So Much Left To Learn

Twenty years ago, American naïveté was hijacked.

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the United States thought of itself as impervious. Politicians believed that the fall of the USSR had resolved all grand ideological debates. Commentators predicted that democratic capitalism would consume the globe in short order. Even scholars talked about the “end of history,” which exalted “Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Any lingering devotion to the idea that the United States’ preferred forms of governmentality were ascendant came crashing to the ground on 9/11. Far from being perched near the apex of a neoliberal teleology, America found itself reeling from the sudden realization that its $700 billion per year’s worth of military might did not guarantee the nation’s eternal security.

As advertisements showcasing fun-loving families at McDonald’s were replaced with images of planes colliding with skyscrapers on our television screens, the U.S. was thrust into the realm of the uncanny, where the homogeneity of America’s national identity was suddenly destabilized. To borrow from the Bulgarian-French psychoanalytical philosopher Julia Kristeva, a “paradoxical community” began to emerge, “made up of foreigners who are reconciled with themselves to the extent that they recognize themselves as foreigners.”

Ruptures in the U.S.’s security imaginary should have prompted mass existential reflection about the exploitative foundations of America’s obsession with empire. Sadly and at great cost (both in lives and public funding), the nation instead doubled down on its imperial fantasy, with former President George W. Bush launching two wars in the Middle East while urging citizens to “get down to Disney World in Florida,” and “take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

“Don’t let the terrorists scare you away from Walmart,” we were told. Shopping uplifts the private marketplace, that most sacrosanct of American institutions and the architectural symbol of which had just violently collapsed. At no time was the connection between the pursuit of global economic domination and the turn-of-the-century American character called into question.

At no point were the consequences of organizing a society around the worldwide promotion of late stage capitalism reexamined. Though our country’s geopolitical grandiosity lay shattered at our feet, we never had a prolonged discussion about the need to forge new forms of solidarity, allyship, and community that are essential to empowering subjugated voices and advancing international unity.

Money was all that mattered. That was the American way.

Two decades later, the U.S.’s crisis response is still driven by greed. Approximately 41 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 since the coronavirus touched our shores, resulting in nearly 660,000 deaths. Entire swaths of the country, particularly in the southern states, are battling unprecedented case loads and hospitalization rates. Yesterday’s nationwide case count equaled 176,427 new infections, a number that is roughly 44 times higher than the total number of cases experienced by New Zealand during the entire pandemic.

Are we following the Kiwi policies of investing in a green economy, funding an arts recovery, and shuttering businesses to protect public health? No. Here, senators who are disproportionately empowered by Congress’s broken policymaking rules, like stalwart fossil fuel defender Sen. Joe Manchin, are undermining efforts to assist financially vulnerable families and address the climate crisis, no matter what the cost may be to people and the planet.

Pediatric cases are currently surging in the U.S., accounting for 25 percent of new infections. Yet, the possibility of schools returning to distance learning is slim because education systems are viewed as the country’s primary form of childcare for American workers. Even the Biden administration has called for in-person learning to continue, despite evidence that some large school districts, such as Hawai’i’s, are willfully violating federal safety guidelines.

We are literally sacrificing our children to boost corporate profits.

After 9/11, you would think that Americans would be more leery of human sacrifice. Many of us are, but too few of our leaders are listening. The situation is eerily similar to the days after the assault at Ground Zero, when the voices of those crying out for peace were muffled by those clamoring for vengeance. Hundreds of thousands of souls died in the combat that defined the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers, in wars that U.S. leaders are only today bringing to a close.

We still have time to rescue a commitment to communal empathy from our collective trauma. We still have a chance to thwart a worsening tragedy by putting human lives before dollar signs. If we steer our ship of state back toward the public interest, then in twenty years we will do more than memorialize a senseless loss of life. We will remember this era as a time when we pursued a politics of compassion like our lives depended on it.

Whether we have learned it yet or not, our lives, in fact, do.

Humanity Needs a Reset

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Finally.

For more than a year, global society has battled a planetary pandemic. Even for those of us who have been spared infection by COVID-19, the virus’s social symptoms have been a persistent challenge. My home of Hawai’i has been besieged by an economic downturn that yielded the U.S.’s highest unemployment rate and is threatening to leave thousands of families houseless when the state’s eviction moratorium expires.

