must–succeeded mostly by alienating moderates who otherwise be inclined to join, or at least support, the fight for reform, while simultaneously galvanizing the “Blue Lives Matter” authoritarian crowd. It is safe to say that numerous left-leaning public officials lost seats to conservative “law and order” candidates in the recent election, thereby acting like a quay against the expected “blue tide” that was supposed to bring reform-minded leaders into positions where they could enable positive change.

I was encouraged to read President Barack O’Bama speak up on the “snappy slogan,” as he called it, recently, explaining “You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done,” Obama said. “The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?”


My friends on the hard left, many of whom I respect deeply and support, lost their collective minds. “We lose people in the hands of police,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. whom I also respect, quickly retorted. “It’s not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitable investments and budgets for communities across the country gets us progress and safety.”

But what is the policy? “Defund,” as defined by Websters, is a transitive verb meaning “to withdraw funding from.” When I read that word, “defund” I must presume that it is being used appropriately–removing the funding from police, putting them out of work, and then–what? I’ve seen some pie in the sky alternatives suggested to replace the police. Unarmed teams of sociologists designated as mediators? Maybe. Self-policing? Interesting, but are you fully prepared to submit to the whims of all your neighbors, let alone the guy who refuses to wear a mask in grocery store, or (gods help us) the evangelical minister who rants in front of the women’s health clinic three afternoons a week? There’s a lot of people in my rural, republican community whom I have no interest in “self-policing” me.

I’m much more comfortable with the idea of re-training law enforcement officers, providing them with suitable pay–a lot of the sheriff’s deputies and part time officers hired by small towns around our parts earn $10/hour of less and have to stitch together gigs in two of three jurisdictions to make a living wage–and that still doesn’t get them insurance. We get what we pay for.

More importantly, we need to create an environment where police misbehavior is noted and acted upon, where officers who act egregiously and held accountable, and where their peers feel obligated to cull the bad seeds from their ranks–if not for honor’s sake, then for self-preservation. Cops get out of line because they know they can. In most cases, an officer need only say “I feared for my safety” to justify even the most heinous and barbarous acts of violence, including murder. Successful prosecution–on those rare instances where District Attorneys choose to follow up charges against the officers who, by and large, are their co-workers–requires prooving that the “state of mind” of the officer was malicious. That is the problem. Cops have no boundaries, and good cops exist in a system that actively discourages them from speaking out against their fellow officers, even when they know–and you know that they know–that those officers are destroying the reputations of all cops, everywhere. That’s why, despite all the media coverage and the preponderance of home video, cops keep doing bad stuff for all the world to see. They know that nothing will happen to them. They won’t be sent to jail. They won’t lose their jobs (indeed, the most common punishment is “administrative duty” or paid time off–a literal vacation.) Solving that problem is the key–not removing protection from our communities.

I live in a rural Pennsylvania county where Trump carried 73%, guns are more sacred than crucifixes, and confederate flags are a daily sight (because our economy is so beat down that certain elements relate closely to the confederacy, that perfect, epic example of losing?) Within this county, in our town is a large university that accounts for nearly all our diversity. Our 22-person police department is scrupulously trained for for sensitivity to diversity, conflict resolution, and and de-escalation via programs implemented by a highly competent young Police Chief and a relatively progressive town government. For me, and many of my neighbors, they are our first responders, arriving before ambulances or the volunteer fire department, and the first line of defense for the anger-soaked racists and rednecks who surround us. When I spiked a high fever this spring and became disoriented by a nasty case of pneumonia it was a cop who arrived on my doorstep within two minutes, helped me down the steps, and calmly reassured me while I waited for the ambulance. Less than six weeks ago, when a drunk stood outside my house, ranting and shouting threats at us from the shadows beyond our porch light, as well as threats against himself, the cops were there in moments. When they ask for a description I was reluctant to guess the drunk’s race, not wanting to be one of those white people who wield the cops as a weapon. The officer understood, replying. “Don’t worry. I get it, but we don’t play that game here. We only ask to make him easier to find, and trust me, it sounds like the big worry here is making sure he doesn’t harm himself.”