Crisis calls to Imua Alliance, the nonprofit sex trafficking victim service provider for which I serve as executive director, spiked by 330 percent last year, as survivors of sexual servitude were forced to shelter in place with their abusers. An analysis published in Journal of Radiology last August, moreover, found that the proportion of women who endured physical abuse was 80 percent higher during the pandemic than in the three earlier years put together. Researchers also concluded that the injuries inflicted upon victims were significantly more severe than in prior years. The sun-streaked beaches of paradise have a dark side.

From communal health to economic insecurity to gender violence, the coronavirus has revealed our collective inability to grapple with the most pressing issues pestering our present moment. Even our efforts to end the pandemic are sullied by structural inequality. Vaccination access varies widely in the international community, with low- and middle-income countries struggling to finance vaccine purchases, while wealthier governments dither over donating extra doses. World leaders recently announced a plan to share one billion vaccine doses to impoverished areas, but we have to ask: why did it take this long?

COVID-19 may be the most dramatic “teachable moment” in recent memory, from which we can learn that business as usual is the business of destruction. Unfortunately, many governments are doubling down on the status quo. In Hawai’i, for example, state leaders have rushed to reopen the visitor industry, repeatedly undermining the safety blueprint they designed to guide the islands’ recovery strategy. Over 629,000 visitors arrived in Hawai’i in May, giving a boost to the state’s tax collections. Yet, policymakers failed to advance measures to diversify the local economy during this year’s legislative session, despite residents’ resounding discontentment with being financially dependent on an industry that ravages the climate and is prone to collapse during times of crisis.

While coronavirus may have been a once-in-a-hundred years event, the inept response to the pandemic undertaken in many “wealthy” nations is a direct result of institutional neglect. Instead of taxing corporate profits to pay for universal healthcare, the United States has allowed income inequality to grow to historic levels, with billionaires banking over $1.2 trillion dollars since March of last year. Rather than include gender analysis in the policies that it promotes in response to infectious disease outbreaks, the World Health Organization has advanced healthcare frameworks and monetary models that prioritize pharmaceutical companies’ bottom lines over the well-being of the developing world.

One of the most salient examples of pandemic-related inertia is the global reaction to COVID-19’s impact on the climate crisis. Government lockdown policies reduced carbon emissions by as much as 7 percent during 2020, according to the Global Carbon Project. The clear skies were temporary, however, as the industrial world quickly returned to its polluting ways once the lockdowns ended and economic engines began roaring once more, with fossil fuels flowing through their gas tanks. Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, recently penned an article for the BBC suggesting that the coronavirus’s mass experiment in decarbonization produced environmental impacts that were not only impermanent, but negligible. Forster wrote, “Looking further ahead to 2030, simple climate models have estimated that global temperatures will only be around 0.01C lower as a result of COVID-19 than if countries followed the emissions pledges they already had in place at the height of the pandemic.”

If left unchecked, climate change could generate economic calamities and casualty counts that vastly exceed the devastation of COVID-19. We proved during the pandemic that we can adopt a more sustainable way of being, though, if we’re forced to do so. We shouldn’t need shelter-in-place orders to induce environmental consciousness. We should be able to summon the sanity necessary to advance comprehensive plans to protect the planet. As with the inaccessibility of public health systems in indigent and remote areas, inadequacy of broadband networks to support the rush to teleworking, and impotent fiscal safety net afforded to dormant workforces, the fissures cleaved in the social contracts that govern our lives point toward one end: neoliberalism is a plague that threatens our survival.

Capital markets are subsuming our existence under their control. If politics is the repartitioning of what is deemed sensible, intelligible, and legitimate within a social order, however, then the biggest danger we face in the era of constant calamity may be the accelerating depoliticization of the public sphere. Private profiteers are adept at turning democratic struggles into commodifiable conflicts, selling us an illusion of social cohesion for the cost of our political power. For the sake of our future, it is time to take our power back.

Leadership After COVID: Now, It’s the Women’s Turn

Women-led nations are doing better than male-led nations in handling COVID-19.

To all the men out there who recoil at that statement, get over it. It’s true. And new research backs it up. According to a study of 194 countries by two economists based in England, Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati, women-led nations like New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, and Finland have recorded fewer deaths than those led by men, like the United States, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Even at the local level, we can see the impact of structural patriarchy on pandemic-related policymaking. In Honolulu, for example, Mayor Kirk Caldwell recently issued an executive order opening beaches, hiking trails and parks for solo, by-yourself activities. If you’re a single mother struggling to manage a crumbling economy and your children’s virtual learning environment, forget about taking your kids to the beach for a 15-minute break.

Just drop 5-year-old Johnny off by the forest and tell him to take a hike. Baby’s first solo adventure. What could go wrong?

It’s easy to dismiss Caldwell’s decision as a lapse in judgement intended to make enforcement of social distancing requirements easier for law enforcement. Yet, one has to ask: if more women who understand the difficulties of motherhood were involved in municipal decision-making, would the executive order have looked different?

I submit that it would have and that it’s just one example of the problems that patriarchy causes in dealing with the crisis. Take two case studies in leadership, the United States and New Zealand. In the U.S., President Donald Trump is currently making headlines for reportedly downplaying the impact of the coronavirus for political effect. This comes as the U.S.’s COVID-19 death toll nears 200,000 and case count surpasses 6.5 million, while the economy sputters and teachers die in prematurely reopened classrooms. This is what Trump calls “winning.”

In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern–who gave birth while running her country–immediately responded to the COVID threat by implementing measures to contain community spread. New Zealand’s borders were locked down to travelers. Her government implemented science-based actions that pivoted from managing to eliminating the disease because of testing limitations at the onset of the virus, which led to the nation being COVID-free for 100 consecutive days. To uplift the economy, New Zealand is investing NZ$175 million into arts and cultural programming and calling for the creation of thousands of green jobs.

President Trump and U.S. leaders don’t have a viable economic recovery plan. The U.S. House of Representatives–led by a woman, Rep. Nancy Pelosi–has been pushing for a major relief bill to help state governments meet their social obligations, provide a second robust stimulus payment to all residents, and deliver significant financial assistance to essential employees. But the Senate–led by a man, Sen. Mitch McConnell–is only interested in targeted relief that boosts the bottom lines of private businesses.

We can all think of women who failed at the task of leadership, like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is using the COVID crisis to defund public schools and push for the institution of voucher programs. (Side question: can schools use vouchers to purchase guns to fight off potential grizzly bear attacks, as DeVos warned about during her confirmation hearing?) For further reference, see former British Prime Minister Theresa May, who adheres to the paternalistic ideology of “one-nation conservative” and is best known for her Brexit buffoonery.

Women-led nations have grappled with their legacies of patriarchy and gender discrimination thoroughly enough to entrust a female to be their national leader. That’s axiomatic, but it also suggests that those countries are open to embracing democratizing norms and policies, like economic recoveries meant to advance the common good. They’re less likely than male-dominant polities to be steeped in pandemic denialism and have their top political leaders propound COVID conspiracies, as Trump does on a daily basis.

Numerous studies have shown that women are more empathetic than men. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when female leaders implement policies that put compassion before competition. While many nations engaged in fear-mongering over immigration throughout this decade, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ensured that nearly a million refugees entering Germany were guaranteed their basic human rights. As the U.S. allows unemployment insurance to expire for tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs, Prime Minister Ardern is guiding New Zealand in implementing comprehensive wage subsidies and deferring mortgages until March 31, 2021.

Jacindamania is a direct challenge to male domination. Though the media fawns over the “resolute ordinariness of her existence,” her impact on the international political community is anything but quotidian. Her exceptional skill in flattening New Zealand’s COVID curve has positioned her as a central figure in flattening patriarchal social hierarchies. Her female counterparts in the club of national leaders are doing the same. They’re not interested in token gestures of progress. Rather, they’re crafting new models of gendered leadership that are proving–not that they need to prove anything to anyone–to be more effective in addressing the most pressing issues to today, from the coronavirus to climate change to economic inequality.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the global response to the pandemic. Our economic, political, and public health systems will be changed forever. If we want those changes to be a sign and signal of our commitment to human dignity, then we need to empower women to sit at the heads of the tables they’ve been forced to set for centuries.

They should have been sitting there all along.