That’s my reality. The kicker is that I am well aware of being a marginally articulate, white, working class guy. Cops too often behave differently at the homes of black folks, but when I hear “defund the police” I understand it as the intent is to remove the officers and administration who have worked so hard to build trust and do it right. It needn’t be a draconian act like that. I understand that full removal of law enforcement isn’t what is meant by that word, “defund,” but we don’t get to pretend that a word means something that it doesn’t, then condemn those who don’t jump on board with the confused message. And let’s be straight: plenty of activists mean exactly what they’re saying: all police are bad, anarchy is better.

I disagree. I don’t want to get rid of the police, but to give them more tools to deal with the issues they face–and that doesn’t mean surplus military equipment, but training to teach them how to deal with people who, when they meet them, are often having the worst day of their lives. Psychologists? Yes. Mediators? Absolutely. But what I want most of all is for officers who are prepared for what they face in the street, who also know they’ll be held accountable, who are trained not only to handle difficult encounters but also to recognize when they are out of their depth, and who truly want to serve–not to bully and dominate.

I think that is an agenda that a majority of us can be on board with, unlike the vague but trendy “defund police.” At the same time, reforming, re-imagining, and retraining as a methodolgy defangs those who defend even most corrupt officers and the worst derelictions of duty. Still want to get rid of the cops–look up and down your street, think of your last trip on public transportation, and put weapons in the hands of just the people you remember. If you can do that and still sleep soundly at night, you’re a lot more optimistic than I am.


Of Elliot Page Amidst A Blizzard of Snowflakes

My wife and I were having a conversation last night about pronouns and trans-folks, which is pretty much to say that she was rightfully flaying me over my admitted difficulty with mastering the words–she accused me of being stubborn, a bit tone-deaf, and–this is the kicker–too comfortable in my white male privilege. We’ll forget, in this argument, that opening a dialogue with one of the great conversation-ending tropes of our time–the accusation of “white male privilege” is counter-productive, pretty much saying, “We’re going to have this conversation now but let’s get this one thing clear: anything you say, think, feel, or experience on even the basest sensory level is inherently invalid and probably offensive.”

I give her a break on this because we’ve been together nearly 30 years, raised two children together, and remain best friends. I suspect that, on her part, this is a largely charitable endeavor. As for me, I think she’s perfect. In this case, her perfection is her ability to excise the worst of what I am, impale it on the tip of a knife, and hold it up in my face like a piece of fetid, rotten flesh. Not to be mean (usually), but because she loves me and expects better. That’s a lot to live up to, but I try. We all need someone to lean on. We all want somebody to love. And we all need someone to shove our bullshit back in our faces from time to time. It’s good when that all comes from the same person.

Now, during the midst of this conversation/evisceration, my lovely wife hit me with a compelling quote from the actor Elliot Page who, when last I heard, was known as Ellen Page. “My joy is real, but it is also fragile. The truth is, despite feeling profoundly happy right now and knowing how much privilege I carry, I am also scared….” It is a powerful and vulnerable statement worth reading in full. That said, the depth of it didn’t really strike me until I encountered a Facebook post leading to an article on an unfamiliar website called ”” in which a writer, Nicole Russell, of Texas, posits “Mass Acceptance of Elliot Page’s Gender Transition is Dangerous Whimsy.” Having no concept of the venue’s editorial tone and target audience, and no familiarity with the writer (whose resume, on closer inspection, leans heavily towards right-leading publications–nothing wrong with that, but it is important to know what audience a writer is aiming for, and which editorial perspectives intersect with a writer’s tone and context), I opened the page and dug in.

The article was about what I expected: reactionary and hyperbolic responses to how Page’s orientation, presentation and, basically, general person-hood represented another broad step towards cultural decay, the breakdown of civilization, and quite possibly the end of the world as we know it. The usual stuff, painted in a tone of dismissiveness common to the saved, when addressing sinners. There was a bit of complaining about how Page’s personal life inconveniences people “outside Hollywood” who, presumably, are now forced to reckon with the idea that not everyone is just like them, and then a massive leap to proclaim that Page “erases all women” but especially lesbians. Predictably, Ms. Russell digs out a jab about “the mainstream media” before descending into horror, looking to shock readers with references to ” surgically-replaced genitalia” and brings it all home with a reminder that the last time a culture embraced gender fluidity and non-binary sexuality was in the Roman Empire, and we all know what happened to them!

While I pause to convey my great admiration of the heroic Ms. Russell for her Captain Marvel-esque role as the protector of womanhood, femininity and pretty much all lesbians everywhere (except for the ones who wear pants and act like we expect boys to act, it wasn’t really her tired conservative screed that caught my attention. It was the freakshow of human spume that had collected around the comments section beneath the link to this story on Facebook. I’d cut and pasted the worst of the lot–the profane accusations of attention-seeking and mental illness, the smirking masterworks of wit like “i’ll stick to what I know, a tree is a tree and a rock is a rock.” And then the inevitable accusations of “parents forcing their kids to change gender on a whim.” I never fail to be astounded by how much fear and contempt is channeled just by the idea that someone in the world, someone they will never encounter and who has no effect on their lives.

It might be humorous were it not for the power that these trembling, shallow-minded individuals wield. Not all of them are apocalypse monkeys hiding in their basement waiting for the return of Jesus–though mostly under-educated and restrained by their reliance on social media for news of the world, too many of them are employers, teachers, co-workers, and politicians. They are also the people who have perpetrated an epidemic of usually random violence and murder against gay and trans folks across the nation.

Nevertheless, I have to learn from them. I’m forced to inspect my own reactions and behaviors and I find myself coming up short, most of the time. I don’t feel like it is my place to judge the sociological implications on a grand scale. That is to say: I’m unsuited to declare that a slim minority of non-binary people are bringing about the downfall of western values, even if I did believe that. It is certainly not my place to impose my own values on the intimate lives of others.

I have deep misgivings about inter-sectionalism as a guiding philosophy or political entity, because I feel that it leads to tribalism, crushes communication, and is inherently divisive–not to mention dehumanizing in many cases; but that’s a philosophcial debate about modes of thougjht. When it comes down to living, breathing, human individuals, who the hell am I to tell anyone who they are, what they feel, how they present themselves, and who they love?

I sometimes resent the awkwardness of non-traditional pro-nouns, particularly employing collective pronouns in place of singular–but that really says more about my shortcomings, doesn’t it? Remember that bit above where my wife said I was stubborn? Yup. Wah, wah, wah. In the end, it’s just about words, and it’s an easy way to be respectful of other humans. I’ll do my best to remember what folks like to be called and hope they don’t skewer me when I get confused and say “They? Who else was there? Wait! Ohhhh. I get it.” That’s where my white privilege pays off: people expect me to be grumpy and offensive, so expectations are low.

But seriously, if that’s the biggest sacrifice I have to make, sign me up. Like all moments of historical sea change, activists feel momentum and clamor for more change and faster, while those on the outside often struggle to adjust to what can feel like destabilizing uncertainty. Too often both sides channel their experience–righteous impatience on one side, insecurity about one’s place in a new world on the other–into anger. The popularity of the term “cancel” doesn’t help, tapping into a profound existential terror. If I speak up about my difficulty doing the right thing, Were I to voice my uncertainty of my place in the wrong company, I would risk scorn and accusations of resenting loss of my white male privilege, for example, while someone else could be accused of being “politically correct” or some other demeaning buzzword. It’s a pointless cycle

What is lost is this: political correctness is defined by the New Universe Dictionary as “Just not being a dick to people because you can.” If someone wants to be seen as one thing or another, who the hell cares? If Ellen wants or needs to be Elliot, and you’re the kind of person who keeps calling them “Her” then you’re rude, cruel, and worst of all petty. In a world thigh deep in hate and anger, why do we waste energy twisting our gutchies into a knot over this small crap?

And, finally, there is this: in these sorts of posts, I have a rule about editing. I write once-through, no rough drafts beyond the occasional lifting from comments I’ve scribbled on Facebook posts of website comment sections (so I can say, as I wrote yesterday in the New York Times–or not) for elaboration. I often end up someplace different than where I expected to be and sometimes I had no idea where I was going from the beginning. I note this with extra irony today, as I reread what I’ve written over the past hour and realize: this post is too much about me. I got my story prompt from Elliot Page & Nicole Russell, but that turned out to be unintentional bait and switch. It’s all about me. My reactions. My thoughts. My condemnations. My bandy-legged effort to be a better person. Isn’t that part of the same continuum I’m condemning? Isn’t my leg snagged in the same trap?